Category Archives: justice

The Exodus of Exodus International

Earlier this month, I wrote about the Seventh-day Adventist church’s early history with the sexual orientation change effort industry (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Quest Learning Center and Homosexuals Anonymous both formed during the same era as Exodus International, a sprawling evangelical organization that taught LGBT people, their families, and their churches that “change is possible.” SOCE groups like these continue today despite advances in science and psychology, law, theology, and social acceptance, and not all of them have responded to these advances by becoming kinder, gentler, or more accurate about their claims.

Exodus "True Story" graphic from their conference website.Exodus itself, however, held its final conference this week. Yesterday its director Alan Chambers apologized to the LGBT community and their parents. He also announced that Exodus International will close and a new ministry will emerge in its place. The website for the new ministry is not yet live and I see no substantive information about it anywhere yet. Even if Reduce Fear’s work with churches is conciliatory, based on Chambers’ comments in his apology yesterday, I expect the new ministry to maintain his core beliefs that LGBT sexuality is morally deficient and that unconditional LGBT acceptance contradicts Christianity.

I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

…I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection.  I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives…I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself. —Alan Chambers

Last night I scanned Twitter to get a sense of the reactions to Chambers’ apology and have discussed it briefly with friends. While some from the LGBT-hostile quadrant of the church immediately raised the “gay agenda” specter or smeared Exodus as “sellouts”, the majority of early comments ranged from cautious surprise to outright celebration. I didn’t see much anger or cutting cynicism from LGBT-supportive people—though it may be much too soon to expect people to have passed all the way through the grief/loss process. Questions about and closer readings of Chamber’s statements are now trickling out and SDA Kinship will be sharing some of these responses to Exodus’ closure from their Twitter feed today.

I looked at Exodus’ closure statement myself, and this paragraph jumped out at me:

Chambers continued: “From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father – to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”

Return of the Prodigal Son (Murillo,

Return of the Prodigal Son, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1667-1670) | via the Web Gallery of Art

For most Western evangelicals, Chambers’ claim that “we’re all prodigal sons and daughters” will be uncontroversial. The majority of the evangelical community’s doctrines assume that humans are sin-depraved and experience separation from God if not in conscious relationship with Christ. The parable of the lost boy, a story of grace and embrace in family despite error and failure, is an old cultural favorite. So when Chambers identifies Exodus as that “elder brother,” this rings true for many of those harmed by SOCE organizations, and I can only imagine how difficult it has been for him to acknowledge that role.

But the final turn—from being the older brother to “being the Father”—does not fit. I know that as an evangelical, Chambers does not believe in apotheosis. So “LGBT or not, we’re all God’s children; this is our created and redeemed nature; and our lives will be about being or becoming more like God” cannot be what he means here.

In the bible story, the younger brother returns his father planning to play the servant. His father rejects that effort and claims him as the son he is: this is part of his restoration: that he be the son he is. The older brother resents his brother and their father’s open-armed reception of him, and the story closes with the older brother still outside the party, not yet accepting or extending family grace. I’ve often rewritten this ending in my head, supplying an addendum in which the brother crosses the threshold quietly to thaw over fruit punch. My epilogue reads something like “It took time, but both brothers healed. Realizing what their father had been trying to teach them, the brothers worked on their relationship and the family home became known as a house of love.”

Wouldn’t that the best resolution? That the older brother re-enter the party as a brother, not an overlord? That he restore his relationship, not craft a new superior or inferior one for himself, nor impose a false superior or inferior role on his younger sibling?

So why does Alan Chambers represent Exodus’ role changing from brother and peer to “being God”? If Exodus has already lorded over LGBT people for more than 30 years, why, even now, isn’t it enough to simply be equal? The hardest thing for beneficiaries of artificial hierarchies may be to lay their status down and stop grasping for new and improved ways to pick it back up. For those trodden by hierarchies, the hardest thing may be to shed  temptations to inferiority or counter-supremacy, and to accept that we too are our Father’s children.

Should Chambers choose this path, with others who abandoned him long ago because he wasn’t harsh or separatist enough for them, he and they’ll find me by the fruit punch. I promise to save them a cup.


