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The Compassion of the Christ

Look a little closer at the “Jesus didn’t turn people away” ad and you see the central religious conflict of our time: literal versus metaphorical understanding.
 
 
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The smallest of the mainline churches, the United Church of Christ braids several Protestant denominations, each with a long history of fighting for other people's rights. UCC forebears were the first mainliners to take a stand against slavery; first to ordain an African American pastor (1875); first to ordain a woman (1853). In 1959, after a station in Jackson, Miss., refused to cover the civil rights movement, UCC members won a federal court ruling that the airwaves are public property. In 1972, the UCC became the first Christian church to ordain an openly gay man.

Christians do not always have to agree to live together in communion, says the UCC, known for its gentle ecumenical partnerships with churches of all kinds.

But last winter, after spending two years listening to unchurched Americans, the UCC came up with an ad campaign. One after another, people had described how they felt rejected or alienated at Christian churches – some for reasons as simple as lack of a wheelchair ramp; others because of who they were, who they loved, how they lived, or what opinions they voiced. The UCC wanted to capture that feeling of rejection – and contradict it. So one of the 30-second ads, dubbed Night Club, showed two young men in crewcuts, their black T-shirts pulled tight by bulging muscles, standing outside a church. "No. Step aside please. No way. Not you. I don't think so." Two of the people they brushed aside could easily be assumed a gay couple.

"Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we," appeared next on the screen, as a narrator emphasized the UCC's commitment to Jesus's "extravagant," unconditional welcome.

NBC and CBS rejected the ad as "too controversial," and even after 11 affiliate stations aired it with no complaints, refused to change their minds.

Now the UCC is fighting for its own rights.

And with every pebble slung, this small church is raising huge issues of language, power, faith, money and fear.

"A Watered Down Piety"

At the surface, the UCC ad controversy looks like it's about a couple of broadcasting corporations holding up fat trembling fingers to see which way the political winds blow. But dig a little deeper, and you strike the gnarled roots of the Tree of Knowledge itself. This is the central religious conflict of our time: literal versus metaphorical understanding.

The religious denominations most outraged by the Night Club ad are those that believe religious teachings must be taken literally and remain unchanged through history. They see it as sinful, arrogant and self-indulgent to loosen our grip on our various sacred texts, placing them in cultural context and allowing our interpretations to evolve. And they're applying their method of Biblical understanding to another denomination's commercial.

The networks are taking the commercial literally too, by categorizing it as advocacy of a public-policy issue and insisting that it implies criticism of other churches. No other denomination is named; gay marriage is never mentioned. The real question the ad raises is not one of public policy, but of "welcome." That's a religious question, and again, its answer hinges on how literally one defines the word. Should people feel welcomed because they have the ability to walk through a church doorway and not be turned away? Or does welcome require unconditional acceptance?

I close my eyes and see images: Mary and Joseph, turned away from an inn and welcomed at a stable. Jesus making wine from water to keep a wedding party lively; multiplying bread and fish to feed a crowd; hugging lepers and bringing prostitutes home for dinner. Christlike individuals tending strangers' wounds and inviting them inside for a meal, entertaining angels unawares.

"In our culture the concept of hospitality has lost much of its power and is often used in circles where we are more prone to expect a watered down piety than a serious search for an authentic Christian spirituality," wrote Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. And that's what worries David Greenhaw, a UCC minister who is president of Eden Theological Seminary. "Throughout its history, the church has had hospitality at its core," says Greenhaw. "And throughout its history, the church has repeatedly failed to live up to that." Churches should be called to accountability, he adds, when they fail to welcome anyone. "That this could in any way be controversial is just absurd."

It's absurd, if you don't see homosexuality as a sin. People who are gay say they've been told, after coming out at church, that they were "just as bad as a murderer." That's one of many reports on a blog the UCC set up to hear people's stories. "Parents wouldn't let their kids hang out with me," a lesbian writes. "One Easter, our preacher talked about keeping homosexuals from coming to church. On Easter!" writes a woman who "kept hearing such hostile things from the pulpit that I stopped believing altogether." A former Catholic says he "wasn't so much turned away as frozen out." "John" writes, "When the leader of your faith announces that by being gay you are a deviant and defective individual... it's kinda hard to sit there among these 'Christians' and feel part of the community."

Conservative churches insist that they welcome everyone to join them, condemning only homosexual behavior. Many cite the well-exercised distinction between sinners and their sins. Even a murderer can enter a church and beg forgiveness. But if he does not repent, and instead stretched out a bloodstained hand for Communion, he will be denied.

So what we have is a kind of rival-school chant across the gymnasium floor: "We've got welcome, how about YOU?" And no one wants to be seen as unwelcoming at the church door. At the communion rail or pulpit, perhaps. But not at the door.

