Thank God for Sex

If you haven’t made your way through the internets and over to the site thankgodforsex.org, allow me to offer this plug.

Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers and a team of great folks have been putting together a bunch of resources addressing issues of sexuality, gender, and shame that have emerged from what’s come to be called the purity culture of Evangelical Christianity in USAmerica. However, the resources and stories you’ll find on the website speak not only to shame from this particular context but from a wide variety of contexts. Whether you or someone you love has experienced shaming messages about gender or sexuality from church, school, family, or culture (pro-tip, it’s always all of the above), you should check out the site sometime.

Also, while you are there, you can listen to the audio from a couple of panels that I was on. The first one (where you can hear me talk about the Bible and gay porn) was about religious sexual shame, and the second (where you can hear me talk about atonement theology and masturbation) was about singleness. Both can be found by clicking here.

While you are there you can watch interview videos of folks telling their stories of the messages they received about sex, sexuality, and gender, and how they are engaging grace and goodness to live into authentic, healthy sexuality.

 

I did one of these videos as well. You can watch it below and you can see the videos of others by clicking here.

I’d encourage you to share thankgodforsex.org as a resource for those who might find it helpful.

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I’m available for conversations related to any of my work that appears on this blog. If you’re interested in sharing a story or getting together for a cup of coffee in person or via skype, let me know. 

I’m also available to speak in forums, churches, classrooms, and conferences about my experiences and theological approach to conversations about LGBTIQ persons in the Christian church. 

You can contact me directly by sending a message in the form below. If you want to make a public comment on this post, scroll on down to the box at the bottom of the page that says “Leave a Reply.”

 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Introducing video Q & A

As mentioned in the above video, I’ll be shifting a bit of my content in the coming months. You can continue to look forward to reading my longer pieces, but I’ll also be offering short videos where I’ll be interacting with your questions, and having conversations with guests. In order for this to work, I’ll need your help–your questions, your ideas for videos, and perhaps, even your willingness to make a video with me at some point along the way.

To give an idea of what I’ve been up to and what kinds of questions you might want to hear me engage, I’d invite you to check out the audio from a recent panel that I was a part of for the website, thankgodforsex.org. These folks are doing excellent work around opening conversation in which people can begin to name and work through experiences of religious sexual shame.

It was a pleasure to be invited to take part in the panel and it helped me realize a bit more of the impact of simply speaking together about the topics of sex, sexuality, gender, orientation, shame, desire, and the church. Thus, my finally making the leap into video–because it’s not enough for us to just write and read about these things from either sides of our screens, we need a conversation, and this is one step closer to that goal.

For now, I hope you’ll check out the audio link above (the panel discussion starts about 15 minutes into the first audio track) and that you’ll submit your questions and topic ideas for videos in the comments below.

Peace,

Daniel

Queering the Christian Table Part 18: Learning to Live in Loving Kindness–God’s Gift for Those Feeling (a)shame(d)

This post is a part of the series “Queering the Christian Table” you can start reading here.

For me, the biggest surprise of 2013 has been this blog.

When I started it up a year ago, I did it as a way to force myself to write on a regular basis, and I structured it is such a way that I thought would keep me from getting bored—by rotating topics thematically throughout the month.

It was a good plan.

My whole life I have made great plans. Seldom have any of them ever taken me to the places I expected. Often I have been more disappointed and delighted than I could ever have predicted. Just so, last March, when I began to put words to the idea of more room at the Christian table, I didn’t realize quite what was beginning.

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I wrote that first post as a way of beginning to lay claim to the idea that I am already sitting at God’s table. The Christian idea of a God who gathers us at a table by the invitation of Jesus is alarmingly good. Despite all the vast harm and evil carried out in the name of God by the Christian church, there’s the undermining presence of this human person—Jesus—who dares to share precious food with people whose very lives fall entirely outside the dominant cultural paradigms of acceptability.

Typing out that first post, I was trembling my way towards a declaration that we are all humans sitting at this table. What is clearer to me now than it was then, is that it is not my task to make room for myself or anyone at the table.

Mine is simply the job of stating the obvious: we are already here. We have already been welcomed to the table.

My work in writing this series of posts has been to reiterate the welcome to those of you who have come out—to me, to your families, to your churches, to your friends. Because we all need to hear it time and time again, I will keep on saying, “you are welcome at God’s table.” And my other task, one filled with irony, humor, heartache, and compassion, is to say to some others at the table, “Hello! We’re sitting right here! Would you please pass the potatoes already?!?”

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In the past nine months, I have fretted in the light of my computer screen—typing, deleting, re-typing, saving and discarding drafts, and finally clicking “publish” time and time again. I did it for me and I did it for you. There were many times when I felt incredibly brave and also incredibly timid. And there were times when I didn’t know if what I was writing was helping anything or if it was too obvious to warrant being said. Nevertheless, I have written words that I have felt were needed.

