Better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian (Joey’s story)

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Today I’m featuring a guest post from my friend Jessy Briton Hamilton, about his friend Joey and his experience being shunned by the church for his sexual orientation. 

Shortly after reading Joey’s story, I saw Julie Rodgers’ post describing her experience of rejection. It astounds me that some traditionalists were not more supportive of Julie, if what they say about holding their convictions with love is really true. As a celibate gay Christian, she’s played by their rules. She’s done everything they ask. Yet her experience at the hands the church has forced her to ask some difficult questions:

The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.

Neither Julie nor Joey deserve to be treated this way by the church. Their stories should be a wake-up call, prompting all of us—affirming or otherwise—to pause and reflect.

So to my non-affirming friends: Are you sure you’re not at all guilty of the “straight-up homophobia” that Joey, Julie, and others have experienced? In other words, are you as loving as you think you are?

And to my affirming friends: Is it good enough to declare our churches “open and affirming”? Or to feature a rainbow-themed avatar on our Facebook pages? What are we doing to actively serve LGBTQ members of our churches and communities?

With that, here is Joey’s story, as told by Jessy…

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Chillicothe is a small piece of 1955 trapped in Ohio’s forgotten Appalachian hills, at the place along the Scioto River where the rapids of poverty swell and begin to rage toward the Kentucky border. Typical of small Midwestern towns from Youngstown to Nowhere, Kansas, it’s the kind of place most people are proud to be from… but wouldn’t want to live.

Joey is an exception, embracing the raw experience of rural life, while most of his peers have already punched their tickets to Chicago, Columbus, or some other city that looks like every other city to a small-town boy. The 19-year-old college freshman studying agricultural science at the local branch campus of Ohio University has lived in these parts all the days of his life. He winces at the thought of severing his bond with the soil from which he came, but knows at the back of his pretty little head that economic factors may someday take him far from this sleepy Rust Belt ghost town.

Joey talks to me with dizzying excitement about any topic that comes to mind: cherry vanilla ice cream, his dream of someday buying back the family farm from the corporate agribusiness that pulled the deed out from under his grandfather, and his hope for a family of his own—a husband and 2.5 little Joeys, all working on the farm, of course. We talk about the president, fruity drinks with miniature umbrellas his friends want him to try, and his fear of being caught if he does. Joey talks and I mostly listen. Ultimately, I don’t care what we talk about—I’m just happy Joey is alive to wrestle with which pop star to rock out to on the way to class, or which teenage indiscretion he should or shouldn’t experience tonight.

Joey and I first met on a smartphone chat application that uses GPS technology to tell gay and bisexual men where other gay and bisexual men using the app are located. It was two weeks after his failed attempt to overdose on a cocktail of pink and yellow pills that his short profile statement caught my attention: “No longer Christian. HMU.”

One of the ministries I engage in involves the utilization of smartphone apps to find the Joeys of the world—younger LGBTs from Christian backgrounds at risk for suicide. My message to them is simple: God loves you, there is nothing wrong with you, so let’s chat. There are a sea of them, but only one of me.

My experience with Joey, and countless others has taught me that many LGBTs go through a series of stages in the evolution or disintegration of their faith. The church through spiritual violence has traditionally played the role of hastening the destruction of faith among LGBTs, as those who ultimately arrive at a crisis of faith are confronted with the reality that a fixed-facet of their being—their sexual orientation or gender identity—is said to be at odds with nature and contrary to God’s will. This crisis of faith is resolved by one of three methods:

1. LGBTs with the emotional ability, and a deep well of spiritual resources will initiate a life-long journey to unlearn the internalized homophobia inherited during their early spiritual formation.

Having undertaken the hard work of untangling God’s love from the cruel words and deeds of God’s people, they will arrive at mature spiritual conclusions, acknowledging their status as a child of God, made in his image. A personal theology that allows them to live both a life of faith and a life of integrity evolves over time. In my experience, this rarely happens the first go-round. Ideally though, this is the direction faith communities steer LGBTs. At best, however, many spiritual and lay leaders simply ignore the crisis of faith. Others unwittingly lead LGBTs to resolve the crisis via options 2 and 3.

2. LGBTs who cannot find it in their experience to separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but know that sexuality is a fixed facet, unchangeable and good—will reach the conclusion that the existence of a loving God and their own existence are mutually exclusive.  

