evangelical

Jesus Didn’t Say Anything About Same-Gender Relationships?

What Jesus did and didn’t say about same-gender relationships is absolutely key to how we frame the conversation around sexual ethics today.

A common defense of lgbt relationships against religious bigotry is the insistence that Jesus says nothing about same-gender relationships in any of the Gospels.

This is technically true. It’s important to notice how unimportant to Jesus is one of the issues so many modern evangelicals choose as their hill to die on.

But there are several passages in the Gospels that shows us how Jesus treated those with nontraditional sexual relationships. One of them is the centurion and his “boy servant” in Luke chapter 7. The same event is also referred to in Matthew chapter 8, and the word the centurion uses to describe his servant is “pais,” which is widely acknowledged to mean the younger partner in a pederastic relationship, common for that time.

The barebones of the story are that the centurion asks for Jesus to heal his “servant,” and Jesus agrees, but before he can come there in person, the centurion insists that if he just spoke the word, his “boy” would be healed. Jesus is amazed, and declares “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

The usual slew of sermons written about (or incorporating) this passage mainly emphasize the power of faith to heal. The centurion had so much faith, it’s often said, that he didn’t need Jesus to come in person, even though Jesus was about to.

And since we in the modern world are about two thousands years too late to invite the incarnate Jesus into our homes, it’s wonderful news that our faith without sight can be rewarded so powerfully and immediately.

The whole thing slurps easily into prosperity gospel (if you just ask hard enough, it’ll happen), and perpetuating the Christian bubbles that promote individual moral uprightness instead of awareness of larger systems of injustice.

But there’s more to the story if we look closer.

After speaking to great crowds, Jesus moves on to the city of Capernaum, where the centurion lives. From the second verse, we learn that the centurion’s “boy” was someone “whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.” In other words, this was not a post-on-facebook, please-send-prayers kind of situation.

It was desperate, it was deep heartache, it was life-or-death.

In the next few verses, we learn that the centurion made his request through Jewish elders. These guys are not just acquaintances of the centurion; they appeal “earnestly” on his behalf, insisting that “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 

This tells me that the centurion was a great ally to the Jewish people. He built and sustained strong community with his Jewish neighbors, and directly invested his time and resources into supporting Jewish culture and religious practice. The Jewish elders said “he loves our people,” and he’s “worthy” of Jesus’ ministry of healing.

Sounds like a stellar candidate for divine miracles to me. If Jesus had a problem with helping anyone, it wouldn’t be this guy.

But then, why all the countermeasures? Why send other people, instead of going himself, when it’s clear the centurion knew right where Jesus was?

No particular answer is given, but something changes: the next verse says that when Jesus was “not far from the house,” the centurion interrupts Jesus’ journey with another message. This time, he sends “friends” to tell Jesus not to “trouble yourself” by coming any further. The reason he gives? “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you.”

Can you feel the shame? Obviously this man was worthy (and we know that Jesus would come regardless, because he specifically reaches out to the “unworthy”). But there was something that held the centurion back, that made him sure that if Jesus met him in person, entered his home, saw his “boy,” something would go wrong.

I want us to live in the space between the elders and the friends.

I can feel the centurion’s anxious spirit, the back-and-forth between taking the step of courage to invite this man into your home, and maintaining the distance you know will preserve your social standing (and perhaps safety). I’ve walked that balance myself countless times. I know the tug-of-war of coming out at the risk of losing valuable relationships. I know the frustrating fear I have to overcome every time I choose truth and love where it hurts.

For the centurion, Jesus was an orthodox Jewish rabbi, thoroughly Hebrew in culture and upbringing, with every reason to look down on his relationship with his servant. How impossible to invite someone you know disagrees with your lifestyle to pray over the very person whose involvement in your life is under scrutiny?

How much more powerful, then, is the healing that Jesus performs. How much greater the centurion’s faith. Perhaps this is why Jesus said he had never seen such faith even in Israel.

This matters because it reveals Jesus to be deeply, intimately, and passionately involved in the personal lives of those he ministered to. Jesus was not the shrug-your-shoulders, not-my-problem type. His silence was not neutrality. He was unequivocally for the centurion, in full knowledge of his same-gender relationship.

