Through the lens of love

Yesterday on my morning commute, I listened to an episode of The Bible For Normal People. This podcast has provided me a way to regularly engage a question I’ve been exploring for many years. Pete and Jared pose it this way: What is the Bible? And what do we do with it? The episode’s topic was “Reading the Bible Through the Lens of Love” featuring Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Professor of Religion and Society at Harvard.

Walton advocates for “responsible biblical interpretation… trying to use Scripture to heal broken hearts, to heal communities, to speak to injustice and evil.” Pete sums it up so eloquently – “Reading the Bible in ways that humanize other human beings… something that promotes love.” Jared points out that Walton draws his idea of love from the biblical texts – “Love that is rooted in the justice passages of the prophets and Jesus.”

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When asked for an example of “source material” for his “lens of love,” Walton turned to the parable of the Good Samaritan. In a way I had not before, I imagined myself as the “man [who] was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30).

“My neighbor is the one who is able to, when I have been beseiged by thieves along life’s Jericho road… It may be someone from my neighborhood who comes by and keeps on walking. It may be someone of the same racial identity. It may be someone of the same sexual orientation who walks by. But if they all keep walking along, concerned about ‘What will happen to me if I stop to help him?’ then they are not my neighbor. My neighbor is that person, regardless of the differences between us… who stops and says first, ‘What will happen to him if I do not help him?’ And that is what this lens of love I’m taking about, this is that ethic of love. Leading with that, leading with the question ‘What do I owe this person as a child of God?'”

I’ve always read that story to challenge myself to be a neighbor. Will I be the insider who walks by to preserve my own position? Or will I model myself after the outsider who risks himself to demonstrate love? This time I imagined myself laying on the side of the road, beaten and left on the margins. I imagined myself, but it was clear I was imagining the LGBTQ community in general. There I am, watching good religious people walk by. Surely these people with the “right” theology I’ve heard preached time and time again about love, peacemaking and justice, about gender equality and inclusion, will stop for me. They will interrupt their important work, their good deeds and pick me up out of the dirt. They will disrupt their comfort and risk their privilege and reputation to tend to my wounds. Surely they won’t leave me to die. Surely, they won’t leave us to die. But they do walk by, they do avert their gaze, they do rush off to their religious jobs, their missions and ministry, and they leave us there. After all, what if stopping to tend to our wounds means those thieves will come back and beat them and leave them for dead? After all, what if stopping to tend our wounds means being deemed contaminated and having to join our exclusion? Isn’t it better they sacrifice us to preserve themselves?

June is pride month. Pride marches and parades and other celebrations are happening all around us. I’m seeing so many different reactions to these pride events as I browse social media. There are plenty of those who would gladly walk by us on the side of the road ridiculing our beaten and left-for-dead plight. There are plenty of those who would pity us, yet walk by for reasons of fear or discomfort or self-preservation. There are also those who would be moved with compassion, kneel down before us, bandage our wounds, bring us to a safe place, and generously give the resources necessary for our healing.

When we read the Bible, the lens through which we interpret it shapes the way we allow it to shape our lives. Do we use scripture to heal, to speak to injustice and evil? Do we read through the lens of love? Do our families, churches and communities bear the fruit of reconciliation and human flourishing? Yes? For whom? Is our healing and justice work and love and reconciliation and flourishing actually inclusive? Are we brave enough to be honest about the casualties suffered by those on the margins – the ones we pass by, the ones we scapegoat, the ones we deem too costly to love?

May the life of Jesus, the one who shared this story to demonstrate what it means to “love your neighbor,” inspire us to more expansive and bold love. Because love is the way toward all things being made new. Love is the good news.

All Are Welcome: Does ‘all’ mean all?

Imagine fighting for your right to exist every day in spaces that claim they are “welcoming” or “inclusive.” You sit in your college theology class, or attend a special event featuring a renowned biblical scholar, or stand to pass the peace in your place of worship. The message is “God loves everyone.” The branding is “all are welcome.” The prayer or sermon or worship music articulates “love, openness and acceptance for all.” Open wide the doors. Come to the table. Join our community committed to reconciliation and peacemaking. But… unless… except…

Not if I’m gay?

“I am carrying a heavy heart.

