Monday, July 28, 2014

Guidelines for Being an Ally

I have always craved structure and rules. Rules gave me targets to reach in my Christian and academic pursuits. If I could read my Bible and pray for 30 minutes a day, then I would be a good Christian. As early as elementary school, I learned how to study and take tests in order to obtain the highest grade, regardless if I actually learned the material or not. I was that kid who scowled at the other kids who were less than respectful to the substitute teacher.

Soon, though, life got messy. By the time I was in high school, I was asking questions like: How does this Holy Spirit thing actually work? How am I supposed to live in the power of the Spirit and not the flesh? Should I just go limp like a marionette and let the Spirit pull the strings?!

To what end am I reading my Bible and praying for 30 minutes a day?

What is the actual moment of “saving faith”? What moment in time was my name written in the Book of Life? And if God predestined my soul to its eternal fate anyway, why does it matter if I do the quiet time routine?

As a young man coming to terms with being gay, I tried to navigate all the rules about sex and sexuality. Praying in a locked bathroom: I’m sorry God, I promise this is the last time. Then, later: Please don’t let me be gay, God. PLEASE. Still later: Help me to find my fulfillment in You as I sexually abstain.

Eventually I abandoned the rules of evangelical theology and the rules of evangelical behavior. There were too many questions and inconsistencies, and it was too hard to live up to the expected behavior. Abandoning these rules was important not only for my mental health, but also for my spiritual growth.

These days, I look toward the person of Christ and rely on the Spirit of God in a very non-rules-oriented way. God is too big; creation is too complex; human beings who bear the image of God reflect this complexity. I find value in the practice of Christianity through the teachings of Christ regarding love, justice, and mercy.

Lately, though, I’ve feel like I’ve been bumping up against a new set of rules. I’m not talking about guidelines for ethical behavior, such as the Golden Rule (or the Platinum Rule, which I believe is implied in the Golden Rule). No. I’m talking about hard and fast RULES of thought and behavior. Rules that dictate language. Rules that dictate discussion and interaction with others. Some rules are simply understood; others are explicitly recorded and practiced.

The best example I know regarding this type of rule-based practice is a chart titled Rules for ALLY CLUB (found here). This chart is intended for those who wish to support the marginalized and oppressed, to communicate the need of lifting their voices and letting them be seen, rather than taking center stage as an ally.

I understand the intention. I also understand that hyperbole can be used as an effective teaching and communication tool.

It still bothers the shit out of me.

So I decided to do something about it. I have created a companion piece Rules for ALLY CLUB called Guidelines for Being an Ally. As a gay person, I need people from all walks of life to not only be supportive, but knowledgeable about the struggles facing the LGBT community, and how these struggles intersect with other marginalized people and groups. I believe the Guidelines below communicate a more reasonable (and kind!) approach toward those who wish to support, learn, and love.

Rules for ALLY CLUB Guidelines for Being an Ally
You do not talk in ALLY CLUB. Actively listen to those who are marginalized and oppressed.
You DO NOT TALK in ALLY CLUB. Amplify the voices of the marginalized and oppressed.
If a marginalized person says STOP, the argument is over. When there is disagreement, do not continue to debate the point of disagreement if the marginalized person does not wish to do so. The voices of the marginalized should take precedent.
Ganging up on marginalized people and/or their blogs with a bunch of your privileged buddies means you’re out of ALLY CLUB. If marginalized people come after you in droves? YOU’VE FUCKED UP. APOLOGIZE. DON’T EXPECT TO BE FORGIVEN. Be ready and willing to apologize if a marginalized/oppressed person takes offense, even if you feel misunderstood. Be willing to hear stories, frustrations, complaints, and challenges with thick skin and open heart.
If you ping a bunch of marginalized people with the same bullshit “honest question, guise!” then you’re out of ALLY CLUB and automatically inducted into TROLL CLUB. Do as much education and research on marginalization and oppression as you can before asking questions. Reserve your questions for those with whom you have established trusted relationships.
No “what about me,” no “but privileged people don’t have perfect lives, either.” Wrestle with your own privilege with trusted advisors later; when acting as an ally, focus your attention and energy on the marginalized and oppressed.
If you fuck with marginalized people you do not get to say when the argument is over. It’s over when the marginalized people you fucked with say it’s over. If you’ve deeply hurt a marginalized person (intentionally or unintentionally), actively and willingly listen to the reasons why.
If this is your first time reading a social justice blog run by a certain group of marginalized people, DO NOT SUBMIT SHIT. Always favor listening and learning over speaking and teaching, especially if you are new to a community.


