Moving Goalposts

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A truly disheartening trait of contemporary public discourse is the tendency towards definitional fuzziness. Equivocation on terminology is often a feature, not a bug, and words themselves become not avenues for clarity but rather the business end of a linguistic cudgel. Sadly, this often becomes more pronounced the more emotional and contentious the issue at hand is, making rational discussion harder and harder to come by.

As someone on the outside looking in on United Methodism, albeit with one foot metaphorically inside the door in that I am employed at a United Methodist church, I have watched somewhat disinterestedly the latest internal furor concerning the trial of a United Methodist clergy member (Rev. Frank Schaefer) who was suspended for officiating at a same-sex ‘wedding.’ The UMC, of course, officially teaches that the ‘practice of homosexuality’ is incompatible with Christian teaching and thus a same-sex ‘wedding’ is something that is likewise incompatible, thus making this a fairly open-and-shut case as far as the trial of Rev. Schaefer is concerned.

But what seems to be a somewhat straight-forward exercise of internal UMC polity is instead, according to Rev. Schaefer’s op-ed in Time, symptomatic of discrimination and hate speech. How we get from the implementation of polity (with which Rev. Sachefer, by virtue of his vows, tacitly agrees or at least at one time agreed) to discrimination and hate speech is an exercise in moving the goalposts, and the result is as predictable as it is sad, since it renders the possibility of rational discourse about contentious issues increasingly remote.

(Original in quotes)

When I addressed the jurors at my trial by the United Methodist Church on Nov. 19, 2013, they had already found me guilty of violating church law by performing a same-sex wedding for my son Tim in 2007. The hearing that day was for the purpose of finding an appropriate penalty. In a moment of total honesty, I shared with the jury that I would continue to be an advocate of LGBT persons, and asked the Church to stop treating them as “second-class Christians.”

Given that Rev. Schaefer vowed to uphold the teaching of the UMC, the outcome of this trial shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the logic of the trial:

A. Practice X is contrary to UMC teaching
B. UMC clergy vow to uphold UMC teaching
C. UMC polity provides consequences for violation of UMC teaching
D. Clergy Y advocates for Practice X
E. Thus, Clergy Y is in violation of his vows and subject to the relevant consequences

Indeed, he himself elsewhere intimates elsewhere that he expected the outcome:

“I gave them every excuse in the book to defrock me immediately but that did not happen,” he said. “I am still wondering what it means. I told them clearly that I can no longer be a silent supporter but now I feel I have to an outspoken advocate for all lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people.”

Yet in this initial salvo we find Rev. Schaefer beginning his project of moving the goalposts, in that he conflates ‘being an advocate for LGBT persons’ with officiating at a same-sex wedding. His other quote from a different source solidifies this conflation in that he expands his advocacy to encompass ‘all’ of the aforementioned persons, implicitly arguing that supporting same-sex marriage is somehow equivalent to advocacy for a particular group of people and, even more illegitimately, presuming that such advocacy is necessarily on behalf of ‘all’ these persons.

In fact, there are many same-sex attracted persons who do not perceive advocacy of same-sex marriage as somehow being the sine qua non of advocacy for themselves, and would even find such ‘advocacy’ supposedly on their behalf unwanted since they are opposed to same-sex marriage. As such, it is rather presumptuous on Rev. Schaefer’s part to presume to advocate on behalf of a group of persons which is hardly monolithic in regards to same-sex marriage, many of whom would actually disagree with him regarding this issue.

Here’s why: The United Methodist Church does welcome gay and lesbians to be a part of the church; they can become full members, they can serve on church councils and become involved in all aspects of a local church’s lay ministry. And that’s great, until we realize that they are not entitled to certain ministries and opportunities that are available for everybody else, such as having their marriage blessed by the church.

Rev. Schaefer moves the goalposts yet again, and in doing so reduces persons with same-sex attraction to a monolithic group. He mentions that ‘they are not entitled to certain ministries and opportunities that are available for everybody else, such as having their marriage blessed by the church.’ However, since persons with same-sex attraction are not a monolith, there is no reason to assmue that same-sex attracted persons are going to be married (to a same-sex person) or would want to be married to other same-sex persons. There are many persons with same-sex attraction who are married to a member of the opposite sex, and there is little reason to believe that the UMC would not bless such a marriage, since, as far as I know, it is not inquiring into the sexual attractions of a man and woman wishing to be married.

