QCT 22: Holiness and Sexuality: a Law or a Blessing?

“There are many ways to perish, or to flourish.”

-Mary Oliver

photo (1) A brief backstory:

I grew up in the Deep South, and with my grandparents, played in the river made famous by the eponymous funk sound of Muscle Shoals.

A few miles from my childhood home, my friends and I would climb the freestanding monolith in Georgia, recalled in Dr. King’s speech–a rock once a sacred site for Native Americans, then a gathering place for the klan, and, by the time of my childhood, carved up with visages of confederate soldiers, brought to life nightly with a laser show and fireworks coordinated to the strains of the battle hymn of the republic.

I went to school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, learning to drive my roommate’s stick-shift in strip-mall parking lots and on winding river roads.   And in these places, I learned to read the Bible and sing gospel songs.

My family was a part of the Assemblies of God –a denomination of churches that, on the whole, are fairly conversant with broader evangelicalism. However, we were in the southeast, and with the rotation of people through the various churches in each town, there’s a long history of influence from the Wesleyan Holiness strains of Pentecostalism which developed in the late 1800s from lower Appalachia to Florida, that filtered over into the churches of my youth.

Now, I didn’t go churches that forbade makeup and jewelry, but some of them had in decades past, and I knew folks who did worship in such places.

And no, we didn’t handle snakes–though I did get my undergrad at a university in the one denomination to ever officially endorse the practice (albeit, only for a short period). 

And yes, I have actually been in a snake handling service (but that’s another story).

So, one of the hot debates in a lot of these Pentecostal churches was whether or not sanctification happened with salvation, as a part of baptism in the Holy Spirit, or as a distinct third event. For the uninitiated, sanctification is a word that literally means to be set apart. Another way of thinking of it is, to be made holy.

There was even a sub-debate over whether or not sanctification was ongoing or complete (meaning once it happened you no longer sin). Thankfully, whether from intellectual honesty or the legacy of charlatan evangelists throughout the 70s and 80s, most folks had abandoned the notion of complete sanctification by the time I joined the conversation.


Why have I given this backstory? Because it’s the doorway through which I entered a conversation that gets thrown down most any time Christians of different stripes try to sit down at the same table.

What to do–if anything–with the thing called sin? Or, framed in the positive, what is holiness and why does it matter?


For those Christians who put weight on the usefulness of scripture for understanding what God is up to and what that has to do with us, this sin/holiness question is complex.

In philosophical terms, there’s the issue that’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma–a Greek question that goes like this: is a thing virtuous/good because the gods say so or do the gods say so because they recognize the thing to be virtuous/good in its own right?

Early monotheists altered the question to a singular God. And I like to remember it through the lyrics from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella–“do I love you because you’re wonderful, or are you wonderful because I love you?”

What does this have to do with bickering Christians? Well, it comes down to what shapes our thinking as we read the Bible–that fantastic collection of fragments of ancient texts, spanning thousands of years and dozens of cultures, that we confess as essential to how we understand the narrative of God’s relationship to the world and humans in particular.

So, when we read these stories we see people interacting with God, and we see the category of something called sin (connected to evil) which is sometimes seen in opposition to righteousness/justice and sometimes seen in opposition to holiness/purity and sometimes seen in opposition to healthy relationship (with God, other people, and land & animals).

And when we read about sin, we can generally agree that it is portrayed as a bad thing. Where the Euthyphro Dilemma comes into play is in this question: are the ways of living proscribed in the Bible good because God says so or does God say so, because they are inherently good? The opposite question also applies–are things labeled sin bad because God says so, or are they inherently evil and God just points that out?

Why does this question matter? Well if something is good or bad because God says so, then God is preserved as God, the source of everything–but we run the risk of a capricious deity, and we have to always wonder if we are in favor or not. But if a particular thing has inherent goodness or evil and God is just pointing that out, then God is subject to a greater governing principle and thus, not God.

Pro tip: this is why they call it a dilemma.

And this is where Biblical theologians annoy the philosophers in the room by deferring to a literary answer. We look to the narrative and ask if the dilemma we’ve created seems to be the narrative point of the text or not.

That is to say, what claims does the story make about the character and actions of God in relationship to this whole good vs. evil — holiness/righteousness/relationship vs. sin thing anyway? What do God’s actions reveal about the nature of God’s character and relationship with humanity, and what does that tell us about how God might be interacting with us around good and evil?


