culture

David & Jonathan–Soap Opera Gays

Let’s face it, David’s life was a tragic soap opera to watch. It’s no wonder he had a lot of problems as an adult: what kind of kid turns out normal after he’s killed a giant, worked for someone who wants to kill him, and spends most of his young adult years as a refugee in exile?

Ah, but there’s a silver lining tying it all together: I’m talking of course about Saul’s son, Jonathan, who Scripture says loved David “as his own soul.” After defeating Goliath, Saul takes David under his wing, and gives him responsibility on a national scale. David quickly gains an even greater reputation than the king, prompting Saul to turn sour with jealousy, and in a fit of rage, attempt to take David’s life. He ends up running from Saul for multiple years, before he eventually is crowned king of Israel after Saul’s death.

I encourage everyone to read the whole thing, starting in 1 Samuel 17, and ending in 2 Samuel 1. It’s a wild ride. But for those primarily interested in the bromance, check out 1 Samuel 18-20, then skip to 2 Samuel 1. Both before and during Saul’s pursuit of David, Jonathan works behind the scenes, and alongside his beloved, to avert disaster and diffuse the situation. David and Jonathan make covenantal bonds together, they tie their families together with multi-generational promises, they laugh and cry together, they kiss, they embrace, they fall at each others’ feet, they say goodbye then meet spontaneously again, and at the end (spoiler alert!), Jonathan dies in battle, along with his father and two brothers. David, when he hears this news, tears his clothes, fasts, and writes a lamenation called The Song of the Bow.

In this poem, which he commands the people of Judah to learn and repeat, David says this about Jonathan:

“Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
    your love to me was wonderful,
    passing the love of women.”

Sure, David calls Jonathan a “brother,” which isn’t exactly a romantic moniker. And sure, maybe all he meant by his love “passing the love of women” was that he was more ~emotionally close~ with Jonathan than with any of the women he slept with or married (since, you know, marriage wasn’t for love back then, and women were seen as literally inferior beings).

But I’d ask you to hold your dismissal, and read the passage again in light of the suggestion that David and Jonathan were a thing. Read it with lgbt people in mind; your friend or relative. Read it as a soap opera, with fictional characters whose silly drama is a broad-stroke caricature of real life narratives. Whatever helps you imagine what it could mean for an lgbt person if David and Jonathan were connected in that way.

That’s what we did at Soulforce this summer: during our VBS, our spiritual strategist Alba Onofrio set our sights on dismantling the structures that weaponize Christianity against lgbt folks, and helped us move towards liberating our bodies, decolonizing our minds, and healing our souls.

This is deep spirit work, and it was hard. I’d been avoiding reading large portions of Scripture for a long time, because the tension and exhaustion I knew I would feel would be too much. As much as I love meeting God in the pages of the Bible, most of the time I flip through certain verses and texts it’s in order to defend my existence, and justify my life choices to people who want to control what I do with my body.

But in the right context, spoken by a friend for the purpose of building up, not tearing down, Alba’s voice breathed new life into sacred text, and I was released into the gift of tears. I looked into the terrible, dramatic, heart-wrenching soap opera of David’s exile, and saw myself in Jonathan, willing to give my life for a boy I loved, to fight for him until death do us part. I looked into a sacred story, and saw my own reflected in its depths. I felt Scripture as life-giving once again.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of good representation for lgbt folks. I don’t just mean the representation we see in Hollywood (while lgbt actors have careers, most lgbt characters pander to stereotypes). I mean representation in life. Can we look around and see viable models of lgbt people in relationship with each other? Can we look at our churches and see lgbt people perfectly integrated in all positions? Can we look backwards, and see our stories in the pages of history?

Straight folks take this representation for granted, so it’s difficult sometimes to truly perceive the cavernous gap between the world as they see it, and the world from our eyes. But bridging that gap is possible, and in fact necessary if the church is to remain relevant in a changing culture (and by “remain relevant,” I mean survive).