Filling In the Gaps: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church III

In Part 1 of this series, I reflected on the Seventh-day Adventist denomination’s influence on the sexual orientation change effort (SOCE) movement since the 1970s and its lobbying against civil initiatives for LGBT people to the present day. Then, in Part 2, I suggested that the limits of our church “mother” can inspire us to grow, that this growth is part of our ethical and moral maturity process, and that extending the conversation about sexuality and gender beyond what the denomination has offered to date is an important way for us to care for ourselves while caring for the community that shaped us.

I would like to make it clear… that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” —J.K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008

Part of my process growing into adulthood has been acknowledging my responsibility. I don’t assume responsibility for the premises and limits that others taught me, but I do assume it for how I frame gifts as I become conscious of them, and how I write them into the life and experiences I share with others. As Rowling told Harvard’s Class of 2008, there’s an expiry date on blaming one’s parents, so if there ever was a time when I might have considered blaming my family, church, or cultures for what they passed down to me, that time has long gone. I accept responsibility for my life.

Photo of South London landscape, 30 St. Mary Axe in centerI grew up as the last child of Jamaican parents in the United Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. While most of the events described in Part 1 were unfolding in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, I was 3,600 miles away in a part of the Adventist community that included Caribbean immigrants, West African immigrants, a smattering of Filipinos, and a small minority of White English and native European people in congregations outside of London.

My 500-member congregation had a very strong lay leadership tradition, and during the early 1990s my mother was one of four women called to the role of elder. From these and other lay leaders before and after my baptism, I learned a great deal about how to teach, share, and support an active congregation. I learned how, under the church’s wings and the wings of my Caribbean immigrant network, to live distinctly from the wider society: we were trained to be Daniels who lived impeccably in both friendly and hostile circumstances, dared to vary from our peers if the cause was honorable, and never brought embarrassment to our faith or Afro-Caribbean culture.

Despite that training, I don’t recall learning how to examine myself as an individual, to situate myself in my several communities and negotiate their competing claims on me. I don’t recall seeing my full reflection in the faces of the elders who surrounded me: I saw partial reflections in this speaker, that artist, this teacher, but never felt wholly mirrored. I knew that I was a member of my immediate family and community family; I didn’t fear being abandoned by them. I saw that I was loved by each of these circles (if not understood) and that my community’s achievement expectations for me were high (they still are!). I thrived academically and otherwise, but did so while not fully recognizing myself in the lives or experiences of any one I knew.

Photo of the hills, Manchester, JamaicaI was about 17 years old and studying at an Adventist college in Jamaica before I met someone who knew he was gay. We became close friends, siblings-but-not-by-blood, and yet our closeness didn’t include his identity or relationships until five years later. We spent our time discussing culture, politics, regional differences, spirituality; we talked in generalities about attractive people and the life lessons we were learning. But in our first five years as friends it never occurred to me to inquire about his orientation or relational life. He didn’t inquire much about mine—and there was little to tell. As much of my own sexuality was still in shadow, I did not see his; I just didn’t ask.

I know now that at least two boys from my English high school were gay; while we were schoolmates, their bullies had tormented them for not being athletic or “manly” enough. But at the time I never made the leap from their gender expression to their sexuality, and I don’t know when they made that connection for themselves. I have no comparable stories about English or Caribbean women to share.

Like many Adventist youth, I’d received the Ellen White compilation Messages to Young People as a baptismal gift and read it; I’d also been given John F. Knight’s books for teenagers, What a Young Woman Should Know About Sex and What a Young Man Should Know About Sex. These church-approved sources were supplemented by classes at school and my parents’ direct contributions at home. My mother and father, a registered nurse and social worker respectively, may not have been comfortable with all of my questions, but they usually responded by being frank and clear, dismissing baseless myths and scare stories, and suggesting that we research what we didn’t know. I’ve kept this model as an adult: it still helps me to fill in the gaps I’ve discovered along the way.

I cannot explain why, despite the parents, books, and cultural and congregational influences that I had, I still came into my 20s with no hook to hang my growing awareness of myself on. Yet that is how I found myself in 2008—hook-less—and so I began to build from scratch. I spent the next 4 years studying classic materials and contemporary research on Christian history and theology, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, working with credentialed counselors, and rebuilding my inner relationship circle. It was an amazing period—equal parts insight and horror, with much of the latter channeling through some of my religious relatives and my denomination. I do not blame them for the role they played during those years. I also had many angels, guardians, and friends, and was not alone.