Now, there are lots of people who believe that the Bible tells us precisely how to live; that it clearly and definitively spells out what is sin and what is holiness.

In order to live and navigate our contemporary world and whatever culture they live in, these folks have to make some judgments and abstractions–otherwise they would simply remain neutral about modern birth control, stock market regulations, race relations, masturbation, genetic engineering, water boarding, and about a bajillion other things the Bible doesn’t even come close to mentioning.

And even though the Bible was written in a variety of completely different cultures in vastly different time periods than our own, there’s enough narrative data along with a rich legacy of interpretation, that we can make inferences about the character of God and the general shape of what makes good or evil.

But, the real question is whether or not we are doing this work 1) consciously and honestly, 2) unconsciously, thinking we are just reading the Bible and doing what it says, or 3) we are following someone else (usually our churches, authors, pastors, and media personalities) who says that they know what is right or wrong on either the first or second basis.

No matter which of the three ways we are doing this work, we are doing it within our own particular languages, cultural systems of meaning making, personal biases, and communities. I guess it’s obvious that I distinctly favor at least attempting option 1 (being honest about how we are doing this) rather than insisting on “a plain view of the text,” which I see as tantamount to the Olympics of self-deception.


And right smack in the middle of this conversation is where the conversation about LGBTIQ sexualities lands in the church.

We’re talking about culturally defined categories and identity politics that involve relationships and sex acts. And we’re trying to navigate these contemporary issues using a play book of text ranging in age from 1800 to 6000ish years old.

And so, we have to be honest and say that no one “just reads what the Bible has to say on the matter.” photo (2) The fact is, there is no singular Bible to read.

We all read translations that are compilations of thousands of fragments selected by highly skilled humans on committees (selected by biased publishing houses) making decisions about which fragments to go with, and how to convey ideas behind words that they know have multiple possible meanings.

The word homosexual didn’t emerge in English until the last 200 years, and it didn’t show up in English Bibles as a means of translating a few different untranslatable concepts until even later. There are many books written about the few verses into which we read the word homosexual in some contemporary English Bibles. Anyone who wants to make a claim condemning to hell (or endangering lives and/or limiting the civil rights of) a few hundred million people on the basis of six-ten verses should probably do some research first.

What is clear is that these verses talk about sexual acts and relationships between humans who were considered the same gender in whatever cultural understanding surrounded those things in their ancient contexts. These relationships and actions, as they were understood in their own time were certainly at least as different from modern western ideas about LGBTIQ sexualities, as contemporary sexualities among people of same genders in various cultures around the world are understood today.

That said, I think that these few verses, along with long church histories prohibiting same-sex activities and relationships in many cultural expressions rightly justifies the need to seriously ask the question: what is good and what is evil when it comes to contemporary LGBTIQ sexualities?

Rather than running from the question my conservative Christian siblings ask, I am moving towards it with them. I actually want to intensify it by taking it back to the question of holiness–when it comes to any expression of human sexuality, what do the character and actions of God, revealed in the person of Jesus and written about in scripture, tell us about what is good and what is evil?

Rather than a heinous conflict tearing apart churches and families, I want a rigorous con-frontation–I want us to sit down and face with one another the deeper question, the question that pulls us back into the whole arc of the Biblical texts and points us back towards the person of God.



So, I come back to the narrative of holiness from my childhood.

I grew up in a context that communicated about holiness, largely in terms of sanctification–of being “called out” and “set apart” for God. What was less clear to me was the answer to the follow up question: set apart, to what end?

The doctrine of sanctification/holiness–of living free from sin–seemed to have two main goals–1) getting into heaven and out of hell and 2) holiness brings glory to God.

Under point one, God is captain of team holy and sin is kryptonite. God can’t stand sin because it makes God super mad, or sad, or jealous and God literally cannot keep himself from either annihilating us or punishing us for eternity for sinning.

This view can also lead to some of the creepiest atonement theology options out there. So in this one, God seems to be held hostage by sin, only capable of one option, destroying the ones he loves. Penal substitution theory steps in here to suggest that God does come up with the solution of killing Jesus so he doesn’t have to kill us, but most adherents say he still will kill us if we don’t practice holiness, because, darn it, sin is just so powerful that God can’t take it.

