Opportunities lost in anti-LGBT faith


Thank you for sharing your memories of your first MCUSA convention, back in Nashville, at the very start of the denomination. That experience, you said, both drew you to Mennonites and pushed you from the church. Sixteen years later, I feel the same forces still: a deep attraction to the love of this community and a sadness about the struggle it has had to embrace queer believers. In the end, you say, “I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.” There is a tremendous cost to rejecting people because of their sexuality.

This week, a post on the blog Righting America prompted me to take up the question in a new way. There, Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., the authors of Righting America at the Creation Museum (John Hopkins Press 2016) and former faculty at Bluffton College, now at the University of Dayton, shared a list of just 20 of the times that Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, wrote anti-LGBT messages in his own blog posts since last year. They write

All this on the necessity of Christians to resist LGBTQ rights, to reject the legitimacy of LGBTQ identities, and to understand the effort of LGBTQ individuals to assert their civil rights as an assault on the rights of Christians. All this, and yet nothing or virtually nothing from Ham and AiG on issues pertaining to poverty, refugees, income/wealth inequality, structural racism, and misogyny.

Which makes me re-visit a question I thought a lot about as I observed the incredible energy and dedication of Westboro Baptists as I researched God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right: What good could these folks do if they pointed their energy toward alleviating suffering?

Even for those people who believe that same-sex sexuality is a sin, what do they lose when they focus their energy here? Jesus tells us that when we visit the imprisoned, comfort the grieving, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, then we are serving him–which means that every moment spent condemning gay people is a moment even otherwise sweet, kind, hardworking Mennonites are taking from more important work.


Above, dinosaurs boarded the ark, according to the Creation Museum’s account of Noah and the flood. As the church camp song says, “The animals, they came on, they came on by twosies, twosies/Elephants and kangaroosies roosies.” Later, if the song leader was feeling naughty, you might sing, “The animals, they came off by threesies threesies/Grizzly bears and chimpanzeesies zeesies.” The song is silly, but anti-LGBT Christians point to the story of Noah’s ark as evidence of God’s plan for people to be only in heterosexual pairs. 

To business owners who don’t want to pay living wages: Get a job!

Kellyanne Conway and I agreed on something this past week: able-bodied adults who currently used Medicaid services should have jobs that include health insurance benefits.

Conway made her remarks on ABC’s This Week and also on Fox and Friends. In a real “let them eat cake” moment, Conway suggested that able-bodied people who use Medicaid should look “other places” for employment that includes benefits. The problem? Most adults who use Medicaid (59%) do in fact have jobs–the same percent of Americans who work overall —and a large majority (80%) live in families where at least one adult is working; these jobs are just part of the huge number of jobs in US’s private sector (46%) that don’t pay very much and don’t include benefits. A person could work a low wage job 24 hours a day (and some people come close) but never get health benefits because more than half of non-government jobs don’t come with health insurance. 

Conway knows this. She’s perfectly okay with low wage employers not providing healthcare benefits. She means that, somehow, these workers should be able to locate non-existent jobs that provide benefits. It’s amusing to her, I suspect, to watch poor people compete against each other for scraps.

I mean that jobs should pay enough, including benefits to insure workers have healthcare. (Actually, I don’t. I think health care and employment should be unrelated because what you do for a paid employment has nothing to do with your need to go to the doctor. I think that businesses should be released from the obligation to provide health insurance so they can focus on other things, like producing whatever it is they are supposed to be producing. Like a growing number of Americans, I’m pro-single payer healthcare and think it will be good for business.)

But that’s not reality. Reality is that even people with health insurance can’t afford their medical bills. (If you click on just one link in this post, let it be Helaine Olen’s recent article from The Atlantic. Olen is the rare finance writer who puts economic and financial issues into their larger social contexts.)

The word for this is welfare—not the Medicaid benefits received by low-wage  childcare teachers, home health aids, nail technicians, and restaurant staff who earn so little but welfare for companies that refuse to pay wages that keep workers out of poverty.

