The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

This past week, like most weeks before it, has been a bit of a beast. I can’t be the only one worn down by the sheer volume of blog posts and Twitter explosions that dominate social media. I get it, though. Really. Theology is important, and the topic of faith and sexuality is deeply significant.

But what makes weeks like this so ugly is not the presence of controversy so much as the absence of charity. More exhausting than the immense drama that surrounds disagreements on sexual ethics, perhaps, is the sheer glee with which some people disavow/expose/denounce/break-ties-with others, the speed with which social media can become a mass-grave of ‘good opinions’ thrown out while they were still warm. Far too many commentators seem completely unconcerned that their caustic words are directed at actual human beings made in God’s image, unmoved by the reality that their sentences may be poisoning someone’s understanding of what Christian ‘love’ really looks like. I know quite a few people who have received this week like a wound.

We’ve forgotten that we, as humans, belong to each other, and I don’t know what to do about that except grieve.

But, actually, maybe that’s the appropriate response. Maybe that’s the first step to a more honest witness. Grief, at least, begins with an acknowledgment that people have been wounded, relationships have been ruptured, and communities have often been sources of pain and stigma.

Lament beholds the broken world as it is and forces us to consider how we might enter into that brokenness, how we might need to change to become more effective agents of healing and redemption. And this, I think, clears a small space in which empathy can take root and grow into friendship or community with people different than ‘us’ (whatever ‘us’ looks like for someone).

Friendship, or even just ‘relationship,’ isn’t some magic panacea that soothes all division and removes the need for difficult conversations. Hardly. There are still the fraught issues of policy and church life and public response and so much else to deal with. But at the same time I have been consistently surprised at how resilient friendship is, how it can bear the weight and tension of various disagreements and still be a source of beauty.

I find it hard to believe, then, that the most faithful way to pursue Jesus’ high priestly prayer – ‘that they may be one…’ – is through reflexive tribalism; there has to be a better alternative. Painful disagreement may sometimes be unavoidable, and division inevitable, but I think we suffer when we as Christians allow rejection and alienation to become habits, when we cease to lament the tragedy of fragmentation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Palestinian village this past week. I know it isn’t perfect, that there are still struggles and disputes and miscommunications, but I am thankful there are people in the community who, at the very least, have recognized that they need each other, that they don’t have the ‘luxury’ of treating each other as disposable. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the Christians in that village have a healthy relationship with the Muslim population as well – in their volatile context they each see the other as necessary for their own well-being and for the future of the community.

I’m not holding up that village as some sort of model or analogy. I’m not even sure what that would look like. But I am saying that I witnessed something profoundly Christlike in their acknowledged connectedness, something that I feel we in the States have too casually abandoned.

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[1] Julie, if you’re reading this, please wait at least two years before becoming a psychopathic axe-murderer or else I’m going to look so stupid.

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The New Ex-Gay

While observing the conversation about faith and sexuality over the past few years I have witnessed a depressing number of harmful and untrue words come out of someone’s mouth right after the preface, “Well, as someone with a conservative ethic…” or “As someone who is ‘side-B’…” (Side-B being clunky shorthand for a more traditional sexual ethic, for those who hadn’t heard it before.)

I understand that some of these people are new to the discussion, are becoming more aware of something that they used to not even have to think about. But…

It’s hard, sometimes, to watch people who are insulated from the consequences of their words keep saying the same harmful things over and over. And it becomes harder when these words are used by others as the example of a “traditional sexual ethic.”

“These words” range from banal prejudices that cast all gay people as exceptionally promiscuous or obsessed with any number of threatening agendas to more contextually specific comments like “Shouldn’t we, as Christians, not have to talk about this so much? Can’t they just keep it between them and a few friends or a counselor? We all have problems; can’t they just find their identity in Christ and stop whining?”

And they’re being heard.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rash of articles “introducing” the internet to celibate gay Christians. The responses have been, unsurprisingly, mixed. The most common reaction I’ve seen has been a reflexive categorization of “side-B”* beliefs as “the new ex-gay,” as nothing more than the next tool of homophobic fundamentalists to marginalize gay people.

These “response” articles – and particularly the subsequent comments – are often uninspiring, caustic, and full of caricature. I also don’t think they are entirely wrong.

Rant with me, please?

