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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Zero Sum

Written in January, 2013:

I can’t tolerate racism. Ideologically and systemically people are still subjected to injustice simply due to the color of their skin. As someone who inherited the privileges of being a racial majority in the States (let’s just say sunlight isn’t very friendly to me), it could be so easy for me to ignore the suffering of others, so simple for me to cling to the persistent lies that “we solved racism a while ago” or that “it’s not that big of a deal” or that “the real problem is the reverse racism of affirmative action and the liberal media.” I believed all of those, once. I’ve had to repent many times of my blindness and carelessness, of my stereotypes and ignorance that contributed (and, as I’m sure I’m not perfect, still contribute) to the pain of many men and women and children, including brothers and sisters in the Church.

Because of all that, I try to call out racism whenever I see it (whether in the form of overt prejudice, unexamined assumptions, or systemic imbalance) and encourage my friends to do the same, hoping that the Church, as well as our society, will become free from the scourge of such injustice. In short: I want to absolutely crush it without compromise. I may be constitutionally required (to a degree) to allow certain organizations to hold to their gross ideologies, but I want to make sure they are at least reduced to an impotent and laughable sham.

So, I get it.

While I personally hesitate to completely equate the African-American civil rights movement with the current push for LGBTQ rights (though there are definitely similarities!), I totally understand why many frame the conversation in those terms. And I understand why, for them, there can be no compromise. I may think there is no commonality between the segregationists’ acidic trash-of-an-ideology of MLK’s time and traditional Church teaching on sexuality expressed in love and grace, but of course I wouldn’t!

Many conservative Christians exclaimed in horror when Chick-fil-A’s first amendment rights seemed to be under attack, but, honestly, I wasn’t really upset. If it turns out the founders of Burger King financially supported a White Supremacist initiative, I would seriously hope every Christian (well, everybody) would absolutely boycott them. (I actually try to avoid fast-food joints anyway, due to concerns of food quality, chemicals, and animal abuse, but for the sake of illustration…)

My concern during the whole Chick-fil-A thing (gosh I hate to bring it up again) was simply that we appeared to be on the defensive end of another zero-sum cultural land grab, which creates an atmosphere largely toxic to nuanced and peaceful dialogue. But would you want to create an atmosphere that allows White Supremacists to “nuance” their evil ideology? No, absolutely not.

So, again, I get it.

In fact, every time I think about writing a post about how I hope the zero-sum mentality doesn’t take hold of the discussion on sexuality, especially within the Church, I can never think of a convincing reason why the “affirming”* position shouldn’t want things to go that way!** It just makes a lot of sense to me.

Not everyone believes American society is headed toward complete relegation of the Church because of this,*** but some certainly are, and are sounding the alarm to take up the banner of Christ and “go to war.”

I get that, too.

This post is directed primarily at them. I am not trying to assume any particular course of future history, but if things do turn (more) against the traditional Church teaching, and the conservative Church in general, it’s not the end of the world. Unless you’ve never been exposed to, you know, anything about the historical and global Church, the idea of being marginalized should be neither scandalous nor an existential threat (though it is, I admit, highly undesirable).

Being that the Church’s existence and behavior is never, in any theologically determinative way, bound by human kingdoms (please don’t misunderstand me), it is unsurprising that, historically, persecution has come less from random prejudice and more from Christians’ occasional inability to be a good citizen as defined by the State (e.g. early Christian refusal of all military service and civic religion, which painted them as anarchist deviants unconcerned by the common good). Honestly, the fact that we’ve had such power and privilege in Western civilization probably**** means we’ve made a few serious compromises along the way.

Without advocating some sort of passive collapse or retreat from the public sphere, I do think those within conservative evangelicalism would be wrong to allow the vocabulary of “zero-sum” or “cultural land grabbing” to shade our understanding of how we must interact with those who disagree with us. Such overly-eschatological dominionist terminology has no place within a people who worship a God who died scorned and outside the city walls.

We must instead busy ourselves with becoming a community relentless in fighting injustice, proclaiming love, modeling forgiveness, speaking truth, and treating everyone with the human dignity they deserve and are often denied. Sometimes our work won’t be recognized as such. Sometimes it will be seen as societal poison or as a primitive disgrace. Sometimes our terms will be defined differently. But, with a few exceptions, I don’t think the Church has practically manifested a clear ethic of love and support for LGBTQ people that would make us totally innocent of cultural backlash.

