framed, pt. 4 (in sanity)

This is the fourth and final entry in this series. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend you read the first three before continuing. Would you watch Mulan 2 without first watching Mulan? Of course not! (Actually, would you even watch Mulan 2 at all? It looks…terrible.) Anyway, moving on.

The question I keep running up against whenever I think or talk about the “gay debate” (the best-dressed debate in town) is Can we find reconciliation in the midst of a seriously divisive disagreement? Or, in my more plaintive moments, Is there any hope?

If this conversation were simply about divergent tastes in worship music or crunchy vs. soft communion bread, then “agreeing to disagree” would be a possibility. However, I think such an easy answer is not only impossible in this case, but would do great violence to the integrity of everyone involved – it would be like shouting Peace, peace! when there is no peace.

We must start by being honest about what we believe and gracious in understanding those who do not share our views, especially when the contention is so great. How can any progress be made if everyone is simply talking past each other or dealing with straw-men? The past three posts in this series attempted to recenter the debate for those who claim to take the Bible as authoritative, moving past the tired, worthless arguments that seem to be all the rage these days.

But before honesty there must come a commitment to act in love and humility even at great personal cost. Honesty not grounded in love quickly becomes little more than a barbed whip, leaving open wounds and aching scars everywhere. It is impossible to speak Gospel truth in an unloving way, for once “honesty” becomes an occasion for abuse it ceases to be truth at all. There is an enormous distinction between debating someone because I want to be proven right and speaking what I believe to be true because I genuinely desire good for the other person. The former turns all who disagree with me into obstacles to be destroyed, whereas the latter sees them as the humans they are: complex, frustrating, loved, and not to be manipulated or treated with contempt.

But, still, is there hope? Well, I guess that depends on what we are hoping for. I have little hope that there will be an end to the disagreement any time soon, but I do have hope that the manner in which we disagree can still proclaim the Gospel and bring about intense healing in its own way.

To that end, this particular post was written in response to the GCN’s rather wonderful Justin Lee instigating a synchroblog (that’s trendy internet lingo for “a bunch of people writing about the same thing all at once”) on the topic of restoring sanity to the dialogue surrounding homosexuality and the church. (I’m going to give you a few minutes to let the now-apparent brilliance of this entry’s title sink in.) Acknowledging the increasingly manic nature of this conversation, Lee and others of vastly differing opinions hope the synchroblog (which goes live on Nov. 13, so stay tuned) will sound a clear call to return to Christian sanity.

Such a simple call, of course, does not magically eliminate the pain and struggle that will continue to define the experience of many men and women caught in the middle of it all; it does not give any answers to the most tortured of questions; it does not change the fact that, even at their most moderate, we are confronted by two mutually exclusive visions of community. But it does give me hope for future progress and reconciliation.

Christlike love, says William Placher in his ultra-phenomenal book Narratives of a Vulnerable God, is demonstrated when one is willing to make oneself vulnerable to pain and rejection so that the Gospel might be proclaimed. A return to sanity, for Christians, would be a return to that kind of love in relationship with one another. On a broad, ecclesial level, I’m not sure what that would look like; I wish I could offer something more concrete. But it probably isn’t a bad idea to start with person-to-person interactions. Here’s how it might play out in my own life:

As I hold to a more conservative sexual ethic, my convictions are inherently painful to my side-A brothers and sisters. I hate that. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish text and tradition would unilaterally bless same-sex unions, not just for my own sake as a gay man but so that this horrible tension would be dissolved. But, as Walter Brueggeman once wrote, “Wishful thinking is inadequate theology.” So I’m stuck with the reality that I personally have yet to be convinced that the Bible sanctions faithful, monogamous SSUs. I’m stuck with the reality that I represent something deeply traumatic to countless people.

And yet I have side-A, gay friends whose friendships I treasure dearly. I hope they know they are free to talk about their crushes and significant others without fear of condemnation and that I am genuinely happy for them. But I’ll admit, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and celibate unicorns for me to hear/watch affirming gay Christians experience romance. I often find myself awash in intense desires and confusion, especially because, you know, I still think they’re Christians.

