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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queering the Christian Table Part 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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.