For this reason, I can feel that Jesus is unequivocally for me, and all other sga folks, in full knowledge of our relationships.

When we read Scripture, let’s spend time in the uncomfortable spaces where decisions are made. Let’s lean into the tension, and live and love in ways that honor the full depth of who we are.

And let’s stop pretending Jesus was neutral when it came to same-gender relationships. He wasn’t neutral: he stood up for the outcast, extended blessing to the marginalized, time and time again.

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Biblical Manhood or Emasculated Gay?

Does being gay make me less of a man? That’s the question I asked myself in desperate earnest as a young teen.

For a long time, I’ve wondered how evangelicals who are fervently committed to racial and economic justice can so completely miss gender and sexual justice. If you already understand why people of color and poor folks aren’t scary, are gay, bi, and trans people really that terrifying? But time and again, evangelicals bend over backwards to justify heteropatriarchy, and ignore the marginalization of lgbt people.

When I was a young teenager, I remember questioning whether I was fully a man. I felt ashamed of my attraction to other boys, and afraid that I had “failed” at being the person God wanted me to be. This was heavily coded in gendered language. I was immersed in evangelical subculture for most of my formative years, and we were constantly called to become our most authentic, God-given selves, which for us young boys meant “godly men,” with marriage and head-of-household as the accompanying life-goals. Perpetual singleness wasn’t even on the radar. And anything gay? Run in the other direction. Literally, people used the “flee sexual immorality” passage from 1 Corinthians 6 to make this point that gayness (and gay people by inference) was so dangerous, good Christian boys would never associate with it.

But it was even more pernicious. The NIV (recently more gender neutral I’ve noticed?) says, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” And of course, because I couldn’t run from myself (I knew I was gay since the age of 12), I felt like I was in a state of perpetual sin against my own body.

That’s some serious self-hatred right there.

And it should not be an either/or choice. Young people should not have to choose between their sexually gendered selves and their spiritual selves. That kind of separation contributes to fracturing people in psychologically devastating ways. And we can readily see the consequences of those conflicts in our young people today, in the tragically high rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse among young lgbt people.

So what to do? Many people balk at the solution offered by some strains of feminism, which is to abolish gender. Many also wonder how could gay or trans folk get behind such efforts, if we spend so much time and energy articulating the genderedness of our sexuality, or the sexual implications of our gender.

Personally, I’m on board with feminist efforts to abolish gender. I’m uncertain it will ever happen, but in theory, I see huge benefits and very few drawbacks. I already don’t fit many requirements of masculinity (compulsory heterosexuality, for example), and the main reason I insist on my gender is for political reasons (to defend my gayness), and also for personal growth reasons: to recognize my role in patriarchy and the oppression of non-male genders.

It’s true that I emphasize my own masculinity, and sharply define my sexuality as an exclusive attraction to other male-aligned people. This is very important to me, but not necessarily because gender is an inherent trait that I’m afraid to lose. Rather, it’s important to me because my politicized identity as a gay man is under pressure. Because gay men are specifically oppressed for being men attracted to other men, I insist on my maleness and the maleness of those I’m attracted to, because I resist the idea that men being attracted to men is inherently evil, sinful, or unnatural, and I resist the idea that being attracted to men is unthinkable or impossible if you are a man. These two ideas being central beliefs of the evangelical world I grew up in, they still have very real consequences in the lives of countless young lgbt people, and others like me who deal with trauma from those years.

But if gender were abolished, along with its accompanying oppressions, I would have no reason to insist on the maleness of my partners, or even my own. And this would be incredibly freeing. No one would have any basis to judge or condemn my loves or my way of being based on gender. True, it wouldn’t make sense to identify any longer as a gay man, but then I only do so now as a political response to societal pressure against an inherent part of me.

Before the word “inherent” trips people up, let me explain what I mean: I’m attracted to a certain type of people (gay folks actually aren’t attracted to every member of their gender, shocking right?), and we just happen to call those people “male.” But my type differs drastically from other gay guys, and the only use in describing our attractions as alike in a fundamental way is because of the way we aggressively gender society in the first place. So the attractions are inherent, but the labels we use for those attractions, and the people we’re attracted to, are not.

