February Links Roundup: Coals of Fire on their Heads

The Biblical author of Proverbs 25:21-22 (also quoted by St. Paul in Romans 12:20) makes the curious statement, “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” This adds some bite, shall we say, to contemporary mainstream Christian teachings on forgiveness. We’re more familiar with St. Paul’s warning against revenge, immediately preceding this quote. But this striking image suggests that the most potent payback is being forced to see one’s self in the light of God’s truth. Instead of returning evil for evil, we can let our own purity of heart be a mirror against which their hatred bounces and reflects back on them. To put it another way, if my abusers really faced the trauma that motivated their misdeeds, that would hurt worse (and more constructively) than anything bad I could say about them on the Internet.

So says former U.S. Olympic gymnast Rachael Denhollander, the first of 150 victims to go public about being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander, a conservative Christian, delivered a powerful and eloquent victim-impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing last month. Read it at CNN.com. Among her memorable quotes: “I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well.”

She tells her story in the Christianity Today article, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” Sadly, Denhollander also became a pariah in her own church because she didn’t limit her call-out to secular sex offenders. Nor did she mince words about how bad theology can enable abusers.

Given your concerns that Christians can use God’s call to forgive as a weapon against survivors, did you feel at all apprehensive telling Nassar that you forgive him?

I did to an extent, because forgiveness can really be misapplied. Taken within the context of my statement, with the call for justice and with what I have done to couple forgiveness and justice, it should not be misunderstood. But I have found it very interesting, to be honest, that every single Christian publication or speaker that has mentioned my statement has only ever focused on the aspect of forgiveness. Very few, if any of them, have recognized what else came with that statement, which was a swift and intentional pursuit of God’s justice. Both of those are biblical concepts. Both of those represent Christ. We do not do well when we focus on only one of them…

…The damage of sexual assault is extreme and it is lifelong. As much as someone forgives their abuser, as much hope as is found in the gospel, we don’t get complete restoration this side of heaven. It does not happen—that’s why the hope of heaven is so glorious. But the suffering here on earth is very real, and it does not go away simply because you forgive and release bitterness. These women are going to live, myself included, with lifelong consequences of the sexual assault, and the vast majority of this never needed to happen.

What does it mean to you that you forgive Larry Nassar?

It means that I trust in God’s justice and I release bitterness and anger and a desire for personal vengeance. It does not mean that I minimize or mitigate or excuse what he has done. It does not mean that I pursue justice on earth any less zealously. It simply means that I release personal vengeance against him, and I trust God’s justice, whether he chooses to mete that out purely, eternally, or both in heaven and on earth.

A beautiful example of repentance and risky honesty is this January post on Mormon writer Josh Weed’s blog, “Turning a Unicorn Into a Bat: The Post in Which We Announce the End of Our Marriage”. I was not previously aware of this author, and discovered this post via the Twitter feed of Matthew Vines (God and the Gay Christian). Apparently, for several years, Weed and his wife Lolly have been writing about living in a mixed-orientation marriage: she is straight, and he has always known he was gay but tried to follow church teachings. However, they had the discernment and courage to realize that this was not working. As part of this confession, Weed apologizes to the LGBTQ community for upholding a theology that leads many queer Christians to the brink of suicide (himself included), and for being a public example that was used to bully other people into “ex-gay” lifestyles:

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who even had a moment’s pause as they tried to make the breathtakingly difficult decision that I am now making—to love myself fully for exactly what God made me—because of our post. We’re sorry for any degree that our existence, and the publicity of our supposedly successful marriage made you feel “less than” as you made your own terribly difficult choices. And we’re sorry if our story made it easier for people in your life to reject you and your difficult path as being wrong. If this is you, we want you to know: you were right. You did the correct, brave thing. You are ahead of me in the sense that you have progressed through things I have yet to progress through. You listened to your gut and to God and did a brave, brave thing. Now I’m following your example.