The reason such language on Rev. Schaefer’s part is so misleading is that his modi operandi conflates the objective conditions (form) of a marriage (between a man and woman) with the subjective sexual attraction of the persons being married. That is, there is nothing that would prevent a same-sex attracted man from marrying a woman, and many in fact have and do so for a number of reasons. As such, it is not the same-sex attracted person who is discriminated against, but rather it is the form of the marriage which determines whether a particular union is a marriage or not and whether it can be blessed or not. After all, two persons of the same sex could desire to be married without having same-sex attraction, but it would nevertheless not be a valid marriage nor one that could be blessed because the form of marriage would be invalid. As such, Rev. Schaefer’s conflation mistakes the form of marriage for the person-being-married’s sexual attraction, and as such he blunders on locating any special discrimination viz-a-viz the person in question due to same-sex attraction.

“Practicing” gay and lesbian believers are also prohibited from becoming licensed and ordained pastors.

I’m not entirely sure why Rev. Schaefer puts practicing in scare quotes (unless he alluding to the Book of Discipline’s (BOD) terminology), but he at least identifies that the point of contention isn’t the same-sex attraction itself (since presumably ‘non-practicing’ same-sex attract believers would not run afoul of these strictures) but rather the actual acting out of same-sex attraction in the sexual act. Even though the BOD doesn’t necessarily articulate it in this manner, the act/practice in question is precisely why same-sex ‘marriage’ does not (and cannot) attain to the form of marriage, for whereas in marriage the martial act has the end of procreation (among other things, but this primarily), the same act in a same-sex sexual union by nature has a deficiency in regards to this end.

And since the tradition of orthodox Christian ethics has understood the end of marriage as the sine qua non of the form of marriage (and even of the sexual act itself), any sexual act which does not exist within this form is by definition deficient, and since sin is the privation or deficiency of good, the same would by definition also be sinful.

To refuse rights and ministry to a certain group of people that are otherwise offered to everybody else is obviously discriminatory.

For the reasons already articulated, there is hardly anything ‘obviously’ discriminatory about what has already been described. Rev. Schaefer continues to move the goalposts, in that he conflates certain things (marriage, ministerial roles, etc.) with ‘rights’, when it is hardly obvious that marriage is a ‘right’ owed to anyone any more than being a minister is. As already demonstrated, the form of marriage, as a form, is only ‘discriminatory’ against any union which does not attain to its proper form, not towards the persons involved. Hence, it does not discriminate on the basis of any person’s particular sexual attraction, but rather discriminates on the basis of the form and its end.

But there is more: even worse than being refused certain blessings and opportunities, gay and lesbian believers who are in a same-gender relationship are also relegated to a special status of “sinner.” Para. 161 (F) of the Book of Discipline states: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

To begin with, I’m not sure why he moves from ‘same-sex’ to ‘same-gender’ in regards to the nature of a relationship. Gender is something that applies to language, not persons; notwithstanding that, even in the modern constructs of ‘gender’ Rev. Schaefer’s rhetorical move here is puzzling, for two persons of the same sex could self-identify as different ‘genders’ (conversely, opposite sex persons could self-identify as ‘same-gendered’), and thus trying to draw an equivalence between the two is a curious and self-defeating move.

That puzzling bit aside, I’m not sure of how one would take this statement from the BOD to be identifying a ‘special status’ of “sinner.” To state that a certain act or practice is incompatible with Christian teaching actually seems to be trying to do an end-run around using the terminology of ‘sin’ or ‘sinner.’ Euphemisms notwithstanding, that a practice is incompatible with Christian teaching and ‘sinful’ does not necessarily place one in a ‘special status,’ since one of the fundamental understandings of orthodox Christian teaching is that all human beings are ‘sinners.’ That a particular sin receives special mention is actually more likely a historical accident related to contemporary cultural issues rather than intending to mark out anyone specifically; that is why we talk more about same-sex practices in contemporary society rather than talking about simony as was the case a thousand years ago.

To homosexual believers, this feels as though their acts of love are regarded as sinful. Since “practice” is not defined by the church, we must assume that it includes sexual, romantic, and ceremonial aspects of a homosexual relationship.

I actually would agree with Rev. Schaefer that the BOD’s statement here- in and of itself- is quite ambiguous and, by employing such a euphemism, causes more confusion than clarity. However, given that this same section initially defines the affirmation of sexual relations “only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage,” the most reasonable and straight-forward conclusion would be that the non-condoning of same-sex ‘practice’ would be in reference to same-sex sexual relations.

