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Posts from the ‘sexuality’ Category

Crushing Liberating Theologies: From the Vatican to InterVarsity

I wanted to join InterVarsity when I was in college.

As a fresh-faced evangelical student newly arrived on campus, I signed my email up for half a dozen Christian fellowships on Quad Day: Young Life, InterVarsity, Cru, Christians on Campus, and local Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal mailing lists and student groups. When I eventually visited InterVarsity large group, I heard worship in four languages, saw a plethora of people of color, and witnessed someone of my ethnic identity preaching for the first time.

A few weeks later, my Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) assigned mentor listened quietly as I recounted my excitement at visiting these new groups of Christians. He listened attentively and paused before responding quietly: “well, whatever group you choose, just stay away from the Korean and black churches…their theology is weighed down by cultural baggage, and isn’t as pure as what you might find in our fellowship.”

I felt pressured, and chose to stay in Cru. I’ve written before how I was later forced to leave that ministry over my LGBTQ family structure and issues of queer and transgender inclusion on campus. I try not to relive the days when I was physically threatened by my Driscoll-wielding mentor, shunned by my closest friends, sent Bible-quoting blogs written by fellow Cru members asking for our community to pray for my death. As that loss opened up fully before me, I would look longingly at the multiethnic, questions-welcome sort of community that my friends in InterVarsity seemed to have, and I would weep, lonely, feeling like I had fucked myself over by making the wrong choice.

* * * * *

Five hundred years before my birth, conquistadors in gleaming armor landed on the shores of the islands and lands we now call “the Americas,” and began a centuries-long campaign to plunder, enslave, mutilate, rape, and ethnically cleanse this land’s original inhabitants, justifying it all with a theology that proclaimed the godliness of the empire. Countless stories of religious resistance and complicity, faithful hope and prophetic undoing, have indelibly marked these lands in the many decades since.

During the mid-20th century, members of the dominant religious tradition in Latin America (Roman Catholicism) began to more explicitly articulate a way of talking about God (a theology) that challenged economic inequality, which always seemed to make sure that wealthy politicians, priests and bishops went well-fed while poor masses teemed in squalor.

Priests and laypersons began prophetically interpreting the Christian story in light of the suffering of the poor, the colonized, and the oppressed. Figures like Gustavo Gutiérrez voiced a theology of Catholic conscience that demanded broad, structural changes and an end to international colonial exploitation rather than simply maintaining traditional pietistic practices of charity; no longer would the disenfranchised be the cheap outlets for the rich to periodically purge their consciences by on occasion sending the hungry away with a few crumbs.

Instead, God was now described as actually having a “preference” for the poor, whose exploitation is an insult to Jesus Christ. Salvation, argued these prophets, wasn’t God saving your “soul” and whisking you off to some lily-white, country club heaven after you die, but God literally liberating the marginalized from social, political, and economic oppression in this world as an anticipation of Christ’s ultimate deliverance.

Broken pot with water pouring out

TIME Magazine recently reported that the parachurch ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) is now explicitly asking all staff members who support same-sex marriage to leave the organization (including employees at their publishing house, IVPress). This decision is so heartbreaking. I count dozens of LGBTQ IV students and staff as beloved friends­: fellow believers with whom I’ve fellowshipped in dining halls, in our homes and churches, in clubs and bars, and at Urbana Missions, Reformation Project, and Gay Christian Network conferences.

InterVarsity has meant so, so much to these people over the years. For the LGBTQ women, men, and nonbinary Christians who have loved or been loved well by IVCF in the past, this news isn’t some abstract, quaint new source of outrage. They don’t have the luxury of claiming objective distance here: this conversation is the intimate text of their lives splayed out in increasingly sharp and painful ways. This is flesh and blood: real loss and public shaming, broken and strained relationships, bruised faith and lost financial security. It represents the culmination of so many nightmares and dashed hopes.

* * * * *

Before long, these new currents of Latin American theology, themselves influenced by global movements of resistance to totalitarianism, began to uniquely flourish. As this movement of the poor, campesinos, women, merchants, laborers, indigenous leaders, and tentmaker-priests began to challenge their status quo of religiously-justified political oppression, the Vatican took notice.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was one of the movement’s harshest critics. Ratzinger declared that these theologians were fundamentally corrupted in arguing that Christ’s teachings on the poor could be applied to current social situations, rather than serving as metaphors for judgment after death. He accused the third-world-driven movement of “cultural imperialism,” and wielding the Vatican’s influence prohibited Catholic seminaries and theological schools from teaching this kind of “Communist” God-talk.

