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!

 

signs and blunders

Like many evangelicals, I suffer from a seriously conflicted pneumatology. I absolutely believe the Holy Spirit is alive and well and capable of moving in powerful, tangible ways to direct and convict people. It’s just that I’m also rather wary of over-attributing phenomena to “divine activity.”

It’s usually a great system…until I ask God for specific guidance/wisdom/signs/help. The moment I pray that prayer my post-enlightenment parietal lobe goes to war with my mystic cortex, and life gets crazy. I become, simultaneously, a jaded cynic and an avid cloud watcher – looking for some kind of sign from God only to disbelieve anything I might ever think to actually be one.

Well, friends, I prayed that prayer.

If you follow us on Twitter (which you totally should; we do awesome, exclusive things like post links to this blog), then you maybe saw that, recently, someone I love and trust suggested that the joy and growth and ministry opportunities I’ve experienced this past year that have helped me arrive at my current understanding of my sexuality have, in fact, all been a part of Satan’s plan to distract me from what is best for my life, from what is God’s will for my life, with a host of addictive and ultimately unfulfilling “goods.” This person’s perspective doesn’t resonate with what I believe to be true of God or Satan, but I’ve certainly been wrong before.

So, like I wrote in the last post, I’ve been daily praying that God would bring some sort of clarity into my life after a series of small bombs has kicked up a discouraging cloud of debris. It’s a good prayer; I’m just spastically impatient. The Sunday sermon titled People Can Change: sign or true-yet-vaguely-unhelpful platitude? The driving directions to “try going straight”: divine message or vicious attempt to get me hopelessly lost in South Africa? The friends that encourage me about all the ways God has been working in my life: BFFs or USOTFOLs (Unwitting Servants Of The Father Of Lies)? Ultra-creepy stray cat outside the window that just held eye-contact with me for way too long: Ehhh, probably just an ultra-creepy stray cat.

Semi-joking aside, it has been a problem. (But seriously, every time someone tells me, while driving, to “go straight” I’m like, Is that you, God?) It’s one thing to be looking for the will of God, staying alert and humbly seeking wisdom from others, and it’s another thing to see hidden messages behind every banal occurrence: the former is standard Christian discipleship and produces a patient focus on God, while the latter is some kind of pseudo-panentheistic schizophrenia that distracts me from dwelling on the central reality that God loves me, Christ died for me, and that my whole life is being gloriously redeemed through his power.

Maybe I really have just missed an obvious message – I’m one of those people who has on more than one occasion searched for my lost cell phone while talking on said cell phone – but I feel like the messages I seem to be looking for in my frenzied impatience are more characteristic of a cunning and deceptive serial killer than the very good God of the universe.

I imagine most of us have had experiences like this, where our healthy desire to know and obey the will of God actually gets in the way of simply following him. Inquiring after God should bring forth greater trust and patience in my life, and yet I find myself doubting whether or not he has even made it possible to discern the answers to my questions with any sort of assurance. Whatever God’s will for my life may be, it certainly ain’t that. Somehow I got blown off course.

So for now I must rest, and return to that blessed fount of the Gospel, and linger there. Lord knows why I was looking anywhere else. I suspect that, whether or not these particular questions are satisfied in the near future, I will find the answers I need there.

Jordan

walls

To follow up Tony’s post on interacting with Christians who are “affirming,” I thought I’d offer a reflection on my own journey of moving past the simple stereotypes and pervasive fear than can cripple church unity. I hope it is helpful and encouraging to you in your walk.

                                                                    ***

“So, before we leave can we just maybe go around the table and see where everyone is at with, you know, understanding their sexuality? Like, how you’re planning on living and stuff in the future?”

The girl who asked the question, Lea, was sitting to my left and volunteered the first response. Like good Americans we went clockwise around our little five-person group, each taking the time to explain if he or she planned on, or was open to, marrying someone of the same sex after graduating. I was in the unenviable position of going last, and grew increasingly anxious as each member talked happily about the possibilities of marriage that awaited them, or how they hoped to find churches that were affirming but not flaming (except with the presence of the Holy Spirit, of course). The whole time they were talking I felt a foreign twinge of…something, and it only got worse as the meeting went on.

By the time it was my turn, I realized I was going to be quite the black sheep. “What should I do? Will I offend them if I say I don’t think having a boyfriend is theologically permissible? Will I damage our new friendships if I talk about my convictions? Will they think I look down on them? Pity them? Fear them? Will they feel condemned?”

I stammered out some rushed sentences accompanied by my own nervous laughter and diverted eyes, “Well, uh, I’m still totally a conservative evangelical so no sex for me! Haha ha aha…” Not the most auspicious beginning, and it only got worse from there. I peddled meaningless clichés and abruptly concluded my ill-fated response mid-sentence, hands waving as if I had actually said something of consequence. I felt like there was a chasm in between me and them, and I didn’t know what to do.

