Christianity · LGBTQ Christians · Religion

We Were Wrong. And We Have to Fix It.

In the fall of 2006, a colleague and I sat at a backyard picnic table supervising freshman Homecoming float building. In the course of our meandering conversation, she vaguely alluded to relationship problems. She was clearly being evasive. I don’t remember if I probed or if things just got awkward, but eventually our exchange went like this:

“I’m gay, and I have a partner.”

“Okay…”

“I didn’t know if I should tell you. I know you go to a Presbyterian church, and I’ve been reading in the newspaper…”

“Oh. Right. I’m sorry. It’s fine.”

She was right. At the time, the Presbyterian Church, USA was embroiled in a very public internal clash over the question of whether “practicing homosexuals” could be ordained in the church. This was by no means a new issue. I first remember it arising in the mid-80s, and it wasn’t new then; I had only just begun to pay attention. The issue bubbled up every few years, as progressives periodically challenged the denomination’s official position, but so far, a “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” ideology had prevailed.

I had written my first-ever college research paper on the question in 1990 and, oddly given my whole-hearted buy-in to conservative theology, took the position that yes, the church should allow it. It was the right academic answer based on the research I had done. The evidence supported this position. But it bothered me. It was one of many times in my high school and college years that I felt torn between the doctrines I had been taught as a lifelong conservative Christian and the ideas that compelled me in school. I turned in the paper with a hint of queasiness, feeling that I’d compromised my faith ideals for a grade. That those faith ideals might have been flawed was not an option I was willing to entertain. I couldn’t.

By 2006, I had settled uneasily into the decision to believe despite doubt, to take the Bible (or the interpretation I’d been told was the correct one) as the infallible Word of God, and to accept the positions that made me uncomfortable because that’s what it meant to be a true Christian. I viewed this as humble, not arrogant. Who was I to pick and choose? God’s Word was God’s Word. I might not like it, but God called me to obedience. I could be a friend to my colleague and still oppose her lifestyle. So I did. And so I was the worst kind of friend. I stood alongside her and stuck tissue paper in chicken wire but looked at her disapprovingly. I let her stay in my spare bedroom when she separated from her partner but worried about what people would think. Once we were no longer co-advisors, we quickly drifted apart.

A short time later, our church worked through a difficult separation from the denomination and moved to a new, more conservative one. As a new, incoming elder, I had been asked to affirm three tenets: that the Bible is the infallible Word of God (check), that Jesus is God’s only son, sent to die and rise again for our salvation (or some version of that; again, check), and that marriage is between one man and one woman (WHAT??). I was told in response to my query about why the last statement should make the Top Three that they wanted leaders during this time united on the issue. I accepted, with reservations. I convinced myself that I agreed with the premise, if not that the ordination of gay pastors warranted separation. In fact, there were larger issues at play. The ordination of gay pastors was enough for many, but the conflict was multilayered. Still, those reading about us in the paper didn’t see the complex theological debate. They saw Christians willing to fight other Christians in court over the right to exclude people from full participation in the life of the church. I asked a fellow elder one day, “Do you think it’s okay that I support the decision but not the reason?” He didn’t answer. And of course it was not. But I did it anyway. I cast my vote, first as elder, and then as a congregant.

The church’s role in state-level legal battles exacerbated the tension I felt. When Proposition 8, eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, came before California voters in 2008, I voted no, primarily because I could not justify denying a legal right on a religious basis. The “marriage-is-sacred” argument did not sway me. Christians did not oppose the legal rights of atheists and Muslims to marry. Proposition 8 felt discriminatory. I knew that I had broken with most of my fellow conservative Christians with my vote. I also felt far more comfortable with it than I did with the vote to leave the denomination. In this vote, I felt I was standing up for people rather than doctrine.

Six years later, I moved from my conservative community to a progressive one in order to attend a far more progressive university. Before I left, I had “Psalm 71:5” tattooed on my wrist: “For you have been my hope, sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth.” Politically, I had long since moved left of center. 20 years working in public education will often have that effect. But from a faith perspective, the move scared me. I knew my beliefs would likely be challenged, and I desperately wanted to stand firmly in my Christian faith.