Being in community together will cause both of us pain. It is inevitable that there will be moments in which I simply cannot be the friend or support they need me to be. I can only hope that, in those moments, our friendship, our mutual pursuit of God and his glory, will be able to bear our tears and anger, that we would somehow have the clarity to see where the other is coming from, to feel the weight of their beliefs, and to receive the wound in love and move forward. If we are unwilling to be hurt by others even in friendship, then the only “safe” course of action is to continually manipulate or coerce them to do our will, which is antithetical to the vulnerable love of Christ.

Now, I’m a white, gay male, so the pain and tension I face is going to vary from those of straight Christians of a different gender and ethnicity, and thus I am hesitant to suggest what their struggles could be. Though for the majority of conservative Christians, I imagine the greatest challenge will arise from having to relinquish the power that comes with being a cultural majority and peel off that protective shell of privilege that effectively insulates them from the serrated arrows of others’ marginalized experiences and the whole range of complexity they introduce into previously “simple issues.” I’ve found that, for myself, even though I’ve been exposed to countless examples of poverty and alienation not my own, I am still constantly surprised by how much that tacit privilege blinds me to the suffering of others whose experiences I’ve never shared.

To be clear, I do think those within the conservative evangelical church should be the ones to take the first blows on behalf of affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTQ people have been on the receiving end of religious violence, stigma, and shame for so long… and even with four huge legislative victories this past election our societies, especially our churches, are far from safe.

I’m sorry, my words feel empty and there is so much more that I want to say. I struggle endlessly with this. I don’t blame anybody who reads this and sees nothing but a refusal to make the necessary compromises to really bring about reconciliation, who only hears vacuous calls for a mutual understanding that does little to remove the root of oppression. I can’t force anyone to believe that I love them.

But maybe that’s ok, for now. Maybe it’s time we stop requiring others to “understand” us before we show them grace. Maybe if we hope to display the exhilarating love of God through the unity expressed in John 17 we must become better at existing in the tumultuous, maddening tension so definitive of this broken world we call home. I don’t have any hope that things will be easy or clean, but the more I get to know men and women of various stances, the more I receive love and acceptance from those who disagree with me, the more I dig deep into the profound mystery of Christ and his body, the Church, I become more hopeful that this borderline obscene call to community amidst fractious pluralism will, by the power of God, be transformed into a clarion beacon shining forth with the furious radiance of the Gospel.

It seems like an insane hope, but, well, sometimes insanity is the sanest option we have.

Thanks for bearing with me in grace.

Jordan

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15 thoughts on “framed, pt. 4 (in sanity)

  1. At the same time, if we truly want to show love, we need to speak the truth as we understand it from the Bible, even if that truth is not well received.

    • I’ll (kind of) respond to this with a post. I thought it wouldn’t take me this long to write it, so I didn’t respond to you here. I hear you, and I agree, but I wonder if “speaking the truth as we understand it from the Bible” entails more than simply pointing out sin, which seems to be the common understanding in this case.

      See you soon!!

      Jordan

  2. Dude I am right with you there, brother. Sometime it kills me knowing that my Side A friends know I am Side B. I am constantly paranoid that my Side A friends will think that I’m judging them or that I’m not happy when they find a good significant other (which, like you, I am genuinely happy for them). The hesitation I feel when inviting them to functions at my church (in fear that someone at church will say something ignorant and offensive), that kills me as well.

    My priest was talking to me recently about the idea of starting some kind of missional communities of young Christians that live together, pray together, with a common fellowship and mission. “With whom?” I asked (as I’m the only person my age at my current church). “Well, what about…” and listed off the names of a couple people that I had brought to the Young Adults Bible Study at one point or another. “Oh, I would totally! But I don’t think our church would approve…” and trailed off. “Because they’re all gay and affirming,” I thought to myself.

    I believe strongly that this is not a hill to die on. And the current division really tears at me.

    • i really appreciate this blog and the views you offer. it’s great to see so many different christian’s passionate about Christ and the healing he brings while still maintaining their subtle differences. thank you for what you guys do!