God simply does not exist—or if he does, he is unworthy of worship. In my experience, most LGBTs initially resolve the crisis of faith this way.

3. Those who cannot separate the institutional church from God himself—and who see Christianity as a single tyrannical monolith, but have bought the lie that their sexuality is sinful and changeable—will make several attempts at becoming that which they cannot.  

After several failures to conform to heteronormative expectations, they will either return to pursue options 1 or 2, remain in a state of perpetual spiritual torment, or having exhausted all known options, attempt to end their lives.

After a series of twisted events that began with reading an article on his denomination’s latest public rejection of LGBT’s, followed by a conversation with his fundamentalist pastor, Joey decided suicide was the only option that remained.  This was the latest episode in a never-ending nightmare of spiritual violence aimed at Joey from the people who claimed to love him.  He couldn’t see any other way—it was preferable to be dead than to be gay.

Fortunately, Joey’s attempt to take his life failed. His mother found him lying a pool of his own vomit (it’s common for the body of those who overdose to reject the attempt), and he was taken to the hospital, where he eventually became conscious.

Today, in an effort to save his very life, Joey has resolved his crisis of faith with option 2: “No longer Christian. HMU.” He can’t wrap his mind around the idea that there may be other ways of approaching God that include living a life of integrity as an openly gay man. He asked this week what I thought of his choice to give up on Christianity as he understands it. While I hope that someday Joey will reconcile his sexuality with his faith, until he has the resources and support to do that, it’s better to be an alive atheist than a dead Christian.

There are too many Joeys. And only one me.

What is your faith community doing to identify the Joeys in your midst, to help them to navigate their crises of faith and arrive at a place where they truly know the love of their Creator?

Jessy Briton Hamilton lives in Denver, Colorado, and does consulting work with faith communities through his firm, Solutions by J. Briton. He attends St. John’s Cathedral, Denver.

Photo: Chillicothe by Ohio Redevelopment Projects on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The only question worth asking

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Here is the full quote from Yale New Testament professor Dale Martin:

I have tried to illustrate how all appeals to “what the Bible says” are ideological and problematic. But in the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love.

To people who say this is simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. “Love” will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion—as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love.

But rather than expecting the answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism or modernist historicism.

We ask the question that must be asked: “What is the loving thing to do?”

—//—

The context for this quote is a lengthy but illuminating piece on the meaning of two Greek words, arsenokoites and malakos, both of which occur in 1 Corinthians 6, a passage many read as condemning all same-sex intimacy.

Martin demonstrates convincingly (for me, anyway) that modern scholars read too much—or perhaps too little, depending on your perspective—into the meaning of these words. But at least in the case of malakos (unfortunately rendered “sodomites” in the NRSV), the correct meaning is no less troubling. It introduces just as many interpretive problems as it solves.

(Spoiler alert: Martin argues the correct translation of malakos is “effeminate,” adding weight to accusations of misogyny laid at the apostle Paul’s feet.)

In the end, Martin concludes that we can’t resolve every interpretive difficulty in Scripture—nor should we try. No matter what our view, conservative or progressive, and no matter what our approach to Scripture, fundamentalist or historicist, we all run into difficulties when reading and applying the Bible. It doesn’t always work to just “do what the Bible says.” It’s not that simple. Which is just as well, because sometimes the Bible says to “annihilate” people.

Nor do interpretation and application suddenly become easy once we cross from the Old Testament into the New. We are still 2,000 years removed from its context. We are still listening in on one side of conversations that took place in a much different world.

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The good news is, the apostle Paul (yes, the same Paul who rather unfortunately suggested that “effeminate” people will not inherit the kingdom of God) gave us the key to answering the age-old question, “How should we live?” And the answer is not, “Line up as many Bible verses as you can find on a given topic and try to make them all say the same thing.” Because sometimes that doesn’t work.

The answer, according to Paul, is to obey the one command that fulfills all the other, sometimes conflicting commands:

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  

He also says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other,” proving that sometimes, the application of ancient Scripture to our context IS rather straightforward.)

Another way to put it is, as Dale Martin did, is to always ask one question, no matter the issue: What is the loving thing to do?