We need strong, uncompromising voices to lift up the marginalized and oppressed, and we need those who will listen and amplify our own voices. But I truly believe we ALSO need to understand that human beings are complex. There is a time for anger and powerful action, but surely—SURELY—there is also a time for patience and kindness.

What do you think?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

How to Protest Same-Sex Marriage

To: Christians in the United States who oppose same-sex marriage

As legal barriers to same-sex marriage continue to topple, I thought about the term "marriage" and what that word means to you. Having once been a conservative Christian, I can empathize with the angst you feel as this instituion you hold as sacred is subverted by our federal and state governments.

But...wait a minute. Why is a sacred institution--some of you would say a sacrament--certified by secular government anyway? Should Christians with a traditional view of marriage even care how secular government defines marriage?

With this in mind, let me offer you a form of protest that would go much further than hunger strikes, political activism, or online petitions. Or even better than refusing mail that has a stamp with the photo of a well-known gay activist.

If you are married, immediately divorce or have your marriage annulled. If you are single and plan to get married someday, don't bother with a marriage license. Get married in your church in the eyes of God.

I'm not kidding. If you wish to show those who disagree with you that you are serious about your commitment to traditional marriage, do what I suggest above. Separating your marriage from any involvement with the State immediately sets you apart from what the State defines as marriage.

Another benefit to this form of protest is that it shows your opponents that you do not care about government entitlements to married people. It shows that you are willing to sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of your principles. It's one thing to tell same-sex couples not to marry because it is sinful. It's quite another to be willing to walk in their shoes by denying yourselves the rights that you currently hold.

Protesting same-sex marriage in this way wouldn't change my mind on the topic, but you would earn my respect. It would show me that you are willing to live out the principles that you believe, and that your commitment to Christ and his kingdom (as you see it) far outweighs your rights and privileges as a straight person in the United States.

Sincerely,
Kevin

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Saturday Christians

"Don't speed through today to get to Easter Sunday. Allow the work God does in and through the darkness to get done." – Scott Emery

Saturday is the day of Holy Week I can relate to the most. It’s the day after everything falls apart but before the happy ending. For me, Saturday represents the Shadow of Christianity. Even though I believe the God of Love exists, the reality on the ground still devastates. There is so much evil, so much injustice, so much horror, and so much non-love.

Throughout history, there have been institutions and people who identify as Christians binding the wounded and shining light in the darkness. But that Shadow—damn. Just as often (dare I say more often), they have been silent or have enabled or have perpetrated the very evil that Christ came to overcome.

The Problem of Evil contributed to the gradual death of my childhood faith. It was an earnest faith, but it was one that I sought to control. Eventually, I found myself wrestling not only with the Problem of Evil, but also my sexuality, scientific data, and the dark side of church history. I lost the wrestling match, and limped away like Jacob. All seemed lost. I was a loser of the faith, one of those types of seeds in the parable that didn’t make it to full growth.

Still, I cling to hope. Hope that all is not lost. Hope that Love exists and grows and expands. Hope that the God of Love is there. My hope is nurtured not when I hear loud worship or fiery preaching or persuasive theology. My hope is nurtured when I see moments of human vulnerability, kindness, empathy, and tenderness. At this point in my journey, faith looks a lot more like hope than belief.

When hope is all you have left, then you are a Saturday Christian. Good Friday is over. Sunday is yet to come. But as Scott Emery implies in the quote above, we need to travel through this darkness. Put another way, we need to have our immature faith wrenched from our white-knuckled grip. Only then can resurrection come. As a Saturday Christian, that is my only hope.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bridges over Troubled Waters

In Portland, Oregon, twelve bridges span across the Willamette River, which divides the city into East and West. Portland has many nicknames (City of Roses, Stumptown, Portlandia, Rip City) but one of the more common ones is Bridgetown.

