Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty

How we read the Bible depends on our understanding of authority. Therefore, it is a political problem. How we read the Bible also depends on our theory of perception and knowledge. Therefore, it is a psychological problem. Authority and perception are both issues of trust. Therefore, how we read the Bible is an ethical problem.

Can we trust our own perceptions? What else is there to trust?

On the one hand, what I call “myself” is the product of culture, upbringing, and ongoing relationships, which influence me even as I in turn push back against them and change them. The autonomous self of classical liberal philosophy is something of a fiction. (Of course, as Trinitarian Christians, we should not be discomfited to discover the relational nature of personhood. Interdependence does not negate distinctness.) 

On the other hand, all my ideas and perceptions come to me through the unique filter of who I am at this moment. My perspective is not flawless, but it is inescapable.

And should I try to escape it? To enlarge it, yes, to hear and imagine the experiences of others and recognize them as my siblings in Christ, but there is a difference between climbing higher on the mountain to get a better view, and pretending I have no vantage point at all. Finitude, and its attendant diversity, seems to be God’s will for His creatures, as James K.A. Smith suggests in The Fall of InterpretationIn my experience, people who claim absolute objectivity for their interpretations (“The Bible Says…”) are avoiding self-awareness about the personal factors that make one argument seem more plausible or desirable than another.

I’ve been wondering whether the Bible itself has anything to say about how we should interpret it. Human nature, we learn pretty early in the story, is fallen. Human judgment isn’t always accurate. Adam and Eve were extraordinarily close to God, but were still deceived about the fundamentals of His relationship to His creation: namely, that our share in the divine nature is a gift to be received, not a prize to be seized.

Original sin distinguishes the Christian picture of human nature from the liberal one. Privileging personal experience over text and tradition, a liberal might say “The truth is inside you.” I wouldn’t go that far. As a good postmodernist, I would say “You are inside you.” The right to stay grounded in our own experience should not be conditioned on the impossible burden of always “getting it right”. That’s another form of legalism.

At the other end of the spectrum are Protestants whose awareness of original sin is so strong that they believe in
“total depravity”. According to this theory, we are incapable of desiring or correctly perceiving God, absent miraculous intervention. Christians from this tradition worry that the postmodern turn toward multiple perspectives will weaken our obedience to God’s revealed Word. Left to our own devices, we would do the wrong thing, so we must follow the rule book.

Does Scripture require this level of self-mistrust? This question was on my mind last week when I read this
gospel passage during morning prayer:

12When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

13The Pharisees challenged him, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

14Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going. 15You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one. 16But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me. 17In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. 18I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me.”

19Then they asked him, “Where is your father?”

“You do not know me or my Father,” Jesus replied. “If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20He spoke these words while teaching in the temple area near the place where the offerings were put. Yet no one seized him, because his time had not yet come. (John 8:12-20)

Now, we are all part of Christ’s Body. Does that mean that we have the same authority as our Head to speak about our connection to God, without human religious authorities as backup witnesses? I’m not sure. One thing I do get from this passage is that Jesus recognized how demands for proof and consensus can be deployed by those in power for idolatrous ends. The majority view is just “the way things are”; accusations of bias conveniently flow downward to the individual, or the minority, who challenges the majority’s exclusive claim to speak for God. Interpretation, for Jesus, is a political question before it is a theoretical one, and his politics are radically egalitarian.

Perhaps Jesus’ authority is too unique to tell us the scope of our own powers. What about other New Testament characters? Personal testimony is often the foundation of their credibility, as in the opening of the first Epistle of John:

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4We write this to make our joy complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

I don’t know whether the New Testament writers thought of themselves as “writing Scripture”, but even if they did, the religious authorities of their day would not have accepted that claim. Paul, John, Peter and the others were in a similar position to modern-day Christians who say that the Holy Spirit is leading them to revise certain traditions or interpretations. Some of us are surely wrong. But being right is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian life. If we could ever be completely certain we were right, we wouldn’t need God’s forgiving grace; we would be our own savior.

