This post is a part of the series “Queering the Christian Table” you can start reading here.
For me, the biggest surprise of 2013 has been this blog.
When I started it up a year ago, I did it as a way to force myself to write on a regular basis, and I structured it is such a way that I thought would keep me from getting bored—by rotating topics thematically throughout the month.
It was a good plan.
My whole life I have made great plans. Seldom have any of them ever taken me to the places I expected. Often I have been more disappointed and delighted than I could ever have predicted. Just so, last March, when I began to put words to the idea of more room at the Christian table, I didn’t realize quite what was beginning.
I wrote that first post as a way of beginning to lay claim to the idea that I am already sitting at God’s table. The Christian idea of a God who gathers us at a table by the invitation of Jesus is alarmingly good. Despite all the vast harm and evil carried out in the name of God by the Christian church, there’s the undermining presence of this human person—Jesus—who dares to share precious food with people whose very lives fall entirely outside the dominant cultural paradigms of acceptability.
Typing out that first post, I was trembling my way towards a declaration that we are all humans sitting at this table. What is clearer to me now than it was then, is that it is not my task to make room for myself or anyone at the table.
Mine is simply the job of stating the obvious: we are already here. We have already been welcomed to the table.
My work in writing this series of posts has been to reiterate the welcome to those of you who have come out—to me, to your families, to your churches, to your friends. Because we all need to hear it time and time again, I will keep on saying, “you are welcome at God’s table.” And my other task, one filled with irony, humor, heartache, and compassion, is to say to some others at the table, “Hello! We’re sitting right here! Would you please pass the potatoes already?!?”
In the past nine months, I have fretted in the light of my computer screen—typing, deleting, re-typing, saving and discarding drafts, and finally clicking “publish” time and time again. I did it for me and I did it for you. There were many times when I felt incredibly brave and also incredibly timid. And there were times when I didn’t know if what I was writing was helping anything or if it was too obvious to warrant being said. Nevertheless, I have written words that I have felt were needed.
Because I still need to be reminded that the welcome of God’s kin-dom is not limited by the smallness of our imagination, I will keep on writing.
Because of encounters with and emails from you that have reminded me that not everyone is a part of a community where they feel both safe and essential to God’s family, I will continue saying what seems simplistic and obvious.
Because of conversations with people who were courageous enough to ask me to coffee or lunch to talk about how to better engage this conversation in their churches and communities, I will stay in the conversation rather than insulating myself in the safety of communities where I am assured of my safety and belonging.
To be sure, there are times when I feel like I am poking a bear.
I hesitate to write or speak too provocatively, because it is easier when people like what I write, feel slightly challenged but not too uncomfortable, and click “subscribe” rather than writing me off for good.
And at the end of the day, like everyone, I want to be liked.
And it is all too easy to avoid saying the straightforwardly honest and difficult things when we think we will receive some kind of approval for our nicety. But the truth is, that kind of acceptance is lonely and void. It’s the acceptance of the closet—not the acceptance of God’s table.
See, God’s table is predicated on God liking us already.
I don’t need to butch it up to come to God’s table. In fact, there’s nothing I can or cannot do to come to God’s table, because God’s table has come to me. This is the point of the incarnation and, thank God, the point of this whole Advent/Christmas season—that God becomes vulnerable and human to come to be with us in our vulnerable humanity.
This is the core distinctive of the Christian faith—that we do not ascend or transcend. Instead, God is delighted with us and descends to live with us and bless us. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus who freely shares meals with every kind of person.
In contrast to life in the closet, where acceptance is based on suppressing my difference in order to make others comfortable, life at the table is enriched by all the particularities of my humanity that I bring and offer in community.
Quite honestly, this is a hard pill to swallow. When my facebook page explodes because large numbers of USAmerican Christians are making a martyr out of one reality tv star’s racist and homophobic remarks, I want to crawl under my covers and hide.
I want consequences for Phil Robertson’s bad behavior. I want consequences for Christianity’s bad behavior. Yet I am welcomed to the table by the same Jesus who opens his table to such hooligans.
And much to the chagrin of the Phil Robertsons of the world, Jesus welcomes this hooligan, too.
Each week I participate in a liturgy where I recite ancient words of the Christian faith. I make the sign of the cross on my body, even though I hate so much of what that sign has been used for.
Both the creed and the sign of the cross were taught to me in a Pentecostal Bible college, by an old, white man who graciously attempted to teach me Greek for 5 semesters. He also taught history of the church and, in order to pass that class, required me to memorize and recite the creed—a collection of ancient words which includes the affirmation:
“We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism.”
These words are not a claim that we are the only ones at this table—instead, they are a reminder that we are not the only ones. Instead, we are a small gathering of something much bigger, and more expansive. Those of us who gather together in our particular churches with those we can stand to be around are not the only ones that God is gracious enough to love.
Instead, we confess each week that we are not alone at the table, but that God offers kindness to us and to those we despise. For me, the sign of the cross that we make across our bodies is a sign that we accept that our tendency is to do violence to others and that we will not be governed by the urge to return violence for violence. Instead, we scoot to the side and make more room at the table, acknowledging that violence most often emerges out of a fear that there is not enough to go around.
But ultimately, we sit at a table that is God’s and not our own. And God’s table is already as queer as the entire world. The Christian monotheistic claim of one God who loves the entire world is offensive. And, mostly, it is offensive to us. It is offensive because our capacity for love is so small.
My response to Phil Robertson and others in the Christian church who can’t believe that Jesus would make room for me, a gay man, at his table, is to say:
“There is room here for you as well.”