At the very first department event I attended, my advisor casually pointed out a colleague’s partner and told me her name. I nodded and then glanced sideways at him, waiting for…something. He moved on. There was no awkward pause, no qualifier, no raised eyebrow. It had not even occurred to him that I would flinch. He had told me his colleague was gay as easily as he would have pointed out that the sun was shining. And I wanted to be like that. I never wanted to flinch again.

Over the course of the year, as I entered into this new community, I continued to marvel at who these people were and how they lived their lives. They accepted each other’s varying family configurations, partnerships, and other personal choices. They attended diligently to the language they used, striving for inclusivity. They celebrated each other’s new relationships and engagements, no matter what gender or orientation the partner was. These were not morally bankrupt people who appeared in need of the Truth that I held. These were deeply compassionate people. They shed tears over police shootings and immigration raids. They had come to graduate school because they had recognized the ways in which the education system ignores, fails, even actively hurts some kids, and they wanted to change it. They had devoted their careers to pursuing justice. They came from a range of religious backgrounds. Some had grown up in Christian churches and since left, some had no religious background, some were Muslim or Jewish, some had connected with other spiritual traditions. But to a person, they showed love, they spoke and acted with integrity, they welcomed the stranger, they fought for the oppressed, they cared for the poor. That some of them were gay or bi or gender-nonconforming had no bearing whatsoever on how they lived their lives. It made no sense to me qualify their morality. These were not good, kind people EXCEPT…These were just good, kind people. They treated their partners with the same love and respect and took their relationships as seriously as any Christian married couple I had known. For me to take issue with their “lifestyles” made no logical or moral sense. They may not have identified as followers of Christ, but their lifestyles reflected the values I had long associated with Christ.

When I began attending progressive churches and engaging with the online progressive Christian community, I experienced these same convictions. Same-sex couples, trans men and women, and gender-nonconforming people honored God in their worship and in their church leadership and service as faithfully as straight married couples. They identified as Christian for the same reason I did: they were compelled by the story and the example of Jesus, and they strove to follow that example alongside and in accord with the rest of us -as part of the body of Christ. And it struck me that the only thing in their way of being powerful Christian witnesses and leaders was a church that shut them out.

And as I saw what the church could look like and the richness of Christian community that grew out of inclusion of LGBT+ people, I began to reflect more honestly on the role I had played in exclusion. In the name of faithfulness to God’s Word, I had turned people away -in off-handed comments about “Christian values,” through my votes on denomination policy, and simply by being part of a church whose conflicts over this issue regularly appeared in the news and failing to dig deeper and examine our stance. Now that I read the work of LGBT+ Christians and attend an affirming church, I see with new eyes how much we have lost over many generations by silencing these voices.

The conservative church’s approach has not made anyone less gay, less bi, less trans; it has made them less Christian. Countless LGBT+ people have walked away from church, and often, as a result, from God, as their church communities have condemned them. Gay Christians have limited options. They can pretend not to be gay and enter into a heterosexual marriage, which may be perfectly loving but will never be sexually fulfilling for either partner (and given all the “God-created-sex-and-he-wants-you-to-enjoy-it” youth group talks I sat through, it seems that component should not be ignored). They can remain single and celibate, sacrificing the opportunity for partnership that Christians believe God so highly values. They can seek a church that will accept them, which can be a painful, lonely, and frustrating process. Or they can walk away. None of these options allow people to live out their full identity in Christ the way straight Christians can. And to impose this forced choice on people because the interpretation of Bible we’ve chosen to accept deems their relationship sinful is to ignore a number of other Biblical commands, some of which Jesus himself identifies as more important than the others.

