The Canadian Supreme Court declared federal same-sex marriage rights ten years ago (which these people discovered yesterday, much to their chagrin). At that time, I was deep in denial about my sexuality, and I was not in a theological framework to celebrate the decision... I barely remember it at all. Fortunately, I'm half American, so I figured yesterday could be my do-over. I made sure to be at my computer at 10:00 am, logged into the Supreme Court live blog, ready to witness history in the making.
For many LGBTQ+ Christians like me, the day was a roller coaster of emotions. Joy, relief, gratitude... followed all too quickly by disappointment, frustration, and anger at the hateful and fearful social media responses of many of our siblings in Christ.
In North America, the balance of cultural opinion, power, and influence has shifted faster on LGBTQ+ issues than almost any other topic, producing severe whiplash for the traditionally-believing people who suddenly find themselves in the minority, on the defensive.
Of course, this shift is not true in all places or cases - just ask the small-town queer kids who are still scared of being beaten up at school, the 40% of homeless youth who are LGBTQ+ ... and pretty much any transgender person anywhere. There is indeed much work left to be done here, and even more so globally, especially in countries where coming out could mean imprisonment or death.
But many feel yesterday's decision was a tipping point. And as the tables turn, LGBTQ+ people, and especially LGBTQ+ Christians, are faced with new opportunities... and new temptations.
Our newly-recognized equality warrants joy and celebration. But the fight has wearied us, and it's awfully tempting to step beyond joy and do just a tiny bit of gloating. It's even more tempting to tell everyone who rains on our Pride parades and protests our new freedoms to shut up and get out of our lives. And when we hear the religious right cry “persecution!”... some days, if we're honest, we wish they actually would suffer, if only to see how they've made us feel.
A couple of my favorite books have been coming back to haunt me as I consider this new cultural climate: “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” by Paolo Freire, and “Exclusion and Embrace” by Miroslav Volf.
Volf writes out of his firsthand experience of ethnic cleansing in his home country of Croatia. “Liberators are known for not taking off their soldiers' uniforms,” he quips, and also quotes E.M. Cioran: “Great persecutors are often recruited among the martyrs not quite beheaded.” Freire, whose context is poverty and oppression in Brazil, warns that “the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity, become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather the restorers of the humanity of both.”
That's one heck of a high calling - not only to find healing and resist retaliating, but to actually restore the humanity of the very people who have hurt us? Yes, in Freire's opinion, those of us who have been victimized and oppressed are the only ones who can break the cycle of violence. “The oppressor, who is himself dehumanized because he dehumanizes others, is unable to lead the struggle.... Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”
I can nod along with Freire when I think about the ways I function as an oppressor. I know I need my black and First Nations friends to teach and liberate this white girl from the oppressive, racist systems she perpetuates. They can speak in liberating ways that I, as a would-be ally, cannot.
However, when I consider the way Freire might sound to people who are oppressed, I am hesitant. I know how unpopular it is to burden victims with anything more than their own self-care, let alone the liberation of humanity.
Volf takes one even more unpopular step beyond Freire: he has the nerve to say that oppressed people need to repent.
If you recoiled at that last sentence, you're not alone - that was my gut reaction, too. Hear him out, though. Volf reminds us that Jesus did most of his teaching among oppressed people, and he unabashedly called everyone to repentance. Of course, Jesus did not treat all sins equally - the call for powerful oppressors to repent is far more harsh and insistent throughout Scripture. Yet it was oppressed, victimized people who more readily jumped at Jesus' offer of forgiveness. They will lead the way into Jesus' kingdom of freedom. But first they themselves must be liberated from the hatred they nourish in their own hearts, from their desire to excuse or abdicate responsibility for their own violent reactions.
“For a victim to repent means not to allow the oppressors to determine the terms under which social conflict is carried out, the values around which the conflict is raging, and the means by which it is fought. Repentance thus empowers the victims and disempowers the oppressors. It “humanizes” the victims precisely by protecting them from either mimicking or dehumanizing the oppressors. Far from being a sign of acquiescence to the dominant order, repentance creates a haven of God's new world in the midst of the old and so makes the transformation of the old possible.”
This kind of repentance is a process we will likely have to repeat again and again. It's not something that can be forced on us. For those of us who find the strength (or weakness!) to submit ourselves to this transformation, there remains another difficult step: making room in ourselves for the “other,” even for the “other” who has oppressed us. Taking one step closer to them, arms open. Acknowledging our common humanity. Opening ourselves to the possibility of eventually embracing our enemy as our sibling.
There's no guarantee they will accept that embrace. Final reconciliation is God's work, not ours. The guarantee, rather, is that by opening ourselves so radically and dangerously, we will become more like Christ. We will learn the self-giving flow that characterizes the life of the Trinity.
Yes, it's a high calling. And I believe God is patient with us. Some of us are still pinned under the foot of the oppressor. Some of us are too raw to even contemplate repentance and embrace. Yet when we're ready to take up the mantle, the call remains: “Repent, be transformed, and be empowered to set others free.”
To my LGBTQ+ friends: In this heated context, I know how difficult it is to choose to humanize our so-called enemies, to navigate friendships with flesh-and-blood people we disagree with, to educate and correct misinformation time and time again, to refuse to stoop to the ad hominem arguments that abound on Facebook and Twitter, to learn when you're called to step away, to learn when you're called to remain.
Know that your daily acts of kindness, forgiveness, and grace are no small matter.
Take courage. This is the Christ-ordained work of liberators.