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Working from hope, not fear

I wrote this piece as an op-ed over the summer, but it wasn’t quite right for a general-audience newspaper, and then I never came back to it.  

From my own home state (North Carolina), to the hub of all things cosmopolitan and progressive (New York), headlines beg for an answer to a basic question facing people who call themselves Christian.  How should we struggle over the question of same-sex marriage?  My suggestion is simple.  I appeal to my brothers and sisters in the faith to work out of a place of hope, rather than fear.

We live in fearful times. Will there be enough jobs to go around?  Will there be enough food for every hungry mouth?  Is there enough affection to shield each person from the misery of loneliness?  Will my own precious children be able to find their next paycheck, much less fully engage their beautifully unique, God given gifts?  In the mix of uncertain times, I recommend a basic, somewhat counter-intuitive stance of trust.  Another helpful concept is solidarity, which involves our working from the assumption that we are (as in the words of one popular teen movie song) “all in this together,” working with some vital, embodied goods in common.   This working assumption may allow people to risk conversation with neighbors whose position on sexuality they find confusing, or even frightening.

With two wars and a careening economy, many of us want a version of Christianity that functions as a splint.  A splint holds together what is broken, and some people, feeling broken, wish for a stiff sense of moral purpose.  Put slightly differently, many Christians want a form of faith that provides us with a steely resolve and clear, unchanging steps leading to a goal of definitive victory.  We want clarity, not ambiguity.  I suggest that true conversation about gay and lesbian marriage exists right in this crux of trust, even in the midst of what feels like grave, moral risk.  True dialogue will involve not only a definitive text to which we appeal in common – that is, Holy Scripture – but also the sense that we may genuinely attend to one another as we each interpret the words stitched together there.  This concept of “attention” comes from moral philosopher Simone Weil, who suggests that reading texts closely involves a kind of love that risks being penetrated by a truth that isn’t of our making.  This kind of love may vivify Christian conversations about Scripture itself.  While it may sound dangerous, or overly sentimental, the notion that my neighbor has something to share with me about God’s Word is, well . . . fundamental, not only to Protestants but to many Catholics in the United States who were catechized after Vatican II.

In order to be honest to my own writing and teaching on sexuality in the South (which, “New” or not, is still a unique yet also indicative region), I must say something about race.  Some of my most beloved students have used a tragically loaded word regarding homosexuality: “abomination.”   While I have had LGBTQ students who are African-American, the only students to have used this expression of moral disgust in my classes at Duke have been African-American.  This issue is potent for many Christians, but, in my experience, some African-American Christians believe that homosexuality is a live threat to the very hard-won work of heterosexual monogamy.   There is a historical context behind this, however.  To accept homosexuality as a fact of God’s creation, rather than as a sign of humanity’s fall, feels to some African-American Christians to capitulate a fact of Scripture:  God ordained man and woman to be together.  This fact gave lie to the unspeakable horror of the auction block, the shattering separations of families under slavery.  In southern states, some politicians have seized on this potential fissure in the body politic.  They are appealing to African-American Christians and other disenfranchised Christians (such as unemployed, rural, working class men) to react from fear rather than trust.  Here in North Carolina, this has taken the form of suggesting that “those” outsiders who have come in from outside the state are taking scarce resources we need to keep our families alive.  By linking a fear of strangers and a fear of sexual chaos, some in the religious right seem to be gaining ground.

I am a Christian of a very Jesus-centered sort.  Jesus gives me courage during uncertain times, courage to believe that a few loaves and fishes can, with faith, feed multitudes.  But that faith requires us to trust one another a bit more than we are generally inclined to do. Rather than look from side to side, with envy and fear, we are called to look at one another in the face and hear, listen, discover the stories of those who are lesbian or gay in our neighborhoods, churches, schools.  Are some forces in your own state trying to divide you up by way of fear, playing on your hearts with a message of hate and of scarcity?   Are their messages working on your best or your worst spiritual impulses?  Please don’t let the voices of fear win.  Brothers and sisters in the faith, choose love. It is more powerful even than fear.  Find a space of calm in which to trust that God does, indeed, have sufficient control over the beautiful universe to allow for a conversation with someone whose life you believe to be morally chaotic, even threatening to your own existence.  Don’t let those selling fear on the cheap buy your hearts.

