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Theology is discourse which seeks to give understanding of God and God’s relation to all of God’s creation. The task of Christian theology, specifically, seeks to render an intelligible account of the triune God’s acts in human history in the person of Jesus Christ.  Christian theologians engage in critical reflection upon the doctrines, texts, and practices of Christian traditions.  While Christian theology is essential to Christian faith and witness, modern Christian theologians are painfully aware of  many Christians’ suspicion of theology. Many Christians find theology to be highly speculative and obscures the task of Christian mission. Moreover, many Christians find that academic theologians are far removed from the lived experiences of those whom the Churches are called to proclaim good news i.e. the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Regardless of the fact that all Christians engage in theology, lay Christians and many church leaders find that theology is the privilege of an intellectual elite.

Theological reflection in all of its diversity (practical, speculative, moral, dogmatic, and so forth) is a matter of interpretation. We (specifically persons of Christian faith) all come to the task of interpreting our faith with biases–personal experiences, various levels of education and different forms of knowledge. We have various points of reference and hold fast to principles of interpreting Scripture and other texts in our traditions which are influenced by our social locations and our various identities. Sometimes our minds change, for better and/or worse, on matters that affect all of us–war, sexual ethics and sexuality, violence, economics, environment, liturgical practices, and so forth. We inevitably disagree on these matters. Sometimes respectfully. Many times violently. We call for debates, yet some, especially those in power and with privilege, dominate these discussions while others are silenced. We passionately claim that lives of all of God’s children are at stake in “weightier matters.” Our beliefs, and the subsequent actions which reinforce our beliefs, impacts the lives of many people.

To bring it home, Christians around the world are waging socio-political theological wars surrounding issues related to gender and sexuality.  As the United States (seemingly) shifts more left towards full acceptance of LGBTIQ and their families, Christians who are traditional on matters on sexual ethics and marriage are confronted by a generation who finds such positions as veiled bigotry, hatred, ignorance, and fear of the “Other.”   Evangelical Christian colleges do not know how to handle the truth that many of their students are coming out of the closet as LGBTIQ despite their heteronormative culture.   Self-identified gay evangelical Christians are challenging the biblical interpretations that condemn homosexuality as “sinful.”  One can sincerely read these challenges from LGBTIQ persons of faith as the final manifestation of the “spirit of the age.” However, historically, it shows that Christians have never completely agreed on any so-called “weighty” matters, even sexuality.  I would dare venture to suggest that the rise of LGBTIQ and other marginalized Christian challenges the socio-economic and political privilege of white, European-American, heterosexual males’ political and ecclesiastical power to mediate the divine.   The voices of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTIQ within Christian theology reminds us of that theology is an ongoing conversation and engagement with our respective traditions, not a mindless regurgitation or repetition.  These “marginal” theological voices also remind us that God cares for the oppressed of the earth and privileges those own the margins of the society.  Theology must include all voices. Theological discernment is a communal practice.  Yet, as teachers of the faith, theologians are given the task, I believe, to help guide the churches into understanding what we believe and to critically examine if our practices and our beliefs are faithful to the gospel.

It’s easy for traditional Christians to dismiss challenging, uncomfortable views of others as not “biblical” and heterodox.  One can appeal to certain passages in Scripture as proof-texts to protect oneself against the onslaught of “false doctrines.”   However, a truly courageous faith will risk the privilege of being right by engaging with God’s beloved creatures and enter into their space to listen to their voices and hear the cries of hurting people.  Faithfulness to God’s Word embodied in Jesus means following Jesus into the depths of people’s pain and listen, discern, and trust that God’s Spirit will guide us into all truth.  For whatever reason, we may not come to an agreement with our theological conversation partners on everything that can be imagined.  However, we must divest ourselves with the idolatrous quest to “stand upon the Word.”  Instead, we need to realize that we all stand under the Word. The Word confronts us of all and exposes our biases, our interests, our blind spots.  We need to fully surrender to the authority of the Word and Spirit and humble ourselves. We may not be right about our interpretations of texts and definitely are not ethically just in our dealings with people with whom we disagree.   This is good news.  The Word judges us and gives us grace.   Theology as “faith seeking understanding” seeks to faithfully convey this message. I guess, what I’m trying to say is this: if love is not at the core and the driving force to engaging in theology with others, than theology is idolatrous and demonic. If we seek to silence those who are different than us and who understand themselves in a way that’s different that we do, then theology does not serve the living and true God, but our sinful interests.

