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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Six Things My LGBTA Taught Me about the Gospel, part 1

Knox Pridefest, 2011
Just because I love this motorcycle.

SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING 
FOR THE STAUNCHLY SECULAR: 
This post gets kind of preach-y at other Christians.   
Proceed with the Jesus talk at your own discretion.

So: this year marks the start of my third year with the LGBTA as the random, straight evangelical who hangs out with them at meetings.  Usually, when I talk to other Christians about why I'm there, they think that I'm walking among my gay brothers and sisters from some moral high ground and I'm giving them moral instruction.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The fact is that they have taught me more about how to be a Christian than I think I ever did in my six years in the SBC.

It's not that I didn't learn a lot about God in the SBC; they supported me through my first years as a believer, and though their higher organization grieves me a lot, they still deserve some credit (or blame?) for making me who I am.  It's just that I learned more about this whole Gospel thing by walking with my gay friends than I ever did by running with the holy rollers.
 I have learned some great lessons from the wonderful people of my Appalachian chapter of the LGBTA, the outreach center on campus, and especially one specific professor, who is one of the coolest people on my campus and a good friend.  And so, let me share a few of those lessons with you.  So, if you're not of a particularly religious bent, feel free to skip this post, and I'll see you in a week or two.  Here we go!

1.  Jesus came to save the world from the religious.  So should we.  
Usually, when we tell the story of Jesus' ministry in Jerusalem and his conflict with the religious leaders, we read ourselves into the story as the good guy.  The way we tell it, the world is surrounded by these same religious Pharisees (in our minds, often sporting a beard, a pyx, or priestly collar) from which we-- American Protestant Evangelicals-- will save the unsaved world, just like Jesus had commanded his disciples to do.  Evangelical churches preach again and again to their congregations that it was Jesus' mission, and our Great Commission, to "save the world from mere religion." 

My friend "Lucas" taught me how true that last part was.  A week after I came out to Lucas as a Christian, he showed me a bumper sticker on his car that said, "Jesus, save me from your followers."  After listing to his horrific coming out story in a Southern Baptist community, I had to agree with him.  We've got the story wrong, you see.  Who are the American Pharisees?  Who is the powerful religious sect, the ones with a severe eye on and rigid enforcement of Christ's purity commands and are vying for control over the culture?  In America, that's us.  If we're going to have any meaningful relationship with the LGBT community, we'd better start standing up against those Pharisaical forces in our own faith and defending gays and lesbians against the oppression of an impersonal, inhuman religion.  

You know who I'm talking about, fellow Christians.  Please, stop ignoring the 400-pound homophobic elephant in the room: those who hide behind Biblical doctrine to justify his or her repulsion and hate. They're everywhere among us, from the guy who screams at gays from a bullhorn on my campus to your fourteen year-old son who tells you to run over a kid in front of your car because he is, and I quote, "such a queer."  (Yes, that really happened.) We already know this is wrong.  So why don't we say so and take a strong stand against it? What are we afraid of?

Secondly, we need to stop sacrificing human beings as collateral damage to our principles, for that was another shortcoming of the Pharisees.   These religious leaders weren't monsters; they just had tragically misplaced priorities.  Think back to the story of the Good Samaritan:  the men who left the beaten, robbed man on the side of the road to die were, at least in part, more afraid of getting blood on their hands and being ritually unclean than saving a mugging victim abandoned in the middle of nowhere.  It took a Samaritan who didn't give a crap about all the blood and dirt to look past those principles and see the human being lying beneath. 

Conservative Christians, I have realized, do that exact thing all the time.  I see wonderful, caring Christians stepping back from doing the right thing for the LGBT community because they are afraid of "damaging their witness" or look like they are "condoning" homosexuality.   Nobody wants to be collateral damage to our principles, my friends.  "If they think beating and killing us for that targeting us for being gay is wrong," my gay and lesbian friends tell me, "why don't they do something about it?"  Say what you will of the general political bent of the LGBT community, but they're living out an important Christian tenet in their own way:  if you know what the right thing is, you don't just say it-- you do it. If you're still confused, see Matthew 25 and the Letter of James. 


2.  No, really, it's just you.

When I walk down "Religion Row," the street on my campus where the denominational houses are all located, I often see Sal hard at work.  He's dedicated himself to "saving the heathens" here on our campus who walk past him to the cafeteria.  For the last four to five years, this has mostly consisted of tract pushing and the occasional street sermon on the four spiritual laws at the top of his lungs.  Now, I know deep down that Sal means well-- somehow-- but his idea of reaching the "lost" souls on campus is to yell at every girl wearing a short skirt or guy with a rainbow flag that they're going to hell.  Here's the usual process I've seen, not just with Sal, but also in my time in the SBC and among several denominations:
Knoville UT Crazy Preacher
No, this isn't Sal.  Sal has way more tact.
  1. Evangelist accosts a random "heathen" the street.  
  2. Evangelist hands said "heathen" a tract and/or starts sharing the gospel.  
  3. Said "heathen" gets in their face.  
  4. When the dust clears and the "heathen" stalks off, insulted, the evangelist says to him/herself,  "It's not really me they reject, it's God."  
No, Sal, it's not always God that's got them steamed.  It's just you.