    • Kendall. Your celibacy-only beliefs mean you necessarily are judging your friends who don’t share them. You believe they are sinning. I think, though, that you can own that and still be in loving relationships with them. After all, I don’t share the beliefs of Catholicism on any number of issues, but their belief that women are not made for leadership (for one example) does not mean that I reject my Catholic friends or discount their faith. Just as I would hope a priest and a woman minister would be able to respect each other as brother and sister in Christ, I would hope the same for Christians who hold gay-affirming and celibacy-only beliefs.

  3. Your last couple paragraphs reminded me of a part of The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky) where Christ kisses the Grand Inquisitor after the Inquisitor has shoveled through every reason why Christ’s work should be undone in every aspect of humanity. True, simple love unites all the cosmos and heals all divisions, even if there is an infinite gap between people. Very encouraging words for someone trying to mediate both sides of the divide.

    • And yet again my failure to have read any Dostoevsky comes back to haunt me.

      I kid you not, I was so embarrassed by how little Russian lit I’d read, when it seemed that everyone in my Bible/Theology classes had practically memorized Crime and Punishment or Brothers K, that I compulsively bought a small library of Russian novels the moment I returned home. A year and a half later, I have read 100 pages of Dr. Zhivago. This is what we call an unmitigated failure.

      Thanks for the insight, though, I really appreciate. That is a helpful image for me. I hope you are well.

      Jordan

  4. This is perhaps one of the most honest posts on the issue of gay relationships I have ever seen. Thank you so much for writing it.

    First I have to say that I respect and support your decision to be celibate. Frequently, those demanding celibacy from Christians who are gay do so glibly; they fail to consider the emotional and practical reality of a life without romantic love, and they certainly would never consider it themselves. So right off the bat, you have more credibility with me in the discussion. I have some sincere questions for and I ask them in a spirit of seeking understanding and a true wish to engage in dialog.

    I think you’re right: this is not an issue where we can agree to disagree. Like you, I am a Christian who is gay. I have studied scripture and prayed about the sinfulness of homosexuality for years. The Holy Spirit has revealed a much different understanding to me. I don’t believe that committed same sex relationships are any more sinful than committed opposite sex relationships. You are correct; your views are inherently painful because, as you know, you express moral disapproval of something essential in the person God created me to be. You believe that gay relationships hold less worth than straight relationships. You believe that, for gay people, the expression of romantic love is not a beautiful gift that brings us closer to God; in fact, in your theology, it separates us from Him. So I’m really curious how you would expect your gay-affirming friends to share that part of their life with you?

    I’m also curious about your views on civil marriage. Do you believe that the church is compelled to oppose the civil recognition gay relationships as an expression of moral disapproval? So much pain has been caused by faith-based policy initiatives to deny the rights and benefits of civil marriage to people who are gay.

    And here’s the biggest thing for me- what impact does the side b theology have on the gay kid in the front pew of a church that preaches it? From my perspective, you are giving that kid a terrible (and in my understanding false) ultimatum: live a life alone or displease God. You are telling that kid that he is created unworthy of the possibility of giving and receiving romantic love. You are encouraging him to make a long, painful retreat to the inside of a dark and lonely closet. I’m sure you’ve spoken with other gay Christians, and I’m sure you’ve heard story after story of kids desperate to become straight even to the point of suicide. For me, telling a gay kid he has to be alone for the rest of his life is emotionally and spiritually abusive.

    How do we get past that? There’s precious little moral middle ground here. While God calls some Christians (both gay and straight) to chaste singleness, that is clearly not his calling for all of us. Adults can make a change and find a faith community that shares their beliefs. Kids don’t usually have that freedom.

    Again, I’m sincerely looking to engage here. I am looking to understand your point of view and your beliefs (I’m not simply being contrary). I hope you will take the time to respond.

    Thanks

    • Hi David! I just wanted to let you know that I read your comment (and really, really, appreciated it) and will respond soon. It’s just one of those responses that will take a while to write properly, you know? Thanks for your patience, I hope you are well.

      Jordan

      • Hi Jordan. You write with such clarity and this is complex stuff. I’m really happy you are taking the time to respond, and I’ll gladly wait as long as needed to have a fruitful Interaction. My best to you.
        David.

    • I just wanted to start by, again, thanking you for both your questions and the way in which you asked them. You have serious disagreements with me, and you communicated them in a way that was gracious and respectful without being pandering or disingenuous. I deeply appreciate it.