I’m writing this because I smell fear and anger within certain evangelical circles, and I don’t think there is reason for the former nor use for the latter. I’m worried such emotions will cause leaders and laypeople to proliferate language of holy war and persecution,***** allowing the creeping film of anxiety to rob them of the clarity of Christ’s witness of neighbor-love, which never depended on the possibility of reciprocation or guarantee of respect.

I don’t want to see my community batten down the hatches and take up arms in response to recent events. Such a hardening of our hearts is antithetical to our calling and will only serve to further isolate us and harm others. And, should we reject the loving practice of meekness, whatever ground the Church may gain in this “culture war” of attrition must only be recognized as a bitter wilderness compared to the abundant inheritance of Matthew 5:5 that we will have forsaken.

_____________________________________________

P.S. My use of the word “Church” throughout this post doesn’t do justice to the fact that I obviously think there are many within it who disagree vehemently with my sexual ethic and would see any “persecution” as totally unnecessary and a result of clinging to a misreading of the Bible and a rejection of the true calling of the gospel. Language is often inadequate, I apologize.

* I’ll take “Terminology I Dislike” for 800, Alex.

** Though sometimes I marvel at the gracelessness of some LGBTQ advocates, and hope for something better.

*** So many evangelicals assume they are being attacked only because people hate the Church. Sometimes that may be true, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous and self-serving to say that “affirming” (gah!) advocates are motivated by hatred rather than by their love of LGBTQ people and their desire for their flourishing.

**** definitely

***** And now for a Karl Barth moment: If you think you are being “persecuted” for “gospel truth” but are, in fact, simply being rebuked for hypocrisy and homophobia – you had it coming! Examine yourself! Repent!

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Framed, Part 4 (In Sanity)

Written in November, 2012:

This is the fourth and final entry in this series. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend you read the first three before continuing. Would you watch Mulan 2 without first watching Mulan? Of course not! (Actually, would you even watch Mulan 2 at all? It looks…terrible.) Anyway, moving on.

The question I keep running up against whenever I think or talk about the “gay debate” (the best-dressed debate in town) is Can we find reconciliation in the midst of a seriously divisive disagreement? Or, in my more plaintive moments, Is there any hope?

If this conversation were simply about divergent tastes in worship music or crunchy vs. soft communion bread, then “agreeing to disagree” would be a possibility. However, I think such an easy answer is not only impossible in this case, but would do great violence to the integrity of everyone involved – it would be like shouting Peace, peace! when there is no peace.

We must start by being honest about what we believe and gracious in understanding those who do not share our views, especially when the contention is so great. How can any progress be made if everyone is simply talking past each other or dealing with straw-men? The past three posts in this series attempted to recenter the debate for those who claim to take the Bible as authoritative, moving past the tired, worthless arguments that seem to be all the rage these days.

But before honesty there must come a commitment to act in love and humility even at great personal cost. Honesty not grounded in love quickly becomes little more than a barbed whip, leaving open wounds and aching scars everywhere. It is impossible to speak Gospel truth in an unloving way, for once “honesty” becomes an occasion for abuse it ceases to be truth at all. There is an enormous distinction between debating someone because I want to be proven right and speaking what I believe to be true because I genuinely desire good for the other person. The former turns all who disagree with me into obstacles to be destroyed, whereas the latter sees them as the humans they are: complex, frustrating, loved, and not to be manipulated or treated with contempt.

But, still, is there hope? Well, I guess that depends on what we are hoping for. I have little hope that there will be an end to the disagreement any time soon, but I do have hope that the manner in which we disagree can still proclaim the Gospel and bring about intense healing in its own way.

To that end, this particular post was written in response to the GCN’s rather wonderful Justin Lee instigating a synchroblog on the topic of restoring sanity to the dialogue surrounding homosexuality and the church. (I’m going to give you a few minutes to let the now-apparent brilliance of this entry’s title sink in.) Acknowledging the increasingly manic nature of this conversation, Lee and others of vastly differing opinions hope the synchroblog will sound a clear call to return to Christian sanity.

