When I was thirteen years old I decided to begin my personal exploration into Christianity. I began with being baptized, which is an opening into the religion and a request for acceptance into a congregation. Soon after, I began studying with a confirmation class. I was confirmed (with some reservations, as I felt that I couldn’t fully say the creed with confidence), and spent much of my teenage-hood attending Church, getting to know my congregation, and even acting as assistant pastor to chant the liturgy and administer communion wine. I felt, at the time, that I needed to “jump fully in” if Christian Church were indeed a place for me.
I chose exploration into Christianity as opposed to any other religion at that time because this is the only organized religion I really knew. My family was all Christian—practicing, struggling with, or skeptical of Christianity, and, this is important, they were all activist leftist Christians, most especially my grandmother, whom I greatly admired (and still do) for her outspoken political opinions and true Christian ideals. My family that was informed by Christianity primarily (though several have also dabbled in other faiths), and in this sense it was unavoidable to my early childhood understanding of faith and religion. Whatever sense of spirituality I have developed since then, I can still never escape some relativity to Christianity as a base, rather than Buddhism or Islam or any other system. But this I consider to be a matter of context in place and time.
There are many things that I love about what I understand to be Christianity. I say, for what I understand to be Christianity, because I feel that there are so many different interpretations that have developed in the form of various congregations, each believing itself to have a true understanding of Christianity. Some of those interpretations I would have to wonder at, or disagree with. I’m sure as well in the reverse.
For one thing, I have always loved, and still orient myself to, the phases of the Church—advent, epiphany, lent, etcetera—because of the spaces of introspection, growth and inward journey that are carved out in the span of a year and legitimize taking time for personal growth and creativity. Much of the Church calendar was developed from already existing pagan holidays, which were naturally created in relation to seasons of harvest and phases of the sun and moon, so it only makes sense that they might speak to a perennial sense of how we as persons change and bloom and hibernate in a given year.
I love, at root, what I understand to be the teachings of Jesus and those of his first followers: primarily, non-violence; turn the other cheek; forgive those who harm you; love your neighbor as yourself; do onto others as you would have them do unto you, not as they have done onto you; take into your home the poor, the sick, the social outcasts. I love the idea of gathering together once a week in an intentional way to think quietly together about our place as a group in relation to the world. I love the aspect of ritual, chanting, and singing. I appreciate the way that faith has inspired conscious and urgent activism on the part of many Christians and that Church Sundays serve as a time to organize social justice projects.
But the reason why I cannot recite a Christian creed is because I do not believe Jesus is the son of God. I do not believe in one true God; I believe God is in all of us and everything. I do not believe in Heaven or Hell, I do not believe in Judgment. I don’t believe in one true way to get to an afterlife. I certainly don’t believe that one of us or any one group of us knows about what afterlife is and how to get there. I don’t believe that we should act morally in order to get into heaven or that we can quantify morality. I believe we should strive to act with love and kindness and collectivity because it feels better to all of us, individually, collectively, and to our planet. It feels better and we can see the effects. We know that it is right. In this sense I suppose this is an aspect of “faith,” because acting with moral consciousness does not always feel good at first, and requires some amount of trust and faith that it will be the right thing in the end. I don’t see the “sacred” as something which is pure, untouched, or untouchable. I see the sacred as something that is sacred because we engage with it. Sacred means we hold it close to our most precious sense of what it is to be human, and therefore we struggle to understand it fully. This aspect of “struggle” and “faith” is something that can get pretty complicated as it justifies various behavior, but I’ll get to that later.
I often wonder how it is that the teachings of Jesus have been interpreted in such a way to legitimize the killing of Iraqis or women seeking abortions or homosexuals, or anyone deemed “other.” I wonder how the teachings of Jesus have led many people into extremely conservative politics—like not wanting to provide a social safety net of food and shelter and healthcare and education to our neighbors—especially given all the valuable, radical work that Christians continue to do, even the most politically conservative among them.
Christians have been involved with almost every monumental social justice movement in the United States, from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Farm Worker’s Movement, to every anti-war protest, to the Sanctuary Movement for Central Americans seeking asylum. Churches and congregations have provided needed services to the poor in the United States throughout our history and continue to do so. Christian protestors have formed a sizable force at the nationwide Occupy protests and have mobilized in front of the School of the Americas. They have worked to help reintegrate prison inmates into communities, counseled to drug abusers, aided the elderly, and been there for those who simply come seeking guidance and searching for a reason to live in the face of struggle and hardship. Yes—depending on the denomination, at times they have ministered and proselytized, but not always, not every denomination. Various social justice outreach programs are often part of the backbone of any Church’s weekly activities and planning sessions. Christians, perhaps because of their faith, have taken some of the most radical actions in the face of power, including facing assassination for their beliefs (i.e. Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr.).
For these reasons I still have faith in the power of congregations to create a better world. Even though I have not attended Church since my teenage foray into Christianity, I even have faith that maybe there is a congregation out there that shares my commitment to the elemental interpretation I take from Christianity, one that is open enough to accept and celebrate queer lifestyle as a “joyful noise” rather than a sin and abomination.
