There are a growing number of churches and denominations that exist to be places where the LGBTQIA+ can flourish, as is. If you are looking for a welcoming and affirming faith community we recommend you check out Church Clarity at https://www.churchclarity.org/
For more of conversation on LGBTQIA+ inclusion, check out our conversation with the folks at Church Clarity here: https://freedomroad.us/2019/
For Further Reading
Lisa Sharon Harper: Coming to you from Washington, DC, I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, President of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap. Welcome to the Freedom Road podcast.
Each month, we bring together national faith leaders, advocates, and activists to have the kinds of conversations we normally have on the front lines, it’s just that this time we’ve got microphones in our faces and you are listening in. This month, we are partnering with Activist Theology to bring a raw, real, gut-level, honest conversation about an issue that is rending apart denominations across the country in the same way that the abolitionist movement tore asunder every single denomination in the years leading up to the Civil War. So, I’m joined today by Robyn Henderson Espinoza, co-founder of Activist Theology who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, and Shane Claiborne, co-founder of The Simple Way and co-director of Red Letter Christians, pronouns he/him/his, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. Robyn, Shane, and I have come together to wade into the troubled waters of LGBTQ+ inclusion and exclusion in the church. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet to me, @lisasharper, or to Freedom Road @FreedomRoadus, and keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks, and letting us know what you think, because we love the feedback. And we really do love to have the conversations, and I’ve been hearing so many wonderful things from so many people I didn’t even know were listening from all over the world, and it’s encouraging to hear that you’re listening, and it’s also actually informative. It helps us to see kind of what are the things we want to be talking about in the future. So, let us know, okay? Keep it coming.
We decided to lean into this conversation because we see the church being wrenched by this conversation. We agree that this is important because caught in the middle of this wrenching moment are people. People are being pushed out or they are leaving churches and denominations because of the shrinking ability of church denominations to engage in honest, earnest, gracious discernment with one another, with science and with Scripture around the issue of LGBTQIA inclusion and exclusion. Let’s dive in.
So how has your life, both Shane and Robin, and also, I’m thinking for myself as well, intersected with issues concerning the LGBTQ community?
Shane: Who wants to go first?
Lisa: How about you go first, Robyn?
Robyn: Well, I think that from an early age, I knew that I was different, not just racially because my mom asked me if anyone ever treated me differently for my skin color. She is a dark, caramel brown and from Mexico, and so I knew from an early age that I was different.
Robyn: And I knew that I didn’t understand what it meant to be a girl or boy and neither of those really fit for me. And of course, the more I grew, the more I interrogated those categories for myself, and came out as queer in college, but was deeply closeted because I was at a school that would have expelled me had I come out publicly and didn’t come out–
Lisa: Wow. Do you mind me asking what school?
Robyn: Yeah. Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
Lisa: Oh, wow.
Robyn: I studied theology there. I was an undergrad theology student. I did some post-grad work there, but went to the seminary and came out in seminary, and was gender-queer in seminary and gender non-conforming, and I felt very close to the term transgender. But at that time, I didn’t feel like I needed to be male or female, and at that time, the only option was to transition to male, and I knew that I wasn’t trying to be a man, nor did I feel like I was female or woman. And so, when I enter my doctoral program, I discovered the language of non-binary – that was about ten years ago – and now people use that term a lot, but there’s still really a lot of work to be done around non-binary visibility. But, really, I mean, my engagement with the LGBTQ community has been very personal and the church has not always been a safe place for me to be who I think I understand myself to be.
Lisa: Wow, Robyn. Thank you. Honestly, like when I hear your story, honestly, I’m kind of, you and I have talked about this in the past, but I am reminded of the story of my nephew and how his story helps me to understand the depth of your story a little better than I would have. And I feel it – because of that, I feel it. So, I just want you to know I’m with you.
Robyn: Yeah, thank you. Thank you.
Lisa: I’m like sitting here with you in it right now. That’s how I feel.
Robyn: I have always felt that way with you, Lisa, that you’ve always really leaned in to understand my story and other people’s stories and that’s such a beautiful gift that you have.
