QCT 20: Surrendering to Vulnerability; Non-violence Starts at Home

This is the 20th post in the series Queering the Christian Table. To learn about the series and start at the beginning click on the tab at the top of the main page. 

——-

I have been writing for a year about Christian hospitality, exploring what it means for God’s table, spread throughout our world and our local communities, to be a place where all are welcome. I have been writing about the practice of love and compassion as taught and lived by Jesus.

Ultimately, I cannot see a way to read the gospel accounts of Jesus and come away believing anything other than that he was radically committed to compassion and modeled what it looks like to love neighbors relentlessly and to love enemies until we recognize them as neighbors.

——-

I recently had the opportunity to hear Bernice King speak of her father’s legacy and the King Center’s commitment to advancing the practice of non-violence. While I was deeply moved by her connection of this aspect of MLK’s legacy to the gospel, I was just as deeply saddened by her omission and erasure of Bayard Rustin from her telling of events. While he was not the only one, Rustin, an African American Gay man, was an essential figure in convincing MLK to give up personal weapons in his home and to take non-violence from being a tactic of the civil rights movement to being a core principle and way of the movement.

It is hard to imagine history having much memory for this one Baptist preacher named Martin, had he not made that shift from clinging to personal protection, to the radical surrender of attempted defenses that invited and demanded justice from his oppressors.

——-

Over the past few days, I have seen articles condemning, erasing, and forgiving Fred Phelps–the civil rights lawyer turned anti-gay protesting preacher who just passed away.

For me, the story of Matt Shepard’s death came at such a formative stage in my life and the deep memory of how helpless I was to protect myself from such hate is held together with the faces of the men who beat Matt to death and the church members who showed up at his funeral to declare that he was in hell.

——-

And then, this week, a mudslide killed a dozen people and more are still missing, only miles from where I live. And, as I drive across the bridge over the Duwamish river and see the mountain over our city, I tremble to think of the human loss that will certainly happen from a wall of mud that will fill this valley when she erupts.

image

And I remember again that we are each so fragile and so small. There is nothing we can do protect ourselves or the ones we love from this fact.

As someone who was sexually abused, I know something of the vigilance born out of the inability to protect myself. I, like many survivors, am one of the fiercest protectors of those that I love and those who are vulnerable. It is a gift born out of recognition of danger, and it is a defense that can help us soothe the aching truth that there is little more to being human than learning to grieve what we have lost and learning to love despite the fragility of our connections to life and one another.

——

The practice of non-violence is not, by any means, unique to the LGBTIQ community. However, it is certainly a Queer practice within a culture that has normatized the right to “stand your ground”–a “right” that disproportionately dehumanizes black bodies, female bodies, immigrant bodies–people who do not hold the genetic lottery ticket that birthed them into a position of social prestige.

Within a social system of deep inequity, there is a long story of harm that has written itself across our individual and collective stories. Our bodies are marked with the gut aching realization that we cannot protect ourselves from harm. Some, who have enough privilege to hold out belief in self-preservation, cling to their right to self-defense like it was a concealed weapons permit or a constitutional amendment, or a divine command to reserve communion only for those who are in the club.

But the reality is that we are, all of us, fragile; all of us are marked in some way by the memory of not being able to stop some harm against our personhood. And how we respond to that reality is the marker of whether we will open ourselves up to love or attempt to protect our fragile state of numb survival.

——-

I hear a lot about scandals in churches. For a solid twenty years there’s been a growing panic in USAmerican churches about whether or not our congregations can survive a culture that’s growing complex enough that people are willing turn to less abusive sources in order to get their spiritual needs met.

I’m convinced that the only role for the church to legitimately play in our society is to follow Jesus in the difficult practice of laying down our self-defenses, learning to grieve and suffer with those who have known violence in our social system (and at our own hands), and through radical non-violence, learn how to return to life.

By learning to retell our stories through the narrative of vulnerable surrendering love that, through compassion, releases the right to our callouses of defensiveness, we become people, gathered at a table–all of us equally dependent on sustenance and compassion from a God who loves our fragile bodies and stories.

