My friend, colleague, and pastor Sam of MCC Toronto asked me to submit something for a prayer service about the Orlando Pulse mass shooting. After turning her request over for many hours, and admitting that I didn’t feel adequate, this is what bubbled up over about a fifteen-minute period, this early morning, well after midnight.
Where are the words?
in some eyes and hearts
less than the image and likeness of God,
less than fully human?
Where are the words?
Where are the best words to express, Word of God,
all the love and pain we feel,
all the lost sleep,
all the numbness and anger and tears,
all the memories of when
words from Scripture and the mouths of friends
and family felt like bullets ripping through us?
Where are the words?
Where are the strong words to shout, Giver of Life,
that we still hope in you,
that we will choose to forgive,
that we will not stop working for your justice
until every human being knows the flame of your love
over their heads,
until the principalities of homophobia and transphobia and racism and religious xenophobia
know their defeat,
until the idolatry of “the right to bear arms” is smashed
in favour of the Divine image in every life, the flourishing of our communities and peoples?
These feeble words are not enough,
and yet you hear us.
So, in your many names and in the name of Jesus,
we choose, for a moment, your silence of solidarity with us,
and the Love you are always speaking.
The discussion board (literally a bulletin board) at Canadian Mennonite University is called The Wittenberg Door. While I was a student there in 2008, I watched a conversation about homosexuality erupt after I posted a “thank you/coming out” letter in support of bisexual people.
People who know me well won’t be surprised that one part of my soul said: “Yes! Pot successfully stirred!”
On the other hand, I was surprised that my simple affirmation touched off something of a firestorm. We (whether Christians or not) still have a long way to go toward actually being able to talk to each other— without fear—about our sexualities, lives and (a)theologies. There are issues of Biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, identity, politics, human rights, and even love that get so tangled up that it’s hard to separate the threads and have a clear, comprehensive, theologically literate, and loving conversation. (And yes, the length of the previous sentence was meant to prove the point!)
Soon after, I went to see a film called Save Me at ReelPride, Winnipeg’s LGBTQ+ Film Festival with others from an informal discussion group at CMU called Thursday Night Theology. I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest: probably a ringing ‘liberal’ endorsement of homosexuality against a conservative religious backdrop, complete with evasion of the biblical texts (as is the case, unfortunately, in Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks). But it wasn’t really that film (despite scant treatment of the Bible), and I was glad for the questions it raised, even while acknowledging the deep harm of so-called ‘reparative therapy’ in thousands of lives. (WARNING: Spoilers below!)
Chad Allen (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), himself a Christian, plays a troubled young man who is manipulated by his brother into attending a Christian 12-step group for healing homosexual orientation, led by Judith Light (Who’s the Boss?). Though initially he resists, Allen’s character finds a community where he is truly loved for the first time in his life. Things get complicated when Light, consumed with guilt over the death of her gay son, takes a special interest in him, particularly to protect him from the influence of Robert Gant (Queer as Folk US), a long-time program member with whom Allen falls in love.
Some viewers, understandably, may argue that Save Me is full of tired clichés and telegraphed dramatic moments; nevertheless, I found much to like, and to ponder, in this film. Somewhat predictably, the film opens with a tastefully filmed but vaguely disturbing (though still hot!) sex scene, intercut with a local congregation singing “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine.” As the scene progresses, we hear the hymn while watching the sex scene, and vice versa. Though I thought this was a profound theological statement, what it is probably depends on the viewer as much as the scene itself. Does God’s presence embrace us even during—especially during—the act of (gay) sex? (Let all the people say, “Amen!”) Or does God’s presence coax us out of sinful (gay) sexual acts and broken orientation into the knowledge that we are “born of His Spirit, washed in his blood”? (Let all the people say, “Amen!”) Is it something else?
Far from vilifying those who lead or those who participate(d) in ex-gay ministries or faith communities with a traditional Christian position on sexual ethics, the film struggles to portray all the characters as flawed but loving human beings just trying to hold on to something solid in a complicated world. But the film is also critical of the politicization of ex-gay ministries in the US culture wars. (The film was released before Exodus International shut itself down.)
