“Jesus Christ can set you free from the sin of homosexuality.”
My sophomore year of college, I came home one day to find a long email with that assertion from a former classmate of mine. Later I learned that he had also sent messages to and even traveled to visit others in our college worshiping community. He urged them to condemn the pro-LGBTQ organizing I and others were doing on our campus and chastised them for allowing me to persist in my evil ways while worshiping alongside me.
I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
I’m all too familiar with that punched-in-the-gut feeling. I suspect that most of my lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer siblings are, too. We’ve encountered it in class and while watching the news. We’ve confronted it in micro-aggressions as we browse Facebook and in not-so-micro-aggressions as we walk down the street. (Indeed, let us never forget that far too many of us have not only suffered the punch emotionally, but have also suffered it physically as real violence to our persons as we walk down the street, go on a date, or even as we seek shelter.) We’ve gritted our teeth through it during job interviews and family dinners. And we’ve fought back the tears it brings when it surfaces during a sermon on Sunday morning or during debate on the floor of the General Assembly.
I’m tired of feeling punched in the gut.
And that’s what makes this whole business of being the church such a trick. As Rev. Sally Wright points out, there is something holy about the conversations to which we are invited with those with whom we disagree. But the problem is that too often we seem to have trouble finding that holy something. It’s hidden beneath layers upon layers of systemic heterosexist and cissexist power differentials. Like the culture in which it is situated, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) implicitly (and until recently, very explicitly) confers much greater access to power to straight cisgender people than to LGBTQ people, a fact articulated recently by Rev. Rodger McDaniel.
None of us approach conversations about the Church’s posture toward God’s LGBTQ children on equal footing. For LGBTQ people, it often feels as though a sword hangs precariously over our heads as we go about discussing ordination or marriage or justice or hospitality. If the sword falls, we might risk our ordinations or our jobs. We might lose a friend with whom we’ve been attending church for years. We might see LGBTQ people blamed again for a loss of congregations, members, and money in our denomination. We might get punched in the gut.
This imbalance of power is a scandal to the Gospel. It attempts to undermine the unity that God has given to the church in Jesus Christ, the same God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. The imbalance of power that we face is an impediment to true conversation.
My former classmate and I exchanged a few more messages, but it didn’t go on for very long. Each message I sent or received left me a wreck. The fears and anxieties I had confronted in order to come out returned, more insidious than ever. I felt powerless and alone. Whatever potential for holiness that conversation held had been obscured and distorted. I ended the conversation. It was the right choice.
When congregations and individuals leave the PC(USA), we risk losing them as conversation partners. We risk missing out on our shared opportunity to uncover that holy something about the conversations we might have with them.
But when they stay, and if we covenant to stay in loving, open conversation with them, everyone has to really mean it. Loving, open conversation is not possible when one party constantly fears getting punched in the gut.
True conversation, holy conversation, does not exist when the privileged party uncritically accepts the advantages they’ve been given. Our call is not simply to conversation, but to joyfully strive to create conversations in which we are all honored fully as children of God – and that is holy.
What experiences have you had working toward creating just and equitable conversations? Share them in the comments!
Daniel Williams serves on the MLP Editorial Board and has been organizing in his communities since he was a high school student in Albuquerque, NM. His organizing experience includes work on student mobilization, worker justice, LGBTQ inclusion, reproductive justice, and numerous electoral campaigns. When he’s not plotting the overthrow of oppressive systems (and very often when he is), he is pursuing his studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.