UCC spokesperson Barb Powell, exhausted after weeks of insisting on statements she thought were obvious, says with deliberate patience that the opening of the ad was not meant literally. "We know churches don't have bouncers at the door! We assume that all churches welcome everyone. The beginning of the ad represents what we heard, over and over, when we talked to folks who had no church home. In no way does it say the UCC is better than any other denomination. That simply isn't true, and we don't believe that either. To us, the ad is clearly allegorical."

"Allegory," in the Oxford English Dictionary: "A figurative sentence, discourse, or narrative, in which properties and circumstances attributed to the apparent subject really refer to the subject they are meant to suggest; an extended or continued metaphor." Medieval morality plays are allegories. So are Jesus's parables. So are sexy blondes in car ads. But metaphorical understandings are inimical to fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture. And to those who believe there is only one unchanging truth, identifying with another position, even implicitly, is a slap in the face.

Alas for the UCC, the very name of their campaign is "Still Speaking," and the signature quote comes from that great theological source, Gracie Allen: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma" – a deliberate lack of punctuation that's driving the UCC's critics crazy. They use it as fodder for their blogs, pointing out that their propositions about human sinfulness end in a period. God has spoken already, and we need only to inscribe those words in our hearts.

I test the reaction of a conservative Christian coworker, and, sure enough, he tells me he was insulted by the ad because his church welcomes everyone. "Some welcome," I drawl, "if a gay couple can't even take Communion with you because they're bound for hell." We argue to our usual stalemate: I refuse to see conditional acceptance as welcome; he cannot imagine a valid Christian viewpoint in which homosexuality is not a sin. Finally, it dawns on me: He sees nothing harsh about branding homosexuals as sinners, because in his theology, everyone is a sinner. His own sins weigh just as heavily. And repenting them, according to fixed law, is the only way to pass God's test.

"A Warm Message of Welcome"

When news of the UCC ad's rejection broke, I asked random acquaintances how they had interpreted the sound bites. Most had automatically assumed that the cause of controversy was the ad's depiction of "gay couples." Outraged, they rattled off apparent contradictions, from Will & Grace to Darwinian reality shows and bared-claw political ads. What they failed to realize was that these networks had drawn lines between political ads, commercial ads, news and entertainment – between persuasion and advocacy, between shock value and real controversy – with different standards and protocol for each.

I squinted to see those lines, but every time I thought I had one in focus, it wiggled and blurred.

NBC's answer sounded so simple: they avoid controversy. But isn't the war in Iraq controversial? What, then, of military ads? There's bitter controversy over global warming, what about those SUV ads? Would a network reject scenic footage of the pristine Arctic wilderness in Alaska because it implied resistance to the president's plans to drill for oil there? Few ideas are more central to the original Christian message than the dignity of the poor and the dangers of wealth and greed, and most Christians at least mumble objections to consumerism – but avoiding that controversy would wipe out TV altogether.

Neither station wanted to discuss its position with reporters or elaborate it for the public. But last year, in a flap over Superbowl advertising, CBS went into detail about its policy: "Advertisers shall be afforded maximum latitude to touch on matters of public concern, either in institutional advertising or in promoting their goods and services, so long as messages do not rise to the level of explicit or implicit advocacy."

In the broadest sense, all advertising is advocacy. But CBS isn't about to draw that line. So we're left with the narrower sense of advocacy: that it pushes a particular viewpoint on a public issue. "If we had said we support gay marriage and disagree with the president's message, sure," says UCC seminarian Chuck Currie. "But this was a theological message."

That, too, is dangerous ground: The CBS memo said proselytizing was unacceptable, adding, "This commercial does proselytize."

Nothing could have offended the UCC more.

"'Proselytize' means basically sheep stealing – trying to steal members from other churches – and that's not what we're trying to do at all," exclaims UCC spokesperson Powell. "This is a warm message of welcome geared specifically toward people who have no church affiliation whatsoever."

CBS also emphasized its longstanding policy against "advocacy" ads, which they define as "a controversial issue of public importance." They have proudly refused ads for gun control and ads from the NRA; ads that are pro-life and ads that are pro-choice. But what public issue is at stake in the Night Club ad? There is no reference, not even the most delicately nuanced hint, about gay marriage, gay rights or gay legislation. If the ad raises any issue at all, it is whether gay relationships are sinful. And that's a church question.

The UCC ordains gay and lesbian ministers and withholds Communion — that new political bargaining tool — from no one. Bible-thumping fundamentalists, drag queens and dogmatic Catholic bishops can all gather round a UCC Eucharistic table, cozy close.

This is a position they are all well advised to know ahead of time.