On this side of the process, though, I sometimes imagine the SDA community being so committed to realism about sex, gender, and relationships that our scholars led the wider Church’s conversation. It saddens me when I see us trailing the rest of the Church with groundless 20-year-old talking points, or expelling leaders for being current or compassionate. It’s possible I’d be writing a different story today if my imaginary denomination were real.

At the same time, I’ve met hundreds of LGBT Adventists in the last several years, all shaped by the sources I’ve mentioned or others similar to them. Some of these people were caught up in Quest Learning Center and survived to share their stories. Others passed through other orientation change ministries and are grateful today to have made it out alive. Perhaps it’s been to our collective benefit that our church hasn’t led the pack: as things stand, the teaching we’ve received has tended toward suppression, occlusion, fear, and the dysfunctions that naturally flow from them. More of that is not what we’ve needed. By filling in the gaps beyond the church, we’ve instead worked to build personal and collective awareness that this life is an opportunity to develop loyalty, joy, care, pleasure, faithfulness, patience, understanding, and love.

Close-up photo of broad green leaves in sunlight.Rowling’s metaphor for adult living is “taking the wheel,” but I’ve experienced it as something less mechanical and fraught than highway driving can be. For me, shaping an adult life is more like tending a garden, noting how seeds and plants grow, which kinds of nurture and resources they need, how good they are as neighbors to other plants, what outcomes they produce, and how each plant is its own kind of beautiful. It’s about development and learning in place, harvesting and stopping to smell the flowers; sometimes, too, it’s about sneezing from the pollen and uprooting plants that don’t fit. I’m still in the midst of the tending process as I write this article, and I expect to keep tending and enjoying this garden for the rest of my life.

Caring for Our Mother: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church II

In Part 1 of this series, I described the Seventh-day Adventist church’s approach to sexuality as a “spell” that dissociates members from themselves, confines them to different-sex relationships or self-suppression, and encourages them to lobby against civil laws for LGBT people in North America and internationally as well. [1] With a handful of doctrinal premises, a few has controlled the many.

But this isn’t the only part of the story that I want to tell. One of John J. McNeill’s contributions to my thinking is the idea that it is psychologically critical for a child to come to terms with his or her parents’ limits—and this acceptance must apply to our religions of origin as well as to our biological families of origin. According to McNeill, our Church Mother also merits our recognition and acceptance; she too reaches the outer bounds of her capacity as we grow; she too fails us and not always out of conscious malice. Her efforts have caused us objective harm, but as we mature, we have opportunities to care for her regardless of what she has said and done. The last few generations of LGBT children have lived out this model vividly: an increasing population of declining parents looks to these far-from-the-tree children for their elder care, and most of us are providing it.

I wrote that the Adventist church administration withdrew from healthful and helpful service to its gay members after its first official meeting with SDA Kinship a few years before I was born. This may have been the worst possible choice for the church and yet it was probably the best outcome for LGBT Adventists. By abandoning the LGBT community during decades that involved deep, significant changes in psychology, medicine, church history, theology, public health, and public law, the church forced LGBT people and the heterosexual Adventists around them to go beyond the church’s borders for fact-based insight, the latest research, thoughtful biblical interpretation, principled exegesis and application, and practical policy and pastoral guidance for homes, schools, and congregations.

I view the church’s treatment of non-hetero sexuality as a more extreme edition of its approach to human sexuality overall. But as McNeill has written, the failures of our church mother can spur us to grow up. Without coming to the outer limits of her capacity, we might never have learned to seek, to engage reality directly and without using her as mediatrix for our unfolding understanding of ourselves or our callings. In growing up, we develop moral sensibilities and ethical agency. And we can choose how to apply what we’ve come to know in our relationships with other people and those institutions that shaped us.

Green things grow.

Green things grow.