Okay, so you know what I think of that option–it’s resolved the Euthyphro dilemma by saying God is subject to a higher principle–thus not God.

Under point two, where holiness brings glory to God, the Euthyphro dilemma could go either way, but tends toward a capricious God who calls certain things good, tells us to do them, we do them, and God goes on a power trip.

Here’s the snag with both of these problematic understandings of holiness: they aren’t baseless. An argument can be made for each based on Biblical texts.

The question remains, what do these interpretations say about the character of God in relationship to humans and does it make coherent sense of the bigger arc of biblical narratives and particularly the gospel stories.


Another way of tacking into this wind would be to go back to those churches I talked about before. What’s going on there, that holiness could be defined in hairstyles and handling snakes?

Well these high-walled communities are defining who is in and who is out based on practices rooted in the biblical texts. Their definition of holiness is different in degrees but not in direction from the ones explored above.

Where glorifying God (and/or staying out of hell) is defined by pleasing God through appropriately holy behaviors, it matters very much which side of the line you stand on. If you do the right things (whether it’s on your own or the result of God’s work in your life) you are in. If you do the wrong things, you burn (or in more gracious theologies, God annihilates you, or, even better, God’s not happy with you, but shows grace anyway, because, ya know–Jesus).

As I’ve intoned before, this view holds God hostage to sin. God’s holiness is either like the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, furious over sin, or God is a cosmic bubble-boy who must be protected from the weakest of all contagions.

If holiness is defined by what it is not–defined merely in terms of being called out or set apart from something–it ontologically requires the presence of evil in the world. This doesn’t appear to hold up to the narratives we have.

The very first story mentioning sin in scripture is immediately followed by God coming to look for and commune with the people who sinned, with God providing a way for them to live and be cared for in the midst of the fallout of the consequences for their actions.

The creation narrative is a theological text making a claim about who God is in relationship to people who do things that aren’t good. The story tells so little about the nature of good and evil, but tells much about the character of God.

If holiness is rooted in the nature of God, what does it say about what is holy when God moves toward and provides for those who have done what is wrong?


image What follows is my attempt to show how I am trying to make sense of the question of sin/holiness in the narratives of Christian scriptures.

The Pentateuch invites us to follow the stories of a people that grow out of God’s covenant with Abraham–a covenant to constitute a tribe of people who would become a blessing to every people group on the planet.

It’s a narrative that begins right after the origin story of the flood and the Tower of Babel–a story that can be read as God cursing humans for avarice or as God responding to avarice by blessing humans with diversity of cultures to increase their differences and develop contexts for greater interdependence. And there are ways we can follow the arc of the Pentateuch and reimagine what holiness might look like, had the people taken God’s covenant with Abraham seriously.

The holiness codes and the sacrificial system of law come after the people refuse God’s invitation to meet with all of them on the mountain–instead sending Moses in their place. Their elaborate legal system for bringing about holiness reads like a sectarian response to the ten words offered by God on the mountain–ten words traditionally understood as being about loving God and loving neighbor.

Should we assume their theology was always sound, and trust their versions of history, claiming God ordained the massacre of children so that they could take their land? Or could we not also read that God was faithful to them in spite of their bloody ethnocentrism and genocide?

And shouldn’t we interpret the holiness codes through the reforms of the prophets who said God detested the sacrificial system and found it worthless–instead desiring hospitality for the poor, disenfranchised, and immigrants?

And, at last, what do we make of a God who comes to live with sinful humans? It certainly seems like Jesus can stand to be in our presence, not only without annihilating us, but with genuine love, kindness, friendship, and blessing.

Again, there seems to be something in the character of God, where God moves towards those on the wrong side of the Bible’s own holiness codes. This gets repeated at Pentecost when God’s Spirit begins the relentless movement of blessing towards all nations. Mirroring the blessing of confusion originating at Babel, there is a further blessing of every nation when the good news of Jesus–God with us–is heard in every particular language.

Of course, this move by God threw the early church into chaos about how the law applied to those outside the law; those hellions from Romans 1 with their categorical sexual immorality–the Gentiles.

So what does all this say about God’s holiness? Is holiness actually less about policing our borders and more about moving past our own boundaries to bless those not like us with love? What seems apparent is that God’s holiness, when played out in our lives, looks like the fruit of the Spirit–that laundry list of relational categories that lead to blessing others rather than separating ourselves from them.

