QCT 19: Be Careful Little Gay What You Say

This is the 19th post in my series “Queering the Christian Table.” You can start reading from the beginning by clicking here.

——-

I am careful with my words.

It’s an irony to me that my post that has received the most attention on this site is the one that received the least editing.

When I sat down to write the post entitled “Why my humanity isn’t beholden to SCOTUS,” I didn’t spend 4-6 hours writing it, like I have most of the other posts in this series. Ultimately, my anxiety around last year’s supreme court cases was so high, that I realized, if I was to get any sleep the night before the big announcements, I had to put some thoughts down on the page.

So, I did something that I do not regularly practice—I clicked publish on a piece that I hadn’t carefully scrutinized to make sure it said exactly what I meant to say. Without thinking through the counter-arguments or attempting to understand the intricacies of my potential audience, I participated in that rare, human act of saying a bit of what I was both feeling and thinking in the moment.

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Okay. So, what’s the big deal? I wrote a post without a lot of editing and people responded favorably. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe years of writing, revising, editing, copy-editing, and learning grammar paid off with a relatively decent bit of writing on a hot topic.

Swell. Now get back to editing, kiddo—those posts don’t write themselves, you know!

But wait a second.

Wait one, hot minute.

Wait seven months and let this REALLY sink in.

It may be that there is something more to this story than meets the eye.

Why am I so, damned, careful with words?

——-

Growing up gay, as the son of Pentecostal Christian ministers in the deep south, I learned early on that not just words, but looks, mannerisms, timing, and presentation all matter. What I communicated through my speech and through my body could keep me in favor or could (at best) mean a fall from grace or (at worst) leave me at risk of expulsion, physical harm, being sent off to a program to “fix” me, or worse.

I learned to be a professional reader of those around me in my religious and cultural communities. I understood what was necessary for my survival and I carefully navigated the space between what I perceived as their expectations and the reality of my desires in a dangerous social climate.

I vividly recall being called to the front of the church to be prayed for, people placing their hands on my body and head and praying loudly. I remember prayers for God’s presence to be in my life. I also remember prayers “casting out demons” and prayers for God to rid me of sin. I remember being asked, again and again, if there was anything in particular that I wanted to be prayed for in my life.

I developed a code of sorts—the safe words—the kinds of things respectable and holy people ask for: “more of God,” “to be closer to Jesus,” and “to deal with unforgiveness.”

That last one, in particular, was my golden ticket—technically, I was repenting of a sin, but it was the kind of sin that proved just how humble and good I really was.

——-

In reality, all of these phrases were code for: “God take away my sexual desire for guys and please don’t let anyone find out about it.”

In a tradition know for it’s “words of knowledge” when some older church member or traveling evangelist would interrupt a church service to proclaim (usually while using a microphone) that God was telling them about someone’s sin (and that someone needed to come forward and repent), I lived in terror of being found out.

It turns out that either God was not speaking to those people, or God did not care to call me out for being gay, because it never happened.

However, the possibility of such a public exposure became a seed of shame that would grow across the hillsides of my soul like the invasive thickets of kudzu that sprawl across the clear-cut hillsides lining southern highways.

——-

And so, I grew careful. I came to present myself as what I thought the people around me wanted and needed me to be. And, through the pervasive singularity of one privileged reading of the Bible, who I thought God wanted me to be.

Even writing this series, I wrestle this gorilla of shame that plays its narrative out in my head. Can I say the words that bring me life? Can I simply express how it is that I wrestle with my faith? Is it okay to not seem reasonable, approachable, friendly, and safe for people to ask their questions (even the ones that are painfully offensive or judgemental)?

I worry about these things. I am careful. I measure out my words.

As a blogger, I shred perfectly reasonable paragraphs into readable snippets. I over-explain vocabulary. I modify, modify, modify—to make sure that I am leaving space for dialogue, and multiple perspectives, and generous interpretations. I try to stay open to dialogue and conversation. I’m willing to publish any comment that doesn’t come across as overtly belligerent.

This is not all good or bad.

I am realizing that many of these skills developed as I used my natural gifts and personality to forge a way to survive a childhood where I did not feel safe to be me in my own home, churches, faith, and society. And while I don’t need these skills for the same level of survival, they still serve me well as I navigate a church and culture that does not always feel safe.

Sometimes it is wise to be careful.

——-

So, I’ve grown careful with words—taking care to not offend what I perceive as the limits of acceptability from those around me—from institutions and churches; from family and friends. But in so doing, I have allowed bits of myself—my voice, my particularity, my story—to be stuffed aside; I have swallowed so many words—so many of MY words—often out of hope that by making other Christians comfortable, I would remain safe, and they would stay in the conversation longer, instead of either walking away or asserting their privilege and kicking me out the door.

But that is no gospel. At best it is collusion. It is sabotaging my vulnerability.

There is something valuable in vulnerability—in speaking my own words as they give expression to the strength of my feelings—that is so desperately needed in this conversation about sexuality and the church.

It’s the particularity of my life—the reality of my faith and my sexual orientation and the ways in which I experience the presence of God leading me in the way of Jesus—that, I believe, needs to be told.

——-

And I think that vulnerability is some of what came into play with the post about the SCOTUS cases that was responsible for leading a large wave of you to first read this blog.

I desire to be human-sized. I want to be able to be seen and loved for who I am, not for my ability to live up to real or perceived expectations about how well I stack up to someone else’s interpretation of the Bible, cultural gender norms, or personal hang-ups.

But in order to contradict the shame that drives this tendency to be over-careful, I must risk.

I must risk that, yes, there are still many in the church, society, and my family, that do not want to hear what I have to say; that do not want to believe that my experience of God’s grace in my life is real; that do not want to face what is would look like for them to accept such radical goodness for themselves.

And, to be sure, there is also the real risk of danger.

There are places in my own city, state, and country where it would be unwise and unsafe for me to speak openly and honestly about being gay and what I believe about God and the Bible. There are countries in the world—places like Russia, where the world is tuning in to see the winter Olympics—where simply speaking openly about being gay can lead to imprisonment, suffering violence, and death. As driving-while-brown in most of the U.S.A. means higher risk of being stopped by police, using a public restroom-while-transgender still runs the risk of extreme violence and murder in the “Land of the Free.”

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As a white, cis-gender, gay man, I face very low risk of these dangers living in a city like Seattle. But I do run the risk of losing the privilege of my ability to speak to power in Christian institutions and the church.

And here, I cringe. It has come to this.

The carefulness, that as a child allowed me to survive real danger, now only keeps me isolated by helping me maintain privileges doled out by a system that I don’t want to support.

I am making a choice.

I am not walking away from the church.

But I am not going to diminish the story of the gospel that is playing out in my life by only using words that make privileged, religious folks feel comfortable. That’s simply not the purpose of my life.

I am not trying to burn any bridges. It’s just that what I see Jesus doing in the various gospels looks like love and truth telling. And as a human who is practicing how to follow Jesus’ way of loving God and neighbor, the best thing that I know how to do is to say what it is that I have seen and heard.

In the gospels Jesus is constantly tripping up those who maintain privilege through tight control of following restrictive interpretation of scriptures. Jesus seems to have a thing for abandoning loyalty to power through privilege by loving those who aren’t able to achieve privilege—women, the poor, the disabled, foreigners, those considered sexually immoral.