It is now 2013. SDA Kinship will host its 34th international meeting this year. I am 30. And the Seventh-day Adventist church is still a full two years away from reporting on “alternative sexuality practices”—a remit that, at best, represents a gross misapprehension of the science of orientation and gender and frames human variation in terms of misbehavior. The committee conducting that study was announced at the 2010 General Conference session and is due to produce its report in the next two years. Without any information on this committee’s membership beyond its chairman, and with its only preliminary contribution a doubling down on the church’s 1996 statements, I can’t vouch for the value of its outcomes or its relevance to my generation or the younger people who follow us and wish to remain a part of the church. [2]

Would my denomination ever dare to call Blackness an “alternative ethnicity”? I’d hope not. Yet some of its most vocal speakers and authors over the years have framed European and White American worship styles and music customs as the norm from which other cultures vary at their spiritual peril: ethnocentrism is an old art. Even if current membership trends continue and South American, African, and Asian divisions move to the center of the institutional wheel, their centering after years of marginalization will still fall far short of “unity in diversity” or any other model of organic collective flourishing. Imbalanced relationships among constituents undermine the grounded, healthy development of any group deemed an aberration rather than a variation. The church’s heterosexism has long produced these outcomes.

Cartoon of animals—monkeys, elephants, and others—being tested on their ability to climb a tree.

It doesn’t matter to me which of us get to live at the center of the wheel if some of us are relegated to the outer ring. I don’t believe the Incarnational Kingdom of God is about inner and outer rings, and, unlike the orientation change ministries I described in Part I, I don’t hold a theology of sexuality based on separation from our Creator and Source, regard a hetero orientation as the inverse of others, or represent LGBT people as “heterosexual people with a homosexual struggle.” That is not what they are.

Yet I believe it’s important for the General Conference’s committee to complete its work and report on sexual and gender minorities 35 years after ministers first recommended the study.

Even if

  • the church has preemptively described orientations other than heterosexuality as “a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world;”
  • a number of church members and LGBT people have already plugged out of this conversation because it does not reflect the realities of gender, intersexuality, or orientation;
  • the committee intends to represent heterosexuals as normative and all others as deviant;
  • by 2015 we’ll still have no rounded theology of relationship, creativity, commitment, or celibacy, and still lack a model for organizational and spiritual vocations that evaluate members based on gifts rather than gender or marital status; and
  • no LGBT Adventist has been invited to join the General Conference’s committee in studying the Bible, Adventist tradition, or current knowledge about the LGBT community

—it is still important that the church administration continue its process.

The next generation of Adventists deserves the best its denomination can offer, not as the end of conversation but as the start of it. The church’s contributions in the next few years will influence the climate in which youth grow and adults endeavor to shepherd them: even as our societies change, the church’s statements, retractions, explanations, and pronouncements will continue to matter.

Unwillingness to discuss openly is devastating: silence and shadows never saved a soul. So the 2015 study is important for the health of my church and its members. I have wondered whether it’s even more important that pastors, teachers, counselors, parents, and friends continue their personal learning and dialogue, though they’ve explored their questions so far with very limited support and in some cases active resistance. As Protestants, we have no Magisterium, and we also share with the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions a reverence for discernment and conscience. Neither discernment nor conscience is based on stubbornly abdicating continuous learning.

So, whatever the church’s judgments in 2 years, everyone in the wider Adventist community has opportunities to co-learn today. Some church members and former members are returning to this common learning table thanks to their relationships with LGBT people and to the documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists (SGA), which has screened in small groups since February 2012.

Poster for Seventh-Gay Adventists (2012)The movie does not pretend to see or tell all; it is situated in particulars and as such it has limitations (I’ve  discussed my thoughts with the director personally so am not writing out of turn). SGA‘s focus on couples, gay and lesbian individuals, and the lives of people resident in North America means that the Adventist community has yet to hear from unmarried, bisexual, intersex, or transgender people, and we’ve not heard the range of experiences that LGBTI Adventists have outside the United States or Canada, sometimes supported by their ministers and sometimes publicly demonized by them.

Despite these limits, SGA doesn’t seek to end the conversation: it is an extremely charitable contribution to a relationship that needs more charity, and it has resonated with people from all sides of the table. I know the filmmakers hope that others will tell their own stories just as Jill and Sherri, Marcos and Obed, and David and Colin told theirs. The isolation of the status quo isn’t good enough for any of us, and our church, our “Mother,” will benefit from learning with us.

“Homosexual people eagerly wanting to live the Christian faith, could they do it in their specificity, not in isolation or [outside the law], but also in the shared wealth of the ecclesial community? Would it not be desirable that these brothers and sisters in Christ are respected and accepted as people with an infinite value in God’s eyes?