——-

The deep need of some in Christian churches to defend against what is unknown or feared, comes out of an understanding of holiness that has been devilishly twisted by the completely understandable lack of confidence in the goodness of God.

When people who have been harmed are unable to grieve that harm in order to recover and learn to be vulnerable again, then they will mount remarkable defenses in order to convince themselves that they are going to be okay.

When it is apparent that your God lets evil wreck your life, it’s an understable response to try to redirect lightning bolts at someone other than yourself. This is a natural trauma response but it’s not Christian theology.

The Christian story is that even if you are God’s one and perfect son, you will still be killed unjustly.

And the Christian story is that following Jesus means radical acceptance of the stranger, knowing full well that such acceptance requires vulnerability that will cost you everything. The Christian story also claims that you can only really start living when you embrace this ghastly path, where you will learn to let your heart break with compassion while holding the impossible hope that somehow God can bring you (and perhaps even the church) back from a place of certain death.

The Christian God does not prevent harm.

There is no easy way around this. Our confession is that God enters the reality of the human situation and offers compassion and love that opens a space in the middle of death so that a fragile and vulnerable life can flourish.

——-

This path begins with grief. It begins with naming our inability to protect ourselves from the harm that has been done to us. It begins with the kindness and self-compassion that bears witness to the mystery of our survival (especially when there are others who have not survived). And we grow these capacities by receiving love from others who see our faces. This is the way of God who becomes human to live with us in our human places.

image

Once we learn to breathe through waves of grief, then we can learn to surrender to the tender and tenacious life that grows out of vulnerability.

——-

I do not think that this way of Jesus is disappearing in our society.

I think it is happening in therapists’ offices, foster homes, gay bars, community gardens, AA meetings, and yoga studios. It’s happening like yeast, culturing its way through dough. And I think it can happen in churches too, when we cultivate practices of vulnerable hospitality rather than patroling our borders, and participating in the industrial defense complex that prevent us from surrendering to the vulnerable love that is the source of resurrection.

Advertisements

Matt Shepard Meets Fred Phelps in the Afterlife

I wrote the following piece almost two years ago. I was in a poetry class trying to write a persona piece in the voice of Fred Phelps.

Ultimately, I was never able to make the piece work, but eventually I wrote this as monologue in the voice of Matt Shepard. I wrote it, imagining that Matt was there to welcome Fred’s soul as he crossed into another plane. What words would he offer this man whose life has become synonymous with words of hate both from and towards him?

When I saw this post by Brandon Wallace, I thought about this and figured I would share. The thing that became so clear to me as I researched Fred for the original persona piece was that this is a man who needs to grieve–and man who made a life out of sabotaging grief.

I can hardly conceive of a more Queer or Christian thing to do than to graciously face grief with someone who has harmed you out of their own self-hatred. I think we all need to give and receive compassion like this. If I had the resources, I would organize an angel-wing demonstration of compassion for Fred’s funeral. I want to live in such a world of radical, fierce forgiveness. Until then, may we cultivate imagination for such a reality.

——-

Matt Shepard Meets Fred Phelps in the Afterlife:

“Come here, old man. Sit down on this bench and rest your arms.

You’ve been carrying those goddamn signs so long, I know your

shoulders have to be dying for a rest.             I know, it takes a while to get used to—

after thinking you’d be alone forever and now all these people,

but sit down on this bench. There’s something that you need to see.

 

There—behind the family and the casket, across the street.

You can just start to make out the faces—they’re all here for you. They’ve

been carting around those big-ass wings for years, to all those funerals.

 

It was for the families, sure; to let them grieve, but

mostly is was, then, like it is now, for you. Just look at their faces.

Crying tears of relief, anger, forgiveness                    every one of them opening

their arms, like mine, spread out on that fence, just

waiting for you           to recognize you’re welcome in this world.

 

The fellow there in Dorothy drag—next to the soldier—his sister

didn’t speak to him for thirteen years after he came out. She said,

it was an abomination that he loved another man. But when

her husband started beating their child, her brother’s lover insisted

that she come to live with them. She’s the one who painted white

the wings worn by the little girl holding Dorthy’s hand.

