About revbrentwright

I write here as a United Methodist pastor in Indianapolis serving Broad Ripple UMC since 2010. I'm also a husband and father, singer and pilot.

Resilience After RFRA

This spring was a watershed moment in Indiana. The passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was painful and damaging. At the same time, the episode revealed how much our culture has changed in a short period of time and gives me hope for continued growth.

The swift adoption and signing into law of Indiana’s RFRA was painful. It was painful to watch the law’s proponents steamroll the warnings, objections, and resistance of so much of the community as they moved their bill through the legislative process. It was painful to see many of our lawmakers revealed as either naive and short-sighted or overtly two-faced. It was painful to watch Indiana law open the door for discrimination in the name of religion. It was painful to watch my Christian brothers and sisters use their considerable political power to clear the way for overt oppression of minorities, all the while claiming oppressed minority status themselves. It was painful to watch Indiana scrutinized for backward and bigoted action on the national stage.

At the same time, the RFRA mess was a hopeful experience: there was massive outcry against such a measure, and the protest changed the outcome. In my fifteen-year experience of working for social change, I’ve grown accustomed to the feeling of beating on brick walls, especially in anti-gun and anti-war efforts. What happened in Indiana this spring turned out to be an experience of discovering that the wall of homophobia wasn’t nearly as solid as it looked, and when enough people pushed together, the wall crumbled. We discovered that the power of those who insist on civil rights progress and the dignity of all is greater than the power of those who want to return to a time of state-sanctioned discrimination buttressed by religious language.

In the end, progressive power forced a neutering of the law; no longer will it effectively roll back the anti-discrimination protections already on the books in a few places in Indiana. Nevertheless, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity remains legal in most of the state.

Now we face an important question as a state-wide community: what next in the wake of the RFRA mess?

We can take a lesson from the natural world around us. Where there were barren branches and empty fields, there are now leaves and crops beginning to grow. Life is springing forth again, transforming the landscape that seemed so dead just a few weeks ago. Blossoms and flowers shout new life, and lush grass is back in our yards. Brown and gray gave birth to green and yellow and purple and orange.

This season in our Hoosier life, like spring, is a moment for resilience. But let’s be careful about what we mean by resilience. Resilience can refer to a resistance to change, like in materials science. When stretched, resilient materials like the steel of a spring don’t transform, they bounce back to their original shape.

For those who understand vibrant life as progress on a journey, resilience doesn’t end with the ability to bounce back, to heal a wound and return to the previous status quo. Resilience is choosing to grow in response to challenge, to advance in response to a setback. Resilience creates a new status quo. A resilient person, or community, responds to a painful episode by leaning into the pain and welcoming the stretch. Resilient communities see struggle as a crucible in which the next degree of purification takes place. Resilient cultures recognize the opportunity for breakthrough in the midst of breakdown.

This is a season for that kind of resilience in Indiana. The voice of regression spoke loudly, and nearly carried the day. In the end, the voice of progress neutralized the regressive impulse at the legislative level. But what happens in our legislature is only one expression of who we are as a Hoosier people. What comes next in hundreds of local communities will make all the difference; will we settle back into old prejudices and allow familiar ideological boundaries to divide us? Or will we seize this moment as the perfect time to be stretched into a new shape?

If we want to grow through this experience, we need one another. The ability to withstand the pain of growth is formed in supportive community. Resilience’s strength comes from the web of human connection. The web of relationships formed by reaching out exactly when the voice inside is saying “Keep to yourself! It’s not safe out there!” is the birthplace of resilience. If we want our communities to be resilient, we need to build ever-expanding webs of connection, to know one another, especially across ideological boundaries. In our polarizing era, we need to be willing to lean into one another, take the risk of uncomfortable differences in perspective, and look for and celebrating commonalities. When we really listen to one another at our kids’ schools and soccer games, at the coffee shop and café, in our neighborhoods and on the trails, we weave webs that provide the strength we need to grow. We learn to see the hearts of gold underneath whatever it is we see on the surface that divides us. We learn to have true compassion for our fellow travelers, even in the midst of serious disagreements.

When we don’t know one another, it’s easy to believe the worst about the Other. We settle for the caricature offered up in the echo chamber of our friends, unchallenged by personal experience with ‘those people.’