… No one can be forced into belief and response.” —Ethics Committee of the Franco-Belgian Union of Seventh-day Adventists, March 2013

In the third and final part of this series, I will share how this context has shaped my life and relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

[1] Sample lobbying in North America: VermontCanada, California [AB 1976 & Proposition 8], Maryland, and Washington state; sample international SDA lobbying: the Netherlands, KenyaUganda, and England. Additional links were shared in Part 1 of this series.

[2] Shortly after this article was first published on June 5, I received a copy of the committee’s appointed membership. The 50-member group is dominated by General Conference and world division church administrators, and includes only 1 woman.

The Magic of Shame: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church I

The few can’t control the many by force. —José Barrera

José Barrera defines magic as the ability to change reality by influencing others’ beliefs and consequent behavior. His argument is that magicians are not mere illusionists like those featured in The Prestige; they are people and groups who invoke their authority over others and use it to direct others’ decisions and actions. By impressing audiences to bind themselves to an external authority, a magician’s successfully cast “spell” means that the bound person internalizes the magician’s injunction and carries it out whether the magician is present to reinforce it or not.

Digital illustration: temple in background, black woman in foreground

Credit: “Egypt” by ProcerKhepri

While many Christian denominations oppose “magic” on the basis that sorcery is forbidden by the Bible, there may be no more vivid example of belief-and-behavior influencing, reality-changing magic than evangelical-fundamentalist teachings about sexuality.

Last fall, I found an archival issue of Spectrum Magazine, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums. That issue, from 1982, included reports on the first annual meeting of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International and an opinion piece from Colin Cook, a Seventh-day Adventist ex-pastor who at that time was still touring Adventist churches and publications to share his overcoming-homosexuality message and to promote himself as “living proof” that one could be delivered from one’s “homosexuality problem.”

I believe the ideas of a harsh or distant father and a dominant or binding mother are correct… The primary cause [of homosexuality], in my opinion, is the spiritual shame that all mankind experiences as a result of the Fall. —Colin Cook on the origins of homosexuality, Ministry, 1981

Cook was one of two men who launched the gay conversion step ministry Homosexuals Anonymous in 1980. Like the church-promoted ministries that have succeeded it, HA operated on the assumption that homosexuality was an unnatural, immoral corruption of heterosexuality, an “escape from reality” rooted in postlapsarian alienation and sexual shame, and a sinful condition whose impact could be lessened or eliminated via prayer and therapy. On these principles, Cook also ran an SDA-funded orientation change center for gay men in Reading, Pennsylvania, called Quest Learning Center.

Among LGBT Adventists, Cook is infamous not only for securing General Conference funding and support for Homosexuals Anonymous and Quest, but also for orchestrating at least two series of client abuse at his Reading and Colorado centers (1986, 1995). Cook had been removed from ministry in 1974 after having sexual contact with one of his male congregation members. However, while receiving church funds and fielding inquiries from young men through the late 1970s and 1980s, Cook promoted “homosexual healing” as his experience and an achievable outcome for others in publications like the Adventist youth paper Insight (1976, 1978, and 1980), the church’s pastoral journal Ministry (1981), and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today (1989), and in other sponsored forums across the country.

Since 1993, Cook has continued to encourage others to “come out of homosexuality” and “develop heterosexuality” through a new Colorado-based company and online radio broadcaster, Faithquest. His site’s legal disclaimer notes that he is not “licensed as a psychotherapist or psychologist, nor registered as a counselor in the state of Colorado or any other state in the United States or any other country.”

The Seventh-day Adventist church withdrew funding from Cook’s projects around 1986, but has never withdrawn its support for Cook’s “overcoming” dogma. That dogma has recently resurfaced in Adventism, and overcoming-homosexuality tours have resumed in congregations and conferences around the United States, in Uganda and Kenya, Australia, and other receptive sites worldwide.

In a park, two levels of wire fencing restrict general access to rows of seatsReading Spectrum‘s 1982 report, however, was like being sucked through a wormhole into an alternate universe where the Seventh-day Adventist church hierarchy and LGBT church members conversed openly, not merely to build mutual understanding, but to actively address pastoral, spiritual ministry to non-heterosexual church members. On this side of the wormhole, however, no such free exchange exists. The church pastors and other workers who had attended SDA Kinship’s first meeting had reported back to the denomination on what they’d observed and made nine key recommendations for future action.