 

I couldn’t really believe it when I got here. I had thought the pain would

end with death, but on either side of that doorway, we all have to reckon

with our grief. Sometimes it’s too much to face in a single lifetime and

we lose our voices protesting what we cannot understand and sometimes

it’s only tears that wash away the bloody mess that hides our faces from the world.

 

Rest. A sea of angel wings has been waiting to sweep you

off your feet. Still your voice and let your heart be ravaged by the swollen

chords of grief your yelling throat has sought to silence.”

Who Runs the World? – International Women’s Day

As a cis-gender, gay male who writes a bit about intersectional oppression, I tend to take something of a pragmatic approach to engaging the queer fluidity of gender within the reality of intersecting local and global social landscapes that have, throughout time, proven to devalue the personhood of those on the feminine end of the human spectrum.

That was a really long sentence to say, I feel committed to wrestling with how best to celebrate women today (or any day).

——-

Back in November I was flying from Seattle to Baltimore to attend the American Academy of Religion conference. On the plane, I was doing some long overdue personal life homework, reading bell hooks’ book feminism is for everyone.

I have to say, that while I live in Seattle, write this blog, and enjoy a certain amount of liberty to express my personal engagement of gender with ease, I am not without self-awareness on a day-to-day basis of how I come across as a gay man. I am aware that there are ways that I move, dress, inflect my voice, and present my body that transgress the expected norms of someone with my genitalia. In other words, I know how to work my male privilege and “butch it up” in order to be heard, safe, or granted access. And doing this comes at a cost to my humanity and the humanity of those whose bodies cannot access that male privilege.

So, when I boarded that plane in November–hell, when I packed my bags–I was making deliberate choices to embrace, as freely as I was able, the feminine parts of myself. Given the freedom of a week away from my workplace and normal routine, I felt less of a need to guard my behavior. All that is to say, I was looking pretty fabulous and allowing myself, in public, to move and act with the kind of freedom in my body that is often reserved for my time with close friends. This is something I’ve been actively working through and I had decided to use this time as practice for caring for myself through caring less how others perceive me (this also has a lot to do with my INFJ personality type which often leaves me more aware of external social dynamics than of my own inner world).

In the middle of all that, sitting on the plane, I took notice of the flight attendant noticing me. The attendant appeared to be about a decade older than me and, given their choice of uniform and engagement with social norms, I’m presuming they engage the world as a woman. As she pushed the drink cart down the aisle, she stopped it just behind me so that she was standing parallel to my right shoulder. I had pulled out the airline magazine to check the price of a whiskey, which I intended to mix with seltzer water and the peel of the organic blood orange I had in my bag (yup, I did that), which meant that the bell hooks book was lying on my seatback tray, the cover in clear view.

Glancing up, I saw the attendant look from the book to me and then, quite literally, bend halfway over and turn her head sideways to look more closely at the cover of the book. I really didn’t think much of the little interaction–I passed her my piece of plastic, she gave me my beverage, and the cart was pulled farther down the aisle. It wasn’t until an hour later that I really started thinking about what was happening.

photo (7)

The drink service was over and we were somewhere over the Midwest, when the attendant was walking briskly up the aisle. Without breaking stride, as if she were reaching into a row to turn off a light over a sleeping passenger, she slipped two small bottles out of her pocket and dropped them, without a word onto my tray and the tray of the man sitting next to me. Startled, we noticed that they were duplicates of our earlier drink orders. The stranger next to me shrugged and said, “okay.” And that’s when my mind kicked into high gear.

What was going on? Why did we, out of everyone on the plane, get free refills of our overpriced airline booze, delivered without a single word from this woman? I couldn’t help but fill in a narrative inside my head.

It started with questions–was it because of the book? Well, of course it was! But why? What experience had this woman had that led her to interact with me in this way? Was it that a person presenting as male was reading about feminism? Was it that a gay man seemed to give a shit enough about women to read a single book? She had no idea how I was engaging with what I read, for all she knew, I could have hated the book and been reading it as a requirement for some sort of class.