Original photo by Abhi on Flickr (overlay and text added to original image) / CC BY 2.0

Why Russell Moore is right: racial injustice IS a gospel issue

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I worry a bit when we start labeling ever divisive matter a “gospel issue.” Surely not everything rises to this threshold. Surely if you play the “gospel” card too many times—if you argue that “the gospel is at stake” in practically every debate—pretty soon the word loses all meaning. It becomes little more than a rhetorical club for stifling debate, for insinuating that anyone who disagrees with you hates the baby Jesus.

Yet sometimes the gospel IS at stake. The other day, Russell Moore when he called racial injustice a “gospel issue.” And I think he was right.

That was the day we learned that Eric Garner’s killer would not face charges. One of the first responses I saw in my Twitter feed came from Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. It was a transcript of a radio show he recorded moments after the news broke.

His comments are well worth reading:

A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice.

What we need to do is to have churches that come together and know one another and are knitted together across these racial lines. I have gotten responses [to this]… that are right out of the White Citizen’s Council material from 1964 in my home state of Mississippi… people saying there is no gospel issue involved in racial reconciliation. Are you kidding me? There is nothing that is clearer in the New Testament [than] that the gospel breaks down the dividing walls that we have between one another.

If [this] is not a gospel issue, then I don’t know what is.

Russell Moore spoke not just for his tribe, but for the whole church. He spoke with prophetic urgency as he rightly declared that racial injustice is indeed a gospel issue.

It’s a gospel issue because the gospel Christ proclaimed is about more than just our personal relationship with God. It’s about our relationship with each other—and with all of creation, for that matter.

It’s the renewal of all things, the reconciliation of all things. The gospel destroys the dividing wall of hostility between people. It creates a new humanity; it knits together a new family where divisions based on ethnicity, caste, or gender are rendered not just obsolete but sinful.

This is what it means to be “in Christ.” You cannot embrace Christ without embracing his mission to remake the world, to destroy all the old barriers of sin and oppression and division.

Some theologians use the term “human flourishing” to describe this mission. Which to me is just another way of saying a world where everyone can breathe.

That’s what Christ’s mission is about. That’s why racial injustice is indeed a gospel issue. To swear allegiance to Christ is to commit yourself to this mission, period. To tolerate injustice, oppression, or exclusion—to turn a deaf ear on the cries emanating from marginalized communities—is to embrace an anti-gospel.

You cannot hate your neighbor and love God, as Dr. Moore eloquently reminded listeners in the wake of the Eric Garner non-indictment. And in case you’re thinking, I don’t hate my neighbor, remember this: the Bible equates apathy with hatred.

—//—

Yet if this is true when Eric Garner has the life choked from his body by a prejudiced and unaccountable police force, it is also be true when a gay teenager is bullied into suicide, whatever our understanding of sexual ethics might be. It is also true when women are relegated to second-class status in our homes and churches. What was it Martin Luther King, Jr. said?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

In other words, we don’t get to choose which marginalized communities we embrace and which we leave out in the cold. We don’t get to choose which “dividing walls of hostility” to tear down and which ones to leave standing.

Either it’s the reconciliation of all things or not.

Russell Moore is right Racial injustice is a gospel issue. But it’s not the only one we should be concerned about.

Photo by Geraint Rowland on Flickr (text added to original) / CC BY-NC 2.0

What an atheist’s crucifix taught my child about faith

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It was a crucifix that caught my daughter’s eye during ArtPrize this year.

There’s no shortage of crucifixes to be found at the annual art competition. From the 2011 popular vote winner, depicting a bored looking, white American Jesus backlit by a Kinkade-esque sunset, to one of this year’s installations, “The Moment, Endured,” a more severe portrayal made entirely from nails.

“The Moment” was actually one of two crucifixes displayed outside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, one of the venues for ArtPrize. But it was the other one, a piece called “Love Does Not Harm,” that made my 4-year-old ask me to stop the car as we were driving by a couple Saturdays ago.

We circled the block a few times until we found a place to park. The sky couldn’t make up its mind between “partly sunny” and “vaguely apocalyptic,” so I put her in a stroller and we made a run for it.

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“Love Does Not Harm” is the work of a local designer named Timothy Gabriel. His crucifix doesn’t exactly play on subtlety. If Mia Tavonatti’s “Crucifixion” pandered to a deeply religious West Michigan audience, “Love Does Not Harm” poked it with a stick.