There was a lot of other material about Christ circulating at the same time as the writings we now call the New Testament. Over time, early Christian communities “road-tested” them and found that some were more helpful and consistent with the core gospel message. Even so, different versions of the canon were used by different Christian communities for several centuries after Jesus’ death. This is not an argument for relativism, but it suggests that Scripture is more like an electron cloud than a billiard ball. Before there was “the Bible”, there were Christians. Finite, fallible people…like you and me.

Michael Broder: “The Remembered One”

Poet and classics scholar Michael Broder presented his work at a panel discussion on “Poetic Responses to AIDS” at AWP Chicago last week. He has kindly given me permission to reprint one of those poems below.

The Remembered One

The good die young, but sometimes
    they come back, dripping with something
        we can’t name or identify,
an acrid perfume, or they reach for us
        like a taproot, draining
our sweet wells of oblivion
        until we lie drenched in a common sweat,
        our bed sheet their burial shroud, their moldering crust.

I dreamt of Marcos last night.
    I thought he came to be buried,
        to be done with; but no, that caramel devil,
leaving his tangerine swim trunks wet on the floor,
        toweling his gorgon hair as he sits in my lap,
numbing me with the poppies
        of his opiate grin and reasserting his claim:

Why should you get the house,
    the husband, the PhD, while I chew on dirt
        and feed succeeding generations
of night crawlers?
        I can crawl the night too, you know, the night is crawling
with me, with mine, with ours—
        while you pretend to walk, awake, alive.

Come with me, why don’t you, make once and for all
    the descent you practiced so ably for so many years.
        I know a place with many darkened corners
where you can crawl on hands and knees
        like in the old days—
What’s that you called it? “the old ich-du…”

We are beautiful there, and legion.
    We will keep you busy for centuries.
        And think what precious memories he will have,
here above—

This is the song you have waited so long to sing, isn’t it?


Michael Broder holds an MFA from New York University and is completing a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His poems have appeared in Bloom, Court Green, and Painted Bride Quarterly, among other journals and anthologies. His essay on Sappho is included in My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack and due out from the University of Wisconsin Press this spring. His book manuscript, This Life Now, is awaiting a publisher. Visit for links to online publication. Michael can be contacted at .

Poem: “Zeal”

I want the truth or
quiet, you can’t have both
in daylight, in company,
from the baby-blanket sky we turn into rooms
you can’t have if you’re human meaning
no desire without its rind of talk, I want
that orange uncut
better than to sit here with knives
spinning the sun in a bowl,
I want the truth like a fat lady
wants cake, sticking her sweet fingers in her mouth
in fecal shame,
I want quiet like letting the beaver
alone who nibbles on the neighbor’s lettuces
because in her world she is right,
pines hushing in the dark and insects gold
dust in the last beams, how could any
great hand that shaped the clover
fall harder on us
poor toads, I want to turn it
all off, the lingual grid gone black
and only hands left, right
in the sag and salty hair of us,
dear fatigue, lift me at last    I want
to forgive whoever
asks me and maybe others.

    published in Fulcrum #6 (2008)

Keith Olbermann Receives HRC Straight Ally Award

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann received an Ally for Equality Award at the Greater New York Human Rights Campaign’s gala dinner two weeks ago. Olbermann, you may recall, made waves for his heartfelt denunciation of Prop 8. Below is a video of his speech, in which he talks about the experiences that awakened him, as a straight white man, to perceive prejudice against other groups and fight discrimination in all its forms.