And what about the booze for the other guy? Did she assume we were together? Was he benefiting for being feminist-adjacent? Or was his simply placation booze–a sort of hush money for the hetero-man so he wouldn’t say anything protesting his neighbor’s free lunch?

I had no real way of answering these questions, but I settled on her gesture being somewhere on a spectrum of solidarity to gratitude–a metaphorical fist bump, meant to reinforce behavior that she saw as beneficial in the world. Who really knows what she was thinking/feeling?

——-

It took some time before I could explain in words just what I was feeling. Why was it that I felt both perplexed and annoyed by her kind gesture?

As I tried to explain it, weeks later, to a friend, “I don’t get a cookie just for being decent!” That my action was noteworthy at all fills me with a measure of grief. You see, I have a vested interest in the well-being of women in the world–not because I experience intersecting oppression because of masculine normativity; not because I have a mother, sister, and nieces that I want to see loved and celebrated and treated with every human dignity; but because every person is a person and deserves to be treated as such in society and community.

My celebration of women must play out in my day-to-day activities in the world–standing up to oppression, cultivating compassion and curiosity, and seeking diverse human flourishing–these things are acts of theo-political commitment; a joining with God in calling good every member of our global community. This commitment is a reassertion of my belief that governments and policies may grant privileges in the name of rights, but the right to be treated as full persons is a foregone conclusion given the very existence of our breathing bodies in this world.

——-

So how do I celebrate? Do I use words like “strong” and “fierce” to name the goodness of women–words that derive their power by their apparent unexpectedness given dominant perceptions of women? Do I use words like “beautiful” and “vulnerable” to describe myself and other masculine bodies in order to counteract the narrow definitions of masculinity that I believe reinforce misogyny? And can I find a way to celebrate the dignity and humanity of each person while acknowledging the particular and shared cultural experiences we each have of navigating gender and bodies that are different and similar to one another?

Yes. I do all these things–and more. I laugh and play and thank God for the goodness of the masculine and feminine in all of us–for all the gorgeous ways we engage these dynamics within and outside of ourselves, and for the ways that our bodies lead us into our engagement with the world. I do all this with the tenacious commitment to stand against oppression in any form, and so, I celebrate the women in my life; women whose bodies are faab*ulous and women whose bodies and ways of navigating gender contradict social expectations. I celebrate the feminine within myself and the masculine as well, and I seek to live in a way that allows me and everyone else to engage gender freely, as a means of bringing the gift of our own personhood into community in the world.
——-
*Female Assigned At Birth (a term noting our cultural tendency to enculturate and enforce strict gender norms on the basis of genitals from the time of birth)

Microaggressions: What They Are and How We Deal

In the past I’ve written a bit about my experiences of microaggressions. I’ve decided to make a few videos talking about microaggressions and share them here. This first set of videos focuses on what experiencing a microaggression against you can feel like, the impacts, and how I work to care for myself during and after the situation.

In the future, I’ll be putting together videos about recognizing my own microaggressions against others (I touch on this in the second video down below) and how I try to address this in myself and systems/communities. I’m also hoping to do a couple of conversation videos with folks around how we experience and grow in relationship by working through microaggressions towards and from one another.

For now, here are the first three videos. I’d love to hear feedback from you if these are helpful, if you have your own resources that you want to share, and if you have questions you’d like me to respond to.

Peace.

 

If you find these videos helpful, feel free to pass them along as you see fit.

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.

——-

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.”

——-

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.

——-

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.

——-

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.

Queering the Christian Table Part 17: Nothing to See Here: Co-opting Jesus on Behalf of Intersecting Oppressions

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

The facebook started blowing up a bit this week after mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll posted more of his standard, inflammatory claims about the person of Jesus. It was just the typical, Jesus is a macho-man drivel that we’ve all come to expect. No one is actually persuaded to change their view of Jesus by such statements. We all just affirm our own opinions of agreement or dissent and enjoy a moment or two of seething satisfaction at our own superiority to the folks on the other side of the argument.