Lisa: Well, thank you. I’ll tell you, I was not always that way and when I think about how this intersects with my story, it was when I first started – let’s go back to the 1990s. Well, I mean, honestly, I have to say that the issue of LGBTQ anything never really came up for me at all at any time until AIDS in the 1980s. In fact, ironically, I was a theater person, I was a theater major at Rutgers University at Mason Gross School of the Arts. I was an actor in their theater program, and it was my very first introduction to anything gay … or even thinking that that was even out, there a possibility of anything was the first theater assembly when all the theater majors of any stripe all come together once a week to have some kind of a conversation or presentation. And this one was done, I believe, by Hal Prince, a really big theater person out there came in or somebody like that. He came in and talked to us about AIDS and the impact it was having on the theater community. And this was in 1987, right? So, 1987, and it was just devastating the theater community. And that was honestly the very first time the word “homosexual” (this is the word they use at the time), was ever used in my presence that I remember. And so, it was all associated with AIDS, and the AIDS quilt came through, I mean, I really want to cry about it now thinking about it, but came through our campus. And our Campus Crusade for Christ student leaders went out not us, Campus Crusade for Christ, we were all crusaders, like Campus Crusader people, we all went out to see the quilt. And we walked the quilt and wept.
Now, the funny thing is on a national level, at that point, people in the LGBTQ community were all being villainized, and it’s interesting … AIDS was as scary as the coronavirus feels like right now, today. “You can’t go outside, you might get it,” that kind of thing. But it was also all being targeted at the LGBTQ community, but I don’t think it wasn’t on a local level. We just wept. We just wept, walking the lines of those quilts. But then, years past, decades past, actually, maybe a decade passed and then I was on staff with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship in LA and my next interaction with the whole issue was the question of LGBTQ people in our fellowship, and the teaching that has been taught was that it is bad, it is wrong, it didn’t really even need to be taught, that was just the common belief, and so I am ashamed to say now that I participated in individual prayer times to pray the gay away. Now, knowing what I know in terms of the fact that there is an actual gene – there’s a gene, people. There’s a gene. You can’t pray your genes away. You just can’t do that nor should you have to. But yes, that’s where I was and I was there all the way until I left staff, like, a decade later.
I left staff and went to New York City and one of my good friends from Campus Crusade had gone through her own “aha” moments and she really challenged me. And what she said was, “You can’t minister, you can’t do ministry in New York City and not deal with this issue. You’re going to have to figure out what you think, what you believe.” Because LGBTQ people, this is ground zero for the movement. And so, it was in New York City while in grad school, my second time I went to grad school this time for human rights at Columbia, where I began to ask deeper questions and ask my friends who are LGBTQ about their lives and they asked me about religious liberty and things like that. It was a challenging time but also a really good rich time, because it felt like a safe space to wrestle. But it wasn’t until I was asked to write the book, Left, Right & Christ, co-write it with a tea partier, and one of the chapters was going to be on same sex marriage that I really had to make a decision. What do you think?
Robyn: And what year was that?
Lisa: I want to say 2011 that I was asked to write the book. No, 2010 that I was asked to write the book, and then we were writing it, and it came out in 2011, one year before the 2012 election cycle. And so, it was before the same-sex marriage ruling on the Supreme Court. But it was after, in the midst of writing it, that the case that ended up going to the Supreme Court was adjudicated in California. So, it was in the midst of writing that chapter that I really did my research and I mean, I just asked all kinds of questions, like, what is traditional marriage? What do we mean by that? What is it actually? What is marriage and family in the actual Bible? Like if that’s going to be the place where we are going to?
Robyn: Yes, especially when there are so many examples of marriage in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Lisa: Hello. Right. And they’re different actually through time. So, what are we going back to? Are we going back to Solomon? Are we going back to David? Are we going back to Adam or not even Adam – Adam. Are we going back to Ishshah? Where are we going back to, right? So, what’s the tradition? What are we going back to? And so that was a big piece and then another huge piece was, literally, just sitting down and talking with LGBTQ members of that community and asking, “What has your experience been in the church?” And going into the Scripture and seeing that we have not made space for people of LGBTQ orientation, if you will, or that community to live, let alone to be in church, but literally we haven’t given them a way to live and be okay alive as they are. That was the thing that literally just kind of pushed me over the edge when I realized the suicide rate and all of those things, and a lot of it has to do with the church. So that was my process and I can share more about where I landed later.