And incidentally, it’s those folks that Jesus often points to as the people who teach us what it means to love. Through his actions, Jesus seems to identify right worship of God with love, by spending time with people who were not allowed into the central temple courts to worship. In doing this, he stands in alignment with the Old Testament prophets who essentially declare that God doesn’t give a shit about maintaining religious standards of holiness if you are treating the poor and resident aliens like shit.

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When it comes to talking about the place of LGBTIQ people in Christian institutions and the church, I have perceived (and explicitly received) the message to “slow down” and allow a careful conversation to unfold. I’ve heard that the church needs more time to discern what to say about all this–as if we had no kerygmatic model to follow in applying the ethics of Jesus to contemporary situations. But the truth is that I and all the other people who make up the church (LGBTIQ and otherwise) are alive right now, in this span of time, and we are responsible for how we bear witness to the gospel right now (communion of saints not withstanding).

If the gospel has any merit whatsoever, then–as, basically, the entire history of the global church proves–no matter how badly the church royally screws things up, God is still capable of continuing to be present in the world.

And thank God for that.

So, no, I don’t think passing protections for LGBTIQ people who are objects of violence at higher rates, or allowing same-sex marriages, or ordaining LGBTIQ ministers is going to be the downfall of society or even the church. In fact, I think that those things would contribute to the unity of the church (a pretty important theme in the Bible, at least for Jesus and Paul), provide protection for a group of people who experience violence (important to the OT prophets), and bear witness to the rest of the world that–hey!–God really does love everybody.

And guess what? Even if we completely mess this one up, we’ll have found a way of destroying the church by loving people instead of by slaughtering them by the millions or destroying entire cultures, or enslaving people, or justifying our destruction of the earth–You know, when it comes to ways of destroying the church, I think we’d be raising the bar quite a bit.

And yeah, even if we’re wrong, I think God can help our great-grandkids sort it out.

——-

It turns out that I have one life that has been given to me. So, I am not going to buy the false promise of some semblance of privilege in the church by playing the game of keeping people comfortable. As a man with a lot of privilege, by opting out of this trap, I allow myself space to engage where my actual privileges are oppressing others in ways distinctly different but not disconnected from my own experience of oppression.

I am going to continue to do my best to enjoy the life I have been given and to glorify God with my life by following the way of Jesus and learning to grow in love and bear wit(h)ness to the truth of God’s goodness playing out in the world.

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Will I continue to edit my posts? Yes. I am still a writer. But I get to choose how to use my skill to shape words to tell my own human story, rather than the one I have been led to believe will get me a piece of the false-acceptance pie.

My goal is to allow my carefulness to be full of care for myself and for you my readers, by singing the one song I was born to sing.

That song is bold. It’s also a bit snarky.

——-

This doesn’t mean that I don’t want a conversation.

I want a conversation that is real–where you get to be real and where I get to be real; where we all get to be respectful and extend the lavish hospitality of the God we claim to follow.

This is the kind of conversation that is gritty and tough, not with laying down the law, but with laying down our arms and being vulnerable with each other. It’s the kind of space where we can be honest about the harm that has been done in the name of God and we can be curious about what we all have to learn about loving in a way that might, in some slight way, reflect the life and teachings of Jesus.

It means facing the eviscerating goodness of what God’s acceptance for us might look like if God is good enough to accept those that we deem in the wrong.

——-

It seems to me that when it comes to extending love and full communion, Jesus was lavish, rather than careful. Thus, why I’ve invoked the song the title of this post alludes to. It’s a little ditty-of-terror taught to Christian children that goes like this:

“Be careful little mouth what you say, be careful little mouth what you say, for the Father up above is looking down with love, so be careful little mouth what you say.”

It goes on like that, switching out “mouth what you say” for “ears what you hear,” “eyes what you see,” and “hands what you do.”

Now, not even addressing the horrible conflation of personal action and being acted upon in the shaming of small children, this tune gets at the core of the problem plaguing this conversation.

We have a hard time understanding a God who loves us, has boundaries, and doesn’t need to shame us for being the very things that God ostensibly created: human beings–wildly different, flawed, perfectly precious, human creatures. Quite frankly, a God who burns people in hell for believing that God is more loving than God actually is, is no God worth giving a shit about.

Such a system actually worships hell, because it sets up hell as more powerful than God’s capacity to love and forgive whatever might need to be forgiven.

It seems to me that the conversation needs to turn from whether or not it’s okay for LGBTIQ people to be at the table, to how can we stop beating each other up and love each other and love the rest of the world in the way that Jesus taught.

That the Christian church in USAmerica and in many places in the world is a less safe place for any group of people than the general society, is a testament that the church is already off its rails. Instead of panicking about how to grow the church or protect the church, I hope that we can learn to love in a way worthy of even being called a church that belongs to Jesus.

Such a church sounds pretty reckless; far from careful; yet far less of a danger to itself and others. It’s a church that identifies with Jesus–a church that stops chasing privilege by doing religion “right.”

That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of.

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Queer Theology Synchroblog: Stop Trying to Be Like Jesus

The following post is part of the Queer Theology Synchroblog happening today. Click the link to see other bloggers’ posts on the theme “Queer Creation.” For my post, I’ve decided to write a letter to myself. You are, of course, invited to read my mail.

 

Dear Daniel,

Do us all a favor and stop trying to be like Jesus.

I know it’s a hard thing to hear, but really, just stop.

——-

The miracle of the incarnation is that God was fully God and fully human in the person of Jesus. And you are never going to be that.

You were never even meant to try it.

The whole notion of “being like Jesus” is royally flawed. The whole reason God came in the person of Jesus is that God wanted to be with us. If God just wanted a few billion copies of Jesus, God could do that with some divine miracle of Xerox. But that was never the point.

God doesn’t want you to be like Jesus.

The only way God wants you to resemble Jesus is that inasmuch as Jesus was particularly Jesus, God wants you to be you—God wants you to be different than Jesus.

——

This is a difficult truth. It is harder to receive than being told that you will go to hell because you are different than Jesus. Sometimes being accepted is hard to accept.

——

Speaking of queer things, it’s pretty queer of God to love and accept those who are different. It’s pretty peculiar to want friends enough to give them space to be entirely who they are apart from your own idea of who they should be.

It’s even queerer to open yourself up to be impacted by them and to grow to love whoever they become—as different from you as that may be.

If God wanted you to be “just like Jesus,” it would mean God re-absorbing you into God’s creative life. Instead, God wants to relate with you as a differentiated person so that we can enjoy one another in all of our particularities; God as generous lover and you as complex and unique person learning to be wooed by such generous love.

——

I know that it’s more comfortable believing in a God who wants to annihilate your particularity in order to make you more like his ideal child. It’s more comfortable because it’s familiar and it’s what you’ve been taught to expect and call “love.”

Well, guess what, kiddo? You’re in for a surprise. God is secure enough to take your radical difference. God is not afraid of you. God is not in danger of annihilation from your otherness—in fact God is celebrating all the queer ways that you are unfolding into the particular wholeness of your life. 