God’s holiness appears to be transgressive, offending our definitions of holiness.

Instead of being a pure sample that must be preserved, holiness as blessing acts like yeast, inoculating everything it touches. Holiness makes holy; calls things that are not as though they were; steps into places where people need connection and offers fullness of relationship. Holiness is not proscribed by a code, it is recognized by it’s fruit.

In this accounting for the texts, we don’t resolve the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead, we two step with it. We say that the stories we hold sacred tell us that, far from being capricious, God is relentless, moving towards those who do wrong, forgiving and making holy through a relationship of blessing.

So, what is holy is what is made holy by the faithfulness of God’s love for those who do wrong. Or, like one biblical writer said, God credits us with righteousness.

In some sense, we might imagine God getting fed up and saying, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” But apparently, God has a thing for all creation and moves towards us with love–offering holiness that makes holy in relationship.


So what does this tell us Christians who are tied up in knots over gay sex?

I think we need to pay attention to how we have been shaped by our culture. We call weapons peacemakers. We are more offended by being called racist than we are by our own racism. We use politeness to deliver discrimination. We blame victims for the crimes perpetrated against them. We treat abominably those we accuse of abominations.

In short, our imagination of holiness appears to be shaped by our own impulse to be viewed as blameless.

While we use the Bible to justify our stance on holiness, we need to renew a biblical understanding of holiness rooted in what the narratives tell us about the character of God–as revealed in Jesus–as a movement towards us of blessing.

When we catch on to what the Holy Spirit is up to, we might realize that holiness is not about us getting it right to please God, but that it is God’s pleasure to bless us with relationship. In this paradigm holiness is measured in fruit, not compliance.

This shifts the conversation.

For those who view gay sex as sin, their work is not to be separate, but to offer the blessing of holiness through loving relationality. The requirement of holiness is to join the activity of the Holy Spirit, to transgress our notions of holiness in order to bless and make holy–to be evident through increased love. In this view, God’s grace and holiness are sacrament–those gifts that make sacred– freely given in relationship through Jesus.

And the work for LGBTIQ Christians and their allies is the same–to bear fruit in keeping with repentance–to grow in our capacity to move towards otherness in relational posture of blessing.

If, indeed, God is like Jesus–moving towards us where we are trapped in the competitive, zero sum game, where we demand death to preserve the purity of our system, then holiness is not about separation, but about blessing that is offered in relationship to those we see as wrong.

Jesus’ parable of the yeast is genius because it speaks to the viral spread of holiness-suggesting that holiness is not diluted or polluted, nor does it displace what it encounters–instead, holiness works with whatever it encounters and finds a way to bless and name goodness–this is the movement of a creator towards their creation.

In this interpretation, we are faced (both turned towards and given faces) by a prodigal God who is consistent in character, bringing provision and feasting with those who are on the wrong side of holiness codes. This God’s project is to bless, making good and complete until all things are brought into completion, reconciliation with God and made holy.

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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.

Queer Theology Synchroblog: Stop Trying to Be Like Jesus

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

 

Dear Daniel,

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

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

——-

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

You were never even meant to try it.

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

God doesn’t want you to be like Jesus.

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

——

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

——

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

Queering the Christian Table Part 13: Locating (My Seat : Myself) at the Table

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

Recently, while a group of us were weeding our garden, I mentioned to one of my neighbors that a weed is just a plant that grows where we don’t want it.

——

There are times when I have struggled to locate myself as a gay man within the Christian church. And by times, I mostly mean my whole life.

I have wrestled with my own body. I have joined others in calling my desires, and my very self, wounded and broken and, in the process, ended up with deep wounds. I have tried to wedge myself into performance of gendered cultural norms and heterosexual expectations in a way not dissimilar to Cinderella’s stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes in attempts to fit into the coveted glass slipper.

In this wrestling, I’ve had to face the question: “What if there just isn’t any room for me here?” It’s a legitimate concern in a world shaped the way that ours is. It’s a question that for many LGBTIQ people, has led them out of the church, and for some has led them to flee their homes and countries for their very lives.

——

And here the language of agri-culture helps me explore the dimensions of culture that lead to the kinds of normativities that leave people truly questioning our own legitimacy as human beings, members of society, and of the body of Christ.