I regret that it took me 45 years to understand what has always been obvious to progressive Christians and to LGBT+ Christians themselves. As Jared Byas pointed out in a recent episode of “The Bible for Normal People,” in conservative Christianity, we are “conditioned not to trust ourselves.” On some level, I have known since I wrote that freshman-level research paper that the conservative church was wrong on this issue. But over and over, despite the conflict I felt, I squelched my own intuition, and that was dangerous and unwise and ultimately hurtful. God creates us to know right from wrong. I should have heeded my own internal discomfort.

I regret the part I have played in perpetuating the harm that conservative Christians have done to LGBT+ people. I will never again attend a church that isn’t openly and fully affirming of LGBT+ people. I will do all I can to amplify the voices and teachings and scholarship of LGBT+ Christians. And I will not sit passively by anymore. It is important, and it is urgent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christianity · Politics · Religion

Dear Progressives Confused by Conservative Christians…

Note: If you’re a conservative Christian, you probably don’t want to bother reading this. You already know everything I’m going to say, and how I’m going to say it will annoy you. I know that because it would have annoyed me a few years ago, before you all elected a mean-spirited bigot and sent me spinning into a crisis of faith.¬†

As a senior in high school, I watched a video one night at youth group that depicted a group of teenagers just killed in a car accident facing judgment and then plunging, screaming in terror, into the fiery pit of hell. Just before the door to the cage they were placed in slammed shut, they cried to their Christian friend, who was of course spared this fate, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

I assume and sincerely hope that this particular VHS has been removed from the shelves of the Christian Children’s Video Library (or wherever youth directors get these things), but the message embedded in the video is still a central theme in conservative Christian teaching. We have the truth. They are lost. If you don’t convert them, they will burn for eternity.

Recently I was talking to a woman who was expressing her bewilderment over conservative Christians’ attitudes: “I don’t get it. If you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one! If you think homosexuality is a sin, don’t be in a same-sex relationship! Why do you have to impose your beliefs on everyone else??”

Answer: See description of video, above.

“Live and let live” is not an option in this paradigm. There is only one truth. There is only one way. We learn about narrow gates and broad paths that lead to destruction. Your way is not simply another viable alternative; it’s wrong. If I am a faithful disciple, it is my responsibility to lead you through the narrow gate.

So if all of this is about concern for your eternal life, why do you feel more self-righteously policed than loved to salvation? For me, believing that I was right and you were wrong led to a sense of moral superiority that trumped love. That doesn’t happen for everyone. My own weird mix of pride and insecurity made “having the truth” manifest for me in uglier ways than it does for some, but I’m certainly not alone.

Because I was right and others were wrong, my beliefs and values warranted protection from those who wished to assault them. Legalization of abortion, broadening acceptance of homosexuality, increasing tolerance of divorce and sex outside of marriage…all of that is threatening. These things don’t just run counter to my own religious beliefs- they’re wrong. Because my religious beliefs are Truth. So not only must I not engage in them- I can’t condone them.

Of course I was taught to be kind, but there were many times when being kind clashed with being right. My “lifestyle” aligned with biblical principles of morality, even if my attitude often did not. I didn’t drink or do drugs. I went to church every Sunday. I dressed modestly and was so extremely cautious about sexual contact that I couldn’t manage a healthy dating relationship. I didn’t cut class (well, once, to hide in the library and finish an essay on Edgar Allen Poe that was due that day, but that’s so nerdy it seems like it shouldn’t count), I didn’t swear (which in my house included “butt” and “fart”), and I didn’t take God’s name in vain (I still don’t, even though I interpret that commandment slightly differently than I used to). And for the most part, my life was charmed; my parents were married, my home was comfortable, I always had more than I needed, and I coasted somewhere around the top 20% in school without a lot of effort. When you follow all the rules, and life is pretty easy, it’s easy to consider yourself “blessed” and to attribute other people’s hardships to their own immoral choices. Homeless and addicted? Shouldn’t have used drugs. What? I never did. It’s not that hard. Pregnant with a child you aren’t ready for and can’t support? Well, serves you right for having sex. Dying of AIDS? The Bible warns about homosexuality. The list goes on. Should have stayed in your marriage. Should have complied with police. Shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally. It’s not that I’m not compassionate; it’s just that we’re all accountable for our moral choices. And why was I so easily able to float above it all? Free from neighborhood violence, tensions with police, the anguish of divorce, a life of poverty? I’m blessed.

