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Say "shexuality"

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, ‘You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.’ The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead asked him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he replied, ‘No,’ they said, ‘All right, say “Shibboleth”.’ If he said, ‘Sibboleth’, because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time. (Judges 12:4-6, NIV)
How about a story closer to home: Conservative evangelicals lay claim to the “authoritative” interpretation of scripture and, whenever a survivor of the culture wars says ‘I follow Jesus’, the men of conservative evangelicalism ask them 'Do you hate the Bible?' If that person replies, 'No,' they say, 'All right, say what you think of homosexuality.' And unless that person says 'Celibacy or conversion therapy are the only options open to Christians who experience same-sex attraction,' the men of conservative evangelicalism seize their appointments and kill their ministries at the source of funding [1]. Many followers of Jesus are silenced or impelled to recant at this time [2].

In short, conservative evangelicalism is not a scene in which would-be allies can easily speak out (let alone one in which LGBT+ Christians can easily come out) [3]. And the costs are not purely personal: those striving to gain/keep the ear of fellow evangelicals on the subject of other, interconnected matters of justice and biblical interpretation find themselves weighing up disheartening trade-offs. In the wake of the release of the Nashville Statement (a glib reassertion of cishetero norms in the name of scriptural fidelity) one of the disputes to erupt on Twitter (e.g. this thread) centred on the failure of (some) feminist and gender-equality-promoting Christian groups to advocate for LGBT+ affirmation. A common counter-argument in the discussion seemed to be that such organisations inevitably lose their voice in the evangelical sphere when they openly adopt non-"traditional" stances on wider issues of gender and sexuality.

Indeed, I learned shortly after (reading Deborah Jian Lee's Rescuing Jesus) that this is not a new debate. For example, the large and widely-respected organisation Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) actually originated as a breakaway group when the Evangelical Women's Caucus (now the EEWC) officially took an LGBT+ affirming stance in the mid-1980s. Today, CBE continue to make considerable gains towards their carefully targeted mission of male/female equality in marriage and leadership, while the EEWC, with its broader agenda, remains the smaller and less influential of the two.

It's not just high-profile Christians who feel the pressure. I've a heart for exploring and sharing stuff that I'm grappling with. I may not have a large audience but I write in the hope it might get other people thinking too (and maybe even re-evaluating, where re-evaluation is needed). I'm not worried about upsetting or offending my evangelical friends by dropping "sibboleths" – if anyone has a right to be upset (and I'm painfully aware that they do), it's my gay and gender non-conforming friends: "Hey, so, I used to think this about you, and now I think I was wrong. So, err, sorry, yeah?" However, I am frustrated at the thought of closing the ears of other Christians to everything I've ever said or ever might. What if one day I manage to say something useful, and nobody's listening?

The disastrous thing about the sibboleth reflex, as far as the pursuit of truth is concerned, is the way it inevitably shuts down the conversation before thought-out reasons even get a look in. Not that I am the person to make the case for (e.g.) same-sex Christian marriage; in fact, I fear saying too much on the subject lest my amateur (and un-pinned-down) blundering serve as further evidence for those who maintain that there is no possible reconciliation between following Jesus and so-uncomfortably-called "LGBT+ lifestyles". But it deeply troubles me that, for many evangelicals, literally no-one is qualified to challenge "traditional" views on gender and sexuality, because challenging "traditional" views on gender and sexuality is in itself a disqualifying marker – a proof of theological unsoundness.