See, agriculture; cultivation, is a method of preferential treatment and selection for desired characteristics. It’s a technology predicated on predictability. The problem with a tightly controlled, predictable agricultural system is that it can never account for the unpredictability of weather patterns. Selecting (or even genetically engineering) seeds against a fungus or pest may work for a while, but when the fungus reproduces thousands of times within a single growing season of a tomato, the rate of adaptation is always in favor of the wild over the agricultural. It’s allowing for multiple aberrant traits that ups the chances for future survival of a species.

Similarly, culture develops and shifts in ways that promote security—family structures, economic systems, gender norms, models of healthcare, educational systems, politics, language, state borders, racial group identifyers—all can function, in varying ways, as means of shaping persons in a way that maintains stability among a shared group. Stability may feel good, but it’s not the same thing as viability.

——

And perhaps this is why the story of forbidden love–love that crosses beyond prescribed sensibilities–is so compelling to us: it taps into the wildness of desire—the deep longing to be seen and known in the particularity of our personhood, understood in the matrix of our relationship to but not defined by our cultural identity markers.

——

In the Ancient Near Eastern world, the various cultures developed systems of ritual sacrifice that were meant to restore order and relationship between humans and the divine. These rituals were predicated on the notion that people generally did not fit into right relationship with God and must, through violent means, be made fit in order to maintain the desired order needed for these early societies to exist.

The God of the Bible shows up within this matrix and spends the vast majority of the Bible trying to approach people who are afraid of God. Later, when these people initiate ritual sacrifices, God goes to great length to tell the people that God despises these sacrifices and wants them to use their energy caring for the people that their society rejects as being outside the norms of their systems.

Finally, God becomes human, so as to approach us on our own terms—there really is no greater story of forbidden love: the holy God who becomes human to be with humans. And this too, is not accepted by society; by religion; by the cultivating forces of empire. That God offers blessing when there is no sacrifice is so offensive that Jesus must be killed and then his offensive love is normatized by interpreting his death as necessary sacrifice to uphold the cultural and religious norms of exclusivity.

——

Through Jesus, God made the radical declaration of making the world sacred. Like a tailor custom fitting clothing to our human bodies instead of urging us to conform to the dimensions of manufactured clothing, God unwound the      concept of the garden until every thing in all creation was neither weed nor wheat, but all beloved creation, drawn close to God through Christ.

——

It is human culture, rather than holiness that needs so much to be protected and maintained. Culture is maintained by the technology of predictability; of hierarchy; of normativity. Holiness is bestowed as an extension of love unto that which is beloved—that which seen for what it is, is welcomed into relationship with God who cannot be harmed or undone by any evil–not even death itself. Thus the words from heaven in Peter’s vision in Acts which led to recognition of God’s blessing on Gentiles as well as Jews: “Call no thing unclean that I have made holy.”

——

At the liturgy that I attend at my Episcopal church, our community gathers around the table during Eucharist. For the last several months I have been having the imaginative vision of the table having wheels. In this vision, each week, as the people gather around the table, it begins to roll around to the edges of the circle, and each time it comes to someone who is on the far edge of the circle, the entire congregation shifts our positions so that we recenter around the table and those people who had been marginalized during the previous formation.

Of course the table never completely comes to a stop. Each time the community moves in response to the table, the table identifies who has been left on the edges of this new configuration and, moving again towards the edges, pushes us into another iteration of the dance. In the Episcopal liturgy, we ask the Spirit to allow the bread and wine at the table to be for us the Body and Blood of Jesus, so that we can be the body of Jesus in the world. I believe that this vision of the table is, in essence, about the presence of Christ leading us to move to the edges of what we call sacred and reclaim the whole of creation as holy; as God’s beloved.

——

In this logic of the God who moves towards us, I never have to ask if I there is     room for me at the table, because the moment there is not room for me at the   table is the very moment in which God brings the table to meet me where I am   already located. When the congregation pushes me to the edge, the table finds me and Jesus calls me blessed.

——

Grace this abundant is repulsive to the normative logic that governs the cultures and societies that have so shaped our religious understanding. It is as unpredictable and as adaptable as a blight, mold, virus, or fungus.