Shane: I am so grateful just to be listening, you know, I love and admire both of you so much and I think we’ve had conversations just privately and personally, and have this in a way that I think other folks can benefit from hearing each other is a gift for me. I find myself, honestly, really doing a lot of listening these days because I think a lot of folks in my own as Lisa says, my own social location, do a lot of speaking without listening and I did a lot of talking about this issue when I was in high school and had no idea what I was talking about, along with the death penalty and all kinds of other stuff that I feel really differently about. And as some of these politicians get stuff that’s played from thirty years ago, I am like, “Man, I’m not sure I’d be proud of the things I said twenty or thirty years ago.” But I can remember in particular one time in college where one of my floormates that we were living in the dorm together became a really good friend and we were talking one night, and he said to me, “You know, he’s gay,” and he started to share more and he said he grew up in the church, and he had gone to retreat to pray away the gay, to have demons cast out of them to everything else and then he just starts weeping and he said, “At the end of the day, I’m gay and I feel like the church has taught me that God made a mistake when God made me.”
I remember hearing that, and with the tears rolling down his face, realizing that this was not something he wanted or chose. But something that was a part of who he was that also the church had done so much damage to him and I didn’t really have much to say – I just remember holding each other and praying and going like, “If my friend can’t find a home in the church, then what have we become?” And after that, that was one of those, sort of, crossroads for me where all of my theological ideas or whatever I had like they just sort of started to unravel a little bit, and then I had a whole lot of other friends that were on their own journey to figure out who God’s made them to be. I had friends that had made a decision to be celibate as gay folks, like Tim Otto [author, Oriented to Faith], who became a really good friend and has written about his own journey. He actually doesn’t extend that call of chastity to other folks, but that’s what he felt called to do. And then at one point we just said, “Let’s have a better conversation about this,” and we had a panel with different voices of just people sharing stories like we’re doing today.
There were stories that, honestly, I couldn’t reconcile with each other. You know, like Tim as a gay man choosing a life of celibacy, and then another friend who found himself attracted to both genders and ended up marrying a woman, and then another friend of mine who married a man and now, they’re raising kids together and he’s male and so they’re living as a same-sex couple. Each one of these folks, I know them, and I know how much they love Jesus and they go in different ways of living out their lives in light of their sexuality. It’s really helped me in my own journey. I personally spent a lot of my life considering a life of celibacy and chastity and took a temporary vow of celibacy and singleness and was considering that for my life. I was in the middle of those vows when I met Katie and in fact, we wrote letters for months, just handwritten letters, as we were considering dating, and after that period, I did.
But one of the things I learned from being mentored by folks that have committed their lives to celibacy, especially Catholics – I was mentored by a Catholic monk – is that sometimes we focus so much on sex that we lose the conversation around love, and I think our deep longing in all of us is to love and be loved. I know a lot of folks that have never had sex, but they experienced love really in a profound and deep way, and I know other folks that have had a whole lot of sex but they still haven’t really experienced love, and [are] still kind of in a pretty lonely place. So, I think the church needs a better conversation about love and sexuality. For me, I start with a deep lament about the damage that’s been done.
I often quote the Barna Study. It’s a little outdated now, but some years ago, they went to every state in the US and they asked young non-Christians what they think of when they hear the word, “Christian.” The number one answer was anti-gay [and] anti-homosexual, and I think every one of us should be heartbroken by that response. I mean, I think it would undoubtedly break the heart of Jesus when we’ve become known more for excluding people and being against homosexuality and all that stuff that’s wrapped up in that. Then, as I start reading more, the suicide rate of LGBTQIA folks, especially if they’ve been raised in a Christian home, like we’ve done so much damage. So, I kind of start in a place of grief and lament because I think we certainly haven’t gotten it right. And as you all say, I think, we got a lot more work to do to really think about what marriage is and looks like. But sometimes we jump too quickly to that and without realizing that, let’s start by making sure that the church is a place where people can love and be loved and be honest about who they are and who they love. If we start there, I think, some of the other stuff gets a little bit easier.