My first memory of Portland was when my partner and I drove into downtown via the Burnside Bridge. It was around midnight, and we were finishing the third full day of driving from Ohio. We were exhasted and cranky, but I'll never forget seeing that neon Made in Oregon sign with the throwback font and the galloping white stag.

That move to Portland is symbolic of my own spiritual journey: over the years I've transitioned from a conservative evangelical worldview to a much more progressive Christian agnostic worldview. The symbolism doesn't end there, however. More importantly, that vivid memory of crossing the bridge reminds me of my specific calling as a bridge builder.

What exactly is bridge building? First of all, let me emphasize what it is not. Bridge building does not mean compromise. When you build a bridge, you are building a bridge to a person. You are saying: I may disagree with you on x, y, z, and more, but you and I are more than our opinions and ideas. We are both image-bearers and bonded together in our humanity. It means finding a connection. Common ground. Bridge building is one of the many incarnations of Love.

But I realized something, just recently. In the greatly diverse and mysterious Body of Christ, we are all bridge builders. Personally, I feel called to bridge the gap between progressive Christians and those who I call "potential allies" - those who have honest questions, doubts, and fears regarding faith and sexuality. But those I who I would label progressive activists are actually bridge builders too. They are building bridges with people that no one else could reach--they fiercely stand in solidarity those who are marginalized by society, by the church, and by other power structures that most of us struggle to see. Still others build bridges with those who have suffered horrific abuse from family members, church authorities, spouses, acquaintances, and strangers.

Recently, there has been talk of many Christians abandoning the "evangelical" label once and for all. As someone who abandoned that label years ago, I welcome this news. However, as necessary as it may be to leave the label behind, it still leaves many others feeling caught, abandoned, even betrayed. It takes someone with a unique calling to build bridges across this divide.

Across the spectrum of what we label as Left and Right there are multiple divides. I believe we each have a unique calling to stand in one (or more) of these multiple divides. I also believe these divides are symptoms of our world's Chaos, rather than the cause of it. Divides are inevitable and often necessary. But as we struggle againsts the "principalities and powers" of this Chaos, let's not forget our own specific calling to build bridges to people across the divide we find ourselves. In that sense, the church can be a spiritual Bridgetown.

What about you? Do you feel a specific calling as bridge builder? If so, to whom?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Enough

I haven't written in quite a while. I haven't gone to church in quite a while. I find myself ill-equipped to climb the Mountain, which seems to get steeper and smoother, with fewer footholds available.

The Mountain represents the person I want to be, or at least the characteristics I think I need to have in order to be a person of worth.

There are plenty of voices that cheer me on. But the chorus of voices who tell me that I'm Not Enough have all but silenced the other voices. The Not Enough chorus, although their voices come from a variety of locations, chant in unison. The phrase "sphere of influence" is apt, because the voices come from every conceivable direction. From the Right (conservative Christianity), from the Left (progressive Christianity), from above (privileged white American men), from below (the marginalized and justly angry), and every other 3-dimensional direction. It's eerie how such disparate voices can combine so effortlessly to say the same thing loudly and clearly: you are Not Enough.

*****

Another Sunday morning. Another day skipping church. Another day not writing. So I decided to try something.

On a piece of paper, I wrote down as many Not Enoughs as I could. Then I cut each Not Enough into a small strip of paper. From the kitchen I grabbed a bowl, a big glass of water, and some scissors. Finally, I grabbed the color-changing Glade candle I use when someone asks me to pray for something. (I don't really have it in me to pray anymore. Instead, I think of that person and light a candle for them.)



I lit the candle, and placed the first Not Enough strip into the flame. At first, the paper burned too quickly and once or twice I almost burned my fingers. After about the fifth or sixth try, I was getting the hang of it. I placed the strip of paper not into the flame, but very close to it. The paper ignited quickly, but the flame danced across the strip of paper slower than before. It gave me a chance to reflect briefly on the Not Enough that was burning up.



I'm not going to pretend that it was a life-changing experience, or even that I felt all that better afterwards. But it was something. It was church for me today.



*****

Next Sunday I want to try it again. Next time, I want to think about each Not Enough a little longer before I burn it. I want to reflect on why I think I'm Not _____________ Enough. I don't want to give up trying to be _______________. But I want to give up feeling stuck because I'm not ______________ enough.