It is like abandoning the well weeded garden to collect a feast from among the fields of weeds. At its heart, this grace is not about making the weeds into cultured specimens. It’s about blessing the wild tenacity of the weeds that lets them thrive despite the herbicides, the cultivation, and the lack of irrigation.

It’s a reclamation of holiness as blessing and gift rather than categorical requirements for cultural conformity.

So what about Christian formation? Indeed! What does it mean to be formed like Jesus, who went around blessing those who didn’t meet the religious standards? What does it mean to follow the whole of Romans 12 and not just an “us vs. the world” understanding of verse 2? If we read that whole chapter, it becomes evident that the working definition of holiness is one of generosity, compassion, and movement towards others with grace rather than hostility.

——

These days, I don’t wonder so much about whether or not there is room for me at the table. I’m learning to care a lot less about whether or not other folks believe there is room for me at the table. I know, in a deeply tangible way, that the table has found me—that the person of Jesus who is present in the celebration of the table, has already moved toward me and called me blessed.

Instead, I find myself joyfully munching on bread and wine and wondering where that wandering table is going to lead me next, and who God is going to declare as holy that will shock my own cultured sensibilities.

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

To Read the series from the beginning, click here.

I grew up hearing a lot about “tough love.” This was basically supposed to mean that if you love someone, you are willing to speak difficult truths to them; you’re willing to hold them accountable.

In practice, I’m not sure I saw a lot of that. What I feel like I saw a lot of, and what I often have the impulse to do, is to use the idea of tough love to justify pushing somebody else to behave in a way that I find appropriate.

—–

Instead of tough love, I want fierce love. I want curious love. I want love that won’t look away.

—–

I’ve received a lot of great comments on this blog. I’ve also had some amazing in-person conversations. Many folks have been supportive, grateful, challenged, and have graciously offered back their own challenges to what I say. That feels like loving community.

I’ve also received a few comments that I haven’t approved for posting. It’s not that I don’t want conversation with people who disagree with me, but I’m choosing to hold open a space for myself and others to speak to the experience of being an LGBTIQ person who is a Christian. We can walk into a church anywhere in USAmerica and hear people who will tell us we are wrong. I don’t need to personally provide a forum for that opinion in my own little corner of the interwebs.

—–

There are some folks who feel compelled by their Christian convictions to “speak the truth in love”—to offer tough love back to me and other LGBTIQ folks. I appreciate the willingness to follow through on what feels like an ethical obligation of their particular belief system. However, I happen to think it’s built on a faulty ethic (more on that later).

That said, I don’t really need someone to tell me what a conservative Christian evangelical reading of the Bible has to say about homosexuality. I’ve read and heard that in about a bajillion places (and at some point in my life, I’ve probably personally said most of the things that you would say on that front).

If you would like to pray for me, I’d be deeply grateful for your prayers, particularly, I hope you would pray the Lord’s prayer with me.

—–

More than tough love, I’d like to see some fierce love.

—–

This is my own understanding of fierce love:

Fierce love is not a tool that is used relationally, instead it is a relational category that extends out of the lover. When I talk about fierce love, I’m talking about the trajectory of the lover being “for” another person. So I’ll use the term “fierce love” to mean “the person who is loving fiercely.”

Fierce love persists. It does not give up wanting goodness for the beloved. It does not assume that it knows best, but seeks to listen, to pay attention to where life is happening, and to invest in seeing the person who is loved flourish.

In order to do this, fierce love is always open to wonder, always curious, always pushing the beloved to grow and celebrating the places of growth that emerge within the life of the beloved.

Fierce love pushes itself to be an appreciator of the particularity and nuance of the person that it loves. Instead of seeking to see the beloved become some ideal form, fierce love surrenders to the unfolding complexity of who the beloved is and will continue to become.

—–

Fierce love fights for the caterpillar to have space to pupate—fights to adjust their own parameters of reality to appreciate the ability of the same beloved, fuzzy worm of an insect to become an iridescent, winged, master of the wind.

——

To some, this may seem like I am arguing for love without morality. On some front this is true.

Morality offers some measure of safety and predictability to relationships in the world. And fierce love is certainly disruptive of safety and predictability.

On another front, I would push back and say that love is itself the key to a functional morality—but it must be fierce love—love based on awe, wonder, vulnerable curiosity, and appreciation of the differences of others.