To be honest, I had encountered in passing the argument that “David and Jonathan were gay!” as a justification for pro-gay theology, during my evangelical days. It struck me at the time as grandstanding, disingenuous, and manipulative of the “plain sense” reading of Scripture. While I obviously think very differently today, I’m not actually saying I firmly believe and am convinced that David and Jonathan can be called gay by our modern standards (David was actually bisexual–bisexuals exist too!). In fact, that kind of black-and-white thinking is exactly what I’m trying to say is stifling, obstructive, and life-draining.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter exactly what happened between David and Jonathan; whether they had sex or not, whether David reciprocated Jonathan’s feelings or not, whether Jonathan, were he alive today, would classify those feelings as romantic or sexual.

Simply allowing for that possibility is enough for lgbt people like me to take a shuddering breath, to feel a release from the pressure we’ve fought against for so many years.

It’s like insisting that unicorns are mentioned in the Bible: it’s a fun mental exercise, used to reveal the insipid legalism in much of the evangelical mindset. We can’t know either way; the point of it all is to maintain space for mystery, to entertain the possibility that maybe there’s more to life than we realize, more than what fits into our comfortable binaries and our social institutions.

But I do have to leave with an observation: not all God’s children are born with gaydar. If the straights can’t be trusted to recognize rainbow people when we march across the pages of fiction (my entire English class once protested of the blatantly lesbian Annie John “but some gals are pals, it’s just hard to tell!”), can we really trust them with any other literary or historical figures?

~~~

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Naturally Odd–Unicorns in Romans 1

According to the KJV Bible, unicorns existed. So did dragons and dinosaurs.

Here are places to find them: for unicorns, check out Numbers 23:22, Numbers 24:8, Deuteronomy 33:17, Job 39:9, 10, Psalm 22:21, Psalm 29:6, Psalm 92:10, and Isaiah 34:7. For dinosaurs and dragons, check out Job 40:15-24, and all of chapter 41.

While some may be familiar with the discourse around the behemoth and leviathan, very few people I’ve encountered are aware that the KJV recognizes unicorns as a given part of God’s creation. Here are some of their appearances (bolds are mine):

22 God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn. (Num 23)

17 His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns (Deut. 33)

Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? 10 Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? (Job 39)

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. (Psalm 29)

10 But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil. (Psalm 92)

And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with the bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness. (Isaiah 37)

Insisting on this point will quickly generate some heated debate, which is ironic because when lgbt people make these kinds of claims, it’s a tongue-in-cheek criticism of indefensible unscientific perspectives that people use Scripture to cling to, as well as an earnest assertion that creation, a reflection of its Creator, is more weird and wild than we give her credit for; our little sister Nature is not a tame fairy, she will not go quietly into our boxes, or file two-by-two into a wooden boat.

This summer I’ve been blessed to participate in a VBS put on by Soulforce, an organization dedicated to sabotaging Christian supremacy and ending spiritual violence against lgbt people. Our focus is reclaiming the gender and sexual diversity in creation from those who would have us believe “nature” supports the artificial binaries we’ve constructed in order to control subordinate bodies.

To begin our adventure, we turned to Romans 1, a classic “clobber passage” that lgbt people are all-too-familiar with. The turning point of this passage is the word “nature”: what is “natural” and “unnatural,” and what does it take to move in between the two?

I’ve always wondered to whom Paul was referring when he lays out his graphic and dismal transition from “natural” to “unnatural,” priming us for the bait-and-switch in chapter 2 when he reveals he’s condemning judgmental attitudes in the early church. In the span of 14 versus, Paul refers to those he’s addressing as “they” no fewer than 13 times. So who are “they”?

Usually evangelicals use this passage to justify violence against or exclusion of lgbt people. “They” refers to gay men, lesbians, and bisexual and trans people. “They” are the ones who have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” and “worshipped created things rather than the Creator.” And as a result, according to the logic of the passage, our very sexual desires became perverted, and we ended up in festering communities of sin and filth.