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The silhouetted figure is made up of anti-gay slogans. It hangs from a cross comprised of similar rhetoric. The entire scene is draped against a rainbow banner declaring that “Love does not harm.”

The piece drew attention for the political statement it made (and because the artist claimed it was vandalized during ArtPrize). But I wish we’d focus less on the controversy and more on the scripture Gabriel featured. Romans 13:8-10 is, I believe, one of the seminal texts of the New Testament.

“Love does no harm to a neighbor,” Paul writes. Every other law there is—don’t murder, don’t steal, etc.—is summed up in this one command: love others. Do not harm.

Paul is not breaking new ground here. He’s echoing one of the most pivotal teachings of the gospels, in which Jesus declared that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two greatest commands in the Bible—and that they are two sides of the same coin. The way you demonstrate love for God is by loving your neighbor. You cannot do one without the other.

Would any of us like to argue that we’ve kept this law perfectly? When have we ever been good at “doing no harm” to those who are different from us?

Gabriel’s piece does not major on subtlety or nuance. Nonetheless it invites us to consider one of the more central teachings of the New Testament and its implications for us today. Regardless of how we may think about sexuality or marriage, “love does no harm” is an idea that should make us pause and reflect.

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Of course, I didn’t get into all this with my daughter. She’s too young to read the words that made up the silhouetted figure. But she recognizes a picture of Jesus on the cross when she sees one, even when it’s abstract. Her eyes were especially drawn to the colorful words behind the crucifix, so I told her what they said.

We talked about “love does no harm” and what this means. We talked about how we should treat those who seem different. We talked about how this is part of what it means to love others the way Jesus loved us.

And then we went home and had lunch.

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A week later, we made one more visit to ArtPrize.

As we were driving, out of the blue my daughter asked if we could see Gabriel’s piece again. “The one that says, ‘Love does not harm,’ ” she explained. Then she told me what it means—how we should accept others, no matter how similar or different they are. She remembered our week-old conversation almost perfectly.

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The artist invited people to leave responses on the back. Elizabeth happily drew lots of squiggles.

Artistically, it may not have been the greatest piece at ArtPrize this year. It may have struck some as heavy-handed. And of course, many will find it divisive. But the core idea, “love does not harm,” shouldn’t be controversial. Gabriel’s piece helped my daughter grasp something central to the Christian faith—how we are called to love as Jesus loved.

If you read the title of this post, then you know the not-so-surprise ending: Timothy Gabriel is an atheist. In his official ArtPrize bio, he refers to himself as a proponent of secularism. And I am eternally grateful to him for teaching my daughter something important about Christianity.

When we stop viewing those who are different from us—whether it’s in their orientation or their beliefs—as enemies, we might just find they have something to teach us.

What have you learned about your faith from surprising sources? 

Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

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I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, some of my views have shifted—in part due to the example of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care for the term “liberal” because it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all). That’s not me. Nevertheless, not all my views are as cut-and-dry as they once were.

But I’ve held onto my old polarizing tendencies. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists.) Whichever side I take, I still have an ugly habit of viewing those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

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Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. Benjamin Moberg argues that civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

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The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Retributive violence is still violence, even when it’s a slushie

Nonretaliation and enemy-love are not some insignificant whisper lingering on the edge of Jesus’ ethical landscape. They are fundamental identity markers for citizens of God’s kingdom.

— Preston Sprinkle, Fight

It can be argued that Christine Weick committed an act of violence when she spent Mother’s Day camped at a busy intersection in suburban Grand Rapids with her sign condemning gays…

Violence against a day meant to honor all the moms (straight or otherwise) who’ve chosen nurture over hatred…

Violence against those who already feel marginalized by the church…

Violence against her own faith which, however you feel about same-sex marriage, should never be reduced to this one issue.

But it can also be argued that Jessica Prince committed an act of violence when she threw her slushie at Weick. Granted, neither act caused physical harm. But we all know there’s more than one way to hurt someone.

To be honest, part of me wanted to cheer when I saw Prince empty the contents of her plastic cup over Weick on local TV. Like many on both sides of the gay marriage debate, I’m wearied by the antics of Westboro Baptist Church and their imitators. It’s not hard to think Christine Weick got a small taste of what she deserves.

