Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Living Beyond the Walls: Church as Sacramental Sign

I recently posted to a discussion of sexual ethics on the National Catholic Reporter’s blog café. My posting develops a small parable to explain the perspective of those of us who are made outsiders today by the church in its pastoral approach to marginal communities (http://ncrcafe.org/node/1968). My parable focuses on the experience of gay Christians. There are others who also stand in the margins with us, and the parable can equally well apply to those other marginal groups.

For those of us who find ourselves called to the table but simultaneously shoved away by those occupying the center of the church, it’s like watching a banquet inside the church, but through a glass wall. We can see the table set. We see the gleaming plates and utensils, the groaning table laden with good food.

We see our brothers and sisters sitting feasting. As they do so, they celebrate the presence of the Lord who is the host of the banquet; they rejoice in the communion of those who sit with the Lord at the shared table. They proclaim the grace of the Lord in their lives, the amazing grace of the Lord’s invitation of all sinners to the table.

And yet, even as they marvel at the amazing grace that sets this lavish table for all sinners, those sitting at the table seem curiously unable to see those of us who are watching through the glass wall, hungry for the bread of life and for communion with our brothers and sisters around the common table. The glass wall that separates us, which our brothers and sisters have constructed (not the Lord: he abolished rather than built walls) seems strangely outside the scope of vision of those at the table. For us, it means everything. It is the decisive fact for us, as we try to respond to the invitation of the Lord to sit at the banquet table set for all sinners.

As my little parable at the NCR café notes, while we stand outside looking in, occasionally a brother from the right will get up and come to talk to us. When he does so, he tells us we are perfectly welcome at the table—as long as we acknowledge and confess our sin and promise to sin no more. We are welcome, that is, as a special category of sinners whose sins create a barrier different from the sins of all other sinners at the table, who are not asked to engage in this extraordinary exercise of self-renunciation and self-denial before coming to the table.

The brother from the right informs us that he’ll remove the glass wall if we will only admit that who we are, in our very nature, is wrong, and that the love we express on the basis of our nature is wrong, warped and twisted. When we reply that we cannot repudiate who we are without repudiating the Lord who made us as we are, that we cannot repudiate the love that flows from the depths of our beings if love is the central virtue for those who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, he shakes his head sadly and returns to the feast, leaving us where he found us, looking through the glass wall at the banqueters who celebrate the all-inclusive, all-merciful love of Jesus for every sinner.

Now and again, a sister from the left also leaves her place at the table and comes to talk to us. She tells us that our inability to pass beyond the glass wall is, after all, not due to any mechanism of exclusion on the part of the community, but is our own fault. It is our own refusal to accept the second-class status accorded us that keeps us from the table. It is our refusal to understand that the normative path for Christians is heterosexual marriage, and that, though we are certainly invited to the table, we are invited as those who cannot meet the norm, which keeps us from feasting with our brothers and sisters.

She, too, the sister from the left, promises to remove the glass wall that separates us from the other banqueters, provided we stop asking the church to reexamine its idolatry of the historically changeable model of the nuclear family, and provided we promise to fit into the way things are. When we respond that the conditions placed on us seem extraordinary—and are not imposed on any other category of sinners— and when we note that it is unjust to blame the victim of structures of marginalization, rather than to examine and abolish those structures, she returns to the table, leaving us to solve our own self-created problems on the outside of the glass wall.

Why re-tell this little parable today? I’m doing so because it has been on my mind as I think through the funeral Steve and I attended last week, his father’s funeral. Everything related to the funeral ceremonies—the wake and the funeral itself, the two lunches following each event—occurred in his family’s parish church. The funeral was a totally church-centered occurrence, as it should have been, given his father’s life of commitment to his parish.

It is an interesting experience to participate temporarily in the life of a parish that is part of a church which teaches that gay and lesbian persons are intrinsically disordered, and that our committed relationships of love deserve no recognition or protection because they are sinful relationships, not to be compared with the church-blessed relationship of marriage. It is interesting to participate in parish life, that is, for those of us who are gay, whose experience of being in church is simultaneously an inside-outside experience.

