Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Samuel Backs Out of Soulforce Campaign

A prominent United Church of Christ pastor has decided his conscience will not allow him to participate in an aggressive dialogue campaign led by Soulforce, a gay civil rights group.

Rev. Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel-- Senior Pastor of Victory for the World Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia-- was originally scheduled to be a clergy leader for Soulforce's national campaign this spring and summer. The campaign will target the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Ft. Worth, Texas, and also a number of well known churches and pastors-- Rev. Joel Osteen, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., Bishop Eddie Long, Rev. Bill Hybels, and Rev. Rick Warren.

In a January 11 Soulforce press release, Samuel said, "Homophobia and heterosexism directly contradict the principles of equality and justice for all God's children, and I think that the younger generation of evangelicals are beginning more and more to see this contradiction."

But four days later, Samuel told the Southern Voice that he's decided not to participate because, "pastors have the right to believe as they wish." In good conscience, he couldn't "violate another pastor's space" who happens to disagree with his own position.

Samuel's decision to back away from the Soulforce campaign was influenced by his own church's experience of getting picketed by Rev. Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church:
"I cannot in good faith do something similar," Samuel said. "The best way to combat bigotry is from the pulpit, to educate the members themselves. It’s rather intrusive for a pastor to come onto another pastor’s sacred space."

If Phelps had asked Samuel to sit down and talk, Samuel acknowledged he would have said no.

And while he supports Soulforce’s mission, Samuel said he believes "intruding" on another’s sacred space can be counter-productive. "I respect Soulforce for raising the issue. My prayer is the members take this message back to their pastors and tell them how their messages are impacting them," he said.
Samuel will surely face criticism in the GLBT community. If homophobia is wrong, especially in the religious community that exerts moral influence over society, how can he stand idle on the sidelines? How can he allow other influential pastors and churches to continue spreading intolerant views? Would Samuel passively allow another pastor or church to espouse hatred toward blacks during the civil rights movement?

And yet, Samuel's decision is a tacit admission of two things:

First, Soulforce's methods to create "dialogue" are essentially bullying tactics. Their ways even resemble those of the loathsome Westboro Church. Notice that Samuel says he couldn't do something similar. Soulforce will deny this description of their methods, but Executive Director Jeff Lutes says his organization has already written "100 letters to these six [above mentioned] churches and several dozen to Bishop Eddie Long’s church," adding the group still plans to show up at Long's congregation on June 1. Samuel's choice to back away is a sign that he prefers the kind of dialogue that is more in line with the tradition of the United Church Christ-- where two parties willingly agree to gather around a common table, without undue coercion.

Second, religious people are legitimately entitled to believe that GLBT behavior is wrong and grieves the heart of God. No doubt, Samuel takes the other side of the issue, yet he believes a measure of tolerance is owed to those with whom he disagrees. At the least, disagreeing pastors and churches should not be intimated by those who show up to their sacred space uninvited, pushing an agenda. Again, Samuel's decision reflects in application the polity of the United Church of Christ-- which gives autonomy to individual congregation to decide their own beliefs.

The question of whether GLBT behavior is morally legitimate will continue indefinitely. In the meantime, Samuel's decision shows that dialogue about this sensitive issue is best when two parties meet willingly and without intimidation.

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