On Wednesday [November 14], I joined EMU’s Safe Space, a student organization that advocates for and supports LGBTQ+ students on campus, as they organized a demonstration and protest spurred by their exclusion from being able to engage invited speaker, N.T. Wright on comments he has made in the past that denigrate and dehumanize LGBTQ folks. I was there as a pastoral presence and as a visible witness to these students’ desire to be seen, heard, and believed.”

All are welcome, but you have to check your sexuality, your partner, your family, your life at the door.

“The demonstrations were peaceful. They did not chant or sing or ‘make a fuss.’ They simply stood visibly in front of the entrance to the auditorium as folks entered and exited. I was tasked with handing out flyers that told their story for anyone who wished to take one. They held signs with messages like, ‘We will not be invisible’ and ‘No one can stop the spirit’ and ‘Amen.’ They were colorful. And as folks came out of the event, the demonstrators stood silently with rainbow colored duct tape across their mouths as a prophetic act representing being silenced.”

We are committed to community, unless you’re queer; in that case, we will marginalize you in order to protect our privilege.

“I got to watch the responses of folks as they came out and faced this group of demonstrators. I also got to engage some of them when they had questions. Some were very confused about why the group was demonstrating and so they asked questions. Those folks were often surprised and disappointed when they heard Safe Space’s story. Others came out with smiles and embraced the students and spoke words of love and grace to the students, saying things like, ‘We see you. We love you. You are welcome here.’ These responses, both the inquisitive and the openly supportive responses were uplifting and encouraging. This was really all the demonstrators were asking for. To be seen, acknowledged, and supported.”

Everyone is invited to fully participate here, except those of you who are not heterosexual: LGBTQ “participants” will be tolerated insofar as they do not make anyone uncomfortable.

“There was one person who became very aggressive in harassing and heckling the group who I spent a long time confronting and keeping away from the students. This was exhausting and difficult. But in the end, I do not carry a heavy heart because of him. He was clearly troubled, sad, and repressed. I pity him and pray that God can soften his heart before the darkness he has embraced destroys him. However, what I do carry a heavy heart over is the response of the vast majority of people who exited the building… They hung their heads, eyes cast at the ground. They refused to make eye contact. They quickly, and quietly walked away without acknowledgement, without comment, and without seeing. They literally refused to see the students.”

Let’s be honest: we are not welcome if you refuse to see us. Oh, we see that you look at us, even stare at times. Those unspoken messages come across loud and clear. We’re being tolerated. We’re being allowed to be in your presence. But we are erased – sometimes dressed up to look like you, sometimes used to get things done, sometimes tokenized to make you feel more progressive. Yet you close your eyes to us.

“I knew a lot of those folks. Some of them are faculty at EMU. Some of them are students at the Seminary. Some were friends of mine. And they would not bring themselves to even look at the demonstrators. To read their signs. To receive a flyer that explained why they were doing what they were doing. Each time I watched someone quickly walk by with their eyes cast down, my heart broke a little bit more. They refused to see the humans in front of them. The humans who only asked for one thing: to be seen.

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I don’t know what was on the minds and hearts of these folks as they walked by. Maybe they felt guilty. Maybe they felt uncomfortable. Maybe they were distracted. Maybe they were busy processing the lofty ideas and theological concepts that Professor Wright regaled them with. I’m not sure it matters much though. Because when these followers of Jesus were given an opportunity to see a group of young people who were hurting, they continued on, eyes down, refusing to even see them.”

Instead of seeing our pain, you tell yourselves, “Well, we’re nice to you.” Instead of hearing the injustice we navigate, you convince yourselves we need to “be patient” with those who aren’t ready to change. You tell us we’re equally valued by God, but that we have “different roles.” “Why is equality such a big deal if we let you do everything but ____?”

“But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side…’ (Luke 10:29-32).

The problem with this refusal of many to see the students became magnified that night, when someone went throughout campus and defaced the beautiful chalk messages that Safe Space had written throughout campus with hate speech. At least after that, EMU’s administration distributed a public message of love and support of the LGBTQ students on campus. But imagine a day in which you go from being unseen by those you wish to be seen by to aggressively harassed by an unwell man using Scripture to tell you that you are perverse and unworthy of love and then to discover hate messages scrawled on the sidewalks of your home… Unseen. Harassed. Threatened. But it starts with being unseen.”

