zero-sum

I can’t tolerate racism. Ideologically and systemically people are still subjected to injustice simply due to the color of their skin. As someone who inherited the privileges of being a racial majority in the States (let’s just say sunlight isn’t very friendly to me), it could be so easy for me to ignore the suffering of others, so simple for me to cling to the persistent lies that “we solved racism a while ago” or that “it’s not that big of a deal” or that “the real problem is the reverse racism of affirmative action and the liberal media.” I believed all of those, once. I’ve had to repent many times of my blindness and carelessness, of my stereotypes and ignorance that contributed (and, as I’m sure I’m not perfect, still contribute) to the pain of many men and women and children, including brothers and sisters in the Church.

Because of all that, I try to call out racism whenever I see it (whether in the form of overt prejudice, unexamined assumptions, or systemic imbalance) and encourage my friends to do the same, hoping that the Church, as well as our society, will become free from the scourge of such injustice. In short: I want to absolutely crush it without compromise. I may be constitutionally required (to a degree) to allow certain organizations to hold to their gross ideologies, but I want to make sure they are at least reduced to an impotent and laughable sham.

So, I get it.

While I personally hesitate to completely equate the African-American civil rights movement with the current push for LGBTQ rights (though there are definitely similarities!), I totally understand why many frame the conversation in those terms. And I understand why, for them, there can be no compromise. I may think there is no commonality between the segregationists’ acidic trash-of-an-ideology of MLK’s time and traditional Church teaching on sexuality expressed in love and grace, but of course I wouldn’t!

Many conservative Christians exclaimed in horror when Chick-fil-A’s first amendment rights seem to be under attack, but, honestly, I wasn’t upset. If it turns out the founders of Burger King financially supported the White Supremacist party, I would seriously hope every Christian (well, everybody) would absolutely boycott them. (I actually try to avoid fast-food joints anyway, due to concerns of food quality, chemicals, and animal abuse, but for the sake of illustration…)

My concern during the whole Chick-fil-A thing (gosh I hate to bring it up again) was simply that we appeared to be on the defensive end of another zero-sum cultural land grab, which creates an atmosphere largely toxic to nuanced and peaceful dialogue. But would you want to create an atmosphere that allows White Supremacists to “nuance” their evil ideology? No, absolutely not.

So, again, I get it.

In fact, every time I think about writing a post about how I hope the zero-sum mentality doesn’t take hold of the discussion on sexuality, especially within the Church, I can never think of a convincing reason why the “affirming”* position shouldn’t want things to go that way!** It just makes a lot of sense to me.

Not everyone believes American society is headed toward complete marginalization of the Church because of this,*** but some certainly are, and are sounding the alarm to take up the banner of Christ and go to war.

I get that, too.

This post is directed primarily at them. I am not trying to assume any particular course of future history, but if things do turn (more) against the traditional Church teaching, and the conservative Church in general, it’s not the end of the world. Unless you’ve never been exposed to, you know, anything about the historical and global Church, the idea of being a  marginalized minority should be neither scandalous nor an existential threat (though it is, I admit, highly undesirable).

Being that the Church’s existence and behavior is never, in any theologically determinative way, bound by human kingdoms (please don’t misunderstand me), it is unsurprising that, historically, persecution has come less from random prejudice and more from Christians’ occasional inability to be a good citizen as defined by the State (e.g. early Christian refusal of all military service and civic religion, which painted them as anarchist deviants unconcerned by the common good). Honestly, the fact that we’ve had such power and privilege in Western civilization probably**** means we’ve made a few serious compromises along the way.

Without advocating some sort of passive collapse or retreat from the public sphere, I do think those within conservative evangelicalism would be wrong to allow the vocabulary of “zero-sum” or “cultural land grabbing” to shade our understanding of how we must interact with those who disagree with us. Such overly-eschatological dominionist terminology has no place within a people who worship a God who died scorned and outside the city walls.

We must instead busy ourselves with becoming a community relentless in fighting injustice, proclaiming love, modeling forgiveness, speaking truth, and treating everyone with the human dignity they deserve and are often denied. Sometimes our work won’t be recognized as such. Sometimes it will be seen as societal poison or as a primitive disgrace. Sometimes our terms will be defined differently. But, with a few exceptions (see Andrew Marin’s recent rejection by the UN), I don’t think the Church has practically manifested a clear ethic of love and support for LGBTQ people that would make us totally innocent of cultural backlash.

I’m writing this because I smell fear and anger within certain evangelical circles, and I don’t think there is reason for the former nor use for the latter. I’m worried such emotions will cause leaders and laypeople to proliferate language of holy war and persecution,***** allowing the creeping film of anxiety to rob them of the clarity of Christ’s witness of neighbor-love, which never depended on the possibility of reciprocation or guarantee of respect.

I don’t want to see my community batten down the hatches and take up arms in response to recent events. Such a hardening of our hearts is antithetical to our calling and will only serve to further isolate us and harm others. And, should we reject the loving practice of meekness, whatever ground the Church may gain in this “culture war” of attrition must only be recognized as a bitter wilderness compared to the abundant inheritance of Matthew 5:5 that we will have forsaken.