We’re sorry to any gay Mormon who received criticism, backlash, or hatred as a result of our story. It wasn’t long after our post that we began to get messages from the LGBTQIA community, letting us know that their loved ones were using our blog post to pressure them to get married to a person of the opposite gender—sometimes even disowning them, saying things like, “if these two can do it, so can you.” Our hearts broke as we learned of the ways our story was used a battering ram by fearful, uninformed parents and loved ones, desperate to get their children to act in the ways they thought were best. One person wrote—and I’ll never get the horror of this out of my head for the rest of my life—saying that he went to see his family for Thanksgiving during his second year of college, where he was an out gay man who openly had a boyfriend. When he got home, his father pulled up our story on the computer and then physically assaulted him, beating him as he had often done during his childhood, saying “if this guy could avoid being a faggot, so could you!”

We’re sorry to anybody who felt a measure of false peace because of our story. There are many people who have good hearts, who were grappling with the issue of homosexuality before we came out, and who were having difficulty reconciling the church they loved with the things they knew about their gay loved ones. Our coming out post gave a false hope: “See? I just knew there had to be a way for gay people to stay true to their faith by denying themselves and live a happy, healthy life!” We’re sorry to perhaps send you back to the state of confusion you were in before you saw our story—but at the same time, that state of confusion is necessary. Something is wrong. It really doesn’t add up. As I have said in thousands of prayers over the last half-decade as I have come to know more and more LGBTQIA individuals and the ways they have been hurt, as well as have realized the impossibility of a God that would set up a “plan” that is totally impossible for a huge segment of His children to participate in, all within a church whose policies and positions assert that that is exactly what God has done: something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong with how things are currently set up. I don’t know yet what is right. But, Father, something is so incredibly wrong.

We’re sorry to any LGBTQIA person who was given false hope by our story, or who used our story as part of the basis for their life-decisions. We honor your decisions, whatever they are, and we’re sorry for any way in which our current trajectory might be unsettling or alarming.

I, Josh, am sorry to the many LGBTQIA people over the years that I subconsciously saw myself as different than. I am no different than you, and any degree to which I held on to the idea that I could be gay without being gay was, I see now, a manifestation of lingering internalized homophobia born of decades of being told this part of me was evil. It was an effort to belong to the “in-group” (heterosexual members of the Mormon Church) that I was actually not a part of.

I also love their solution to the problem of sexual incompatibility. To keep family continuity for their four daughters, they’re buying a multi-family homestead where Josh and Lolly will be able to live near each other with their future partners. Now that’s queer in the best way!

In the same post, Josh mentions listening to Imagine Dragons’ song “Thunder” to give him strength for this decision–one of my son’s very favorite songs, too. Now I have another reason to feel good about being a fan. Billboard magazine has the story in “Mormonism & LGBT Youth: Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds on His Documentary”:

In Believer, a Sundance-bound documentary that he executive-produced, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds confronts the way Mormonism treats LGBTQ youth.

What inspired this doc?

We were going to make a documentary about Fremont Street in Las Vegas, [where] I grew up. But [director] Don Argott wouldn’t let me do it without diving into my life. He was living in my home, documenting me and my family, and that opened up old wounds. My dad’s brother is gay and Mormon — he was shamed in his community. Teaching that being gay is a sin is so damaging; it sparked me to take action.

Over at Little Red Tarot, the latest entry in Siobhan’s “Difficult Cards” series explores the light and shadow sides of the Hierophant, the Major Arcana card that represents religious tradition and institutions. The Hierophant can represent the “10,000 Things”, Taoism’s phrase for the multiplicity of entities and concepts that arose from the generative Nothingness of the Tao. As such, we might associate the card with the tribal divisions and stifling structures of organized religion. But the card can also point us to look beyond those things to the unnameable sacredness they try to translate into human terms. It can warn us that de-institutionalizing faith is no safeguard against universal flaws in human nature–the guru’s will to power, the spiritual person’s pride.

All religion seeks to bridge the gap between the mundane and that which is ‘holy’, spiritual, or transcendent. To talk only about structure, items, dogma, or beliefs is to miss half of this card. To talk about or master (as the Hierophant does) matters of spirit, we attempt, even when it’s futile to do so, to articulate that which precedes the physical world. The ether, the void, Tao, “No-thingness”.

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao…”

All and nothing. The Hierophant affixes the two.

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