Lisa: You know, I think you’re totally right, Shane, and one more segment then I also
have a question on another part. The piece that I really resonate with is that in the research that I did for that book, Left, Right & Christ, what it really boiled down to was, “Do we believe that people who are LGBTQ are human?” That is the question, because if we believe that they are 100% human, fully human, then that means that they are also 100% made in the image of God and, therefore, called by God to exercise dominion over their own bodies, their own minds, their own lives and over their community or within their community and throughout the earth. So, if they are human, then who am I to limit their liberty? Who am I? Who am I? And you know as Jesus said to the people who brought the woman before the men and said, “Stone her! Stone her!” And he looked and said, “Who of you is clean?”
Now, I realize that even that itself might even be a triggering reference for someone, so forgive me if it is … what I don’t mean to say is that it is a sin. I actually very much, I mean, I’m going to be real, I don’t know and because I don’t know I’m not willing to legislate or put policy around it. But I don’t know because I’m exercising humility, the humility to know that I don’t know. But what I do know, here’s what I know: I know that what I have seen and what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes is the capacity for people who are LGBTQ and practicing LGBTQ, practicing who they are in life, in daily life. I have seen health there. I have seen healthy relationships there. I have seen people literally come, I mean, really resurrect from being unhealthy when in the closet, unhealthy when not actually living fully into who they are, to being healthy and experiencing healthy relationships after that. So that for me probably is the number one thing that has kind of moved me and that really has been in the context of an ongoing relationship with my nephew.
Shane: I am wondering Lisa, that personal relationship that you have with your nephew, does that give you evidence for knowing that he is good and that he is 100% human and called by the Divine?
Lisa: Oh, my God. Yes, absolutely. So, the answer to the question is a yes, is a YES. A yes, are they 100% human? Yes! Yes, they are. So, the question, the only question that remains for me is the theological: How do you square this with Scripture? But … even that has really laid down for me even that is like 99% solved, and it’s solved for me in that it is the Scripture is actually not conclusive. I don’t think that the Scripture is conclusive when you are honest with the Scripture, with the context, with what it’s saying. I think that people like David Gushee [author, Changing Our Mind] and Brownson [author, Bible, Gender, Sexuality], and others have done really good work with the Scripture; [they are] ethicists and theologians who I trust, and even they have said, “The Scripture, let’s just put this way. It’s not about that. It’s just not about that.” So, to try to make it about that is actually to distort the Scripture, which is what the writer of Revelation says in the last page: “If anybody distorts this text, God help your soul.” I don’t want to distort the text; I want the text to actually speak for itself, and when it speaks it’s not talking about this. It’s not talking about what we’re talking about today. And that’s what I became convinced of when I did my research.
Shane: I hear you, Lisa. Thanks for that. I think of that Scripture where Jesus talks to the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, and it’s very important that Jesus’s harshest words are to the religious elite who are self-righteous. He said, “Where heaping heavy burdens on people would go across the world to make a convert and they would make them a hound of hell” [Matthew 23:4-28], you know what I mean? He’s got some really harsh words, and he says to the religious elite, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of you.” I think it’s one of the most profound things that he says, and what I hear Jesus saying is that if you’ve got all of this morality and theology in your head, and at the end of the day, your heart is not right, and at the end of the day, you are hurting people, [then] your theology is getting in the way of love. God is love and we know what love is, what it feels like, what the characteristics of it are. So, I think that’s a really important test for the church, because there’s a lot of folks that have ideas in their head that the way that they work themselves out is exactly like it did with the Pharisees, and there are other folks that certainly don’t think like the tax collectors and the prostitutes. I mean, they’re also being healed and redeemed from the system and the world that they’re in, but like they are able to come in with the posture of humility and grace and mercy and love for one another. So, I think that’s really what’s at stake in all of this.