 

I sometimes wonder how long I will consider myself an evangelical Christian.  I was raised within an African-American Baptist family who did not use this nomenclature at all.  As Baptists, we generally believed what any evangelical would believe regarding the centrality of Christ and the cross, biblical authority, the born again experience, and spreading the “good news.”  I did not hear of the term evangelical until I encountered white evangelical Christians in college.  We shared some of the similar beliefs concerning God, Jesus Christ, and the Christian Scriptures.  So I happily embraced the term “evangelical,” especially after my participation in both InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and my alma mater’s large college evangelical ministry.  However, I was challenged by the Eurocentric and conservative political imperialism of the group.  I felt like I had to give up my sense of blackness in order to be a true “Bible-believing” Christian.  Fortunately, I came across an essay which was written by my current pastor and Duke University theologian William C. Turner, Jr. that freed me to embrace evangelical faith as an African-American without imbibing the political and social imagination of my conservative white counterparts.  Although I could easily reconcile my racial identity with my faith commitments, my sexuality continued to present an existential dilemma.

During college, I hid my sexual attractions from everyone. Everyone! I sat in conferences with evangelical lecturers denouncing homosexuality and defending the institution of heterosexual marriage.  I heard fiery black preachers dismiss gay men as “sissies” and “faggots” who are “running rampant in the church.”  I watched countless religious media that featured preachers charging the faithful stand up for “moral clarity” on behalf of a “Christian” nation that was embarking on the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage.  Despite my rigorous consumption of “ex-gay” literature, my research on the debates on homosexuality and Christianity, my constant silent prayers to God to “remove” that which I did not name, and my struggle to abstain from pornography, I remained what I feared.

After college, I attended two prominent seminaries. My first year in seminary compelled me to come out of the closet the following year.  I interacted with students from all walks of life—Christian, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, black, white, Latino, Asian, gay, straight, bisexual—all who came to seminary seeking to understand various aspects of the Christian traditions.  I was confronted with the “issues” of homosexuality and the Black Church on several occasions, some of which I brought up because I feared that no one was listening or talking at all.  I’ve taken various classes on theology, ethics, and biblical studies. I’ve discussed and debated with folks.  I moved to Atlanta and confronted myself through my interaction and budding friendship with openly black gay and lesbian people.  I freed myself to question everything that I believed about homosexuality theologically, and I, by God’s grace, learned to embrace existence without shame. However, intellectually, I still have issues accepting if the Scriptures and the Churches are “wrong” on same-sex sex or relationships.

Can I be “gay” and “evangelical”? To many ears, that would be a paradox or a blunt contradiction.  I’ve heard and read many protestations from conservative Christians, but it’s from the other side where I receive the most challenge as I hold on to evangelical faith.  My social media newsfeeds feature posts from black queer scholar-activists who actively critique the Black Church–engaging its theologies–and calling for radical institutional and theological changes on behalf African-American LGBTIQ people, some of which are professing Christians who remain within mainline African-American Christian denominations.   Scholars like Darnell L. Moore, a self-identified queer scholar, lecturer, and activist, constantly challenge black queer Christians, if they are to remain within the Black Church, to not only to adopt a critical hermeneutic of suspicion against the Church’s “traditional” theologies (read: heterosexist, homophobic, transphobic, body-denying, dualistic, etc.) but also to do theology “from below”—drawing from their concrete lived experiences in engagement with “life-affirming” scriptural texts and church (and non-Christian) traditions.

Moreover, Moore also proposes that queer Christians adopt a posture of “righteous rage” against “oppressive structures that seek to kill our senses of being-in-the-world.”[i] Like many contemporary theologians, Moore understands the nature of theology as inherently contextual. Moore protests the “universalizing theology” of institutional churches that often “takes the form of imperialized God-talk” which legitimates the status quo of both church and society that subsequently mutes the voices of those marginalized from the theological discussion.[ii] Thus, universalizing theology is “violent theology” in that it denies the existence of queer people and other folks whose narratives do not align with the majority narrative; violent theology produces an “Other” which majority Christians perpetuate; for the sake of the full actualized inclusion of LGBTIQ people in the life of the churches, Moore galvanizes queer Christians to loudly engage in theologizing toward radical change.

