Sunday, January 5, 2014

Love Proclaimed From The Rooftops

Empathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it.
Cornel West

We have not come here to take prisoners,
But to surrender ever more deeply
To freedom and joy.

We have not come into this exquisite world
To hold ourselves hostage from love.


A couple of days ago, while celebrating 9 years of marriage with Lindsay, I was enjoying an americano and reading a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about the gay couple who got married on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation float at the Rose Parade. Of course, there were plenty of supporters who cheered, there were some who opposed the exchange of vows, and even a Facebook group started to boycott the New Year's event due to threat to the sanctity of traditional heterosexual marriage (see this on what is really "traditional" or "biblical" marriage).

One innocent bystander had this to say about the whole affair:

We're a modern-day society, so accept it. Don't worry about what other people do.

This laissez-faire approach is a standard mentality for millions of Americans who envision the inevitability of "marriage equality" rapidly approaching: in faith communities, at the ballot box, in state houses and in courts all over the United States. It is a form of libertarianism that, often times, is coupled with a look of disgust about what might be happening behind closed doors during the honeymoon after the marriage ceremony or with words of assurance concerning their own (hetero)orientation (both of these stances come mostly from white males, in my experience). In my opinion, this is an unfortunately meager response and one that even persists within progressive Christian circles.

My disappointment is geared towards Christians allergic to a deeper theological narration of this issue. One example of this is the case of Frank Schafer, a United Methodist pastor who was defrocked last month for courageously officiating a same-sex marriage for his gay son a number of years ago. He was quoted by the NY Times at his press conference:

The church needs to recognize that things have changed and times are changing and people are changing.

No doubt, Schafer was probably the victim of establishment journalism sound-bites. He has surely given better defenses for why Christians ought to support their gay brothers and lesbian sisters at the altar. I merely present this as one snippet of many that I've overheard over and over in faith circles.

A very close friend of mine, a pastor who supports marriage equality and has officiated same-sex weddings, lamented to me recently about this lack of theological narration. Indeed, shouldn't those of us who have become compelled by the God-ordained dignity and humanity of sexual minorities swear off the "Don't Judge!" and "Stay Relevant!" rationales for "marriage equality," in both churchly doctrine and stately laws?

This issue is highly emotional for a reason: people of faith & conscience must be either vociferously for or vehemently against same-sex marriage. Really, there's not a lot of room for a middle ground on this issue. The Christian arguments against same-sex marriage are well-known because they've dominated mainstream society for so long now: (1) the Bible condemns "homosexuality" at least 6 times; (2) same-sex orientation is both a choice and a destructive behavior that must be prohibited through law and doctrine; (3) same-sex parents will cause harm to their children; (4) marriage was created primarily for pro-creation.

Debunking these arguments goes beyond the scope of this post, but briefly, (1) the Hebrew and Greek words that English Bible translators/interpreters equate with the general concept of "homosexuality" would have meant "non-consenual sex with minors," "sex slaves usually kidnapped," or "same-sex prostitution, usually used for religious ceremonies;" (2) both the plentitude of scientific evidence, as well as the testimony of actual gay friends, have compelled me that folks are born gay or develop this orientation very early; (3) both same-sex and heterosexual parents cause plenty of harm to their children; and (4) if marriage was created primarily for pro-creation then what the hell have my wife and I been doing these past 9 years (we are child-free)--perhaps our "marriage" is illegitimate?

My grave concern, and the purpose for this post, is that so many default arguments in favor same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex love as a gift to society have stemmed from lowest common denominator rationale: basically, tolerating other people's differences no matter what the outcome or influence and an attempt to keep up with societal trends. These soundbites have their merit and are certainly better than being "intolerant" and completely "irrelevant," but they have absolutely nothing to do with who Jesus was or what it might mean to follow him, as some of my conversation partners--Christians far more committed to the status quo--have rightly pointed out to me.