Thus, before I was even born, a group of pastors, scholars, and one “ex-gay” counselor advised my denomination to “set up a special subcommittee to study thoroughly the whole question of homosexuality and the church” and to recognize SDA Kinship as a ministry to, for, and with Adventists with non-heterosexual orientations. This group also advised the church to take other actions, including developing a comprehensive “balanced and responsible” sexuality curriculum for Adventist church schools. Such a curriculum would help to ensure that K-through-college students would have a fact-based, engaged space in which to grow, learn about themselves, and discern both what God required of them and how they should shape their adult lives in line with that discernment.

None of these things happened. In fact, church workers were later discouraged from interacting with SDA Kinship and, in the 1990s, the denomination sued Kinship in California courts for using the name that still identifies the majority of Kinship’s members and allows new members to find it. Whereas the church workers who had participated in the Kinship meeting advised the church to draw near to its non-heterosexual members, the church instead withdrew.

Over the next two decades, Adventist unions and church officials actively lobbied voting members and civil governments to block or undermine legal rights and protections for LGBT people, including in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New England, California, Florida, Scotland, England and Wales, Uganda, Maryland with the support of NOM, and Australia with the support of the Australian Christian Lobby. Public health research is now showing a correlation between legal restrictions on LGBT rights and increased anxiety, mood disorders, alcohol-related disorders, and stress-triggered conditions like hypertension and depression for the LGBT people in that climate. The church’s lobbying pattern continues nevertheless.

How could one calculate how many people have been influenced to define and approach LGBT people as immoral representations of sin and satanic deviance thanks to the teaching and practice of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? I don’t know, but I’ve come to realize that church-driven shame about sexuality cannot be maintained without the active or unconscious effort of ordinary people.

Blue cloudless sky in background; tall stony cliff-face in the foreground“The church” follows no one through life; it’s in no one’s wedding party, dinner table, prayer house, or bedroom. But we are in all of those places, and to keep the dogma alive on the church’s behalf we must first dissociate from ourselves. The process of being the church’s proxy in our most intimate spaces splits us as we learn about and experience our own sexuality. Any resultant shame only dissipates as we re-integrate and no longer cede room to soul division: if we don’t cooperate with the “less than” spell, we cannot be shamed into compliance with flawed definitions and inappropriate limits. The church’s spells invoke powerful magic over millions of current and former members, and those able to breach those spells pay in years to do so.

In Part 2 of this 3-part series, I will discuss the implications of this history, notable exceptions to it, and where I see the church today.

Living Your Life and Using Your Life

This week, one of the NYT’s advice columnists responded to a question about inviting unsupportive relatives to a wedding. I’ve thought about this question before, and not just in the context of LGBT couples: For me, the point of being present at a wedding is to bear witness to the relationship at the heart of the ceremony, to support the couple’s initiation into a new life stage together, and to stand with them as part of their marital community. It’s not just dressing up and eating free cake. How is it possible to fulfill the role of witness without valuing the relationship you’re witnessing?

I read through the comments from the article, and this one struck me:

Remember, your life is not a teachable moment for the rest of the world. It’s YOUR life. This same philosophy, btw, can hold true for any social minority in any way. I’ve been the person with the hidden handicap in the room, and the “unknown Jew” in the room, and the non-cisgendered supportive sister of a gay man in the room, and believe me, I was not put on this earth to educate people. —Jen in Astoria

I wonder if there’s something in the Adventist (and larger Christian) tradition that makes us _want_ to be teachable moments for other people, to be witnesses, or teachers, or Daniels who show others “the right way.”

There can be moral and good and helpful sides to that teaching impulse. There can also be an awful lot of ego involved. If trained to believe that others’ access to truth and salvation depends on you, it could be quite the challenge to just be, living your life honestly instead of using it to instruct others.

Of course others will draw lessons from their dealings with us whatever we do. But people can tell when we’re just being and when we’re using our own bodies as object lessons and other people’s bodies as our audience. Isn’t the second option a tad dehumanizing, even if voluntary? Are we each obliged to use our lives rather than to live them?

Meanwhile, overseas…

Well done to the Hon. Maurice Williamson, Member of Parliament for Pakuranga, New Zealand. New Zealand passed marriage equality legislation today.

