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I grew up hearing a lot about “tough love.” This was basically supposed to mean that if you love someone, you are willing to speak difficult truths to them; you’re willing to hold them accountable.
In practice, I’m not sure I saw a lot of that. What I feel like I saw a lot of, and what I often have the impulse to do, is to use the idea of tough love to justify pushing somebody else to behave in a way that I find appropriate.
Instead of tough love, I want fierce love. I want curious love. I want love that won’t look away.
I’ve received a lot of great comments on this blog. I’ve also had some amazing in-person conversations. Many folks have been supportive, grateful, challenged, and have graciously offered back their own challenges to what I say. That feels like loving community.
I’ve also received a few comments that I haven’t approved for posting. It’s not that I don’t want conversation with people who disagree with me, but I’m choosing to hold open a space for myself and others to speak to the experience of being an LGBTIQ person who is a Christian. We can walk into a church anywhere in USAmerica and hear people who will tell us we are wrong. I don’t need to personally provide a forum for that opinion in my own little corner of the interwebs.
There are some folks who feel compelled by their Christian convictions to “speak the truth in love”—to offer tough love back to me and other LGBTIQ folks. I appreciate the willingness to follow through on what feels like an ethical obligation of their particular belief system. However, I happen to think it’s built on a faulty ethic (more on that later).
That said, I don’t really need someone to tell me what a conservative Christian evangelical reading of the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I’ve read and heard that in about a bajillion places (and at some point in my life, I’ve probably personally said most of the things that you would say on that front).
If you would like to pray for me, I’d be deeply grateful for your prayers, particularly, I hope you would pray the Lord’s prayer with me.
More than tough love, I’d like to see some fierce love.
This is my own understanding of fierce love:
Fierce love is not a tool that is used relationally, instead it is a relational category that extends out of the lover. When I talk about fierce love, I’m talking about the trajectory of the lover being “for” another person. So I’ll use the term “fierce love” to mean “the person who is loving fiercely.”
Fierce love persists. It does not give up wanting goodness for the beloved. It does not assume that it knows best, but seeks to listen, to pay attention to where life is happening, and to invest in seeing the person who is loved flourish.
In order to do this, fierce love is always open to wonder, always curious, always pushing the beloved to grow and celebrating the places of growth that emerge within the life of the beloved.
Fierce love pushes itself to be an appreciator of the particularity and nuance of the person that it loves. Instead of seeking to see the beloved become some ideal form, fierce love surrenders to the unfolding complexity of who the beloved is and will continue to become.
Fierce love fights for the caterpillar to have space to pupate—fights to adjust their own parameters of reality to appreciate the ability of the same beloved, fuzzy worm of an insect to become an iridescent, winged, master of the wind.
To some, this may seem like I am arguing for love without morality. On some front this is true.
Morality offers some measure of safety and predictability to relationships in the world. And fierce love is certainly disruptive of safety and predictability.
On another front, I would push back and say that love is itself the key to a functional morality—but it must be fierce love—love based on awe, wonder, vulnerable curiosity, and appreciation of the differences of others.
As a Christian, my understanding of morality is shaped by my understanding of holiness, which is to say, my understanding of flourishing human life that honors all creation by always growing more in capacity to love God and love neighbor. Moreover, I believe holiness/flourishing mean that we grow to understand every last enemy is really a neighbor that we simply haven’t had the curiosity to ask their name, and bear wit(h)ness to their life.
This kind of love is dangerously costly. It will leave us all gasping for breath. It also helps to lift the crushing weight on our chests that keeps us all from really breathing.
It is the kind of love that says let a field grow to ripen with both wheat and weeds (and perhaps the secret is that the weeds have their own usefulness too—that when the climate changes, they’ll be what survives and become the crop we start growing on purpose to fill our dinner plates).
In the end, the story of how I have experienced tough love at work is this: If I see you doing something I think is harmful and I don’t follow through on my convictions and try to help you see the light, then I’m responsible if something bad happens (in the conservative Christian world this means I’m responsible for you going to hell).
That’s a terrible burden to bear. Terrible enough that it could make me treat you pretty horribly in effort to assuage my conscience.
The story of fierce love is also a pretty incredible thing to bear, but I think that it may be less of a burden, and more of a cost—it’s the persistence of staying present, even if I disagree with you. Challenging you, sure, but more, asking you why you are doing what you are doing; bearing wit(h)ness to your process, and fighting with (on behalf of) you to see you flourish in a way that is authentic and honoring of who you are (especially where you are different from me).
That’s not an easy thing to do. It demands imagination, and hope in the face of despair, and being able to remain present in the middle of other peoples’ pain and suffering. It means me saying “I’m sorry” a lot as I miss you at different points along the way and overstep my bounds.
It means getting angry when you can’t be angry for yourself, and hoping when you can’t hope for yourself. It means listening louder than I speak.
This is what I am striving to do with my life. That I don’t always do it well doesn’t mean it’s not worth attempting.
And what’s so queer about fierce love? Why do I find it important to a conversation about Christianity and sexual orientation?
I believe that the intent of tough love from many socially conservative Christians toward LGBTIQ people has been to see holiness worked out in our lives. However, I believe that those who have offered this tough love have not stopped to thoroughly, prayerfully, theologically, or biblically consider how they define holiness.