Moore and others present a real challenge that forces me out of any sense of “neutrality.” After reading work like his, I constantly ask myself, “Who am I for?” “How can I remain within this institution and believe what my oppressors believe?” “How can I sit back and watch black LGBTIQ people despair and die (literally!) while many silently dismiss or loudly damn our existence?” These questions daily haunt me. I question whether I have deeply imbibed the self-hatred I think I’ve left behind in Atlanta. I don’t know.  At times, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to challenge my evangelical conscience, testing the limits I will go to change my mind.   Yet I keep buoying back to my central core beliefs. Admittedly, some of the way I once believed about sexuality has changed from the dualistic anthropology that I’ve imbibed in my childhood to a more monistic, integrated understanding of human nature drawing from Scripture, tradition, contemporary disciplines of psychology and philosophy. I respect the right of everyone to live according to their own self-understanding.  As far as how Christian Churches can sustain difference within not only theology but actual lives that do not fit the traditional visions of Christian sexual embodiment is the fundamental theological question of the day. African-American churches still have yet to take on this rigorous, crucial task. Many lives are counting on it.

As someone who studies Christian systematic and constructive theologies, I gained a more critical appreciation of the so-called “classics” of Christian tradition.  I’m a confessional Trinitarian who subscribes to the Apostles’ and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  I’m a Baptist who appreciates formal printed liturgies of Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and Reformed congregations. I use the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books in spiritual practices.   I’m a lover of Christian dogmatic theology.  Although I’m also influenced by Pentecostalism, I wholeheartedly embrace the dialogue between Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox theologians on the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Although I’m a Baptist who affirms the authority of the Scriptures, I respect and enter into dialogue with the interpretive traditions of the Churches.  Despite all of my personal appreciation of the Christian theological heritage, I am not at all oblivious to the reality of my lived experience as a member of two marginalized groups—I am both black and gay.

I think that Moore is not concerned with whether or not black LGBTIQ Christians choose to identify as “evangelical” but whether or not the “gospel” which we continue to hold dear is in fact “good news” for both the bodies and souls of black LGBTIQ folk and “all the folk.”  It’s a damn good question that I continue to struggle with as I carry on with the hustles and bustles of everyday living.  Despite my education, I don’t believe that I’m fully equipped or qualified to engage in serious critical dialogue with black queer leaders like Moore. I deeply commend Moore’s work with black LGBTIQ youth and trust that he works towards the advancement of the beloved community.  As of now, I’m not sure whether or not my theology continues the oppression that Moore seeks to obliterate. “How can two walk together unless they agree?” Hopefully, I can contribute to some sense of healing within the body of Christ.  As a minister-theologian, I attempt to read the texts of Christian Scripture theologically in order to discern the Word of God for the people of God.  I have yet to fully understand and articulate what the Word is for me—for black queer folks like me. Soon, I will—God willing.

Only time will tell.


[i] Darnell L. Moore, “A Letter to Queer Christians.” LGBT Faith Leaders of African Descent. [http://lgbtfaithleadersofafricandescent.com/guest-columns/guest-colmnist-donell-l-moore/a-letter-to-queer-christians/]. Retrieved Online: March 19, 2014.

[ii] Ibid.

Redeeming Sin-Talk

“Sin.” This concept is perhaps one of the most ubiquitously stated yet much debated throughout the history of Christian theology.  The Christian tradition has always proclaimed Christ Jesus as the victor over the mysterious power that binds human beings and presupposes us towards offending God and each other.  However, sin-talk has fallen on hard times these days. It’s not that contemporary North American Christians don’t have a hard time accepting the notion of sin (they do!) but not for the reasons t that some conservative Christians might think.  Christian sin-talk has influence beyond the four walls of the churches.  In fact, one would be living under a rock if they wouldn’t hear a non-religious person use the word “sin.” Lamentably, however, much Christian sin-talk has had an adverse history of effects within Western civilization. Before I get to that, let’s understand what Christians mean by “sin.”    According to The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms,

Various Hebrew and Greek words are translated ‘sin’ with many shades of meaning. Theologically, sin is the human condition of separation from God that arises from opposition to God’s purposes.  It may be breaking God’s law, failing to do what God wills, or rebellion. It needs forgiveness by God.