I especially appreciated this insight, which Olbermann shares at around 9:30 minutes into the 13-minute video:

…We live at a time when everybody—especially, it seems, the purveyors of hatred and prejudice against religions, or races, or sexual orientations, or height, or hair color—everybody actually believes that they are also the victims of some kind of prejudice: the horrors of affirmative action, the destruction of the religious sanctity of marriage, or of course bias in the media. Yet very few of these folks ever make the great mental leap—if you are a victim of prejudice, the specifics of the prejudice become almost irrelevant. It is the hate that counts. If you have been on the receiving end, if you are even for the briefest of moments merely mistaken for a member of a victimized group…if you really are just brushed by this plague of hate, you have been given a gift. It’s brief, it’s cheap, it’s everlasting. You have, as the old saw goes, walked the mile in the other person’s shoes. If you are a victim of prejudice, you should now hate prejudice.

Olbermann understands the wrongness of the zero-sum thinking that calls same-sex partnerships a threat to heterosexual marriage. Shoring up our status at the expense of any group–sinful or not!–is exactly the opposite of what Jesus told us to do. Rather, our experience of suffering should make us more attuned to the humanity of someone else who is now suffering in the same way. This, I think, is one lesson we can draw from the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35

In our complex, diverse society, it’s not uncommon for the same person to be disadvantaged by some characteristics while actually accruing privilege from others, or to be privileged in some contexts in their life but disadvantaged in others, even for the same trait. A conservative Christian may experience secular-liberal prejudice in her job as a university teacher, and sexism when she tries to buy a car, but when she casts her vote at the ballot box for Prop 8, she is still standing with the interests of the power structure–wielding the church-backed power of the majority to disenfranchise a stigmatized minority. One grievance drives out another.

In my experience, spiritually hungry people who can’t bring themselves to consider Christianity are not stymied by rationalist worries about miracles, evolution, or reason versus revelation. That may have been an older generation’s main concern, but not now. Now they’re upset because Christians seem to be the enemies of compassion and human rights. Someone has to step outside the vicious cycle of entitlement and prejudice. If it’s not us, what kind of gospel are we preaching?

Rescuing the “Argument from Nature”?

Eve Tushnet, a lesbian-oriented Catholic who accepts Church teaching on celibacy, has posted an interesting rebuttal to an article about gay Catholic theologian James Alison in a recent issue of Commonweal. The article is only available to subscribers, but it appears to reiterate Alison’s frequent argument that new scientific and psychological evidence requires a reassessment of the prohibition on same-sex intimacy. Homosexuality, once seen as some people’s willful rejection of our universally heterosexual nature, more and more appears to be a naturally occurring biological variation. As Alison wrote in this essay from 2007 (emphasis mine):

…[W]e are witnessing the fleshing out in a particular local Church of the mechanisms which the Catholic faith has given us to maintain unity, work through our being scandalized by change, and enabled to learn what is true over a time of discernment. The overarching priority is not to allow scandal at change to block us from receiving the grace which Our Lord seeks to give us through the sacraments. And then to make sure that this grace, and the new life it produces in us is available in ecclesial form so that others can be invited in as well.

I think this has come about because Church authority has become aware that the advent of “matters gay” in recent years may not primarily center on sexual ethics at all. Rather it concerns an emerging anthropological truth about a regular, normal and non-pathological variant within the human condition. In other words, it is not that the Church’s teaching about sexual ethics is being challenged by insufficiently heroic people, but that the field of application of that teaching is being redefined by emerging reality. And of course it is proper to the Catholic faith, where Creation and Salvation are never to be completely separated, that it takes very seriously “what is” as informing “what should be” rather than trying to force “what is” to fit into an understanding of “what should be” derived from other sources.

The first time a soccer player picked up a ball and ran with it, we were clearly talking about a disobedient soccer player, since it is intrinsic to soccer that only the goalie under tightly regulated circumstances can handle the ball. But over time it did become possible to talk about the game of rugby as something where the overall purposes of sports playing, shared with soccer, are faithfully maintained within a different set of practises. My point is that for the referee to blow the whistle on a ball-handler in a soccer game is very proper. And for as long as it is clear that there is only soccer, he is right. However, as it becomes clear that there may also be a game called rugby, he must learn to be very careful indeed, since attempting to referee a rugby match as though it were soccer being played by perverse rule breakers would degenerate into insanity.