I barely noticed the beautiful spring weather as I marched back to my apartment. “What was that? What is wrong with me?! Am I ashamed? Afraid?….. Jealous? Dang it, why does my chest hurt so bad? Crap. Crap! Not now. I’m stronger than this. Not now! I promised God I’d never feel this way. God please don’t let me feel this way! God, make me stronger, make me stronger, make me stronger…”

I made it home, numbly mumbled at a roommate, shut my door, fell into my chair, and started journaling. My painfully etched words helped bring focus to my frantic imagination as thoughts, laced with profanity and madness, began to coalesce into something solid. One of my fears was becoming reality. For the first time in my life my convictions seemed inadequate to sustain me. They were like a bitter vapor before me, and I resented them. I felt that if I tried hard enough I really could convince myself they weren’t true. I started to cry.

Up until that point I had never questioned if God really did require me to remain single and abstain from same-sex romance. Of course he did! If I wanted to live otherwise I would have to throw Scripture and salvation out the window, right? My counselor always praised the strength of my convictions; they were seemingly unshakeable. No matter the pain, the heartache, or the loneliness, I never wavered. But now…

I felt so exposed. Something had shifted in my half-manic mind. Something was different. And then I saw it.

I moved to my laptop, still in tears, and quickly wrote to a friend, “Today’s meeting was hard for me. This group is the first time I’ve ever talked with other gay people my age, and it’s also the first time I’ve ever talked about homosexuality with people who don’t hold the same convictions I do. This is a very good experience for me, but at this particular time in my walk hearing people talk about homosexuality without language of celibacy and with hope for future same-sex relationships…well…it’s really hard. I’m in a lot of pain right now, and I think it’s just because I’m being forced, and rightly so, to move past my flimsy shield of rhetoric that gay Christians who ascribe to non-celibacy are weak and disingenuous. This shield has to come down for me to grow in love and compassion, but it’s leaving me vulnerable in a way I was unprepared to deal with. My convictions are fine, I think, but life just became more complicated. A good, painful kind of complicated.”

What I had realized was that the strength that had sustained my convictions for so long, that was such a reliable stabilizer, was not so much drawn from a passionate, consuming love for God and my neighbors as it was from a self-righteous stigma and fear. My focus had shifted imperceptibly from being like Christ to not being like those weak, disingenuous Christians who caved and bought wholesale the shallow, faux-theology of the “affirming” camp.

Those people in that small group, those beautiful, hilarious, genuine, loving, passionate, Christian people, exposed the untenable basis for my convictions simply by being. Their hollow-point presence ripped through my previously bullet-proof pretensions and sent me reeling. Praise God for them. I never would have realized my sin unless they had befriended me.

From the chaotic haze, the truth that I had deprived these people of the love I owed them as brothers and sisters in Christ slowly emerged. The barriers I had erected were not so much protecting me from struggles as they were preventing me from loving others fully. The walls had to come down. I felt clearly that God was telling me, “Have your convictions, but if they are grounded in anything but the radical power of my Gospel and the desire to love as I love then they will never be holy. This will hurt, at least for a while, but know that I love you too much to let you love others so poorly.”

This was how I would move forward. The desperate cries of “Make me stronger, let me know that I’m right!” turned into a whispered plea, “God, teach me to love as you are love.”

I decided to stay in the group and to learn from the others in it, to patiently work through the rigor mortis of dying sins and live into the new flesh that was offered to me by the man who loved at the greatest cost to himself. I felt weak, I felt exposed, I felt inadequate, and I felt so, so free.

I quickly typed the final lines of the email, hit send, closed my laptop, placed my head in my hands, and wept harder than I ever had before.

Jordan

friend requests

Have you ever had the feeling that you’re a needy, emotional burden to everyone around you? That even though people constantly tell you they love you, that you’re great, that they want to hang out, and that they really care about the relationship, you find it hard to believe them? That, secretly, they all find you just as absurd, annoying, and overbearing as you find yourself? That one day they will all leave you, and you’ll be completely alone?

If you know this kind of mind-crushing neurosis all too well, then I’m so sorry. I hope you are doing ok, and not curled up in a gutter somewhere listening to Evanescence on repeat (totally been there). If you haven’t personally experienced what I’m talking about, then let me introduce you to a very common social reality for people who are same-sex attracted (though certainly not exclusive to them!). I will be speaking from personal experience, but I have heard numerous, similar stories from other gay men and women. But still, this is not applicable to everyone.

In the middle of the second semester of my Junior year, I wrote a list. In it I detailed the thirty things I was sure my friends hated about me. (If I do say so myself, it was an admirably incisive compilation of personal defects.) But how did I land myself in such darkness when I really was surrounded by truly dear brothers and sisters who loved me?

A large part of it was that I had ingested early in life the poisonous lie that I was unlovable. Growing up attracted to the same sex in a society that is often overwhelmingly homophobic can lead to some pretty terrible image problems. It was so easy to believe that I was disgusting for having these feelings, that I carried some atrocious blight in my chest that marked me for a deserved isolation and shame.

This potent stigma was not simply erased by one good coming-out experience… or two, or three, or twenty. It spread to almost every area of my life and became a part of my very identity. Years of believing lies about myself could not be undone by isolated moments of truth. Rather, the fear had to be slowly worn away by daily affirmations of worth and the consistent, pursuing presence of those who cared for me.