Now, I imagine that, were I to posit this idea to Sal, he'd reel off Luke 10:18 to me:  " He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me."  I was taught this as a young evangelical, too, but the context is interesting.  Jesus starts this speech with a long injunction about proper behavior to his disciples-- things like, don't be a parasite, don't travel in comfort, and don't be a jerk when you enter someone's house-- before he sends them off with that reassurance ringing in their ears. Don't presume to speak for God unless you act like his disciple.

Rather, we need to be sensitive to the difference between the message and the messenger, and my friends' own complicated responses to street preachers seem to reflect that.  When the traveling shock evangelists show up (pictured above), usually the atheists (who are fewer than you'd think) just use it to reaffirm why they reject the idea of a deity, and many others just tune out the noise.  But those with spiritual leanings often feel mad, confused or hurt-- not just for the disrespect to themselves, but also for the disrespect they feel is being shown to God by misrepresenting who He is.  To put this in equally preachy terms:  whoever says that they are in the light and hates their brother is still in darkness.  It's the fastest way to spot a phony.  

You would not believe the amount of respect and admiration for God I have seen in some of my conversations with lesbian and gay people, dwelling side-by-side with their extreme contempt for the Pat Robertsons of the world.  We need to realize (and celebrate) that non-straight people often are very spiritual, just like everybody else, and they have a keen idea of who Jesus is supposed to be because they've experienced firsthand who He isn't.  The reality is that we're letting people with no mercy or compassion rail at them with a bottom-tier theological approach to them as human beings and a flattened-out caricature of God.  Their response is not necessarily to reject God; rather, they reject that we have any idea what the hell we're talking about.
 
3.  Preach with your ears, not with your mouth. 

A common apologetical argument I've heard about the early disciples has to do with their martyrdom.  James, for instance, was thrown from the top of the biggest building in Jerusalem.  If their witness to the power of Christ was just a lie they made up, my pastors have told me, then how come maintaining that lie was more important to them than death?  If James, looking down toward the ground over the edge of the temple, knew deep down that he was just a fraud... don't you think he'd recant before they shoved him over the edge?

I heard that same story, with a twist, from a friend last year.  "Look," he said after sharing his coming out story, "I've been disowned by my parents, thrown out of my church, lost all my friends, and tormented in high school. We're constantly under threat of harassment and violence, and some of us have even been murdered just for being gay.  We don't even get the same rights as everyone else.   If being gay were my decision, don't you think I'd have chosen something easier at this point?"  Several others chuckled in agreement.  "Yeah," he finished, "being born this way is the only explanation I have for why I still put up with this $#!&." When he told me that story, it rang more true than the old apologetic because that story also came with a piece of my friend attached.  And this is what I have learned:

Stories-- the good ones, at least-- are people.  How you listen is also how  you treat that person. 

Listeners-- the good ones, at least-- can transform the storyteller just as much as the teller transforms them.  You may persuade some with a good argument, but the power to change lives comes first from the ears.

A speaker can do little good unless he or she is also willing to let the story change them, too.  

Stories are the most powerful tool of language we have.  When Jesus wanted to really get people's attention, he told stories.  The lives of the confessors and martyrs tell a story, too.  The word "martyr" is Greek, and it literally means a "witness" to something.  And when we talk of "witnessing," we're telling the things we have seen and learned (and, often, suffered) in the storyteller's voice-- just like my friend had done that night over dinner. 

As powerful as telling such stories are, the most powerful part of a story lies in the relationship it creates between teller and listener, that dynamic, visceral bond that comes in the connection-- for when you exchange stories, you now carry a bit of each other.  That's what so many of my fellow Christians are missing-- the relationship of story. They want to share their story impersonally, without the messy attachments that come with that kind of relationship, and that's not really possible. 

If there's something that the LGBT community has perfected among themselves, it's the art of this mutual witness.  At the outreach center, sometimes the bonding process with new friends includes sharing each others' witness to the injustice of the world, and what surprises me is that their stories are almost indistinguishable from the confessor's tales and martyrdom stories I read as a medievalist.  Their stories tell about how hard it is to remain true to themselves and bear witness to a world which rejects them utterly.  You should see the way they listen to each other, fellow Christians-- you'd think they were a church small group swapping testimonies, and in a way, they are.  They need to hear these stories as much as they need to tell them, to bind each other's wounds with the knowledge that someone else out there gets it and shares the burden with them. 

They taught me that hearing their stories changes you.  Once you have another person's story, you have a responsibility towards them because a tiny piece of their own humanity is now embedded inside yours.  Naturally, that kind of vulnerability is a bit intimidating, and not every die-hard missionary even wants to bear that kind of responsibility.  And yet, to me, this is where radical empathy starts, from that little seed of exchanged humanity-- the self you can see inside the other, and the other you can see inside yourself.  If you truly want to change lives, my fellow Christians, start with your own, and start with your ears.  Let them change your own life in ways you'd never expect.  Break bread: share stories together, and change the world. 
 
After all, that is the same lesson we learn from The Laramie Project, isn't it?  Listening to a person's story changes you-- and them.  

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