So get out there and play. You’re going to have to be pretty damn creative to surprise God, but when you do, there’s no one who will be clapping louder or scheming harder to see you go even further than you’ve gone so far.

You’re special because you are not special; you are particular because the particularity of Jesus means that God comes close to all of us no matter who or where we are. There is nothing in the universe queerer than love this secure, this complete, this unafraid of otherness. The only way you should be like Jesus is letting this love settle in you as you become more you and thus, more capable of loving in this way.

Queering the Christian Table Part 14: The Crushing Weight of Wielding Shame—A Gay Poet Responds to The Gospel Coalition

To start reading at the beginning of the series, click here.

[If you are short on time, I recommend just scrolling down to the poetry]

When Rachel Held Evans’ latest blog post showed up in my news feed, I figured something was astir. Reading her response to Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile’s post on The Gospel Coalition website, I was grateful for her responses and I was compelled to read Anyabwile’s original article.

I do not know Anyabwile (or Held Evans). I know nothing more of him than he might know of me by reading my words on this page. So what I am about to write is simply a reflection of what I observe as a broader theme within the Evangelical church that is expressed so pointedly in his post.

I won’t rehash the many other critiques of his post that Evans addresses and links to from her post. I simply want to spend a few moments with Anyabwile’s attempt at “obscene descriptions” of gay and lesbian sex. The following is the excerpt from the post that is meant to induce moral outrage:

We are talking about one man inserting the male organ used to create life into the part of another man used to excrete waste. We are talking about one man taking the penis of another man into his mouth, or engaging in penis-to-penis grinding.

We are talking about a woman using her mouth to stimilute the nipples, vulva, clitoris or vagina of another woman, or using her hand or other “toys” to simulate sexual intercourse.

We are talking about anilingus and other things I still cannot name or describe.

That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling–either at the descriptions above or at me for writing them–that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage is the gag reflex. It’s what you quietly felt when you read “two men deep kissing” in the second paragraph. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked–and rightly so. That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called “gay marriage” debate.

Now, I just want to spend a moment telling you about my actual reactions to the above passage. Truthfully, I did, indeed, have my hand over my mouth. I nearly had to pick myself up off the floor I was shaking so hard with laughter.

Once I had recovered from my fit of giggles, I sighed a few times and began to feel deep compassion and sadness for the author and the Evangelical community out of which he offers this opinion. And isn’t laughter one of the more ready indicators of the presence of shame?

——

The crushing weight of wielding so much shame is a terrible burden to bear. It is the blade with no handle that destroys the hand that uses it against another.

——

I actually think that Anyabwile is right on this one point: it is high time that the Evangelical church spoke explicitly about sex and its role in Christian formation. I also appreciate his attempt to directly address the issue without resorting to euphemisms about the shapes of plugs and sockets. Coming from the Evangelical community, this took great courage on his part.

But the mechanistic descriptions of sex acts, and body parts disconnected from the emotional spiritual—even just full-bodied—realities of human sexuality reveals so much more about the Evangelical understanding of sex than it does about what actually happens when two men or two women engage in any form of sexual activity. That explicitly describing sex between any two consenting adults is intended to trigger my gag reflex, tells me so very much about the level of shame surrounding Evangelical understandings of sexuality.

If we are supposed to see the acts themselves as shameful (oral sex, anal sex, using sex toys), my guess is that there’s an enormous number of red-faced, straight, married, Evangelical couples who are squirming, because they’re (“not supposed to be”) doing many of the things that actually give them a lot of shared pleasure and intimacy. I’m also guessing there is a large number in the same demographic who are really frustrated because they feel constricted for not being able to fully explore their own bodies together.

——

But my hunch is that it’s not really about the sex. It’s about the gender.

——

This is less about the explicit details of what body parts are inserted where and how people are pleasuring each other. Instead, it is about the disruption of cultural norms that are anchored in a neo-platonic understanding of the forms—a worldview that’s been used to shame women (and men) for that heinous shortcoming of not being man (enough).

It’s less the sex and more the disruption of the gender hierarchy that is so gag-reflex-inducing. That’s precisely why Anyabwile feels upset by “two men deep kissing.” The gender hierarchy itself is built on shame—shaming both women and men about their bodies—objectifying and victimizing women and cutting men of from the vulnerability of their desire and need for relationship and replacing it with the (fear-of-rejection fueled) urge to power-over the person they desire sexually.

This is why Anyabwile’s description of gay and lesbian sex is not poetic or even clinical; this is why he doesn’t even imagine addressing transgender or intersex sexuality. A vivid description of two people of the same gender intimately expressing love with their bodies is just as damaging to the gender hierarchy as the boring ol’ argument about the over a thousand rights (privileges) associated with civil marriage being denied to these same couples.

An aesthetic, reverent, explicit description of LGBTIQ sex lives serves as a poignant reminder of the possibility for equality, mutuality, vulnerability, and holy growth of desire between any two consenting lovers. It has the potential to call out the vulnerability of all men and agency of all women in a way that leads to greater love and better sex for all couples (and just by the numbers, this will mostly help out the straight folks).

The thing that’s gag-inducing about Anyabwile’s description is that it is dehumanizing—it seeks to shame from a place of deep-seated shame, and thus it only succeeds in revealing the harmful system out of which it emerges.

——

For another way of engaging sexuality in a way that embraces humanity and Christ, I’d invite you to check out the blog http://trybestpractices.wordpress.com/. This blogger I do know, and I find the work he’s doing to be refreshingly Christian and humane.

——

For my own theological response, I’ve decided to post three poems.

Insofar as they are mine, they are poems about gay love and desire. Insofar as they are human, they are about lovers, bodies, intimacy, and mutuality.

This is my invitation to those who feel the crushing weight of wielding so much shame: join again in the goodness of the life you have been given.

——

The Forest Need Not Justify Its Existence

We lay here for once as if

our bodies matter

as much as clods of soil;

knots of bone and muscle curl, exhausted,

upon one another, waiting,

in asynchronous gasps,

to lapse into one amending heave.

Stillness grows us older, you

and me observing stealth of hair

moss across the backs and bends

of all our twisted limbs,

rooted through finitude

of kisses sweet and wild.

Here old stories thaw, plots

unraveling through gracious gaps

opened by the fibrous weave,

me, you, me—relaxing us into

the solidity of who we are becoming.

“Have you forgotten the myth of unbelonging?”

I question the heart between these ribs.

The answer (yours or mine?), a sure reply,

wealth of warmth flowing, skin on skin;

salted mouth plying under arm, over rib;

tongue slips quick through wet lips, twists

round areola as if to say

what leg splayed ’cross hip

and genitals, pressed

into generous thigh, have been

pulsing all along:

“With you,

I am always home because

our battles

are for our thriving and

our economy is song

and its rhythm is determined on

these instruments of peace

with which we practice

holding on.”

——

Back

“Churn butter backwards—into cream, into

thick clots scooped in glops back

into milk, warm and grassy on the tongue

or back

to udder, to cow, to

actual grass gradually sloshed back through

four stomachs and slime, past

cow lips into blades

of green to two parts sun and one

part soil—how far back could you

trace the journey of soil?

To rock, to crash of spatial bodies? Stars?

exploded elements in space?”