Jordan

P.S. My use of the word “Church” throughout this post doesn’t do justice to the fact that I obviously think there are many within it who disagree vehemently with my sexual ethic and would see any “persecution” as totally unnecessary and a result of clinging to a misreading of the Bible and a rejection of the true calling of the Gospel. Language is often inadequate, I apologize.

* I’ll take “Terminology I Dislike” for 800, Alex.

** Though sometimes I marvel at the gracelessness of some LGBTQ advocates, and hope for something better.

*** So many evangelicals assume they are being attacked only because people hate the Church. Sometimes that may be true, but I think it’s a bit disingenuous and self-serving to say that “affirming” (gah!) advocates are motivated by hatred rather than by their love of LGBTQ people and their desire for their flourishing.

**** definitely

***** And now for a Karl Barth moment: If you think you are being “persecuted” for “Gospel truth” but are, in fact, simply being rebuked for hypocrisy and homophobia – you had it coming! Examine yourself! Repent!

 

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dear pastor

Dear Pastor,

Do you remember when I showed up to the Saturday service alone, as I always did, and you called me up to to sit next to you and your wife in the front row, during worship, pushing a few chairs aside and making enough of a scene that I had to comply? Thank you.

And do you remember the following Saturday (or maybe the one after that), when all the lights were dimmed and we were about to celebrate communion and whoever was speaking gave the usual call for families to go up and partake of the bread and cup together, how your wife came over and asked if I wanted to share in the ritual with you two? And do you remember how I had to decline because I was allergic to the bread but didn’t really care because I was overwhlemed with gratitude anyway? And how, while your wife was asking me, you were asking an older, single woman the same question, and how, I didn’t tell you this, I started to cry from joy because perhaps in fifty years I would be that woman and your simple act of generosity struck me like a bolt of lightning? And how that was such a beautiful gift because, for the ten minutes prior to communion, I had been watching what I thought must have been the church’s happiest family and was achingly aware that the seats next to me were empty? Do you remember that? Thank you.

And do you remember how, when the pastoral staff responded less-than-favorably to my testimony, you began to conclude most of your emails with “I’m for you”? And how you kept inspiring me, kept affirming me, kept speaking wisdom to me, kept being there for me even as I started to lose confidence that I would ever be welcome in the church again, and reminded me that this wasn’t “us” vs. “them” but just “us,” the church, striving in a fallen world to preach the gospel amidst disagreement? And how you never stopped asking me hard questions, either, because you desired to know truth and to encourage me to live in that truth? Thank you.

And there was that other time, and I still find this hilarious, a day or so after you and I met with your son and his ex-roommate who was gay to talk about how the church could more profoundly minister to people like us, and you told me, “You know, sometimes I’m impulsive, and last night I was thinking that if the church won’t let you guys serve because of your orientation, we should just start a gay church!” Do you remember that? I hope I always will. Thank you.

And I haven’t forgotten how much research you’ve done, how much time you’ve spent in prayer, how many hours you’ve put into helping my dad process through the revelation that his son is attracted to men, and how, because of that, my relationship with him is better than it ever has been.

And you fought for me! When it seemed like the drafting of the church’s position statement on homosexuality wouldn’t be too friendly to me, you worked hard to defend my right to membership and inclusion and community. Do you remember how pleasantly surprised I was when I read that first draft? Thank you.

Do you remember, I’m sure you do, how you sent me another email just last week, which casually mentioned how you pray for me often? That amazes me, even still. Thank you.

And do you remember (as I hope this brief note has reminded you) just how grateful and blessed I am to know you, to learn under you, to serve alongside you, and to call you my friend? Please don’t ever forget.

Thank you for being the arms of Christ to me in a difficult and formative time, for relentlessly pointing me back to the very great love of God, and for taking my discipleship so seriously that you would be willing to spend far beyond the requisite number of hours talking with this dorky kid who was, and still is, trying to figure out what on earth it means to serve the church with faithful devotion.

I love you, and hope you are well.

Sincerely,

Jordan

to know you belong

On December 23 I received a $10 Starbucks gift card. It was handed to me nonchalantly by one of the long-term missionary staff here at the orphanage as I was leaving the house to play some soccer. “It’s just a Christmas present from Rachel and I,” he said, “so… Merry Christmas!”

He was right, of course, it was just a Christmas present. But with it he and his wife had unknowingly given me something greater: they had surprised me with community.

My love of chatting over espresso is no secret – within the first week I had asked/begged/drugged/jedi-mind-tricked this guy into driving me to the nearby Starbucks – but I was blown away by the simple fact that he and his wife would have even thought, “Hey, let’s get Jordan something for Christmas even though he’s only been here for two weeks and we barely know him and he hasn’t really done anything except mess up easy spanish phrases and we have no obligation to get any of the volunteers anything because we’ve been here for almost a decade and have seen thousands of them come and go and he’s no different.” I mean, seriously!

