Despite the fact that I’ve been pretty vocal on my blog about LGBT issues, I haven’t been fully “out” as an ally in my face-to-face interactions with my congregation and other clergy, though it’s probably been very silly to think I can somehow separate the two worlds. Today represented somewhat of a milestone in that regard. Two years ago, when the rainbow people held communion outside of the annual conference, I had a very brief and nervous conversation with one of them whom I knew but didn’t stick around. This year, I decided to go to the annual rainbow people communion service. I left the conference a little early to get there, and immediately a woman volunteered me to take a giant rainbow fish flag back into the convention center and hold it up prominently as everybody was exiting so those who wanted to come would know where to go. I’m sorry to admit that I was
a little nervous terrified about the facial expressions I would encounter in my fellow clergy who hadn’t yet identified me as one of “those” people. I’ve still got a lot further to walk in my journey. But one thing that was really cool about the communion service was that two women were there with whom I had a very significant conversation three and a half years ago that began my journey of un-closeting myself as an LGBT supporter. So I got a photo with them.
Four years ago, I was going through a phase of trying my very best to be as conservative as I could possibly be. I had just started as an associate pastor at a congregation with mostly military families, many of whom seemed very hungry for the evangelicalism in which I’m fluent from my upbringing. So God’s call for me within this context seemed clear. I needed to return to the evangelical that I was before my decade of rebellion. Plus, I was starting off the decade of my thirties feeling very embarrassed about the silly radicalism of my twenties, especially the phase when I called myself a “Christian pagan,” which basically meant “earthy” social justice activist who hung out with other social justice activists and talked about how much Jesus was a social justice activist.
So anyhow, I was very happy in my first year of ministry not to say anything about LGBT issues at all just like I was very happy not to say anything to my military friends and parishioners about my year as an anti-war organizer in Saginaw, Michigan. Getting into social issue topics didn’t seem to offer any benefit to the discipleship of my congregation. We simply didn’t have LGBT members (I later learned that we had some who had left and some parents of LGBT youth who had also left). I was going to focus on preaching the gospel, and trust that the gospel would have trickle-down implications in how my congregation members thought about specific social issues that were so toxic to address directly.
All of this was working fine for me until I went to a district clergy meeting in early 2011. During the lunch break, I was sitting with Wesley seminary professor Dr. Youtha Hardman-Cromwell and a pastor of a Reconciling congregation in Alexandria named Sara Manner (whose name I only learned today), when I opened up about the way I first became a United Methodist through a mostly LGBT congregation in Toledo, Ohio in 2001. And I said casually that of course I couldn’t talk about any of that in my ordination commissioning papers. And Dr. Youtha frowned and said Why not? I was speechless. And the pained look in Dr. Youtha and Pastor Sara’s faces at that moment haunted me for months after that. I was betraying a testimony God had put into my life for a purpose. I really believe that the Holy Spirit spoke to me very directly in that moment, and I’m trying to be obedient to what the Spirit has continued to say.
Now many things about my convictions from three and a half years ago haven’t changed. As a pastor, my primary task is to focus on the discipleship of my flock. Though peoples’ views about sexuality certainly play an important role in their discipleship, engaging in issue debates on the superficial level of issues still does not seem like fruitful stewardship of my time and platform. I have a responsibility as a pastor not to squander my credibility with my audience. I have social capital that must be used wisely and strategically, and the only agenda I should have for this social capital is to build the kingdom of God and help my congregation members discover God’s will for their lives.
But I’m also coming to believe that being silent to avoid distractions to discipleship may do more harm than good not only for LGBT people themselves but for those who are seduced into obsession with the anti-gay agenda. It seems more and more clear to me that the homosexuality issue is a ruse that Satan has been using in all sorts of ways not only to create division in the body of Christ but to give Christians a sinister means of obfuscating their own sin, substituting ideological opinions about other peoples’ sexuality for living out their own sexual holiness as disciples. It’s so much easier to be “holy” with my opinions than with my actual lifestyle. And it’s so much more likely for “holy” opinions about other people’s behavior to serve as a cloak for an unholy lifestyle than for them to produce holy living in me.