When we know one another’s stories, we can have compassion for their blind spots. When we understand what inspires our neighbors, we can see their motivation and understand their passion. When a wide range of community members see themselves as partners in tending our common life, united by values like, say, Hoosier Hospitality, or a vision like equality of opportunity for all, there’s room for vigorous debate within the wide confines of mutual respect. Our democracy can thrive without so easily descending into the muck of gloves-off name-calling politics.

It’s a new season in Indiana both in the natural world and in our human community. Nature’s resilience is on display. May we have the courage to make it a season for deepening our community resilience by deepening our connections to one another, especially across all-too-familiar boundaries.

This piece was written for publication in the May-June edition of Branches magazine, the theme of which was resilience. Branches is published in Indianapolis, distributed free around Indiana, and can be found in libraries, health food stores, and various other venues.


What kind of community will we be?

The late-March passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the uproar that preceded it and crescendoed in response have had me reflecting on this important question for all of us to consider: What kind of neighbors will we be?

We’re in the midst of a historical season in which fear is a constant companion in our civic community. Fears of terrorism and street violence, economic vulnerability and political corruption are constantly whispering in everyone’s ears. And for some, fears of moral decline and government overreach have been particularly pernicious; both of these fires have been stoked by recent changes in societal attitudes about the place of gay people in our common life. As acceptance of homosexuality as a human trait analogous to heterosexuality has grown, laws prohibiting gay marriage are being seen as the acts of discrimination they are, and they are melting away in the glare of the Constitution. This and many other developments are leaving social conservatives feeling like an unprotected minority in need of legal defense against being compelled by the government to act against their moral convictions.

Enter the RFRAs, which seek to protect individual rights. Because of the lack of explicit protections for LGBT citizens against discrimination in Indiana, the RFRA as passed in late March legalized discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. Even when the legislature “clarified” the law, it still left room for explicit discrimination everywhere there aren’t explicit anti-discrimination protections, which for LGBT people, is nearly everywhere in Indiana.

This is not a new idea in America. It’s the idea we fought against and outlawed in the Civil Rights movement half a century ago. Civil rights legislation limited the religious freedom of American citizens in the name of prohibiting discrimination. As a nation, we chose the common value of equal treatment for all over the value of religious freedom in the public sphere.

We are revisiting that conversation these days. Should refusing service to a gay person be the right of a public servant or business owner? Should a person’s right to free religious practice in public trump the right of all people to be treated equally, without discrimination?

When we ended legal racial segregation in America, we proclaimed a resounding “No!” to those questions. Our answer shouldn’t change, even when this means a religious person must act against their religious conviction to serve a gay person. Just as we said back then to those who thought racial segregation was God’s way for humanity.

To allow discrimination of any type for any reason in our public space is un-American. At the very heart of our separation from Great Britain was the concept that all people are equal. We have struggled for since our founding to live this value fully, but it is at our very core as an American people: all people have dignity that must be respected, and discrimination is a fundamental sin in our civic morality.

Mature religion—of every stripe—rejects exclusion and discrimination as a holy act. Discrimination is most certainly un-Christian. Jesus was very clear with his life and his teaching: boundaries based on morality and righteousness were the opposite of the way of God. If there is any preferential treatment in God’s realm, it is in favor of those we consider morally impure and those pushed to the margins.

The deepest question we face is not a legal one or a political one. It’s a moral question about what kind of community we will be. Will we be a community of exclusion or one of inclusion? Will we be a community that allows mistreatment of some of our neighbors by others, or will we stand up for just treatment of all? Will we be a community of separate groups that never overlap or listen to one another, or will we be a community that celebrates and embraces diversity with genuine curiosity and willingness to grow?

Will we be a community run by fear, or a community characterized by trust?

Here’s a way forward for all of us: be a proactive neighbor. Reach out and get to know your neighbors. Look for their beauty and giftedness. Learn their story (rest assured: everyone has a story!). Understand what inspires them and drives them to be their best self.

