The LGBTQ community has made strides toward deserved inclusion in our communities and churches. Still, homophobia and its stealthier cousin, heteronormativity, are common, especially in conservative communities of faith. In this post, I’ll describe frequent mistakes that queer-affirming Christian allies make in response to homophobia. I’ll end with advice about how to respond productively.
“You hypocrite,” Jesus said. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5). In other words, don’t judge me unless you’ve fully investigated and perfected yourself. I’ve heard it time and again from queer-affirming individuals confronting non-affirming Christians.
It’s a Bible tit-for-tat. And Bible tit-for-tats are easy; in a canon of 66 books from dozens of authors, one can easily find a disembodied verse to justify a point.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a queer Christian who’s never experienced a Bible verse-off that included a Matthew 7 kind of response. Recently, a queer friend of ours was pulled into a similar tit-for-tat with her father. He texted her: “God made humans male and female… [and] for this reason, a man should leave his parents and cling to his wife” (Matthew 19: 4-5).
Zora joked that an equally cherry-picked verse from Galatians would be an (in)appropriate response: “Hi Dad. ‘There is neither male nor female.’”
Thankfully, our friend didn’t engage in that dead-end Bible-battle. Both scripture and queer folks deserve better than decontextualized contests. Still, many queer Christians and their allies are engaging in similar ones. Sometimes, they start here:
“Jesus commands us not to judge one another.”
“Why are you so focused on LGBTQ folks, yet you don’t care about [something terrible]?”
…which isn’t far from…
“God judges all sin equally.”
…which is ultimately…
“Love the sinner; hate the sin.”
I’m grateful for the dogged work of those who defend LGBTQ folks, and I understand the desire to fight fire with fire – to respond to one scriptural reference with another. But in illuminating the biblical case for celebrating queer identity, rather than tolerating it, the Matthew 7 line of thinking is self-defeating.
The plea to withhold judgment asks non-affirming Christians to be merciful. But I’m not asking non-affirming Christians to turn a blind eye to perceived sin. I’m asking non-affirming Christians to re-examine their very definition of sin and to strike from it the identities of people they were taught to misunderstand. The specks in my eye are plentiful, but my identity, like the color of my eyes, is not one of them.
If you can agree that our sexualities are no more a matter of sin than our races, genders, or health, then you can see how the plea to withhold judgment ensnares identity in the realm of sin.
Non-affirming theology ultimately divests power from queer people and places power – the power of forgiveness, the power of inclusion – in the hands of non-affirming Christians alone. Judgment or condemnation withheld deserve no applause and is no model of reconciliation. This is not the kindom I seek.
This theology of withheld judgment, of the non-affirming Christian made holy by tolerating a people they were conditioned to fear, creates exclusionary churches. It creates human hierarchies that oppose peace and rest and goodness. A theology of withheld judgment asserts that non-affirming Christians have a choice to do the more charitable thing. However, when they’ve done the more charitable thing, their gross misunderstanding of queer folks still exists.
In the end, I desire a Christian populace that thinks critically about inclusion and exclusion, as Jesus did. Jesus directly challenged the systemic injustices of his time and place, which included patriarchy, religious bigotry, and economic dishonesty. He challenged his followers to care for one another. In this vein of friendship, I challenge queer-affirming Christian allies to a greater vision of the kindom of God.
The kindom is bigger than withholding judgment. The kindom is more than a breath held in expectation of a dropping shoe. It’s more than waiting outside for doors that won’t open. The kindom is about radical understanding and inclusion.
Therefore, let the language we use reflect kinship. Let our language connote an ambitious vision of reconciliation. Let our language speak a queer-celebrating theology, not just a queer-tolerating theology.
In the heat of responding to homophobia, I understand the instinct to sling Bible verses against Bible verses like a scriptural missile defense system. The following is a list of responses that Zora and I have found useful in productively deactivating the fear-based othering of queer people by non-affirming Christians:
While I wish that the full weight of passion for justice could be well received by a non-affirming Christian, it rarely is. For many whose lives have not yet been blessed by queer individuals who are out, queer identity is not a matter of emotional concern. If you grow heated, they may grow cold.
Although I retain no right to police the tone of queer-affirming Christians’ understandable moral outrage, I’ve experienced how defensiveness begets defensiveness and how unexpected compassion disarms. With calmness, allies can access spaces where queer individuals are less welcome and build strong bridges.
Ask the non-affirming Christian if they know and love any LGBTQ people.
Give the non-affirming Christian an opportunity to reflect on those in their life who are intimately affected by a “debate” that for them is purely intellectual. Non-affirming Christians may know happy, confident, godly queer folks; or they may only know queer folks who have been beaten into straight-submission; or they may know no out-queer folks at all.
If the person you’re engaging does know and love an LGBTQ person, conjure and center that person’s voice to help ensure that discussions about queer folks remain focused on people – people created by a loving God – not simply the opinions of the unaffected.
However, not everyone is blessed to know and love any out-and-strong queer individuals. In that case, try the following.
Tell the stories of queer flourishing.
Homophobia is fueled in part by misrepresentation of LGBTQ people and identity within conservative Christian communities: we are sick, misguided, sexually promiscuous, prideful to a fault, agenda-pushers, stumbling blocks to ourselves and others, sheep gone astray. Such misrepresentation by family and community is a primary driver of the alienation that queer people experience. However, many non-affirming Christians correlate LGBTQ identity with suffering and exclusion without considering the roots of that suffering and exclusion.
Zora wrote about one such misunderstanding in Coming Out on Campus: her pastor, Mel, saw that her coming-out process was painful, but he wrongfully misattributed Zora’s unhappiness to her identity rather than the forceful exclusion she experienced from his interpretation of Christianity.
Queer Christians often live happy and healthy lives. In sharing our story, we hope to make explicit the good fruit born out of queer relationships that strive for Christ’s example of love. Ours is a story you’re welcome to share.
Refrain from calling individuals homophobes. Instead, focus on behavior and impact.
Although non-affirming Christians frequently exhibit homophobia, many don’t see themselves as homophobes. An accusation against character can veer quickly into an argument about character, in which the accused feels victimized by an impassioned ally or queer individual. And someone who feels victimized is rarely in a position to listen to the perceived threat.
Instead, focus a discussion about dangerous theology or hurtful rhetoric on the behavior that occurred and the impact that it had. Recall the offending behavior or language and describe the impact. Here’s an example:
“Earlier you said that Christians should avoid having gay friends because those friends will be a stumbling block (impediment) to their faith. That really hurt me, because one of my close friends is gay, and their love and passion for racial justice has inspired me to learn more about the racial and ethnic dynamics at play in Jesus’ ministry.”
A message like this one – comprised of a factual description of behavior and a personal testimony of impact – is much more likely to result in a changed heart.
The responses above share a theme of reinserting humanity into the midst of disembodied talking points. The humanity of queer folks in light of who God is – and a divinity in question by non-affirming Christians – must remain central in any discussion of queerness. Humanity and divinity are not targets of judgment to be given or withheld; they are innate qualities deserving of celebration. We can do far better than to plead for judgment withheld. We are witnesses to the case for something more.
I believe we can build a bigger table and dream a bigger kindom – one where queer folks are not limited to the outer gates of tolerance and welcome. Speak instead the good news of a God who celebrates the spectrums of sexuality and gender that God themselves created.
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