Because everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, I am gay. But if gender were abolished, there would be no encouraging young boys to “find the right girl,” or encouraging young girls to “find the right boy,” and boys who wanted to find the right boy, and girls the right girl, would face absolutely no opposition to doing so. And we would eventually develop beautiful new ways of referring to children besides calling them boys and girls.

As an aside, abolishing gender would also free trans women (and trans men in different ways) from terf rhetoric that excludes them on the basis that patriarchy oppresses people with wombs, and therefore those people are women.

But what about the rest of gender? Aren’t lgbt folks working to expand the definitions of feminine and masculine, and encourage more, not fewer, ways to express gender in society? Isn’t there something about gayness that’s lost if we abolish gender?

Well yes, and in lieu of abolishing gender entirely, it helps to push it open, let in some air, and work with what we have at the moment. I recognize that while gender isn’t crucial enough to me for any examination to be threatening, for others, gender is a deeply important aspect of their identity, and any critique or any attention on gender itself induces a kind of panic, a digging-in of the heels. In these situations, what I hope to do is point out core values and principles we can agree on, and talk through our way of gendering them.

So, for instance, in men’s groups you often hear reference to the roles of leader, lover, warrior, and wiseman. For feminists and others who hold gender to be a social construct, our first instinct might be to attack these roles specifically, and reveal their arbitrarily gendered nature, and their pernicious effects in the social sphere. But before any of this can be accepted by those who see no difference between their gender and the core of their being (the amount of times you hear about “gendered souls” in the evangelical church, I’m telling you), it might help to ask what are these roles ideally supposed to accomplish.

Leaders might exhibit vision, strategy, problem-solving, and relationship-building skills. Why not focus on those things instead, and encourage our young people, of all genders, to develop those skills? Lovers might tend to provide for, take pride in, and give pleasure to those they love. Why not teach all young people to do these things for those they fall in love with? The role of a warrior might mean to protect and fight for, and warriors might exhibit courage, boldness in the face of danger, and even sacrifice. Surely these are admirable goals to tell all our young ones to reach for, not just those who are trying to follow a gendered script? The wiseman is of course a role for wisdom and knowledge, which anyone who values education and discernment into past, present, and future will see as valuable for all children to grow into.

That’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten on my gay agenda to abolish gender and brainwash the youth. So am I a thoroughly cucked, emasculated gay? Or am I a self-hating gay, clinging to harmful ideas of “biblical manhood”?

Well, hopefully I’m a little of both. Whatever makes both camps most uncomfortable (just don’t tell the Christians I’m also a leftist, that’ll be a deal-breaker).

My goal is to show people that those of us who genuinely care about child development, seeing kids grow into healthy adults, really have a lot of common ground to stand on. My hope is that those in power will be humble enough to take the first steps towards those praying for liberation.

We’ve suffered too long under Christian-supported heteropatriarchy, and it’s high time the church started living up to its divine injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

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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Finding Rebekah–Let’s Ask the Women

The story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24 goes like this: good old father Abraham asked a humble servant to find a wife for his son, and when she came back, it was love at first sight!

We all know the moment at the well, when God answers (some would say miraculously) the servant’s prayer with uncanny timing, and Rebekah is revealed, through giving water to the camels, as the divinely ordained bride for Abraham’s only son Isaac, both of whom are now totally peachy even though dad almost killed him all those years back. And when Rebekah rides into Abraham’s land and sees Isaac, she gets off her camel, puts on a veil, and Isaac takes her into his mom’s tent and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

It’s all well and good for Isaac, but I want to know what Rebekah feels. Especially when she’s asked to suddenly give up her old life (and her old loves) to go find a husband in a man she has never met.

That kind of situation is so foreign to us that I think we should hold off on the hand-waving dismissal of “that’s just how they did things back then, spouses didn’t know each other.” While that’s true, we as North American Christians in the 21st century should not be so quick to dismiss that as a given. What must that feel like, as a woman, as a new bride, as someone with hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes, and most of all, family, to put all those things aside for the sake of continuing your life with a well-off stranger?