As a Christian, my understanding of morality is shaped by my understanding of holiness, which is to say, my understanding of flourishing human life that honors all creation by always growing more in capacity to love God and love neighbor. Moreover, I believe holiness/flourishing mean that we grow to understand every last enemy is really a neighbor that we simply haven’t had the curiosity to ask their name, and bear wit(h)ness to their life.

This kind of love is dangerously costly. It will leave us all gasping for breath. It also helps to lift the crushing weight on our chests that keeps us all from really breathing.

It is the kind of love that says let a field grow to ripen with both wheat and weeds (and perhaps the secret is that the weeds have their own usefulness too—that when the climate changes, they’ll be what survives and become the crop we start growing on purpose to fill our dinner plates).

—–

In the end, the story of how I have experienced tough love at work is this: If I see you doing something I think is harmful and I don’t follow through on my convictions and try to help you see the light, then I’m responsible if something bad happens (in the conservative Christian world this means I’m responsible for you going to hell).

That’s a terrible burden to bear. Terrible enough that it could make me treat you pretty horribly in effort to assuage my conscience.

The story of fierce love is also a pretty incredible thing to bear, but I think that it may be less of a burden, and more of a cost—it’s the persistence of staying present, even if I disagree with you. Challenging you, sure, but more, asking you why you are doing what you are doing; bearing wit(h)ness to your process, and fighting with (on behalf of) you to see you flourish in a way that is authentic and honoring of who you are (especially where you are different from me).

That’s not an easy thing to do. It demands imagination, and hope in the face of despair, and being able to remain present in the middle of other peoples’ pain and suffering. It means me saying “I’m sorry” a lot as I miss you at different points along the way and overstep my bounds.

It means getting angry when you can’t be angry for yourself, and hoping when you can’t hope for yourself. It means listening louder than I speak.

This is what I am striving to do with my life. That I don’t always do it well doesn’t mean it’s not worth attempting.

—–

And what’s so queer about fierce love? Why do I find it important to a conversation about Christianity and sexual orientation?

I believe that the intent of tough love from many socially conservative Christians toward LGBTIQ people has been to see holiness worked out in our lives. However, I believe that those who have offered this tough love have not stopped to thoroughly, prayerfully, theologically, or biblically consider how they define holiness.

Without first asking what the purpose of holiness is, any attempts at a holiness based morality will fail to bring about holiness, because it will not be dynamic or responsive to the reality of particular human lives.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment of the law of Moses, he said that it was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. He quickly added that the second greatest commandment was like the first one: to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If all of the law and prophets are completed in these two commands, as Jesus suggests, then the definition and purpose of holiness seem clear—to increase our love of God and neighbor so that it is holistic and so that we value others equally. These commandments demand that we take seriously our bodies, our entire human lives. Not only our own, but those of other people who are different from us.

If tough love from conservative Christians is meant to aid LGBTIQ persons in growing in love of God and neighbors, then let’s evaluate it by its fruit. It instructs us to believe that the particular ways that we experience love and desire is distorted and wrong (namely because it is not directed at people of the opposite gender which is how straight people experience their own sexuality). It then tells us that to honor God, we must avoid intimate relationships with the very people who are most able to allow us to enter the complex vulnerability that will open us up to grow a deeper capacity for love.

So, if the message of tough love, that God doesn’t approve of same sex intimate love, is supposed to engender a greater capacity for love of God and neighbor in LGBTIQ people, well folks, it’s not working. The intent might be great, but the actual impact doesn’t correspond to the intent, because the whole project fails to take seriously the reality that LGBTIQ people are in fact different (this is why acceptance has nothing to do with “seeing everyone as the same” but actually requires seeing and respecting our differences).

If we are to follow the commandments that Jesus offers as the whole point of holiness, then we must love in a way that takes seriously our own lives and bodies and the lives and bodies of other people who are different from us.

And it seems simple to say this, but it apparently needs to be said: other people know their own lives and bodies better than we do.

—–

In contrast to tough love, I believe that fierce love demands far more of the lover than the beloved. It is shaped on the love of a God who interrupts the cycle of human violence and demand for sacrifices and over-accepts our violence to the point of letting us kill God, in order to show that this God is a parent who can accept our wildest sinful rage—the ultimate failure of love, to take a life; that God can absorb our relational failure to love and somehow still remain and draw us up into life and relationship without the need for self-protection that would mean cutting us off.

