Category: 2015

Offered with deep trembling: thoughts on the (lack of) conversation about abortion in our society.

I’m feeling the need to clarify something so that I can get on with my day and loving people as I should. And remembering recent lovely conversations with the marvelous human beings Sine Wave and Andrew St. John.

Conversations about abortion trigger me because I feel threatened. I am usually considered progressive in my theology, ethics, and politics. When I hang out with progressive people, it seems like a no-brainer that everyone in the room would support a policy of abortion on demand. Anyone who challenges this is part of the problem and deserves to be dismissed. I know that I have a great deal of privilege–but I have also some deep concerns born out of my experiences of oppression, exclusion, and misunderstanding.

I am a gay, disabled man. And believe me, even in religious circles, I hear things like this–sometimes as part of conversations where people forget, momentarily, to whom they are talking–: “If I were going to have a severely disabled child, I would abort.” Or (particularly chilling when coming from the mother): “If I had known you were going to be queer, I would have had an abortion.” Eugenics and murderous hatred of queers is alive and well. So, please, let’s not assume that only one kind of voice should have total say (white privileged women) or that one kind of voice should be totally excluded (white privileged men).

I won’t get into theology here–it would take too long and fail to reach a great many ‘secular’ people with whom I want to speak. I am not pro-choice. I am anti-“abortion should be illegal.”

I wanted to tell one story that still (perhaps irrationally) moves me to this day. I was at a very calm pro-life educational event, and there was a video presentation about abortion (I was an older teenager, probably 17). As I recall it, there were no violent images, but instead images that showed clearly the humanity and childlike behaviour of the growing unborn. But it was set to haunting music in a minor key, with the singer’s voice rising and falling: “A curse, a curse on those who take away our children.” I remember looking over and seeing a good friend, whose son I taught in Sunday School, with her hand over her mouth and tears streaming down her face. I have never forgotten that experience, because as harsh as it is, a curse felt exactly right for that moment.

Again: I am not pro-choice. Nevertheless, I oppose making abortion illegal.

Studies of Western nations clearly show that legal and medically supervised abortion decreases the number of abortions overall. Pro-choice advocates who use a coat-hanger as a symbol of what happens when abortion is illegal have the facts (and an evocative image) on their side.

I am not blaming individual women for their choices. Individual acts of abortion are symptoms of much larger and deeply inhumane problems in our society. I believe that abortion is a social travesty; it means that we as a society have failed to work systemically and simultaneously on issues like women’s and children’s health, good sex education, poverty eradication, access to medical care, homophobia, transphobia, disability rights, racism, sexism, eugenics, and a whole host of other intersections.

We live in a society driven by productivity and usefulness. So when children, the disabled, queer people and others don’t make the cut, their lives are honoured less. We also live in a society which does not have (and often doesn’t *want* to have) consensus about what a human being and human person is (even assuming we should make that distinction, which I find problematic).

Yes, I agree with friends who have recently expressed deep anger: children should not be carrying around signs that show the results of various kinds of abortions. But if older teens and adults were the only ones present at protests, would we be able to have a civil, non-violent, and deeply passionate conversation about if/why/how the practice of abortion is a form of (brutal) violence? Could we have a discussion that goes beyond the important but reductive statement, “Abortion is solely a choice between a woman and her doctor”?

Could we re-start the social conversation about the practice of abortion in our communities of justice and goodwill/faith with the assumption that we all want to be heard, understood, and done justice? Where would that get us? Could we stop to think, soberly, about the (obvious?) link between the unborn who are carried to term and the children we celebrate and legally protect? Why and how do we protect vulnerable and voiceless beings, and when do other considerations override this basic concern?

Literary theorist Stanley Fish once wrote that “you’ll only agree with me if you already agree with me.” I hope he’s wrong. I hope people and voices that don’t usually sit down together can do so, especially around an issue, and a practice, that speaks so deeply to the heart of what it means to be human and to have individual and social integrity.