This line of reasoning worked for me for a LONG time. I had people in my life who questioned it, but I disregarded their perspectives because they weren’t Christians. They didn’t understand. They were lost. The belief system reinforces itself and inherently blocks out competing ideas.

I grew familiar with systemic inequality sort of organically. 20 years in public education made me more aware of the relationship between race and class and success and less sympathetic of wealthy parents demanding schedule changes, lifted suspensions, and a host of other privileges for their deserving children. But a few specific incidents disturbed my religion-based moral compass. When I was a new assistant principal, a colleague mentioned, almost in passing, that many people in her community regard U.S. policy as having created the economic conditions that lead to illegal immigration. A community I was newly a part of erupted, uniformly, in outrage when Darrin Wilson was acquitted in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. I sat across the table from a Muslim friend as she described the marginalization the Muslim American community experienced after 9/11 and how that felt to her as a second grader. I rescinded a comment I had made about Christians’ treatment of the LGBTQ community that had offended conservative Christian friends and realized that by pulling back, I had hurt my LGBTQ friends. A friend I deeply liked and respected was visibly offended when I used the phrase “being a Christian” as a synonym for being kind and gracious. I started to question prayer requests from friends that their children be granted transfers to “better” schools (what happens to the children left behind?) and social media posts praising God for blessing a couple with the perfect¬† house (why would God want you to have a 3000-square-foot house and allow another family to live in their car?). I became suspicious of any sentence that began, “The Bible is clear…” In fact, the Bible, like any text, is socially and culturally situated, and it is rarely as “clear” as I was raised to believe. It’s not that I’d never confronted these questions before; I’d just always been able to answer them within my framework. But each new story and new experience stretched my framework, until eventually, not coincidentally right around November, 2016, it broke.

When I look back now and wonder how I lived 40-something years never questioning, never recognizing that significant strands of what I considered my Christian beliefs directly conflicted with the core themes of Jesus’ teaching, I alternate between anger and shame. I should have questioned. I should have known. But I also remind myself how strong the pull of ideology is, and how powerful a force it is to live in a community of people who share those ideologies. I never wanted to be anything other than a strong Christian, standing on the solid rock of the truth of Christ, but the notion of truth is complicated, and it is surprisingly easily misused.

So I’ll continue to search, and wrestle, and challenge, and question, but I’m not deceiving myself. It’s an uphill battle. And I’m significantly under-qualified to fight it.

But here’s the upshot: although it appears to be a baffling contradiction, it’s not a giant leap from Sunday School to Trump.

 

Religion

Christmas Through New Eyes

I live by some very strict rules during the Christmas season, which I define officially as the day after Thanksgiving to December 31st (that’s one of the rules). I get rid of the fall soaps and candles and replace them with Christmas scents. I eliminate pumpkin from my kitchen and bring in peppermint. I listen only to Christmas music, and slightly more extremely, only to Christian Christmas music. I mean, I don’t leave the mall if they’re playing “Rudolph” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” but those songs aren’t on my Christmas playlist or my Pandora Christmas station. I own an array of Christmas decorations, but none of them include Santa Claus or reindeer.

I don’t impose my rules on anyone else. I’ll drink my Starbucks peppermint mocha out of any color cup, I’m happy to be wished “happy holidays” or even just “have a nice day” at Macy’s, and I will honor whatever type of celebration or non-celebration December involves for you. My rules are mine, and I know they’re odd. I don’t have anything against Santa or secular Christmas music. Christians far more devout than I incorporate both into their Christmas festivities. And yes, I know my own practices include many symbols that have no tie to Jesus’ birth, and some that even run directly counter to Christian beliefs. My rules aren’t coherent or, really, even reasonable.