The Vatican began to decisively legislate life out of its own ranks. Sri Lankan, Brazilian, and Indian priests were excommunicated and silenced for politically deploying the Eucharist and the Bible against the cheap grace and disembodied wealth of European colonialism. Indigenous leaders were pushed out of their beloved churches by higher-ups afraid of what this “liberating” theology would mean for their claims to trickle-down power. Others fared much worse: many liberation theologians were incarcerated, tortured, disappeared, dismembered, and murdered, often on orders from colonizing powers who went so far as to inaugurate new reigns of military terror to quell this movement.

* * * * *

Being raised in the US evangelicalism of the 2000s, I have grown up only knowing the Southern Baptist Convention as a bastion of right-wing, literalist, and exclusionary theology. The story of the denomination’s late 20th century shift rightward via a national takeover by fundamentalists who systematically eliminated more measured voices from church leadership goes too often untold. The spiritual homes that many had previously found in the Southern Baptist tradition were bulldozed, caked over with no-cracks-here theological concrete, leaving millions of believers unmoored and adrift.

In that same spirit, it grieves me to think that entire generations of college students will be deprived of the opportunity to know IVCF in the way some of my peers have known it. InterVarsity’s calculated purge designed to systematically root out latent support for same-sex marriage among its staff is the theological equivalent of the #Brexit. What thousands of untold future friendships, kinship relationships and “Jesus encounters” will be missed out on as a result of this move?

* * * * *

Any theology that insists upon the total dignity and inclusion of LGBTQIA people, in a context of institutionalized heterosexism, is a liberation theology. To affirm the validity of queer identities in a setting that is attempting to legislate them away is to participate in this challenging, life-saving theology.

There’s nothing more terrifying to comfortable purveyors of doctrine and power than a home-grown theological movement, nurtured right under their noses, which in advocating for those most pushed to the margins challenges existing discrimination. As the historical record shows, those who are talking about what God is doing in Christ in liberating ways are quickly cast as a threat. They are silenced by (para)church leaders, cauterized as cancers, swept aside by a proud system unable to see the very harm it is inflicting.

Faithful dissenters, themselves motivated by the testimony of scripture, are seen as dangerous radicals infiltrating the flock with an outside agenda. “Communists! Liberals! Heretics! Wolves in sheeps’ clothing!” This is why my Cru peers were able to tell others in good conscience that I had been deceiving them all from the outset, merely pretending to be a Christian.

Remember that those attempting to ebb the tide of God’s liberating spirit are fighting a losing battle. As the scripture says, “we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.”

May God burst forth in our midst, keep our treasured faith and protect these sacred clay jars that we call our bodies. Our wonderful, physical, fleshy, soft and embodied, queer and colored bodies. May God’s liberating spirit be born anew among us in these days of turmoil, breaking walls that bind, liberating us from captivity to power and exclusion.

* * * * *

I wrote this post only after speaking with LGBTQ staff, current students, and alumni of InterVarsity to make sure sharing my thoughts here would be helping and not hurting. These people are the ones whom this conversation most affects. Let’s center their voices in this time of grief, challenge, and lament.

Below are voices of a few such leaders, for whom I offer my prayers, love, and unqualified support. I will continue to update this post with resources and the latest campaigns related to the #InterVarsityPurge conversation.

Alexis

Haley

Bethany

Bianca

Kathryn

Michael

Pulse

News of a gay nightclub in Orlando being attacked by an armed gunman on June 12 immediately quelled my excitement for Loving Day – an annual celebration of the 1967 Supreme Court decision to federally legalize interracial marriage. Nine years before the court’s ruling, police officers acting off an anonymous tip had raided the home of interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving, pulling them from bed and charging them with violating Virginia law. In court, the trial judge would invoke the natural and inviolable created order of “Almighty God” to condemn the Lovings to twenty five years of banishment from the state for publicly violating mores of sexual respectability.

The day before the shooting, I was riding through hundreds of miles of California desert with a group of young Japanese Americans on a cross-country trip to Manzanar, a concentration camp where more than ten thousand persons had been imprisoned during world war two. Once we arrived, we spent the day taking it all in, visiting the graves of those who died in camp, and laboring with gardening tools for hours under the silent sun, fighting back against nascent tumbleweeds.