You

interrupt your scrape, scraping

of knife across toast and ask:

“Where is this going?”

“In! Into our mouths, our

bodies; butter and bread, the wheat,

the salt, the minerals—all

disassembled in our bowels, carried in

our blood, become

our source of cell and synapse.”

(I do know that this is not

what you were asking)

“How far? Can you trace the need

back into desire, to

throat-ached trembling? Back from

breakfast table to bed, piled legs like

eggs on a plate, scrambled in sheets and

pillows?

Back to your back, covered

in constellation of freckles and covered

in my kisses and arms

wrapped round your sides, my hands

pressed against your chest. My calf

nuzzles round your thigh and I

melt

like butter in your starlight.”

“How far back?”

your eyes

look up cross toast at me

and say:

“I can never take you back—

only forward.”

——

You know it was your turn to do the dishes.

I come home, hoping for nothing more than a bite to eat,

a quick kiss, but nothing more—I

do not have the time

for something more (even though I’d like it).

No, this is the one night,

set aside out of seven,

when I sit down,

break bread,

and prey upon the pages

like a ravenous pagan

frenetically parsing nouns into verbs,

words like: pretzel.

You know,

how you pretzel me into the

salt warm scent of your arms,

whiskering into my neck the things

you say you’d like to do to me

if only we had the time.

But I

do not have the time.

The watch my parents gave me stopped

working, or maybe I stopped

winding it, when they

stopped calling me when I stopped

pretending I could pretzel myself

into their approval.

And now I am walking through our front door,

and you know

it was your turn

to do the dishes.

I know that five out of seven nights you scrape

down sides of bowls and break eggs and

roast vegetable kindness that my body

takes in, as greedily and gratefully as I take in

you. You know

it was your turn to do the dishes and

all I wanted to do

was come in, eat a pretzel and write

all the wrongs of my day

into some semblance of poetry.

and even though, you know I’ll love you

if the plates stack high and mold grows

on scooped out rinds of winter squash

beside the full compost;

I will still put out

the trash on Wednesdays even if

we sleep on opposite sides of the bed.

And you will still put out

when I forget to do the laundry.

You know that this

was the one night I had

before the deadline and

you met me at the door with that shirtless grin, as if

there were ever any contest between you

and fifty pages of revision.

You know.

Yours is not the sideways glance

of a lover more interested in getting off than

getting old, and boring, and grey. No,

you look at me with laughing eyes that play

across my brow and

pretzel into my fiercest longings,

knotting me into the softest dough. And I

would drop my clothes, my

prose, my terse idealism

to wrap myself inside

the softness of your mouth, your

gentle-welcome whispered kisses

traveling down my tired body. And you know

it was your turn to do the dishes

and

you did them

anyway.

Queering the Christian Table Part 12: Should the Church Offer Tough Love or Fierce Love to Queer* people?

To Read the series from the beginning, click here.

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

envious or

boastful or

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.

It bears

all things, believes

all things, hopes

all things, endures

all things.

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.

For

we know

only in part, and

we prophesy

only in part;  

but

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.

For now

we see in a mirror, dimly,

but then

we will see face to face.

Now

I know only in part;

then

I will know fully,

even as I have been fully known. And now

faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and

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.

 

Queering the Christian Table Part 11: Jesus is Coming to Dinner

To read the series from the beginning, click here.

“I’ll always love you. . . no matter what.” “There’s nothing you can ever do to make me stop loving you.” “I love you so much that I have to tell you, what you are doing is wrong.”

On the surface, these are the kinds of words that are meant to reassure—to convince the hearer (or speaker?) of the sincerity of love for the other. And yet, we almost always say what we mean—especially when we don’t mean to.

Most often, these words are offered in a moment when the speaker is feeling something like this:

I really think that you are wrong about something (and I feel really uncomfortable around you),

or

I strongly dislike your behavior,

or

I know I’m supposed to love you. Can’t you see how good I’m doing at loving you even though you clearly haven’t earned it?

The subtext that comes through when these words are spoken, especially from a parent to a child, are not the promised, unconditional love—instead, it’s the subtle promise of acceptance—delivery on the affective, relational, and emotional/physical feelings of being loved—only under the conditions of acceptable behavior.

————

I have to tell you, I don’t really think that Jesus ate with people described as “sinners,” in-spite-of their sin. I think he ate dinner at their houses because he enjoyed being with them. I’m not saying that he enjoyed being with them because he saw the potential for how he could change them once he pronounced “go and sin no more.”

I’m saying, he fucking couldn’t get enough of being around these folks.

————

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as sin. What I’m saying is, there’s no such thing as sin separating us from God. If God couldn’t bear to be in the presence of sin (as a lot of really crap theology has claimed), then Jesus cannot be divine—which, last time I checked is, like, the number one heresy in the Christian faith. For real, you can go look it up.

See? Still a heresy.

One story that get’s hauled out to brow-beat this notion is the double creation accounts in Genesis. We’ve all heard some wild-eyed interpreter suggest that God couldn’t stand the sin of Adam and Eve and thus kicked them out of the garden. This reading is only possible in an overly-literalistic (mis)reading of the passage, presuming actual individuals named Adam and Eve in an actual garden, with an actual talking (and walking) snake, with an actual flaming sword blocking their way.

That is a way to read the Bible. It’s not a way that takes seriously the multiple ways the story is told, the highly constructed literary forms, the deeply metaphoric language, the puns in the names of the characters, or the clear etiological nature of the story that make it abundantly evident that it is a theological story, making theological truth claims about the nature of God and origins of sinfulness and God’s original movement towards us to reconcile our relationships into something good.

I’d invite literalist readers to take the text seriously, and see that as soon as people sin, God comes to find them and have a conversation with them. The theological claim that starts in the first story in the Bible is that God looks to hang out with people who sin. And this shows up again and again through the narratives and then, finally, Jesus comes and hangs out at dinner with sinners.

———–

I hear frequently (mainly from Reformed folks) that, “of course we are all sinners.” The inference is that my homosexual love and relationships are inherently sinful, but it’s okay, because they aren’t perfect either. Another way of saying this is something like, “Well, we are all sexually broken.”

What this amounts to is a sort of cheap justification of the “love-you-in-spite-of” language wrapped in the false humility of a staged confession. The reality is, that at the end of the day, while they may admit that they have failures of love that amount to sin within their heterosexual relationships, they believe that homosexuality in and of itself is inherently sinful.

There are even people who take this approach who would say that it’s alright to have a homosexual relationship, because God knows that we are sinners and will love and forgive us anyway.

It’s the old and worn out, “Jesus loved the lepers” routine, in which we claim love while reifying social stigma against a group of people.

————

Believe me when I say that I have been formed sexually by trauma and a culture of misogyny and heteronormativity. I’ll be the first to admit that my desires are not entirely my own.

We are, all of us, shaped people.

We have experiences that some describe as “brokenness”—pain, addictions, recovery, fetishes, turn-ons, turn-offs, ways we are open to love and ways we are shut down to love. These are a tangle of sin and redemption at work in all of us.

So if, when you say that we are all “sexually broken,” you mean we are all complexly formed and in need of a lifetime of learning how to grow into greater vulnerability and loving relationships, then yes, I am all about that.