My Not Enough list: not kind enough, not loving enough, not empathetic enough, not smart enough, not brave enough, not strong enough, not intersectional enough, not Christ-like enough, not queer enough, not talented enough, not giving enough, not forgiving enough, not good-looking enough, not muscular enough, not thin enough, not athletic enough, not thick-skinned enough, not hard-working enough, not open-minded enough, not quiet enough, not successful enough, not calm enough, not patient enough

In what ways do you feel you are Not Enough?



Monday, December 23, 2013

Margi-Privileged

 Driving to work, I caught my reflection in the rear-view mirror...

The dark circles, the wrinkles, the blemished skin, the almost completely-gray hair. Well, at least I HAVE hair. In fact I have an over-abundance of it. On my back, shoulders, and...well...everywhere. Oh well. Another year older. But am I wiser?

I don't know if I'm wiser, but I have learned a lot this year by blogging and interacting with readers and other bloggers on social media. There are too many takeaways from 2013 for me to list. The one that has stayed with me the most is the concept of privilege.

I have wrestled with this word. It makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to own my privilege, because that means I have to be more vigilant of my words and actions. It compels me to be aware of those who have less privilege. It sheds light on injustice, oppression, and abuse. It makes me sad, and who wants to be sad?

The struggle with owning my privilege has been similar to the stuggle with owning my sexuality. As a gay person, I felt the need to guard my words and actions. Now that I am in an environment that is affirming and loving, I don't feel the compulsion to hide.

Here is the irony: part of owning my privilege means that, once again, I am being asked to guard my words and actions.

So, how does someone who has experienced marginalization--someone who has fought a lifelong battle to be open and honest and unashamed--deal with this ironic twist of also having a great amount of privilege? Ah, the plight of the margi-privileged*!

I don't have the definitive answer, but I can share my techniques and experiences with you. Maybe it will give you some ideas.

Don't get hung up on others' anger, tone, or "lack of grace."
When I first came out, I felt like a wounded animal. I had exposed a very deep part of myself to people that I knew would have a problem with it. Although all responded with good intent, some of the less careful responses hurt horribly. Because of the vulnerability I felt, I lashed out in anger. I know that my angry words hurt them, but I needed them to know how their words, however well-intentioned, hurt me. Most people were critical of how I responded, which hurt even more. Now, just imagine how someone who has been a victim of abuse feels when they lash out at their abusers, and are told that their response was "unhelpful."

Remember critique is not the same as personal attack.
I've had to tell myself this over and over again. For example, even though I wasn't involved in the NALT project, I felt that the critique given by some queer Christians (and non-Christians) was harsh. I internalized their critique; I felt that they were criticizing ME because I thought (and still think) that NALT is useful and helpful. But...I have come to understand that they aren't attacking me by disagreeing with me. They are offering an honest critique. Instead of telling people how to critique, the best thing I can do in this case is to (1) urge the people at NALT to listen to the words of their critique, (2) get involved to make positive change, and (3) offer encouragement to them.

If told to "check your privilege" or something similar, check your marginalization as well.
I truly believe that some of the conflict I experience around this issue is that when I'm given a critique, experience disagreement, or feel attacked, I am reliving my own marginalization. So, when this occurs, I check both my privilege AND my marginalization. Am I being marginalized because I do not fit a societal norm? Or, am I getting pushback from someone who is feeling marginalized by me? Could this person be experiencing anxiety and/or pain due to past hurts?

Be the change you want to see.
This has become my mantra. For all the talk this year of fundamentalism, post-modernism, grace, truth, oppression, abuse, tone, privilege, marginalization, and so many others, I can't control other people's reactions, responses, or critiques. The only person I can control is myself. I'm commanded to love; not to instruct others on the way I think they should love.

Use it as another opportunity to run to God.
Often I have felt deflated, depressed, discouraged, and disillusioned with what I've learned, seen, and experienced on social media and blogging. I've often wanted to give up on Christianity altogether. However, I can bring all of these conflicted emotions--including my disgust for Christianity--to God. I bring both my marginalization and my privilege--and all associated feelings--to God.