In the camp’s museum, a large guestbook had been laid out for visitors to record their thoughts. I saw a lot of beauty and innocence in those pages, signatures in dozens of languages and notes of pained hope and healing. Then I flipped to a page that seized my attention. Someone in confident, inking scrawl, had written:

 Make America Great Again!

Vote Donald Trump!

Let’s do this to the Muslims!

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I started shaking in anger, remembering a similar incident from my first pilgrimage to this site two years ago. While eating dinner at a restaurant near camp, a waiter, an older white military veteran, had stormed up to me from behind and ripped my keffiyeh off my head, demanding that I keep it off, and calming only when another employee intervened to point out my Hebrew tattoo. Over the past few years, politicians and talking heads have favorably revisited the idea of resurrecting America’s concentration camps for Muslim and Arab Americans, just like we did to “those Japs.” But too many of our families remember the barbed wire and the machine guns to be silent while something like this happens again.

The home, a marriage bed, an incarceration center’s memorial guestbook, or a gay nightclub on Latin night – these are supposed to be spaces where wider currents of violent acts are repelled, not their epicenters. When such prejudice manifests in a place that is supposed to be sacred, it wounds twice over. The injury is visibly deepened as a vulnerable group is robbed of what little sense of safety they had to begin with.

vigil

Emerging from a familial background in which matters of sex and sexuality are often characterized by silence and a cultural context in which few of the popular labels around sexual minorities are indigenous, I have over this past year deeply struggled to articulate my own identities. Sometimes talking about being queer feels comparable to publicly discussing my personal struggles with mental health: I’m truly afraid to pin these stories and identities loudly to my chest, lest I give others the weapons that they might later use to wound me.

As a queer person who is in a committed relationship with someone of the opposite sex, I have often felt a fixed degree of separation from many of the “traditional” markers of The Gay Experience™. I am struck by the fact that when my partner and I hold hands in public, we do not experience the kind of revulsion, for instance, that my gay mom and her partner do when they act in the same way. I am much more easily able to camouflage, to blend in, and rendered that much more unseen.

But this relative hiddenness has not lessened the pit that opens in my stomach – around the dinner table, in church settings, on television, with friends and their spouses – when LGBTQ people are being boldly or subtly maligned. It has not reduced my fear that new or old friendships will evaporate if I begin to trouble easy assumptions about my sexuality. And this sense of invisibility has not mitigated the trauma of the Orlando shooting. I was comforted and challenged by someone who recently tweeted, “Bisexuality is real and you deserve to mourn, too.” The shooter did not stop to ask his victims whether they identified as L, G, B, T, or Q; that night, a proximity to brownness and queerness was enough to mark their bodies as utterly worthy of death.

If there was ever a time to reapply ourselves to the work of combatting the ideologies of death that affect Latinx, queer, and Muslim communities, it is now. Just as every myth and measured lie about black sloth and sexual predation fed into Dylan Roof’s racial terror in Charleston last summer, so too did every pulpit proclamation against the “abomination” of homosexuality and the threat of queer families help fuel the Pulse nightclub attack. While many “traditionalist” evangelicals have been quick to voice their sympathy for the slaughter’s victims, less acknowledged is that what the Orlando shooter did exceptionally well on Sunday was bring the doctrine of “hate the sin” to its ultimate, horrifying conclusion.

On the morning of the Pulse attack, I woke up in a Los Angeles hotel on the same street where our families had to line up with what little belongings they could carry, to be searched and trucked off to camp. Before America’s more than fifty Little Tokyos were forced into historic memory, they stood as vibrant communities of diasporic Nikkei identity, testaments to our migrant pride. Today, only three Japantowns exist. Only three scattered patches of streets, reduced from former glories, have managed to repel the near-constant incursions by outside business and political interests who dream of raising up more parking lots, high-rent housing, and yuppie kitsch in their place.

I am remembering more than anything this week that there are vast powers arrayed against each of us, forces trying to encroach upon the integrity of our whole selves. We are, each of us, a Little Tokyo. The world will try to pick and parcel us apart, claiming that we cannot possibly hold all parts of ourselves together – you cannot be both queer and a Muslim; a person of color and a Christian; attracted to both women, men, and people of other genders.