For me, these experiences are painfully mixed. They are experience of seeing the glass wall taken down by some brothers and sisters, while it is made even higher by others. Following the wake, as we all stood in church meeting and greeting, a cousin of Steve’s who is particularly warm and welcoming to me (she works with gay people and has come to love them, she tells me), came up to hug and talk to me.

As we talked, I looked over her shoulder to see a pew with four men who had lingered following the wake. The four were looking at me, sneering and laughing as they did so. One of these I recognized as another cousin of Steve’s. The others are somehow related, too—when you have 72 first cousins on one side of your family alone, the chances are high that at least half of the 300 or so folks at the funeral will be somehow kin to you.

The experience of taking to a cousin who was hugging and laughing with me, and then to look over her shoulder and see other cousins jeering, was disconcerting, to say the least. And yet it is a typical experience for those of us who are openly gay, insofar as we continue to have anything at all to do with the churches. While some within the churches recognize that exclusion of any kind is antithetical to all that Jesus stands for, but others who have just prayed side by side with us for an increase of charity ridicule and exclude us, we find ourselves both inside and at the same time outside, looking in through the glass wall.

In our relationship to many in the church, we have come to expect that we will be always made to know that we stand on the other side of the glass wall looking in, if we attend any service within the church. In our relationship to some within the church, we also find the wall taken down, the table free and open to us as it is to all other sinners.

It’s a strange place to find oneself. It’s a place many gay people who once had ties to the churches refuse to stand in, and who can blame them? What can be more painful than to live in a place that divides you to the very core of your being? And what can be more painful than to pray alongside other Christians for an increase of charity, and then to look up and see those with whom you have just prayed now acting as if the words you have all prayed mean nothing at all—at least, nothing at all when it comes to how the church receives you as a gay person? For many of us who are gay and feel called to sit at the table of the Lord, it is simply too difficult to live in that place of horrible tension where you truly do not know when the next blow will land, and when the one delivering the blow is a brother and sister who sits at the table hosted by the Lord of Love.

I blogged here recently about the ecclesiology of Metz (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/07/ecclesiological-options-and-church-of.html). Metz calls on the church to live towards the horizon of hope that forms the horizon of all human history. Metz reminds us that the church does not stand alone in trying to live towards that horizon of hope. Many secular movements also see the horizon of hope and move towards it along with the church. Metz’s ecclesiology opens the church to secular movements of liberation that try to anticipate in history here and now the hope that forms the ultimate horizon of human history.

In Metz’s ecclesiology, one must live within the church itself as if the glass walls no longer exist. One must live around the glass walls, living here and now as if the reign of God has already broken into history: a reign of God in which the least are the greatest, the last are first, and the poor have a privileged place. One must live as if the church is not mired in the structures of division and exclusion that typify society. One must live in a way that prefigures the reign of God by living, within the church, as if social structures of division and exclusion do not exist at all.

This is what it means for the church to be a sacramental sign of God’s salvific presence in the world. It means living in the here and now the vision of human possibility we can imagine when we look at the horizon of hope that norms human history. It means demonstrating to the world at large what is possible when we choose to live together with love and hope, with respect for each other in all our differences, the respect due to all those God has created.

What I have been trying to articulate about Steve’s father—who exemplifies the church at its best today—is precisely this: he lived within the structures of a church that still erects that glass wall for gay believers. And yet he lived in such a way that the wall did not exist. He simply chose to ignore it, to live around and beyond it—even when some of his own children continue to place the wall there for those who are gay or lesbian.

When more and more solid citizens, faithful churchgoers live that way, the wall will come down. Is it any wonder that there is such fierce resistance today to the eradication of the glass wall that keeps gay believers on the outside looking in, when people such as Steve’s father begin to ignore that wall? When solid, faithful members of the church start behaving as if the glass wall simply doesn’t matter, is just not there, then church leaders (and their allies) who have spent so much time and energy constructing and maintaining the wall probably have reason to be perturbed.

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