sexuality

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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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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Thanks Church–Why I’m a Recovering Evangelical

Three years ago, I wrote a post about facing fear, realizing that at the core of my struggle with faith and sexuality, boys were not the problem: fear was. Around the same time, I finally broke off my involvement in the ex-gay community, and experienced a rush of relief from the shame I carried for being gay in the church.

I use the phrase “recovering evangelical” as Warren Cole Smith uses it in his excellent volume, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church. I won’t repeat his well-versed and thorough research in its entirety, but suffice it to say there is a deep disease in the evangelical church today, and I was thoroughly infected. Let me also pause to say that, like Smith, I approach my critique of the evangelical church from the position of a lover, not a cynic. I am an insider, a family member, to the evangelical church. Which makes the divorce all the more bitter. Because it comes down to this: the church, the Body of Christ, is designed to be a home for all. People like me, who grew up in this home, never wanted to leave. But lgbt people are kicked out of homes all the time; it’s not our wayward feet that leads us astray, it’s active rejection from those whom we used to call family.

As a young gay teen, I was instilled with a deep fear, not that I was hell-bound, but that I was doomed to isolation in this life, among the humans I loved. I wasn’t afraid of hell; I was afraid of myself. I’m not sure which is worse. Both can lead to suicide, and too often that’s exactly what young lgbt people resort to. If your future is monstrous, there’s nothing to live for, and if you’re the monster, you shouldn’t endanger people by continuing to live.

I realized I was gay when I hit puberty, around 12 years old. I was suicidal by 14. By the grace of God, I gathered the courage to come out to my parents instead of taking my own life, and since then fear has never been tight enough to stop my breathing.

But as I began to find personal freedom from the fear of myself and my sexuality, I wondered where that fear came from in the first place, and how wide and deep it really is.

As it turns out, fear is a primary motivator behind much of today’s evangelical theology, culture, and community. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it needs to be said. And if our first reaction is to balk and withdraw from this diagnosis, maybe it would help to consider the incredible courage it takes lgbt people to come out, part of which involves admitting the powerful role fear plays in our lives.

Modern evangelical eschatology is apocalyptic: the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Since the Fall, humankind has continued to decline, and in our contemporary society we can see increased levels of decadence and depravity. The violence rocking the globe is an inevitable (and therefore to some extent excusable) result of the creation’s “groaning” in wait for Jesus’ return, at which point all things will be made right again, but only after this world has been devoured by fire.

As Smith would remind us, Jesus did not see things this way: his life and ministry were categorized not by fear of the future, but by urgent hope for a redeemed one. Our fear stems largely from events that caused national anxiety, such as the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. Many also considered the creation of the state of Israel the last fulfillment of prophecy, an event that heralded the end times. At this point, we should be able to see that these fears are unfounded.

Nevertheless, they leak into our politics. Gay and bi people threaten the stability of the family; trans people threaten the safety of women and children; nonbinary people are sadly confused snowflakes. In that context, to turn around and suggest that lgbt people, with our lives and identities, have something valuable to offer the church, and aren’t just the uncomfortable leftovers that we have to let in on Sunday? Preposterous.

But we do have something to offer. Namely, the journey towards overcoming fear and shame.

As a recent high school grad, I struggled to stay consistent in the online ex-gay bible studies I was involved in. I had already been suspended from the course a couple times because I hadn’t reached the level of “faithfulness” or “success” that was expected at a certain level. For context, I was trying to “find freedom from homosexuality,” in language that boldly promised an end to “same-sex attraction,” and a realizing of the fulness of our God-given potential (which meant being straight).

At this point, around 19 years old, I had some issues with the program. I had heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” repeated ad nauseam, and I still thought it was a useful distinction: whatever was sinful about being gay, the feelings themselves, the fact that I was attracted to other males, couldn’t be sin. At no point had I ever chosen these feelings, and I was literally in the process of choosing against them. How could I be held responsible for something I had no control over? But the rhetoric of the ex-gay community continued to insist on gayness itself as the disease that needed healing, and I internalized this message in a deep and foundational way.

The thing about shame is that it runs deeper than guilt: you can feel guilty over actions, but shame is about identity. And the whole point of confession and sanctification is that sin is an issue of guilt, not shame. Yes, the doctrine of original sin teaches that sin is part of our very nature. But as people indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we are made new, in our entirety.