There’s an unacknowledged idol at play behind all of this. Every teenage boy in America knows that the way to prove you’re a man is through “scoring” sexually with women. Nobody told me outright but I knew it by seventh grade. Too often, Christian teaching about sexuality does little to challenge the idea that women exist as trophies for male sexual self-definition other than to say you’d better put a ring on that first and to tell women they’d better cover up until they’ve got a ring after which they can be the smokin’ hot trophy God created them to be. Patriarchal heterosexuality is a worldly idol that is worshiped every bit as boisterously in today’s Christian culture as the golden calf that the Israelites danced around in the Sinai desert. I know a man who bought his son heterosexual pornography to look at because he was worried that he might be gay. I have a feeling he’s not the only Christian father who has performed this duty of making sure his son becomes a “real man.”
In any case, the gospel that I believe and preach today is the gospel that I learned at Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio from a woman named Tanya who couldn’t wear a Methodist stole because she was my lesbian pastor. Thanks to Dr. Youtha and Pastor Sara’s prophetic challenge, I could no longer hide this gospel that really did save me. It is a gospel that I could only have learned from a deeply wounded and incredibly gentle people who never stopped loving their savior despite a lifetime of being crucified by his followers. If LGBT people are indeed “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:29), then I would need to have a spiritual lobotomy, because who I am as a Christian has been shaped irrecoverably by that LGBT congregation that loved and mothered me through the most difficult chapter of my life.
I don’t think that Paul wrote those ugly words in Romans 1 about LGBT people as a category; I think he wrote them about philandering, debaucherous Romans who were having sex with anything and everything. I have first-hand experience with a Romans 1 lifestyle. It damaged me badly and it didn’t have a thing to do with the gender of the bodies I consumed in my lust. When you have sex with anything and everything, you become filled with wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. Gay and straight people alike can become this way. It was from LGBT Christians that I learned I was a beloved child of God and I needed to stop seeking my security in worthless fleshly idolatry. I was saved from the damnation of a Romans 1 lifestyle by the very people whom so many Christians use Romans 1 to damn.
The critical truth of Romans 1 that gets completely swept aside when it’s turned into an anti-gay clobber passage is that idolatry is the root of injustice. This is why pursuing social justice without any undergirding worship of God always degenerates into sectarian bickering. If you worship as your god something other than God (like sex or money or any ideology), then you cannot be just no matter how rightly you diagnose the injustice of others. You can’t just do justice; you also have to love mercy and walk humbly with your God, as Micah 6:8 teaches. When I worship rightly, I walk humbly and love mercy and do justice as an organic progression of God’s sanctifying grace.
Now the corollary is also true. When people exhibit the fruit of Romans 1:29-31, it testifies that they are living some version of Romans 1:18-27 under the surface, whether their porn is naked bodies or hate radio, no matter how emphatically they quote scripture in every sentence. When people are unjust, it’s because they don’t worship or fear God even though they might be very fearful of God. Christians who are unjust to other people aren’t really worshiping God no matter how tightly they squint their eyes and throw their hands in the air during the praise band guitar solo; they are putting on a performance for a God whom they think they’re supposed to be afraid of. I’ve actually seen more toxic fruit from Romans 1:29-31 within the body of Christ itself than I have in the LGBT community.
The reason I say with increasing conviction that Romans 1 cannot be about LGBT people as a category is because I have seen over and over again what Peter saw in the house of Cornelius in Acts 10. And so I say exactly the same thing about my LGBT Christian mentors over the years that Peter said about the Gentiles he met: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us” (Acts 15:8). When Jesus’ brother James presided over the Acts 15 council in Jerusalem, he didn’t try to play exegetical gymnastics with Genesis 17:10-14 to find some wiggle room in God’s command of circumcision to Abraham. Instead, he abolished the requirement of circumcising Gentile Christians with a prophecy from Amos 9:11-12 that had nothing to do with circumcision but helped illuminate the Spirit’s new witness in the Gentiles. In the same way, I look to a prophecy from Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:28-29 to explain the new things that I see God doing today: “He chose what is base in the world, the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no one would boast before him.”
