By Joe Perez
In certain places in America, conservatives are so scarce they’ve begun to import them from abroad. Specifically, in Tampa, Florida, where 1,000 delegates gathered for the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. While liberal American Methodists pleaded for tolerance for gay people, conservatives from overseas compared homosexuality to bestiality.
Gay rights advocates in the UMC viewed the compromise proposals as the best chance to advance their cause at this year’s General Conference, which convenes every four years. On Friday, delegates are expected to debate the church’s bans on noncelibate gay clergy and same-sex marriage.
With nearly 8 million members in the U.S., the UMC remains the country’s largest mainline Protestant denomination. But United Methodism is shrinking in the U.S. and growing in Africa and Asia, shifting the balance of power to overseas conservatives. Nearly 40 percent of the delegates gathered in Tampa live outside the U.S.
Thursday’s debate put the denomination’s wide diversity on display — as gays and lesbians pleaded for recognition of their “sacred worth” and an African delegate, speaking through an interpreter, compared homosexuality to bestiality.
The conservatives won the day, proclaiming publicly that “homosexual acts” are “incompatible with Christian teaching” in the largest mainstream Protestant denomination in the U.S.A. Of course, it’s their right to run their church as they see fit and nobody is forcing anybody to be part who doesn’t find a welcoming home there. And of course, many of us would much prefer that if the conservatives can’t at least be willing to agree to disagree, then they would stay quiet.
But then again, we aren’t really the folks the Methodist leaders are speaking to. They say they are speaking to the world, but they are really addressing only those willing to listen, mainly their flocks which are increasingly hailing from the developing world and less so North America and Europe. Thus, the fate of gays and lesbians in the “first world” is tied to the fate of gays and lesbians everywhere. There is no progress on the LGBT dignity front in America if the LGBT folks in places like Bangladesh and Uganda and Argentina are left out.
Thus, religion is providing a uniting thread linking the fate of persecuted minorities everywhere. Today there are Methodists in every country, or almost every country, where there are Christians. And where people share a common religion, if their religion leaves them out, they will share a common persecution. Fear will rule over love when love grows too weak.
Our fates are linked because in the final analysis We are Them and They are Us: there is only one True Self, and it expresses itself (sometimes in beautiful or exasperatingly crazy ways) through homophiles and heterophiles, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and in all the ways that Love does its thing, same-to-same or same-to-other or what have you.
And our fates are linked because we cannot know Love unless we also stand in the unknowable, the Fear which does its own thing, other-fear or same-fear, homophobia or heterophobia. As each of us heals our homophobia, one by one, Spirit releases a bit more Fear and evolves a little closer to an even more radical expression of Love.
Ultimately gays will find liberation only in the most difficult, blessedly difficult, of paths: by linking gay/human rights to the quest for recognition of their “sacred worth” in every religion in every land. Until then, we can expect conservative religionists to gain clout not only abroad where they are more abundant, but also in the U.S., where their leadership is imported by groups like the United Methodists with deep international linkages.
Religions which intertwine internationally link people deeply and profoundly towards a common goal on the human adventure. The news about the United Methodists may suggest that this is a bad thing, that somehow foreigners have a veto over the collective consciousness of American Christians.
But the reality is more complex. The internationalization of spirituality is a good thing when it lifts the boats of people in distress, requiring religious adherents in privileged countries to work on behalf of international development, forcing those invested in the gay rights struggle in one country to seek universal human rights worldwide.
World Spirituality participates in such global linkages, helping to build the bonds which one day can be tunnels for human liberation to emerge out of fear. An Integral approach to gay rights requires a global view, invested as it is in expanding the degree to which we are all more deeply accepting of our humanity and sexuality.