Without first asking what the purpose of holiness is, any attempts at a holiness based morality will fail to bring about holiness, because it will not be dynamic or responsive to the reality of particular human lives.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment of the law of Moses, he said that it was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. He quickly added that the second greatest commandment was like the first one: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
If all of the law and prophets are completed in these two commands, as Jesus suggests, then the definition and purpose of holiness seem clear—to increase our love of God and neighbor so that it is holistic and so that we value others equally. These commandments demand that we take seriously our bodies, our entire human lives. Not only our own, but those of other people who are different from us.
If tough love from conservative Christians is meant to aid LGBTIQ persons in growing in love of God and neighbors, then let’s evaluate it by its fruit. It instructs us to believe that the particular ways that we experience love and desire is distorted and wrong (namely because it is not directed at people of the opposite gender which is how straight people experience their own sexuality). It then tells us that to honor God, we must avoid intimate relationships with the very people who are most able to allow us to enter the complex vulnerability that will open us up to grow a deeper capacity for love.
So, if the message of tough love, that God doesn’t approve of same sex intimate love, is supposed to engender a greater capacity for love of God and neighbor in LGBTIQ people, well folks, it’s not working. The intent might be great, but the actual impact doesn’t correspond to the intent, because the whole project fails to take seriously the reality that LGBTIQ people are in fact different (this is why acceptance has nothing to do with “seeing everyone as the same” but actually requires seeing and respecting our differences).
If we are to follow the commandments that Jesus offers as the whole point of holiness, then we must love in a way that takes seriously our own lives and bodies and the lives and bodies of other people who are different from us.
And it seems simple to say this, but it apparently needs to be said: other people know their own lives and bodies better than we do.
In contrast to tough love, I believe that fierce love demands far more of the lover than the beloved. It is shaped on the love of a God who interrupts the cycle of human violence and demand for sacrifices and over-accepts our violence to the point of letting us kill God, in order to show that this God is a parent who can accept our wildest sinful rage—the ultimate failure of love, to take a life; that God can absorb our relational failure to love and somehow still remain and draw us up into life and relationship without the need for self-protection that would mean cutting us off.
The scandal of the gospel is that God forgives our sin in the moment while we are doing it, not after we repent of it.
God’s love is so much better than ours that it scares us shitless and we’d rather make God small and petty and demanding (more like us) so that we can think of ourselves as playing on God’s team when we are being small and petty and demanding.
And God forgives this too. God becomes small with us. God sits in our petty, demanding, and even hateful places, and loves us. Because God knows that we can’t give love if we don’t know what it feels like to receive love.
And this can be frustrating to see God loving other people who, in their smallness are inflicting harm on us. But it’s important to remember that God is on everyone’s side. God wants us all to grow in our love for each other, so God gifts us with grace and invites us to love others that we don’t believe deserve the credit of love.
God is steadfast, offering loving kindness when we don’t believe we deserve it and eventually (sometimes over a lifetime and perhaps, for some, only in eternity) we are able to receive being loved, internalize this love, and offer it in kind to others.
I believe that this kind of love—love that is curious, that seeks to know and be with the beloved, to offer love in order to build capacity for love is the kind of love that conservative Christians could be offering LGBTIQ people—but it can only happen when they have grown to accept the degree to which they are loved. Moreover, as a gay Christian man, this is the kind of love I hope to offer the conservative Christian community—especially when I experience them as handing me an unexamined morality that does not offer me life or love.
It is my hope to follow Jesus in remaining present, persisting, forgiving even when others do not ask for forgiveness, and practicing my own love of God and neighbor so that they may experience what fierce love feels like, so that they too may be overcome with grace and grow in their capacity for love.
What’s probably most scandalous to these folks is that much of my capacity to accept the love of God comes when I accept the love of my community, believe that I am beloved, and open myself up to the kind of intimate love that leads me into vulnerability and openness—which for me is love with someone of the same gender.
That gay love might actually be God’s way of building my capacity to love in the world is a beautiful, complex, queer part of the gospel playing out in my life. I can only testify to what I have seen and heard.
I am not really saying anything new. I’m basically rehashing an ancient poem about love:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but
do not have love, I
am a noisy gong or
a clanging cymbal. And
if I have prophetic powers, and
understand all mysteries and
all knowledge, and
if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but
do not have love,
I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions, and
if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
Love is patient;
love is kind; love is not
arrogant or rude. It
does not insist on its own way; it
is not irritable or resentful; it
does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but
rejoices in the truth.
all things, believes
all things, hopes
all things, endures
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies,
they will come to an end; as for tongues,
they will cease; as for knowledge,
it will come to an end.
only in part, and
only in part;
when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I
spoke like a child, I
thought like a child, I
reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I
put an end to childish ways.
we see in a mirror, dimly,
we will see face to face.
I know only in part;
I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known. And now
faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
the greatest of these is love.
*Note: Given the title of this post, I want to state again how I am using the word “Queer.” In some uses (like the end of the title of this post, I’m using the term Queer in place of LGBTIQ, as I think it’s a more inclusive single word than “gay” to refer to a range of people with very different experiences. I also use “Queer” as a verb (like in the first word of the title of this series), meaning to show a broader spectrum of perspectives on something, namely to open up space for a multiplicity of particular perspectives, particularly highlighting the experiences of those who are marginalized around sexual orientation. Neither of these uses are intended to co-opt the word Queer by those who identify themselves as queer or gender queer. If my use of this term seems problematic, I’d love to hear about it, as my own use of the term has shifted with time and I use the word queer for myself, along with gay, while also identifying as a cis-gendered male.