I can't emphasize enough that these techniques are what I'm trying to do in my OWN life. I don't want to give the impression that these techniques are the solution to conflict, disunity, dealing with abuse and oppression, etc. If anything, I'm writing this to those who are privileged and find themselves confused or frustrated with pushback from those less privileged. Remember that "to much is given, much is required." Remember Jesus, who gave everything--even his life--for all of us. Remember the Kingdom of God, where the first is last and the last is first.

What do you think? Critiques welcome here! I've much to learn.



*Thanks to Karla Keffer for coining this term!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Blessed Are They That Mourn

"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." - Matthew 5:4

When I was living and working in Toledo, Ohio in my mid-20s, I often had lunch at this large, cafeteria-style restaurant downtown. Patrons would load their trays and sit in a large atrium filled with tables, booths, and a lot of potted ferns. The food was lousy, but the big plants surrounding each table made it an ideal place for conversation.

That atrium is burned in my memory. There, I confessed my crisis of faith to my pastor. It’s where I almost came out to who-knows-how-many people. It’s where I sat listening to co-workers talk about “hot girls” and dating, while I parroted the expected responses and tried to change the subject. It’s where I sat alone unable to think straight (let alone pray), mind swirling with doubt, confusion, fear, and disillusionment.

One particular lunch I remember sitting with my friend Charlie, trying to explain those paralyzing feelings of doubt and confusion. I felt safe with Charlie. Charlie was in his early 40s, a handful of inches above 6 feet, bearded, loud, passionate, and extremely kind. He listened to my awkward explanation, and then said: “Do you know that verse ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’”?

"Yeah."

“Mourning means to get on the outside that which is inside,” pointing to his heart.

“Um, OK. What does that mean exactly?”

“I’m just saying that’s what you are trying to do right now. You are in pain, and you are trying to identify and express it.”

Charlie’s words rang true. Part of me wanted to keep those emotions buried, to pretend everything was alright, and to keep playing the part of Kevin Shoop, mild-mannered evangelical Christian dude. But I couldn’t. His words encouraged me not to “rest in the Lord” or stop struggling, but to keep digging.

I struggled internally, in part, because I was wrestling with my sexuality. I knew I was gay, but I was taught it was open rebellion against God to succumb to the temptation. The “temptation” was not only to act on these sexual desires, but to identify as a gay person. So, I slogged through various ways to change my sexual orientation and/or commit to a life of celibacy (fervent prayer, ex-gay therapy, workbooks, Bible meditation, etc.).

During this time of struggle, Charlie’s words would come back to me now and then. “Blessed are they that mourn....” Years later, as I began to understand and embrace my sexual identity, it dawned on me: coming out is a form of mourning. Blessed are they that get on the outside that which is inside.

*************

There is loss when someone decides to come out: family, friends, old belief systems, well-worn masks. We mourn all these losses. We also mourn "lost time"— compassion for the child/person who genuinely thought they were broken and desperate for change. But there is comfort in becoming more whole and authentic. Genuine growth and healing are possible.

Please note: Coming out is no easy task. In no way should an individual be forced or shamed to come out before they are ready. Some must choose between coming out and physical/economic safety. Please see this post for more on this topic.

Today, as a gay man no longer caught up in that specific internal struggle, I’ve had more energy and clarity to focus on oppression outside of my own story. If one is able to open one's eyes and ears to the real suffering caused by social and economic injustice, one cannot help but mourn. We mourn the horror on the daily news. We mourn for the church—for evil done in God’s name in the past and present. We mourn the jarring inconsistency between Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of God and the reality on the ground.

A friend of mine recently demonstrated this type of mourning. A woman he knew shared her concern that some Christian churches were beginning to affirm same-sex relationships. She told him, "I'm glad you and I see it the same way, at least." He didn't say anything to confirm or deny her statement, and afterward felt awash in sadness, guilt, and weariness. He was mourning not only his inability at that time to say something, but also the widespread view that so many Christians have about same-sex relationships. Feeling that pain—mourning it—becomes similar to that other beatitude: to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Mourning moves us to cry out to God in our weakness. Hunger and thirst drive us to right the wrongs we mourn from day to day.

I'm convinced that mourning is a discipline. It’s what we do when we have true empathy; when we begin to see with the eyes of God those who are oppressed. Holy mourning inevitably leads to a hunger and thirst for righteousness. It drives us to work toward Kingdom ideals. It also drives us to seek refuge, relief, strength, and courage from God.