The dictionary defines various theological variations on the subject of sin. Individual sin is the “sin of a particular person in contrast to the corporate sin of a group of persons.”  Social sin is “the recognition that the power and effects of sin extend throughout the social fabric of a culture and have far-reaching consequences.” Structural sin is the “recognition that power of human sin affects institutions and structures of a society in pervasive ways so that the processes and actions of these entities will be influenced.”

Throughout Western Christian history, theologians and preachers have over-emphasized the reality of individual sins and the need for personal forgiveness to the near exclusion or complete denial of the reality of structural sin.    For centuries, Western Protestant theologians followed Augustine, Luther, and Calvin to expound the doctrine of original sin and how the sinful condition personally affects us. However, in the United States, rarely, if at all, did Protestant theologians speak of the structural sins of racism and sexism.  In fact, some even endorsed these as a part of God’s created order, and thus, the American social order.  Today, in many conservative churches, especially (white) evangelical and African-American churches, preachers emphasized individual sins over against social and structural sins.  Arguably, black churches will talk far more about the structural sin of racism than their white counterparts. Both groups, however, will fail to discuss other structural sins including sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, systemic poverty, militarism, neocolonialism, imperialism, and many others. Some might glorify them all based on their theological predispositions.

Because of this ongoing adverse history of effects, many people within and outside of the Churches find sin-talk (even the concept of sin) completely defile. For many victims of social oppression, Christian theologies of sin historically function to circumscribe the movement of their bodies within the social order.  Moreover, Christian sin-talk functions to legitimate the violence done to many people. Consider the highly contentious subject of homosexuality within the Churches.  Instead of listening to the stories of sexual and gender variant minority Christians, both black and white evangelical churches continue to articulate theologies that place these human bodies within psychosexual and spiritual dilemmas.  From the full demonization of LGBTIQ folk (e.g. “homosexual spirits) to the softer, yet subtly damaging “Love sin, but hate the sinner” messages from pulpits, young and old LGTIQ people struggle to the point of despair to reconcile their sexuality (a fundamental aspect of humanity) with their faith (i.e. “Why would God make me “queer” if God hates homosexuality (and so forth?).”  Not only do these discourse personally harm, but fuel social policy. Hence, the current civil rights war between some conservative religious groups and LGBTIQA people over the issue of discrimination in businesses where proprietors refuse to serve LGBTIQ people because of their religious beliefs.

In Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility (WJK, 2003), theologian Stephen Ray warns us of the damaging ways that Christian sin-talk perpetuates sin.   Ignoring the structural realities under which people live, Christians engage in sin-talk (while unmindful of our own sinfulness!) to not only the exclusion of “sinners”  from Christian fellowship but their very lives are called into question.  Human beings are “essentialized” as irredeemable, unlovable, and beyond the mercy of a loving God.  Therefore, Ray contends that Christian theologians, pastors, and teachers, must adopt a consequentialist approach to doing sin-talk: does our sin-talk promote life or does it cause and/or perpetuate harm?

Heeding Ray’s warnings of the dangers of sin-talk, and remembering the sobering reflections on sin and sexuality debates in the Church from Duke University feminist theologian Mary McClintock Fulkerson, I believe that Christians must refocus or “redeem” sin-talk from its sordid history and reorient the discussion to a more theological understanding rather than a moralist one.  I understand this as a movement towards reflection upon what sin is in relation to who God is rather than who we are morally.  Many evangelical approaches to evangelism start with a  so-called “four spiritual laws” model which starts from the premise of human being sinners. However, what is sin if we do not know who God is? Doesn’t the revelation of God in Christ presupposes all knowledge of our human condition?  Ironically, these approaches are more anthropocentric than they intend to be.

I’m not for removing the language of sin from the Christian theological tradition or its abandonment.  Yet for the sake of the world for whom the Lord died, I would press the Church towards advancing a more theological discourse of sin, anchoring it in the grace, majesty, and mercy of the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. Also, I would also press the Church to consider its own sinful collusion in perpetuating structural sin as we discuss and preach on personal sins of folks we continue to fail to understand.  If we start from confession, repentance, and grace-filled proclamation and witness, maybe sin-talk can be a joyful discourse rather than a dreadful and often deadly one.