So ... Christians who speak out in support of LGBT+ affirmation lose their voice, while Christians who teach opposition to it remain entirely unfazed by their efforts. It all seems pretty hopeless/secure [delete according to your precommitments]. Except, these open displays are just the surface layer of bigger, mostly hidden happenings. For every vocal Christian LGBT+ ally, there are ... we can only guess how many ... quiet questioners: unconvinced by the self-reinforcing logic of "traditionalism", increasingly suspicious of the (theological or theologised?) reasons against LGBT+ affirmation [4], but not knowing quite how or when to speak, or what to say, or how to handle being sibbolethed. What an immense infuriation we must be to our LGBT+ friends, Christian and otherwise. But if rumours are to be believed, there's quite a lot of us: our certainty and outspokenness may not rival that of our "traditionalist" brothers and sisters, but I wonder if maybe the numbers (if only we knew them) foretell a new story. The scale of the shift in thinking, if not quite yet the decisiveness of it, feels such that change is inevitable, at least in the Global North. (The strength of resistance to LGBT+ affirmation in other parts of the world – particularly in Africa, home to around one fifth of the world's Christians, including over half of the Anglican communion – complicates the discussion with painful matters of global fellowship and cultural imperialism).

Many, of course, view this as a tragedy: the church is liberalising, assimilating, losing its way. I can remember a me that would have worried likewise. But I've been praying – daily, near-unfailingly; for three years, near-exactly [5]. Praying for personal wisdom, and wisdom for the church, in how to rightly and truthfully and scripturally-faithfully love and include and encourage and serve LGBT+ neighbours and family in Christ, as well as for healing and forgiveness where so much hurt has been done. And yeah, no, praying for right understanding does not make me magically immune to error. But to see my understanding change as it has in the course of that process, and to hear tell of wider-spread similar changes ... at the very least I have to allow for the possibility that the coinciding of these developments with my prayer-life is not entirely ... erm ... coincidental.

Either way there's plenty more praying to be getting on with (with the expectation that the effects of prayer include active change in the pray-er!). I still lack wisdom. Some Christians are still scared to say what they think. Other Christians are still giving them reason to stay scared. Division is mounting. And the church continues to reproduce oppression and inflict hurt and hardship on already-marginalised people. Christ, have mercy.

[1] E.g.: Christian singer-songwriter Vicky Beeching exchanged a glowing music career for an onslaught of abuse from ‘betrayed’ former fans and other Christians when she came out as gay; US preacher Tony Campolo was dropped from speaking engagements and felt like he ‘lost his community’ after his prayerful, studied decision to support same-sex relationships; writer Jen Hatmaker found herself similarly ‘uninvited’ and saw her books dropped by major retailers when she voiced affirmation; leading Christian ethicist David Gushee describes the anger and rejection that followed the release of his book Changing Our Mind, and claims to know of a number of pastors who are keeping their own shifted/shifting views quiet out of fear of the same.

[2] E.g.: Eugene Peterson was recently reported to have changed his mind on same sex marriage, only to issue a 'clarifying' retraction in the heat of the outcry (which included the usual threats from retailers), while World Vision reversed their 2014 decision to accept married lesbian/gay applicants when they lost 10,000 child sponsorships in protest. Public reversals of this type have been the cause of much heartache.

[3] I use LGBT+ as a shorthand for the diverse community of people whose experience of gender and sexuality is not described by cishetero norms. Although this post returns often to the particular topic of same sex relationships, Christian attitudes towards homosexuality tend to correlate with attitudes towards broader gender and sexuality considerations. I am anxious to chose language that people feel comfortable with and dignified by, so please do call me out if I am failing at that.

[4] There's things on my heart about the (unscriptural and hypocritical, I believe) reasons why gender and sexuality have become deal-breaker issues among Christians, as well as the ways in which they have been used to manipulate and oppress. An earlier draft contained all this and more, and was consequently about as coherent as my typical plate at a pan-global all-you-can-eat buffet, which I'm told is not to everyone's taste. So I'm trying to hold back and write about one thing at a time – further "helpings" to follow!

[5] I can date it because I made an intentional commitment prompted by Beeching's heartbreaking testimony when she came out, and the horrific response of too many Christians.

[Thumbnail image cc from wonderferret on Flickr].