Such a simple call, of course, does not magically eliminate the pain and struggle that will continue to define the experience of many men and women caught in the middle of it all; it does not give any answers to the most tortured of questions; it does not change the fact that, even at their most moderate, we are confronted by two mutually exclusive visions of community. But it does give me hope for future progress and reconciliation.

Christlike love, says William Placher in his ultra-phenomenal book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, is demonstrated when one is willing to make oneself vulnerable to pain and rejection so that the Gospel might be proclaimed. A return to sanity, for Christians, would be a return to that kind of love in relationship with one another. On a broad, ecclesial level, I’m not sure what that would look like; I wish I could offer something more concrete. But it probably isn’t a bad idea to start with person-to-person interactions. Here’s how it might play out in my own life:

As I hold to a more conservative sexual ethic, my convictions are inherently painful to my side-A brothers and sisters. I hate that. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish text and tradition would unilaterally bless same-sex unions, not just for my own sake as a gay man but so that this horrible tension would be dissolved. But, as Walter Brueggeman once wrote, “Wishful thinking is inadequate theology.” So I’m stuck with the reality that I personally have yet to be convinced that the Bible sanctions faithful, monogamous SSUs. I’m stuck with the reality that I represent something deeply traumatic to countless people.

And yet I have side-A, gay friends whose friendships I treasure dearly. I hope they know they are free to talk about their crushes and significant others without fear of condemnation and that I am genuinely happy for them. But I’ll admit, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and celibate unicorns for me to hear/watch affirming gay Christians pursue romance. I often find myself awash in intense desires and confusion, especially because, you know, I still think they’re Christians.

Being in community together will cause both of us pain. It is inevitable that there will be moments in which I simply cannot be the friend or support they need me to be. I can only hope that, in those moments, our friendship, our mutual pursuit of God and his glory, will be able to bear our tears and anger, that we would somehow have the clarity to see where the other is coming from, to feel the weight of their beliefs, and to receive the wound in love and move forward. If we are unwilling to be hurt by others even in friendship, then the only “safe” course of action is to continually manipulate or coerce them to do our will, which is antithetical to the vulnerable love of Christ.

Now, I’m a white, gay male, so the pain and tension I face is going to vary from those of straight Christians of a different gender and ethnicity, and thus I am hesitant to suggest what their struggles could be. Though for the majority of conservative Christians, I imagine the greatest challenge will arise from having to relinquish the power that comes with being a cultural majority and peel off that protective shell of privilege that effectively insulates them from the serrated arrows of others’ marginalized experiences and the whole range of complexity they introduce into previously “simple issues.” I’ve found that, for myself, even though I’ve been exposed to countless examples of poverty and alienation not my own, I am still constantly surprised by how much that tacit privilege blinds me to the suffering of others whose experiences I’ve never shared.

To be clear, I do think those within the conservative evangelical church should be the ones to take the first blows on behalf of affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTQ people have been on the receiving end of religious violence, stigma, and shame for so long… and even with four huge legislative victories this past election [and the two recent SCOTUS rulings] our societies, especially our churches, are far from safe.

I’m sorry, my words feel empty and there is so much more that I want to say. I struggle endlessly with this. I don’t blame anybody who reads this and sees nothing but a refusal to make the necessary compromises to really bring about reconciliation, who only hears vacuous calls for a mutual understanding that does little to remove the root of oppression. I can’t force anyone to believe that I love them.

But maybe that’s ok, for now. Maybe it’s time we stop requiring others to “understand” us before we show them grace. Maybe if we hope to display the exhilarating love of God through the unity expressed in John 17 we must become better at existing in the tumultuous, maddening tension so definitive of this broken world we call home. I don’t have any hope that things will be easy or clean, but the more I get to know men and women of various stances, the more I receive love and acceptance from those who disagree with me, the more I dig deep into the profound mystery of Christ and his body, the Church, I become more hopeful that this borderline obscene call to community amidst fractious pluralism will, by the power of God, be transformed into a clarion beacon shining forth with the furious radiance of the Gospel.

It seems like an insane hope, but, well, sometimes insanity is the sanest option we have.

Thanks for bearing with me in grace.

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