If you own a business and don’t pay people a living wage, you don’t own a business—you are running a charity, and that charity is “I want to own a business but make someone else pay for the costs.” And somehow, in the US, where we venerate businesses and despise the poor who work for them, we think that’s “entrepreneurial” rather than “entitled.”

If you run a business and expect that you should earn a profit while your employees can’t afford the rent on a basic apartment, you are not running a business but a scam; you are ripping workers off for your own benefit.

If you run a business and refuse to charge prices to cover your actual costs because customers won’t pay that much, then you have a product or service that isn’t worth its true cost to consumers. If the world doesn’t pay you enough to cover your actual costs, that’s a signal that what you are offering isn’t valued by consumers. Don’t let it hurt your feelings; instead, let it inspire you to bring something to the marketplace that folks will value.

Paying workers more might mean that you earn less or that your customers pay more. This may indeed be the consequences of accurately calculating the cost of having employees. As a consumer, I am willing to pay them. With relatively few exceptions—child care workers being the one that most quickly comes to mind*—we can afford to pay more for products and services provided by underpaid people. If you can afford a $30 manicure, you can probably afford a $40 one. If you want to eat dinner out, you can afford to pay a $15 wage (as diners in Minnesota will soon do)—or you can eat at home or skip the manicure.


Always wanted to run a business based on your passion, but don’t want to pay employees enough to live? Perhaps you should try the Lego Friends Heartland Cupcake Cafe. 

In all the worry that increased wages will result in increased costs for everyday consumers, folks like Conway ignore the fact that it is the cost of hugely expensive and largely unavoidable items—healthcare, childcare, housing—that are most people’s major financial stressors. If working people weren’t paying 8% of their yearly income to healthcare costs, they could afford more expensive consumer items.  If the costs of manicures goes up, the tens of millions of Americans in poverty will be okay. They’re not getting them anyway.

And to the concern that businesses will lay off law-wage workers if forced to pay them what they need to live: I doubt it. If it was possible to get this job done any cheaper, then businesses would already be doing it. And if a business closes because it really can’t pay its workers a living wage, then it was never a business anyway. It was a hobby that the business owner asked workers to pay for.


*Updated to add: I don’t mean that childcare workers don’t deserve more pay. They do! They absolutely deserve it and need it. I just mean that childcare costs are already huge in the US–it costs more than college in most states, and college is way too expensive for families. The solution is subsidized child care (including paying stay-at-home caregivers for providing care for children and adults who need assistance) to insure that such workers receive a wage that will allow them to support themselves while also keeping care affordable.



War is not inevitable

Dear Rebecca:

Speaking of the way Americans are sold wars of choice as no choice at all:

While the Kim regime is technically a Communist government, the ideology that governs North Korea is known as “Juche” (or, more technically, “neojuche revivalism”). The official state ideology is a mixture of Marxism and ultra-nationalism. Juche is dangerous because it is infused with the historical Korean concept of “songun,” or “military-first,” and it channels all state resources into the North Korean military—specifically its nuclear program.

Juche is not a self-defensive ideology. Rather, it is a militaristic and offensive belief system. If the North gets a fully functional nuclear arsenal, they will use those weapons to strike at their American, South Korean, and Japanese enemies.

Get that: If North Korea gets the right combination of nukes and missiles, it will definitely attack the United States. Which leads to the inevitable conclusion: “Given these facts, why should we waste precious time on negotiations that will only empower the North and weaken the rest of us? We should be preparing for conflict on the peninsula, not begging the North to take more handouts from us as they build better nuclear weapons.”

But there’s plenty of reason not to believe that North Korea will automatically strike the United States if it’s capable.

Here’s why. If North Korea launched nukes at America, America would launch its nukes at North Korea. Everybody knows this. The North Koreans know this. This is not in doubt. It is difficult to establish one’s dominance over a continental peninsula if you, along with the peninsula, are smoking, radioactive ash.