In his excellent book Love is an Orientation, Andrew Marin talks about how one of the persistent questions in a gay person’s life is “Will you leave me?” Men and women who pursue same-sex romantic relationships are afraid their actions will cause their family and friends to abandon them, while men and women committed to remaining single are afraid that everyone around them will make no room in their lives to include them, consigning them to the lonely hell of watching happy families flourish from behind a one-way mirror. The latter nightmare was my own.

It is unbelievably important to be a relentless and affirming presence in the lives of gay friends and family. Often the entire weight of a terrifying future bears down on their present life, turning small social barbs into serrated spears, innocent silences into damning judgments.

I’m not saying this is “ok” – relationships are not meant to bear the weight of limitless anxieties of the unknown – but it is common and must be born out in love. People working through scary issues of great social significance are frequently aware that they are unreasonably “needy,” which only compounds their sense of guilt and shame. I felt like a crazy person for being unable to trust even my dearest friends. At one point I even collapsed outside of my apartment from sheer mental anguish, having exhausted myself trying to figure out the state of one of my friendships. I was sinfully anxious (says Captain Obvious) and had made it impossible for him not to fail me in some ways, but healing only began to come when I admitted that I wasn’t entirely crazy for feeling like that.

You see, one of the most horribly difficult things I have ever had to do is actually admit my closest friend had let me down me in very real ways. It took a whole month of a therapist and two mentors arguing with me for me to finally say, “Ok, maybe he let me down a little. I mean, maybe. I guess, if you put it that way, I dunno……..” So I had to talk to him about it, or else.

Do you know how stupid hard it is for me to tell someone (who I am afraid thinks I’m an emotional lamprey) that he isn’t treating me like the friend he claimed to want to be? It’s about as difficult as licking my elbow. Some people can do it naturally (freaks!) but I would require surgery; in this case some serious heart surgery.[1] But here’s the thing, by being willing to, one more time, go to him and graciously express my disappointments and confusion I was showing that I trusted him and believed he was who he said he was.

Now, I’d had conversations like that with him before with little effect. That’s what made it so difficult! Everything in me wanted to think he only kept humoring me out of some sense of obligation to make sure poor, insane Jordan wasn’t totally alone. Because I didn’t totally trust him, I prefaced each previous conversation with an “I’m sorry I’m so burdensome and certifiably insane” clause. When you doubt your own worth, it seems too risky, too dangerous, to let blame fall on anyone but yourself.

The tone of that final discussion, though, was different; I didn’t qualify my pain with declarations of self-inflicted delusion. I finally let go of the burden of trying to manage both sides of the relationship, and was simply honest. He could have hurt me terribly in that moment. God knows I half-expected it. But you know what? He rose up and bore the responsibility for his actions, for his part of the relationship, and committed to working through the tension with me. It’s weird how relationships are so much healthier when one person doesn’t feel like he has to carry the weight of the whole thing.

I was graceless to myself by internalizing the blame for everything, and I was graceless to him by refusing to treat him as the friend he wanted to be for me. Our mutual willingness to admit our faults during that conversation, to let responsibility lay where it should, and to forgive deeply, were all essential components to me finally breaking free from that cursed cycle of self-loathing and mistrust. The purpose of being honest about who sinned, and how, is ultimately that there might be true forgiveness and reconciliation, not so that one person is vindicated and the other shamed.

But I couldn’t have made it without his help. He had to apologize for some legitimate mistakes and he had to make a concerted effort to change behavioral patterns that were unhelpful. Praise God, he remains to this day as one of my absolutely closest friends who has been with me through almost the entire process of coming to grips with my sexuality. He consistently points me to focus only on Christ and shows me through his actions how life-giving it is to be selflessly inclusive and encouraging. I owe him a lot, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without him. I asked him for permission before posting all of this. (If you’re reading this, man, I love you so much and think the world of you. Thank you.)

I hope this has been helpful, somehow. Relationships are surprisingly resistant to summary. To clarify:

– Gay men and women are often plagued by fears about the future that amplify the anxiety surrounding present relationships.

– Such fears can be sinful, though they are largely uncontrollable, and they are frequently validated when friends actually fail (which everyone will at some point).

–  Both people need to be willing to do some uncomfortable things to move toward healing. The person who feels abandoned must refuse to believe the lies of worthlessness, trusting the friend if he says he is committed to the friendship, and acting accordingly. The other person must be patient with the recurring anxiety and be willing to apologize and make a real effort to move away from harmful behavior.

– Both people need to be disciplined enough to ask for wise counsel, and be mature enough to be the first to apologize (though, honestly, one person will almost always be too apologetic).

– Moving forward is a matter of both people committing to greater openness and humility

I am definitely no relationship guru, but these are just some small things I’ve learned.

Relationships can be the greatest barrier or the greatest asset to a healthy understanding of God. My friends have shown me love beyond anything my early fears permitted me to dream. Their endless hugs and affirmation were central to me finally believing that God loved and affirmed me and was holding me in his arms. It wasn’t always easy, and almost never painless, but I wouldn’t replace them with anyone (you know who you are!).

Jordan


[1] Somewhere in there I grew to hate that analogy.