The scandal of the gospel is that God forgives our sin in the moment while we are doing it, not after we repent of it.

God’s love is so much better than ours that it scares us shitless and we’d rather make God small and petty and demanding (more like us) so that we can think of ourselves as playing on God’s team when we are being small and petty and demanding.

And God forgives this too. God becomes small with us. God sits in our petty, demanding, and even hateful places, and loves us. Because God knows that we can’t give love if we don’t know what it feels like to receive love.

And this can be frustrating to see God loving other people who, in their smallness are inflicting harm on us. But it’s important to remember that God is on everyone’s side. God wants us all to grow in our love for each other, so God gifts us with grace and invites us to love others that we don’t believe deserve the credit of love.

God is steadfast, offering loving kindness when we don’t believe we deserve it and eventually (sometimes over a lifetime and perhaps, for some, only in eternity) we are able to receive being loved, internalize this love, and offer it in kind to others.

—–

I believe that this kind of love—love that is curious, that seeks to know and be with the beloved, to offer love in order to build capacity for love is the kind of love that conservative Christians could be offering LGBTIQ people—but it can only happen when they have grown to accept the degree to which they are loved. Moreover, as a gay Christian man, this is the kind of love I hope to offer the conservative Christian community—especially when I experience them as handing me an unexamined morality that does not offer me life or love.

It is my hope to follow Jesus in remaining present, persisting, forgiving even when others do not ask for forgiveness, and practicing my own love of God and neighbor so that they may experience what fierce love feels like, so that they too may be overcome with grace and grow in their capacity for love.

What’s probably most scandalous to these folks is that much of my capacity to accept the love of God comes when I accept the love of my community, believe that I am beloved, and open myself up to the kind of intimate love that leads me into vulnerability and openness—which for me is love with someone of the same gender.

That gay love might actually be God’s way of building my capacity to love in the world is a beautiful, complex, queer part of the gospel playing out in my life. I can only testify to what I have seen and heard.

—–

I am not really saying anything new. I’m basically rehashing an ancient poem about love:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but

do not have love, I

am a noisy gong or

a clanging cymbal.  And

if I have prophetic powers, and

understand all mysteries and

all knowledge, and

if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but

do not have love,

I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions, and

if I hand over my body so that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

Love is patient;

love is kind; love is not

envious or

boastful or

arrogant  or rude. It

does not insist on its own way; it

is not irritable or resentful; it

does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but

rejoices in the truth.

It bears

all things, believes

all things, hopes

all things, endures

all things.

Love never ends.

But as for prophecies,

they will come to an end; as for tongues,

they will cease; as for knowledge,

it will come to an end.

For

we know

only in part, and

we prophesy

only in part;  

but

when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 

When I was a child, I

spoke like a child, I

thought like a child, I

reasoned like a child;

when I became an adult, I

put an end to childish ways.

For now

we see in a mirror, dimly,

but then

we will see face to face.

Now

I know only in part;

then

I will know fully,

even as I have been fully known. And now

faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and

the greatest of these is love.

——

*Note: Given the title of this post, I want to state again how I am using the word “Queer.” In some uses (like the end of the title of this post, I’m using the term Queer in place of LGBTIQ, as I think it’s a more inclusive single word than “gay” to refer to a range of people with very different experiences. I also use “Queer” as a verb (like in the first word of the title of this series), meaning to show a broader spectrum of perspectives on something, namely to open up space for a multiplicity of particular perspectives, particularly highlighting the experiences of those who are marginalized around sexual orientation. Neither of these uses are intended to co-opt the word Queer by those who identify themselves as queer or gender queer. If my use of this term seems problematic, I’d love to hear about it, as my own use of the term has shifted with time and I use the word queer for myself, along with gay, while also identifying as a cis-gendered male.

 

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

To read the series from the beginning, click here.

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

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

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

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

or

I strongly dislike your behavior,

or

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

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

————

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

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

————

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

See? Still a heresy.

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

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

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

———–

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

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

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

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

————

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

We are, all of us, shaped people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read part 12 here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life is such a mixed bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———–

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

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

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

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

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

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

———–

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

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

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

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

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

———–

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

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

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

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

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

Read part 11 here.