Oct 272012

I went to a conference today in Washington, DC as part of a movement within the PC(USA) called the NEXT church (www.nextchurch.net). NEXT Church was started a couple of years ago by people within the denomination who were interested in finding ways to connect and look forward as a body amidst ongoing turmoil and fractions within the church. Since then, the movement has gained momentum, and, though still in its infancy, it’s cool to see energy and excitement behind seeing where the Spirit is calling us to go.
One part of today’s gathering (which included awesome worship, time for fellowship and getting to know new people, as well as conversations about where we feel called as a body) was a presentation on Church Leadership, innovators in the Church, and the need to re-examine our current understandings of how we do things – to explore alternate definitions “leadership” and “church” from those to which we have grown so accustomed. New ideas should be sought not from those in the center of the goings-on, but from those on the margins, who aren’t as bogged down in “the way we’ve always done things.” This makes sense – if we continue to seek water from a single, stagnant source,eventually that source will dry up – if only from exhaustion. While we may have to go a bit further, or take a bit more time to get water from another source – it’s worth the effort to bring new ideas to the table.
On the drive home, I thought about this a bit more, and I realized that it’s not only that those on the margins have new or fresh ideas, but also that those on the margins know why they have come to the table in the first place.
(I’m coming back to this, but bear with me as I digress . . .)
Last month, I had the chance to be with a good friend for her wedding weekend. While at the rehearsal dinner, I asked a one of the bridesmaids (with whom I was having a delightful conversation) about why she and her husband decided to get married. In reply, she told me a lovely story about the day they got engaged. I smiled as she told me the tale – both because it was a good story, and because it didn’t really answer my question at all – my smile came with the realization that most straight people aren’t asked why they decided to get married. For most straight folks, getting married is just what you do when you hit a certain point in your relationship. You meet, you date for some period of time, you get married, you have kids . . .
I won’t try and speak for all queer folks, but I’d venture to bet that many non-hetero people who make the decision to get married are asked at some point the “why” questions: “Why did you decide to get married?” Sometimes the questions I’ve been asked include: “Why, if you know it doesn’t make any difference legally, did you decide to get married?” or, “So, why was it important for you to get married?” or, “I just don’t get it – why would you even want to get married?” (It varies a bit, but the idea behind the questions is often basically the same.)
One of the things that was most definitive for my partner and I in making the decision to get hitched is that it was very much a decision – we made the decision that ours was a relationship worth fighting for, and that our desire to make a commitment to one another in front of other people was not only about celebrating our relationship as good and just, but was also a means of holding ourselves accountable to the commitment we made. We wanted to do it publicly. We made the decision to address head-on, as much as we could, the wedges that would try to work their way between us – laws that don’t protect us, people who don’t understand us (and will sometimes repeatedly ask us to explain ourselves), a lack of acknowledgement by those, even within our families, who don’t agree with our “lifestyle” choice.
Many LGBTQ people decide not to get married, and with very good reason – the institution of marriage is one that has been used to perpetuate and restrict gender and class norms, to treat women as property, and hold them in their “place.” For my partner and I, the decision to get married was one we made together – we both, in mutual respect and care for one another, felt it was the best way for us to be intentional about bringing our separate lives into into one life together.
Now, back to the Church . . .
For many LGBTQ people, the experience of “church” has only reinforced the idea that they are morally inept, or fundamentally unnatural. Arguments against laws ensuring the protection of LGBTQ people, or marriage equality, come most loudly from those churches who see queer people as a threat to the sanctity of . . . well, so many things! The decision for many queer folks to reject Christianity comes because they can no longer remain in a system that refuses to honor their full existence. Those who choose to leave do so in large part because they cannot respect themselves and remain in an institution that is actively working against them.
I think it is essential that those who have decided to remain as active parts of the Church, despite having been pushed to the margins by congregations or denominations (women, people of color, queer people), ask themselves if there is anything to be gained from a tradition that has, for much of its existence, refused to make room for the full humanity of all of its participants, because of its insistence on meeting the needs of only those who most “look the part” of how a “good Christian” should look.
I am often asked, particularly by LGBTQ people, why I choose to be an active part of the Church: “Why would you stay in an institution that refuses to recognize your full humanity?” or, “I just don’t get it – how can you stay there?” “Is there anything to be gained from the Christian tradition?” (It varies a bit, but the idea behind the questions is often basically the same.)
My answer to this last question is, without a doubt, yes. If anything, my feelings about this grow even stronger the further I get down this road. My decision to stay active in the Church is rooted in the conviction that it is worth fighting for. By “the Church,” I mean the places where God’s love is expressed and felt, where the bellies of the hungry are filled, where people go home at the end of the day feeling less alone and alienated in the world, where people are willing to stand up and fight for one another’s right to health care and education and safety in the home.
The Church is where our assumptions about the world and one another go to shatter — it is the prophetic voice that refuses to be silenced in the face of injustice and hatred and violence. It is the place where we are able to move outside ourselves, even for a moment, and see Christ in everyone – even in ourselves. Not only that, but it is the place where every single voice matters – where we make harmony with the songs of our individual hearts, singing with longing and hope and trust that we are more when we are together.
It’s exciting to hear people in the denomination talk about the need to look to the margins for new and innovative ideas about how to live into where we are being led by the Spirit. Only, it’s important that we not seek the insight of those on the margins simply because we need to add a little flavor to the ideas we’ve been chewing on for fifty years – we may get a little spice for a while, but eventually we’ll end up with the same cud in our mouths. To truly change how we’re being fed, and feeding others, we need to seek the insight of those on the margins who make the decision to come to the table, because these are the people who know why they are there. Even more, perhaps we need to recognize that it’s time to build a new table – one that is built collaboratively by all those who want to move where the Spirit is leading.