And honestly, this part of evangelical doctrine (especially total depravity) that postures the “unsaved” and “nonbelievers” as a different category of human, intrinsically less holy, and less capable of virtuous motives than Christians, is frankly gross. It’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that encourages violence against lgbt people: if we are by nature sinful and depraved, by virtue of our sexually gendered selves, then we can never fully enter the communion of saints like straight and cisgender people can.

Unsurprisingly, this was the message I heard from the ex-gay community. You were only acceptable if you were fighting tooth and nail to not be who you were; refusing to identify as lgbt, repenting of any and all sexuality, whether bodily activity or mental fantasies (yep, masturbation and imagination both called for repentance), and praying and hoping for the day when God would unlock your latent attraction to the opposite gender. This was bulwarked by “testimonies” of “successful” ex-gay participants, who often wrote only a few months after taking the course, and admitted to continuing same-gender attraction. Several of them boasted of marriages to opposite-gender partners, which then imploded years later. The overwhelming majority of ex-gay participants, research shows, do not experience orientation change, and many cannot maintain the superficial “lifestyle” changes they tout as victories instead.

Thankfully, my story did not end up as one of those statistics. I ended my involvement in ex-gay communities during college, and have never looked back. Almost immediately, I felt more at home in my own body, more at home with God, and more at home among others.

This is, of course, a deeply personal reason for describing my current state as one of “recovery.” I also think it is important to retain the word “evangelical” in that recovery, because it is the context in which ex-gay communities continue to thrive.

Once again, however, I found that shame runs deeper and wider in modern evangelicalism, and affects other bodies besides lgbt youth. Later, I hope to address the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, the establishment of the single-issue voter, especially in regards to reproductive rights, and the extent to which evangelical politics have become inbred with Western imperialism.

Now, I want to reiterate that I still believe salvation lies in the miraculous power of faith.

Jay Emerson Johnson, in his fantastic book Peculiar Faith, outlines a way forward for Christian witness, using insights from the lives of lgbt people to discern the future of our transformative faith. Commenting on the Book of Acts, Johnson says in asking Jesus whether he would restore the kingdom of Israel, the disciples were missing the point. Whatever the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not entail restoring an orderly past. Instead, it institutes a dynamic and open future.

81% of evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump. Trump ran on a platform of nostalgia: the slogan “Make American Great Again” is catered to a population who pines for the good old days, which are inevitably a romanticized view of a past that never existed. This false promise blatantly ignores the lives of people of color, women, and lgbt people, none of whom have any “glory days” to look back on (not in this nation, at least).

Christ calls us to more. Taking seriously Christ’s call to ministry among the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, ends in nothing less than a movement that “overturns economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (Acts 4:34-35); resists institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); violates social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and rejects cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30).”

That is a faith I can get behind. These are theologies that give life, rather than take it.

What am I recovering from? Fear and shame. What am I holding on to? Faith, hope, and love. Once the evangelical church can more fully leave behind the former and cling to the latter, I’ll be ready with open arms to receive her again.

Until then, I’m keeping my distance.

Embodied & Erotic–My Problem with Christian Music

During my second week as a barista-in-training, I had a customer exclaim, “You guys are playing nonChristian music? Who’s in charge of this?”

I deflected the question, saying I wasn’t in charge of music, and I hadn’t even noticed. It’s true; until she pointed it out, I hadn’t paid attention to the music we were playing in the background. Then I listened, and was happy to hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an indie-rock band whose music I thoroughly enjoy.

I wish I could say I had no idea why the woman had an issue with secular music. Unfortunately, I can: I grew up in the same evangelical environment that called any form of nonChristian media dangerous at best, and completely sinful at worst (which was often). It was a great irony, because my parents and I loved to make fun of the endlessly repetitive and unoriginal covers on Christian radio stations, while at home appreciating the excellent quality and variety of Putumayo’s world music collections. Nevertheless, at church, in youth groups, and at bible studies, I was taught that secular music was dangerous, especially for its erotic qualities. Careful, our elders said, if you listen to secular music, you might just want to have sex.