Except that retributive violence — whether bullets, bombs, or projectile slushie — can never resolve conflict. Retributive violence can only escalate it.

When a news crew showed up to cover Weick’s solo protest, it was going to be a one-off story about the kind person that has nothing better to do on Mother’s Day than show the world how angry she is about the existence of gay people. Or maybe a story on some of the peaceful counter-protestors who showed up with handmade signs of their own.

That was it. Weick would get her two minutes of fame on the local news, and the story would be history.

Now it’s taken on a life of its own, as a mildly trending story about an anti-gay/pro-family protestor (depending on your political point of view) becoming the victim of a slushie assault. It’s fresh ammunition for those who didn’t exactly need our help nursing a persecution complex.

Jessica Prince’s action turned a minor story into something bigger. Because retributive violence can never resolve conflict. It can only escalate it.

Which, perhaps, is one reason why, if you’re a Christian, the option of dishing out violence in return for violence has been taken away from you. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus told Peter. Elsewhere, Jesus overturned the Old Testament formula of blessing those who bless you and cursing those who curse you:

Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.

Love and retributive violence cannot occupy the same space. Or, as Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing… this should not be.”

Which makes the incongruity of Jessica Prince’s confrontation with Christine Weick even more distressing, at least from a Christian point of view. (The unedited version was posted to YouTube by WOOD-TV.)

After dumping the contents of her slushie cup on Weick, Prince told her:

God teaches you to love one another, no matter what you look like, no matter what you do, and no matter who you love.

Yet in practically the same breath, she went on:

You know what? You’re going to hell. God will make you burn for that… I hope someone who drives by who has bigger balls than me will beat your f****** a**.

OK, granted… no one appointed Jessica Prince a spokesperson for anything. She’s not a good representative for those of us who want churches — and society in general — to adopt a more loving posture toward our gay and lesbian neighbors.

But I think there’s a little bit of Jessica Prince in all of us — a part of us that wants God to make our enemies burn, a part of us that wants to watch someone beat the crap out of them. But as Preston Sprinkle writes in his excellent book Fight, Jesus “doesn’t let us hold on to little compartments of life where we can respond to evil however we darn well please.”

Subverting evil with love is the only option if you are a Christian. There is no other way, not even dousing someone with slushie.

When the dreams you had for your kids fall apart

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Lately I’ve been reading the stories of parents whose children came out of the closet.

When James Brownson’s 18-year-old son told his parents he was gay, it prompted a five-year period of reflection and study (Brownson is a New Testament scholar), culminating in the book Bible Gender Sexuality.

Elsewhere, an anonymous evangelical pastor shared his story about the night his 16-year-old daughter handed him a note that read, “I am gay. I am happy this way. And if you really love me, you won’t try to change me.”

Both parents are Christian. Both love their kids. Both want them to follow God. Yet these parents have very different understandings of what it means for a child of theirs to be gay. One came to a place of affirmation — the case for which he unpacks in his book. The other believes as strongly as ever that same-sex intimacy is not part of God’s design, though he admits having lost his taste for the political crusade against same-sex marriage.

Despite their differences, both parents confessed to having the same reaction when their kids came out of the closet. Both say the dreams they had for their children died that day.

Brownson:

I spent some subsequent time in depression, grieving the loss of the heterosexual future for my son that I had dreamed of.

The anonymous pastor:

The dreams we had for [our daughter’s] life changed dramatically that night… Something truly died within me.

I’m in no place to judge either parent’s story. The most difficult news I’ve ever had to absorb from my three-year-old is that she thinks I smell bad when I come home from a run.

Previous generations of parents — especially Christian parents — weren’t encouraged to consider any possibility except that their kids would grow up to be heterosexual, happily married, baby-making machines. In which case, yes, I can imagine it would feel like a dream has died within you when your son or daughter tells you they’re gay.

But what’s it like for a child to hear that they’ve crushed their parents’ dreams — simply because they summoned the courage to share part of their identity? (Note: I’m not suggesting that either Brownson or the anonymous pastor said anything like this to their kids.)

How does that weigh on a heart? What does that do to a child’s spirit?

The dreams we nurture for our kids hold tremendous power over us — power that we, in turn, can wield against our kids to devastating effect.