But we must be willing to recognize and name with some specificity, the ways in which the language of “sexual brokenness” has been applied socially against LGBTIQ people both historically (sic!) and contemporarily. The “brokenness” of queer sexuality has been the focus of great effort to “fix” an inordinate number of people. It is a stigma, that is laid against the core of a person’s sexuality and used as a label of “less than” what is considered normative (a particular, narrowly imagined cultural brand of heterosexuality).

So the confessional claim of “I’m broken too,” by heterosexuals, holds about as much stigma for them as the term “white trash” holds for me as a white person.

What I mean to say is, it is a label that seems negative, but it doesn’t actually dismantle the privileged position of the person against whom the word is used. Because heterosexuality is privileged with acceptance, cultural celebration, and normative status, the label of “brokenness” or “sexual sin” never condemns heterosexuality itself. Just like calling me “white trash” doesn’t stick in the same way that racial epithets leveled at people of color do, because the white stereotypes don’t take away my white privilege, while the parallel words used against people of color actively reinforce my white privilege.

To use the language of “brokenness” in this way is as shallow as claiming that because white stereotypes exist, then white privilege doesn’t exist and it’s okay to go on defining social norms in terms of white-makes-right culture.

Because in reality, the societal stigma remains, because you’ve failed to distinguish between my actual “sexual brokenness” and my sexuality itself. Heterosexual privilege, in this scenario, is the exemption card of societal acceptance of heterosexual love, which allows the terms “brokenness” and “sin” to really mean very little when applied to straight people and be quite harmful when applied to queer people.

LGBTIQ persons have experiences of people attempting to drive out “demons of homosexuality,” being subjected to electroshock therapy, being systemically legally oppressed, being kicked out of homes, churches, families, clubs, schools, workplaces, bars, government agencies, hospitals—all for simply being who they are as sexual persons. This is not true in anything like this systemic way of oppression for heterosexual people.

To think the words “broken” or “sinful” in this case could mean the same thing to straight and queer people is like thinking the sound of 4th-of-July fireworks could possibly mean the same thing to a sheltered child of USAmerican suburbia and to a child living under USAmerican bombings in Baghdad.

————–

For the (mostly Reformed, straight) people who use this argument, the very notion of being a sinner is not so dangerous. They see the Christian life as one of being complete sinners who are complete saints because of the finished work of Jesus in the world and in our lives. So, for them, the words “sinner” and “broken” don’t coincide with “going to hell.” But instead fit into the matrix of “forgiven and welcomed by God.”

That’s all well and good and easy to internalize if you are heterosexual and have been handed the message by your culture and it’s dominant, Evangelical view that heterosexual relationships are inherently good, designed by God, and blessed.

But what if you’ve been told every day that your desires, the way that your body responds sexually, and the people that you love are inherently evil and that as a result you are going to be eternally separated from a God who loves others but hates you and is going to send you to be tortured forever?  The language of “yeah, we’re all broken sinners” feels a little flippant and wholly inadequate for contradicting the messages of oppression and shame.

————

So, I’d like to talk frankly about where I see some of my own sexual brokenness and sin in my own sexuality.

As a gay man, I have 28+ years of messaging that I have received from my family, my culture, and my faith, about what is normal and good in terms of sexuality. I have the same number of years of messaging from those same sources about what is wrong, and abnormal about what I have known about my own sexuality (with some conscious understanding for at least 20 years).

I am a sexually broken man. I have believed so many lies about myself, about my body. I have tried to contort myself and my desires to fit something that I am not. I have been told that loving people with the kinds of bodies I desire is evil and can only lead to pain, and eventually hell. I have hated myself. And all of this has prevented me from deep vulnerability, relationship, and intimacy with someone who could more fully awaken my desire in a way that would grow my capacity to love God and my neighbors.

In my attempts to be what I was told was normal, I have done harm to myself and the woman that I was married to. I have also, in the midst of this, loved well, lived passionately, asked deep questions, grown my desire, and expanded my capacity to love God and neighbor.

So does this narrative contain brokenness and sin? Yes. Absolutely. Does any of it have to do with my sexual orientation? Well. . . that’s a harder question.

Of course it has to do with my sexual orientation—specifically, I will be so bold as to name it as sin that I have been shamed by society, my family, and the church on the basis of my attraction to other men.

The harm inflicted on me and other LGBTIQ people, in the name of God, morality, and normativity (here’s looking at you, “natural law” deists, masquerading as defenders of “Biblical marriage”) is reprehensible. It has been a roadblock to the good news (gospel) that God delights in my sexuality and wants to use my sexuality to draw me into deeper relationship with God and other people—that God enjoys being around me.

————

What I am saying is that the “I/God love(s) you, in spite of your sin/sexual brokenness” line is not good news for me as a queer person. What it really is, is another way of saying “expression of your sexuality is sinful.” But more, it’s a way of reinforcing the unquestioned normativity of society by labeling my sexuality itself as sinful, wrong, broken, ab-normal.

So if you say homosexual sex is a sin, well, you’re going to have to do better. Come up with a definition of sin that can stand up theologically, that is formed relationally, and that is bursting not just with compassion, but with Jesus’ passion for hanging out with people labeled “sinful.”

A robust definition of sin must include and address the societal systems that oppress some groups by privileging other groups. It must address what sin is, how it functions, and what it does to our relationships. Finally, it must be met with a definition of redemption/gospel that accounts for a God who both creates LGBTIQ people and who consistently shows up to hang out with the people who get labeled as “sinners” and who also tend to be the groups of people that are oppressed within their cultures and societies.

————-

The more work I do on my white, male, able-bodied, educated privilege (and believe me that list could be a lot longer), the more I begin to realize that societal systems that sort us into privileged and oppressed are designed to distance me from the reality of my own humanity, which is the core out of which I can draw empathy and see the humanity of others.

So often, we cling to social categories that allow us to villainize/reject another group of people in order to distance ourselves from the possibility that we might be villainized or rejected. This is the dynamic that keeps various oppressed groups fearful of one another and that keeps privileged groups blind to conscious knowledge of their own precarious privilege.

What would it mean for you if, whether privileged or oppressed, you could believe that God actually enjoys you for who you are? —actually moves toward you with loving kindess and appreciates you with (rather than in spite of) all your shortcomings and convoluted sexual development and how that’s integral to who you are?

What if the things that you think of as your shortcomings are part of your giftedness in the world?—that you need not leave off your own peculiarity (queerness?) in order to be loved or lovely?

What if each of us truly believed that we are welcome in the world? Would we be more free to truly enjoy being with each other without the need to either pretend to ignore difference or label someone’s difference as a sin/brokenness, simply recognizing and appreciating that they are different from me?

What if our definition for humanity was big enough to encompass all the people that God seems to enjoy hanging out with?

Read part 12 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 10: Seeing Thestrals–or Why I’m not Fighting for my Rights

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

I‘ve been thinking about DOMA & Prop 8. I’ve been thinking about the Voting Rights Act and the sovereignty of First Nations. I’ve been thinking about Paula Deen, the 10 year anniversary of Lawrence vs. Texas, and the 40 year anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge Fire. I’ve been thinking about kids who grow up on Glee instead of the scene in Braveheart where the father nonchalantly throws his gay son out the window to his death. I’ve been thinking about segregated proms in 2013. 