Because I still need to be reminded that the welcome of God’s kin-dom is not limited by the smallness of our imagination, I will keep on writing.

Because of encounters with and emails from you that have reminded me that not everyone is a part of a community where they feel both safe and essential to God’s family, I will continue saying what seems simplistic and obvious.

Because of conversations with people who were courageous enough to ask me to coffee or lunch to talk about how to better engage this conversation in their churches and communities, I will stay in the conversation rather than insulating myself in the safety of communities where I am assured of my safety and belonging.

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To be sure, there are times when I feel like I am poking a bear.

I hesitate to write or speak too provocatively, because it is easier when people like what I write, feel slightly challenged but not too uncomfortable, and click “subscribe” rather than writing me off for good.

And at the end of the day, like everyone, I want to be liked.

And it is all too easy to avoid saying the straightforwardly honest and difficult things when we think we will receive some kind of approval for our nicety. But the truth is, that kind of acceptance is lonely and void. It’s the acceptance of the closet—not the acceptance of God’s table.

See, God’s table is predicated on God liking us already.

I don’t need to butch it up to come to God’s table. In fact, there’s nothing I can or cannot do to come to God’s table, because God’s table has come to me. This is the point of the incarnation and, thank God, the point of this whole Advent/Christmas season—that God becomes vulnerable and human to come to be with us in our vulnerable humanity.

This is the core distinctive of the Christian faith—that we do not ascend or transcend. Instead, God is delighted with us and descends to live with us and bless us. Divinity and humanity are brought together in the person of Jesus who freely shares meals with every kind of person.

In contrast to life in the closet, where acceptance is based on suppressing my difference in order to make others comfortable, life at the table is enriched by all the particularities of my humanity that I bring and offer in community.

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Quite honestly, this is a hard pill to swallow. When my facebook page explodes because large numbers of USAmerican Christians are making a martyr out of one reality tv star’s racist and homophobic remarks, I want to crawl under my covers and hide.

I want consequences for Phil Robertson’s bad behavior. I want consequences for Christianity’s bad behavior. Yet I am welcomed to the table by the same Jesus who opens his table to such hooligans.

And much to the chagrin of the Phil Robertsons of the world, Jesus welcomes this hooligan, too.

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Each week I participate in a liturgy where I recite ancient words of the Christian faith. I make the sign of the cross on my body, even though I hate so much of what that sign has been used for.

Both the creed and the sign of the cross were taught to me in a Pentecostal Bible college, by an old, white man who graciously attempted to teach me Greek for 5 semesters. He also taught history of the church and, in order to pass that class, required me to memorize and recite the creed—a collection of ancient words which includes the affirmation:

“We believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We acknowledge one baptism.”

These words are not a claim that we are the only ones at this table—instead, they are a reminder that we are not the only ones. Instead, we are a small gathering of something much bigger, and more expansive. Those of us who gather together in our particular churches with those we can stand to be around are not the only ones that God is gracious enough to love.

Instead, we confess each week that we are not alone at the table, but that God offers kindness to us and to those we despise. For me, the sign of the cross that we make across our bodies is a sign that we accept that our tendency is to do violence to others and that we will not be governed by the urge to return violence for violence. Instead, we scoot to the side and make more room at the table, acknowledging that violence most often emerges out of a fear that there is not enough to go around.

But ultimately, we sit at a table that is God’s and not our own. And God’s table is already as queer as the entire world. The Christian monotheistic claim of one God who loves the entire world is offensive. And, mostly, it is offensive to us. It is offensive because our capacity for love is so small.

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My response to Phil Robertson and others in the Christian church who can’t believe that Jesus would make room for me, a gay man, at his table, is to say:

“There is room here for you as well.”

Because, ultimately, I am convinced that my urge to dissociate myself from the Phil Robertsons and the Mark Driscolls of the world is, on some level, connected to my urge to dissociate myself from the parts of me that I think are not acceptable. It is easier to try to call them to account for cruel words and bad behavior than to face the parts of me that are selfish and scared and unkind.

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Now, I think there is a difference between what I don’t like about them and what they don’t like about me. While I have a bit of trouble articulating this distinction, I think I can most adequately talk about it in terms of feelings of shame and feelings of being ashamed.

When I do something harmful to others—when I lash out, say something unkind, or (whether out of ignorance or malice) take part in someone else’s oppression (see racism, subsidizing slavery with my shopping, etc.), there is a natural consequence that occurs when I am called out on this behavior—I blush. I feel guilty. I wish I had known and done better.

Feeling ashamed, I want to hide my face.

On a good day I may apologize and try to make amends with those I have harmed. On a bad day, I may make excuses and non-apologies. I attempt to save-face. This is the feeling of being ashamed—I messed up, I feel stupid/guilty/defensive/humiliated, and I know that I have to either make amends or justify my behavior.