      I apologize that some of my response will seem horribly inadequate… I’m just not going to try and give answers when I don’t really have any. This is especially true for your question about children in the church and how to communicate a side-B sexual ethic with great care for their emotional/physical/spiritual well-being. Not only have I never ministered to young teenagers wrestling with homosexuality in a church context, I myself spent my teenage years in closeted denial. In this respect, I’ve been aware for some time that I’m out of touch with what it’s like to be an “out” teenager. Before I could offer a better answer, I would need to spend time with LGBTQ youth and those who have worked with them for years.

      At the same time, I don’t believe side-B theology is the death sentence you make it out to be. I agree with you that the ultimatum of “be alone or displease God” is false! That kind of dichotomy doesn’t actually exist in side-B theology… in fact stemming from society’s misguided and pernicious devaluing of singleness as something profoundly undesirable, a common problem I am finding in side-A beliefs (though not necessarily, of course). Such a cultural attitude has corroded the church’s theological imagination: “single” conjures up images of isolation, sadness, failure, and loneliness when, truly, such things should be no more characteristic of a single person than anyone else if the church is being the church. Regardless of whether or not one thinks SSU’s are biblically approved, we should all agree that, if we are going to be consistent to text and tradition, we need to affirm the definite goodness of singleness. If a gay kid, even in a side-A church, makes it through years of Sunday mornings without hearing that message, we’ve simply failed to preach truth. Consequently, such a truth shouldn’t be oppressive, especially if it is appropriately divorced from stigmatizing language and attitude. I am advocating the exact opposite of a “retreat to the inside of a dark closet.” I think there should be WAY more out people in churches. The closet is pretty much evil, no one should feel the need to hide there while in church.

      However, side-B churches have a long way to go to become the safe space they should be to really dig into what it means to be gay in today’s culture. If there were openly gay men and women serving in leadership or just as laypeople, if older single people weren’t treated as strange or anomalous or broken, if homophobic rhetoric and actions were denounced vehemently, if stigma and shame for being gay were fought at every turn, and if gay teens (or adults) had easy access to mentors and small groups that would encourage them and validate them and demonstrate for them just how fulfilling and good a life of singleness can be… Well, I think it’d be a radically different story than we are hearing today.

      I’m still very young, so it’s foolish of me to speak about what it’s like to live a life of singleness. But I do know that the idea isn’t so unbearable to me as it was even two years ago. As I’ve matured, I’ve encountered more and more examples of people who are living unbelievably inspiring lives as single people; people who never expected to be single past 30. As I continue to make my way out into the world, I’ve discovered passions and aspirations for my future that excite me more than the thought of having a partner (though not always, of course). When I look forward, I see incredible opportunities to minister and proclaim God’s love in dynamic ways rather than an empty apartment or something like that (which used to be the case). I say this as one who is *definitely* not “gifted” for celibacy. We’ve lost the idea that marriage, as amazing and beautiful and important as it is, is a sacrifice as well.

      As for gay marriage, I decided I didn’t want to bring it up on the blog because its so divisive and can often be a distraction. However, I may post on it in the future. If you send me an email I’ll talk more freely.

      I hope that was somehow illuminating. I appreciate your gracious interaction and look forward to more in the future. I hope you are well.

      Jordan

      • Hi Jordan –

        I apologize in advance for the length of this comment.

        First I have to say that I truly appreciate the graciousness of your writing, and I also really appreciate your remarkable candor and clarity. This is tough stuff, and your intellectual and emotional honesty is a huge asset.

        Sincere thanks for engaging in the conversation. This type of dialog is really helpful for me as I work through my own frustrations about the (universal) Church’s attitudes towards people who are gay, and as I manage my personal response to that frustration.

        We’ve hurled so much judgment, condemnation and animosity towards LGBT people. I often get volatile responses when I share my faith with friends who are gay. Having been on the receiving end of certain types of Christian “love”, I totally understand their hurt and share it to a large degree.

        I don’t believe it has to be this way. I think it’s possible for us to engage each other in a way that upholds our convictions without acting (as we have) in a way that is totally contrary to the example of Christ. I’m just as guilty as the next guy. So for me, change starts with my own understanding of the beliefs of people with whom I disagree.