For all of us, that’s easy with some people and difficult with others. What people might you have a hard time reaching out to? What group would you rather eat tinfoil than spend an hour listening to? That’s important information; pay attention to it. Is it gay people? Republicans? Slobs? Uptight rich people? Welfare recipients? Liberals? If it’s hard to imagine having a person-to-person conversation with someone from that group, you’re seeing something about yourself. This is an opportunity for growth for you! There’s something in you that is preventing you from experiencing all that life has to offer. Stretch. Reach out. Listen. And let the wall you’ve unconsciously (or maybe consciously) built begin to crumble. For your own sake, for your kids’ sakes, for our community’s sake, and for our nation’s sake, be a proactive neighbor. And discover the joy that comes from familiar walls crumbling before our eyes and new friends standing on the other side.

This piece was written for publication in the April-May 2015 edition of Indy Midtown Magazine.

An Open Letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 2.34.41 PMThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a name that makes me throw up a little bit every time I hear it) has been passed by both chambers of our state legislature and now sits on the desk of our governor for his signature. His veto is the only way for Indiana not to make a name for itself for legalizing discrimination in the public sphere. It’s incredibly unlikely, but you never know. Occasionally, public leaders surprise us with their moral courage…

Dear Governor Pence,

Despite the political costs that a veto would incur, I invite you to join the winning side and veto RFRA. Even though signing the bill seems like the smart political move today, tomorrow the celebrations of the extremists in your party will have ended and the hangover of moral regret will settle in. Your name will settle right alongside leaders like George Wallace in the history books as so-called “leaders” who traded what was morally right for what was politically expedient in the grossest way: by capitalizing on fear and bigotry at the expense of a minority, all the while claiming to stand on religious ground.

This is a dream situation for a power-hungry politician: exploitation of the minority dressed up to look like protection against some nebulous threat. This is the exact opposite of courageous leadership.

And, with sad irony, all this is happening exactly fifty years after the rally in Montgomery at the end of the march from Selma. We pat ourselves on the back for that progress at the same time your signature on RFRA will legalize discrimination in Indiana. Shame on us.

Religious freedom in America always comes with limits, and discrimination in the public sphere is one of them. When our nation decided to desegregate water fountains, buses, and lunch counters, when our nation decided to allow all people to vote as equals, when our nation decided to decriminalize interracial marriages, we didn’t leave it up to local communities to decide whether they believed in desegregation. We didn’t allow counties or towns or states to choose whether they would serve blacks, because we declared discrimination un-American. We didn’t leave room for objection on religious grounds at any level; if you were a public business or service, you would serve all. Individuals and whole communities disagreed, saying they were following their religious beliefs, claiming discrimination was their right.

But if America was to be the land of equality we aspired to be, equality must apply everywhere, even if equality was against some citizens’ religion. As a nation, we chose our common value of equality for all people over some people’s ‘religious’ value of discrimination. Those who objected to equality lost their right to discriminate.

RFRA is regressive, and history will judge this signature, Governor Pence. Do you have the stuff to be a courageous leader? Show us by joining the winning side. Veto RFRA.

An Open Letter to Christians Who Support RFRAs

Note: this post was written for the Reconciling Ministries Network blog. RMN is active within the United Methodist Church, working for the full inclusion of all people in all aspects of the UMC. It’s here on their site.

The so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) have become law in 19 states and are in process in several more, including my own Indiana. Proponents argue that they are necessary to protect conservative Christians from being forced to serve gay people. Sure, there are better-sounding, well-polished explanations/obfuscations, but let’s be real: it’s about making sure discrimination against gay people is legal. And supporters of these laws are using Christianity to justify it.

To my Christian brothers and sisters who are claiming this legislation is necessary and right, I say:

First, stop using Christianity to justify your fear, judgment, mistreatment, and abuse of gay people. Your religion may justify such things, but any religion that leads to discrimination is not Christianity rooted in Jesus Christ. Discrimination and exclusion are not values of Jesus, though they are apparently values held dear by many Christians. That’s not new, though. These were core values of some of Jesus’ opponents, purity-obsessed members of his own religious group that fought Jesus at every opportunity. They were disgusted at Jesus’ lack of morals, at his libertine social boundaries, and at his disdain for the rules of his own religion. They were disturbed by his willingness to associate with the filthy and the despicable. They insisted on their right to refuse service to the unclean, to marginalize those contaminated by what they self-righteously labeled ‘sin’. They loved interpreting scripture in ways that led Jesus to call them hypocrites for worrying about specks in ‘sinners’ eyes while ignoring logs in their own. Perhaps their perversion, which mutated what was surely a sincere pursuit of faithfulness into its exact opposite, should cause you to reconsider your support of RFRA and of your sense of ‘purity’ that calls on you to discriminate against gay people in general.

