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Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Disciples of Christ are Anti-Exclusion: Part I: Introduction

Note: This is the first section of an essay I am writing. I would appreciate any and all feedback, from typos to organizational suggestions to objections to the premise.

This essay outlines why the history and heritage of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) leads naturally to being Open and Affirming--accepting into full membership all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It demonstrates that the theological underpinnings of the original movements that led to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)'s formation militate an Open and Affirming stance. Next, it briefly traces the Church's admittedly inconsistent history of removing cultural barriers to participation in the Church. Finally, it applies to the question of whether to be Open and Affirming the Church's modern vision of bringing wholeness to a fragmented world. Of course, one does not develop an impression of his or her church through academic inquiry, but through experience. And for that reason, this piece begins with a story from a First Christian Church in southern Indiana in the 1980s.

Jeff was older than most when he began membership classes. it is possible that since Jeff was a person with Down Syndrome others had not considered him capable of knowingly making his Good Confession, but the new pastor knew better. The new pastor had grown up as a rough and tumble neighborhood kid in Indianapolis. As a troublemaker who didn't fit in with organized sports, who under performed in school, and who skirted close to the edge of the law from time to time, he had nonetheless been unconditionally accepted by the Christian Church. He knew that it was his job to likewise accept all those in his new community.

And so, he welcomed Jeff to the front of the church and asked, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jeff answered thunderously and unequivocally, "I DO." His proud and full throated declaration compared favorably to Barton W. Stone's carefully worded response in a similar situation. Over a century earlier, this founding father had accepted a long list of man made creeds presented to him, but only "[a]s far as it is consistent with the word of God." Having stripped away the man-made limits on the Gospel, the Christian Church movement enable Jeff to say "I do" without any such hedging.

The pastor then presented the second question, "And do you, Jeff, take Him as your personal Savior?" Again Jeff proclaimed, "I DO." The ceremony, of course, only provided for a public display of what was already true. God accepted Jeff completely and and surely as Jeff accepted God. Alexander Campbell would have been proud. For, like Campbell, he had protested efforts by the Church to exclude those who were unworthy. Campbell would tell of the time he had qualified for the communion token that authorized him to take communion, but when the time came, he recognized that token to be a symbol of unchristian exclusion, and, thus, rather than participate, he simply dropped the token in the plate and chose not to receive communion that day. If the table was not open to all, he would not participate.

Stone's defiance and Campbell's quiet protest bore fruit that Spring day in southern Indiana. The faith of one who might have been rejected was unleashed into the work. And, it transformed all who were there. Such are the ripples created by those founders who rejected exclusion.

3 comments:

Lin said...

Your description of your dad reflects what I have heard and read other times, Jim - deep respect and gratitude for his ministry and pride in him as your father. Those qualities spill over and help us hold James I in high regard.

I wonder if there is evidence that Jeff had been denied membership by earlier pastors because he had Down Syndrome. I wonder if, since development is delayed in Down Syndrome individuals, it is possible that Jeff came to his decision in a time that was appropriate to him. It is not unusual for people come to baptism as adults.

It is dangerous, I believe, to carry this implied line of reasoning further so that the reader infers that Jeff's congregation or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had denied or would choose to deny Jeff membership because he had Down Syndrome.

Your story of Jeff and Jim's welcoming of him into the body of Christ is a powerful one as long as it is used as an example of positive, proactive agency in breaking through barriers toward more complete inclusion. It loses impact if it is used as evidence of a broken church or broken church leaders. Of course we are broken.

JimII said...

Lin,

Thanks for the comment. It is indeed my understanding that the previous pastor had not invited Jeff to membership because that pastor did not believe Jeff could make a knowing acceptance. I am not sure of details. For example, did the pastor tell Jeff's mother this, or did Jeff's mother infer this from the pastor's lack of interest. That is the reason for the hedging.

Obviously, part of the impact of Jeff's story for purposes of this essay is to show that he was someone denied access due to his difference. However, it seems the hedging in this draft ends up being a distraction. Perhaps the solution would be to simply remove the hedging in the story and just take care that no one can be hurt by the telling if things are less cut and dry than what I understood them to be.

JimII said...

This struggle with telling personal stories is all about the difference between story telling and legal brief writing. In the latter, having precise evidence to support precise points is essential. In the former, telling a broader truth where the details are not as sharply focussed is required.