Another Round with Michael Brown

Dr Michael Brown recently responded to gay Christian author Matthew Vines’ questions of him on the website Christian Post (trigger warning: toxic content, especially in the comments after Dr Brown’s piece). It’s a very clear article (with which I often disagree for many hermeneutical reasons, even though I’m also a pentecostal). My brother in Christ Conrad Gayle, whom I know as a gifted jazz musician and celibate Christian who lives with same-sex attraction (those are terms I have heard him use in my presence) wants me to answer the two questions that Brown directs to Vines.

 

  1. Can you give me a single, unambiguous biblical example of a God-blessed homosexual relationship?

No, and it doesn’t matter much. Here’s what I mean:

  • Can you give me an single, unambiguous biblical example that God forbids all slavery?
  • Can you give me a single, unambiguous, instance of an woman in senior church leadership?
  • Can you give me a single, unambiguous verse that says all Christians must speak in tongues?
  • Can you give me a single, unambiguous reference in the OT that says Gentiles will be welcome into the covenant without being circumcised?

You might say yes, I might say no on some of these, or vice versa. What’s ambiguous to one might be absolutely clear to another.

What procedures are we going to use in order to ease the deadlock?

Most Christians make decisions about whether these things move with or against God’s plan for the world made known primarily in the life of Jesus (I am including birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, present ministry through the Spirit, and coming again). The process of making thoughtful decisions about how to approach and interpret Scripture is called hermeneutics–and everybody’s got a hermeneutic. This applies especially to folks who believe they are not interpreting the Scripture because “it is black and white, not fifty shades of grey.” As I said to my friend Conrad, I think the drive for clarity is commendable. And: where’s the colour, my brother? (Insisting that one is not using a hermeneutic often leads to unwise use of power over others (“believe what I tell you or you’re in danger of hellfire”), or to what philosopher’s call naive realism. In Christian circles, naive realism usually manifests as the (unconscious) belief that the way I read Scripture is the same as God’s own view of things.)

There’s a strand of Scripture, a “theme,” that I think leads well into an inclusive framework (and thus I disagree with Dr Brown): the stories of eunuchs throughout Scripture. Most Evangelical people (at least on the internet) assumes that eunuchs are always celibate because their genitals have been compromised. More recent studies falsify this assumption. Eunuchs have a lot of sex, though often they don’t consent, but are victims of sexual violence. The author of Leviticus thinks that eunuchs are excluded by virtue of physical deformity; Isaiah 56 says that eunuchs are welcome if they are faithful (they are given a name better than sons and daughters). Jesus seems to include himself in the category “eunuchs for the Kingdom” in Matthew 19; and the first Gentile convert to the way of Jesus is the highest official in the court of Ethiopia, a eunuch!

Buried in the middle of the many eunuch stories of the Bible is a tiny comment about the prophet Daniel. He’s a strapping young lad, and the text seems to say that God caused his warden, a eunuch, to have chesed and racham for Daniel so that he and his friends would be treated well (Daniel 1:9). Chesed can be translated ‘covenant love,’ or ‘tender mercy’ and racham is usually ‘compassion’. David Neelands of Trinity College says that these words apply in many cases to people who are in love in Scripture. If it doesn’t have a romantic meaning in this text, the text does not explain how the author knows that a Gentile palace master is experiencing the kind of love that God has for his people (which often has a marital connotation in the Hebrew Bible)!

But hold on a second: traditional Christian interpretation says that all same-gender attraction is broken or disordered, in need of the healing touch of Jesus. If this is always the case, why would God deliberately cause a broken condition to arise in this jailer’s heart, even if it did benefit Daniel? Would that view of God be consistent with the compassion and healing ministry of Jesus? So conservative Christians want to interpret in terms of how they understand the canon of Scripture—they say that these words are not romantic.