So why do I feel compelled to mention it here? Why waste the space adding to another conversation of hot air between the right and left aisles of the church? Because I’m pissed, that’s why.

I haven’t spent a lot of time dredging blogs to see what everyone is saying, but I’m annoyed that of the things that have been posted by folks on the left, ranging from just-war theorists to radical Christian anarchist pacifists, all seem to be missing the point. For the most part the responses seem to pivot on Driscoll’s phrase, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist,” with the general consensus being either “nuh-uh” or “so what if he was?” (See here for a modest sampling).

Of these two responses, I’ll take the second over the first, however, I hope we can stop ceding the terms of the conversation to Driscoll.

——-

Allow me state my case: I am a pacifist. I am a feminist. I am a gay man. When I read the words, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist,” I have a strong response. Namely, I’m infuriated that Jesus is getting dragged around in order to reify a system of privilege. The violence that pacifism seeks to work against is so much less about the acute violence of murder and war and is much more about the systemic oppression that allows for daily violence that culminates in events such as murder and war.

Can we step back and think critically for half a second?

Instead of arguing that Jesus opposes war, what if we simply examine the rhetoric in front of us. What if Christians on the left called Driscoll on his homophobic slur, addressing the issue of oppressive gender normativity that Driscoll is (and regularly practices) employing to essentially say that Jesus behaves like a privileged, white, western male?

The claim that Jesus wasn’t a pacifist only has any traction if we first grant the rest of Driscoll’s descriptors, namely that Jesus wasn’t a “pansy”–a homophobic and misogynistic phrase, meant to declare that Jesus was a powerful male character who behaves according to gender norms that parallel Driscoll’s own pageantry.

More, the kind of Jesus that Driscoll wants, and regularly charges the males  in his audiences to emulate is a stereotype of violent masculinity that can only be acceptably performed by wealthy white men. The kind of behavior Driscoll gets away with, and projects upon Jesus is only acceptable for (straight) white men. An African-American man behaving this way would immediately be charged as dangerous. A Latino emulating such a Jesus would be seen as a threat to USAmerican national security. An Asian-American man would be fetishized into a martial arts film. Any woman would be charged as violating all natural laws!

My point is, the problem is not the claim of Jesus as a war-monger, it’s the claim of Jesus as upholding a system of social privilege which elevates one group above all others. Incidentally, yes, this is a root of a lot of violence.

By accepting the use of the word “pansy” at the beginning of the conversation, Christian pacifists of all stripes are basically trying to cut down a tree by pruning the fruit.

——-

That’s why there’s really nothing to see here. We haven’t yet begun to change the conversation.

If we want to make a claim about Jesus’ stance on war and violence, then let’s stop trying to defend that Jesus “was not a pansy,” and dissect that this word is an oppressive slur designed to denigrate women and gay men by upholding an unhealthy masculinity as normative. Let’s act against the systemic violence happening in this very conversation and stand with those who are being oppressed by the premises employed in our very speech. This is where Christian pacifism begins, dismantling oppressive violence where it lives inside of us (also called repentance).

As a white, gay, Christian, male, feminist, I feel a lot going on inside of me when I hear the phrase, “Jesus is not a pansy.” The intersections of oppression within society, the church, and myself are laid across each other in a web that I am left to navigate. But I cannot navigate this web alone, because it does not simply live inside of me.

The use of the term “pansy” was a micro-aggression, and I call on (especially white/straight/male) Christian pacifists to deal with the roots of societal violence and aggression by learning to work against micro-aggressions–those daily systemic and insipid violences which happen against people of color, immigrants, women, children, persons who are LGBTIQ, people with physical and neurological disabilities and differences, non-English speakers, and other marginalized persons.

Repenting of violence begins with empathy; with teaching ourselves and our communities to see our participation in harming other people. Only when we become sensitized to our own participation in violence will we be able to put a halt to the fruit of such a violent society.