To which Eve responds, with some justification, that a lot of things occur in nature that aren’t ideal or ethically defensible (rape, killing, addiction). In a follow-up post, she adds:

…”[N]ature” isn’t obvious. Cultures define what is natural, and those definitions need not match up at all well with your own morality, whether or not you’re an orthodox Catholic. So when you rely on “nature” arguments, you need to be fierce, be careful, and be anything other than complacent; and–my old hobbyhorse–maybe you’d be better off just leaving the “natural” category alone, and making your arguments on other grounds.

I happen to agree, but I don’t think we can leave it at that. We have to contend with the “argument from nature” because St. Paul uses it in Romans 1:26-27. This is the most extended reference to same-sex intimacy in the Bible (not counting ambiguous relationships like David and Jonathan), and arguably the only one that seems to condemn homosexual acts as a general category, rather than specific abusive situations like the rape of captured enemy leaders in Leviticus. The quote below starts at Rom 1:22 because the idol-worshipping context is important:

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (NIV)

St. Paul is working with a definition of “natural” that is more sophisticated than “something occurring in nature”. As Eve says, the latter definition is so slippery and overbroad that it easily puts a divine imprimatur on our personal desires or the culture’s existing power relations. So it’s not enough to say that homosexual desires are inborn or even that they’re found in other species. But neither is that an irrelevant bit of data. We can’t get away from the fact that in this passage, St. Paul is making empirical claims about the created order and the consequences of ignoring it, claims that are open to disproof.

One component of idolatry, as this passage shows, is a misunderstanding of creatures’ true nature. The Gentiles here mistook animals and humans for God. They were unable to see through the specific instance of God’s creation to the infinite creator they had in common. St. Paul therefore finds it unsurprising that people prone to category confusion would also depart from mainstream heterosexual relations.
Now, is St. Paul here proving, or merely assuming, that heterosexuality is natural for all people? I think that the last sentence of 1:27 makes this an assumption open to disproof, by St. Paul’s own standards.
St. Paul is making a pragmatic argument for what is natural, unlike modern conservatives whose arguments often depend on subjective, essentialist metaphors about what is “truly” masculine or feminine. He reads backward from consequences to explain which human behaviors are properly aligned with reality and our own best interest, and which are not. He could simply have said “Idol worship is wrong because God (or Scripture) forbids it” and left it at that, just as contemporary opponents of gay rights have treated certain texts as self-justifying and demanding blind obedience. But instead, he encourages readers to test his theology against common-sense observation. We can see for ourselves that idol-worship is bad because it leads to disorderly behavior, one example of which is the same-sex intercourse practiced by pagans, and we know that that is bad because the men “received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion”, which perhaps refers to sexually transmitted diseases. 

In this view, what is “natural” for us is what is conducive to human flourishing, according to our nature. This is a smaller category than “anything humans naturally happen to do”, the concept that Eve was rejecting. The confusion about “natural” may stem from the fact that both Jews and Greeks in St. Paul’s time had a teleological understanding of creation, whereas our society is accustomed to see Nature as the realm of blind, amoral, material forces.

Now, if there were discovered, or rather recognized to have always existed, a configuration of same-sex intimate relationships that did not naturally have any negative consequences for the individuals involved or anyone around them, i.e. that produced exactly the same spiritual fruits as heterosexual marriage, when the warping effect of social stigma was removed–what effect would that have on St. Paul’s argument? 

I believe it does no violence to Scripture to limit St. Paul’s example to its facts. This passage is not primarily about homosexuality, but about idol worship, with certain pagan sexual practices being cited as a (random?) example of its unhealthy effects. Same-sex intercourse may well have been “unnatural” (in the sense of “not God’s intention for them”) for the people St. Paul was describing, either because they were seeking a decadent thrill outside their normal inclination, or being promiscuous, or engaging in temple prostitution and pagan fertility rites that denied the true God. His argument does not depend on its being unnatural for all people everywhere, at all times, in every type of relationship. And as I have tried to show above, he would not have deemed it inappropriate to cite sociological evidence in a Scriptural argument, or to consider the real-world effects of a theological position as a guide to its truth or falsehood. 