As NBC News reports: “The country says it wants a nuclear bomb because it saw what happened when Iraq and Libya surrendered their weapons of mass destruction: their regimes were toppled by Western-backed interventions. It wants to stop others, namely the administration of President Donald Trump, from toppling its totalitarian regime.”

The North Korean regime is awful. But that penchant for self-preservation means it’s unlikely to start a war that will end with its destruction.

Understand, there’s a long history of this. America’s hawks warned that Iran’s mullahs had a messianic ideology that would cause them to lash out with nuclear weapons once they were capable; we invaded Iraq because we didn’t want Saddam Hussein to prove he had weapons “in the form of a mushroom cloud.

The essential idea is always that nations unfriendly to the United States are so irrational, care so little for their own survival, that they’re willing to commit civilizational suicide via a nuclear attack on the U.S. or its allies. But it hasn’t happened yet.

So when hawks make that case, make them prove it. Point out that history hasn’t worked out that way so far. Point out that we’ve invaded a country to no good end because of similar thought processes. But never merely accept that we have to choose war. It’s not inevitable, no matter how much hawks sell it as such.

Sincerely, Joel

Which sins matter to Hobby Lobby?


By now, you’ve probably heard that Hobby Lobby, the “closely-held” chain of craft stores, has been ordered to pay $3 million in fines and return 5,500 stolen artifacts smuggled out of Iraq. The intention seems to be to use them in their soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible in DC.

Image result for hobby lobby stolen artifacts

That activity doesn’t seem to square with Hobby Lobby’s self-image as a wholesome company, one so averse to sin that it headed to the Supreme Court over the ACA’s birth control mandate–and won. How, after all, could paying for employee health insurance that include pregnancy prevention (not abortion, despite Hobby Lobby’s claims about how IUDs work) be MORE of a sin that buying stolen goods from a nation we chose to bomb? Especially given that smuggled artifacts are lucrative business for terrorists? While we don’t know that Hobby Lobby’s items came from criminal enterprises that support terrorist organizations, the people who steal and sell such goods never have wholesome intentions.

For those scratching their heads and Hobby Lobby’s willful ignorance of the law and the company’s choice to ignore its own consultant on the matter, here is the difference:

The company did not want to offer insurance that includes IUD coverage, even though this harms women.

The company did want to own the items it bought, even though this harms cultures and contributes to international crime.

In other words, the principled stance of Hobby Lobby is that it does what it wants. 


‘Self-restraint’ in North Korea

Dear Rebecca:

This has been stuck in my craw for the last day or so.

The unusually blunt warning, from Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, came as South Korea’s defense minister indicated that the North’s missile, Hwasong-14, had the potential to reach Hawaii.

“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” General Brooks said, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War. “As this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.

“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”

You know what else is a choice? Making war.

There’s something awful and dangerous about the idea that war is a default position, that it takes an act of will not to send thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen into combat to inflict death on a widespread scale.

This is particularly true in North Korea, where it seems likely the regime is developing nuclear weapons as a means of protecting itself from interference from superpowers like the United States. The likelihood they’ll actually start a war? Pretty low.

Which means we’d be starting a war for the purpose of … making sure they can’t retaliate if we decide to go to war with them. That seems like a terrible squandering of life in order to prevent an unlikely outcome.

Listen, the North Korean regime is — as George W. Bush once said — loathsome. But if our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved this century, going to war against loathsome regimes doesn’t necessarily result in a net improvement.

But their provocations do not require an armed response. Anybody who tells you differently might have an itchy trigger finger.

Worriedly, Joel

The Nothing We Learned from the Death of Philando Castille

Hi Joel,

Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of Philando Castille.

That’s 365 days that his fiancée and her young daughter, who watched him die after police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot him at point blank range, have had to live with this memory.

That’s a whole school year since the children he mentored at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School have had to show up to school, knowing that nothing will keep them safe.

A year later, we have heard only the same thing we white people should have known all along if we have been listening to African Americans, believing their stories, and studying history: because black bodies are themselves a threat to white supremacy, they are always in danger.