Toward the film’s start, we see a member of “Genesis House” sitting across from the local congregation’s pastor, telling their stories and confessing their sins; only at the end of the film do we realise the true purpose of the interviews when the pastor asks Judith Light, “How much should I make the cheque out for?”
We’re left to wonder if everyone has been fully truthful. Have they testified a certain way to avoid censure? to maintain the community they’ve found? both? something else?
Although Allen and Gant leave the program as a couple, they don’t seem too distressed when a young teenage boy and his parents pass them by into Light’s welcoming arms. (That moment, in fact, was and is difficult for me—how do we find community without doing each other harm?)
This is not an easy film to watch, and it does not always resolve the questions it raises. But I think a film like Save Me—along with communities and conversations characterized by Generous Space—might allow the church to hear and reflect on a wider range of voices in the current (and often harrowing) debate.
If we are open, I am confident we will hear the voice of Jesus say, “You are mine, even and especially when you get it wrong.” Let all the people say, “Amen.”
Once again, the MCC Commission on the Statement of Faith has done the MCC as a church and movement a great service in its latest post about the Trinity.
Once again, the Commission poses three questions, seeking community feedback. And once again, I will answer all three questions–the first below, and the other two in subsequent entries.
Does your own religious experience place much emphasis on the Trinity?
I have to say an emphatic yes! to this.
I grew up in a denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, that was proudly “middle of the road,” conservative Evangelical. We summarized our faith this way: “Christ our Saviour; Christ our Sanctifier; Christ our Healer; Christ our Coming King.” Though some theologians within the denomination worked to ensure that we did not confuse Christo-centrism with Christ-monism, it was very clear to me from a very early age that Father, Son, and Spirit were all God (though I didn’t always know how to talk about that intelligently!).
It was very difficult, as a teenager, to maintain an experience of the Trinity that didn’t feel almost schizophrenic. Jesus was Saviour and Lord, someone who befriended and defended me; I loved the Holy Spirit (having been immersed in Pentecostal circles from age 12). But God the Father was not safe to me–in fact, the Father felt a lot like my physically and verbally abusive step-father. Sometimes, God even sounded like my mother, especially when He would sit–in my imagination–on the top of the TV set frowning while I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation (which my mother barely tolerated).
Realising that I liked boys was terrifying to me, because those who used the word “gay” to describe themselves had accepted a severe form of demonization and made it central to their sense of self. Even if I was never taught this explicitly, that was the implication of the Pentecostal theology of my youth. I remember thanking God the Father for his patience with me whenever I came down from the temporary bliss of orgasmic fantasy about other boys because, I said, if I were Him, I would have killed me already.
When I entered training in prayer counselling taught by Charismatic teachers John and Paula Sandford, I quickly began to realise the extent to which I needed healing in my images of God and in my relationship with my step-father. One major healing change was that I started to call both the Father and my step-father “Papa”–a move which made the human one uncomfortable, though I never understood why. Unfortunately, the Sandfords taught that the whole LGBTQ+ liberation movement was a sign of the activity of the principalities and powers, rather than the Holy Spirit.
I learned the Apostles’ Creed for the first time in systematic theology class at 18 years old. I still can’t fully explain what happened in my spirit when I stood for the first time to say it as an individual. “I believe…” And I really *did* believe all these things. This was my story.
Life exploded a little over a year later, and I had to leave Bible College to sort out my sexuality. I remember sitting across from my “aunt”–a good friend of my mom’s–and telling her, “I don’t know if I’m loved by God.”
She said with all seriousness, “You know that’s not true. What are some Scriptures about the love of God?”
Not a single one rose up out of my heart. I actually noticed that my thoughts were blank. “I don’t know.”
Fortunately, that moment was probably the nadir of a long journey back to a healthier relationship with the Father. To this day, I contend that avoiding “God the Father” in the language of worship and theology is not a permanent solution to the damage that many queer Christians feel. Only by healing the image of Father and Mother will we gain the resources to go beyond damaged or strained parental relationships.