And when you talk about Scripture, there’s like six Bible verses that speak in any way of same-sex relationships. I think that those had a very different context than the contemporary world, right? So, the same-sex relations in the Scripture were shaped by power, privilege [and] abuse, and there was not a construct of egalitarian, same-gendered relationships, the kind of conversations that we’re having today where you could have an equitable relationship. So, that’s what makes it complicated. And for those of us that call ourselves Red Letter Christians, one of the things that’s complicated is we don’t have explicit teaching about this from Jesus. There’s a lot of room that we’re trying to understand our world in light of Jesus, and in light of those six Scriptures that we have – but we have two thousand Scriptures that talk about love and justice and equity and God’s heart for compassion. And so those need to shape the larger conversation around sexuality.
Lisa: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road podcast where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
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Robyn: Well, I wonder if I could ask a question.
Lisa: Please, yeah.
Robyn: To some of this because I think we’re hedging in on this. So much of what has impacted the church is the politics of inclusion – and basically, you fall on one side or the other.
Robyn: And I’ve always thought and I will say this twice because it’s jumbly, that the logic of inclusion demands the logic of exclusion. I’ll say it again. The logic of inclusion demands the logic of exclusion. So, what do we really mean by inclusion? I’ve always wondered that because churches are including or they will say that they are affirming or they’re inclusive of a certain kind of LGBT person.
Lisa: And when you say “kind” are you basically saying celibate?
Robyn: It could be that. It could be that. It could be a celibate person. It could be someone who mirrors the heteronormative picture, which is a lot of my problem with marriage equality – that we’re expecting LGBTQ people to mirror the dominant form of relationships when we know that there’s a lot of harm in the dominant form of relationship.
Lisa: Interesting. We go in deep. We go in deep.
Shane: We are getting into it now.
Lisa: That’s for real.
Shane: Dr. Robyn. We got a doctor up in there. I know that’s right. No, Dr. Robyn, I think this is a fascinating angle on this because when I’m in different contexts, one of the things that I’ve seen is that … I’m actually pretty sure we’re not all going to agree on the sacrament of marriage. Like when I’m in a Catholic context, even when I’m overseas, I travel to six or eight countries a year and even the LGBTQIA, you know, like these are English constructs that when you get outside of that, it’s even more complicated, cultural conversations. So I think that what I hear each of us saying that is so important is that every Christian needs to be able to say without apology or exception that every person is made in the image of God, LGBTQ person is made in the image of God and insist that their lives have infinite value. If we can’t say that we’ve got a major, major problem. I mean, that’s the low-hanging fruit. But then what happens then is we start talking about what these words that to me feel very vague, like, are you affirming? And I have friends that have very different definitions of affirming. Some would say, “If you don’t affirm polyamorous relationships, if you don’t affirm…” I just had a pastor say, “If we can’t affirm every consensual sexual relationship, then we’re not affirming.” What do you mean like if I have a consensual relationship with someone else’s wife, would that be–? And he’s like, “Yes, that’s consensual.” So, I think we have really a broad definition of that affirmation.
And that now what we have is folks that if their definition of affirmation doesn’t line up with ours, we exclude people. Like, for instance, there are progressive conferences that won’t have speakers that don’t have a statement on same-sex marriage. So, for instance, that’s the litmus test: you couldn’t have the pope speak, you couldn’t have Sister Helen Prejean or Bryan Stevenson speak if they don’t have a statement on that particular thing. So, I think, that what you’re saying is so valuable. I think that the answer isn’t more exclusion. The answer is a deeper and better conversation that doesn’t trivialize this. I mean, people have very strong feelings, but we’ve got to have a ground zero kind of a common ground of love and generosity to folks that are LGBTQ and realize the damage that we’ve done, but I think when there becomes a line in the sand, the left and the right end up almost mirroring each other. And so, you have the [United] Methodist Church that I grew up in, that I think had an epic fail and excluded all affirming congregations. And then you have these other circles that have a different litmus test, and they’re going to exclude anyone that doesn’t see eye-to-eye on the LGBTQ conversation of affirmation.
Robyn: Yeah, I mean, the thing that I worry about, I’ll just say this quick and I want to hear what you have to say, Lisa, is that whoever’s doing the including has the power to include and power to exclude. And so we need to make sure that we’re also doing a power analysis when we are talking about including or excluding.
