All Souls’ Day: Everybody Counts, or Nobody Counts

In his post today, blogger David Henson challenges us to think about All Souls’ Day in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We know that “All Souls Matter,” he writes, but maybe the events of this year should require us to say aloud, “Black Souls Matter.”

We have probably all seen the responses to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that clamor back, “All Lives Matter” or “Police Lives Matter,” from people who think that somehow this movement seeks to make certain lives worth more than others, rather than to highlight the existence of fatal inequalities in our society and justice system.

There is a misconception that stating the value of one group of people automatically devalues other groups, when actually, it is the reverse that is true. It is devaluing one group of people that automatically devalues all of us.

This reminds me of one of my favorite popular authors, Michael Connelly, and Harry Bosch, the central character of his extensive detective series. In a few of the novels, Harry finds himself investigating crimes that others feel are low priority. Who cares who killed a prostitute? Why bother to solve the case? No one cares.

But Harry’s response is this memorable phrase:

“Everybody counts, or nobody counts.”

We are all human, and we all bear the image of God, even if sometimes our human frailty and brokenness may obscure it. Sometimes our brokenness, or our sin, if you like, is our inability to see the image of God in others; to value all life and to seek equality, justice, redemption, and reconciliation for all. When we devalue others, either on purpose or by turning a blind eye to their suffering, we tarnish our own divine image. In making others out to be lesser creatures, we become lesser creatures ourselves. 

If I want my life to matter, I must do my part to ensure that all lives, all souls, are understood to matter just as much.

This isn’t easy because we all like to feel superior to someone or to some other group of people. It’s an easy, cheap way to feel better about ourselves. I think that all of us do this in some way whether we are conscious of it or not: I’m better than that poor person, that badly dressed person, that socially awkward person, that black person, that redneck person, that non-English-speaking person, that genderqueer person, that gay person, that addicted person, that liberal person, that conservative person, that fundamentalist person, that Muslim person . . . the list can go on and on.

Some of these judgments are simply unkind. Others can be fatal.

So, on this All Soul’s Day I challenge us to be honest and to think about the souls that society and we as individuals have devalued and marginalized, and to speak their value out loud.

In doing so, we are not giving special value to these groups because the truth is that they already matter. Rather, we are recognizing their value and affirming that we should live in a society where All Lives and All Souls matter.

Everybody counts, or nobody counts. 

Let’s work toward a world where everyone does. 

Here’s my litany of souls that already matter, but that need to be spoken aloud. Who would you add to the list?

Black Souls Matter

Undocumented Immigrant Souls Matter

Refugee Souls Matter

Non-Christian Souls Matter

Non-Hetero Souls Matter

Trans Souls Matter

Mentally Ill Souls Matter

Disabled Souls Matter

HIV+ Souls Matter

Working Poor Souls Matter

Homeless Souls Matter

Trafficked Souls Matter

Sex Worker Souls Matter

Addicted Souls Matter

Convict Souls Matter

Souls on Death Row Matter

Only when we have said, believed, and most importantly acted as though all of these souls matter, can we simply be content to say

All Souls Matter.

candles

Branches of the Same Vine: Women, LGBTQ Christians, and my Dream for the Church

After two posts on LGBTQ stories, I had planned to take my series on stories and how they can be powerful agents of transformation in our lives in a different direction. However, since the ban on same-sex marriage was overturned in Alabama, events have put my church in the news and in hot water with our local Southern Baptist association. As a result, I have a little more to say on the way I have come to see my own story mirrored in the situation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

If you click over to the “About me” page of this blog, you’ll quickly see why I no longer fit into Southern Baptist churches where I was raised. I am progressive, feminist, and pro-equality and inclusion. I am anti-legalism and pro-individual freedom and responsibility. As a Ph.D. in language and literature in I am also rather competent at reading, studying, and reaching my own conclusions about issues of belief and practice. But when you get right down to it, the main issue is that I am a woman who refuses to be treated as anything less than an equal, adult, contributing, and responsible member of a congregation.

The Southern Baptist Convention has pretty well drawn a line in the sand against people like me. Decades ago the SBC voted to limit what I believe is a central tenet of the Baptist faith, priesthood of the believer, in a move that reflected a concentration of power at the top and less freedom of conscience and belief for those below. Since then, the SBC has sought to enforce more specific scriptural interpretations on its members (like when it doubled-down on eternal conscious torment in hell–something not mentioned in the original Baptist Faith and Message–in the wake of Rob Bell’s influential and scripturally based book Love Wins).