God’s purpose for our holiness is not to bring us into conformity with an abstract, arbitrary order, such as one in which we pretend that human nature only allows for “male or female” as a binary and not “male and female” as a fluid, complicated spectrum. The only conformity God wants is “that no one would boast before him,” because a world where people boast before God is a world where people are leveraging their self-imagined moral superiority as a power play in the oppression of others (c.f. Matthew 6:1-18, Luke 18:9-14, and Matthew 23). God’s purpose is always to bring us to our knees before him, utterly renouncing any justification we have for ourselves and instead accepting his unconditional mercy with open hands as we empty our hearts of every idol so that we can become his mercy to other people. Walk humbly, love mercy, live justly.
The idol of patriarchal heterosexuality is one of the “things that are” which must be “brought to nothing” by people whom God chooses to be prophets because they are despised under the terms of this idol, since heteronormativity has become a means by which many Christians justify themselves in place of Jesus’ cross. Wherever opposition to homosexuality is the “circumcision” by which Christian identity is litmus-tested, it is no less poisonous to the Christian gospel than the first century circumcision evangelists were to the Galatians. What might Paul say about today’s evangelical “circumcision” litmus-test? Read Galatians 5:12.
We can only live under God’s mercy if our only “circumcision” is our unconditional acceptance established by the blood Jesus Christ shed on his cross. When we fight against heresy, we should be fighting to prevent any other legitimacy from supplanting Jesus’ blood rather than fighting to establish another legitimacy based on “correct” belief. More than anything else in the Bible, evangelical Christians today need to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians because we are so Galatian! The primary heresy of our day is doctrinal works-righteousness: making “orthodoxy” into a set of propositions that “save” us through their ideological “circumcision” rather than recognizing that good doctrine is that which slices through every trick we find to avoid humbling ourselves utterly before Jesus’ cross which is the only place salvation happens.
The reason that the despised ones of 1 Corinthians 1:28 are the vanguard of the true secret Christian orthodoxy is because they start from a place of abject illegitimacy, whether they’re “the gays” or “the illegals” or “the crazies” or “the thugs” or any other category of social contempt. Illegitimacy alone doesn’t save but it provides such a huge head start over those of us who are so invested in our worldly legitimacy that we are immunized against God’s grace. Those who are illegitimate and “queer” in the broadest sense of the word (if it’s not too presumptuous of me to use the word broadly) are part of the wild whirlwind that topples our idolatrous social orders and their towers of Babel, replacing them with the messy confusion of a Pentecost where everyone has been made welcome by being rendered an outsider like the suffering servant of Isaiah who is our messiah because he’s an outsider. The despised ones have as much social standing as the procession of those condemned to die on Golgotha hill whom Jesus told his listeners they had to join if they wanted to be his disciples. Though “take up your cross and follow me” has been reduced to a safely abstract “spiritualized” meaning today, it would have meant the absolute loss of social status to any first century audience of Jesus.
The despised ones already have crosses on their shoulders and rotten food on their faces from the jeering crowds. I have to learn how to be despised like they already are if I want to be saved from the hell of my self-justification. After all that I’ve been taught by my gentle, beautiful despised mentors, I was still reluctant to hold up a freaking rainbow fish yesterday and be “exposed” in this way before my Virginia Conference colleagues. I am so far from having the courage to take up a real cross and face the world’s hate. But the seed that the Holy Spirit planted through Dr. Youtha and Pastor Sara, as well as many other mentors and prophets in my journey, continues to grow. The one who began a good work in me will see it through to completion. And he will keep sending prophets to graciously call me out of my worldly privileged into the kingdom of the despised where I hope to gain the life that can only be received as a gift of mercy.