This was brought home for me the other night as I was getting my daughter ready for bed. We just welcomed her little brother into the world a few weeks ago, and the whole experience has been a source of endless wonder for her. She loves reminding me what happened, as if I wasn’t there: “Hey, dad! Yesterday a long, long time ago [we’re still working on her concept of time], when I stayed at grandma and papa’s house, the baby came out of mommy’s tummy, and now I’m a new big sister!”

Elizabeth loves her baby brother. She loves the babies at church. She loves playing with baby dolls. It’s not hard to imagine her becoming a mother someday. It’s not hard to picture myself as a grandfather (a long, long time from now). It’s not hard to begin cultivating a specific dream for my daughter’s future — a certain vision of how her life will play out.

That night, I almost said, “And one day, you’ll be a mommy too!” But then I remembered the stories of those parents. Stories of soul-crushing disappointment, weighing heavily on them and their kids alike. What I’m slowly learning as a parent — and having to relearn every day — is that it’s not my job to write my daughter’s future. And it’s not her job to live up to my dreams for her.

If I can learn this well, I might save both of us a lot of disappointment one day.

After all, what if my daughter isn’t able to have kids? Or what if she doesn’t want kids? What if she decides not to get married? What about the 3-10% chance, statistically speaking, that she might be gay?

If I construct an overly specific vision of her future in my head now, won’t that make it harder to adapt and respond appropriately when her real future collides with the present?

So instead, that night I told my daughter, “And one day, if you decide it’s what you want, you can be a mommy too.”

We all have dreams for our kids. I do. I want my children to know they are loved by God. I want them love God and others in return. Beyond that, I just want them to know they are free to pursue their own dreams. I want them to discover who they are so they can live fully into their identity.

 

4 things you should consider about World Vision’s policy change

Image courtesy of World Vision US

Image courtesy of World Vision US

Update: Since this post was first published, World Vision has reversed their decision to allow people in same-sex marriages to work there.

As the debate continues over the announcement that World Vision will no longer fire someone for being in a same-sex marriage, here are a few things I’d like to share for your consideration. I spent four years working for World Vision; these observations are based on my direct experience with them, both as a former employee and as a donor.

I believe those of us who are Christian have to find ways to come together, despite our differences on same-sex marriage. The reaction to World Vision is just another reminder of the damage our division is causing. If you disagree with World Vision’s decision, you may not change your mind based on anything I share. But I hope it will help you as you consider your response, especially if you sponsor a child through World Vision.

1. This was not a rushed decision.

It’s been over three years since I worked at World Vision, and I can tell you people were wrestling with this when I was there.

Part of me wishes World Vision had changed their employee policy sooner. They lost good people by waiting until 2014. But I also respect World Vision for proceeding with deliberation.

Those of us who want the church to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians are not naïve about the fact that for many evangelicals, it’s a hard pill to swallow — or that we are challenging beliefs and assumptions long held by the church. (Which is not to say beliefs should never be challenged simply because they’re long held.)

In any case, the leaders of World Vision US spent considerable time thinking through, wrestling with, and, yes, praying about their decision.

2. The public explanation they’ve shared is for real.

The explanation World Vision gave Christianity Today is that they are deferring, as they always have, to churches and denominations “on matters of doctrine that go beyond the Apostles’ Creed and our statement of faith.” In other words, where there’s disagreement among Christians on second-order issues, World Vision chooses to remain nonpartisan.

So what happens when Christians start disagreeing about same-sex marriage? Well, World Vision decided that wasn’t its fight. Hence the claim, derided by their critics, that they are taking a neutral stance.

Whether you agree or not with their rationale, I can tell you it’s honest.

It’s important to remember that World Vision is not an “evangelical organization.” They are a Christian organization. This nuance is easy to overlook, because in the US at least, World Vision’s donor base is predominantly evangelical. But globally, World Vision serves the whole church — evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. Which is why they’ve chosen the simplest expression of historic Christian orthodoxy, the Apostles’ Creed, as their measure of faith.

So again, the question is: what do you do when individuals and churches of good faith — even whole denominations — reevaluate their position on same-sex unions?

I realize that some who want to make homosexuality a litmus test of orthodoxy will balk at the phrase “good faith” here. But there are plenty of us in these churches and denominations who confess the Nicene Creed every week and mean it.

