In a move that should not have surprised anyone, last week in their General Conference The United Methodist Church sacrificed human lives in the Altar of Unity once again. They are neither the first nor the last denomination to do so, but for some reason a fair number of people are always surprised when institutional religion sharpens its butcher knives and slices lives apart yet again. If we took but a moment to understand how institution works, we would not be surprised.
Institutions, no matter their origin, exist first and foremost to perpetuate themselves. The particular model of institution employed by Churches in America is the model of Church as corporation. What a corporation needs most is customers, since corporations make money by selling a product. The key to selling your product to a lot of people is to first get people to believe that they need your product and that your product is better than any of your competitors. Once that has been accomplished, the battle shifts to retaining customers and finding new customers to add to your base. So, I make the best toothpaste in the world – or at least in my market, and convince people that it will make your teeth white and keep them from rotting away. If it’s really toothpaste we are talking about, it’s not a huge deal in terms of the impact on the lives of anybody. After all, deep down, although we have our toothpaste preferences, we know that they all work about the same.
When you apply corporate, institutional theory to Church, a huge problem arises that toothpaste manufacturers never have to face. The Church sells not a product so much as an idea or a stamp of approval. The Church sells certification that you are alright, that you are safe for eternity. It pokes and prods around in the deepest level of our psyche, spirit, and soul and issues a thumbs up or a thumbs down. What makes this particularly insidious is that what drives the verdict of the institutional Church is not spirituality, not the teachings of Jesus, not scripture or doctrine or dogma. What determines whether you are acceptable to the institutional Church is rather what will make them the most money – actually, they would settle for stopping the bleeding of members through the sucking chest wound that is institutional religion in America – and not your value as a human being. In fact, your value to the Church by virtue of you being a child of God is zero. Your value accrues from sitting in the pew and contributing mightily. If there is something about you that leads enough people to stay away, you will be sacrificed on the Altar of Unity.
That’s precisely what The United Methodist Church has done, yet again, to the LGBT community. The truth is that the spiritually underdeveloped world has some pretty tribal understandings of human sexuality, most of which even the Church (sometimes) opposes: female circumcision, rape as acceptable practice, polygamy, no requirement to disclose HIV status or act responsibly if you are infected – the list goes on and on. No sane person would advocate the Western Church adopt those practices. That same Church, however, is willing to throw the developing world a cookie in the form of human sacrifice in the lives of LGBT people. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about the institution needing to perpetuate itself and failing to do so in the West because it hasn’t updated its product in a couple of hundred years.
My question is, how much abuse are LGBT people willing to take to “change” the Church? Even in those Churches that have a measure of LGBT acceptance, the abuse and the struggles still flow. If you really want to get the attention of the corporate mindset, you stop buying the product. Can you even begin to imagine the impact on the Church if, just for one week, LGBT people – including pastors and music ministers – boycotted Church? It would be a shot heard around the world, but it hasn’t happened yet. Like battered spouses, the LGBT community willingly marches into the living room of its oppressors week after week for another dose of loathing and scorn.
The other side of this issue is the idea of Christian Unity. Just last week I heard of another group trying to create Christian Unity. Apparently the World Council of Churches’ epic and ongoing failure in this project doesn’t discourage some people from picking up where angels fear to tread. The problem is that unity means creation of another institution, another game of king of the hill, and we have seen far too often what that means. Just ask a member of the LGBT community, or a woman, or a person of color, or the left-handed, or the unemployed, or just about anybody other than the wealthiest 1% what an institutional religion does for you.
You know, when I get screwed, I at least like to be wined and dined a little before hand – maybe even a kiss…