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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.

 

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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.