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.