Of course, I’ll argue that Jesus was a pacifist, but first, I need to follow Jesus and stand on the side of those being oppressed in this very moment. Rather than arguing about how best to follow Jesus, why don’t we just start by trying to do it, by standing on the side of those who are being oppressed–and here I’m thinking particularly about the women, gay men, people of color, senior citizens, and children in Driscoll’s conversation–the people being told that Jesus is (good) like Driscoll and not (bad) like them.

And of course, I’m also standing up for myself and the other gay men (and others) who grew up in churches like Driscoll’s hearing the word “pansy” being wielded against us like a sword. I hope for the day when the first response from the church to such words is not the defense of a moral abstraction, but is to name and stand against particular oppression.

Queering the Christian Table Part 16: National Coming Out Day and John 11

This post is part of the series Queering the Christian Table. To begin reading at the beginning of this series, click here.

My Coming Out Story

There’s a genre of writing, videos, and songs dedicated to telling peoples’ experiences of coming out of the closet. Some emphasize the long process of coming to love and accept oneself and begin to be honest with the world on the outside about who you are on the inside. Some of these stories focus more narrowly on a particular happy, funny, tragic, or terrifying moment when we first told someone that we were [Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Gay, Queer, etc.].

Some people, myself included, have several of both kinds of stories. There are even a few folks who don’t have a distinct coming out story because they were able to grow up in homes where they were loved and accepted for who they were in a very open way—I’ve even heard stories from people who’s coming out was their own realization about themselves and that when they told friends and family, the response they got was something like, “yeah, we’ve always known that. Didn’t you?”

I have stories of coming out to myself, my former spouse, my classmates, my sister, my friends, my teachers, my parents, my boss, my coworkers, my church, my landlord, my students, my HR director, people on the bus, my trainer at the gym—GOOD LORD, I hope it’s clear: coming out is a reality that we deal with every day.

Whether or not people make assumptions about my sexual orientation from how I present myself, talk, dress, behave, who I am with, or how long they have known me, I can never just assume that people know that I am gay. And the reality is that LGBTQ people, to varying degrees, are always in a process of coming out of the closet.

The slant of the floor in the room we call society is angled in a way to slide us back behind that door.

Coming out to my parents was the hardest time for me–that is, after coming out to myself. The acute anxiety, the stress, and the tears surrounding my coming out to my parents is bundled up tightly into a weekend in July when I was 27. The process of receiving messages of shame from society, the church, and my family began at birth and, like the process of coming out, never stops. In November, I will have been coming out of the closet for 29 years.

——-

When I was an adolescent, I was a part of a church program where we did quiz-bowl-style tournaments on the Bible. Oh yeah.

In order to do well with this, I would sit on the floor of my closet, with an extension cord powering a desk lamp, and I would memorize chapters at a time of the new testament. In this same closet, I furiously scribbled depressing poems that I hid underneath the carpet and padding that I had pulled up from beneath the baseboards. I hid my writing as deep in the closet as I could. This was after my mother had found a hidden file on the computer where I’d written a poem that caused her to ask me if I had ever thought about suicide.

There, on the floor of the closet, with the door shut, I would sometimes turn off the lamp and just listen to the sounds of the house all around me; listen to the dull sound of my breathing and heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine ever being okay. I cried as I begged Jesus to forgive me for being attracted to other guys. I would sit for hours at a time in that dark space beneath the hangers filled with church clothes.

——-

I wish that I could say that while I was sitting in that tiny room behind the louvered doors, I memorized John 11 and began to hear the voice of God calling me to come out. But the story is never that simple.

It’s only years later that I have learned that Jesus was also weeping with me on the other side of that closed door.

——-

A lot of folks have used the reference to Jesus healing people with leprosy as a way to talk about how “we’re all broken” and the church can love gay people while condemning them to hell because Jesus loved sinners and lepers. Hmm. I could talk about what’s problematic here for about six ways till Tuesday.

Suffice it to say, there’s the problem of equating people with a medical condition, and then, equating sexual orientation (something everyone has, by the way) with something to be cured.

