In Defense of Affirming Christians

This post is long overdue.  It really is.

I’ve made this distinction in my blog before and also in comment threads, but it keeps coming up and requires a post of its own.

When I decry some of the radical and unhinged rhetoric that comes from some people who use the Bible as their justification — or to talk about some of the ways that growing up with a radical Christian ideology had hurt me and my family — I try to be clear that that these harms shouldn’t be attributed to all Christians.  I need to talk about these things — how faith is being used to justify discriminatory actions today, and how deeply those attitudes have cut me.  I don’t need that all turned into a message that all Christians are evil.  I do have my own concerns about belief systems and what they can sometimes drive people to, but at the end of the day I choose to respect those who live respectfully.  This also applies to affirming people of other faiths.

The one thing I am “anti” is oppression.  This is regardless of whether the basis is race or sex or sexual orientation or age or belief or gender identity or gender expression or any other characteristic.  And regardless of whether it is some Christians doing it, people inspired by some other ideology or us doing it to each other.  So when people talk about classifying the Bible as hate literature (to be fair, that post was nuanced and not wholly serious) or jumping all over an affirming person of faith who is trying to express how she sometimes feels under attack from both sides, you can count me out.  I don’t subscribe to any particular faith, nor do I condemn anyone else for theirs.

If we are to be truly anti-oppression, then we need to be vigilant that we don’t visit it on anyone else.

And no, I’m not talking about the “oppression” of not being able to ban abortion or the “persecution” of not being able to fire someone because they’re gay or trans.  I plan to write about this shortly, but equating one person’s need for equal access to things that are vital to their life or to participate in society with another person’s right to deny them that access for whatever ideological reason is a false equivalence.  For a select group of people, even neutrality with regard to government is atheism, and atheism is a competitor religion that they feel government has shown favour to. This is why that select group of people will always feel persecuted by not being able to dictate what law and social policy will be.  And those are things even the mainstream has lost sight of when it frames conflicts as “gay rights versus religious freedom.”

I’m talking about respectful co-existence, regardless of our differences, and ceasing judgments based solely on one’s characteristics instead of their individual merits or faults.  I’m talking about not conflating these extreme perspectives with people of faith who do not subscribe to them.

We cannot and should not attribute all our pain to Christianity or all Christians — although when scripture is used to support it, I admit it’s sometimes hard to make that distinction.  But not all Christians are radical enough to call for racial segregation, either — the fact that some still do should not be interpreted as characteristic of the whole.

Because affirming people of faith have some challenges as well, and it’s likely only to intensify, as far right Christian Nationalists (that smaller group who have a hardline worldview that they would like to see used for governance) seeks to assert what they call “true Christianity” with rhetoric like this:

This is beyond mere incoherence. It is moral and theological nonsense. More than that, it is a massive statement of ministerial malpractice…. You cannot celebrate what you say you know to be sin. You cannot honestly say that same-sex marriage defies the law of God, and then join in the celebration of that ceremony.

There is a rising tide to push LGBT and allied Christians out of Christianity.  Many of the same people who assail our right to exist also try to challenge affirming and LGBT people of faith… perhaps including the people who penned this:

… We find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation. Silence by many has allowed political and religious rhetoric to monopolize public perception, creating the impression that there is only one Christian perspective on this issue. Yet we recognize and celebrate that we are far from alone, as Christians, in affirming that LGBT persons are distinctive, holy, and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God.

In repentance and obedience to the Holy Spirit, we stand in solidarity as those who are committed to work and pray for full acceptance and inclusion of LGBT persons in our churches and in our world. We lament that LGBT persons are condemned and excluded by individuals and institutions, political and religious, who claim to be speaking the truth of Christian teaching. This leads directly and indirectly to intolerance, discrimination, suffering, and even death. The Holy Spirit compels us:

  • to affirm that the essence of Christian life is not focused on sexual orientation, but how one lives by grace in relationship with God, with compassion toward humanity;
  • to embrace the full inclusion of our LGBT brothers and sisters in all areas of church life, including leadership;
  • to declare that the violence must stop. Christ’s love moves us to work for the healing of wounded souls who are victims of abuse often propagated in the name of Christ;
  • to celebrate the prophetic witness of all people who have refused to let the voice of intolerance and violence speak for Christianity, especially LGBT persons, who have met hatred with love;

Therefore we call for an end to all religious and civil discrimination against any person based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. All laws must include and protect the freedoms, rights, and equal legal standing of all persons, in and outside the church.

Granted, if people are to stop seeing Christianity and LGBT identity as inevitable nemeses, more affirming people of faith need to speak — and louder — to clearly demonstrate that Christianity doesn’t only offer one opinion on the subject.

And to do that, it would probably help if they knew that we weren’t going to stab them in the back, in turn.

From my standpoint, I will still need to talk about the hurts I experienced from a radical Pentecostal upbringing.  I will still need to call out the statements of far-right speakers who identify their perspective as “Christian” in basis.  But that is not meant to be an opportunity to foist atheism as the new One True Way or belittle someone for their beliefs.    Not in a way that I will be party to, anyway.  If you believe faith is hokum, well, good for you, just don’t beat everyone over the head with it.

In the very first couple of weeks of my transition, as word got around the apartment complex I lived in about what I was doing (and before I received the magic bonus rent-doubling increase that no one else in the building did), I experienced some hostile reactions, both within the building, and the violent attack I’ve related elsewhere on my blog, just outside the building.