  • Jason Oliver Evans

    Dr. Hall,

    I welcome your words of encouragement. I also would like to offer this perspective. In conversations regarding the blessing of same-sex marriage in the Church, the debates fall into two clearly defined categories: the conservative (read evangelical heterosexuals) who oppose it, and the liberal/progressives (read LGBT and straight allies) who are for it.  Whenever this conversation is publicly discussed at our beloved institution the liberal/progressive arguments are clearly represented (generally we have invited LGBT Christian leaders and straight allies).  But what about those who find themselves in a tension of sorts, namely those who acknowledge their sexual orientation as homosexual but who hold a “traditional” position? When will their voices be heard? When can we have a conversation when all God’s children can be heard, even when it isn’t most convenient for our agendas? Blessings! 

    • Kara N. Slade (admin)

      This is actually from ALH, who emailed this comment to me (we are still working some of the details out here):

      Dear Jason,
      First of all, I apologize for the delay.   I will try to be more prompt in responding to comments on this blog.  I do hear you about agendas.  I know that there can be a battle mentality over this issue in any given church or faith community.  I also hear you regarding our own context, where there are way too many battles going on of various sorts.  There is a one side versus the other side situation, and I hear you that some Christians just don’t fit in with either side, and they instead live in the tension of the in-between of progressive/traditional arguments.  Here is my best answer to you at this time.  The conservatives and liberals who argue over this issue are arguing over the lives of real people.  We are arguing over real people who, I believe, are called to live into the truth God created for them.  I don’t know how to write this answer without being also very personal.  Homosexuality isn’t an “issue” for me as much as it is a reality for people I love.  Homosexuality isn’t an “it” to argue over but a struggle for dear friends who know their bodies to be marked in ways that make them, in our culture, different from the set norms.  And I have watched as too many young lives have become twisted around as young gay or lesbian Christians have tried to make themselves fit into heterosexuality.  I know this answer is not going to satisfy, and I am sorry for that.  But I really believe that celibacy is a calling, a unique calling, and not a calling to which gays or lesbians are summoned by default.  I don’t believe God creates gay and lesbian children with an intent toward creating holy celibates.  I think the calling to celibacy is separate altogether from one’s holy, created sexual identity.  Put simply, some gay and lesbian Christians have been called into holy celibacy, but it is not a given calling that just comes with their created sexual identity.  (I hope that this makes some sense.)  And I am definitely, totally against programs that try to recreate gay and lesbian people into heterosexual people.  I am against these programs because I believe they are destructive.  There are people in God’s beautiful creation who are able to fall into romantic love with a person whether they are male or female.  Those people are usually called bi-sexual.  But there are many people who realize by the time they are teenagers that they are clearly created loving people of the same sex.  And asking them to pray to be recreated as heterosexual is, I believe, asking them to pray against the beautiful way God has made them in the first place.  I don’t believe homosexuality is a sickness over which someone needs to be prayed, but a created gift about which the church needs to find ways to celebrate.  So, I encourage all the same support systems for gay and lesbian people who are dating and need discernment over their best life-long partner, their fidelity, and their calling to hospitality toward others outside their household.  Here I would recommend the third section of Eugene Rogers’s book Sexuality and the Christian Body. He narrates beautifully there what it would look like to take gay and lesbian holiness seriously in the church.  So, long answer, and probably a dissatisfying one to many readers.  I hope the conversation can continue.  Blessings!  Amy Laura

  • Sharon Hodde Miller

    Dr. Hall, I am so glad you are blogging. You continue to challenge the way I see the world and my faith in very necessary ways.

    I have not read Simone Weil but I wonder if you would recommend one or two or her works. Her language reminds me of Scriptural language about the church, one body of diverse yet inter-dependent parts, and I would like to explore that further.

    Looking forward to future posts. 🙂

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