In the last year, nothing significant has changed in the culture of policing, which is simply a part of a larger, longer project of fear and control of black bodies. Some of us learned this history in school, others in our family histories, others from the news, others from our neighborhoods.

Left to right, Louima, Diallo, and Castille. 

(Who is the first point on your timeline of white police violence against black bodies? If you skip subway “vigilante” Bernie Goetz, mine was Abner Louima, who , then Amadou Diallo.)

The same forces that allowed Yanez to go free are the ones that allowed him to shoot anyway. If he were going to be found guilty, he wouldn’t have done it—not that fear of sentencing keeps officers from firing their guns but that our common (I say “our common” because everything about American culture works to train us all to see black men as violent.) investment in violence against African Americans both justifies and excuses violence. I was afraid, you understand. Yes, we understand what it means to be afraid of a black man. It means when you kill him, we will feel empathy, because we have been afraid too. And we will not punish you, because we, too, want to reserve the right to kill the black men we fear.

A year after Castille’s death, what do the jurors think about his killing? What do the two African Americans on the jury think? Are they thinking, as the juror in Audre Lorde’s “Power” was thinking:

“They convinced me” meaning
they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.

What did former officer Yanez learn? Does he continue to allow his fear to outweigh others’ lives?

What can white people learn? Nothing that we did not already know, because we are the ones who invented this system.

  • That black respectability is not protection from white fear.
  • That black compliance does not guarantee safety from white violence.
  • That the safety of black children is not a priority for white people.
  • That guns rights are white rights.
  • That conceal and carry does not keep black people safe.
  • That implicit bias continues to be the lethal—and excusable.


If you want to learn more about implicit bias and to test whether you (and especially you, dear white readers) have implicit racism, visit the Harvard’s Implicit Project.

There are many ways you can work for racial justice. One is by donating directly to Black Lives Matter, which works to combat police brutality against black people.



Love, gays, Mennonites, and me

Dear Rebecca:

You mention the Mennonite gathering at Orlando this week. As it happens, I was at the 2001 conference in Nashville that created the Mennonite Church USA. Tough to believe there’s a whole generation of high school students with no memories of “GCs” and “MCs.” We’ve been a united (ahem) church for a little while now.

The shirt from the 2001 Nashville conference.

That trip to Nashville affected me two ways:

•It made me love Mennonites more than ever.

•It helped drive me out of the church.

The reason for the first is simple: It’s difficult — for me, anyway — to spend days with Mennonites from across the country, much of that time spend in fellowship and worship and prayer with them, and not come away inspired by the breadth and sweep of the faith. Simply: I met a lot of good people at Nashville — including a few with whom I was in disagreement.

But yes: It helped drive me out, too. Why?

That year, the organization of gay and lesbian Mennonites were not allowed to have a display or official presence in the conference’s main hall. So they set up shop in hotel across the street, instead. I went over, to listen and to talk, and ultimately to worship with those folks.

I met a middle-aged Mennonite couple. I don’t remember their names at this point. But one of the men had had a heart attack a few years before. The other had nursed him back to health. And it was inhering their story that any ambivalence that remained in my heart was washed away: This was love. It was a good thing. And I decided in that moment the onus was not on them to prove they belonged in a faith community, but on a faith community that could look at that love and call it evil.

My faith was tenuous anyway, admittedly. But between that and other events, I decided a couple of things:

•I didn’t believe that God wanted me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community.

•If God DID want me to turn my back on my gay friends when I entered the faith community, that was not a god worthy of my worship.

•In any case, I wasn’t going to participate in a faith community where I had to argue for the simple, lovely humanity of people who loved each other.

I’ve been slowly stepping back into the church of late. It helps that I have a congregation here in Lawrence where I don’t have to have these arguments. (Though the congregation’s history is imperfect on such matters.) But I confess to not being sure how to address the arguments that remain in the broader Mennonite Church. I know that my friends who love each other also love God and I’m pretty sure God loves them too. I don’t know what else to say about it.

Respectfully, Joel