”The Bean Counters Won”

The network that sailed away from this issue scot-free is ABC, because it has a flat policy against all religious ads. This troubles me too, so I call an old friend, John Krull, who went from writing editorials for a daily newspaper to running Indiana's Civil Liberties Union and is now director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College.

"That's an odd line to be drawn," he says of ABC's policy, "given that at least in theory, any journalistic enterprise pays at the bare minimum some lip service to the notion that it's a marketplace of ideas. Religion is a profoundly important question for most Americans. A higher proportion of U.S. citizens attend religious services than any other industrial nation." He sighs. "The market pressures are so great on just about any media entity right now...."

So they're turning away ads? "Yeah. Which is bothersome," he concedes. "You have to play gatekeeper to some extent. But if I were going to turn away commercials, I don't think I would be turning away the ones that attempt to address serious questions in a thoughtful manner."

What about the other networks' response? "I'm not sure why proselytizing is a bad thing, as long as it's not done at gunpoint. That argument seems to be made out of whole cloth. And I don't see how this ad is advocacy." What about the controversy over whether homosexuality is sinful? "There is a general consensus that murder is sinful," he says dryly, "but that doesn't stop them from building TV dramas around murders and selling ads around that."

What about the CBS statement that, because of "the fact that the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast"? Conspiracy between big networks and the Bush regime? Cowardice in the face of political oppression?

The root motive's probably closer to greed than cowardice, says Krull. "These are incredibly partisan times, and the days when journalism was a calling, using ad revenue to support that calling, are gone. The bean counters won a long time ago. I suspect the thinking is that, if we broadcast anything like this with any sort of political tint, we are going to lose half our audience, half our market, let's stay away from it."

What about the networks' argument that they can better cover these issues in their news programming? "You also have to allow any group the opportunity to communicate their message direct and unfiltered," he retorts. "In a news program, you are filtering and editing and refining, that's part of your job. There has to be a place where people can communicate their message directly."

If, that is, you intend to have a democracy.

In a "moot" postscript, the CBS memo noted that the network does accept "advertising from churches and religious organizations which deliver secular messages that are beneficial to society in general." Why a church buying its own air time should have to deliver a secular message is not explained. But now we're back to theological interpretation: What is secular and what is sacred?

Politics OK, Religion Not

The UCC didn't want to limit itself to cable; as a matter of justice, they wanted their ads to reach people who couldn't afford cable bills and Internet connections. But they were keenly aware that, as Currie (of the UCC) put it, "The churches that are going to survive in this era are going to need to be on TV."

This in itself is ironic: countercultural institutions needing mainstream exposure to continue their countercultural critique. If they have one. Meanwhile, the consensus is that political debate requires commercial advertising, but religious differences of opinion must be silenced. And the gap between our entertainment and our public-policy rhetoric fast approaches 1930s Berlin.

When progressives talk to me about the UCC ad, they say reluctantly that it's not a First Amendment issue — the First Amendment cuts both ways, giving networks the right to refuse speech. Yet their conversation returns again and again to fears for the First Amendment, as if there's a tacit connection they can't shake loose. They also slip from talk about ads into talk about a station's obligation to "cover" all points of view— as though they have unconsciously decided that advertising, these days, is a more important public forum than network news.

Republicans seem to agree. This year they rolled out a new campaign strategy, buying massive amounts of ad time on cable stations. Will Feltus, an executive with Bush's media buyers, National Media Inc., told The New York Times (Dec. 6), "Politics is a mass product: 50 percent of American adults 'consume' the election."

The Times article went on to note that "one of the shows most popular with Republicans, especially Republican women ages 18 to 34, turned out to be Will & Grace , the sitcom about gay life in New York. As a result, while Mr. Bush was shoring up his conservative credentials by supporting a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, his advertising team was buying time on a program that celebrates gay culture." They ran their spots on Will & Grace — an NBC hit — 473 times in markets across the country.

And on the day that the UCC released news of their ad's rejection, because doubting a Christian church's welcome was too controversial, Rev. Irene Elizabeth Stroud was put on trial by the United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania for living in a lesbian relationship.

Running From Controversy

In the Dec. 12 New York Times, Frank Rich reported the rejection of a commercial for the film Kinsey by WNET, a public broadcasting station in New York. Kinsey's distributor, Fox Searchlight, let the press see an e-mail from a National Public Broadcasting media manager that warned of "controversial press re: groups speaking out against the movie/subject matter." When this memo unleashed its own controversial press, WNET backed off, calling the e-mail an "unfortunate" miscommunication.

Meanwhile, Rich continued, "a public radio station in North Carolina, WUNC-FM, told an international women's rights organization based in Chapel Hill that it could not use the phrase 'reproductive rights' in an on-air announcement." And five commercial TV channels rejected a public service spot created by the Los Angeles County public health agency to counteract a rising tide of syphilis.

