A couple of weeks ago, one of the MSW (Masters of Social Work) interns whom I work with told me about a conversation she’d had with her classmates about me.
“I told them that you were in seminary, and about the work you want to do [with sexual minorities and the church], and they all kind of just looked at me and asked, ‘But….How is that even possible?'”
I don’t know if her classmates are religious and didn’t understand how someone could be queer and in the church, or irreligious with the same question, but I chuckled a bit when she told me the story. There are so many people for whom “religious” and “queer” are mutually exclusive adjectives; and, in today’s climate, sadly, this makes sense. To put it simply, church is not a place where most LGBTQ people feel safe. Even as I write that, I feel the weight of it: for many sexual minorities, church is not a safe place.
I recently read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited for the first time, which was first published in 1949.In the first chapter, Dr. Thurman tells the story of meeting a Hindu principal of the Law College at the University of Colombo in Ceylon. After coffee, the Hindu man stops and asks Mr. Thurman basically to justify how he can be a Christian. He talks of the slave trade, and how many of the slave traders were Christians, quoting Paul, who gave the sanction of religion to the system of slavery. He talks about the segregation, lynching, and burning of Black men and women. He closes with this challenge to Dr. Thurman:
“I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a trader to all darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” (pp 14-15)
I do not wish to draw too close a parallel between the experiences of marginalization felt by people of color in US history and sexual minorities (primarily because I think drawing too close a parallel loses the nuances of the varied experiences of oprression, but I’ll get to that in a later post), but I have asked myself more than once if, by staying in the church, I am am a traitor to the people who have been abused by the institutions that use their claim on Christian “values” to condemn anyone who does not fit the mold. Why stay? Why be a part of an institution that, by-and-large has made it abundantly clear that I am not welcome? Maybe I’m just stubborn, or oblivious, or incredibly naive (I’m sure I’ve been called all three). I guess I stay because it still seems worth it to me, and I can still maintain a hope in something that transcends all of the junk that people shout “in the name of Jesus.”
During my first year of seminary I took Greek and two semesters of New Testament. Every time I translated a passage I felt as though I’d been given a gift…that’s really the best way I can explain it. Each time I translated a passage and learned about the context of the stories, and the people who wrote them, I found myself amazed by the message of liberation that was woven throughout. And then….well, I thought about what had been done in the name it.
I think I stay because….well, I am stubborn. I stay because I recognize that I, and the many justice-seeking people I’ve met in the church, believe that there is still potential to turn this ship around. I stay because I have seen and felt for myself the transformative power of love in a faith community. I stay because I cannot in good conscience let the only voice proclaiming the words of Jesus be a hateful one. I stay because I cannot, even in the darkest moments of my doubt, keep from believing that I am loved, and that part of being loved is to share that love.
Just as oppression makes a theological claim, so too does love. Not the kind of trivialized, greeting card, 2-Dimensional love that is laced with good feelings and artificial sweetness, but the kind of love that gives a person who has been pushed down time and again the strength to stand up, even in the face of the person who has pushed them down. It’s the kind of thing that refuses to be reduced to social status or skin color or sexuality or gender identity.
Martin Buber wrote that, “We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us, cautious in diction, and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”
What better response to the hatred and oppression that is done in the name of religion than to love powerfully? I stay in the church because I believe it still has the potential for this kind of re-orienting love.