"I can admire your rampage against the hegemony much better from here, thank you."

“I can admire your rampage against hypocrisy much better from here, thank you.” “Ugh, whatever Darcy.”

As I’ve engaged the conversation surrounding faith and sexuality, one of the main sources of frustration has been the persistent sense that most conservative straight Christians are more passionate about gay people not having sex than they are about gay people flourishing in church communities and in society at large. Put more witheringly, I get the sense that when people say things like “Why do they even have to ‘come out’ at all?” what they mean is that it would be better if gay people simply didn’t exist.

This is why the ex-gay narrative was (is) so attractive – it literally removed the “problem” of gay people. As that narrative continues to unravel some people are searching for a new way to pursue their unchanged desire to pray the gays away.**

Some may balk at that claim, and maybe it’s ungracious – there are some important differences in rhetoric, and I get that. But here’s what I see: one way or another, championing ex-gay ideology or appropriating a ravaged shade of the “traditional sexual ethic,” these particular people are looking for a belief that demands nothing from them and everything from sexual minorities.

Given that the ex-gay narrative placed all the weight of “faithful response” on the gay people themselves, it makes sense that prior supporters of that ideology would continue to focus exclusively on what the gay person needs to do, just in different language. Unless the switch from the ex-gay narrative to the “side-B” narrative of celibacy/chastity coincides with a shift in one’s understanding of church community and personal responsibility, then the “traditional sexual ethic” becomes a rather cruel farce, a perpetuation of unequal power structures and shame.

Those highly critical articles are responding in part, I think, to this ultra-lame permutation of a conservative ethic. So, I understand the hate; ex-gay ideologies have left so many scars on beloved people, and to see the phantoms of those ideologies take on new skins merits unequivocal response.

I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone, or even most people, will accept the differentiation of what we are trying to do at Spiritual Friendship from the ex-gay narrative in all of its forms. Or, even if they do see the difference, that it will matter at all.

But, well, here we are.

One of the things that I find beautiful about the “traditional sexual ethic” as I see it expressed by people who have thought through it extensively is how it is about so much more than just what certain people do or don’t do with certain parts of their bodies.

Rather, it is a sweeping yet grounded reimagining of what it means to be embodied beings in mutual communion with each other for the sake of human flourishing and the demonstration of the gospel in our particular contexts.

In other words, it is just as much about churches and communities addressing their trenchant sins of inhospitality and marginalization as it is about an individual’s stewardship of her mind and body.

For me, such a reframing provides motion and purpose and is far more true to the reality of the gospel than the one-sided and apodictic platitudes that characterize the rhetoric of those interested primarily in maintaining the status-quo and keeping this “problem” at a distance.

What kills me is how these Christians think they are preserving the witness of the church, but because many of them are blind to the actual lives of gay people they are unaware of the destructive character of their words and actions, how they are so profoundly corroding the beauty of the gospel*** and, in a very real way, making all expressions of a “traditional sexual ethic” culturally equivalent to ex-gay ideology and homophobia.

And I hate how I can’t escape saying “these people,” as if “they” aren’t often friends and family who I know and respect, or how, even still, my brain gets so caught up in the distressing tension of it all and becomes paralyzed by weariness and the most boring kind of despair.

But then, when I’m tempted toward total apathy, I encounter beautiful moments of community done well and am reminded how much there is to be gained from pursuing, together, a better way forward.

So I guess I want to end with this: would you, whoever you are, just examine the underlying character of your beliefs about sexuality, whether or not they have been formed in relationship with gay people, whether or not they are also concerned with whole church communities becoming more tightly knit and hospitable and responsibly sexual beings, and whether or not they manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their expression?

Because, honestly, it often feels as if the church is asking gay people to walk through a minefield as everyone else just stands back and yells instructions, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has grown a bit tired of being one of its human minesweepers.

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* I will give my holographic Charizard to anyone who can institute a better-yet-still-pithy phrase to communicate “side-B” beliefs without having to actually use that arcane label.

** High-five!

*** I’m not unaware that most affirming Christians feel the exact same about me.

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Speech-Act, Pt. 2

Having briefly explained why I’ve struggled to consistently write over the past few months, we now turn to a vastly more important/ less whiny topic: how I hope to constructively engage the conversation surrounding homosexuality and faith.

