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.
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.
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.