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.