I don’t know how to describe this without devolving into some kind of horrendously embarrassing INFP psycho-babble, but I feel like I need to “rediscover my voice” (oh god it burns!). What I mean is I am distinctly aware that I must reevaluate how I speak/write about sexuality because I have changed significantly over the past year. It’s like my fifth puberty of the soul.

Before I took a break from blogging in May, my goals were primarily to help the conservative evangelical church understand something it didn’t seem to understand very well at all and to show men or women who may have been wrestling with their sexuality that they are neither alone nor doomed to isolation and pain. With a few exceptions I never really spoke much about “the conversation” as a whole or how I aspired to, in the ever-catchy phrasing of The Marin Foundation, “elevate” it.

So when I came out in July and returned to writing, I was surprised by how difficult it had suddenly become to say anything. My original desires hadn’t changed too drastically, but the way I wanted to go about pursuing them had made a few significant shifts.

This post is mostly for myself – a rhetorical measure to which I want to be held accountable – but I hope it can also incite reflection and a renewed sense of gracious commitment in anyone who feels they have something to say. Which, I might add, is everybody to some degree or another.

I don’t want to cheapen pain or suffering by using it as a crutch to maintain reader interest. Finding new, particularly potent ways to communicate the ache of being different or controversial or rejected or alone seems to be the calling card of many a blog that addresses being a Christian who is gay.

People respond well to confessions of pain, and, what is more, really treasure a description of pain that resonates with their own experience. That is a very good thing. I’ll never forget how powerful it was to encounter Henri Nouwen’s work for the first time, his words casting some alchemical spell over my despair that changed it from monstrous to human. I just wanted to do the same for others.

But when pain seems to be what increases blog traffic and reader response, it can become so easy to start peddling it like some shiny trinket. The internet rewards drama, and I must admit I’m growing incredibly weary of how often conversations or posts about sexuality and faith – mine included – are mired in agony-laced sensationalism. Though it produces (not altogether bad) results in the short-term, I think it ultimately compromises the integrity of our witness and the character of the dialog.

By all means I want to speak honestly about pain and struggle (which also requires I admit when I experience neither) and give others the opportunity to speak honestly about theirs, but I’m not sure honesty pairs well with ceaseless metaphors about “some kind of flaming/icy/abyssal/dark serpent/dagger/monster/dementor crushing/piercing/rupturing/devouring my heart/brain/bowels/soul.” Pain can be too important a thing to devalue with dramatic excess.

I want to show grace to those who disagree with me – constantly asking myself how they may hear my words and trying to avoid the ever-alluring strawman arguments.  This is obviously easier said than done, and it is difficult to feel that those who disagree really understand your beliefs or whatever (because if they did they’d totally change their minds, right?). At the same time, one of my greatest frustrations stems from seeing certain ultra-flimsy, thoroughly bankrupt ideas blindly recycled in article after article – as if the author isn’t very interested in the hard work of listening and reflecting. I hope those two powerful actions, listening and reflecting, increasingly define the way I live.

I want to communicate with clarity and nuance. At times, in order to feel like I was “clear” about what I believed, I have sacrificed patience and grace. Conversely, in an effort not to step on toes, I have sometimes been vague and noncommittal. Attempting that fabled rhetorical balance can feel as futile as smashing two positive magnet-ends together or keeping a millennial in a room without wi-fi, but striving for it, however imperfectly, is so very necessary and so very worth the effort.

I want to write with a sense of levity, when appropriate.  Many things can and should be taken incredibly seriously; human life is fraught with tragedy and lament. I don’t ever want to exploit someone’s very real suffering for a laugh. At the same time, I think it’s impossible to write accurately about sexuality without a strand of humor, and reading post after deadly-serious post can so easily make one feel hopeless about everything. Learning to laugh at myself and my absurd experiences as a sexual being, like everyone, was and is an exercise in hope.

I want each post to proclaim the gospel, explicitly or not. Because this is how it all begins and ends for me: I am only who I am because God has reconciled me to himself and has called me to live each day serving others in light of the gospel. For all the seasons of doubt and darkness, I keep coming back to that truth; I am here because I am loved, and I am here so that I can love others. I want everything to point to that reality so that others might know it for themselves.*

Certainly this list isn’t exhaustive, and there are other personal goals I intend to aim for (e.g. be at least 20% less annoying than Scrappy-Doo or Snarf, and include as many childhood pop-culture references as I can without over-saturation), but this is a start.