  2 Responses to “The Wisdom of the “Whys””

  1. What an excellent post. As a queer and trans person, I had some initial wonderings about whether or not I should get married. For years, I thought it was an antiquated notion designed about transference of property – and one in which I didn’t necessarily want to participate. I didn’t want to be a part of something that historically has been an exclusionary thing for myriads of people. I felt also that the gay left’s push toward marriage was at times to the detriment of other things like employment non-discrimination, homelessness, and hate crimes protections. More than anything, beyondmarriage.org summarized my feelings. Two person marriage sure, but let’s not stop there. On one hand, I didn’t feel that the government had any business sanctioning or not sanctioning any one particular form of adult human kinship. But I felt if they were going to, it ought to be liberally applied. I struggled to change my birth certificate with the long ago far away notion that I might someday get married to someone somewhere of some sex and some gender and my documents had better match. I fought the state for that (as you know) and then legally got what I needed. Right around this time, I pulled my head out of my butt regarding the woman who would become my wife.

    These days, there was/is a degree of complexity and dequeering given that I’m now a guy who was able to legally marry his girlfriend. Some queers are confused because I claim a queer identity (my attraction still runs the gamut even if I’m monogamously partnered and I certainly have a queer history) despite having a wife and some straight people are confused because on the surface we look altogether very heterosexual, despite the fact that both of us are not. I tend to explain the queer identity as a sexual freedom principle: I will date/marry/have relations with whoever I want, regardless of bodies, regardless of identities, or perceptions therein. I’d be lying if I said that my activist self was at ease with the idea of personally getting legal marriage while others cannot share the same rights, but ultimately, I believed that our friends who can’t legally marry would support us in our desire to do so given the financial hit we were taking as DPs. But I think it also behooves us as married people to fight tooth and nail for marriage if people want it (and go beyond marriage if they don’t).

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to reflect.

    • I’m really grateful to have your voice on this, Riley. More than anything, I would just appreciate more intentional dialogue around marriage in general. Maybe it’s just the part of me that really enjoys the “why” questions, but it seems like it’d be nice if we thought more about our actions in general – particularly those big life decisions. I agree with your ambivalence about the gay left’s push toward marriage, sometimes at the detriment of all the other things you’ve listed. I like the idea that queer people might be able to bring something to the conversation about marriage because we have to navigate gender dynamics in a particular way. If all gay marriage does is regulate gender norms into queer relationships, we’ve missed a huge opportunity.
      Your comments also make me think about other conversations I’ve had with you, and with other trans men, about how they navigate their queerness and their newly-found privilege when they really begin to pass. That’s a conversation for another time and place (and makes me think about a whole range of things around the spectrum of gender expression), but it’s one I’m really interested in.
      Anyway, thanks for chiming in. Love to you both. . .

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