But somehow, even though death is kinda seen theologically as more closely tied to sin—as the enemy of God, defeated through the resurrection life of Jesus, we’re somehow more accepting of death. For this reason, I want to turn to the story of Lazarus as a way for us to talk about how Jesus loves LGBTQ people.

Because death, unlike disease (and even taxes, thank you very much, tax-evading CEOs), happens to everyone, it’s less likely to be wielded by the church as weapon of heteronormativity. And yet, the Christian narrative is that death’s annihilation of life is no match for God—God will not stand to let death cut off relationship between God and humanity in the person of Jesus. Holy Saturday is a reality that holds open a space of death, grief, and sorrow, and God’s Spirit hovers and honors that place of abandonment, witnessing the vacuum, even as God strains toward resurrection.

I do not know why, in John 11, Jesus lets his friend Lazarus die. The people ask him this very question.

I do not know why God allows churches and families and cultures to oppress people who experience their sexual orientation in different ways than the majority.

I do know that Jesus weeps outside of the graves of those he loves and Jesus weeps for those held within dark closets where they are told that there is no space for them to be authentically alive in the world.

——-

In John 11, Jesus is confronted and asked why he let Lazarus die. Jesus is moved to tears and demands that the tomb be opened. Jesus calls his friend by name, saying, “Lazarus, come out!” When Lazarus comes out, alive, it disrupts the order of things and the religious leaders want to see Jesus killed in order to preserve religious and political norms of power and stability.

——-

For those in the church who view homosexuality as a sin, there is a burden of proof laid against them—if God takes care of sin in Jesus, then why is it that we do not see people able to change their sexual orientation, no matter how ardently they pray and follow Jesus? Could the church treat homosexuality (indeed any sexual orientation) less like a disease (sin) and more like death (a given reality of being human, and a natural part of life that is being mediated by God)?

If so, let’s wonder together about the story of Lazarus and how Jesus works with death to bring about more life. Sin and death are God’s enemies when they each cut off relationship with God and others. When they function this way, they are enemies of loving God and neighbor. And yet, death is also a natural order of the cycle of life in the world.

Certainly sexuality can be twisted is selfish hateful ways (see: rape, incest, sexual addictions, pedophilia, sex trafficking) and certainly sexuality can be a place of intense pleasure, connection, love, and relationship. In the story of Jesus, when death encounters Jesus, it is catalyzed into resurrected life—into restoration of relationship. Jesus lets death happen (to those he loves and to himself) because it is natural, but he doesn’t allow death to cut off relationship, instead he enters the space of grief and, through it, gives life.

When churches, families, and culture keep people in the closet through shame and fear, it is an oppressive act of twisting a person’s sexual orientation against them and colluding with death against another human being–it’s twisting a natural part of life and using it to cut off authentic relationship. Jesus bears wit(h)ness to this death by weeping, demanding that the closet be opened, and calling each of us by name, saying, “Come out!”

For LGBTIQ folks to better love God and neighbor, we need to be able to live honestly in relationship with God and neighbor.

For heterosexuals in churches, families, institutions, and society to better love God and neighbor, they need to acknowledge the resurrection of Jesus at work to bring LGBTIQ people more fully alive. They need to learn to celebrate this life rather than oppressing people back into the closet.

——-

Of course, in John 11, the religious folks wanted to kill Jesus for messing up the norms of death. They didn’t have the imagination to believe that if Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life he might be able to bring them back to life as well.

——-

On this National Coming Out Day, I want to say to those still in the closet:

I don’t know why society, the church, or your family wants you in the closet, and I know that it feels like death, but I stand in the confidence of divine love, on the other side of that door, and I cry with you. And when you are ready, I will say your name and echo Jesus’ words, “Come out!”

img_3014

Know that you are dearly loved for who you are, that your sexuality and your sexual orientation are natural, and the only thing bad is that there are people who will work to use them against you. And while it is painful and hard to live with that reality, there is a deeper reality of you being able to be authentic and fully alive in the world. And that authenticity and life is worth so much more than the cost of every single time will you come out to someone.

Much love, and we are waiting here for you on the other side of that door,

Daniel