(I never could bring myself to say Creator, because that role belongs to all three Persons and not just the one. I do sometimes say “Source,” in deference to many Eastern Orthodox theologians who believe the Father is mysteriously the grounding of the other two Persons. I do remember that “God is not a boy’s name” and that “God is more than two men and a bird.”)
I entered the Anglican tradition in 2003, and all the nascent pentecostal passion I had about the Trinity gained some serious depth and rhetorical beauty. Collects would regularly end with, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with [the Father] and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever!”
The epiclesis over the gifts was, in my heart, a huge and wild moment in every Eucharist. Anything can happen when you invoke the Holy Ghost, amen?!
Even saying the Nicene Creed was a “thin place” for me, a moment when I sensed the joy of “the communion of saints” in honour of the Triune God!
I name myself a Trinitarian mystic, not because I am anything special, but because the images and experiences that our tradition uses of the Trinity have become my own. My favourite mystic thus far is Julian of Norwich, who managed to perceive in her own way the central conviction and experience of my life: when we see Jesus, we see the fullness of the activity of the Godhead (not to mention that her emphasis on the blood of Christ prefigures the way Pentecostals tend to understand it–as an actual substance (though invisible) that has never lost any of its power to save, heal, and liberate).
Both the Father and the Spirit “smell like” Jesus and point to Jesus. I love the image of perichoreisis–the inner relationship of God with Godself is a dance of mutual joy and deference. The thing that gives me chills is that God invites me–and all of humanity–into the centre of that dance; we are capable of divinity by the gift of God’s grace in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But if I lose that vision of the Holy One and Sacred Three–especially if, as some in MCC leadership are wont to do, by maintaining that low Christology is sufficient for good doctrine and pastoral care–than I feel I have no reason to be confident in the inclusive love of God. Maybe the conviction that “God is love” is a delusion, a psychological prop I use to remain sane in the middle of a difficult relationship with my body (as a man with a disability) and a world that looks decidedly fucked-up most of the time!
But Jesus has been raised bodily from the dead, the Body of Christ is empowered by the Spirit to bring God’s justice, and at the destination of all things, God shall be all in all. That’s a story worth shouting about, and holding in common!
In my next entry in the series, I will answer the second question: Does your MCC community use one or more of the historic creeds in worship?
In the third, I will answer the final prompt: How might thinking about the Trinity as a relational community help you see God?
I hope you’ll come back, and my thanks to the Commission for the opportunity to provide feedback!
Is Scripture, for you, a kind of Generous Space? How does this perspective differ from the view of Scripture you currently hold? How does it reinforce what you find life-giving about your own views?
Further conversation about Scripture continues to shape my thoughts: Christians find the entire canon useful–not necessarily because the human authors “got it right” in all cases, but because we see an utterly faithful God willing to risk being fully misunderstood.
God’s willingness to risk sparked another thought in me: Scripture itself is a model of what my friend Wendy Gritter might call a “Generous Space” conversation. Sometimes, issues resolve. Other times, they don’t. The issue is not so much that all the writers in the canon can be made to agree, but that (in its wisdom, or its foolishness) the People of God has been provoked into a continuous wrestling, an ongoing argument, with and about our God. (Remember, this is the God who takes risks and is willing to die for us, the one who is Christ-like.)
Take violence as a topic within Scripture. Christians of all sorts affirm there will be no violence after the final Adjustment of the world. (Most Christians call this the Final Judgment, but I wanted to bring out an important nuance that I think most of us miss.) But in the meantime, we debate about the place of violence in our lives as Christians. There are voices that seem to permit violence for specific reasons. There are others that teach Christian non-violence based on the life of Jesus. Are Christians with opposite convictions still Christians? Is one camp more obviously right?
Take the leadership of women in the Church. Two perspectives (at least) find support in different authors and strands of Scripture. I personally believe that the Church should favour the professional/ordained/commissioned ministry of women at all levels. I even believe that, in the Western context at least, it is deeply sinful for male pastors and scholars to oppose this inclusive stance, because there is good exegesis and clear fruit of the Spirit on our side. I will not change my position on this topic, but there is a small chance I am wrong. But are those who disagree with me still Christians? Don’t we still come to the same Table, trusting in the same Lord for forgiveness of sins?
