Looking back on the journey – on LGBTQ+ acceptance

Not quite eight years ago, Alan Jacobs wrote an important short letter to Christians who were struggling to come to grips with the reality of our cultural acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships that fell outside the bounds of what so many of us have heard describe as “traditional marriage”. It started with the raw reality:

Many Christian organizations, as they think about their treatment of gays and lesbians, and their theology of sexuality more generally, are “evolving,” or “in process,” or “on the journey.” And make no mistake, this is a journey on a one-way street: no Christian group is moving from greater to less tolerance of same-sex relationships.

Increasingly, I am recognizing that I took my first irreversible steps on that journey a decade ago, when I made the decision to leave a tenured post at Shorter University.

At the time, I did everything I could to frame it as an aspirational move, something that was for my best benefit and something I was doing with my best hopes for the institution I was leaving behind.

But very quietly, I was deeply fearful that I was approaching a moment when I would have a document placed in front of me, and I would either have to sign or not sign, and by making that choice, I was going to reject one group of people for another.

One group was the traditional Southern Baptists I had moved to Shorter to serve. I went to Shorter in 2003 very intentionally, and with the deepest of gratitude for the Baptists of my youth that had built my picture of salvation. The faith that I had come to, after all, wasn’t something that I had entered into casually. It was something I interrogated seriously during my freshman year of college, talked through and prayed through (and occasionally fought through) thoroughly with my loved ones through the subsequent years, and built a deliberate foundation of integration with my academic life as I went through graduate school. I’d taken the position and worked through to tenure at Shorter as a culmination of that path.

But I also had come to know several gay and lesbian individuals in those eight years at Shorter, and had seen how difficult navigating the climate of Christian education was for them. I’d even had a couple of students come out to me in the deepest of confidence, and trust me to the point of spitting out descriptions of themselves they had always prayed weren’t true. I’d listened, mentored, accepted them in student groups, even seen them perform. A couple of those students didn’t just become friends, they became people I could trust in return.

I didn’t want to be forced to decide between them. So, in so many words, I ran, and prayed that I was wrong to run. And, sometime in late October of 2011, all the fears I had carried were realized.

But the words of the prophet continue to be true: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

I don’t merely accept Jacobs’ description for organizations. I have seen it playing out for me personally. The reality of those students’ stories – and the realities for so many students I have seen take similar paths since – forces me to reject the idea that they have chosen a path for themselves, and they could simply choose to be straight if they just wanted to. Listening to the “Side B” Christians tell their stories (stories like Wesley Hill’s have been especially influential to me) are especially persuasive; these are people who are committed to traditional Christian disciplines, deliberate about the self-control of celibacy, and who still describe a gay identity that is not chosen or malleable. This may not be every believer’s tale (Jackie Hill Perry’s testimony stands as a counterpoint) but increasingly those counterpoints appear to me to be exceptions that prove the rule.

The more I engage with LGBTQ+ individuals in my scholarly circles, the more I value their contributions; the more important they become to me. And the more that my failure to decide in 2011 continues to haunt me.

Because the truth of the matter is simple. I really have no reason to worry for the fate of the young Southern Baptist. He is in a position of power. He will have advocates. He will be quite fine. The young gay man or lesbian woman – or, as I would come to understand later, the closeted trans individual – was living in a place of fear, and those fears were put into tangible words in October 2011. Those people needed people to act on their behalf – even if that action was to simply say that a new president and a new board were asking things of them that were simply unacceptable.

If I had been forced to choose, I would not have been able to sign a lifestyle agreement that would have forced me to disown my LGBTQ+ friends and family.

I may yet have done the right thing by leaving before I had to make that statement publicly. I don’t know. But the decision still casts a pall on the end of eight amazing years.

As the years go on, what happened at Shorter feels like the first wedge of many that have been driven between me and my heritage as an evangelical Christian.

Perhaps the most significant wedge was driven on November 8, 2016.

The rejection that I felt that day as so many friends and neighbors celebrated the election outcome was overwhelming. And it was rejection. In retrospect, the result of that day completed the process of stealing the term “evangelical” from me and believers like me. Instead of how I’d identified with the term for most of my life as a Christian – in the context of the Great Commission – it was now irrevocably a political identity, a white Protestant (and not even necessarily someone who had a “born-again” experience) who wanted to “make America great again” by slashing taxes and defending borders, who felt a measure more freedom to speak suspicions against those whose culture didn’t line up with someone who was properly obedient to authority.

I was asked to accept as one of my own a man who was vulgar, callous, verbally abusive, and obsessed with his own celebrity. I was told he was a “baby Christian” and he was yet chosen for us in this time, and anyway he certainly wasn’t that corrupt enemy who had never stopped campaigning for the Presidency since her husband first took office.

I couldn’t. I can’t. I’m still appalled that I was even asked, by men who surely knew better.

With every passing day it becomes more and more obvious that the good Southern Baptist men will be quite all right. They have power. They have advocates.

As much as I love the Southern Baptist Convention, and care deeply for its people, I am not a good Southern Baptist, nor have I ever been. I may have been born into the United Methodist Church, and I may attend a United Methodist church now, but I am not a good Methodist. I am not a good evangelical, or a good Protestant, or even a good Christian.

And it is long since time I stopped pretending to be.

