Monday, June 23, 2008

Radical Honesty: Afterthoughts

I have been thinking about my post earlier today, and wondering if some hard-won truths that seem self-evident to me are murky to many folks who may read my posts. These hard-won truths arise out of my experience as a theologian trying to be radically honest about my calling and life, who also happens to be gay.

That fact, which may seem minor-key to many people (and which is increasingly minor-key in many occupations) is still an all-determining fact in many church settings. I cannot speak for those other professions, except from an outsider's perspective.

I can, however, speak from the experience of struggling to be a radically honest (gay) theologian in the Christian churches. These are some bedrock realities of that experience, insofar as I have walked through it:

1. The more you struggle to claim a voice and to be radically honest, the more likely it is that you will be perceived as a threat.

2. And the more likely it will become that those with authority in church-affiliated institutions will do all they can to shut you down, to marginalize you, to read you out of the community, even to slander you and seek to destroy you in the process.

3. Those with authority in the church-affiliated institution have to engage in such scorched-earth treatment of gay employees they have treated unjustly, after all, since any integrity the employee retains after his/her demonization and expulsion calls into question the integrity of the one treating him/her unjustly. Expulsion is necessary because the continued presence of the unjustly stigmatized person within the community would reproach the church-affiliated leader; it would do because the employee would likely retain humanity even when the leader sought to represent him or her as inhuman. Looking at one we have beaten up while maintaining we have a right to engage in such beatings inevitably makes us uncomfortable, and causes others to look askance at us for inflicting such pain on another human being . . . .

4. When we can effectively expel and then slander someone in the process, and when we claim to have the church on our side as we do so, the very fact that we exercise power over the one we have expelled is cited as a justification for our mistreatment of the demonized one we have expelled: the church would not permit us to act this way if we did not have right on our side, after all, would it? And when we all know that gay people are capable of all forms of baseness, it is self-evident that, even if our behavior appears cruel, it must be right . . . .

5. Those seeking to walk the path of radical honesty as gay believers working in church institutions may expect to be lied about, to have stereotypes used against them, to have their work used by the institution while the institution gives credit for that work to others, to have the guardians of virtue in the institution represent themselves as the unjustly attacked holy ones even as they do all in their power to deprive the gay employee of reputation and livelihood.

6. Given the continued homophobia of many churches, it is still altogether too easy to represent a gay employee who values radical honesty as a) disgruntled and discontent, motivated by an anti-Christian agenda; b) sick and unbalanced, and in need of therapy; c) if a male, prone to emotion and unable to exercise leadership effectively because of the predisposition to be "emotional" rather than reasonable; d) promiscuous; e) predatory, etc.

I know, since I have had all of those tactics tried with me in church-affiliated institutions. The use of broad, ugly stereotypes (in my case and that of many other hard-working professional folks who happen to be gay) that would not be given the time of day in many secular institutions is still not only possible, but in fact prevalent, in church-affiliated institutions, insofar as these institutions deal with gay folks in their midst.

These tactics of marginalization and demonization are despicable. When they are coupled with post-factum rationalizations for the oppression these stereotypes inflict on gay employees--that is, when the outraged reaction of those to whom injustice is done because of their God-given sexual orientation is then cited as evidence that the one being oppressed deserves his/her oppression--they are toxic tactics.

They are toxic not merely for the one against whom they are used. They are toxic for the institution using such tactics, and for its leaders. Unfortunately, the toxin of homophobia is very difficult for church institutions to expel, as long as church leaders and leaders of church-affiliated institutions continue giving the benefit of the doubt to those who practice cruel injustice to gay persons.

When and how will all of this change? It will change, I believe, only when members of churches themselves challenge their leaders and their institutions to behave differently--to practice the mercy they preach by embodying justice. Change of the kind that is needed to expel homophobia from the churches rarely comes from the top.

Those with authority in churches and church institutions have too much to lose by seeking radical honesty about gay people and our lives. They have too much to lose by calling into question stereotypes that have been too effectively used for far too long, to marginalize and expel gay people from the churches. Calling those sterotypes into question would call into question the integrity of too many church leaders and leaders of church institutions. It would call into question the taken-for-granted behavior of too many church leaders for decades on end.

What will change all of this is the insistence of church people themselves that the gay human beings they know and love do not merit the cruel treatment we often receive from the churches and their institutions. What will change all of this is the quiet, courageous demand of church people that churches stop making life so tragically difficult for gay believers seeking to live out their faith with radical honesty.

What will finally call the cruelty and injustice into question is when church folks themselves open the doors, welcome gay human beings as human beings, and sit at the table together. The radical hospitality that every authentic celebration of the Lord's Supper is meant to comprise and demonstrate may prove transformative for the churches, when and if it ever takes place.

Get human beings to sit at the table together, to gather around a table to eat and talk together as human beings, and who knows what great things might happen--even in churches.

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