It is particularly harmful when a community or individual professes to be welcoming, supportive or affirming and then acts in ways that exclude, silence or otherwise marginalize LGBTQ people. So much trauma has been inflicted upon queer Christians who decided to trust only to be betrayed.

My wife and I went to see the recently released movie, Boy Erased. It follows the story of Jared Eamons, a young Christian college student who admitted to his mother and father, a pastor, “I think about men. I don’t know why. And I’m so sorry.” His parents sign him up for Love In Action (LIA), a Memphis, TN based ex-gay ministry that offered an intensive “conversion” program for youth. Having interacted with and worked for Exodus International in my early twenties, his story was not at all a surprise. I’ve heard so many similar stories of participants in ex-gay ministries and programs. The trauma Jared and his fellow participants experienced triggered memories of my own traumatic experience within ex-gay culture. The years I shared my story of “overcoming homosexuality” I was being harmed and harming others. While watching the scene where the participants in that youth program surrounded a young man and literally beat him with bibles, I felt sick to my stomach. I have felt assaulted by non-affirming/ex-gay Christian beliefs, and I have perpetuated that assault by promoting the ex-gay narrative at a certain time in my life. In the movie, Jared’s parents sent him to the LIA program in a well-meaning attempt to save him from “fundamentally [going] against the grain of our beliefs.” They loved him, yet they submitted him to serious harm. The young man beaten with bibles ended up committing suicide. Tragically, many stories end this way because of the deep trauma experienced because of even well-meaning people. LGBTQ Christians have endured so much harm and pain at the hands of those claiming to love them and promising to help them. LGBTQ Christians also endure much harm and pain at the hands of those who “welcome” them into relationship and prove unaffirming of their personhood, health and life. Walking out of a lecture on bible and theology and ignoring or avoiding queer Christians and their allies protesting the harm experienced by the work of the lecturer may seem insignificant to those with gaze averted and step quickened. “But I didn’t harass them. I didn’t graffiti threatening messages. I didn’t spew outright hate at them.” True, but you allowed it to happen. You dismissed them by refusing to see them. That dismissal is as much an assault as screaming in their faces or vandalizing their homes. You benefit from an oppressive system of heteronormativity and patriarchy. Your silence, your disengagement, your passing by is an abandonment and betrayal of “the least of these.”

Mark Baker, Professor of Theology and Intercultural Studies at Fresno Pacific University Biblical Seminary, reflected in a recent sermon (Nov 11) on the connection between inequality and violence. “Shame [is] the root of violence, and inequality feeds shame. Inequality is a catalyst for shame.” He drew from social science statistics, noting, “As inequality gets worse, these things get worse: life-expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, incarceration rates, mental illness, addiction, social mobility, obesity and homicides.”

Refusing to look at those suffering within your own community, avoiding the difficult work of seeing and understanding the dynamics of that suffering, is to label them “other” – it is to dehumanize them. This dehumanization makes it easier for others to perpetuate injustice while it strips LGBTQ people of their sense of belonging and safety. Shame is the result. Trauma is the outcome. Queer lives are threatened by silencing, ignoring, dismissing, excluding or other forms of marginalization.

In the opening keynote of the 2018 Reformation Project Conference in October, Rev. Brit Barron, makes a similar connection between othering and violence.

“It is power that lets us think that someone else is ‘other’ and we are ‘normal,’ and the minute that you ‘other’ someone, the last domino that falls is violence. That’s the only place that it can go. So, as I stood at the site of violence [Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL], I thought of all the places in which powerful people are telling people that they are ‘other.’ And it can be so simple. Like when I go to Target and it just says haircare, haircare, haircare, multicultural hair. It’s just saying, ‘Hey, your hair is different. You’re other. There’s normal hair and then there’s your hair.’ And that’s fine, and you can think whatever you want to about it. But the last domino to fall is Trayvon Martin. The last domino to fall is violence. The first domino is power telling you that there’s something about you that makes you normal and something else about someone else that makes them other. And we live in a world that is constantly giving messages about being an other, that is constantly trying to conserve their power. Then we have this book that has been co-opted by powerful people telling us its about not having sex before you’re married. It’s about confronting power!”