And then there’s this part of the story, right before the iconic “love at first sight” verses. I can’t recall ever hearing this part of the passage read aloud in any church setting:

model-2346258_192054 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,

“May you, our sister, become
    thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
    of the gates of their foes.”

 

61 Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.”

To be fair, I don’t think we send our relatives off with blessings like “may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes” anymore either. There’s a lot that’s inaccessible about this whole thing to contemporary readers.

But what bothered me is that the servant didn’t even let Rebekah say goodbye to her family. Her mom and brother asked for at least ten days, and instead the servant asks to leave immediately. I doesn’t escape my notice that Rebekah is given the ability to choose whether to go with him or stay, but all things considered, she had few real options. And the servant’s reason for not delaying is that he wanted to return to his master as quickly as possible. He didn’t seem too concerned with what this decision meant to Rebekah.

Family defined a woman’s identity. Rebekah introduced herself as “the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor,” because the servant didn’t ask “who are you?” he said “Tell me whose daughter you are.” The gravity of leaving your family (permanently, no postal service) and joining a new one, in which you will know and be known intimately, can hardly be overstated. Have any of us had to leave behind our living loved ones permanently? 

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s romanticized. Rebekah’s incredible sacrifice and strength of resolve is at least as dramatic an act of faith as Abraham leaving his own family behind when God first called him to go to an unknown land, and I think that should be the focus of what we teach our youth, rather than perpetuating fruitless romantic ideals. 

Let’s return to the last verse, the bow that ties it all together: and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” 

So we know that Isaac loved Rebekah, and that might have been from first sight. But we aren’t told how Rebekah feels towards Isaac. Cue sexist trope of women having no active sex drive or romantic affections, just passively receiving attention from men. Insert proper marriage ceremonial things here, I’m sure, but it sounds like Isaac got to baby-making pretty quick. It’s nice that the guy felt better after mourning his mom, but is that a healthy model for sexuality today? That’s not even healthy self-care, we already know that using a new relationship to replace or rebound from the trauma of a painful one is inherently damaging. If our significant others got with us right after their mom’s passing, and specifically said we comforted them for that reason, would we have no problems? 

Sure, I can see the theological niceties of saying “look how God provides,” and I do think it was on purpose, that God orchestrated a beautiful and loving and redemptive marriage between Isaac and Rebecca. I just want us to hail Rebecca as the heroine of the story. And to stop pretending her story is an easy or painless one.

The servant also deserves a closer look. Swipe back a few chapters, and we see the motivation for finding a wife who would have to uproot and travel back to Isaac: you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

In order for the promise to continue, intermarriage with local women was not an option. Abraham made the servant swear an oath, placing his hand under Abraham’s thigh (apparently that was a thing back in the day), and was adamant that Isaac remain with Abraham while the wife was to come to him. Any mention of mutual feelings or compatibility? Nah, marriage for love hadn’t been invented yet. Marriage for family purity though, that was super in style. Tribalism in peak season. 

So is there nothing to be said of the servant at the end of the story? What did he get out of this situation? What was the conversation like when he went back to Abraham, not just Isaac, with the story of his success? Was he lauded, celebrated, given due praise? Or did Abraham, his worries assuaged, brush aside his excitement and send him off on some other errand, just like us readers are encouraged to forget him as soon as he relays his message to Isaac?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but just asking them, giving space for other voices to be heard, can energize our witness and our engagement with Scripture. And if we really believe that the word of God is living and active, we should expect a dynamic message that meets us right where we are, in this time and place.

Who’s ready for a Sunday school lesson about the courage and faith of the matriarchs?

Binding Isaac–Let’s Ask the Children

The typical sermon constructed around the Binding of Isaac goes like this: Abraham had so much faith in God that he was willing to sacrifice anything, even his own son, for the sake of obeying God. That’s how much faith Abraham had.

