Stigma (A Meditation on 1 Corinthians 10:13)

6273173_orgYes, this verse is about temptation, but what jumped out at me when I heard it again as the pastor delivered his sermon last Sunday was the phrase “except what is common to man.” Even for Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin, they must recognize how accurate Paul’s words are in this verse. The desires and longings at the core of an LGBT person are the same as those of a straight person: love, intimacy, belonging, acceptance, to be known, to be valued. The bottom line is that the stigma of being LGBT has to go. Specifically, we must stop stigmatizing LGBT people in the Church.

In the book An Imperfect Offering, James Orbinski writes about “a way of seeing that requires humility so that one can recognize the sameness of self in the other” (4). Although he is referring to humanitarianism, the message is also applicable here. I pray that as Christians, instead of giving in to the natural tendency to emphasize our differences and divide into “us” and “them” categories, we would be open to this new way of seeing – recognizing ourselves in others with a spirit of humility.

A Better Way Forward

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Rev. Dr. Ken Fong is the senior pastor at Evergreen Baptist Church of LA and a fellow bridge-builder between the Church and the LGBT community. His current project, a documentary film, will specifically focus on how to create a better way forward for the Church and Christians who identify as part of the LGBT community.

Pastor Ken also led a seminar on this topic at the Urbana 2012 missions conference. In sharing part of his journey, he recounts how in college he witnessed gay people being bullied. Even though he didn’t participate, he also didn’t come to their defense and now realizes that his silence “was an affront to God.” Pastor Ken now feels called to use his reputation for the benefit of those at the intersection of the Christian and LGBT communities. He acknowledges the two common church models: “welcoming and affirming” and “welcoming but not affirming,” but is content with neither. Instead, he proposes an “open and mutually transforming” construct, which he explains further:

“Church should be open to all sinners, but all sinners, straight and gay, when they come to church, they need to be open to the ongoing transforming work of God’s Holy Spirit. Now that doesn’t mean that all people who start off with same-sex attraction are one day going to be straight, but I think there are still some transformations in all of us that can occur.”

While some may be quick to dismiss this approach as a semantically disguised equivalent of “welcoming but not affirming,” to do so would be to miss the caring, loving heart behind Pastor Ken’s idea. To get a good glimpse, skip to about an hour and nine minutes into the seminar presentation where he tells the story of his interaction with a gay man who started coming to his church. Pastor Ken admits that as a church, they have certain expectations, but he is also honest about the fact that “when you meet real people that you’ve come to love, you find that you hold the expectations and these people’s lives kind of together in this tension.” Furthermore, he believes that the only important question is simply, “which way are you heading? Are you heading toward Jesus or away from Jesus?”

For those of you who listen to Pastor Ken’s presentation in its entirety, I’m sure you will have your criticisms as I have my own. However, I’ve chosen to withhold commentary on those for now in favor of highlighting the many admirable aspects of Pastor Ken’s undertaking. He seems to me a humble, obedient man willing to live in the tension without having all of the answers. He admits that this is not black and white and is in the process of trying to figure it out, as we all are. Thanks Pastor Ken!

My Thoughts on Steve Chalke’s Announcement

Steve ChalkeSteve Chalke, a prominent evangelical pastor in the UK recently made an announcement endorsing committed monogamous same-sex relationships and marriage. The article discussing his perspective can be found here. After both reading this article and watching Steve’s video, here are my thoughts:

As a Christian, I too believe it is imperative that we live out the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion. The Church, which should be radically inclusive, has excluded LGBT people and left them vulnerable and isolated. It is good to remorsefully take responsibility for this and take steps to right our wrongs. I also agree that the Church should have addressed its attitude and actions toward the LGBT community a long time ago, and it is unfortunate that this important topic has been avoided up until now, when it is nearly impossible to separate what are already complex issues from the overlap with what is happening in the political arena.

There must be a place for LGBT people in the church. However, I believe that the “real question facing the Church” is not “the nature of inclusion” but rather “how can the Church best love the LGBT community?” In order for churches to decide how they will move forward, an atmosphere of “generous spaciousness” would be most helpful. Unfortunately, churches are usually denied the collective space in which it is safe to wrestle and ask questions. We must find a way to extend the same space we allow ourselves when grappling with difficult topics to the larger church community.

In direct response to the question regarding the application of the same principle to women, slavery, and committed gay relationships: the problem is that although these three categories seem to be analogous, there is very little evidence pointing to a scriptural trajectory for gay people that is similar to the trajectories scripture provides for slaves and women. This is explained well in the book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William J. Webb.

I agree that God “beckons each one of us out of isolation into the joy of faithful relationship,” but these are not always romantic/sexual relationships. For example, the Church community acts as a source of platonic intimacy and connection for those with the gift of celibacy. It is not solely the church’s refusal to grant same-sex marriages that drives those in the LGBT community to loneliness, secrecy, fear and deceit but rather the historical hostility of the Church and the lack of a safe environment.

In the sentence including the phrase, “when we blame them for who they are…” there is an assumption that one’s sexual orientation equals one’s identity. While this is a reality within the LGBT community, as Christians we believe that our identity is in Christ and all other identifiers are secondary to that core identity. This distinction is key because it has significant implications as we continue to grow and revise our theology.

Even though we are far from a consensus, conversations like these give me hope that we are moving in the right direction. Progress, however one defines it, can only occur if churches are willing (or greatly pressured as the case may be) to engage in the discussion. I pray that the LGBT community will not be deterred from encountering the extravagant love of Christ.

The Danger of the Single Story

chimamandanew-colour-lst036235In 2009, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED talk in which she shared several examples illustrating the danger of “the single story.” She explains that, “The single story creates stereotypes, [and] the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” When people are informed by only a single story, misunderstandings and inaccurate perceptions often result. Adichie expanded on the problem of the single story saying that, “it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” In order to prevent prejudice that arises from stereotypes based on partial truths, it is important for there to be a balance of stories.

Although Adichie’s talk centered on issues of race (watch the TED talk for the full story), the LGBT community is also a group about which only a single story is being told. Although LGBT characters are becoming more represented in the media, many have criticized the stereotypical portrayal of LGBT individuals. Despite the increasing diversity among LGBT characters, the primary focus is still on their sexuality, and this is the focus of the single story that is being communicated about this community. They are pigeon-holed by this single aspect of their identity.

In an interview, musician Jennifer Knapp commented that the conversations regarding the intersectionality of faith and sexuality are valuable, but she considers the situation to be a catch-22. She has noticed that “All we do is talk about it and then people get the idea of the stereotypes; that that’s all people are and that’s all they’re made of.” By focusing so much on the sexuality component of an LGBT person’s identity, Knapp contends that, “I’m missing a core part of your experience and who you are. What do you like to read? Who are you inspired by? What’s your family like? Tell me about where you grew up.” If people asked these questions of LGBT individuals, the resulting conversations would lead to a beneficial balance of stories depicting a fuller and more accurate picture of those who make up the LGBT community.