The Jesus of the Gospels explodes on to the scene condemning only the hypocrites who abuse their power, privilege and possessions. Meanwhile, he stands in ruthless solidarity with the poor, marginalized, oppressed and those whom society deems unclean and inhuman: prostitutes, tax collectors, "sinners," demon-possessed (the mentally ill?) and women, in general. Jesus' birthday celebration is marked by angels proclaiming to shepherds (more "unclean" folk who were prohibited from testifying in a court of law) that God's "good news" is extended to ALL people.

As it turns out, God's love lathers the lowest and least, screaming for all God's children to bring dignity and respect to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender or orientation. The Greek word often used to drive home this point in Jesus' parables is σπλάγχνα (and its correlates), unfortunately translated into English Bibles as "compassion" or "pity," but better rendered "a love so deep that it burns one's bowels." This σπλάγχνα characterized the feelings and actions of both the Good Samaritan and the Running Father who smothered his prodigal son with hugs and kisses after the little bastard squandered all his inheritance money on hookers (the subtext of both of these stories makes members of the powerful elite look foolish). This is empathy on steroids: a power exponentially stronger than tolerance & trends.

Personally, I'd like to see those of us who are Jesus followers and advocates for marriage equality embrace a form of communication that is more empowering and in solidarity with gays and lesbians, and at the same time, one that is more adamant in awkwardly placing the focus on those who Howard Zinn calls the "guards of the system," (basically, middle class white folks who benefit from the status quo). As the end of each Gospel account attests, it is the crowds who determine the outcome, whether life or death, justice or injustice. These guards of the system are slowly being converted (I was 6 years ago!) as thousands of people (who happen to be friends, family and co-workers) are finding the courage and support to "come out." Politics becomes personal and projections are exposed as pathological. Indeed, the "issue" has become flesh and dwelt among us!

To be like Jesus is to step up to the challenge of being prophetic. And to be prophetic, as Walter Brueggemann wrote 35 years ago in his ground-breaking The Prophetic Imagination, is to both energize those who have been abused and sidelined and to criticize those in power who are complicit or indifferent to the suffering of society's marginalized. If grace & truth came to us through Jesus, then should we not be committed to extending grace to all and calling out bullshit no matter who it exposes. This prophetic mentality is vastly different than riding the cultural wave of tolerance and trends. Now's the time for all of us to "come out," advocating for the full humanity of gays and lesbians passionately & prophetically, because what we have whispered behind closed doors must be proclaimed from the rooftops.

The point of Christianity is that the pulse of the universe is beating to a Love that is so consistent & congruent that it would rather die than kill or project or scapegoat or demonize. It calls us to drop the paranoia and rigorously trust that God is desperately conspiring for a world put back together again. And for this kind of world to become a Reality, God will have "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." I believe that the hatred & bullying that sexual minorities have endured over the centuries is a kind of death that, like Jesus, exposes the vicious animosity that has targeted this vulnerable people group for so long. When we gaze upon the humanized effects of this fear-based exclusion, our hearts are penetrated and we must own up to our complicity in the continuation of this horror.

Sure, God cares about sexual ethics (anything that is violent, non-consenual or commoditized), but a society's definition of "marriage" really isnt about sex at all. It is about the right for those in power (the scribes, pharisees and rich young rulers of Pax Romana and the politicians and their wealthy benefactors in the Pax Americana) and those with privilege (the guards of the system: teachers, lawyers, business owners, clergy, police, firefighters, accountants, doctors, nurses, etc) to control who is a legitimate member of society...and who is not. It is driven by fear & anxiety. Christian marriage ought to be defined as a laboratory of Love, an experiment in mutual service, forgiveness & acceptance.

Some folks (the ones who have power and control over who is "forgiven" and who's included in decision-making) will resist this with every tool and weapon at their disposal. Power grabs always end up sacrificing some particular members of the human family. Jesus' death reminds us of this nearly universal compulsion and of our need to resist these violent tactics with our whole minds, hearts & bodies. This is why we must abandon the script of tolerance and trends and fully be storied, in both word & deed, by the energizing and criticizing of the self-donating Love defined by the cross of Jesus.

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