Back from AWP and the World Is Ending

I’m back from the AWP literary conference in Chicago with my suitcases full of books, and my email inbox full of work that will be keeping me busy for some time. In days to come, I hope to share photos and anecdotes of our many memorable moments at the conference, plus brief reviews of some poetry books and journals. I will say this: you haven’t lived till you’ve seen a sign language interpreter trying to keep up with Dorothy Allison’s “Frog Fucking”, a performance piece which includes some toe-tingling action with two women and a strap-on, as well as a scene where she and an equally drunk gay friend compete to see how many buttered carrots they can shove up their asses. (I hope my accountant isn’t reading this…there goes my business-expense tax deduction.)

Allison’s piece was arousing, unsettling, comic, angry, melancholy, even spiritual. She was generous with her honesty about the entire range of emotions and roles we can play with our partners, showing how sex can help us integrate the parts of ourselves we might have considered unacceptable. The comic side of sex is a great equalizer, teaching us humility; the complete exposure of our kinks and quirks in a trusting relationship can clear away shame and self-deception.

All this is to say that I am not a prude, but the following item in the Springwise business trends e-newsletter still had the power to shock me:

The web has spawned new ways to track just about everything under the sun—from our finances to the foods we eat—so why not our sex lives too? Indeed, Bedpost is an online application now in private beta that helps consumers do just that.

Bedpost is an entirely personal application, password-protected from the prying eyes of others, and stresses that it offers absolutely no social networking features. Rather, it is a way for consumers to keep track of the sexual encounters they’ve had by logging in and entering some key details after each one. Users begin by creating a profile for the partner involved in their most recent encounter and then clicking on the calendar to indicate when the encounter happened. Then, they enter not just the time it happened, but also how long the encounter lasted, some descriptive tags and a star-based rating of the experience. The site then records all that information and presents it in a map of activity for the month on the user’s dashboard. For a historical view, Bedpost tracks summary statistics including frequency, average rating, and totals for the month and year so far. “Solo sex” tracking is also available.

I’m sorry, but using a spreadsheet to keep track of your masturbation episodes has to be the ultimate in pathetic geekiness.

I suppose some form of “Bedpost” has always been with us: Don Giovanni had Leporello and his “catalogue”; the playboys of our parents’ generation had their little black books. But the efficient coldness of tracking and rating your one-night stands on a computer, as if they were just another form of business contact data, seems to be taking us one step further toward sexual dis-integration of mind, body and spirit. 

Speaking with the Authority of Love

I try to do a lot of things without God’s help, and it doesn’t go very well. No surprise there. (With God’s help, sometimes it still doesn’t go well, but I feel better about it.) The project that means the most to me these days is speaking out about equality for GLBT people–in my fiction, on this blog, in the church, and in difficult conversations with Christian friends who have a non-inclusive interpretation of Scripture.

Sometimes, in this process, friendships are strained, support networks break apart, and my very commitment to God is questioned by my fellow members of the Body of Christ. That’s the hardest part. Without God’s grace, I am standing only on my own righteousness, that little melting ice floe in the stormy sea of judgment. Loneliness and fear tempt me to seek others’ reassurance that my beliefs are correct: in essence, asking other people to stand between me and God in the way that only Jesus should.

When I pray the Psalms every morning, it strikes me how many of them invoke God’s protection against slander, humiliation, and misunderstanding by those close to us. Still, somewhere, deep down, I have trouble believing that I have any right to pray these prayers when those I perceive to be my adversaries are fellow Christians–and not only that, but Christians who have been steeped in Scriptural learning to a degree that intimidates this recent convert.