All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that love recognized by way of marriage. That is all we are doing. We are not declaring nuclear war on a foreign state. We are not bringing a virus in that will wipe out our agriculture sector forever. We are allowing two people who love each other to have that recognized…

But I give a promise to those who are opposed to this bill right now. I give you a watertight, guaranteed promise. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Your teenage daughter will still argue back with you as if she knows everything. Your mortgage will not grow. You will not have skin diseases or rashes or toads in your bed, sir: the world will just carry on. So don’t make this into a big deal.

One of the messages I had was that this bill was the cause of our drought—this bill was the cause of our drought! Well, if any of you follow my Twitter account you’ll see that in the Pakuranga electorate this morning it was pouring with rain. We had the most enormous big gay rainbow across my electorate. It has to be a sign! —Maurice Williamson

Habits of Mind

A thoughtful duo of posts from Empire Remixed’s Andrew Stephens-Rennie:

A Lifetime of Habits (April 9, 2013)
Idolatry & the Crisis of Being (April 11, 2013)

My favorite exchange comes from the comment section: A respondent writes:

Habits of living, rituals of inclusion, shape habits of reading.

And Andrew replies:

There is this feedback loop in a closed system – a loop that reinforces prejudice and idolatry – that can only be dismantled (and must be dismantled) by introducing new people, new encounters, new ideas and habits into the system.

Couldn’t agree more. So what happens when that closed system refuses to absorb new people, encounters, ideas, or habits, or expels them as they appear? What can be shared with a closed hand?

Review: Torn And Not Mended

This review originally appeared at the Hillhurst Review on April 8, 2013.

Lee, Justin. (2012). Torn: Rescuing the gospel from the gays-vs.-Christians debate. New York: Jericho Books.

It all started with the kid in high school who called me “God Boy.”

Justin Lee, co-founder, director, and public face of the Gay Christian Network, has been building bridges between evangelical Christians and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people since the late-1990s. Torn, his memoir, describes his work as a gay Christian to increase understanding between two communities that have clashed in churches, the media, and the courts.

As Justin explains, his goals for writing and advocacy are to elevate love, transcend too-common battles, and work with individual people. In part because of his focus on the individual—a natural focus for an evangelical whose religious tradition emphasizes personal piety—Justin doesn’t offer much comment on the systems of custom, culture, or law that nurture individuals, shape their beliefs, limit how they read their scriptures, and govern whether they feel free to accept people different from them.

During the first half of the book, Justin describes other Christians in gentle language. Whether they accept him as a peer or patronize him as a special class of sinner, he represents them as well-intentioned, misinformed, and always sincere—never “bad people.” [1] Not until halfway into Torn does Justin start unpacking American Christianity’s approach to human sexuality or LGBT people.

Most readers will appreciate Justin’s stories about his teen and college years and how he integrated his religious convictions and sexuality with his parents’ support. Though some might want to dismiss him as an “activist,” he is never aggressive or rabid; he is only passionate. He narrates calmly throughout, writing as mildly as he speaks. But he is sometimes so charitable that he slips into inaccuracy.

On page 10, for instance, Justin writes that American Christians have been “unwittingly instrumental” in promoting anti-gay sentiment in Uganda and other African countries. In 2009 and 2010, Uganda’s parliament introduced the “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” a law that became known as the “Kill-the-Gays” bill because early drafts provided for capital punishment as well as life imprisonment. [2] But Christians like Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, Exodus International’s Don Schmierer, and the C-Street Congressmen have intentionally shaped Ugandan sexual politics. [3] As recently as November 2012, a US Seventh-day Adventist group took their “ex-gay” message to Africa: not only are these international engagements deliberate, not only do groups invite American supporters to fund them as “mission trips” and “the Lord’s work,” but they have continued to happen despite outrage outside the church and from sexual minorities in Africa. Evangelical influence on this climate is not accidental, and it’s not “unwitting.”

