Civil Rights & The Complexities of Comparing Movements (Part 2)

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A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Monroe Gallery and see the timely exhibit “The Long Road: from Selma to Ferguson.” In this article, gallery owner Sid Monroe explains that the recent photographs from Ferguson are in fact “echoing iconic civil rights images made decades earlier.” The exhibit effectively conveys the pressing message that there is still so much work to do when it comes to civil rights and racial reconciliation in the U.S. Likewise, after the Supreme Court declared the federal legalization of same-sex marriage, a similar message rippled across social media – there is still more work to be done to protect the rights of those who are LGBT.

In Part 1, I emphasized the importance of not equating the campaign for LGBT equality with the Black Civil Rights movement. Nevertheless, I hope that investigating the similarities that these two causes share will help call attention to how the Church can improve its approach in both areas. As Christians, we need to do a much better job of actively promoting racial reconciliation and mending our relationship with the LGBT community.

The first similarity I want to focus on is the fact that in both movements, sincere Christians are/were standing on each side of the contentious issue. Today, we are appalled that Christians supported slavery. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln explained in his second Inaugural Address that both the Confederacy and the Union “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” Christians who believed that the Bible justified slavery had the advantage of being able to point to specific verses to support their case. Since Jesus never spoke out against slavery, people like Jefferson Davis felt justified saying things like, “[slavery] is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” Christian abolitionists, on the other hand, were faced with the more challenging task of appealing to general biblical principles such as love, justice, and humanity. In the process, they were accused of not taking the Bible seriously and ignoring the “plain meaning” of the Bible. It is apparent how this history parallels the debates surrounding LGBT equality.

That being said, I also do not want to over-simplify this comparison. For example, in “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals,” William Webb makes a case for a “redemptive hermeneutic” approach by essentially asking, “What ultimate ethic does the Bible point us toward for each of these groups?” His point is that even though the two movements have many similarities, this should not necessarily lead us to a similar conclusion. On the other hand, Rachel Held Evans cautions that since we’ve been wrong before, we should be “wondering if we’ve done it again, if we’ve marginalized another group of people because we believed the Bible told us to. [… It] does sound familiar. And that should give us pause.”

Regardless of one’s convictions, as Christians we all need to lament. We need to acknowledge that over and over again we have (at the very least) failed to stand against violence, injustice, and continual hate and fear. In this video, Jay Beck explores the prophetic tradition of lamenting and the need for change to be born out of broken hearts. He explains, “[Walter Brueggemann] says a lot about Isaiah and Jeremiah where they lead the people to grieve. They help them understand how far we’ve come, we mourn over what has happened, we remember our distance from God and the pain and the separation and the hurt that we’ve caused each other. And once we’ve been lead to that grief then this new issuing of hope and a proclamation for change can come because the heart has been broken open and it’s not just ideas, it’s not just concepts.”

Lament. Change.

The Limitations of Covenant Friendship

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I love the examples of covenant friendships in the Bible, namely between David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. I also admire Sarah and Lindsey who identify as “a celibate, LGBT, Christian couple.” In general, I think that Spiritual Friendship is great and I can especially identify with the Celtic concept of “Anam Cara” (a “soul friend”) explained so eloquently by John O’Donohue:

“With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. […] In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging.”

Even as I appreciate all of these versions of covenant friendship, I disagree with those who assert that it is a way for LGBT people to have the same shot at intimacy as their straight counterparts.