Lisa: Shane, I love what you said about us needing to approach us as in those who are part of the “dominant culture” as in cis-gendered, I mean, binary or at least living on a binary male, female and straight, those folks. When you look at it from our perspective, from that perspective then, yes, grace has to flow from us and love and inclusion, right? But I actually think that to level that playing field, grace has to flow from the other direction as well, and love. Because what that does is it places the choice to love in both directions in all directions. It places the power to love to offer grace in all directions. And if not in solid lived reality at least in the construct and in the thing we’re working toward, it levels the playing field, the power of playing field.
But I also want to say this that the question where I should say and I want to say this – the question of inclusion for me is central because the question, I guess, is the inclusion into what? And the inclusion of what? Right? So, inclusion into what? Into the capitalist franchise? Inclusion into white dominant patriarchy? Inclusion into the church? You can even just say on the basic level, which I know is like the most basic things that people now to be LGBTQIA community have been fighting for, is just simply inclusion into life, the ability to live and breathe not and not be beaten up.
Shane: Yeah, that’s right.
Lisa: And be able to have a job and not have it taken away from you and the ability to have children, adopt children, the ability to live. That’s what I see people struggling for and that’s when I say inclusion, that’s what I mean. Now, you brought up affirming, the question of affirmation. So welcoming and affirming, right? I think my experience of counseling my nephew is really what I go back to and I don’t mean to use him and I think he’d be very proud of this conversation and I will share it with him. But when I look at his life, as his auntie, he comes to me for advice like a lot. He’ll text me on the daily saying, “Auntie, what do you think of this?” Or, “Auntie, I’m struggling with this, what do you think?” And what I found is that he and his friends, most of whom are somewhere in the LGBTQIA+ community. He and his wife actually called me maybe a year or two ago and blew me away with a really funny question. He literally said, “Auntie, Auntie, we have like a really weird idea, and I know that you might think it’s crazy, but I was just talking with my friends the other day. We were thinking we want to get together and start to read the Bible together. What do you think of that?” I was like, “That’s called a Bible study. That’s what that is. That’s called a Bible study.” And the reason why he said that is because we don’t have people to guide us. We don’t have a church.
Shane: Oh, come on, yeah.
Lisa: We don’t have leadership and ethical leadership. We’re just we’re out here searching. We’re out here wandering. We don’t really know, we don’t have a compass. We need a compass. And so, when he calls me now and he says, “Auntie what do you think of this? What do you think of that?” He’s looking for a compass. So, I think, that inclusion, I’m inclusive of all people and I’m inclusive of all people loving all the people but I do think there are actions that all people can take that are not loving toward the other. So, look, folks, I am in-process and you are literally listening in to a woman in process. And so, that’s what this is. This is a real conversation. This is not talking points. This is not prefabbed, canned, cut, one-liners. This is real. So, when I think about that, another thing that comes to mind is the reality that so, okay. So, I was at lunch one time with a pastor in New York City. Again, a pastor with Southern Baptist convention roots, wasn’t in the Southern Baptist Convention at the time but had those roots and had a really, really large burgeoning church. At the time, his church was only about a couple of years old, but he was starting to deal with the issue of LGBTQIA equity and equality in his church because one of his church leaders said that we could come forward to him and say, “You know, I’m gay and I want you to marry us.” And he was like, “Oh, my God, what do we do?”
And what he said to me over lunch in many ways kind of shaped … how I approach these things now. He said, “What do I do? As a pastor, when my colleague comes to me and says, ‘I am gay and I want to be in a monogamous relationship.'” Now, I realize this is going away from the polyamorous. I get that. I’ll come back to that. But when his parishioner says, I want to be in a monogamous relationship, do I tell him, “No, I will not marry you. I will not be a part of that, because that’s what my church has said is what I can’t do.” In knowing that when I do that I am actually then relegating him to a life of serial monogamy because it’s impossible then for him to commit to one person for life. Like, it is impossible to enter into the covenant that our souls were created to yearn for? And then he said this, he said, and I say this now knowing that this is really where I’m at, “I’m leaning toward understanding our sexuality in light of the reality of the fall, and in light of the reality that none of us, none of us has a perfect sort of sexuality, absolutely, none of us. And also, what is perfect sexuality? And also, the reality that God did not create us with clothes on.”