Of course, when I say I’ve been thinking about these things, what I mean is that I have been feeling them. That tends to be the way I know things. It’s when I sit down to write that the knowledge I’ve tucked into various appendages of my body comes howling out onto the page and I begin to be able to think about what I have perceived.

Grief starts as a stab in my sacrum, then slowly spreads up my back, until tears form and I put together the pieces of how I felt uncomfortable at the Trans*Pride march and how that’s connected to my own fears of being rejected by my father, society, and the church for not fulfilling their expectations in my performance of masculine gender norms.

Oh, so that’s why I felt like shit! Thanks, body. I’m sorry I bought the lie of white, male culture that told me not to listen to you.

———–

Life is such a mixed bag.

Less than a year ago, I flew to Chicago for a friend’s wedding. I was pretty miserable. It was only a few months after my own divorce and subsequent coming out to my parents. This particular friend who was getting married is a person I trust to not look away from suffering. I was there out of my commitment to celebrate the goodness in others’ lives even when it brought up so much of my own aching.

During the ceremony I held another friend’s infant, who wanted nothing more than to jump incessantly on my lap the entire time. It was a much welcomed distraction. This little, bouncing person was oblivious to the couple’s joy or my dissociation. At the reception, I found myself drinking booze and avoiding the boisterous acquaintance from my table who kept urging me to go dance. I wondered silently to myself, “and just who am I supposed to go and dance with?”

I had to have been a fairly pitiful-looking guest, and as my friend expressed his gratitude that I had come all the way from Seattle, I couldn’t help but suspect he had seen me in my sorrow (he’s the kind of person who sees thestrals) and I felt exposed.

———–

Many folks in the LGBTIQ community have endured their share of suffering, both personal and collective. We have experiences of being rejected, oppressed, mistreated, feared, and shunned on the grounds of who we are in our own bodies–often by those who are closest to us. Moreover, we all have to combat the shame that has worked its way into our bodies and minds; we have to actively contradict a social system of privilege that tells us we are wrong. It’s not surprising that, by-and-large, we tend to see fierce realities of life when we have the courage and vulnerability to look at them. It’s also not surprising that many of us look away when we get the chance–but even so, our peripheral vision for suffering is pretty well honed.

So, when I read this gorgeous call to accountability by Mia McKenzie over at blackgirldangerous.org and then this piece by my friend Charity on her blog Bees, C’s & D’s (yes, you have to go read them now), then the feelings began to well within my body.

Finally, I was listening to a playlist this week that was created by my friend and liturgist, Hilary Ann Golden. The playlist was created for Lent 2012. The season of Lent is one in which the church practices repentance. In the midst of all I’ve been thinking about and feeling this week, these two songs came on back-to-back: Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free followed by Leonard Cohen’s Come Healing.

I think this is one of those crucial places where my Christian faith comes together radically with my experience of life in my own body as a cis-gendered male, white, able-bodied, USAmerican, gay person. I believe deeply in the good news that I’ve experienced personally, that death and resurrection are intertwined. This is the immense gift of the Christian gospel message, that God always moves towards human suffering in order to bring freedom.

Even though there are moments where celebration and suffering feel like they will eclipse one another, they are always both present. If we are bold enough to hold room in ourselves for our celebrating and our suffering, then we can move into wholeness that honors all of our stories.

If we can hold room for the suffering of others even as we celebrate, then we can ground ourselves in that place of honoring the personal and collective narratives of suffering and oppression, and continue moving toward justice with hope and determination.

———–

That feeling of exposure I had from being seen is like a sensitive tooth. It’s not always noticeable, but when something sweet or cold hits that nerve ending, it’s hell.

And now the metaphor breaks down. I know nothing about fixing sensitive teeth.

But I do know that when I am seen in my suffering–not seen for my suffering, but seen as a person in the midst of the experience of suffering–then I feel solidarity. The solidity of a community. Not a community that personally knows all of my experience, but a community that understands that they have a different experience than me, and yet, they see me and listen to me, and care enough for me to remain with me and work together for goodness.

———–

And this is why I am not fighting “for my rights.”

I believe that the rhetoric of “rights” is all too often a reward mechanism for compliant behavior within a system that is predicated on preserving privilege. Such a system is itself oppressive and I am committed to fighting to not merely end oppression, but to actively and continually grow in my understanding of the complexity of oppression and work to address it within myself and the world.

As a white, gay, middle-class, educated man, the temptation offered me by the privilege system in USAmerica is to try to pass as heterosexual. Failing that, the next best thing is to be “straight acting,” “masculine,” or “disarmingly funny gay.” If I absolutely insist on being in a relationship with another man, then there’s pressure to reflect the social and cultural norms of heterosexual relationships, which all too often are built around reinforcing white, male privilege.

The reality is, It doesn’t matter how much I contort my gayness to make the white, male-privileging culture more comfortable, I’m never going to get full access to that privilege, because the whole system is set up on a binary that privileges one group and excludes all others.

And the really heinous thing is that the ones sitting at the top of the ladder dispensing the privilege-candy are employing the folks on the next rung down to work themselves into a frenzy gorging on the toxic candy just to crap it all on the heads of the next group of folks who are fighting upwards for their “rights.” And let me tell you, the toxic candy doesn’t get any better the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th rung down.

I can spend my time clawing up the (in)human(e) privilege ladder trying to get to the top, or I can work together with the other people on the ground, to throw a fucking righteous celebration that honors our diverse goodness AND our deep pain from the harm of being stepped (and crapped) on.

———–

Thus, while I celebrate the “rights” that are granted, insomuch as they can be an effective way to combat the privilege of one group over others, I will not be pandered to, bought off, or accept rewards for reinforcing a system predicated on oppression.

We see this happening with marriage rights (in most ad campaigns about marriage equality, only straight couples have been featured, or very “presentable” gay or lesbian couples–usually lesbian because that’s less threatening to and more fetishized by straight, white males). We see it with churches who accept the privilege of tax exempt status in exchange for silence about oppressive government systems. We see it in the notion that we owe our loyalty to our military industrial complex (that preys on the underprivileged and subjects its members to great harm) that is responsible for atrocities on a global scale in exchange for supposed freedom (but primarily for corporate profits at the cost of USAmerican taxpayers’s money and less privileged human lives).

This dynamic closely resembles a fraternity system that hazes new members before granting them the privilege of membership and then employs these people to repeat the offence (of course this should come as no surprise since fraternities are the historic domain of white, wealthy, educated men and have functioned as social networks for maintaining insularity of power and privilege within both business and government).

This is not a condemnation of gays and lesbians celebrating the news about DOMA and Prop 8, it’s not a condemnation of churches for operating without funneling money to the state, and it’s not a condemnation of people who have served in the military or joined a frat.

It is a call to all of us to untangle ourselves from these systems of privilege which only exist through oppression of one another. And as we untangle ourselves and one another, there will be much to see, much to celebrate, and much that we must learn to grieve.

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I won’t accept cheap celebration. Resurrection only hangs out with actual death.