Recently I was asked to preach at a family member’s church for a special occasion. Indeed, I was delighted to accept the invitation. I’m humbled, in awe, and joyous when asked to preach God’s Word. As someone who has embraced my vocation as a minister of the Gospel, I look forward to completing the assignments that God tasks to my hands.  Yet as  a gay man, I experience a sense of dread as ministry opportunities open up for me within black church contexts. I guess I experience this dread especially being back home in Philadelphia after I withdrew from culinary school (story to follow in a later post). I come from a family of highly-regarded Baptist ministers. Over the years, I’ve encountered prominent local pastors who knew my maternal grandfather and his father (both pastored churches in Philadelphia) very well.  Recently, I’ve participated in my uncle’s pastoral installation. The church was packed with local clergy.  I sat in the pulpit of the church where my grandfather once regularly preached. I shook the hands of seasoned men who were catechized by my great-grandfather. I anticipate establishing professional connections with these men and women in the near future, and despite where my theological continues to lie, I cannot shake the feeling, “Oh my God, this shit just got too real!!” off my back.

Contrary to what readers may think, I don’t go around everywhere disclosing my sexual identity to everyone.  Of course, I would be completely naive to think that folks cannot find out more about me; they can just read this blog or my Facebook page. Nevertheless, I still negotiate where, when, to whom, and why I share this information, especially within black church circles.  As of right now, I feel the need to negotiate my life from an open closet.  It’s an open closet because I, while I acknowledge my sexual identity to some, I don’t bring it up as a talking point to others.  Positively, this make sense. I don’t want anyone prying into my personal life (do I have a personal life?!!).  I do what I’m required to do–preach the good news of Christ. However, negatively, playing the politics game within Afro-Baptist churches who continue to refuse, regardless of their reasons, to engage in healthy theological and practical conversation on (homo)sexuality continues to be a necessary evil, at least for my predicament. I am licensed to preach, but not ordained.  Indeed, I hope to make it my life’s work to create safe, theological rigorous, and loving spaces for conversation within black churches to understand sexuality through my writing, lecturing, and teaching.  For right now, I don’t have the ordination papers or the Ph. D. degree.  I’m learning to pick my battles.

If certain Baptist clergy learned of my sexuality, they would probably refuse to ordain me.  Honestly, I cannot imagine how I would feel if this actually happens.  I have to live in the present moment and trust that God will give me the strength and the direction to handle this disappointment and rejection, God forbid,  if or when it comes. In the meantime, “a charge to keep, I have, and a God to glorify, a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.”  I will keep my appointments to preach when I’m invited.  With God’s help, I will continue to live honestly as much as I can, and use wisdom in any given situation.  Besides, God called me to preach. I pray for the day when I no longer feel the need to preach from within a tense space like the open closet.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about sex. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about sexual ethics within African American Christian contexts.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the idea of “shacking.”  Of course, many African American Christians–saved, sanctified, Bible-believing,  Spirit-filled, tongue-talking, devil-chasing, foot-stomping, praising, dancing, shouting, married, single, partnered, booed-up, gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, cisgendered or transgendered– are having sex.  Surprise! All joking aside, the deal is that many African American Christians within evangelical and Pentecostal contexts, despite the accepted religious proscriptions of sexual holiness and purity, are having sex–and they’re not married.   Traditionally, many Christians believe that sexual relations outside the covenant of hetero-normative, monogamous marriage is sinful.   Cohabitation, the living situation of (usually) heterosexual couple who are unmarried,  is disparagingly called “shacking” or “shacking up” in African American Christian circles.    Recently, one prominent African American pastor challenged unmarried couples within his congregation to make a public marital commitment before other parishioners.

Despite the many black conservative-minded Christians who would agree with this “challenge”, other more progressive-leaning black Christians found this to be problematic, to say the least. In fact, many black progressive Christians don’t mind cohabitation as a viable option for sexual relationships.  Because of the high divorce rates within the United States, many would argue that cohabitation before marriage or as an alternative to marriage is a more realistic option for couples who, for multiple reasons, do not desire to get married.  From a womanist or a black feminist perspective, the institution of marriage as many of us know it is laden with hetero-patriarchal baggage (spousal abuse, rape, molestation, etc.) which has ruined many lives of black women and children.   Some would argue that the pastor’s sermon was an exercise in rhetorical shaming utilized by many religious conservative preachers to control the sexual agency of those who do not fit the long-held ideals of Christian religiosity (A classic critique of sexual politics within African American Christian churches, see Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church).  Black liberationists, womanists, and LGBTQ ministers and scholar-activists within and outside of the Black Church call for a new sexual paradigm which throws off the vestiges (or “chains”) of Western Christian mores which circumscribed black bodies for centuries.