As a young gay teen, this message caused deeper problems than even those with a puritanical streak anticipated. I was wary of music with any hint of sexuality (which was most music), because for me, sexuality itself was sinful and dangerous. The distinction between love and lust did not exist when it came to how music affected me: because I was to repress any and all gay feelings, I was also to avoid any and all sexually suggestive music that would affect me in any way. Not because they could lead my burgeoning self astray; my sexually gendered body was already damaged goods, and only needed the slightest push to fall into irredeemable sin.

Back in 2014, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot explained why he does not use a Christian label for his music:

“What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds… An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me.”

In an article responding to Switchfoot’s comments on what counts as “Christian” music, Kristie Eshelman maintains that “it is so important for us to have a kingdom-oriented mindset in everything we do. It’s not necessarily about slapping a Christian label on everything we touch; it’s about our faithfulness and obedience in our vocations and in the workplace.”

This should be intuitive to dedicated Christians who care about God’s kingdom on Earth; certainly for Christians who care so much about proper piety that they refuse to listen to anything but Christian music. However, the label itself can keep us from faithfulness and obedience in our vocations.

Warren Cole Smith, author of “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church,” argues that commercializing the term “Christian” has caused great amounts of harm to our witness and our communities. He uses the term “Christian industrial complex” to describe this problem: a “pathological relationship [that] has emerged between the Christian retail industry and the Christian church.”

Rather than regurgitate his careful research and wide-ranging analysis of Christian culture, I want to assume that my audience shares at least an unease about the state of the church today, and that this unease can be loosely attributed to a feeling that we’ve capitulated to the culture we’re supposed to be “set apart” from. So many Christians, of all age groups and backgrounds, feel a disconnect between what the church is and what it should be. Whether that encompasses young people leaving the church in droves, the rise of the megachurch and subsequent floundering of smaller, local congregations, or disillusionment with modern ways of doing church, we feel that something has been lost, or not quite attained.

For me as a young closeted teen, having no words or context to understand where these feelings of angst and dissatisfaction came from, avoiding sexuality in music proved an impossible and endlessly frustrating task, and only served to exacerbate the desperation of my repressed sexuality. As I discovered the world of dance, I slowly gave up any pretense of disliking “secular” erotic music from a moralizing perspective. I still wrote poems about the power of sexually charged music, and always ended them with how I would remain steadfastly immune to it. But in time, that too proved to be not only impossible but disingenuous.

Because to my great surprise, as I matured, I began to notice the erotic in sacred, “Christian” music as much as it was in “secular” music. Countless worship songs posture the singer and the sung-to in an all-but-explicit erotic relationship. And these contemporary examples of eroticized spirituality are just the latest iteration of a long tradition of Christian mysticism: everything from the Song of Songs to the desert mothers and fathers’ insistence on using the language of the erotic speaks to the long-standing embodied nature of our worship.

But in our theologies, at least as they’re dumbed down into language kids can understand, we uphold the artificial dichotomy between the body and the spirit; between the sacred and secular; between the sexual and the spiritual.

It’s time to bridge the gap and heal the rift, if we are to encourage young folks, especially lgbt people, to worship the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

We do a disservice to our Creator when we posture “Christian” music as pure, sexless, and holy, against “secular” music as dirty, lustful, and sinful. This distinction does not keep our children from secular music, it keeps them from their bodies.

I’ve always had a sacred connection to sexual music. I could never fully separate the two: in the most hallowed of worship songs, I found the erotic. In the basest of love-sick ballads or club hits, I found pangs of the divine.

It seems Rob Bell was right: this is really about that. The sexual and the spiritual are intimately intertwined, especially in the realm of music. This connection should be embraced and explored, not avoided. For young lgbt people, it could mean the difference between holistic healing, and perpetuating our fractured selves.

A Chocolate-Filled Eclair: Fear Faces

~ This is the beginning of a series of posts on my story, and the importance of words. ~

The two most terrifying moments of my life were when I jumped off of Victoria Falls with a bungee cord wrapped around my legs, and when I pressed “Send” on an email to my father telling him I’m gay.

The fear of coming out is probably one of the most devastating fears people face today. The image of “coming out,” especially out of a “closet,” gives an easy visual to the roiling internal reality that queer people face whenever they consider revealing their identity for the first time. Why is this fear so potent? All people are afraid; what gives the queer experience a unique place in the plethora of human fears?

Because being gay in Christian America means to be a hidden minority.