It does seem clear that certain debates end, even within Scripture itself. Does God accept Gentiles into the people of God? Yes, though there are voices that clearly say no. Very well: does God accept Gentiles who have never been circumcised into the Community? To be honest, based on all the Scriptural evidence the answer should have been no. The thing that tilted the balance was the divine interference of the Holy Spirit: unwashed Gentiles spoke in tongues–as the circumcised had–even before baptism!
Conversations begin because reality as we understand it doesn’t quite answer the question that arises. The task is to discern how we respond to the new question. As anyone who knows me well can attest, I believe that LGBTQ+ believers pose questions to the Church that we might not have had to engage quite so openly before.
The point of Generous Space is not to endlessly delay consensus in the Body of Christ. In part, at least, it teaches us the patience we need to grapple with our risk-taking God while loving even those who disagree strongly with us. Just as with a Generous Space conversation, Scripture teaches us that God holds all things in God’s heart, and is reconciling all things in Christ. The ultimate outcome of the conversation is not in doubt: Love Wins.
If something like this is true of Scripture, maybe that’s why Wendy Gritter could say to me once, about how she presents Generous Space in her consulting work (as I remember it): “I’m just preaching the Gospel, but being a little sneaky about it.” Amen, my sister. Amen.
1. As a Christian, as a gay man, and as someone who believes the first two identities do not conflict inherently, let me say it clearly: I affirm Marriage Equality for my friends in the United States, and continue to affirm its existence in Canada, where I live.
2. I have recently been involved in difficult discussions about marriage equality (and Christian objections to it) that have been very saddening to me; it is possible that I may lose important friendships, though I will work and pray against that possibility.
3. Let me continue to be candid. Most Christians in the world read the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament, as condemning all forms of homosexual sex and sexual relationship. This interpretation has a long history, and until about 1954 or so was also argued for on strictly rational grounds by ‘secular’ state authorities in the West. Most Western people, until recently, felt that natural law, medicine, and sound social function required objection to homosexual acts, even between consenting adults. For Western Christians, the objection has or had an added force because the “Word of God written” objected, and in fact explained why the ‘secular’ consensus found why homosexuality was so destructive. Something that God says is wrong will have real-world, negative effects.
4. The issue for me as a Christian becomes: Christians’ objections to homosexuality are based on a bad reading, a misinterpretation, of the words, historical context, and pastoral application of Scripture. In other words, Scripture cannot be applied directly to all, or even many, of the manifestations of same-gender sexual relationships or activities that we see in the Western World, today.
5. Yet, as my sisters and brothers in the US will note, most of the opposition to marriage equality in the civil arena comes from theologically conservative Christians, whether fundamentalist or evangelical. (The distinction often matters, but that’s another conversation) In fact, there are myriads upon myriads of stories and research studies that demonstrate how destructive conservative Christians and their churches have been in the lives of gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people. A belief that causes widespread destruction needs to be challenged, and that is what the gay rights movement has been doing for the past forty years or so. In fact, as evidence that homosexuality can be profoundly healthy mounts, it seems logical to afford people who have been stigmatized as a class the same protections that other citizens have–and marriage, whether common law or civilly registered (not to mention blessed by the Church!) is one of the most comprehensive forms of protection that the state can give pair-bond. (Such a protection also means that bodies are more easily managed by the State, but that’s a different discussion, for another time.) Thus, gay activists have been pushing–more and more successfully, it seems, for the extension of marriage as a basic social good to non-heterosexual people who want to attempt the same kinds of stable and life-giving relationships that their hetero neighbors do.
6. In spite of all the evidence marshaled by LGBTQ people, however, there are still people and powerful organizations which oppose this extension even of civil marriage, primarily on religious grounds. Here, then, is the question: are people who oppose marriage equality bigots, in much the same way we would apply the label to racists or those who hate people on the basis of gender or religious faith?
7. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” It strikes me that the disagreement about the label “bigot” among LGBTQ people when applied to conservative Christians might be about where one places the emphasis: is bigotry more about “obstinacy and hatred” or about “intolerance”?