"The consolidation of TV network ownership into the hands of a few executives today puts freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression in jeopardy," said Gloria Tristani, managing director of the UCC's Office of Communication, when the Night Club ad controversy broke. A former FCC commissioner, she let her words hung in midair, waiting for a remedy.

Is there one?

If the ban against the UCC ad had been imposed by state government, it could be challenged. In recent years, the Supreme Court extended limited First Amendment protection to the information expressed in "commercial speech," saying that as long as it's accurate and lawful, no government body should be able to restrict it.

But CBS, owned by Viacom, and NBC, owned by General Electric, have a wider reach than any individual state regulation, and they make their own calls. Fifteen years ago, they could have cited the Fairness Doctrine, which obliged broadcasters to present controversial issues of public policy as fairly as possible. Broadcasters complained that this chilled free speech: They were afraid to cover anything controversial because they would then have to give representative time to every other viewpoint. Exceptions were created for news programming. Then a 1987 Supreme Court decision left it to the FCC's discretion whether they wanted to enforce the Fairness Doctrine at all.

And it hasn't been enforced since.

Today, TV stations are simply forbidden to advertise cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco; promote lotteries (with some exceptions); perpetuate fraud; or violate guidelines for obscenity, indecency and profanity.

The UCC ad does none of that. But it's controversial. And without an enforced Fairness Doctrine, the networks can run away from any controversy they choose.

"They are trying to avoid a deluge of calls from people complaining about the ad because of unintended negative implications," says Stephen Strauss, an attorney with the law firm of Bryan Cave who worked for a decade as a broadcast journalist, managed news operations for an NBC affiliate and taught TV news reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. "Every time we hear news stories about controversy, they're stated in terms of the number of calls the FCC received,” Strauss says. “The networks are taking on a gatekeeping role; they are trying to self-monitor in ways I think are dangerous to free speech."

On Dec. 9, the UCC filed petitions asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deny the licenses of two Miami-area TV stations, one owned and operated by CBS, the other by NBC, because they "represent and reflect the ad policies implemented by their respective networks." Why those particular stations? Their licenses happened to be up for FCC renewal — and these days, the best recourse FCC guidelines is a local license challenge.

The attorneys who filed the UCC petitions are Angela Campbell, director of Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation, and Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project in Washington, D.C. They claim that the UCC campaign is especially important because "programming reflecting the full range of religious, moral and ethical expression in this country is not generally available on over the air television."

The networks no longer have any obligation to allow ads that will express that diversity, adds Campbell, "and that's our point. Right now there is no remedy. If a station refuses to present an issue, there is nothing anyone can do. It is time for the FCC to re-examine whether some sort of public right of access is required under the Communications Act and the First Amendment."

Or, the networks could change their minds and run the ad. Or, the FCC could hold a hearing and deny the Miami stations' licenses.

And cows could jump over the moon. Which is allegory, because cows don't jump over the moon — not even gay cows who have just found a place to worship. And in this climate, any legal remedy is just as wildly improbable.

Truth in Advertising

Network executives were quick to hint that the UCC staged all this for publicity — but it was the networks that rejected the ad, causing far more controversy than the ad alone could ever have provoked. Members of the National Council of Churches, from Roman Catholic to Protestant to Greek Orthodox, signed a statement challenging the networks' standards as arbitrary. Mission Broadcasting offered the UCC free air time on its 14 stations. On ABC's Good Morning America on Dec. 2, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the ad "a diabolical misrepresentation of Christianity.... Jesus did not invite persons to stay in sinful lifestyles." On the Dec. 2 Christianity Today Weblog, a wrapup noted that "the UCC may not be turning people away, but its members are fleeing in droves.... This is not a denomination that needs crowd control."

Not yet. But since the commercial hit the Internet, more than 70,000 visitors have searched UCC websites for a church in their zip code. On Dec. 10, the UCC website about the filing, reported more than 2,600 messages of support sent to the FCC and more than $9,000 in donations to the cause.

So was there perhaps a bit of truth in the advertising?

I close my eyes and try to imagine a commercial in which Disney greeters turn visitors away from the gates of the Magic Kingdom. We might snicker at a scene so opposite the reality. But I doubt anyone would call it "edgy" and fight to keep it off the air.

Still, I find it oddly reassuring that the Night Club commercial has more power to shock us — into either agreement or rage — than the most erotic sucking of food or miming of the sexual act; the grossest feat of survival; the most lurid tale of incest on The Jerry Springer Show . We're as shallow as we can get, as a society, yet we're still capable of being engaged by the deepest questions of community, sacredness, and ethics.

We just can't agree on how to interpret the answers.

Jeannette Batz Cooperman writes regularly on religious and spiritual issues for the National Catholic Reporter.