Bottom line, this was the question World Vision began wrestling with several years ago. Around 2009, there was an open forum to answer employee questions about hiring practices and the employee code of conduct. A lot of discussion centered on World Vision’s policy toward gays, specifically in light of the fact that several Christian groups were starting to bless same-sex unions, or at least open their doors to gay and lesbian members. Interestingly, the conversation wasn’t about political pressure; it was about how we respond to an increasingly divided church.

Speaking of which…

3. This was not about caving to outside pressure.

About 20% of World Vision’s US funding comes in the form of government grants. When President Obama took office in 2009, a handful of liberals pressured him to end public grants to religious groups like World Vision. Progressive Christian leaders like Jim Wallis leveraged their influence with the president to make sure that didn’t happen.

Still, it sparked a debate over the hiring practices of religious groups that receive government funding. World Vision claims the right to restrict employment to professing Christians. They’ve always said they would walk away from public funding before giving up their religious hiring rights. And they mean it. In 2009, World Vision was getting ready for the very real possibility of losing all government funding. They were drawing up contingency plans for how to run the organization on $200 million less annually. (And yes, those plans involved significant job cuts.)

They weren’t blinking.

In the end, World Vision prevailed. The Obama administration was persuaded to continue making grants to religious organizations. World Vision also fought and won a court challenge to its religious hiring practices.

All of which is to say, World Vision has shown resolve when it comes to hiring Christian employees. Those who believe their decision not to fire gays was some sort of capitulation to public pressure don’t know the organization very well.

4. This decision is costing World Vision…and the people they serve.

On Twitter yesterday, Micah J. Murray shared a report that up to 2,000 child sponsors had cancelled because of World Vision’s announcement. I don’t know how accurate this figure is, though I’ve heard something similar. Also, it’s not clear is whether this represents a net loss of sponsors or just a higher than normal cancellation rate. (World Vision US has 1.2 million sponsored kids; they process cancellations for all kinds of reasons every day.) If it was the latter, it’s also unclear how much was offset by new sponsorships coming in.

[Update: More recent figures suggest World Vision has lost 10,000 child sponsorships over this.]

Assuming the 2,000 figure is accurate, that amounts to just under two-tenths of one percent of all kids sponsored through World Vision US. But this was never about percentages. This is about real lives. It’s about kids in impoverished communities who just became pawns in our culture war. It’s about gay and lesbian Christians and the message they’re being sent that they “aren’t even worthy to serve hungry children,” that they “are so deeply unwanted” that some people are willing to let kids die just to make sure they don’t get a job serving the poor in the name of Christ.

We can do better than that. For ourselves, for our gay and lesbian neighbors, and for impoverished kids and their communities.

The patriarch and the pope: the real difference between Phil Robertson and Pope Francis

By now, enough has been said about Duck Dynasty to make Sir Tim Berners-Lee sorry he invented the Internet.

Kristen Howerton of Rage Against the Minivan shared what I felt was the best response so far. Also worth considering: a valid question from Time about A&E’s suspension of Phil Robertson and this Atlantic piece arguing the “real scandal” is what Phil said about blacks who lived during the Jim Crow era. Also, Preston Sprinkle demonstrates what a conservative response to this controversy ought to look like.

So I have just one thing to add, and it’s about this response, which circulated on Twitter:

On one level, just about every word is true. Both men believe sex between two individuals of the same gender is sinful. Pope Francis was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. And while Phil was suspended rather than fired, many would say it comes to the same thing.

But all that’s beside the maddeningly obvious point, because those making this argument haven’t bothered to ask: why was one named “Person of the Year” while the other was suspended from his own TV show? 

If you believe anti-conservative bigotry is the driving force behind Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty, you owe it yourself to ask why the gay community and its supporters have responded so differently to these two men.

The difference is that Francis’ first—and, to date, only—comments about gay people have focused on their inherent dignity and worth. Which is in marked contrast to his predecessor, who characterized homosexuality as having “a strong tendency toward an intrinsic moral evil.”

Pope Francis made waves in 2013 by saying, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

It wasn’t just a one-off comment. He also went on to say this in an interview with America Magazine:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.

Nobody’s under any illusion that the pope will alter Catholic doctrine on sexuality. But he HAS modeled a radical shift in the church’s posture toward gays.