Think about that. We were not born with clothes on. We were not created nor in Genesis 1 or 2, where folks running around with clothes. Clothes are Genesis 3, after the fall. And it is after the fall that God covers over our nakedness, what we then interpreted as our shame, with the fig leaves, with the animal skins actually. God actually kills one of God’s own creation in order to cover over to help us. And so, what if, what if all of the ways that we exercise our sexuality in ways that are healthy, the ways that we find healthy for us, what if those things are like animal skins, like fig leaves in the meantime? What if? That’s where I am and I realize I might get some angry letters from that too. I get it. But this is my process.
Shane: I just would jump in to say that I really appreciate our conversation when we’re thinking about fidelity and covenant. These are like really core principles of Scripture that are unraveling in a lot of our society. I mean, I think a lot of our progressive circles can end up being deconstruction to the point where I loved when you’re talking about your nephew wanting to Bible study, because I see a lot of the folks that I am mentoring or walking alongside in our neighborhood. They grow up and a lot of our family’s not even just in Philly, but I mean in the suburbs all over our country. It’s hard to find really strong families and covenant that are held, and I mean, the irony that many Christians mirror or surpass the divorce rate of the mainstream culture. I think we have a hard time with covenant and fidelity and there’s something really beautiful about that. And I think when we end up talking outside of the idea of monogamous lifelong partnerships, even if we might disagree on the sacrament of marriage and things like that, I think that those are really important core principles in the Scripture that I see, kind of, unraveling in the fabric of American families.
I took some of the young people in our neighborhood to a festival that was a lot of the circles of progressive Christianity end up like, being almost post-Evangelical therapy. It’s like kind of recovering from what evangelicalism and fundamentalism have done to them. When our kids came to that, one of the young guys in my neighborhood – he lives in a family with two moms and he’s going to these conversations. I’m hoping he’ll find some helpful handholds and constructs, but so much of the conversation ended up just reacting to fundamentalism that he didn’t grow up with, that it still wasn’t a constructive place. So I think we’ve got a lot of work to do – I mean, we’ve got a lot of polyamorous relationships in my neighborhood and I think a lot of our young people have a really hard time with the idea of fidelity and covenant, and we can’t let go of those in the midst of the other conversations.
Robyn: Well, I feel like as the only trans and queer person on this call right now, I want to speak both from my experience as someone who was in a 16-year relationship. I married my partner. I wrote the entire service, the liturgy, and I wrote it based on covenant, and I intended to marry one time and have one partner. But what I discovered was that our vocations were misaligned and it’s not that we couldn’t deal with a covenant or it’s not that we couldn’t be committed for a lifelong committed partnership. It was actually we had reached the end of the season of our relationship, and we pivoted out of that relationship and got divorced and we pivoted into a new season and sometimes that happens and I think that what I worry about is if we privilege covenant and fidelity, we’re disenfranchising a lot of people, because there are a lot of LGBTQ folks who don’t understand those concepts because they’ve not been churched.
Lisa: Or even allowed to.
Robyn: The institution has so disenfranchised LGBTQ people that we are actually using a foreign language. And I know that language is important to you all. Fidelity is deeply important to me, but I probably have a broader understanding of fidelity than maybe you all do. And that doesn’t mean that I’m wrong or you all are right, but it just means that as a queer person, my orientation to love and fidelity, I think, is broader than what the institutional church has allowed for it to be. So, what I worry about is I worry about people being harmed listening to this, listening to our conversation when they might say, “Well, I’ve been taught covenant means X, but I prefer Y.” And I’m not trying to push polyamory, but I do worry about privileging this language of covenant and fidelity because it’s really evangelical, it’s very religious. And so many of my siblings are disenfranchised from being included in that framework. And so, I wonder how do we have a healthy conversation and a robust conversation about sex and sexuality from a place that doesn’t harm? I mean, when I think about doing public theology, I don’t think about doing it from an institutional place, but I always think about doing it from a communal place. And so how do we actually help the community without disenfranchising community?