That being said, I would take issue with Rev. Schaefer’s euphemism of ‘acts of love,’ since an act is only loving in so far as it relates to the good of the other person. Given the understanding of human sexuality and the proper use thereof (as outlined in the BOD), a sexual act between two same-sex persons (the ‘practice’ mentioned by the BOD), being deficient in form as far as human sexuality and its proper use thereof is concerned, could not reasonably be understood as an ‘act of love’ in a proper sense, since as an act deficient in form it could not, by definition, be oriented to the good of the other person or even the person himself. However, Rev. Schaefer seems to want to latch onto an ambiguity and use it as a cudgel by expanding the understanding of same-sex sexual acts as sinful to encompass any relational acts of love between same-sex persons, which is really a rather tendentious reading of the BOD’s statement.

There is nothing within the BOD’s statement (or the historically orthodox Christian understanding of love and sexuality) which would require that same-sex attracted persons cannot perform acts of love (in the sense of love as pertaining to one’s good) simply because of their same-sex attraction. I am actually somewhat taken aback that he would draw an equivalency (perhaps only implicitly) between a sexual act and an act of love, for while the latter (act of love) may indeed include the former (sexual act) within its proper end and context, the latter certainly need not include the former. It seems to actually reduce same-sex persons to their sexual attraction to perceive the subject in such a manner, as if sexual union is the sine qua non of love or ‘acts of love.’

If what you understand to be an act of love is declared a sin by the Church, what does that do to your soul, your understanding of morality and salvation? It’s a terrible message that puts our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in inner conflict and turmoil.

Given that within historic orthodox Christianity the concept of the fallen-ness of man entails the corollary that our understanding has been darkened and our reason has lost its mastery of the appetite, it is not surprising, although no less of a difficulty, that certain things we may deem to be right and good actually are not. Additionally, since sin is a privation of good, anything that is ultimately sinful is really in itself a good that is out of proportion or disattached from its proper end. Hence, sexual desire (and the sexual act itself) is good, but when pursued out of proportion to its end- that is, not within a marriage ordered towards procreation- it ceases to be good because it has been directed to an end outside of itself.

If we get rid of the euphemisms, the conflict posited is not between ‘acts of love’ and what is right and wrong, but rather the sexual drive and its proper ordering towards the good and human flourishing. Given that Christian morality understands the proper ordering of sexuality as concomitant with the good and human flourishing, to know what is sinful and what is right, while it is difficult and creates conflicts due to our fallen selves and our natural appetites outside of the mastery of reason, is nevertheless the path towards the good and human flourishing, towards ordering our sexuality rightly according to our nature as human beings and as children of God. Rev. Schaefer employs euphemisms and sentimentality to posit a conflict where one need not exist, which is unfortunate for many with same-sex attraction who wish to order their sexuality rightly, for whom a proper understanding of human sexuality unfettered by euphemism and sentimentality could lead to further holiness and flourishing.

And of course, this is equally true of any human being, for whom their sexuality can be the source of greater union with God or further disaster. But that is the nature of the good- the greater it is, the more potential for its misuse and the more disastrous the fall.

Wikipedia defines hate speech as “speech perceived to disparage a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group.” It may not be intentional, but calling homosexual practice “incompatible with Christian teachings” is a form of hate speech.

Rev. Schaefer chooses to end on a fairly ridiculous note, which is unfortunate (albeit not unforeseen) as most of this piece has merely been a exercise in moving the goalposts. As has been amply demonstrated, saying that a particular sexual act does not attain to the form of marriage is hardly hate speech or discrimination; rather, viewed outside the euphemisms, conflations and equivocations employed herein, it is rather more of a logical proposition, saying that x is not y.

Unfortunately, the result of this kind of rash equivocating is that terms such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘discrimination’ lose their definitional value and come to serve more as rhetorical cudgels in lieu of a robust and rational articulation. The further damage done is that such rhetorical cudgels have a chilling effect on rational discourse, for people of good will with robust arguments may find such unrelenting calumnies wearisome, in that maintaining a principled disagreement becomes illegitimately equated with bigotry.

Of course, the ironic and insidious nature of this particular argument is that is can go both ways, for by defining those who hold to the historic Christian understanding of sexuality as engaging in hate speech and discrimination, Rev. Schaefer himself engages in “speech perceived to disparage a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group,” and thus would have to hold (were he consistent) that he himself is using hate speech. One wonders if he finds his Wikipedia-esque rationalizing compelling enough to choose a different course of action.

Given his recalcitrant conclusion, I won’t hold my breath.

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Jason Watson

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