So why follow them? I’m protecting Christmas in my own mind and heart. My most cherished childhood memories are Christmas-related. The brewing anticipation as my father stood on the ladder in the garage pulling down Christmas boxes, the tree lit in the quiet dark of our living room, “Mary’s Boy Child” in the background on the record player as we ate dinner, my grandmother bustling around in our kitchen making her almond brittle and lacy oatmeal cookies, the words of Luke 2 increasingly cemented in my brain with each year’s children’s choir Christmas pageant, my mother’s high-pitched voice squeaking “eight tiiiiiiiny reindeer” in her dramatic reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the lighting of the purple center candle on the advent wreath at the Christmas Eve service, my mother tucking me into bed asking, “Did you have a good Christmas?” Yes. Always yes. There were bad moments and bad days, but yes. Christmas was always good.

It was through Christmas that I came to understand Jesus and my Christian faith. Before I understood anything else, I understood the deep love and immense power emanating from the manger that night. It was through Christmas that I came to revere God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and at the same time as the embodiment of perfect grace, mercy, and love. I believed that baby was God made flesh, His gift of salvation, my redemption. These days, I have to consciously choose to believe that almost daily, struggling against doubt and all the other competing forces that make faith so much harder than it used to be. Christmas reminds me of the core of my faith and allows me, just for a month or so, to let everything else fall away as the manger takes its place front and center.

So Christmas feels like it needs protection, more than ever before. Not from a society of heathens, but from my own conflicted feelings and beliefs. I recognize the ugliness of contemporary white American Christianity in the “war on Christmas” rhetoric, and it makes me want to back away altogether. I want no part of that. I want no part of the excess spending (although I’ve played my own part in that) or in the “holiday stress” that the white middle-class now bears with a kind of showy pride. I want no part of the refusal to acknowledge that celebrating Christmas is not an essential part of being “American” or that Christmas can be and has been adapted as a holiday that celebrates giving generally rather than Christ’s birth specifically, just as Thanksgiving can celebrate gratitude without specifically linking to our nation’s history of genocide and colonialism. I don’t want to be party to the ways Christmas has been used to force white American Christian culture on a nation of diverse cultures and religious beliefs and practices.

But at the same time, Christmas is an important part of my own cultural and religious heritage, my faith’s anchor, and I treasure it for what it has meant to me. I want it preserved and visible. I want to concentrate and soak up Christmas as fully as possible during this season. But the more aware I become of white American evangelical Christianity as one brand of Christianity among many rather than as Christianity in its only true and pure form, the more I become aware of that brand of Christianity as much as a culture as it is a faith. It’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the two, and in my version of Christmas, they are impossibly entangled. I am realizing, slowly, that in order to strike balance between celebrating with pride a holiday that I love and honoring the diversity around me, I need to separate the celebration of the birth of Christ from the cultural traditions and symbols that white American Christians have claimed as our own but were never exclusively ours to begin with. We can celebrate our unique holidays but share winter. Christians don’t have to own snowmen and candy canes and lights and ornaments. We don’t have to own gift-giving. If we don’t claim it all as ours, might we be less threatened and offended by lights that aren’t the right color and wrapping paper with the wrong images on it? If Christians whittle Christmas down to its core, it becomes impossible to “take Christ out of Christmas” because that’s all it really is. Everything else is shared, adaptable to different cultural and religious traditions. Nothing is being taken from us because it was never ours. All that’s ours is the manger, and that was always meant to be shared too. But I suspect people will find even that more appealing if we disentangle it from all the excess stuff.

I’m still going to put Fresh Balsam antibacterial soap in my bathroom and make some gingerbread cookies tonight because those things make me feel immersed in the Christmas season. But this year I’m also going to work to separate culture from faith, to see the trappings as the trappings, and to celebrate the birth of Christ as God’s great gift of love, peace, hope, and forgiveness. That’s all I really need. The manger. Front and center. Take the peppermint and snowflake decorations and use them as you will.

Happy holidays. May there be peace on earth.