My first reservation has to do with the fact that for an LGBT person in a covenant friendship, it is nearly impossible to prevent emotional intimacy from developing into romance. In Spiritual Friendship, Wesley Hill agrees saying, “You can’t very well commit yourself to pursuing chaste same-sex friendship as a gay Christian and expect that romantic, erotic feelings won’t somehow, be involved in that pursuit.” Some might argue for drawing a “clear” boundary at physical sexual acts, but if physical same-sex relationships are not God’s will, it would logically follow that romance isn’t ok either. Another approach is to learn to recognize red flags to help identify when the thin line between emotional intimacy and romance is in danger of becoming blurred. As an example (but speaking in the context of straight opposite-sex friendships), Jonalyn Fincher shares in this video, “the words ‘isolation’ and ‘privacy’ quickly trigger romantic ideas to me.” But if a covenant friendship is between two men or two women (as is modeled in the biblical examples of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi), both isolation and privacy are a given. Hill continues, explaining that it is not a question of whether or not these close friendships will involve romantic attraction, rather, “The question is […] how my friends and I will choose to respond to or negotiate that reality when it appears.” He explains that this obviously complicates the relationship because “Not only did I have to be circumspect and make sure I maintained appropriate boundaries and safeguards in my pursuit of intimacy, but I also had to find male friends who wouldn’t mind the challenges that come when a friend like me is attracted to them.” A priest friend of his added, “we need Christians who won’t freak out when their gay friends develop crushes on them.” Unfortunately, we have a long, long way to go before that becomes a reality.

In Spiritual Friendship, Hill first explains the view that friendship is unique and treasured because we can choose to end it at any time; it is entirely voluntary and unencumbered by any sense of duty. But he then inquires as to “whether [or not] friendship should be so free and unconstrained” and asks, “Should we begin to imagine friendship as more stable, permanent, and binding than we often do?” “Yes,” he concludes, and suggests that we use the familial language of “brother” and “sister” to signify permanence, longevity, and indestructibility. Ultimately, Hill asks, “What would it mean if we made promises to each other, precisely as friends?” I think to myself realistically (and admittedly cynically), Those promises would be broken. When we speak of covenant friendships, it is my understanding that we are not necessarily saying that both of these friends will refrain from getting married to another person. In this poignant article, Carrie English articulates the bittersweet occasion of such circumstances noting that “weddings change friendships forever. Priorities have been declared in public. She’ll be there for him in sickness and in health, till death do they part. She’ll be there for you on your birthday or when he has to work late.” But perhaps Justin Lee best articulates the most basic objections to the “solution” of covenant friendships in his book Torn when he writes, “seeing that Adam was alone, God did not simply say, ‘I am sufficient for you’; nor did God expect Adam to meet those needs with a friend.” We know it is not good for man to be alone. We know that it is better for someone to marry than to burn with desire. So, why doesn’t that apply to LGBT people? (If your answer to this is “because the Bible says so” you can find a brief explanation of both traditional and progressive biblical interpretations here).

For the most part, I can identify with Hill who writes, “I find myself wondering which is the greater danger – the ever-present possibility of codependency, sexual transgression, emotional smothering (and other temptations that come with close friendship) or else the burden, not to mention the attendant temptations, of isolation and solitude created by the absence of human closeness?” His priest reminds him encouragingly, “when have Christians ever believed in playing it safe?” So of course developing close friendships is best. As Lord Tennyson famously penned, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all.” Unfortunately though, because of the complexities and limitations of covenant friendships, they cannot provide the same shot at intimacy for LGBT people that marriage provides for straight people.

Civil Rights & The Complexities of Comparing Movements (Part 1)

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Drawing parallels between the movement for LGBT equality and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is a common occurrence. Profound lessons can be learned from this comparison, but first it is necessary to address the complexities of using racial analogies.

Many people find the comparison of these two movements frustrating and strongly resent this approach. In Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid explains, “prejudice against us as gay people differs significantly from prejudice against people because of race.” She argues that this approach makes “a largely white gay movement [sound] opportunistic.” Furthermore, some believe that these parallels are used to evoke empathy from white people who feel guilty about the way black people were treated. Vaid continues, “if we believe our analogies, we must act as if we cared about racial discrimination as much as about homophobia.” In addition, the fact that racism still persists despite the best efforts to eradicate it also fuels black resentment of gay activists’ use of racial comparisons. Lastly, Vaid emphasises that “By pursuing the path of civil rights, we consciously chose legal reform, political access, visibility, and legitimation over the long-term goals of cultural acceptance, social transformation, understanding, and liberation.” That being said, it becomes clear why we must strive not to equate these two movements even while comparing them so as not to miss out on the important insights that history provides.