While much of this so-called “prophetic”  challenge from the new wave of black progressive coreligionists deserve a wider hearing among African American evangelical/pentecostal Christians, one question must be posed which has not yet been answered: “How can Christians faithfully serve the Lord who bought them with our whole sexual selves while not transgressing the law to which Christ himself was subject to and thus fulfilled in his life and death?”  Much of what I hear from black progressive Christians parallels the rhetoric of those who are non-Christian/secularist/humanist.  While not necessarily problematic, I wish that many would actually engage in theological arguments that would challenge traditional theologies on the turf on which many play i.e. the Scriptures. More precisely, if you cannot argue a theological case for something through examination of the Scriptures that many black conservative Christians hold authoritative for faith and practice and that is both Christo-centric and theological anthropological, then much of what you have to say falls on deaf ears.

Granted, African Americans have a sorted relationship with the Bible.  As Douglas and others have demonstrated, the Bible has been used in the legitimation of chattel slavery, among other horrors.  Because of its interpretation, and in others’ minds itself,  liberationists of many stripes  appeal to the “authority of __________’s experience” to advancing liberating theologies for marginalized communities.  As much as I can attest that experience does factor in constructing theology, it simply cannot be a source for doing theology since experience by definition is not a source; it’s a medium.  Experience itself is fleeting, unpredictable, unstable,  it cannot simply be contained in a vacuum.   No one person’s experience of the Divine and human realities are actually the same.  Even with a community like the African American community, one cannot appeal to a collective experience of oppression alone to determine theological outcomes for ecclesiastical practice and politics.  It takes communal discernment, testimony, prayer, deliberation, examination of Scriptural texts, discussion, and debate.  Even some within progressive circles question the legitimacy of essentializing experience.

Honestly, my question presupposes assumptions which many black Christians do not necessarily believe, which bespeaks to a larger theological complexity: the diversity of the institution of the Black Church itself.  We simply cannot agree on a Christian sexual ethic let alone on any other important fundamental theological matter until we acknowledge the plurality of religious experience within Afro-Christianity.  Moreover, I certainly do not want to come off as simply charging black progressives for failing to construct a faithful theological alternative to sexual relationships.  Black conservative Christian leaders fail to offer a constructive, nuanced, and grace-filled vision of human families beyond hetero-normative paradigms. The reality of the matter is that families matter — they are not ideals in the minds of a few, they exist concretely. As grandparents raise their grandchildren; as a lesbian couple welcomes a baby into their arms through one partner’s pregnancy through in vitro insemination, as a black male couple who marries after 46 years of companionship and raising an adopted son, and a single parent struggling to take care of her or his children are families, so too black Christians must be able to conceive that families exist in diversity.

The Scriptures attest to the diversity of human families: patriarchs who have multiple wives and children, a widow raising a son, a man rearing a ewe lamb as his own daughter, and a band of disciples of an executed Galilean preacher called the “family of God.”  My charge for black evangelical and Pentecostal Christians is that a theology of the human family must take into account the glaring reality of family construction attested with the Scriptures themselves. They aren’t any ideals presented to us into what a family ought to be aside from what the Church is commanded to be: a community in which each member loves each other as their own kin.

So, I guess thinking about sex has me thinking about families. Hmmm. Interesting.  In any event, I long for understanding what it means to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.  Even what happens between the sheets of our beds matters to God.  Honoring our bodies and honoring God are not mutually exclusive.  Let’s have the needed conversation on what really matters to God concerning who we are and what we do with our bodies.  Are not our bodies (collectively) the temple of the Holy Spirit?

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus of Nazareth posed this question to his disciples as news of his ministry spread among the people of Israel.  Simon, later called Peter, answered Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed Simon’s answer as a revelation from God and his Father.  The New Testament writers ascribe to Jesus many titles which reflect Jesus’ identity and work within the world.  In subsequent Christian tradition, theologians, mystics, and preachers expounded upon the meaning of Jesus’ person and saving work through study of the Word, prayer, and in light of the experience of the churches within their given contexts.  While no human discourse can exhaust the mystery of Christ, the Church universal affirms Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Crucified and Risen One who brings the world salvation and reigns in the midst of God’s people and God’s creation through the power of the Spirit.