Then, later, they invited me to an impromptu worship session of music and prayer. Five of us sat in a circle, enjoying the acoustic simplicity, the apple-cinnamon scented candles, and each other’s company. We left knowing it wouldn’t be long before we met again.

These are just two examples of a larger phenomenon. As I’ve thought about it, as I’ve marveled at a month devoid of anxiety and loneliness in a context in which I should almost certainly feel both, three things seemed to stand out as essential to the joy of my experiences here:

1) The first and perhaps most obvious observation is that it has taken the efforts of many people for me to feel that I am being included in the community. Yes, one young couple in particular is responsible for a majority of the warm-fuzzy feelings, but almost everyone here has said or done something that has made me know I am welcome. From offering to drive me places to telling me that I had permission to knock on their door at any hour of the night if I needed something, people have gone out of their way to demonstrate an easy self-giving that has been definitive of most of my relationships. Nothing like this is required behavior.

I totally didn’t see it coming, at least not to such an alarmingly generous degree.

But it’s not a unilateral accomplishment. I, too, have had to make an effort to include myself. Even on days when I’m feeling sick or tired (which have been frequent) I have tried to be involved. This is especially important, I think, in the early stages of entering a new context. Granted, if I’m utterly exhausted or dangerously ill, I’m not going to go play soccer or spoons or anything that doesn’t involve sleeping or vomiting as its main activity, but by this point people know that if I turn down an invitation it isn’t because I don’t want to be with them.

2) I’ve needed to grow up. A lot. I have generally suffered from a deep hypocrisy that usually compels me, in my feverish desire to be included, to distance myself from the people I don’t see helping me in my quest for social mobility. Even if I can tell that someone is lonely, if I think they are “weird” or “awkward” it becomes difficult to ever want to include them. They threaten my social stability, and when you are as desperate as I can sometimes be such people easily become burdens and competition rather than brothers and sisters. Such behavior is, honestly, one of the ugliest things about myself.

But I’ve realized it’s impossible to feel fully included in a community, fully rooted in the life-giving grace of belonging, if I am not willing to go out of my way to become the kind of person I so passionately hope everyone else will be to me. It’s simple, biblical logic. My own inhospitality, my haunting hypocrisy, corroded my ability to find peace. I was always worried other people resented my presence, my idiosyncracies and social failures, my struggles, because I knew myself all too well; I knew that if everyone else were like me, all my fears would be realized.

There are, in fact, people here who my sinful selfishness would want me to avoid. I am not. In fact, I spend more time with one of them than anyone else. And you know what? We have fun. I increasingly enjoy his company, and he has taught me some things that, well, I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. I am still in many ways an inhospitable person, but by the grace of God and the patience of others I hope to daily put such toxic hypocrisy to death.

3) I am confident that, should it somehow be discovered that I’m gay, there are numerous people who would stand by my side and advocate on my behalf. Latin America is not always the friendliest place to be attracted to the same-sex, and I’ve encountered some astonishingly aggressive homophobia among the teenagers I work with. But even so, I’ve had numerous conversations about homosexuality with some staff members and other volunteers and I’ve been amazed at the kindness and passion that has been displayed, even without anyone knowing I’m gay. These are safe people. I am safe.

Sure, it would be nice to have an hour where I didn’t need to creatively explain why I wasn’t dating one of the numerous single women in the orphanage, but I’ve matured enough to the point where it doesn’t really bother me all that much. And sure, sometimes it’s frustrating to work with an older woman who has a strange and magical ability to materialize whenever romance comes up in conversations, with a twinkle in her eye and a list of eligible women in her hand, but arguing with her (in spanish) has become more of a cheerful game than anything else.

I’ve learned that one community doesn’t have to fulfill all of my needs in order for it to be profoundly good.

I’ve learned that shifting my focus from “How can this community meet my needs” to “How can I meet the needs of this community” allows for surprising manifestations of care and love to flow more freely from myself and those I live with as we seek to encourage and strengthen each other.

***

These are not comprehensive observations, but rather just some small points that have been rattling around my dopamine-flooded skull for the past few weeks.

It isn’t a perfect community by any stretch of the imagination; there are some very serious problems that need to be addressed, some very real failures that vitiate the witness of this place. But my, our, passion for this place and these kids is greater than those troubles, and I consider it a privilege to be both aware of and fighting against those things which threaten the growth of this community. It means I really am a part of this place, that my life is in some serious way bound up with the future of the orphanage. It fills me with a fiery sense of purpose that is usually reserved for when I’m engaged in social peacemaking, studying theology, or eating pizza, and I am in awe of it all.

For what little reflection I’ve done on the subject, the blessed occurrence of community remains, like so much of what makes the world beautiful, a mystery.

And that $10 Starbucks giftcard? It bought a couple of mochas for some of the other volunteers before we saw The Hobbit. It just seemed like the only right thing to do.

Jordan