I was a hidden minority in my church, in my neighborhood, in my family, in my friend circles. And for some reason, even though I never heard it from anyone in authority, and rarely from peers, I had ingested and accepted intense self-hatred for being gay.

So for me, the fear of coming out was the fear of revealing a new piece of myself, previously unnoticed by anyone as I thought, and I was sure that when I was found out and brought to the light, I would be rejected; cast off as disgusting.

When the secret of your minority status gets out, there’s no telling what your friends and family and youth leaders will do, especially when everyone around you is so good at gay impressions, or spouting off about faggots going to hell, or how the homosexual agenda is ruining our country. While this slander was not part of my early coming-out experience, it is universally understood and acutely felt by the queer community. And for a young person with a burgeoning sexuality, what could be more terrifying than baring the most vulnerable part of yourself to peers who are just as emotionally unstable as you are?

So the fear of coming out is related to the fear of exposure. What makes the queer struggle unique from other minority issues is that we can be invisible if we want. We can be silent if we want. We don’t wear our queerness on our skin.

But silence can be deadly, no one wants to be invisible, and secrets can kill.

So in the spring of freshman year in 2009, instead of killing myself, I came out to my dad.

Which, in retrospect, is not the usual course of action for a young gay person growing up in a Christian household. But my father responded with unbelievable love and acceptance, my mother as well, and I went on throughout high school to develop a close-knit group of friends who supported me. My fears of rejection were never realized, and with each person I came out to, I felt a little more free, a little less heavy and dark, and a little more rainbow-colored on the inside.

Rainbow+Starbucks=Love
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: غzǻҰёll ♥ RAINBOW ! via Compfight

Last summer, I worked with a Christian organization as a camp counselor, and had the time of my life. On one of our staff retreats, we went to the beach, where several worship stations were set up by the water. One of them was on “loving yourself.” The exercise was to write down our brokenness in the sand, and watch as the waves washed it clean. Then we would write it down again, and watch the waves come once more, repeating this process until it sunk in that God’s grace is never-ending and unconditional.

So I bent down and wrote “Boys” in the sand, because obviously boys were my problem.

But the waves never came.

I stood, growing increasingly anxious, as absolutely nothing happened. I thought frantically, “Maybe I should rub it out and write it closer to the water!” I was terrified someone would look over and see what I had written.

And then I realized: I was terrified. The real issue was not boys in general, but fear in particular. So I bent down and wrote “Fear” above the word “Boys,” slightly further from the shore.

And instantly, a wave came and crashed over it all, washing it away into nothing.

Boys were not the problem: in the area of my sexual orientation, I have rarely been hurt by a boy. I was afraid they would disown me as their friend, but they didn’t. I was afraid they would stonewall me and refuse to communicate, but they didn’t. Instead, it was my fear that caused me to suffer. The boys in my life have been wonderful sources of healing and nourishment; it was my fear that crippled me.

blogBeachSunset

~~~

Fear is incredibly versatile. This deep-seated fear of discovery branched out and blossomed into other fears:

I still have a lingering fear of confrontation, which has made it incredibly muddy whenever I attempt to resolve conflicts. I also still retain a moody fear of rejection, which manifests itself in a desperate need to prove my worth, to be a people-pleaser, and to maintain the image of niceness and innocence. I even believed for a time that God was purposefully isolating me from my peers because I was gay. And for ages, I couldn’t stand up to injustice. Not just gay jokes and insults, but also anything else: racism, bullying, sexism, classism… I remained silent.

But now I see my Enemy, and I recognize its face. And so I practice facing my fears, doing those things I know are right regardless of how my stomach feels about it or what my shaking knees might tell me. Slowly, I have begun to hatch from my egg, to come out of my bubble; and not just out of the closet, but also out of shyness into sociableness. And I am learning that with words, fears can be overcome.

All of this leads to the present: This blog is part of my goal to eventually bring my story into the open, to a point where I no longer have to hide from anyone. And I am very close to coming out in a large, complete way at my college. There are extended family members who still should not know, and I could forfeit job opportunities and lose contact with some of my favorite people if I came out on facebook, or to certain friend circles.

But there is change in the air. And not just in my life, but at my campus as a whole, and in this nation at large. If I want to join the movement of God as it leaps into the future, I must throw off the fear that so easily entangles, and take up the yoke of Christ, which is easy and light.

Besides, part of being an adult is the ability to just take a deep breath and press “Send”.