And then I am reminded that I was never asked to be a good Christian.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

The person of Jesus Christ has never let me down. He’s never spoken to me out of a place of anything but love. When he’s used his harshest words, he’s reserved them for those who would pretend to be pious and holy but who find ways to keep people shut out and weighed down. And when he’s given me commands that have anything that to do with personal holiness, those commands are for private consumption, with the assurance that while others may look at outward appearances, God sees the heart. The essentials of the Law, through the voice of Jesus Christ, have far more to do with loving my neighbor wherever I might find them, even if my neighbor looks nothing like what I expect.

Alan Jacobs, at the end of his essay, asks a simple question:

Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

And, increasingly, it seems to me that the answer is simply “by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

In a year when I have been the recipient of radical and generous welcome and love from people who I would have least expected to receive that welcome from as a born-again believer in 1990, the least I can do to be consistent in the practice of my faith is extend that same welcome I have received in return, to declare once and for all to my LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors that I love them for who they are, and I accept them as they are, without condition, without apology.

After all, this isn’t the first moment in our history when we’ve allowed the culture to shape what we see as acceptable.

In 2017, people within conservative evangelicalism, particularly those centered around the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention felt the need to make a statement on human sexuality and gender roles to add to their doctrinal positions. That was the genesis of the Nashville Statement, a statement of doctrine that attracted support from a wide variety of  conservatives, including people who have found themselves on opposite sides of positions since.

As I read the words of the Nashville Statement on August 29th, 2017, I slowly realized that the same decision I had no desire to make in 2011 was in front of me again.

Article 10:

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

That reads like an even more explicit demand than the demand that was made of me in 2011. It reads as a demand to place rejection of LGBTQ+ individuals – rejection of their very identities – as an essential of the Christian faith.

I cannot. This statement is one I cannot elevate to a place alongside the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I had to dismiss the Nashville Statement, out of hand. It does not represent the practice of my Christian faith.

And as I did that, I realized that the journey I started on six years previous was complete.

The majority of the text above this was written in 2017, at that point of realization.

I revisited my thoughts multiple times over the course of the intervening four years. I was nervous about making that statement of my path on this journey public. I knew how many bridges I could be burning by making that statement.

Ultimately, it stayed private because I didn’t want to burn those bridges. Even as I made that realization that I had to choose between two sides I cared about deeply, I couldn’t bring myself to take that final step of declaring my choice.

And I resisted taking that step as I was well into the final stages of raising a queer child myself.

The regrets I have over my relationship with A. are few. My youngest child knew how deeply she was loved and cared for. Our final exchange was words of love spoken, freely and without reservation. But we simply did not have many conversations about sexuality or gender identity, and the theory I was turning over in my mind didn’t turn up in our relationship. The work I’d done to become LGBTQ+ affirming was locked down in WordPress, not part of the actual conversation we had. It should have been. I didn’t make clear that given the choice between the two sides, I was absolutely siding with my child and peers like her. I should have.

Steps to make the world better might be fueled by regret, but they shouldn’t dwell on regret. What is necessary now is to make clear that I am a Christian, even an evangelical Christian, and that I affirm those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer – as they are, without condition. There are those who say I cannot be both Christian and affirming. I reject that as a false separation.

I’m still going to be more conservative overall. I value self-denial, as part of the holiness approach to faith that is my Wesleyan heritage. For that reason, I have a strong affinity towards the “Side B” approach towards sexual ethics that the likes of Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet practice.

However, part of the reality within evangelicalism in this era, as I’ve argued, is not just concern about sexual ethics but a rejection of any sexual or gender identity that isn’t traditional – even if the person claiming that identity holds to traditional Christian ethics. Further, it’s incredibly presumptuous for me to make ethical claims about a person who holds a sexual or gender identity different from mine. It’s far more important to welcome and listen to all people of all sexual identities and gender identities, and to hear their approach to their ethical being. Hence: affirming all who identify as LGBTQ+, as they are, without condition.

The experience of my last month tips me over the edge. As part of my Upward Bound teaching that has forged new relationships between me and a large group of students, I’ve dealt with many students who have had some kind of trans or non-binary identity. The use of pronouns has been a part of the practice of teaching these students, and some of those students asked for me to be aware of their pronouns on the survey I had them fill out on day one, without prompting. (A line for pronouns will be part of those forms going forward, based on that experience.)

Almost without fail, the kindest, most compassionate of the students I taught – you might even say the most Christlike – were the LGBTQ+ students. Far from being indoctrinated in any one worldview, they were the ones open to experience and developing enthusiasm for things they hadn’t thought before. I have reason to worry that we’re shutting those students out of a natural spiritual home for them, following a man of sorrows that society rejected, because they don’t see the person of Jesus Christ in the people who claim his name who are ascendant in the American culture at this moment.

That failure of recognition, more than anything else, drives my concern and my response to publicly proclaim that I’m affirming of these identities. At the end of all my reasoning, I still believe Jesus Christ desires relationship with all people, where they stand. In the name of pursuing cultural dominance, Christians have effectively made conforming to traditional sexual ethics, in discipline and in identity,  part of the terms of approaching Jesus – an extra condition that I don’t believe stands up on study of scripture.

In that regard, I don’t merely believe it’s appropriate for me, as an evangelical Christian, to offer welcome to people who don’t conform to traditional sexual or gender identity, without condition.

I believe it’s necessary.