But what is learning, without the heart? A Biblical hermeneutic that exalts the “pure” text, in opposition to input from science, history, experience, and our innate sense of compassion and fairness, is (in my opinion) cutting off the Body of Christ at the neck, and rejecting the Incarnation.

In the latest issue of our parish newsletter, our rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, the Rev. Catherine Munz, shared some thoughts about the source of our authority to evangelize, excerpted below. I found her words quite helpful as I struggle to believe that God’s forgiving love will cover me when I step outside the approval of human authority figures. Cat writes about the challenges of sharing the gospel when Christians have a reputation for prejudice and abuse of power:

On inauguration day I was blessed to receive a ticket for the festivities at the Academy of Music [a Northampton theater where the ceremony was shown on a movie screen]….When our new president mentioned in his speech that America was for Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, there was no response. When he added “and non-believers” the crowd cheered and applauded. I know, I know, this is Northampton. In a way I was sad–because I treasure my faith, in another way I was glad–because I treasure the rights of non-believers, and yet in a way, I had hope–the vineyard is ripe.

When Jesus spoke with authority, it was to right wrongs, uphold justice, speak healing, and tell of God’s great love. In our baptismal covenant we are asked on behalf of a child or our own selves if we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship…”will we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” We answered “I will with God’s help.” The authority has passed through the apostles of ancient times and to us–apostles of now.

There is a certain faction of people who call themselves Christians, and yet routinely fail to see the Good News of Christ. The same faction who denies justice and love and forgiveness, have helped to place Christians on the untouchable list of spiritually hungry people. Such an opportunity we have, more than opportunity, we are charged as Christians to make Love known. I think we have all met people who were non-believers who came to believe because someone demonstrated God’s love. I guess that really made them pre-believers….

Whatever you do or say remember that you were given authority to speak by virtue of your baptism. Speak of hope, justice, dignity, and the love of God.

Cat’s message raises another set of questions for me, questions that often get leaped over in the rush to trade warring interpretations of Biblical texts. It’s critically important, I think, to ask: Who has the authority to speak for and about gay people’s lives? How did we (heterosexual Christians belonging to established denominations) acquire the power to be considered authorities, and what structures of inequality maintain that power?

When Jesus had power, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave”. The greater our worldly advantage, the greater our obligation to enter humbly into the experience of outsiders, and afford them the presumption that their understanding of what homosexuality “is” is probably more accurate than ours. Most of the time, I don’t see that happening. In order to maintain that same-sex intimacy is sinful, non-affirming Christians perpetuate hateful myths and exaggerations (e.g. all gays are promiscuous and unhealthy); conflate homosexuality with sexual behaviors that are properly forbidden because they involve exploitation and betrayal (adultery, bestiality); and insist, despite all the evidence, that homosexuality can always be “cured”. Anything rather than see the other as the other sees herself.

Newsflash, people: As the coffee mug says, “wherever you go, there you are.” You can’t get away from yourself. Your knowledge of God comes through the filter of your own perceptions and thoughts. If you’re not the authority on your own experience, including your experiences of intimacy and love, then you also can’t trust your awareness of God. And indeed, this is the most terrible abuse that happens when the souls of gay people are divided from their bodies: indoctrination with the false belief that they’re not competent to know God for themselves. And of course, once you’ve convinced me that God is not there for me “just as I am”, I’m back to asking some convenient religious authority figure to tell me whether God loves me. No one, repeat no one, has the right to dole out or withhold that grace. We’re Protestants; I thought we knew that.

If the church focused more on awakening and training everyone’s capacity for spiritual discernment, and less on defending lists of prohibited activities, we might see more seekers and pre-believers coming to know the love of Jesus.

Diversity is Not Disbelief: UMC Minister Risks All for GLBT Rights in Kenya

United Methodist Church (UMC) Rev. John Makokha of Kenya has worked tirelessly to bring “education and understanding” of homosexuality to a country where gays and lesbians face church-sanctioned discrimination and physical persecution. This brave straight ally and his wife Anne have suffered financial hardship and ostracism for their open and affirming stance, and now it appears that church leaders are conspiring to force him out of the ministry.