It begs the question, faith in what exactly? Which attribute of God did Abraham have so much faith in that he was willing to bind his son to an altar and kill him? Certainly not faith in God’s view of all beings created equal, with equal worth, having an equally hopeful future and purpose. And apparently, not faith in God’s unchanging nature or unbreakable promises. Remember, his wife laughed out loud when God suggested she would get pregnant. And in fact, not more than four chapters prior, Abraham himself changed God’s mind when it came to the fate of Lot and the city of Sodom.

So why didn’t Abraham argue with God over his son the same way he did for his cousin Lot?

We need to remember that children were not seen as they are today. Now we lather our kids in legal and social protections, perhaps to a fault. Then, they functioned as a measure of a man’s material worth, alongside women and cattle.

But that’s far from an excuse. In fact, that should be an indictment. Isaac’s relationship with his father would have suffered irreparable damage after this moment, no matter that Abraham never actually sunk the knife in.

At this point, I should also point out that the idea of challenging the patriarchs is not a radical, revisionist reading of Scripture. One pastor I once heard give the typical “obedience and faith” sermon on the binding of Isaac turned right around and said we shouldn’t follow the example of patriarchs like Jonah (who ran away) or Adam (who caved to temptation). So it seems that even by evangelical standards, using the patriarchs as anti-examples is acceptable. It just depends on the message you’re trying to send.

And so, in search of a different message, I’ve been helped by articles like this towards a different understanding. What if we read this passage, and others like it, through the lens of child advocacy and development? What if instead of obedience to authority, conformity to external power structures, and blind faith in the benevolence of authority figures at the expense of reason and rationality, the lessons we learned from this part of Scripture had to do with preventing child abuse, and promoting emotional literacy and bodily autonomy for children? What if we asked how Isaac felt, and gave him a voice where Genesis gives him none?

If someone were to replicate Abraham’s act of “faith” today, they would be arrested. Maybe it wouldn’t directly involve child sacrifice, but would any scenario in which a parent disregarded the life of their child for the sake of principle be acceptable? Our current laws and social norms say absolutely not. And yet we continue to teach our youth to venerate Abraham for being ~faithful and obedient~ because it’s all a test; it’s about whether you’re willing to put God first above everything else. 

But what if God was testing Abraham to see if he understood what kind of God he was serving? In other words, what if the test was not whether Abraham would follow instructions to the letter, but whether he would have the guts, and the discernment, to say, “No, I’m not doing that, the God I serve would not ask something like that of me”? 

The line between Abraham’s mistake of actually intending to sacrifice Isaac (and causing all kinds of trauma), compared with his earlier successes of literally changing the mind of the Almighty by bargaining for the life of a few of his relatives in a nearby city, could serve as a nuanced and potent discussion of ethics today, especially when it comes to prayer and revelation. Just because we can talk to God, and trust that God is revealed to us, does not mean we always see or hear correctly. 

The ancient world was full of gods who demanded blood and unswerving loyalty. That was nothing new. To see God as Lord, to understand obedience and surrender as central to a pious life, was nothing new. But that this particular God, claiming to be absolutely sovereign over all other gods, was also good and gentle and humble? That was radical and revolutionary. Maybe the blessing at the end of the ordeal, where God reaffirmed Abraham as the future father of many nations, was only the least good outcome: maybe Abraham, and us as well, missed a valuable opportunity to understand God as loving above all else; to understand that we worship the God who does not require child sacrifice. 

My guess is that you won’t find this interpretation of Genesis 22 very often in evangelical circles. That’s not necessarily because all evangelicals are resistant towards alternative readings of Scripture (although that’s often the case). There’s just such a good opportunity in these verses to bulwark the institutional authority of the church, and tighten the unholy ties between church and state. The purpose behind the “obedience readings” of passages like Genesis 22 is to further the status quo in regards to power structures and authorities. If the test of good Christian faith is blind obedience to the point of sacrificing loved ones against all rationality and intuition, then it makes sense that slaves ought to obey their masters, or wives ought to submit to their husbands and not speak in church, or the poor should submit to the governing authorities.

The Religious Right has intentionally and explicitly used Scripture for political ends: it’s up to us to counter their harmful theologies and just as intentionally use Scripture to work towards the flourishing of all humankind.

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.