There are several problems with this, not least of all the very next chapter: if “they” specifically refers to lgbt people, then why would Paul say, in the very next breath, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things”? Does this mean that straight Christians who judge lgbt people are… also lgbt? That doesn’t seem to fit. The most common response I’ve heard to this is a classic deflecting tactic: evangelicals will turn right around and expatiate on how everyone is a sinner, we all have our crosses to bear, no one is perfect, all sin is equally sinful compared to a holy God, and you can’t judge one sin as worse than another (at which point the conversation should stop, since ranking sins is characteristic of evangelical Christianity in this country). All these phrases redefine “they” as referring to everyone, every human being. In other words, they change their minds about the specific condemnation of lgbt people in the first chapter of Romans. It’s talking about everyone, not gay people.

There is an interesting point to be made, however, in regards to the ancient understanding of sexuality as inherently bisexual; to some degree, people in Paul’s day really did believe that everyone could find themselves attracted to any gender, including their own. But that’s history, and when has history ever been relevant to the honorable evangelical tradition of gay bashing?

So then we turned to examining “nature,” to see what she had to say about sexuality and gender in the animal kingdom. We quickly found that the narratives of monogamous, heterosexual pair-bondings do not dominate the scene in any capacity, and even basic understandings of reproduction and sexual contact came into question.

These discoveries deserve posts of their own, but the point is that we were lied to about what “naturally” occurs in creation. The rift between real patterns of animal behavior and what I was led to believe stretches too wide to be a mistake. It’s deliberate misinformation for the express purpose of controlling our bodies and sexualities.

In light of all this, I submit that “they” refers to the Religious Right, “those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

A reclaimed and repurposed look at the Romans 1 passage offers a more liberating perspective: whatever the specific context, the biblical mandate is to do what is “natural” for each of us; the sin is exchanging what is natural for what is unnatural. 

Translation: closet living and forced celibacy is going against nature, and living into our sexuality is a biblical requirement.

In this way, lgbt people can keep all the weight and authority of Scripture, with none of the fear and shame, and move forward with a renewed application of sacred texts that gives life instead of takes it away.

We are the unicorns in Romans 1: that part of creation divinely inspired to live naturally odd lives, mysterious enough to threaten the status quo, magical enough to generate mythologies around us and our history, loud enough to join the chorus of the heavens and earth that cry out knowledge day and night.

It will be an uphill battle, because when the evangelical church has long denied the existence of lgbt people within its ranks, are we at all surprised that culturally gay symbols would face the same vehement rejection, even when they are found in the pages of Scripture itself?

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The “Set Apart” People–Popping the Christian Bubble

Here are two unpopular opinions: 1) Christianity is a culture, and 2) it’s not healthy to be in an all-Christian environment.

Sounds funny coming from a Christian, even funnier from someone who believes that the energies of faith, hope, and love, mediated through intentional community, can heal the ills of the world.

But I stand by those statements, because I care about the future of the church. And right now, the North American church is diseased. Not by the ~homosexual~ agenda, not by cultural Marxism, but by an unholy relationship with empire. As Warren Cole Smith makes clear in his writings, the modern American church is entangled in the Christian-industrial complex, and actively involved in perpetuating imperialism, willing to sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of disenfranchised people for the sake of power, wealth, and status.

It’s a grim diagnosis, but if true, why does it matter whom individual Christians spend their time with? It matters because the point behind saying “you shouldn’t surround yourself with just Christians” is that many people don’t think of Christianity as a culture. But it is. And that’s absolutely essential to understand: it means when we talk of living counter-culturally, as a “set apart” people, we need to apply that line of thinking to church life as well. The gospel call to a distinct and subversive way of living will always end in disrupting the status quo, especially that of religious conservatives like the Pharisees. 

A pastor recently said that those of us who successfully live out this “set apart” life will be misunderstood, our motives questioned, our methods obstructed. I’ve been challenged and misunderstood and questioned by Christians ever since I came out and insisted on keeping my faith. But as Mother Teresa encourages, we should do and be good anyway, regardless of the pushback and criticism we receive from the culture we’re living “separate” from.

And so I will: by being my fully gay self without stepping outside the church, I’m living out the challenge to “go against the grain” and be “counter-cultural”.  It’s just that the culture I’m countering is Christian, not whatever caricature of “mainstream” culture evangelicals use to bolster their positions. 