The fruit produced when LGBTQ Christians are othered by their families, churches, schools and communities is shame – the deep feeling of not being worthy of love and belonging. That shame drives many LGBTQ people to hate themselves, sometimes turning violence inward through self-harm, self-destructive behavior, addiction and/or suicide. However, as Mark Baker also pointed out, the outcomes associated with shame are experienced not just by the group suffering inequality, but by the entire community. “It’s not just bad for the people on the bottom. It’s bad for everyone.” So, another fruit produced by LGBTQ inequality and marginalization is the community’s shame, fear and hate directed toward LGBTQ people. We see again and again the last domino of that social and systemic injustice: violence acted out upon LGBTQ people. And if someone lives at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, they are more at risk. For example, transgender women of color are especially at risk of assault and murder. If the fruit of marginalizing or othering LGBTQ people is death, I think the church needs to wake up to the fact that its tree is rotting.

I’m with Brit Barron: I believe the resurrection the church needs is going to come through the LGBTQ community. “Jesus knew that to get to Sunday you need Friday. And [we are a group of people] who have had Fridays. And when we go into churches and we are fighting for our existence and we are bringing our experience [of suffering], that’s the only way to get to Sunday. And the church needs to get to Sunday.”

Will you see us? Will you hear us? Will you evaluate your own complicity in our suffering and dehumanization? In other words, will you really welcome us?

Note: Reflection on student protest from S.A. King’s Facebook post.

LGBTIQ Christians in Central America

Guest content by Carla Sofia Vargas Sandoval

Hi, my name is Carla Sofía Vargas. I’m from Nicaragua and I’ve started an initiative that seeks to start conversations and spaces towards LGBTIQ inclusion in Central America’s Christian churches. Under my alias La Mechuda, I create content in Spanish & LGBTIQ resources for my Facebook Page, YouTube Channel, and my website: www.lamechuda.com. I started the group J4 – an online community (for now, due to our socio-political situation) of LGBTIQ Christians in Nicaragua – in April. This year I was part of The Reformation Project’s Leadership cohort and I was also invited to be part of their annual conference by being part of one of their panels and by leading a workshop titled: LGBTIQ Christians in Central America: Realities, struggles, challenges, and advances from the heart of the continent.

If you would like to partner with me and be part of the work God is doing in Latin America, consider subscribing to my Patreon. I would love to have enough support to dedicate most of my time in the work of LGBTIQ inclusion in my region.

Thank you!


Saludos,

Sofía Vargas Sandoval

 

A note from Michelle…

I met Carla Sofia during the 2018 TRP Leadership Development Cohort program and have valued her perspective on inclusion and her commitment to working for justice at great personal cost. Currently, it is not safe for her to remain in her own country and she has sought asylum elsewhere. Please pray for her and the work she is doing, and consider offering financial support through her Patreon page.

The Message in the Margins

A guest post by Kisha Harper

When writing, you always have to observe certain rules of grammar and punctuation, but the most seemingly insignificant parts that are commonly forgotten or overlooked are the margins, the gaps on the top, bottom, left and right between the main content on the page and the page edges. It is common practice to make sure that there is the proper amount of space within the gaps to separate your content from the edge before continuing with the next line or ending with some sort of punctuation. The text can be justified flush to the left, right or evenly distributed with the margins, creating a neat and clean appearance. However, this does not account for content, message or narrative which solely depends on the writer.

Being the daughter of Baptist ministers, the word “text” was used to describe the main content in my parent’s Bible-inspired and spirit-filled sermons. Growing up in the South, in the heart of the Bible Belt, I have sat through numerous fiery sermons and often felt like I was in the gaps and margins outside of their text and left feeling dejected and ignored.

An introvert’s biggest fear is standing out in a crowd and will generally try to remain hidden in an attempt to blend in. For years, I hid in children’s ministries, women’s ministries and in the pews among hundreds of congregants. However, in my case and many others, over a long period of time, it becomes increasingly more painful and difficult to maintain. Like trying to blend black and white, you end up with a lot of gray areas. It’s never as simple as you would like. People who fall outside of the margins of the message usually end up filled with shame, guilt and severe sensitivity. Deep wounds start to develop and though scabs cover old wounds, it only helps to hide internalized pain of what some may call “church hurt.”