In Chapter 10, “Faith Assassins,” Justin turns his attention from the Church’s international issues to its internal ones. Explaining that restaurant wait staffs have come to expect after-church diners to be cheap tippers, he writes:

If our reputation can be damaged by poor tipping, how much more can it be hurt by the perception that we are actively hostile to an entire group of people!
… We Christians can say Jesus changed our hearts, but if our reputation is that of uncompassionate culture warriors, why should [non-Christians] believe us? We can say that God is loving and merciful, but if the church isn’t loving and merciful, why would we be in any sort of position to know that God is? [4]

The “we” orientation in this passage is consistent with Justin’s voice whenever he describes the Church: he identifies strongly with its evangelical wing and has no plans to leave it. This may be why his stories about other evangelicals all have such an authentic ring: these are the believers he knows and resonates most easily with. Even when he challenges the status quo, he’s speaking to his own.

But Justin’s comments on other branches of the Church are more one-dimensional. In one story, Justin describes a church whose preacher interpreted a gospel story without reading its supernatural elements literally. For him, the experience was foreign and unsettling; he interprets it and the wider non-literalist tradition as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and undermining the bible’s trustworthiness. Just a page later, Christians like those in the story are advocates of “one of the earliest heresies of the church.” Lacking doctrinal clarity, they “fail to stand for anything at all,” and risk “losing the things that set them apart as Christians.” At the end of this assumption chain is a mocking chant that begins “O large Person or Persons of whatever gender or branch…” [5] Its source? A comedy routine.

In the context of Justin’s closing thoughts on “the way forward” (e.g. “Christians must show more grace, especially in the midst of disagreement”) this section fails. It doesn’t increase understanding but does reinforce stereotypes, and it also highlights the limits of the author’s personal experience. Do the bridges between gay and Christian communities require all Christians to treat US evangelical doctrine as normative? Justin is clear that he’ll never be “spiritual but not religious” even if some gay people are, [6] so isn’t it curious that Truth matches evangelical beliefs (except for that gay thing!), and not, say, Orthodox or Unitarian Universalist approaches to scripture or teaching? Who set up evangelicalism as the archetype for faithful Christianity? And why would someone so dedicated to respectful dialogue be satisfied with a “heresy” slam or jokes at the expense of others?

Even though I grew up in a religious and cultural community that was as insular as Justin’s, I felt similarly uncomfortable about his descriptions of and dissociation from “gay culture.” [7] I didn’t know any self-identified LGBT people until I’d left home for college either, but it would be unfair of me to credit my early awkwardness with the community to others’ “lifestyle” or “culture” rather than my own limited perspective. “Egocentric carnality” and “anti-intellectual” attitudes aren’t the preserve of any demographic and gender and sexual minorities have no more of a monolithic lifestyle or culture than heterosexuals do. I wish Justin had been much clearer about this.

Overall, I found Torn an important contribution to the gay Christian memoir genre, not only because of its content but also because its author represents a new cohort of young and fully-engaged evangelicals. Like older memoirists Mel White and John J. McNeill, Justin patiently tells his own story while sharing some basic realities that the Church needs to accept in order to be more effective. His most likely audiences are the wider evangelical community that he calls home and the LGBT people, friends, and allies that are part of the Gay Christian Network and its sister alliance-advocacy groups across denominations.[8]

Ultimately, bridge-building doesn’t have to mean that two populations travel more to The Other Place. It only means that anyone who wants to travel across can. While I question Justin’s skill in engaging non-evangelical Christians based on how he described some of them in the book, I understand that some people are better at working out differences in person than on paper. These are yet early days in the US Church’s bridge-building movement and each community involved needs people who can address it in language they understand. Justin is one such person and I support him in his work.

[1] Compare this to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ reflection, “The Good, Racist People” (2013). Coates wrote: “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.” Similarly foggy thinking hovers over prejudice and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities.
[2] Versions of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill circulated in 2009 and 2010. While threatening LGBT-supportive people and groups in and out of Uganda, the bill created a new crime called “aggravated homosexuality” (sex involving an HIV-positive partner, pedophilia, incest, and “serial [homosexual] offenders” in consensual relationships).
[3] Kapya Kaoma, The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa, 2009. Also Jeffrey Gettleman, American’s Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push, 2010.
[4] Torn, pp. 137-139.
[5] Torn, pp. 144-146.
[6] Torn, p. 157.
[7] Torn, pp. 149-151; 158-164.
[8] I think especially of faith-based groups like Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Affirmation, Dignity, Integrity, and the Believe Out Loud community. (I work with SDA Kinship.)