I have lived a life that has left me seeing thestrals and I’m committed to letting that insight lead me into solidarity with others who experience suffering through oppression–particularly when their oppression is linked to my privilege within our social system.

I’m committed to doing my work so as to avoid crapping on the people around me who, it turns out, tend to see me most clearly and love me for who I am.

This is why I went to the Trans*Pride march; why I keep working to understand, own, and dismantle my own racism and collusion with my white privilege; why I’m trying to understand and advocate around oppressive notions of what makes a “healthy” or “able” body or mind; why I’ll march with the Episcopal Church at Pride and talk to everyone I can about the commodification of the LGBTIQ community and of the Christian community by the infrastructures of privilege within our society.

This is my own act of repentance, this way of being is my life’s prayer.

Read part 11 here.

Queering the Christian Table Part 6: This Sin’s Not Sexy

To start reading from the beginning of the series, click here.

A note to readers:

In this post I present my own literary and theological reading of some stories from the Bible. For these readings, I am deeply indebted to the work of many other biblical scholars and theologians, some of whom I can name and some of whom I am certain are influencing my readings of these texts below the surface of my thought. For a succinct and accessible look at what the Bible texts actually say about Queer sexuality, I highly recommend the chapter “Doesn’t the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” in Bishop Gene Robinson’s book God Believes in Love.

While my reading is a way to read these texts, there are certainly other ways. I speak with conviction about how I read the text, however, I hope that it is clear that I do not mean to press my reading on others. I hope, instead, that if my way of reading causes you  to wonder about your own way of reading, that you’ll follow that curiosity wherever it leads.

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So, when we start talking about human sexuality and the Bible, it seems inevitable that we start talking about sin.

Now sin gets defined in all sorts of ways. It gets employed rhetorically in even more ways. Is sin a disease of the soul? Is sin a series of actions? Is sin a way of describing relationships that are out of healthy alignment? We can talk about theologies of sin another time. Suffice it to say,

Sin gets around.

To add to the confusion, the Bible is not all that clear about what actions might constitute sin and what doesn’t. For instance, in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christian Bibles call the Old Testament), there’s a boatload of stories and laws (both legal and holiness codes) that can roughly be summed up as saying, “God doesn’t want you to act like the people from other ethnic groups and religions that live around you. Your morality should be distinctive.” Often (though certainly not always), these stories and laws are paired with texts where God is seen as ordering God’s folks to wholesale slaughter entire towns, villages, and nations–men, women, children, animals, etc. in efforts to eradicate the bad influence of these malcontents.

I sure am glad we have the option of just “unfriending” someone on facebook nowadays.

The other side of the coin is that there are all these other stories and even some laws that are mixed in, where God is supposedly telling God’s people that God is sick and tired of their laws and sacrificial systems, tired of their religious piety, and that what God really wants is for them to stop beating up on foreigners and strangers, and to take care of the poor, the widows, and the orphans. This portrait makes God seem like the type who wouldn’t be all, “murder children” and all that.

So what do we do with the tension of both of these being present in the biblical texts?

A last note about sin before we move on: With these two approaches around what constitutes sin and what constitutes holiness (or human flourishing), it’s also apparent that there’s a struggle to understand how sin impacts the human relationship with God. Some read the Bible and say sin separates us from God. There’s a little support for that reading (and I’d guess, a lot of mommy and daddy issues influencing our reading). Some read the Bible and say that sin harms us in our relationships, but has no bearing of God’s relationship with us. In this reading, sin doesn’t have the power to separate us from God. Textually, there’s a lot more support for this reading. If God supposedly can’t stand to be around sin, then there’s no accounting for all the stories where God moves toward people rather than away from them–especially people who are experiencing shame, isolation, and harm where sin/evil is present (both in their own actions and/or working against them).

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A literalistic reading of the Bible that attempts to lay a chronological, modern historicity over the narratives misses the literary value of the text. These are stories that are complex, textured, and are meant to work like any good story, on multiple levels. They are literary stories that make claims about God.

The collection of writings that make up the Bible span thousands of years, various cultures, and are a sort of extended dialogue of ambiguity. We are handed these texts in collected form and it is ours to wonder, “Who do we believe God is?” and “How should we live in response to these beliefs?”

The stories exist in tension, because, the realities of the people in these stories are much like our contemporary realities–there are tensions in how we understand what it means to be a part of a group with a distinct experience and understanding of the world, and what it means to affirm common personhood of all humans across all groups without reading our own experience of being human as normative for everyone else.

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***Trigger Warning: the following section deals with one of the most violently graphic texts in the Bible. It is the story of a gang-rape that occurs within a system of severe misogyny and xenophobia.

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And then there are stories in the Bible that blur all the lines. One such text is the story of the town of Gibeah. Gibeah is kind of like the less popular sibling city to Sodom and Gommorah. If you aren’t familiar with the parallel stories of Sodom and Gibeah, I recommend reading this helpful study of the text done by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (disclaimer: I have not looked extensively at the ELCIC’s position within the conversation around human sexuality, I just found their treatment of this text to be a good introduction to the textual issues at play).

What becomes clear in reading these texts, especially when we read them in connection with the texts throughout the rest of the Bible that reference them, is this:

The sins of Sodom and Gibeah aren’t at all sexy. 

Indeed, the issue seems quite clear that their sins are hostility and violence against outsiders that manifest in a particularly misogynistic (oppressive to women) ways. That a component of this is same-sex, sexual violence speaks much more to the role of violence, shame, and misogyny in ancient cultures than it comes close to speaking about any sort of homosexual behavior, and it says nothing whatsoever about homosexual desire or consensual homosexual relationships. In fact, the only sexual behavior that even occurs in either of these passages is the violent gang-rape and murder of the woman in the Gibeah story. The context of the story reveals deep systemic cultural sin that starts with treating women as property, and concludes with ethnocentric (values own racial or ethnic group over others) violence against strangers.

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So then, it seems the link between homosexual sexuality and Sodom is more a function of a long history of prejudicial readings of the text that go so far as to have shaped our vocabulary; so that the word “sodomy” reinforces a damaging misreading of these passages each time it is used.

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What’s even more textually interesting to me, is that the Gibeah story is also closely linked to another story about Abraham’s family. While most of the details of the story mirror the story of Lot and his guests in Sodom, there are particular details that mirror the first encounter that Hagar has in the desert with the angel of God.

In Genesis 11, Hagar, a foreigner and slave is treated as a piece of property who is sexually violated by her owners, Abram and Sarai. She runs away into the desert where an Angel finds her sitting by a spring and asks, “where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar goes through this encounter and becomes the first person to name God–saying “You are the God who sees me.”

In this story, God sees the plight of the one who is violated, enslaved, abused and ostracized by those (Abram and Sarai) who are considered, according to the dominating narratives of the text (and often still, by Jewish and Christian religions) to be the righteous ones.

————

In the story of Gibeah, in Judges 19, the narrative begins with a story quite similar to Hagar’s. A woman who is enslaved as a concubine runs away from the man who is violating her (he also happens to be a levite, a member of the priestly clan). The woman runs back to her family and the man who owned her follows her, where he is welcomed and treated with exorbitant hospitality by the woman’s father (talk about evil and twisted family dynamics).