In the United States, many Christians don’t know what to make of Jesus.  While many may affirm that Jesus is Lord and Savior, they find such language problematic in light of ongoing encounters and dialogue with people of other faith traditions or folks with no faith at all.  As people who affirm democratic ideals, many modern American Christians find it hard to sing hymns which ascribe kingship to Jesus.  Many simply cannot fathom as a people who affirm freedom of thought and movement that one who would commit their lives to a man who lived centuries before who rose again and is hailed as God incarnate.  To accommodate modernist demands, some simply understand Christian faith as following the teachings of Jesus found in the Beatitudes or the “Golden Rule.”  Moreover, many feminist Christians find it problematic to commit their lives to a male Savior whose male disciples throughout time have dehumanized and marginalized them from serving God in the Church.   African American Christians continue to struggle with the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the ongoing institutionalized racism within both the churches and society.  Also Native, Latino/a, Hispanic, and Asian American Christians experience discrimination, poverty, liminality, and immigration battles; all of these ethnic groups continue to articulate images of Jesus that counter the longstanding white patriarchal images of Christ in Western culture.

As sexual and gender-variant minorities continue to fight for  and gain rights and dignity within the United States, many have developed what theologian and Metropolitan Community Church pastor Thomas Bohache calls a “Christophobia,” an aversion to Jesus Christ in light of their experience of marginalization by traditional Christian communities and theologies.  To remedy this aversion, many LGBTIQA Christian theologians struggle to construct images of Jesus that are inclusive, queer-affirming, and radical interpretations of the gospel.

Despite these projects of “taking back Jesus” from the hands of oppressors (read: white, European/American, heterosexual, patriarchal, men), Jesus is getting lost among these quests to “retrieve of human subject.”  Many so-called progressive churches preach a social gospel which stresses Jesus’ love-ethic among the poor, the social outcasts, and women. Rarely do they discuss matters of “high Christology,” meaning Jesus’ identity as the second person of the Trinity and the saving significance of the cross and resurrection. When such matters are mentioned, they are demythologized to accommodate the rationalist impulses of today.  All of the “miracles” have existential, practical significance for our own lives rather than attest to the identity of Jesus himself as the One sent into the world to save it.   For some progressives, Jesus is one of many of God’s messengers of love and solidarity with those whom the privileged has forgotten.  He is not to be worshiped but followed.   “Jesus,” some protest, “was not a Christian!”

For more traditional,  conservative Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox), the confession of the Lordship of Christ is maintained.  However, in more evangelical-Pentecostal churches, regardless of race, Jesus is relegated to the “basics” of Christian faith; some gear their ministries towards prosperity or (re)building the Christian (nuclear) family, or some other emphasis or “brand.”  Evangelism is merely about “getting souls saved” or adding numbers to the congregations. Members take crash courses into Christian faith, then folks get involved into some form of ministry if they feel so led.   This is not entirely bad (except the prosperity stuff), but somehow Jesus gets lost into translation.  Some sincere, “Bible-believing churches” decenter Christ and replace him with the pastor or some other idol (or perhaps both!).   Further, Christ’s personal Lordship is emphasized to the neglect of the, corporal, social and structural aspects of reality.  Jesus did not only come to save souls, but bodies. In fact, a more biblical understanding of soul (Hebrew nephesh) involves one’s embodied existence.  Jesus came to redeem the entire creation.  Jesus’ cosmic Lordship is affirmed personally as individual believers and as a corporate body.

So what are we to make of Jesus? I think it’s not merely to putting Jesus back into his place within the churches. I think it’s a matter of awakening ourselves from the delusion that we can get rid of him in the first place.  Jesus of Nazareth simply cannot be dismissed, domesticated, or revised to fit our own agendas.  The Gospels portray images of Jesus which cannot be easily appropriated by either sides of the false binary of conservative/liberal unless both sides engage in tedious selective exegesis.   Jesus came for “sinners” and Pharisees.  He judges all for their spiritual adultery e.g. killing the prophets and longs for all as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.   Indeed, ongoing social, economic, and political crises ensue in this country.  However, Christians should commit ourselves to attending to the living Word and open ourselves to being judged for our own sins, and forgiven by God’s grace, and healed so that we may be salt and light in a world that desperately needs to hear the good news.   If there is a beginning to this tedious process of faithfulness, we begin by turning towards Jesus.  All of our images of him cannot replace him for who he is.  Jesus goes beyond our ready-made categories.  And yet he is Emmanuel, God ever present with us to guide us by the Spirit as we struggle to live according to the gospel.