Because, ultimately, I am convinced that my urge to dissociate myself from the Phil Robertsons and the Mark Driscolls of the world is, on some level, connected to my urge to dissociate myself from the parts of me that I think are not acceptable. It is easier to try to call them to account for cruel words and bad behavior than to face the parts of me that are selfish and scared and unkind.
Now, I think there is a difference between what I don’t like about them and what they don’t like about me. While I have a bit of trouble articulating this distinction, I think I can most adequately talk about it in terms of feelings of shame and feelings of being ashamed.
When I do something harmful to others—when I lash out, say something unkind, or (whether out of ignorance or malice) take part in someone else’s oppression (see racism, subsidizing slavery with my shopping, etc.), there is a natural consequence that occurs when I am called out on this behavior—I blush. I feel guilty. I wish I had known and done better.
Feeling ashamed, I want to hide my face.
On a good day I may apologize and try to make amends with those I have harmed. On a bad day, I may make excuses and non-apologies. I attempt to save-face. This is the feeling of being ashamed—I messed up, I feel stupid/guilty/defensive/humiliated, and I know that I have to either make amends or justify my behavior.
Feeling shame is a different thing altogether than feeling ashamed.
Shame is when you are given the message that you are wrong. Shame is not about your actions, it is the internalization of a message of harm that says your humanity—your very personhood is flawed/unacceptable/bad. Shame happens through acute traumas like rape and verbal/physical/emotional abuse. It also comes from the violence of systemic oppression by means of stereotypes/silencing/discrediting/limiting access.
Shame is when someone else wants to hide my face.
Feeling ashamed is what you feel when you have done wrong to others and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.
Feeling shame is what you feel when wrong has been done to you and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.
Feeling ashamed is an important social emotion that is connected to empathy. It is rooted in our ability to understand our impact on others and then learn to treat them in the way that we would like to be treated. Feeling shame is toxic. It’s what happens when people reject their own feelings of being ashamed and project them on someone with less social privilege. Shame is the second-hand smoke of someone else’s bad habit of exhaling their feelings of being ashamed instead of learning to stop doing the harm that created the smoke in the first place.
When someone feels ashamed and then repents, the feeling of being ashamed is transformed into reconciliation. When someone feels ashamed and then rejects that feeling and pushes it off onto the person they have already harmed, that feeling turns into shame. It is then the difficult work of the person who has already been harmed to do something with that shame.
Shame is a powerful feeling that, being rooted in the feeling of being ashamed, feels bad. The problem is that shame is the feeling of being ashamed that has been wrapped up and handed to the wrong person. For the recipient of this dirty package, the feeling of shame follows the event of having been harmed by someone else.
So, the person who feels shame feels it while they are trying to make sense of having been harmed. So, often those who are harmed internalize the message of shame and believe the lie that they deserve to have been harmed because they are somehow inherently bad or wrong.
In the conversation about LGBTIQ folks in the Christian church, my hunch is that there are multiple layers of this ashamed/shame game that are going on.
And as a Christian gay man, it may surprise you that I bring up the opening of the New Testament book of Romans at this point in the discussion. However, I think we read far too little of Paul’s letter when we have this conversation.
In describing the weighty judgment of God on those who try to limit access to God’s grace, Paul asks, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Indeed, the offering of welcome at God’s table is an invitation to those who feel shame and to those who feel ashamed. God’s judgement for both parties is the surprise that they are both welcome at God’s table.
And so, I can only conclude that my role, as I sort out both feelings within myself, is to receive the loving kindness of God and trust that it will lead me to offer loving kindness to others. Again, my response to those who would hand me a bundle of shame is to make the sign of the cross, open myself to receive the loving kindness of God, and offer them the same loving kindness.
Over the last few months I haven’t posted a lot of my writing here, but I have been writing nonetheless.
I’ve been busy writing lectures, grading papers, and applying to a doctoral program. In the midst of all this writing, I’ve turned to sci-fi as a place to rest and renew my imagination. There, in Season 6 Episode 17 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I stumbled across this beautiful reminder:
In the episode, Lieutenant Commander Worf has come across an group of Klingons who live in exile after being captured in war—a group destined to remain in hiding because of the cultural shame their very lives bring to themselves and their families (for Klingons, death in battle is a source of honor). Worf has come with hope that he might have found his own father there among them—though, given the Klingon culture, if his father had been found alive there, it would have meant complete dishonor.
When asked by one of the exiled Klingons what he would have done if he had found his father, Worf replies: “If I had found him here, I would be glad to see him. There is no room in my heart for shame.”
And isn’t this the truth of the goodness that we are each searching for? For LGBTIQ Christians, we have often believed we were exiled in shame and yet someone has come looking for us—someone who is glad to see us; someone in whose heart there is no room for shame.
As we learn to not take on the package of shameful feelings, this will mean learning to give and receive the loving kindness of God. This will also mean that our brothers and sisters who have done us harm will no longer be able to easily pass off their feelings of being ashamed to us. Which means they will have to learn how to deal with feelings that don’t feel good–that is, they will also need to learn to give and receive the loving kindness of God that invites us all to repentance.
For me, as a gay man at the Christian table, shame looks like the internalization of the message that I must prove that I belong here. It comes from believing the insistence from others that they get to define the parameters of the table. That insistence is a misdirection of shame, meant to absolve their feeling of being ashamed for fencing off God’s table.
Thank God, this table doesn’t belong to us. My role at the Christian table is to abandon the fight to define ownership of the table, and accept my place as a deeply beloved and cherished guest at God’s table. My being here has nothing to do with deserving or not deserving to be here–I am here because I belong here.
As I look forward to the coming year, I am eager to continue writing in this space. I know that I have need for you and the conversations that are to come as we learn to laugh, play, and live in the loving kindness of God.