Being a black woman in a predominantly white evangelical Christian congregation or a lesbian Christian in any congregation can result in a severely wounded individual. In the South, and in a polarized political climate, politics always find its way into the sermon. Its easy to voice your opinion amongst people that share the same views on hot topics such as religion, race, sexuality and politics without even considering the person sitting in the next pew and to assume that they too are included in the main text or think in the same way. There is no room for gray area: you either agree or you are a sinner needing deliverance. Some assume the area outside of that text or sermon, the margins, is filled with sin and debauchery. Often the margins are filled with people who love God just as much, having the same desires, hope and dreams, seeking their purpose and simply seeking to belong.

So what happens to a person who falls outside of a pastor’s sermon text claiming anyone who doesn’t support a certain candidate is not a true Christian or when a spiritual leader that they have supported for years destines them for eternal damnation based on their views on topics such as abortion, religion, their sexuality or political affiliations?

When you find yourself as an outsider of the message of a person who you see as a messenger of God, it becomes difficult to separate the messenger and message from God and God’s love. The feeling of separation due to guilt, isolation and shame often leads many people to throw the baby out with the bathwater and walk away from God and the church completely. To that end, Brian McLaren, in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration, exclaims, “No wonder so many religious folks today wear down, burn out, and opt out” (p. 6).

Brian McLaren refers to the message of Jesus being kidnapped, saying, “And no wonder more and more of us who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both find ourselves shaking our heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity? What happened to Jesus and his beautiful message?’ We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously doesn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as antipoor, antienvironment, antigay, anti-intellectual, anti-immigrant, and antiscience (not to mention protorture, proinequality, proviolence, pro-death penalty, and prowar). That’s not the Jesus we met in the Gospels! That’s not the Jesus who won our hearts!” (p. 6)

Luckily, God’s message of hope, love and redemption that was made for outsiders can still reach those dejected and ostracized that may not fit into the political, religious and societal messages of some churches. God’s message can come from the outsiders themselves. Many of Jesus’s close friends from the uneducated fishermen, a possible prostitute and a tax collector were found in the margins. One can even say that Jesus himself was from the margins and was not included in the message the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law taught, but was from Nazareth out of where nothing good ever came spreading the Good News of love, redemption and reconciliation to other outsiders.

God can use whatever is needed to speak to the ones that are in the margins.

After sitting through countless direct and indirect homophobic messages via sermons from my beloved pastor, a month long sermon series speaking against homosexuality, and me building up an emotional wall to protect myself from years of church hurt and conservative banter, God used the simple words from a song in the Broadway musical The Color Purple to give me the courage to no longer secretly hide in pain in a congregation but rather to live boldly in the margins and have compassion for others also in the margins.

For weeks, song after song resonated and reiterated God’s love for me, as though God was serenading me. Not the me who wanted to fit in and hide neatly in the message, but rather me, the black lesbian who loved Jesus, but was no longer so sure about many of his followers. I randomly discovered The Color Purple at a time I was newly fascinated with Broadway musicals. I had a connection with Celie, the main character, a lesbian and the victim of a hard life and tough circumstances that loved God but eventually felt that God had forgotten her. She was reminded with a humble message that God had not forgotten, but in fact loved her. At the end in The Color Purple (Reprise), she concluded, “God is inside me and everyone else that was or ever will be. I came into this world with God, and when I finally looked inside, I found it, just as close as my breath is to me.”

Though not a song typically sung in a church, it was a message that I felt God wanted to convey to me. While guilt and obligation kept me at a church whose message no longer seemed to reach me, I started visiting and livestreaming other churches referred by people also in the margins. One Sunday, while feeling tired of hiding amongst my former church pews, I decided to livestream a church service whose pastor recently started preaching a message of radical inclusion. Suddenly, I began to hear a familiar song and my heart started to swell. The song that had given me comfort for weeks was being sung from the pews of that church. With that confirmation, I knew I could come from among the margins of my former church into a message that spoke to my wounded heart and that the healing could begin. With that healing came a compassion for social justice for other marginalized people as well as opportunities to serve them in a greater way that would not have been available had I not come from among the message and lived freely in the margin.

Kisha Harper is an artist, graphic designer, and data analyst from Nashville, TN, who has a passion for art, musicals, nature, and community service. She aspires to create art and children’s books that promote love, diversity and acceptance while also providing an empowering message for marginalized people. You can find her on Instagram as @lharp15.