More to the point here, in recent decades the SBC has also put forth specific statements to try to limit the participation of women in higher church leadership. Interestingly, before the year 2000, the Baptist Faith and Message did not exclude women from the pastorate, but in that year it was amended to limit the role of pastor to men. Sure, individual churches have the autonomy to decide if they will ordain women as deacons or ministers, but that doesn’t make up for the sexism of an organization where female seminary students are trained to be pastors’ wives or to minister only to other women

One of the reasons that I do not consider myself a Southern Baptist anymore is this position on women. At some point it dawned on me that I had grown up watching women do what seemed to be the majority of the work in the church, yet be denied a place in church leadership. In the churches that I grew up in, there were no female pastors, no female deacons, no women called on to pray, no female ushers. (I still wonder what could be so gender specific about handing out church bulletins and passing the offering plate?)

Women are not spiritually, morally, or intellectually inferior to men. In Christ there is neither male nor female, and that should be reflected in our churches. “Biblical” arguments to the contrary are contradicted in the Bible by Paul himself, who names one woman, Phoebe, as a deacon (Romans 16.1), and another, Junia, as an apostle (Romans 16.7). Yep, an apostle – the highest designation in the early church.

It is my firm belief that women who are called and equipped should have equal opportunity to participate in the church at all levels, and I decided about ten years ago that I would not join another church that did not ordain women as deacons and support women’s right to share the pulpit and the pastorate. Women have too often been excluded from church leadership simply on the basis of their sex, regardless of their calling or talent. I won’t put up with that anymore.

I made this decision because in churches who refuse to do these things, women are second-class citizens of the kingdom of God. I would be a second class citizen. My opinions on women, if expressed, would be devalued and rejected. Excuses would be made for unequal treatment and opportunities, and the Bible would be used to prop them up. I would have to keep my head down and pretend to be someone I’m not in order to fit in. As a result, I would be disengaged, unfulfilled, underutilized, and probably bitter and suffering in my spiritual life.

As an educated and dedicated Christian, I deserve better than that. I deserve to have spiritual role models and mentors who fully respect me, and I deserve to have some who also look like me. Most of all, I deserve a church where ALL of me fits in. Where I can work on being transformed into the image of Christ, not into an antiquated image of womanhood masquerading as Christian life.

From my own story, I know what it is like to go to a church and to have to keep my head down. I know what it feels like to have to keep part of myself hidden away to avoid causing a stir and risking a reprimand.

From there, I can extrapolate and somewhat imagine what it must be like to be in a different and darker closet–one where to open the door means to risk much more than a simple reprimand or a reminder of one’s ‘place.’ Where simply being oneself entails a very real risk of being condemned and ostracized, and perhaps not only from one’s church, but from one’s home and family. Where it may even result in physical assault in the name of Christianity.

LGBTQ people have too often been excluded from the church on the basis of their identities rather than their beliefs, intentions, and actions. They have had to choose between hiding who they are and pretending to fit in, or being honest about their identities and then having to live outside of the church and the borders it has built to separate descriptors like “gay” and “Christian” or “gay” and “moral.” Unlike women, they haven’t even been granted second-class citizenship. They are foreigners, left outside of the borders drawn against them.

Despite some efforts to separate the two categories, there are LGBTQ Christians, and they deserve better. They deserve a chance to be in community with other Christians, and they deserve to be able to be themselves, without being labeled with preconceived notions about their moral and spiritual character.

Some Christians worry that inviting LGBTQ folks into the church without trying to “reform” them necessarily means we are watering down our moral standards. It doesn’t.

Inviting LGBTQ folks–just as they are–into the church, and into the sacrament of marriage, means inviting them to share in the moral ideals of the church and of Christian life. It means that the same moral standards can apply to all of us, whether gay or straight: self control, patience, love, commitment, faithfulness, and so on. We are all made in the image of God, and despite our differences, if we seek God we all have the capacity to reflect that image in our lives, our service, and our (different-sex or same-sex) relationships. 

Having the “right” genitalia is not an indication of spiritual superiority or leadership potential, just as having the “right” sexual orientation is not a guarantee of morality. On the flip side, having the “wrong” gender or sexual orientation is not a guarantee of spiritual inferiority or immorality. It’s time to leave aside those labels and value judgments and see how we as individuals can all be branches of the same Vine, producing good fruit and loving one another.

This is my dream for the church, for it to be a place where the only identities that matter are those of Jesus-follower and beloved child of God.