Nathaniel informed me last week that the world “needed” my thoughts on gender and sexuality specifically pertaining to LGBTQ matters. Now, I know one of Nathaniel’s virtues to be sarcasm but if I were to pretend for a moment he was actually serious I might respond to him by saying, “The part of the world which you and I exist in—that is, the white, anglo-saxon, protestant world—maybe ‘needs’ it. But those who exist outside the gaze of heteronormativity are in no way, shape, or form in ‘need’ of my musings on a topic I can only relate to as an outsider looking in.” No doubt Nathaniel would agree.
I give this caveat as a show of submission and as an invitation to be corrected by those whose lives have been marginalized due to their very being.
I also wish to make clear the vantage point from which I am narrating this story; it is a vantage point marked by privilege due to my bodily identity (cisgender, heterosexual male) and my religious heritage (the Christian faith). Over my lifetime, I have paid special attention to Christianity and its understanding of human identity and I’ve come to the conclusion that Christianity, as it has been and continues to be “performed,” inevitably leads to the exclusion and erasure of people due to their identity. Nowhere is this more acute than when it comes to LGBTQ persons. This has led me to wonder, “Is it possible to be a Christian when my faith and sacred text seem to predicate and reinforce normative identities which leave people out?”
Pamela Lightsey is someone who refuses to leave people out. This post has been largely inspired by her magisterial inquiry (pun intended) into anthropology, gender, sexuality, activism and theology. I have dipped my toe into this pool because I believe Lightsey to be correct in criticizing the Church for its “refus[al] to drink from the liberating theological perspectives of any source that [has not been] derived by the status quo.”
With that being said, the following is my own narrative of why I remain a devout Christian and how the Biblical text—once rescued from the cowboys—challenges and complicates human boundaries specifically related to LGBTQ matters.
. . .
Things started to get complicated for me during my junior year of college when a close friend “came out” to me.1 At the time, Tony Campolo’s open but traditional approach to LGBTQ matters had been deeply influential to me (Campolo has since changed his position). But our small Christian college had a much more black and white understanding that was apparently shared by both students and faculty. My friend was ultimately outed by a few cowardly students. Once outed, the administration began to take matters into their own hands. What ensued was a mix between a “gay witch hunt” and Musical Chairs, Dorm Edition.
While my friend handled all of this with dignity and patience, there was still a feeling of betrayal and righteous indignation. I was in a perpetual state of naive incredulity. Serious questions arose after this episode.
I was able to start working through some of these questions once in seminary. My seminary’s official position toes the traditional line. But unlike my college experience, I discovered some staff and students had a much less dogmatic stance on what constituted as “traditional,” “biblical,” “Christian” et al sexuality.
So when World Vision announced in 2014 that they would allow gay and lesbian persons to work within their organization but subsequently reversed field due to backlash—better a kid starve than to let “the gays” take over—I knew it was time for me to start “wondering out loud.” My co-worker and first friend at seminary, Sylvia, was a great conversation partner in the midst of all of this. It was through these conversations with her that I first realized the irony of traditional Evangelical biblical interpretation, “Want to be a police officer or serve in the military? No problem. Just ignore all of that stuff Jesus says about loving your enemies.” “Oh wait, what? You say you’re gay and a Christian? Umm, ever read the Bible before?”
The Bible—or more specifically interpretations of the Bible—is where the controversy lies. There are some who opt for a flat footed literalism while others prefer an equally distasteful liberal capitulation to society where the Bible is dismissed wholesale for the sake of “inclusion.” Al Mohler takes the literal approach when he asserts “homosexuals” will not inherit the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6). Of course neither will the greedy but Mohler forgoes criticizing our capitalistic economy which breeds greedy people. As for the loosey-goosey liberal approach, look no further than Rob Bell who, in a not-so-stunning revelation, divulged to Oprah that the Bible and Christians need to get on board with society’s acceptance of LGBTQ persons.
Neither of these two approaches satisfy me. So now what?
Far from taking a moderate or a centrist approach, I have come to the conclusion that LGBTQ persons should be welcomed into the church as they are. But how I’ve come to that conclusion has not resembled anything close to a straight line from here-to-there. Rather, I arrived at my conclusion via a jazz-like investigative adventure where I leaned into creative theological interpretations and I listened to bold and brilliant voices proclaim, “Our Lives Matter.”
It started with an article I read in Sojourners where Reta Halteman Finger brought my attention to the “uncleanliness” of the Ethiopian Eunuch due to the external markers of his body (gentile and eunuch) (Acts 8). To a certain extent, the Ethiopian Eunuch exists on the outskirts of Israel’s testimony. The reason being he is from a nation which Israel warred with and his identity is marred further due to his status as a eunuch.
Commenting on Deuteronomy’s prohibition against eunuchs being grafted into God’s people, Walter Brueggemann accents the ethical imperative of Israel’s testimony when he reflects on Isaiah’s insistence that YHWH desires radical hospitality over an exclusive holiness (Deut. 23 v. Is. 56). Staying true to Israel’s testimony, Christ criticizes exclusive purity codes when he remarks, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Mt. 9:13) Ultimately, Brueggemann concludes, “It appears that YHWH’s open invitation prevails.” Inspired by Isaiah and Christ’s words, Philip had good reason to approach the chariot.
The scandalous vision of the Christian faith permeates these narratives. These are narratives that Christians should always approach with a joyous humility as we are reminded of the openness of God and the gift of gentile inclusion. Willie Jennings sees in Christianity a revolutionary call to intimacy. Reflecting on Peter, social boundaries and the book of Acts, Jennings suggests that God’s scandalous desire is revealed in binding together those who would ordinarily never meet. Jennings believes that,
the future of the church will be found only in the places and spaces where people have learned to desire one another, and out of that desire to care for one another, and stand together against the forces of death. Yes, multi-racial, yes, multi-cultural, yes people of every orientation, but fundamentally people who have found their way to love through desire. They are together not because they have to be together, not because they are bound by some ethic or principle, but because they want to be together.
Some Christians continue to possess and be possessed by a totalistic desire. That is, a desire that seeks to offer “inclusion” into the people of God based on fictive, yet rigid, external indicators of one’s identity. We have become gatekeepers of a God who we would not know without the people of Israel. Israel desires us to be with them without us having to become them (Is. 66; Acts 15). This desire, which mirrors God’s desire, is an infinite desire. Rather than insisting that inclusion is predicated on socially defined categories of “normativity,” infinite desire anticipates an intimate joining to “the other” where all parties learn to dance with God.2
. . .
My guess is that the position I’ve parsed out here will result in friends, family and total strangers calling me all sorts of names—”heretic” and “liberal” being the most prominent. Of course there’s the classic “false prophet” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing” as well. But if the current political landscape is any indication, Christians have other wolves to worry about.
In conclusion, I simply want to thank those LGBTQ friends who have called me by my name and directed their infinite desire towards me. My gratitude must be expressed in the vaguest of terms because we still live in a world where totalistic desire creates a dangerous environment for those who exist outside the confines of social “normalcy.” O’ to see a day when God’s perfect, infinite desire drenches all of creation and all people dwell together in God, forever and ever. Amen.
1. For various reasons, I have purposely left the identity of this person ambiguous.
2. This paragraph is heavily influenced by Walter Brueggemann who has been heavily influenced by Emmanuel Levinas. See Brueggemann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, ch. 6.