Finally, the man sets out with his recaptured wife/concubine (the text goes back and forth on this one, which emphasizes the complete misogyny and treatment of women as property in ancient cultures. Whether wife or concubine, she is given no say in this story.) and they go to the town of Gibeah, which is an Israelite town, but of a different tribe (so same religion but different family/ethnic clan). Here they sit in the town square, just as the two visitors do in Sodom, and an old man who is a resident alien (like Lot) comes up to them.

But here, the stories twist again and the old man in Gibeah echoes the angel in the desert’s question to Hagar, “Where are you going? Where did you come from?”

Quickly the text goes back to being an almost identical parallel to the Sodom text, right down to the old man supplying a daughter alongside the woman in the story so that there are two women being offered to the violent crowd who want to rape the male strangers who have come into their town (side note: the Levite man in the Gibeah story also had a male slave with him, so if this were really about homosexual behavior and he’s willing to throw his wife/concubine out to the crowd, why wouldn’t he have just tossed the male slave out to them instead?–Oh that’s right, it’s about misogyny and violence).

After this, the text diverges again. Instead of divine intervention stopping the rape, the man who owns the woman, throws her out into the violent crowd and allows her to be raped to death. He then gets angry when he finds her dead the next morning and further violates her body, cutting it to pieces and sending it all over the kingdom in order to declare war on Gibeah.

Like Hagar, this woman is violated sexually by the man who owns her. Like Hagar, no one from the dominant ethnic and religious group, or even her family, ever speaks to her directly. She is dehumanized and treated as a sexual object to be owned and used.

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Why does the Gibeah story invoke the Hagar story? What theological claim is it trying to make by echoing this text so clearly?

I will venture to guess that it is to make us, as readers, pay attention to the evil done against this woman by a society that treats women as property and uses male normativity in such a way that violently raping a man–treating him “like a woman”–could become the most intense form of shaming possible in a culture (sound familiar?).

This reveals much about the inhospitality that God condemns. The story functions to warn ancient Israel that they are on the verge of becoming as evil as Sodom, which God destroyed. By invoking the story of Hagar, I believe the author wants us to recall Hagar’s words, “You are the God who sees me.” If God sees the plight of the most victimized and oppressed and stands on their side, then Israel should take heed, because they boarder being on the wrong side of God, who sees and sides with those whom the culture and religion reject (a notion that is played out in the New Testament by Jesus, who consistently angers the religious by siding with the oppressed; particularly those from other ethnicities and women).

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So, how does this help us think about the Sodom and Gibeah passages and how they have been used to condemn people in homosexual relationships in our culture?

Can’t we clearly say that these texts are mainly about condemning cultural oppression of ethnic/racial/religious strangers through inhospitality and violence? Can’t we also say that these texts offer a way of pulling back the curtain on the evil of sexual violence, oppressing women, and treating women as objects?

I am thoroughly convinced that homophobia is intrinsically connected to the oppression of women and viewing maleness as normative for humanity (this is, of course, linked in these passages with racism/ethnocentrism and viewing the dominant culture as normative as well–in our context this exists as white privilege/supremacy).

The levitical laws that condemn homosexuality do so on the basis of a “man lying with a man as with a woman.” It’s clear these laws don’t value women as full humans, since they also stipulate scenarios in which proper application of the same legal codes means that if a man rapes a woman, he’s to marry her and they can never divorce–the implications are that she’s damaged property and he’s obligated to provide for her, never mind that she’s essentially being handed over to her rapist for the rest of her life. The implication in a society that views men as human and women as less-human property, is that for a man to lie with a man, one of them is being treated “as a woman” and that’s seen as a problem because it’s debasing to maleness.

There’s no notion within this system of a man lying with a man as with a man (which, by the way, is pretty much how being gay works).

———–

What’s clear to me is that the texts of Sodom, Gibeah, and Hagar in the desert, all condemn these oppressive and sinful dynamics of societies and religions by exposing them to the reader.

It’s also clear to me that oppression of women and oppression of homosexual people are linked.

I will go so far as to say, until the Christian church confronts the oppression of women and stops using the Bible to justify misogyny, there will be no resolution of the debate about homosexuality in the church. Homophobia is simply another face of the sin of oppressing the stranger, the one who is other, the one who does not fit the dominant group’s definition of what is “normal.”

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That’s precisely why the argument of what is “natural” gets employed. “Natural” is a code word for “my own experience.” That’s why homophobes and homosexuals both employ a born “this way” or “that way” argument. This is also evident in the way that Paul writes in the New Testament about what is “natural.” It seems clear that both then and now, the word “natural” gets employed in this debate as an argument about normativity.

What’s really at stake is the need for people in the dominant group to listen to and believe the oppressed group’s claim to their own experience in their bodies and the legitimacy of their humanity.

Along with male normativity, these ancient cultures have no apparent framework for considering people who are actually inclined relationally and sexually toward people of the same gender. Thus, for them a “man lying with a man” is a violation of their very notion of what it means to be a man (which for them is also mostly what it means to be human).

Thus, nestled inside male normativity, we find heteronormativity, and if we press it far enough, we find norms that define being human in terms of the gender, sex, religion, race, language, class, abilities of the people who are in power and privileged within a given society (speaking of no room, it’s also evident that these systems are typically set up as binaries: Male or not male. In the relgious group or out of it. Native speaker of the dominant language or second language learner. Able or disabled. Adult or child. It’s no wonder that this kind of system also has no room for bisexuality, transgendered people, intersex people, two-spirited people, gender queer people, etc.).

Just as two women getting married will not magically make a heterosexual marriage fall apart, homosexual love and sex does not make the beauty and goodness of heterosexual love and sex any less valuable. There’s not an inherent need for one to be on top of the other (see what I did there?), just like there’s no need for men to dominate and oppress women (or anyone) in order to claim the normalcy or validity of their experience.

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The problem underlying the debate about gay sex and the Bible is the same problem that runs through the Bible–there’s the defensive vein that says we need to kill and oppress in order to live the holy life we are called to lead (thus squeezing into boxes typically defined by those with socially normative privilege), and then there’s that other vein that is just as present in the text that says that what we really need to do is stop trying to follow rules for holiness and just stop oppressing people and start treating strangers like guests.  

It’s up to us to choose who we think God is in all this and how we ought to live our lives.

Before we decide, I invite us to sit in the tension of the text for a bit, and then to resolve the tension by intensifying it; by stepping into it the way Jesus did–the way that holds together loving God with loving neighbors (and defines neighbors as those who are outside our norms) in a way that leads to unraveling the oppressive dominant culture (for Jesus, this led to the point that they called for his death).

If we do this, I feel convinced that the questions about who is sleeping with whom will soon be put into proper perspective.

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Like the stories of Sodom and Gibeah, this work isn’t sexy. The way I read it, the sin in these stories is about the harmful normativities that oppress people. It’s evident that a key theological claim in these stories (especially Gibeah and Hagar in the Desert) is that while God doesn’t always divinely remove our systems of oppression, God sees and is present on the side of the oppressed–on the side of those that the religious systems and legal codes are working against. And, in these stories, holiness is about dismantling systems of abusive power in a way that allows for all persons to be treated with hospitality, dignity, respect, and compassion. 

Read part 7 here.