If you have any suggestions of your own, I’d be interested in hearing them. Uh, I mean, I’d love to listen to and reflect on them. Yes, that.

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Matt

* Pretty sure I used up my monthly quota for “Christianese” with this paragraph, and that was even after serious editing. 

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What Is Love?

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Now, on to business.

A sentiment I often hear within the evangelical church is, “If we want to love people, we must be willing to speak the truth about their sins. To ignore or sugarcoat them would be the most unloving thing we could do, even if other people don’t see it that way.” The basic idea is that sin, separation from God, is the greatest tragedy, and if you really do care about someone then you will want them to be free from that blinding, oppressive weight even if they refuse to acknowledge it – you will want them to know God. So we must preach the Gospel.

This is all true. But I’m beginning to wonder if the way that sentiment is commonly played out misses the mark of true love, especially when it comes to the church’s interactions with the LGTBQ community.

When someone raises a concern like the one above, my first thought is usually, The LGBTQ community probably doesn’t need to be reminded, again, of what the evangelical church generally thinks about about homosexuality. I’m pretty sure, actually, that the first thing that comes into most LGBTQ people’s mind when they hear the word “evangelical” is the anti-gay rhetoric that seems definitive of conservative Christians’ public discourse.

What strikes me as odd, and dangerous, is that somehow the message of “We don’t think you should be having sex” is considered more essential to the Gospel than “God loves you and so do we.” How the heck did that happen?

Why is it that any message to an LGBTQ person is not considered to be true, or truly loving, unless it contains a litany of his/her/their sins, and yet a message that is only about sin, devoid of any mention of God’s grace or a commitment to fight injustice on their behalf, somehow passes as an acceptable proclamation of the Gospel? As if, from the start, we don’t think LGBTQ people deserve anything better than judgment.

It’s like the church is chasing after them, hurling spears of condemnation and prejudice, all while shouting, “We love you! God loves you! No, seriously! Come back!” And when they keep running we just shake our heads and attribute their retreat away from us as a sign of their gross sinfulness, a refusal to accept the “Gospel-centered” kind of love we’ve offered them.

What the hell is wrong with us?! We treat them like crap throughout history and expect a different outcome? Maybe they reject us because we’ve never really loved them in the first place. Maybe they reject us because we are continually rejecting them.

Where were we when they became victims of abuse, hate crimes, disease, stigma, and bullying? We were either perpetuating their pain or apathetic toward it. And for those brave few who dared to stand beside them and model a different kind of love? We yelled across the chasm of our fear, “While you’re over there, make sure you tell them they’re sinful, otherwise whatever you’re doing doesn’t count!” Then we patted ourselves on the back for being “missional.” It’s maddening!

Ok, wow, deep breaths. The whole thing is just very frustrating for me. I once asked a gay man I was sitting next to on a plane what it would take for him to know he was loved by the evangelical church even if it never became “affirming.” It’s a question I had been dying to ask someone, and after I had so intently listened to his impassioned monologue about his spiritual connection to Diana Ross (who he’d seen over two-hundred times in concert), I figured he owed me. His short answer has stuck with me for the past two years: “I might believe it,” he said, “if you would at least fight the stigma that claims so many lives. But you don’t.”

If the only examples we have of showing the LGBTQ community “love” are the sermons where we preach the “truth” about the sinfulness of that community, then I would humbly propose that we repent of our anemic understanding of love, our exceptional failure to be consistent with how we live out the Gospel, and then to actually do something – not because we need a new conversion tactic but because we are Christians, and it’s simply how we have been called to live.

Read this article. Please, please read it. I’ve posted it so many times on Facebook and Twitter because it stands as a soul-crushing indictment of the loveless rhetoric so common in conservative evangelicalism. We cannot pretend we are blameless anymore, we cannot go on as we always have.

This is not an “easy solution” to a complex problem; it’s a reminder of what we have forgotten, what we have forsaken. How this will manifest in individual lives and church communities will vary, but it must be made manifest. Otherwise, honestly, I don’t think we have anything more to say.

Matt

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