We are a people whose mere existence frightens the state’s enforcers of the status quo, those frustrated men who see in our multitudes miscegenation, violation to be extinguished. Their vicious acts of hatred continue to wound deeply, and there are not words to address them. But we will continue to share our hope and our lives, speaking out against single stories and silence. If we do not tell these stories, no one else will.

Apple Orchard

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I had a nightmare last night. In my dream I didn’t know where I was, but I was trapped, somehow unable to either open or close my eyes. I was being swallowed up in marbled heat, like I was closed inside a standing coffin, sweltering in the sun. But I wasn’t inside, I was just…standing outside, sobbing, unable to catch my breath. Loved ones were standing around me, watching me dissolve into my body’s demands, and I knew in this moment that I was back at Manzanar.      

This weekend I’ll be chaperoning a group of college-age (18-25) Japanese Americans to Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo neighborhood, where we will be engaging in critical workshops and discussions on Nikkei identity, as well as exploring the history of the community there through political tours and museum visits. The next day, we will head three hours north to the site of a former concentration camp that imprisoned more than ten thousand people during world war two – some of our participant’s family members included.

Two years ago, I went on this same trip myself as a participant and really felt that my life was changed forever by it. It was certainly the most explicit site of my genesis as a liberation theologian. Afterwards, I wrote a number of times about this experience: dramatically, for my own blog ; coolly, for the Pacific Citizen newspaper; and most recently for Inheritance Magazine.

I had spent the year before that first trip crystallizing a sense of racial consciousness through joining weekly videoconferences with a now-defunct antiracist/feminist theological collective (Killjoy Prophets) where we read Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree and engaged in decolonizing discussions around faith, gender, race, and social media.

From Cone to Manzanar to mobilizing around Michael Brown’s stalking and killing later that fall, these events left an indelible mark in my personal racial consciencization. They were each steps in a long journey of learning to marshal my own muddled, depoliticized identities into greater participation in a Christian QPOC activist tradition that has been extraordinarily life-giving. All of these collective experiences helped me finally begin to question the hegemonic categories of whiteness (and straightness) in which I’d enacted uneasy participation for most of my life. That year left me altered, some Ship of Theseus type stuff (if you replace every single component of a ship part by part, is that ship the same ship as before?). Manzanar met me shining and bright and I somehow left cut to the heart, immolating, with a new theology and a new name.

The concentration camps that our country raised from desert sands were our community’s crucifixion event. It is the Exile. This pilgrimage feels like, maybe, the disciples’ grandchildren gathering at Golgotha seventy years later, poking at old scabs, shooting for profundity, wondering if there is any going back here, or if it will fade forever, and which would be better.

Maybe someday when I’m telling this story of our people to the rokusei, sichisei (ha!), the hachisei, I will remind them that it could be that everything started with Manzanar. It is all here: trauma, sexuality, memory, ghosts, dead life, broken bodies and haunted houses. I wonder if all those years later, I will still be consumed by the reckless hatred of it all. Not my hatred – although that is there also, humming raw and pink in my chest. But the hatred of the men who for God and country architected this, and the easy scorn of the millions who to this day remain silent. (The people who believe themselves to be human.)

The immanent fact of returning to Manzanar in under 48 hours exhilarates and panics me. I have reimagined the scene of my return a thousand times, in dreams and idle thoughts. This land is not just any land. I know the history of pain there will physically paralyze me when I return. Where blood is spilled, where bodily hosts are broken, these places become perverted sacraments, outward and visible markers of an inward and invisible corruption. The cynics cannot understand the weight of this place, but there living memories here, waiting to be resurrected. When you walk over the sands, your feet kick up dust that stirs around in the wind and is swept into your nostrils. You can’t help but leave the place coated, the stuff sticking in and through and with every inch of you.

Please pray that we are able to have a productive and life-changing trip. Pray that the Spirit of God would speak powerfully to heal the trauma we are walking into this weekend. That we would be ever more greatly propelled towards enacting the liberation of ourselves, but especially other marginalized groups. That we can together learn to honor this place and history without deploying an essentialized or sterile version of this event, painfully easy for me to do when I am sharing with nice white folks, or to other well-meaning people of color who are eager to quickly bound towards The Greater Atrocities like we’re swapping tales about Big Fish.

I am looking forward to everything to come this weekend, and grateful for each of you who is reading this post.