Feeling shame is a different thing altogether than feeling ashamed.

Shame is when you are given the message that you are wrong. Shame is not about your actions, it is the internalization of a message of harm that says your humanity—your very personhood is flawed/unacceptable/bad. Shame happens through acute traumas like rape and verbal/physical/emotional abuse. It also comes from the violence of systemic oppression by means of stereotypes/silencing/discrediting/limiting access.

Shame is when someone else wants to hide my face.

Feeling ashamed is what you feel when you have done wrong to others and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling shame is what you feel when wrong has been done to you and that action is exposed to other people and you are seen as in the wrong.

Feeling ashamed is an important social emotion that is connected to empathy. It is rooted in our ability to understand our impact on others and then learn to treat them in the way that we would like to be treated. Feeling shame is toxic. It’s what happens when people reject their own feelings of being ashamed and project them on someone with less social privilege. Shame is the second-hand smoke of someone else’s bad habit of exhaling their feelings of being ashamed instead of learning to stop doing the harm that created the smoke in the first place.

When someone feels ashamed and then repents, the feeling of being ashamed is transformed into reconciliation. When someone feels ashamed and then rejects that feeling and pushes it off onto the person they have already harmed, that feeling turns into shame. It is then the difficult work of the person who has already been harmed to do something with that shame.

Shame is a powerful feeling that, being rooted in the feeling of being ashamed, feels bad. The problem is that shame is the feeling of being ashamed that has been wrapped up and handed to the wrong person. For the recipient of this dirty package, the feeling of shame follows the event of having been harmed by someone else.

So, the person who feels shame feels it while they are trying to make sense of having been harmed. So, often those who are harmed internalize the message of shame and believe the lie that they deserve to have been harmed because they are somehow inherently bad or wrong.

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In the conversation about LGBTIQ folks in the Christian church, my hunch is that there are multiple layers of this ashamed/shame game that are going on.

And as a Christian gay man, it may surprise you that I bring up the opening of the New Testament book of Romans at this point in the discussion. However, I think we read far too little of Paul’s letter when we have this conversation.

In describing the weighty judgment of God on those who try to limit access to God’s grace, Paul asks, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Indeed, the offering of welcome at God’s table is an invitation to those who feel shame and to those who feel ashamed. God’s judgement for both parties is the surprise that they are both welcome at God’s table.

And so, I can only conclude that my role, as I sort out both feelings within myself, is to receive the loving kindness of God and trust that it will lead me to offer loving kindness to others. Again, my response to those who would hand me a bundle of shame is to make the sign of the cross, open myself to receive the loving kindness of God, and offer them the same loving kindness.

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Over the last few months I haven’t posted a lot of my writing here, but I have been writing nonetheless.

I’ve been busy writing lectures, grading papers, and applying to a doctoral program. In the midst of all this writing, I’ve turned to sci-fi as a place to rest and renew my imagination. There, in Season 6 Episode 17 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I stumbled across this beautiful reminder:

In the episode, Lieutenant Commander Worf has come across an group of Klingons who live in exile after being captured in war—a group destined to remain in hiding because of the cultural shame their very lives bring to themselves and their families (for Klingons, death in battle is a source of honor). Worf has come with hope that he might have found his own father there among them—though, given the Klingon culture, if his father had been found alive there, it would have meant complete dishonor.

When asked by one of the exiled Klingons what he would have done if he had found his father, Worf replies: “If I had found him here, I would be glad to see him. There is no room in my heart for shame.”

And isn’t this the truth of the goodness that we are each searching for? For LGBTIQ Christians, we have often believed we were exiled in shame and yet someone has come looking for us—someone who is glad to see us; someone in whose heart there is no room for shame.

As we learn to not take on the package of shameful feelings, this will mean learning to give and receive the loving kindness of God. This will also mean that our brothers and sisters who have done us harm will no longer be able to easily pass off their feelings of being ashamed to us. Which means they will have to learn how to deal with feelings that don’t feel good–that is, they will also need to learn to give and receive the loving kindness of God that invites us all to repentance.

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For me, as a gay man at the Christian table, shame looks like the internalization of the message that I must prove that I belong here. It comes from believing the insistence from others that they get to define the parameters of the table. That insistence is a misdirection of shame, meant to absolve their feeling of being ashamed for fencing off God’s table.

Thank God, this table doesn’t belong to us. My role at the Christian table is to abandon the fight to define ownership of the table, and accept my place as a deeply beloved and cherished guest at God’s table. My being here has nothing to do with deserving or not deserving to be here–I am here because I belong here.

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As I look forward to the coming year, I am eager to continue writing in this space. I know that I have need for you and the conversations that are to come as we learn to laugh, play, and live in the loving kindness of God.

Peace,

Daniel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.