As a new chapter in my life begins here in Charlotte, North Carolina, I cannot help but experience a great  sense of loneliness. As a celibate Christian with same-sex attraction, I often feel this weight of loneliness despite my acceptance of celibacy as a  gift and calling from God. While in seminary I had a great network of friends and family to surround me with love and support. Now that I’m living as a non-traditional undergraduate student in a residence hall, I feel a greater sense of loneliness.   I’m probably the oldest resident in the hall.  I think it be awkward to start forming friendships here with folks fresh out of high school.  Now I don’t necessarily have a problem living among folks who are about 8 years younger than I am.  Indeed I’m grateful to God for housing as I study one of my life-long passions.   Yet without the great network of family and friends who I can call up and hangout with for a night or two, I feel really alone.   Thank God I do have some family and friends in the area who welcome me with open arms. Still, I feel alone sometimes.

Perhaps the challenge of living a celibate Christian life increases in intensity as I’m getting older.   Times are changing as our nation embraces same-sex marriage as a alternate viable possibility of human social arrangement that is good for the republic.   Progressive religious groups are making their claim in the American public square to speak for God and to speak up for sexual minorities.   LGBTQ folk, religious or non-religious, are living their lives out loud and proud as a protest against the longstanding dehumanization of their lives.   Admittedly, I’m one of the few who realize that I still hold a so-called traditional view of marriage (one man, one woman, committed for one lifetime), despite my (failed) attempt to starting dating men, after reading many  liberal theological affirmations of blessings of same-sex unions in the Church, queer theologies, and having solid relationships with gay Christians friends who affirm their sexuality as God’s gift.  However, my moderately conservative theological convictions do not make me exempt from fighting against the despair that I would be alone for a lifetime. Despite the high call of serving Christ and his kingdom with my whole life, both body and soul, I continue to lament that my dreams of companionship and raising a family are rapidly fading into shadows.

What does it mean to be celibate and to be a social and sexual creature? I think one of the misconceptions of celibate people of all religious faiths and sexualities is the assumption that we must be asexual.  In fact, many asexual people, those who do not experience any enduring pattern of sexual-erotic desire for persons of any gender, who are in committed relationships and do have sex with their partners.   Most celibates, dare I argue, are highly sexual creatures.  Celibacy does not stop us from feeling erotic attractions to persons of interest.  Rather celibacy is a spiritual vocation which rearranges our social priorities.  Celibates are not hermits;  we are highly social creatures.  We, like all people, are relational beings and need friendship and community.   Yet I’m feeling that our communities, especially evangelical Protestant communities (black, white, red, whoever!) simply do not know how to support celibate Christians on their faith journeys.  I honestly toy with the idea of becoming a Catholic because the Catholic Church has a place for celibates.   Perhaps I’d become an Episcopalian monk or something. I don’t know. None of these choices, despite their positives of having a theological rationale for celibates’ place in the Church, will take away my yearnings for someone who will love me for me, who will take me as one’s own as a companion and spouse, and raise children in the admonition of the Lord.   All things are indeed possible. Nevertheless, I also realize that celibacy is not a death sentence.

To serve God with one’s whole life is a privilege and an honor. I realize that part of my life’s work involves learning as much as I can and to serve many different contexts in and outside of the Church.   Doing the work of the ministry takes a lot of time away from family and forming relationships. Many Protestant Christian ministers struggle to strike balances so that they can be faithful partners, spouses, and parents alongside being faithful ministers of the Gospel.  They struggle as much as celibate ministers and people do.  Striking balances are hard. Nevertheless, they do have a support system to lean on; families to go home to; and partners and companions to embrace when the stresses of ministry attempt to derail all senses of sanity.   I guess we celibate folks must re-imagine community and mostly lean on God. I don’t know.  What I do know, however, is that God has not abandoned me.  I know that I am not alone despite the feeling of being so. And I know that God will provide for all of my needs, both spiritual and physical, all to God’s glory.    Most of all of my theological inquiries involve making sense of my own Christian life.  All of these questions don’t have an answer.  Perhaps the journey is more important than the destination.  For now, I turn my heart toward the God of all comfort who has called me to serve Him for strength and help in time of need.

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