Any use of Christianity to justify discrimination is evidence of a misunderstanding about who Jesus was and what the good news Jesus lived means for humanity.

Second, stop claiming victimhood as some sort of oppressed minority. The fact that the culture as a whole is no longer in agreement with your moral compass (as it was in some ways in the mid-20th century) is not evidence that you’re being oppressed. Being denied the right to discriminate is not the same as suffering discrimination. Being denied your hegemony of the public sphere is not an infringement on your religious freedom.

Finally, if you wonder why we Christians have such a reputation as hypocrites, RFRA is only one example in a long, long list. We talk about love and grace, sin and forgiveness, and then we push for a law that allows us to behave like racists in 1940. Really?

I’m grateful to live in a nation that will likely check my bigotry when it appears on the surface and hold me to account for discriminatory behavior, even if I try to justify it as part of my religious commitment. May we, the Church, learn to recognize and call out misguided religion today with as much clarity and fire as Jesus did.

After a Mass Shooting Down the Street

This past Sunday, 30 hours after seven people were shot down the street from our church after an apparent argument turned into a shootout, I reflected on what Christ-like response might look like. (You can listen to the full sermon [7/6/14 “Out of Control”] here.) Here are the key points:

  1. For disciples of the God who chose incarnation and solidarity with suffering people, caring is the first step. Feeling connected to the events and the people involved and letting it grieve us is much easier said than done. Actually caring is harder when I don’t know them personally. Caring is harder because of the fact that I see the world through racial lenses; when the images of the scene show that many of the wounded and other innocent bystanders were African American, my immediate thought is to feel separated from the events (“it wasn’t us”). That’s the legacy of racism deep in me: a tribalism based on skin color even within my own neighborhood. Maybe that’s not as much of an issue for you (though I’d encourage you not to dismiss that possibility too quickly…); maybe the source of separation is cultural: “that’s not me; it’s those people who waste their energy getting drunk and loitering”. Or maybe it’s generational (“that’s not me; it’s those young people”). The challenge of recognizing the connection we have with all humanity is a spiritual challenge. Can I let the truth of our common Creator overrule the sin that tells me ‘they’ are not part of me? The truth is my little brother was shot last Friday night. My little sister was nearly killed on Broad Ripple Ave. And it was my other little brothers who pulled out their guns in response to being insulted and shot several people. It was my brother Major who killed my other brother Perry on Saturday night. The deep truth of God’s reality is that there is no ’them.’ Every human being is ‘us’. Can I let that sink in? If so, I grieve violence like this past weekend’s in a deeper way. I care.
  2. My inclination is to be grateful for my separation from the violence; I’m relieved that Broad Ripple by day is a very different place from Broad Ripple late at night on a holiday weekend. I keep my distance from violence and suffering; I’m tempted to ignore it, because I can. But Jesus is moving toward it. Jesus draws near—to embrace and to share the suffering of his sisters and brothers, both the victims and the perpetrators. That’s what Jesus is up to. And he invites us, the Body of Christ, to be part of that presence, that work of redemption and reconciliation. God’s work of healing brokenness in our society is in full swing; the choice I have is whether I will join in. The river of God’s love and grace is flowing, now as ever; the question is whether I am standing on the bank watching it go by, sitting on the side with a toe in the water, or floating down the river.

photoI’m looking for ways to join in. I changed our church sign—our primary communication with our neighbors—Sunday afternoon. I will be standing on the street tomorrow along the route of IMPD Officer Perry Renn’s funeral procession as part of our city’s expression of grief and solidarity in the face of violence. I have reached out to IMPD in an effort to join their meeting with Broad Ripple business owners to discuss how to reduce the likelihood of future shootings. I’ll reach out to a Broad Ripple bar owner through a mutual friend. When we gather for worship, there are photos of Broad Ripple on our signwalls as a call to prayer. In particular, there’s one of  street signs at the corner nearest the shootings last weekend. I’ll encourage our congregation to let seeing it prompt compassion and prayer for the business owners and workers and the community that gathers down the street late at night. That’s why those images are on our walls: to help bring our neighborhood into our collective heart when we gather in God’s presence. And I’m leading our church cluster is planning an interfaith gathering for peace in Broad Ripple Park at the end of the summer (a process which started long before last weekend’s shootings).