If you want a sense of what that means for people in the gay community, take a look at The Advocate, an LGBT magazine — which also named Pope Francis their Person of the Year for 2013.

Phil Robertson chose a different path. He used his platform to express revulsion at the mechanics of gay sex, thereby reducing people to a sex act. His comments reveal a diminished view of their humanity.

If he had simply said, “I believe the Bible teaches sex should be between a man and a woman,” I doubt anyone would’ve batted an eye. Certainly no one would have been surprised at a devout, openly religious southern family patriarch expressing this conviction.

The difference between Pope Francis and Phil Robertson comes down to this. When the pope looks at a gay person, he sees a human being. Phil’s comments in GQ suggest that when he looks at a gay person, the first thing he sees are reproductive organs being put where he thinks they shouldn’t.

And that’s a problem. Because whatever you believe about homosexuality, people are so much more than who they sleep with or who they’re wired to be attracted to. Pope Francis gets that, even though he maintains a conservative view of sexuality.

Finally, the contrast between the patriarch and the pope exposes the lie in thinking that Christians are just being persecuted for their beliefs. After all, naming someone “Person of the Year” is a pretty odd way of persecuting them, don’t you think?

If Christians are going to be persecuted — and really, there is so very little of that in this country — then it’s time we were persecuted for something worthwhile.

Diminishing someone else’s humanity is not one of those things. 

Listening to other voices: it won’t just happen by accident

There was a time, even after I had embraced gender equality, when most of the voices I listened to — theologians, bloggers, etc. — were men. I don’t think I planned it that way. But years of believing that only men could talk authoritatively about the Bible had conditioned me to tune out female voices. Even after I had shed my support for patriarchy, its effect on me lingered.

There was a time when I could write about gays and the Bible without listening to a single LGBT voice. Oh, I might interact with a sound bite or a caricature of their views, but I wouldn’t stop long enough to hear how they read scripture or what their experiences in the church were like. I certainly wouldn’t stop long enough to allow them to become human to me.

There was a time when I served on a mostly white student leadership committee on a college campus that was 85% white, in a town that was 95% white. An incident where some locals drove their confederate flag-adorned pickup truck through campus, looking for minorities to intimidate, prompted us to finally address the challenges minority students faced on our campus and what could be done to help. Before long, it became obvious we didn’t have a clue, and we would remain oblivious until we started including and listening to and minority voices who could tell us about their experience.

Most of us gravitate toward those who sound like us, think like us, look like us. That’s why liberals watch MSNBC and conservatives watch Fox News. For those of us who, by virtue of being white and male, have enjoyed most of the power and privilege for longer than anyone can remember, this habit of tuning out other voices is more entrenched than we realize. That’s why we often end up sitting in conference halls talking to ourselves about everyone else and scratching our heads in befuddlement whenever someone complains about a “lack of diversity.”

Whether it’s CBMW assembling a group of mostly white married men to talk about singlehood, womanhood, and homosexuality, or a seemingly more progressive venue failing to include a respectable number of women on the main stage, we’re not always good at welcoming (much less engaging) other voices.

This isn’t necessarily about quotas, though Jenny Baker makes a good argument that quotas may sometimes be necessary to disrupt long-established patterns of exclusion. But how are we going to bring other voices to the table, unless we are intentional about it?

For me, this meant making a conscious choice to start listening to more female voices, to start reading more female bloggers. If I’m going to write about patriarchy, surely I ought to listen to those who’ve felt its impact the most. Surely I should listen before I presume the right to speak myself.

It’s also meant building bridges into the gay Christian community, listening to their stories, allowing their perspectives and experiences to inform mine. It’s meant not presuming I know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, at least not until I’ve walked alongside them for a bit.

And the thing is, this choice to start listening to other voices has enriched me in more ways than I could have anticipated. These amazing voices have sharpened me countless times, so that when I decide to say something about issues that affect them more than me, I might (hopefully) contribute something worthwhile to the conversation, rather than just pontificating for the sake of hearing my own voice.

I still have a long way to go in this journey. There are other voices who deserve to be heard. But they won’t be heard unless we are intentional about creating space for them.

Until then, we’ll be the ones who are missing out.

How do you make space to hear those whose voices are different from yours?