On the other hand, Yoruba Richen, a documentary filmmaker who identifies as a member of both the African American and LGBT communities gave a TED talk in which she stresses the intersection of the LGBT equality and Black Civil Rights movements. She laments the fact that these movements have been pitted against each other and expresses her anger that these two minority groups are competing with each other instead of supporting each other.

Keeping these different opinions in mind, I hope that examining the similarities between the LGBT equality and Black Civil Rights movements (without equating the two) will help us become equipped with the perspective and understanding we need to not repeat our collective mistakes.

On Marriage: Considering the Victims of Our Victories

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In Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch, she facilitates a dialogue about how to come to terms with the future of marriage in light of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the interview:

“What would it take for our collective confrontation with this issue [of gay marriage] to become redemptive rather than divisive?”

– David Blankenhorn

“As I grow older, I grow in doubt and that’s good and I feel like that’s a healthier way to be.”

– David Blankenhorn

“To actually know where we disagree requires effort from you and from me. We have to have a relationship to do that and part of achieving disagreement means identifying areas of common ground.”

– David Blankenhorn

“How do we think about compromise and integrity going together…? That compromise is not a relinquishing of integrity.”

– Krista Tippett

In contrast to this thoughtful and solemn episode of On Being, others have addressed the topic of redefining marriage with a more facetious approach. For example, there is this song by Roy Zimmerman:

And this New Yorker cartoon:

“Gays and lesbians getting married—haven’t they suffered enough?”

Humor can be helpful, but as we all know, this is not a laughing matter. As the Supreme Court decides the same-sex marriage case, there will inevitably be both victors and victims. Maybe you think of yourself as the victim. Maybe you think of yourself as the victor. But maybe those categories are not so black and white. The great theologian Miroslav Volf points out, “people often find themselves sucked into a long history of wrongdoing in which yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators and today’s perpetrators tomorrow’s victims.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also provides a wise perspective on this. In another episode of On Being, he describes one of the most powerful rituals in the Passover Seder, the reading of the Ten Plagues. Rabbi Sacks says, “with each one we spill a drop of wine, we shed a tear. We shed a tear because for a moment we allow ourselves to think of the victims of our victories, the pain of the other side who were enslaving us, but they were still human and they were still suffering. It’s when you can feel your opponent’s pain you’re beginning the path that leads to reconciliation.” May we all feel our opponent’s pain. May we all find the path of reconciliation and learn to love each other in the meantime.

This.

Identity

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At Jesus’ baptism, His identity is affirmed as the beloved Son of God (Matt 3:17). Following this, Jesus enters into the wilderness and the devil tempts Him saying, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matt 4:3, emphasis added). Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, comments astutely on this sequence of events writing, “if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.” Particularly at the intersection of faith and sexuality, the question of one’s identity becomes a quandary.

Christians often encounter significant tension when it comes to defining their sexual identity. Some Christians prefer the term “same-sex attracted,” viewing this as a way to emphasize the centrality of their identity in Christ. On the other hand, some Christians advocate that using the term “gay” is essential in order to help dismantle hurtful stereotypes like that of the promiscuous “gay lifestyle.”  Of course, this can become even more nuanced. For example, is “gay” being used as an adjective or a noun? Since identity is so complex, it’s important not to forget the bigger picture. In this article, Matthew Lee Anderson urges, “let’s reconsider not just the language of ‘sexual identity’ but that of ‘identity’ altogether.” Reconsidering what it means to identify as a Christian will provide an essential foundation for discussing sexual identity.

In the Bible, Jesus’ disciples never called themselves Christians. Rather, this was a term that outsiders assigned to them based on evidence that indicated they were followers of Christ. Unfortunately, few today have earned the name “Christian” in that sense. Today Christians are known more by what they stand against than what they stand for. Being a “Christian” has become an identity of negation. When someone is handed a pink slip at work, a friend might try to console them by saying that as a Christian, their identity isn’t in a job, it’s in Christ. When someone goes through a bad breakup, they may be reminded that their identity isn’t in being a good boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s in Christ. However, Matthew Lee Anderson suggests that “it seems we should get to our ‘identity in Christ’ by a road other than negation.” For example, he recommends that Christians should embrace their identity as children of God because this denotes “a social role […] that can be filled, a role that imposes duties (play!) and obligations (play nicely!).” As children of God, how then should Christians think about their sexual identity?