But all that activity doesn’t fix the pain of acknowledging the truth about the racism deep inside me. It’s painful to recognize how comfortable I am with the separation I enjoy from the suffering in my city. It hurts to be real about how much I enjoy standing on the bank, watching the river of God’s abundant life go by, safe from getting wet.

I hope I can welcome God’s persistent invitation into the depths of abundant life through courageous discipleship continuing to coax me into the water. Because the deepest part of me knows the water’s a joyful, connected place to be!

Reflections from the Waiting Room

It’s been an early morning. I’m at a hospital in St. Louis, sitting in one of the least-pleasant waiting rooms I’ve waited in. My wife is in surgery this morning. And I’m waiting.

This isn’t a new experience for us. I’m grateful for that right now. It gets easier as the track record of positive outcomes gets longer. Eight other times in seven years (that’s most of our married life) I’ve waited while high-stakes procedures were performed on my wife. Every time, she’s been fine and things have gone well.

But that doesn’t change the fear; it sneaks up on me, like a wave from behind. All is well, but then, before I realize what’s happening, I’m under water. In that moment of terrible clarity, I’m face-to-face with reality: the body is delicate. Life is fragile. Sometimes things go wrong, even in the best hands. My wife is vulnerable. I am vulnerable.

It was almost overwhelming when the nurse, working her way through the pre-op checklist, asked about whether L has a living will and how we might summarize it in a sentence to be added to the chart. All measures possible? Husband decides? For a quietly frantic moment, we’re under water. It’s real. I could find myself in the position of making life-and-death decisions before I leave this place. Today could be the day everything changes.

The chances of that are incredibly remote. This is an outpatient surgery. Her surgeon does this surgery every day, with outstanding results. But I’ve lived That Day before. I know That Day sometimes arrives. It’s been almost 20 years since my family got the call that my dad was on the plane that went down. Everything changed that day. It happens. So I can’t help but take seriously the remote possibilities. I can’t help but feel the vulnerability of stepping up close to the edge that divides life as we know it from a very different life or even death. What’s normally far enough away that I don’t have to think about it is frighteningly close today. I’m glad the surgeon is behind the wheel. But sometimes even the best drivers can’t keep the car from going over the edge.

The redemptive part of feeling this vulnerability, this deeply-rooted fear, is the fact that it’s a sign of love. It’s the flip side of the same coin. There’s no love without vulnerability, and the greater the love, the greater the potential loss, the greater the fear when the possibility of loss comes closer. It occurred to me as we were saying our “I love yous” earlier that this would be a lot easier if I didn’t love her. Everything else in our married life would be harder, but this morning would be easier. Sometimes, in the course of everyday life and its frustrations and headaches, it’s hard to be aware of how deeply I love my wife. But this morning, it’s real. So real I’m scared to death. Sure, that fear is wrapped in layers of reassurance and logic, but it’s there. It’s there because of the depth of love that’s there at the core.

As much as I prefer not to ever feel vulnerable, especially at this level, I am grateful for what it shows me: the love that has been built in almost a decade of marriage (and the four years of friendship before), the depth of connection that has been forged in the crucible of a hard road together, the amazing blessedness of our life together and the beauty of our son. All of these raise the stakes and deepen the vulnerability.

I’m reminded of a huge community of sisters and brothers who share this human experience of vulnerability and fear. I’m sharing this waiting room this morning with a number of them. And this is the same-day surgery waiting room; elsewhere in this hospital, there are others whose loved ones are much closer to the edge than my wife. And, of course, around this city, across the country, all over the world, right now, I have human family members who are in this very same place of uncertainty and fear.

And we’re all surrounded by love—the love of family and friends, of caring professionals at work, of spirited bystanders who care. Of God.