        Before I go on, I just have to say that Calvin and Hobbs rocks. So…OK…now that we’ve found some common ground…let’s get back to our regularly scheduled programming…

        I hope I haven’t been misunderstood. I don’t think there is anything wrong with singleness. There are many single people in my life, and I wouldn’t characterize any one of them as broken or as a failure.

        I think you’re right that societal attitudes tend to value coupling over singleness. From a Christian perspective, Christ provided the perfect example of serving God in singleness. And Paul says that singleness is, in many ways, superior to marriage. So I have to speculate about why singleness isn’t more highly regarded in the Church.

        I’ve been single and now I’m married. I believe that there is a unique emotional fulfillment that comes from giving and receiving romantic love. It was modeled to us by our parents and grandparents. I’m not talking about fairy tales and happily-ever-afters. I’m talking about investing ourselves selflessly in another person’s life so fully and with such sacrifice that our life becomes intertwined with theirs.

        In my experience, there is an isolation – an “aloneness” – that is a hallmark of singleness; romantic relationships diminish this isolation in ways that community and friendship cannot. Community and friendship are not the same thing as, nor a replacement for, romantic relationships. Perhaps child-rearing diminishes this isolation in other ways; there’s no way for me to know.

        We can debate whether or not scripture proscribes romantic relationships for gay people. And, to be sure, there are unique blessings that flow from faithful singleness too (which we need to do a better job of extolling). But, there’s an impetus behind the cultural bias toward romantic attachments that needs to be acknowledged. It’s essential to the theological debate about the sinfulness of gay relationships.

        I would also suggest that the cultural view of singleness as “something profoundly undesirable” is not a new phenomenon. In fact, as our society continues to become more individualistic, we are probably more open to the idea of singleness than ever before. That’s not to say that individualism is a positive cultural trend, but a possible bi-product is a reduction in the stigma associated with singleness such as you describe.

        On a different note, I really, really like what you have to say about the church becoming a safe space for people who are gay. Regardless of our theological views, we need to become more Christ-like to people who are gay. Perhaps this is the narrow but critical moral middle ground between our two understandings.

        I don’t know if you saw it, but there are a couple of great blog posts from this past weekend – one by Rusty Reno on “First Things” and one by David Blankenhorn on “FamilyScholars”. They do a great job of examining what it means to be “anti-gay” in the public conversation. I think it is instructive for the Church – we must take a close look at both the intent and the impact of our words and actions.

        A non-affirming church would not endorse same sex relationships any more than any Christian church would endorse the tenets of Islam. But when we talk about Muslims, do we use Islamaphobic language? Do we perpetuate lies? Do we work tirelessly to keep them from building Mosques as an expression of disapproval? Some may, but I would hope that’s not generally true.

        But that’s what the church often does – intentionally or not – when it comes to people who are gay. Even if others disagree with me about the sinfulness of gay relationships, I hope they’d agree that we need to put love ahead of our doctrine.

        I wish you all the best.

  5. Jordan,

    A few things:

    1. This was great, thank you for giving voice to your thoughts – it was helpful and encouraging to read it. And your further responses to others in the comments only add to my appreciation of how you think and write about all this.

    2. You really should read the Brothers Karamazov…it is (among other things) a life changing meditation on what it means to live as a Christian. Also, one of a few credible claimants to the title “greatest novel of all time”…so…yeah. The Peaver/Volokhonsky translation is great for a Russian lit beginner.

    3. I wonder if you have any advice for Christians (of either persuasion) when conversations like these are happening in forums with non-believers. Ideally when side-A and side-B Christians wrestle with this topic, we come to it with some shared perspective, similar language and concepts, and a certain solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ (even if we disagree and worry about the conclusions some of our brothers and sisters are drawing).

    I ask because I work at a think tank where this issue is engaged in the public square repeatedly; often times it is hard to be a public witness (of the side-b persuasion) when non-Christians are entirely unconvinced by the premises that a) there is a God, b) he is good, and c) discipleship to said good God is what’s best suited to happiness in life (in its fullest, spiritual sense). Trying to have a conversation about what love is, and what it means to be loving usually break down.

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    Happy Holy Week to you!

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