The Metaphor of Birmingham

As a Methodist preacher, I’ve always been humbled to recall that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was written, in part, to Methodist bishops.

They weren’t the only recipients, of course. The letter was a response to previous statements from Alabama-area clergy of several Christian denominations. But at least two of the recipients were Methodist bishops of that era.

Some Methodist preachers in Dr. King’s day stood with him in the struggle for Civil Rights. Others, as the Birmingham letter reminds us, urged him to slow down, take more time, allow the natural progression of things to unfold. They suggested that his presence, and the presence of other “outsiders” leading demonstrations was not helpful to their community.

You can read what they wrote him here.

Dr. King, of course, eloquently and carefully responded to them, outlining the many reasons he could not in good conscience “cease and desist.”

All this history comes swirling back to us this weekend, as Bishop Melvin Talbert of the United Methodist Church prepares to perform a ceremony for two gay men in Birmingham, Alabama. Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince are already legally married in the state of Washington. But Bishop Talbert will preside at a church ceremony for them tomorrow.

Once again, the setting is Birmingham.
Once again, Methodist bishops are asking somebody to slow down.

Here’s what they’ve said: “The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops has urged Bishop Melvin Talbert not to perform the same gender marriage in Birmingham, Alabama.”

You can read their whole statement here.

I recognize that many African-Americans react strongly, and negatively, to the equation of the LGBT struggle in the Church with the struggle for Civil Rights for African Americans in the United States.

And as I have listened carefully to these critiques over time, I have become more careful with my own direct equation of these two “struggles.” Bluntly, a straight white male, not affected by either struggle directly, I’ve learned caution and listening are essential.

The primary complaint I hear from African-Americans is that the depth of their struggle –the literal deaths and injuries to so many persons, over centuries in America– cannot be directly equivalent to the struggle for inclusion in the Church of LGBT persons.

The blood of slaves, Civil War soldiers, Civil Rights heroes, and ordinary African-Americans over generations, surely tells us this critique has validity, and should give us pause from making direct comparisons.

But I love to look for metaphorical truths. Frankly, all truth is metaphorical. We think, speak, act, and live metaphorically in our heart of hearts, in every moment, whether we often realize this. George Lakoff is right.

Therefore, I do think there is a strong, metaphorical connection between these two struggles.

The form of the struggle is very much the same.
The metaphor of the struggle is very much the same.

And Birmingham, I am sure by design, is once again at the epicenter.

I am confident Bishop Talbert, an African-American himself, had this all this in mind when he agreed to perform this ceremony in the first place.

In King’s day, laws were not changing quickly. The pleas of the clergy to wait and “work through the courts” seems hollow now, as we look back through history. I have the very strong belief that as we look back at this historical time, we will say the same thing about this struggle.

One day, LGBT persons will gain full inclusion in the United Methodist Church. I am confident of this, because I am confident that this movement (like Civil Rights) is not just a movement of rights, but also a movement of God’s Holy Spirit. And it is not possible to stop a movement of God’s Holy Spirit.

Yes, you can argue that Bishop Talbert and others should wait for the Judicial Council and General Conference. But savvy “vote counters” of today, like their counterparts in the Civil Rights struggle understand that while the votes are not present at the General Conference level, the hearts of American United Methodists already support full inclusion for LGBT persons.

I’ve blogged about this movement before here. And I’ve made my own case for embracing Christian Same Sex Marriage here.

Among other things, Bishop Talbert has said this:

“We as the church have the privilege of inviting people to come to God’s table, but we do not say which ones can and which ones can’t…They are all created in the image of God. They all have a place at God’s table. They should not be excluded.”

When I am trying to make a decision, one of the most morally clarifying questions I ask myself is: 

“What will my grandchildren think of what I did and what I stood for?”

Notice, I am not saying “What will my grandchildren’s values be?” That’s not what’s important to me.

What is important to me is:
How will they see, judge, evaluate what I did, and did not do in my historical age?
When I had the chance to stand up and be counted, what did I do?
Did I just hold my breath and hope that society would magically change?
Or was I standing on the side of moral right, and the march of God’s history?

Friends, our grandchildren will not understand what the big-fat deal was concerning the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church. For those who choose to stand against the tide of God’s Holy Spirit on these issues, they will likely judge us quite harshly. I simply invite you consider, as you may be willing, the truth of this last sentence.

But for now, the focus is back on Birmingham…as metaphor, symbol, and a very real place filled with very real beating human hearts.

So, where do you stand on all this?

Where do I?

Good question. So let me answer it here.

Remembering that not every Civil Rights advocate went to jail, marched, or led a public movement…
Remembering that in every new struggle for the freedom of God’s people, there are always multiple places to stand on the side of God’s love and justice…

I can say this without hesitation: God bless Bishop Talbert. God bless everyone involved in the struggle for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. God bless those willing to push the boundaries, as well as those who believe they cannot. God bless Joe and Bobby.

But I also say this…God bless those who opposed same-sex marriage, and who believe all of this is horribly wrong. God bless those who can never imagine the future church where same-sex marriage will be embraced and practiced.

God bless us all.

Give us the courage to see the metaphor of Birmingham, to feel the radical inclusive love of the God, and to hear the voices of our grandchildren who, with God, stand as our most formidable judges.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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