But I am so saddened by the state of both Christianity as well as the secular vision of Christianity these days. For one thing, nuanced or balanced visions of Christianity are as rare as nuanced or balanced views of queers, punks, drug users, and rebels. Many complaints about the Church (and therein lies a problem, because it is all too often vastly generalized) are, in my mind, well founded – from Catholic Priests that molest young men, to the appallingly traditional view many denominations take on women’s role in church, home, and society, to the sexual Puritanism that has lead many believers to increased sense of shame and abuse of sex, to Christians who align themselves with political parties and lawmakers who have no intention of creating laws built on caring for each other. Rather, they end up voting for politicians who believe in individualism, who support war, who want to destroy any inkling of a welfare state, and who are committed to creating laws that actually divide us from our brothers and sisters in our own communities (immigrants, workers, gays) and our own families.
Some complaints, on the other hand, are simply over-generalized, uninformed, misinterpretations of “The Church” or “Christianity,” often treating Christianity as a monolith; as though “kill a fag for Jesus” Christians were the same as the Amish. Many others are simply apathetic to any idea of organized religion, believe spirituality to be “uncool,” and/or are skeptical of any faith-based organizing, even shared ritual.
These days, in the leftist, punk, and queer circles that I mostly navigate, it’s pretty unheard of, if not awful, or perhaps, impossible, to be Christian—almost as bad as it is in some Christian families to be gay. In fact, this binary has become so ubiquitous as to warrant labeling it a familial trend: One sibling says, shuddering, “oh my god, my brother has become a crazy Christian.” The other sibling says in hushed tones, “oh Lord, my sister is a lesbian.”
I have recently been the listening ear to several close friends of mine who are experiencing this now in real time; an ever-widening gulf between themselves and their siblings, generally because they are out homosexuals or queers and their siblings are Christian. The pain is excruciating. Many of us are in our thirties and forties. Our identities are well formed. We have lived “alternative relationships” for years and many of us have stable partners. But “suddenly” these rifts are solidifying as our siblings and family members see that this is not just a phase. All too often I have heard friends say, “my parents are so much more open than my sister/brother …” Perhaps this is because parents have seen it all, have mellowed in their old age, but sisters and brothers and cousins are just beginning their “adult” adventure with hopes of utopia. They too have solid partnerships, and now, children. And this is where it becomes extremely painful, and again, all too common. Those children who are beloved nieces and nephews are now not allowed to visit. When those aunts and uncles visit those Christian homes, they are asked not to “act gay.”
A lesbian friend speaks of a Christian sister who won’t let her Christian children visit her because she is lesbian, who can no longer visit her Christian sister with her partner because her Christian sister doesn’t want homosexuality to exist in her house; she wants to create the ideal world within her home, a utopia. “Surely,” her lesbian sister can understand, and though she apologizes in a text message, she doesn’t take back her wishes.
Part of the injustice seems to lie in the idea that as much bad-mouthing as is done about Christians in informal queer circles, I have never heard of a queer friend who wants to create such a utopia in their own home that they won’t allow their Christian family members to visit. I have never heard of a queer who wants nothing to do with the children of their Christian family members. And yet it is probably mutually true that queers feels awkward in the clean, Jesus-cross-stitch-over-the-bed homes of their Christian family members and that Christians don’t feel comfortable in the homes of queers—presumably because everything from the walls to the bath towels appear to hold the mystery of what it is to be gay (or Christian). The irony, of course, is that both “queer” and “Christian” are based on the idea of acceptance and love of everyone, especially those who are different. At least, that is my understanding. And yet obviously these two standpoints are being ripped from the root.
What’s more, the pain is excruciatingly clear from both sides. When I hear my friends speak of their siblings, they speak through tears of their own pain—how once, they were each other’s confidant, support. That at one time, their sibling thought their homosexuality was even kind of “cool.” Now, suddenly, those siblings are ashamed of them. But my friends also speak about the frustration and sadness emanating from their siblings, the guilt that those siblings feel for no longer welcoming their homosexual siblings into their homes. Sadly, it seems, there is an aspect to some Christian belief that bolsters this pain for Christians and turns it into a cross they must bear. It teaches its followers that this pain is real, that it is natural, and that it must be struggled with. It is that old adage that what is good for you must also hurt a little. In other words, if you are a follower of Christ, you will inevitably make enemies along the way, you will experience pain, and you might have to divide yourself from those that you love. But you will receive your reward in Heaven. This is what it means (for some) to “struggle.” But for queers, there is no “church of queer” that says: we are better off without them. There is no church of queer that says: if it hurts, it’s good for you.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the light at the end of this tunnel, at least not for everyone. Some families never recover. Nevertheless, one of the worst things the queer community can do is to refuse to inform itself about Christianity or to treat Christianity (or any religion) as a monolith. We have to continue to remain open-minded and also to think about the ways that we bring stereotypes into the world through misinformed speech. We also have to be not afraid to continue to engage with Christians about topics that are difficult, especially our views on sexuality. Many Christians seem happy to discuss faith and Christ with others; we too can express how queer life is not antithetical to Christian theology. At least not, in my understanding of Christian love.
Furthermore, in our anger and sadness it would be easy to fall into a similar trap of line-drawing and division. But we are better off acting “Christian”: that is, turning the other cheek, forgiving our siblings, loving them regardless, hoping they will learn to accept us, inviting them into our homes, showering them and their children with kindness. Christianity has throughout history been a dynamic, wavering, contradictory process of human interpretation and reinterpretation. We can hope that perhaps our examples in the lives of our younger family members can help change the conservative Christian tide.
Berlin Advent 2011 – Epiphany 2012