October 26, 2011

STRONGER AT THE BROKEN PLACES: I’ve been thinking a bit about the use of language of “brokenness” in discussions of Christianity and homosexuality, and why I rebel against both that language and other people’s reaction against it. I’ll try to just briefly make some tentative points; tomorrow I’ll have an even more tentative post soliciting alternative ways of discussing or describing the Church’s prohibition on gay sex (rather than the alternative vocations open to gay people, where I feel much more certain of what I want to say–I am much more confident in what I want to say about the “yes” than what I’d say about the “no,” but the picture is incomplete without both, I think).

The good thing about the language of brokenness should be obvious: It’s humbling.

There’s a contemporary American tendency to insist that we’re good people, or that through bourgeois productivity and respectability we purchase indulgences and can therefore create our own Christian doctrine. (I can’t remember where I read the tart aphorism, “Europeans don’t believe in God, so they do whatever they want. Americans do whatever they want and call that Christianity.”) At the very least we demand to be recognized as just as good as you. To say that we’re broken is considered morbid or even offensive; to say that we might actually be unusually or distinctively broken is considered repulsive.

I am basically in favor of almost anything which prompts an admission of weakness, vulnerability, or similarly un-American expressions of spiritual poverty. To the extent that actual existing gay Christians use language of brokenness to express our need for unconditional surrender to God, I find it beautiful and spiritually-fruitful; I didn’t share some readers’ negative reaction to this language in Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, for example. (And I thought he either avoided or explicitly countered most of the negative aspects of brokenness language which I’ll discuss in a moment.)

That said, here are some reasons I don’t use that language myself.

First, I still do suspect that straight Christians often use “We’re all broken!”/“The ground is level at the foot of the Cross”-type language, when discussing homosexuality, as a kind of rhetorical toll to be paid before you can get to the thing you’re actually interested in talking about, which is Other People’s Problems. If there’s a danger of pharisaism for gay Christians who insist they’re not broken, not like those messed-up addicts or crazy people (We Are Respectable Homos!), there’s also a danger of pharisaism for straight Christians who want to use the language of brokenness when discussing situations they’ve never been in.

Second, and relatedly, using language of brokenness in the context of an already-stigmatized group has the obvious potential to provoke shame rather than humility, despair rather than surrender to God. I don’t know that I need to go into detail here really, do I? Gay pride is wrong, but it’s the wrong response to gay shame.

Thirdly, what do you do with a broken thing? I mean, you either throw it out or fix it, right? The imagery does not conduce to viewing homosexuality as a potential source of insight for the Christian. It’s not a metaphor which suggests vocation. It’s a metaphor in which one’s orientation is a problem to be solved or at best endured. Even imagery of woundedness is more complex, insofar as wounds, in Christian thought, are not solely healed but sometimes glorified.

And finally, the language has been handled so much in this context that it’s a cliche, a coin with its face worn off. When you say “brokenness” and “gay” in the same sentence I think a lot of people can only hear the five thousand previous times someone has used the metaphor, no matter what you personally intend to say with it.

But there’s enough good in it that I wonder if it can be rescued, revived. After all, there are ways of describing a broken place as a place of insight–that’s where the light gets in.

So I’m posting this more as a provocation than anything else: Talk to me more about brokenness. It isn’t a metaphor which comes naturally to me and it’s easier for me to see the limitations than the insights or beauty it can provide. But I think there’s some poetry to be found here if we’re willing to look for it: Are you broken like a wave, coming home on sharp rocks? Are you broken like a voice deepening into manhood? Are you broken like the Eucharist?


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