But if the word does have a romantic or sexual connotation here, and if God did cause that desire to arise in someone’s heart, is it possible that God would approve of certain kinds of same-gender relationships? This interpretation would certainly cohere with my view (below) that the Bible does not speak clearly of all kinds of homosexual relationships. Once again, we see the importance of hermeneutical decisions that we usually make before we ever read a text.

 

  1. Do you agree that every reference to homosexual practice in the Bible is decidedly negative?

Yes. But scope and moral logic are also important. What I mean is this:

  • When the Bible refers to homosexual practices, what does it mean? What behaviours are described and condemned?(Speaking as an evangelical with high regard for the content of Scripture, I want to try to agree with Paul! I believe, even as an affirming Christian, that I am condemning the same thing that he is.)
  • What is the moral logic of the condemnation? Do these reasons apply to what we are discussing in today’s culture? If yes, why? If no, why not?

I admit: It is possible that the Biblical authors objected to all forms of homosexual practice or relationships. But if this is the case, they should have been much clearer.

Contrary to the work of NT Wright and others, the majority of scholars who know the culture of the ancient world say that there was no such thing as a sexual relationship between social equals. This means agency and consent between equals (values that the Western world gets from the Gospel that are important to us!) have been absent from the vast majority of sexual relationships throughout history. (Our increasing understanding of marital rape should tell us that we have a different view of things than does the Bible!)

If all instances of homosexuality have to do with sexual abuse or religious prostitution (as I believe they do), isn’t it fair and wise to recognize the profound distance between their context and ours?

Michael Brown believes that the Bible is unequivocal about the sinfulness of homosexual sex, and that misreading this important point puts even self-identifying Christians in danger of hell-fire. But given that a great many Bible-readers believe these passages refer to something we rarely see today, is it responsible to be controlled by fear of being wrong? Where do 1 John 4 and 2 Timothy 1:7 fit in? These passages portray the kind of fear we often see in conversations about sexuality as opposed to the Gospel, and even possibly demonic in origin.

Is the grace and mercy of Jesus shown us in his death-on-cross and resurrection sufficient to save us even from very serious (and unintentional) misinterpretations? After all: no self-identified Christians I know are trying to lie about the content of Scripture! I am confident the answer is yes, we are still saved and loved despite our lack of understanding.

So, knowing I could be wrong, I will live as a gay man and seek (if it seems good to the Lord) a holy and faithful same-gender relationship, confident that there will be blessing if I am called to it. Speaking as a man who used to be in a marriage with another man, I already know some of the blessings of a Christ-centred marriage. I am convinced in my own heart, both because of study and experience, that normally there is no difference between straight and gay Christian couples in this regard.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. A Review.

This book was very hard for me to read, though I liked it. It is beautifully written: lyrical, well-organized, theologically robust, moving. My problem with the book, as anyone who knows me well might guess, is this: my brother Wesley Hill cannot allow himself to consider that someone like me, who affirms that same-gender relationships are part of God’s good plans for some of his people, can be a faithful Christian. (There is a single footnote in the introduction that points to a few scant resources–including an excellent essay by theologian Sylvia Keesmaat–but otherwise I’m not sure his rhetoric in this regard is generous.) I really wish this book had been two–one about the vocation to celibacy, and the other a much more fulsome statement about the author’s traditional position on the morality of sexual-romantic intimacy between queer Christians and people. I realize they may be rarer than people expect, but there are affirming queer Christians who are celibate. Opposition to homosexuality, for them, is not at all related to their vocation, and therefore the thread of agony that winds its way through Hill’s narrative will not speak to their situations.

One thing I appreciated without any reservations was Wesley’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection, something he reiterates consistently. And yet with my affirmation is a difference in conclusion:

Rather than refer to someone as “a homosexual,” I’ve taken care always to make “gay” or “homosexual” the adjective, and never the noun, in a longer phrase such as “gay Christian” or “homosexual person.” In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian–someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit–will remain. (Hill, p. 22).

