On Labeling Someone "Hateful"

If you're not up to speed on seminary nerdery, you probably aren't aware of the controversy going on at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Sadly, I am and can fill you in.

The drama is quite simple really.  The Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox, a United Methodist pastor currently serving as the World Director for the World Methodist Evangelism Council (or some mixture of those words) is an alum of Candler School of Theology (CST).  CST, a part of Emory University, has elected to reward Rev. Dr. Fox with a Distinguished Alumni award.  Being a successful pastor with an immensely successful ministry, Rev. Fox is being honored for his service to Christ throughout his life. (It's worth pointing out that he's receiving an award for his ministry and notably not that website I linked above.  Hello, Eddie...1995 called and they want their website design back).

The drama?  Candler students are angry about the award. The part I didn't mention is that Rev. Dr. Fox has been an adamant supporter of maintaining the current language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline that states that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."  The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the top body enabled and empowered to speak on behalf of the denomination, has voted year after year to maintain the language within the Book of Discipline (for lack of better language, the UMC's book of law).

Eddie, and many on his "side" have affirmed in their language that all people are of sacred worth and children of God but that Scripture holds that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Anecdotally, this language has affected the ways in which gays and lesbians feel comfortable in United Methodist churches.

Oh yeah, the drama.  Candler School of Theology, a school whose student body is leaning more and more to the "left" every year, is awarding Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox (I keep switching up my naming system for him just to keep it exciting for you) this award.  Many loud voices within CST's student body are holding that this man's work has sought to exclude them from the churches they feel called to serve (an openly gay or lesbian individual is unable to be ordained as a pastor within the United Methodist Church according to the Book of Discipline). Therein lies the drama.

As any good controversy does in 2013, this drama is playing out on Facebook and Twitter.  Eddie has been called, among many other things, a hater, a bigot, and anti-gay.

There's some sense to this.  Many within the LGBTQIA community feel unsupported by our culture and more specifically our churches.  They feel unprotected and denied of basic human freedoms.  They feel as if they actually can continue to serve God in spite of their sexuality...in fact many argue that they can serve God to a fuller extent because of their recognition of and comfort with their sexuality.   It's hard to miss the fact that life has been different for gay and lesbian people in our culture.  It is, in my mind and many others' minds, undoubtedly the new oppression of modern times.

Unfortunately, most of the conversing I see on the internet about this CST issue in particular is filled with rude and offensive language to describe those in opposition to much of CST's student body. Eddie's work has been labeled as bigoted hate speech by many, as an example.

I don't know Eddie personally. But I know and love many people who find themselves called to understand homosexuality as wrong in God's eyes. I'd guess that most all of them would still welcome an LGBTQIA person into their church, while still understanding their actions to be sinful. The Roman Catholic Church is a good example of an organization who thinks and behaves in this way. Many many of these people understand sin to be something that we are all caught in and many many understand sinful behavior to be something God's grace can rescue us from. They understand all sin to be equal in God's eyes and that God is saddened by the gay person as well as the obese person as well as the liar. When many many of these people go to represent their understandings of Scripture within the pages of church discipline, they intend to represent these interpretations and understandings as best they can. After all, it is the goal and mission of the church to see God's will done on earth.

That image, the one I just attempted to portray of that side, is not the image one might get if you talked to their opposition. Those who fight for full inclusion and justice for an oppressed people label those against them as haters. They label them as bigots. They label them as scum. Attempting to be honest and forthright about ways in which you understand God to be revealing God's self to you through Scripture and trying hard to follow in the path God is calling you to is bigotry and hate.

This isn't fair.

Are there some conservative voices within the church who are homophobic or bigoted? Of course. Are there some voices within the church that preach hate? Sure. But not all are this way.

Many many years ago the church labeled certain theologians as heretics. These heretics preached and taught a gospel that was incompatible with much of the church's teachings about who God was. Heretics were more or less proven through Scripture to be wrong headed and many of them were excommunicated from the church. These people did damage to the orthodox understandings of God. They were labeled heretics.

Given America's history with hate speech and hate crime, the term "hate" carries much of the same connotation as the term heretic. Because of that, I think, the term "hate" ought to carry a gravity with it that it currently lacks.

The church didn't joke about labeling one another heretics. These cases were well evidenced, often prayerfully considered, and argued and argued. The term heretic doesn't and shouldn't get thrown around without gigantic consequences. The word "hate," given our story, ought to be treated with the same gravity.

If we are to move forward, we must watch what we say to one another.



UPDATE: As a note of inclusion, I've changed "LGBTQ" within the post to "LGBTQIA." 

Also, I'll include this article which features selections from an interview with The Rev. Dr. Eddie Fox. In it, Fox states, "I am not alright with being called ‘anti-gay’ at all, I don’t accept it.”  Whether Fox is or isn't a hater, a bigot, anti-gay, or scum is always in the eye of the name-caller. Of course bigots never see themselves rightly as bigots. But Fox's statement above reminds us of the positive language about sacred worth that Fox has worked to retain within the UMC Book of Discipline.