Makokha is the Kenya coordinator for Other Sheep, an international ministry that supports gay Christians in East Africa and beyond. Below are some excerpts from Other Sheep co-founder Steve Parelli’s interview with Makokha in their latest e-newsletter. Behind the Mask, cited below, is an African webzine that promotes GLBT rights. 

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: John, according to the January 29, 2009, article by Behind The Mask, “you may face an axe from the United Methodist Church” at the next annual conference this April (2009) because of your “positive stance on homosexuality.” How likely is this, and do you think it could take place this April?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Well, it is anticipated that the next East Africa Annual Conference may be held during this time. The Bishop has the prerogative of making any appointments but with recommendations from each member country leadership. Looking at the way UMC leaders in Kenya have been strategizing and scheming against me, there is a strong concerted spirit of isolating and discriminating against me further during this session due to my positive stance on homosexuality. This session is likely to give homophobic and homohatred leaders an opportunity to shoot.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: So, you could “get axed” by your denomination. Does that mean you’ll be defrocked? Do you have any recourse? What will this mean to you financially? What will happen to the church you are now pastoring?

Rev. John Makokha replies: You can call it defrocking, or anything, but this is only a human decision. I will only be worried if I loose Christ. They are not the ones who called me in this ministry. They will not shut my mouth. I will raise a red flag using the social principles on affirmation of LGBTI persons in our UMC churches and the Great Commission. We talk of open hearts, open minds and open doors in the UMC. We need to be welcoming congregations, not unwelcoming. Discrimination is sin. I have affirmed my belief in an inclusive church, that is, a church that welcomes all of God’s children, that is free from any discrimination, including that based on sexual orientation or gender identity. If I am stopped, this church will dearly miss an affirming spiritual leader but the mission field is wide. The workers are few but the harvest is plenty. I will also miss my all- inclusive sheep that I have trained and preached to so far. Financially, it will not change my position since I have not been on any salary from the UMC. God has been providing for us in His own ways, through the gifts of his people. I am sure He will continue providing for my family through caring people who will choose to support us financially. God has been faithful and keeper of His promise.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: You’ve been involved with Other Sheep, an ecumenical Christian pro-LGBT international organization, since December of 2007. Is that when you first became pro-LGBT, or was it before then? Briefly, what is your history in speaking up on behalf of LGBT people of faith?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Thank you for that good question. Before joining Other Sheep, I had been actively involved in the LGBTI ministry for more than 5 years. I have conducted capacity building seminars ecumenically for ministers and laity on mission/evangelism work and human sexuality as a component in Eastern Africa region. I have counseled pastors, youth and married persons on sexual orientation. I have taught in Bible study sessions and preached sermons for inclusion and affirmation of LGBTI persons.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: Some Kenyan Methodist ministers, according to the article by Behind The Mask, have accused you of “promoting” homosexuality in the church? Of course, no one can “promote” a sexual orientation. A person either does or does not have same-sex attraction. What you are doing is “promoting” education on the topic of homosexuality for the sake of learning and understanding because the gay Christian community — a marginalized people — is being spiritually abused by the church by its outright complete social rejection of LGBT people. Would you agree that you are “promoting” education and not homosexuality?

Rev. John Makokha replies: Oh! My God, no one can promote homosexuality. Sexual orientation, according to scientific research, has shown that it is innate and cannot be changed. You only promote what is outside. You cannot promote what is inside. What is happening, so far, is ignorance on matters of human sexuality that has caused a lot of suffering to LGBTI. This has perpetuated both physical and spiritual violence in Africa. I have been promoting education (awareness) and not promoting homosexuality the way it has been alleged; through capacity building programs such as seminars and distribution of materials. I have also been carrying out counseling of LGBTI and PFLAG. We have been requesting dialogue and praying for tolerance and not intolerance. Inclusion and not exclusion.