Nathan Lechler said…
Everything about your blog is excellent and thoughtful but *especially* the post titles. They should do you a medal for this one.
Nathan Lechler said…
Bee tea dub - what do *you* do with Romans 1? Do you mind if I ask? It seems unfair on my gay Christian friends to ask them to do the heavy lifting for me on this, but I do want to know and what I've read tends to confuse me further.
Ahh, see, now I feel bad, as if anyone deserves a medal for this one it is my excellent sister ... and I failed to award her so much as an attributing footnote :-/
Well, I'm not exactly known for my capacity to de-confuse, but I'm happy to share what thoughts I have. Eventually. (If I'm slow to come back with a proper answer, it's not because I'm scared of the question, it's because I'm scared of causing inadvertent hurt through rushed or careless reasoning).
(And also because, sadly, there's only so many hours in the day and in most of them I don't get to think and write about things. Or not these things, anyway).
Nathan Lechler said…
Fair :) Today I have written 5,000 words about the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 so I feel some of your pain.
OK, here goes. As a hetero-privileged, theologically untrained, Christian reader of and believer in the Bible, this is where I’m currently at with Romans 1-2:

A line of reasoning I’ve encountered several times is that 1:26-27 is not referring to people with ‘natural’ same-sex orientation but to people who engage in physical acts contrary to their own ‘natural’ heterosexual orientation. I’m open to being convinced of this but I can’t in honesty say that I am so far. So in what follows I’m going to make the (uncomfortable for many, I know, and I’m sorry) assumption that Paul views all same-sex attraction and sexual relationship as somehow “not how things were meant to be”. But even with that as my (current) starting point there is much in chapters 1 and 2 that I find worth re-examining.

It strikes me that we too easily forget that the passage taken as a whole is not ‘about’ homosexuality. Paul describes a humankind-wide disconnection from God and wants his readers to recognise their own individual parts in that and to refrain from judging one another (2:1-3). I don’t think it’s an accident that homosexual licentiousness, which would have seemed ‘obviously’ shocking and unnatural to a majority of his readers, is listed alongside sins which tend to be uncomfortably close to home for most of us (1:29-31) – it seems like a device to jolt them/us into personal self-examination.

I find it immensely ironic/distressing that a passage which is so much about judging ourselves rather than others has been routinely ‘used’ to quite the opposite effect.

Secondly, Paul appears to emphasise that the specific sexual behaviours he is concerned about are connected to/arise from our general, corporate brokenness (1:26). He leaves no room for 'us and them' thinking, or the idea that “well, I'm not personally affected by that so it's nothing to do with me”. All these things are on all of us. So again, all the more ironic that his words have so much been used to ‘other’ LGBT+ people.

Lastly (for now) I want to point out that the letter arguably only touches on the types of lustful indulgence that Paul is equally vocal against in heterosexual relationships (1:24). His advice elsewhere on how to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18) in the latter case is marriage – a framework of agape love within which partners could help one another contain and express erotic desire free from the trappings of idolatry and self-gratification (1 Cor 7). Now, Paul was not out to change social institutions, nor would he have had the influence to do so if he wanted [1]. He was all about encouraging people to live godly and humble lives whatever their personal circumstance and cultural context. It would have made no sense (nor would it have been very loving) for him to recommend same-sex marriage in a setting where (as I understand it) such relationships could hardly have been imagined, let alone recognised and supported. I *absolutely* don’t pretend to know what Paul would have said if he was writing today, but what I will say is that 1 Cor 7 is remarkable for its pragmatism, its assumption of mutuality and its silence on the matter of procreation – however much the church has come to elevate (idolise?) the idea of the nuclear family, the Bible appears to acknowledge a value to marriage outside of “go forth and multiply” (see also Gen 2:24). And I will also say that God seems to be in the habit of redeeming, not undoing. (E.g. He promises us a perfect city (Rev 21) not a return to the garden of Genesis 2). So even if Paul believes that same-sex attraction is “not how things were meant to be”, that leaves open (I suggest) the possibility that it can still lead to equally holy and life-giving relationships.

Well. I’ve said some stuff. Please nobody take this as any sort of definitive ‘answer’ – I’m not even claiming it as *my* definitive answer. And if I’ve caused hurt, I’m sorry, and I’d rather be told than not...

[1] See, e.g. Conrad Gempf’s book ‘How to Like Paul Again’.