Directly downstairs from me, there was a traditional Muslim family, the kind that when they’d moved in, she wore the niqab and burqa, but over the years that relaxed until she was able to wear more Western-style clothing and travel on her own.  Even so, they were visibly devout, and he seemed more than a little imposing, with his bodybuilder’s build and all.

One afternoon, I answered a knock on the door, and there was the mother of the family, who made a point of coming upstairs to tell me that although they didn’t completely understand why I was transitioning, they respected me for it, were supportive, and wanted me to know that if I had any trouble in the building, I could count on them for help.  I don’t think I fully grasped until later how truly significant it was that she was the one who came upstairs to tell me this.

Never presume.

By the time this post goes live, some readers will be tired of this speech already, but a portion of Hilary Clinton’s address to the U.N. seems appropriate here:

The third, and perhaps most challenging, issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.

In each of these cases, we came to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us. And this holds true for inflicting violence on LGBT people, criminalizing their status or behavior, expelling them from their families and communities, or tacitly or explicitly accepting their killing.

Of course, it bears noting that rarely are cultural and religious traditions and teachings actually in conflict with the protection of human rights. Indeed, our religion and our culture are sources of compassion and inspiration toward our fellow human beings. It was not only those who’ve justified slavery who leaned on religion, it was also those who sought to abolish it. And let us keep in mind that our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source. For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity. And caring for others is an expression of what it means to be fully human. It is because the human experience is universal that human rights are universal and cut across all religions and cultures.

We all have a role to play in securing equality.  I, for one, appreciate the role affirming Christians are playing and will play.  The least we could do is to say, “I’ve got your back.”

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Affirming Christians”

  1. Thanks for writing this Mercedes… I can relate to a lot of what you’ve written here. While I wouldn’t consider myself a theist in the traditional sense, I respect those people of faith who are respectful of others, including myself. And I have to say more than once I have encountered a type of arrogance from certain atheists that I found a bit oppressive. In fact, there are moments in dealing with some knee-jerk atheists that I’ve felt almost like I’m dealing with someone who holds their lack of religion to be as fundamentally “true and correct” as some non-compromising theists.

    Further, I think in the atheist world there is a troubling tendency to conflate atheism itself with being anti-misogynist or pro-LGBTI. In other words, some atheists I’ve met aren’t actually educated on LGBTI issues, they just assume (again, rather arrogantly) that because they are ‘enlightened,’ they are automatically anti-oppressive and therefore they can say or do whatever they want (including misgender me, etc.).

    Interestingly, in Germany once I also had an experience in which a conservative burka-wearing Muslim woman was the one who got my perspective and was respectful towards me while someone in a group of white Westerners were speaking about me in a transphobic way (no one spoke up for me but the Muslim woman).

  2. Good word, and much appreciated. Christ boiled down God’s commandments to two: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Period. No nit-picking, no categorizing, no hierarchy of who’s worthy of loving and who isn’t. Sometimes I feel very alone as a Christian who doesn’t hate a large segment of the population.

  3. Mercedes, I absolutely love your article! I just wanted you to know while I understand that you grew up in a radical pentecostal movement and have been hurt deeply by it, that I myself am from and still believe in the doctrines of the Holiness Pentecostal Movement, but I am an AFFIRMING CHRISTIAN! Your article challenges me to speak Gods love into a movement whose views on this particular issue are far beyond what I believe! Thanks for the insight!!!!

  4. Don’t feel so alone, Todd! There are plenty of other Christians who are also welcoming, reconciling, affirming–and also angry at what is said and done in our name. For a variety of reasons the Christian left has tried to let their actions speak louder than their words, but the Christian right’s angry and hateful words and actions have been much louder. Thank you DBM for this olive branch.

  5. I think your acticle was great. I was not raised in a strict christian upbring. My mom allowed me to stop going to worship when I was about 14. I do believe in a God, and I believe Jesus brought me to God. But I also believe that every religion brings people to God in its own particular way. If you don’t believe, that’s fine too. Maybe you will one day; maybe not. But I 100% refuse to believe that the loving God I know would make someone a certain way and then punish them for it. Its inconceivable!

  6. Well said, Mercedes.

    I tend to find that the distinction for me lies in the soft boundary between statements of legitimate faith (e.g. “my faith tells me that homosexuality is a sin”) and those who demand that others limit their lives based upon a faith statement (e.g. “homosexuals shouldn’t talk about their lives because their lives are sinful”)

    One is a legitimate statement of faith, which I have no quarrel with (I may disagree with it, but I have no quarrel with it) The second implicitly demands that an entire population limit their lives solely for the comfort of the speaker’s moral sensibilities. This I have a quarrel with for it represents a demand that someone act in a certain manner because of someone else’s beliefs.

    Perhaps I’m babbling, but I keep finding time and again that it comes down to whether or not someone is demanding that another party live according to a creed that they may not be willing adopters of.

    More or less, it’s really all about “live and let live”.

  7. Thank you, Mercedes! The more people speak up, the less the trolls will dare show their faces. There is a point beyond which prejudiced people will no longer spout their propaganda. We’re getting there, which is why the haters are frothing at the mouth. Seems like it’s always noisiest just before the end of the show. 😉 Hugs from Asia, ~ Sil

  8. Religion is like a penis. It’s okay to have one. It’s okay to be proud of it. It’s okay to compare it to someone else’s. It’s even okay to take it out and play with it whenever you want.

    It’s NEVER okay for anyone to try and force theirs down anyone else’s throat.

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