On the contrary, I believe that my identity as a gay man will not disappear, but will be part of what informs my relationships even in the resurrection.

Perhaps I am picking a fight about word choice, but “part of my makeup, a facet of my personality” is both a typical conservative notion about sex and (from Hill’s own perspective, I think) a contradiction. I live with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological impairment and disability that I do not believe belongs to God’s good creation. Though it affects almost everything I do, it is not part of my makeup from the standpoint of the resurrection–God will remove it because it doesn’t belong to my true and full personhood. If Hill believes (as he clearly does) that all homosexual expression is sin, it might be more coherent for him to say that his same-sex attractions are not part of his true makeup.

Seeing the world as a queer person–for most of us, I expect–is much more complicated than simply being “a facet,” something with clear edges that fits into a much larger picture. For most queer people, our queerness is like a drop of dye in a glass of water–clearly not the most important thing, but something that probably will diffuse itself in different ways throughout. In my experience, people who describe their queerness as “a facet” have rarely stopped to examine the ways in which sexuality (which someone helpfully describes as “the drive to overcome our alone-ness”) impacts the way they live their day-to-day lives.

Hill regularly implies (perhaps because of his own convictions, but perhaps also because of the theological bias of Zondervan, his publisher) that Christians who affirm same-gender relationships as-or-analogous-to marriages are not being faithful to the Gospel. His book was published in 2010, before Evangelical books like Generous Spaciousness, Torn, or God and the Gay Christian were also available; yet, his biblical exegesis of the passages that buttress the traditional position is un-nuanced and unhelpfully summative (even given that his primary purpose was not to go merrily ’round the biblical mulberry bush one more time!). He left me with the impression that Christians who disagree with him have done no substantial theological work, and have in fact let pity and predominantly secular reasonings guide our decisions. I hope that Hill will be able at some point (perhaps in a later book or a revised edition) at least demonstrate more nuanced engagement with the theological work of queer-inclusive Christians (and especially those whom identify as Evangelicals).

I had a life-changing experience once while worshiping in a Pentecostal church I regularly attended in my early twenties. That night, I was feeling seriously distracted by all the beautiful men around me–and especially the worship leader, a tall, lanky man with tight blond curls, blue eyes, lovely arms (visible because he wore a sleeveless tee-shirt) and one of the most beautiful male voices I’d heard to that point in my life!

“Lord,” said I, “I’m trying to worship, here, not get distracted by beautiful men!”

It was the strangest thing, but I sensed the Holy Spirit laughing at me, quite affectionately. “So you think he’s beautiful?” she asked.

“Yeah, I really do!”

“Oh, good!” came the reply, and I swear I could hear the wicked-playful grin. “I do, too!”

I know that there are all kinds of reasons why skeptical people could tear my testimony to shreds. But in that moment, because I was recognizing his beauty and seeing him from what (surprise!) seemed to be the Holy Spirit’s perspective, my longing and recognition of his beauty became part of my worship rather than an ungodly distraction.

It seems clear to me that my brother Wesley cannot yet experience his attractions as part of how God might want him to appreciate human beauty, and it causes him deep agony. I wonder, though his writing about the traditional, sweeping perspective of the Church contains much truth and beauty, if he is causing himself deep and needless harm. I am sure that many Christians in Hill’s position will resonate deeply with much of what he says. I only wish that he could recognize much more fully that there are Evangelical Christians, like himself, who reach a different conclusion about homosexuality but nevertheless love Jesus and look forward in hope to the bodily resurrection, when all shall be made new, and when we all experience the joyful surprise of receiving our full humanity in Christ–even if we were deeply wrong about its shape and content on this side of the New Creation.

Why Pro-Life? A Review.

I have posted a short review of Randy Alcorn’s book on Goodreads. Though reading conservative Evangelical resources often makes me nervous, I found his tone very civil and his claims well-documented. A worthy and irenic discussion starter about the practice of abortion in American (and Canadian) society.