8. People who place the emphasis on “intolerance” are right, in a liberal democratic context, to object to conservative Christians who object to a change in the definition of civil marriage. Why do I say this? Because if Christians have learned anything from our history, it is inappropriate to try to gain coercive influence in society when a great many of your fellow citizens have not been convinced by your worldview or your arguments. Though I object to any conception of the State as “ideologically neutral,” liberal democracies nevertheless consider it a basic good that multiple communities are able to live together without harming one another. Christians who object to civil marriage for LGBTQ people because they hope to coerce the nation “back to God” or at least “to the way I see things” are forgetting something theologically important: Christians are not responsible for taking over the government or shutting out objections to the Christian worldview, but rather for forming radical and persuasive communities that clearly offer something distinct from and even better than “life under the sun”–the status quo as we know it. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, who concede that extending the definition of civil marriage is consistent with allowing people to object to the Gospel (or to our interpretation of it), are no longer “intolerant.”
9. For my money, the key factor in whether or not someone is a bigot (or holds a bigoted view) has more to do with obstinacy, or what some logicians call “invincible ignorance.” In my life, there are clearly people like this: there are people, usually theologians and major pastors, who should know better than to disseminate things about homosexuality or GLBTQ people that are, even on the face of things, patently false (never mind when you bring sound scholarship into the debate!). Unfortunately, there can also be a great many more lay Christians who spout off something like the slogan, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” This is typical fundamentalist view, perpetuated from the top down and then reinforced by the way that future generations are taught the Bible. The civil sphere is controlled by the Devil, and if Christians manage to maintain godly values in the civil arena, it represents a victory for God that will facilitate spreading the Gospel of Christ. If one is in such a warfare or siege mentality, it is understandable why “invincible ignorance” becomes such a huge problem: bending even a little bit capitulates to evil. Bigotry in this sense is very real and harmful.
10. Perhaps I am in a unique situation, but I rarely meet intolerant conservatives (who want Canada to withdraw equal marriage); nor do I usually meet conservatives who are invincibly ignorant, who are unwilling to engage in conversation–and thus sometimes deliberately perpetuate harm against LGBTQ people. Rather, I meet people who are aware of the (sometimes profound) wounding on both sides, who increasingly are willing to bare their fears in front of one another: “This is what I’m afraid of, if you win…” Are conservatives who want to learn from conversation with LGBTQ people bigoted? I would argue not. Real-world conversations–over food and face-to-face, not by means of position statements and political stump speeches–are actually occurring, even while Marriage Equality seems to be gaining momentum.
11. Everyone has their own story to tell, formed by the own unique yet shared matrix that involves gender, race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, educational level and many other aspects. Imagine if we were to drop phrases like “conservative bigot” and “liberal whoremonger” from our conversations, and got down to the business of amassing evidence in the public realm and of sharing stories about why we are so invested in the positions we take!
12. There are bigots in the world, who spread false and evil poison abroad in society. They must be confronted. When we sit down at a table across a severe ideological divide, we must be willing to hear of pain, harm, agony, and suffering at the hands of those who only appeared to be willing to talk, or who deliberately took shots that ripped our lives apart. Bigots exist on both sides of the marriage equality debate–and the ones on the conservative side can, in real terms, inflict far greater destruction. But it is important to note that, while victims are allowed be explosively angry, it is the hardening into bitterness and hatred that perpetuates the cycle of bigotry: angry queer people react angrily to angry Christian conservatives, who conclude that the angry queer is a menace that must be stopped, and so on…
13. Very simply: I affirm Marriage Equality; most conservative Christians are not in fact bigots; and dropping inflammatory rhetoric in situations where people want to have a respectful conversation seems necessary to actually having one!
14. The take aways: Regardless of your position on Marriage Equality, assume that an opponent who really wants to learn from you is not a bigot. I also believe that conservative Christians opponents of Marriage Equality need to do most of the work. Stop complaining about the queer agenda, and open your ears: if you hear screams, it may be because they are mostly our fault.