But what church am I talking about? I don’t mean the spiritual Body of Christ, which I believe to be diffused across the globe, irrespective of culture, race, class, gender, sexuality.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins once exalted in his poem Kingfishers Catch Fire:

“Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

But if we actually hold this sentiment to be true, if we assert that our faith is transcendent of culture (as any timeless truth must be), then we should expect Christ to appear in unexpected places, and we should be wary of any system that seeks to constrict the manifestation of Christ to a certain type of person (in this case, ones called “Christians”).

And we should most of all shun any rhetoric that enforces “us vs. them” dichotomies, vilifying the “other” as degenerate, lost, dangerous, less capable of good than we are.

But that’s exactly the rhetoric Christian communities perpetuate.  Groups that define themselves as Christian in opposition to the “unsaved” or “nonbelievers” intrinsically, whether intentionally or not, paint those outside the group as inferior in some way. Sometimes those outside the group are just to be pitied, and nothing worse. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.

Take for instance the assertion that our true home as Christians is on the other side of eternity. One pastor I recently heard emphasized that we don’t fit into the culture as Christians; we’re aliens and foreigners and our home is not here. The good thing is I know his praxis includes refugees and immigrants; that’s often the biggest hurdle of hypocrisy that the majority of evangelicalism fails to get over. And it’s the height of vanity when white Americans complain of feeling displaced on land we stole from the First Nations through genocide.

But I want to push back on the assertion itself: do straight white male Christian pastors really feel that they don’t belong in this world? 

I get the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” a term Jay Johnson uses in Peculiar Faith to describe the restlessness every person feels as a result of our fallen condition, because I make it myself. Chesterton refers to this when he says Christianity answered “why I could feel homeless at home.” This idea is a cornerstone of my theology and praxis. 

But given all that, shouldn’t we defer to the people who are literally actually homeless, as well as to those who are forced to the margins of society? Sorry but Christians in this nation are not that. Lgbt people are, people of color are, women are, disabled people are. To keep harping on how Christians are the outcasts does not reflect reality in this nation. It’s great to make the universal appeal of “homeless hearts,” but that’s not what usually happens. More often, I hear people specifically name Christians as the inherently dispossessed group, which is just simply not true in this country. 

And that’s why I insist on identifying Christianity as a culture (as well as all the other things it is): because if you’re going to argue that people of faith are dispossessed, people who are followers of the one true God, people indwelled and transformed by the Holy Spirit, people dedicated to living a life of discipleship to Jesus, in ways that confront and confound the “spirit of this world,” then you have to distinguish between those people and “the church,” or “Christians.” You just have to distinguish. Because the two are not the same. Sure there’s overlap, it’s a dynamic Venn diagram, but they are not the same. Especially in this country. In case anyone forgot, 81% of the evangelical vote went to Trump. 

Now’s a good time for a caveat, one I hope will shift focus from what I resist to what I stand for:

Christian communities that define themselves as part of a larger group tend to be much healthier, and produce better fruit. For example, my parents spent the better part of two decades doing inner-city ministry in Los Angeles with an organization called World Impact. One of the central values they lived by was that ministry must be incarnational, which in context meant living just like the neighbors in order to be a neighbor, a member of the community. For lots of new missionaries, that means giving up a level of luxury they were used to, and committing to doing life with those around them, instead of insulating themselves from those around them.

This is in line with what Warren Smith posits as a solution to the malaise of evangelicalism: a return to missional models of church planting, tried-and-true methods that have continued to show great success decade after decade.

Books have been written about this, but the thing I want to draw out of that solution is this: the Great Commission has always been about going to people instead of withdrawing from them (and then asking them to come to us).

So let’s make sure not to surround ourselves with Christians. Let’s do our best to pop all the Christian bubbles when we see them: venture out into unfamiliar ground, meet unfamiliar people, whenever our daily parlance threatens to become insular and repetitive.

Popping the Christian bubble will not only give Christians a breath of fresh air: it will also allow nonChristians to catch a less distorted glimpse of the God we serve, full of grace and truth.