Steve Parelli (Other Sheep) asks: So, what are you doing to bring “education and understanding” about issues relating to homosexuality to the United Methodist Churches in Kenya? How are you accomplishing this?

Rev. John Makokha replies: I am not only reaching out to United Methodist Churches, but working ecumenically. So far, almost all United Methodist Church leaders have received handouts and books on the Bible and homosexuality. I am passionately involved in organizing interdenominational seminars and workshops for clergy and laity. I have also been initiating dialogue with them. Counseling clergy and laity who are LGBTI. I have distributed resource materials to seminary and university students and professors. Lastly, I have been involved on KISS 100 radio and a TV talk show on the topic of homosexuality and social and religious justice.

This will create safer spiritual communities for LGBTS persons, their families, and their friends. I am confident that Jesus will break down all dividing walls of hostility and discrimination.

We are telling the church leadership that diverse understandings of Biblical texts is not disbelief.

Rev. Makokha has been ministering without a salary for the past two years because of his pro-gay stance. His wife was also fired from her job as a part-time lecturer at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, from which they both graduated. Makokha says, “Our children were told not to mix with others because they would ‘recruit’ them into LGBTI ministry. We were also advised to seek alternative housing elsewhere because of the nature of our ministry. We prayed, God opened a window and we moved out. But we still love our school.”

He adds that it is difficult to start a dialogue about sexuality within the church, as many people fear reprisals for speaking out. “We organized a seminar for the clergy in Nairobi but ministers feared to attend. It is a pity that even some resource materials donated to some evangelical colleges have sometimes been returned to us due to disapproval on the basis of phobia and lack of academic freedom.”

If you would like to ask the UMC leadership in Kenya to show grace to Rev. Makokha’s ministry and consent to an open dialogue about sexuality and spirituality, please email Mrs. Winnie Adhiambo, the lay leader of Riruta United Methodist Church. To help support the Makokha family, click here for the Other Sheep donation page.

“Fidelity” Video Puts a Human Face on Equal Marriage Rights

The Courage Campaign, one of the groups fighting for equal marriage rights to be restored in California, has posted dozens of beautiful photos of gay couples and their supportive friends and family members, saying “please don’t divorce us” to the California Supreme Court, which is currently deliberating on a legal challenge to Prop 8. Ken Starr, of Clinton/Lewinsky fame, has filed a brief in that case on behalf of the “Yes on 8” campaign, seeking to invalidate the 18,000+ same-sex marriages performed in California last year.

Now some of these images have been set to music in this poignant video featuring Regina Spektor’s song “Fidelity”:

I really think that a civilization is measured by the largeness of its moral imagination: its willingness to see the full humanity of every person, despite differences of class, race, gender, disability, and other accidents of unequal power. How will history judge us? How will it judge the church?

The Poet Spiel: “the end”

the end

            i don’t think
        anyone cried
on the first day

there was loud silence
the kitchen table

dad phoned
the wheat-threshers
told them
there would be
no filthy sweat work

one out-of-hell
sweep of hail
had wasted his readied crop
one day too soon

no one wanted to talk
so i hid my mouth upstairs
just played and played my harry belafonte
till it numbed me dead

when i came to
my dumbed diamond needle
was banging
deep grooves in my head

my folks were still
in the kitchen
at dark

the dogs were scratching
our screendoor
and i wasn’t sure if
the cows had been milked

                my dad had to quit 
            a lifetime 
    to farming

and we had to move
where our only harvest
was just a dumb little patch
of green grass where i rooted

a pussy willow cutting
hoping it might spring up
to cast cover over
the naked bathroom window

of a little white house
crammed between
who did not have trucks

who made their lights
push through
my bedroom walls
after bedtime

and me just listening
to the slick-black street
where a kid could not
kick dirt

This poem was reprinted by permission from The Poet Spiel’s chapbook once upon a farmboy (Madman Ink, 2008). Visit his website here.