The first thing I like to point out is the fact that sexual identity is a social construction. As Jenell Williams Paris writes in The End of Sexual Identity, “God created sexuality. People created sexual identity.” This is not to say that a person’s sexual identity is not real or legitimate. Sexual identity can be beneficial in that it may enable people to find a place where they belong. Sometimes though, a sexual identity label is less than helpful when it causes people to put an individual in a particular box and define them only by that box. The box becomes the focus and no matter how liberating it may be, a cage is still a cage. A person should not be defined only by their sexuality. Jenell Williams Paris’ solution to this is to become “unlabeled,” which is not exactly a solution at all (for a more complete discussion of this, see my previous blog post). How can someone balance their own self-perception with the way that others perceive them? Again, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer.

I’ll end with this reminder from Tyler Edwards: “when things we do or abstain from doing become the defining characteristics of who we are, we lose the greater identity of ‘whose’ we are.” Let’s not forget that most importantly, Christians are the beloved children of God.

Are Labels Just For Soup Cans?

Labels - Soup Cans I love stargazing. One of the easiest constellations to identify is the Big Dipper, which in England is referred to as “the Plough.” What we know as “the man in the moon” the Chinese see as “the rabbit in the moon” (Thanks to Leonard Sweet for these insights in his book Summoned to Lead). The beauty of diversity is that each of us sees things differently and as a result, how we choose to name things may also be different. Semantics can be frustrating and may even seem petty, but examining the language we use is an essential step toward understanding. Before we get too far into this discussion, I want to preface it with a quote from Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” That is to say, I have no desire to argue about the labels that people claim for themselves. Rather, I want to explore the nuances and complexities of labels and the God-given responsibility we have for naming things (Genesis 2:19-20).

I struggle with labels, and I know I’m not alone in that. On one hand, I see their value in bringing about the relief that comes with finding a sense of belonging. On the other hand, all labels are limited in their ability to comprehensively convey what they are intended to get across. There are certainly plenty to choose from though. In addition to the “alphabet soup” letters (LGBTQIA+), there are also “same-sex attracted,” “Side A,” and “Side B,” just to name a few. The problem is that no matter what label a person uses, what they mean when they say that label is often not what the listener actually hears as they interpret it through the lens of their own background and experiences. What one person thinks of as a neutral or positive term may actually be a negative term to the other person. For example, Eve Tushnet writes about how she associates the term “single” with “stressed-out straight women made miserable by the unhappy prospect of dating (or, and this is sometimes even worse, not dating) straight men.” To her, a more positive term is “celibate,” which she asserts has a beautiful, long Christian history. Of course, in our culture today celibacy sounds incredibly negative to the majority of people, Christians included.

Labels, of course, are also the foundation of damaging stereotypes. For example, “gay” is almost impossible to separate from the stereotype of “the gay lifestyle.” (This is another can of worms entirely, and I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about it eventually. For now, I recommend watching this TED talk.) Sometimes, it is possible to engage people in deeper conversations about labels in order to deconstruct stereotypes and clear up misunderstandings. Definitions can be discussed, hopefully resulting in a more common understanding. Unfortunately, there are many circumstances that allow for nothing more than an elevator speech. As Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah said, “we are always navigating between the ‘I’ in ‘I am…’ and the ‘me’ people see as being me.” So, in the real world, will we use the words we believe to be most authentic even if there is a good chance those words won’t be interpreted accurately? Is it worth the risk, knowing that we probably won’t have the chance to explain ourselves? I don’t think there is a uniform answer for this. The labels we use for ourselves are deeply personal (not to mention the decision to come out at all). The good news is that more and more people are ready and willing to listen to our stories when we are ready to share them. When taking someone up on this opportunity, we need to recognize that in order to facilitate understanding, language is oftentimes one of the first things that needs to be addressed.