Lisa: That’s really good. Wow. Wow. Well, I honestly feel like that for me is maybe the growth edge. That’s the place. That’s the place. I don’t know. I don’t know. But what I will say is that … here’s the thought that went through my head as you were talking, is (and I wonder if it’s helpful), if it would be helpful to pull back even further and get even more of a larger view, a wider view of this conversation. It’s zeroed in very much on the question about LGBTQIA, which is, of course, that’s the subject of the episode, right? So, we’re going to talk about that. But it also comes in the context of a larger context which is white patriarchy. That context has so, so deeply structured the way we even have the conversation and the way the church has approached it, because at the heart of the church, especially the western church, has been the white patriarchal project. I think about my conversation with the folks at Church Clarity, and I was really blown away actually by one thing that was said in that episode was that white patriarchy is threatened by the LGBTQ movement because it doesn’t have control. Because it’s one more place where white men are not able to control society, and a white man who decides that they like men is an aberration to malehood – to white malehood – because that man is choosing what they would imagine is the role of the woman, and that feels like a complete betrayal of the white malehood. I don’t mean to shift away from, not at all, in fact, I think we have to examine the framework within which we have this conversation in order to see our way to another way of having the conversation…
Robyn: I mean, I think you make a great point, Lisa, that if we want to keep the status quo in check, white government, white patriarchy, white institutions, and even black churches mimic white patriarchy.
Robyn: So, how do we actually break out of that imagination, that moral imagination and actually lean into a more just and equitable imagination where all creation flourishes?
Lisa: Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe, this is the Freedom Road podcast.
The role of writers is to make seen what usually goes unseen. The role of faith is to help us connect with what is usually unseen. The world needs writers of faith to step up with extraordinary skill and connection to God’s heart now. We need to speak truth and speak it in a way that brings clarity and aids discernment. Freedom Road is launching a seven-week online writing course and faith-rooted writing for justice. The seven-session course will cover – introduction to writing for social justice, how to tell a great story, how to write a nonfiction book proposal, how to get the right agent, and negotiate a great contract, how do identify your audience and get your book in their hands, how to build a platform and an audience for your writing?
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When I have spoken with Indigenous folks, activists, also scholars around the world, one thing that is clear to me in most Indigenous communities – and indigeneity does not mean Native American, indigeneity means indigenous to the land. So, you find Indigenous people in Africa, you find them in Europe, you find them everywhere, right? Because there are people groups who are indigenous land everywhere, but it also includes in North America and South America, that there is the construct of the two-spirited person like there is an understanding and there was a role within the community for that people group. They had value, actual value, within the community because there was an understanding of the strengths that they bring to the whole community, and there was a way that they were given space to live and flourish and thrive within the community.
So, I think, honestly, part of the thing that I guess you’re seeing me wrestle with is the fact that we have read the Scripture as if it was written at Starbucks by a white person. We are reading this brown colonized text as if it was written in the halls of Rome, but it was not. It wasn’t. It was written in caves and on the run by brown people who were not European and who were not Western and some of whom were not even male. So, they didn’t think like that and yet we have placed that on top of the text. I know I’m in-process [and] that’s part of the reason why I said, “What would you do for us to pull back and to understand the context within which we are even having this conversation?” Because if we recognize that even our reading of the text is a Western overlay on top of a non-Western text. What does that do to the way we think of even covenant? What does that do to the way we think of humanity? Even what Genesis 1 is actually about, Genesis 2 is no longer necessarily about Adam and Eve. In fact, it’s not about Adam and Eve, those words are not used in that text. Those names are not there in that text. The words are Ish and Ishshah, right?
In the beginning, this is the thing that blows my mind if you are true to that text – now you see me clap my hands because I’m so passionate about this. If you are true to Genesis 2, then you must accept the reality that the first human was non-binary. The first human was Adam, which simply means of the earth, and it is not necessarily a male construct. The first male language you see is when God takes that rib out of the human and separates male from female, right? Ish and Ishshah is the first gendered language you have in Genesis 2, but humanity doesn’t start there. So, it could even be one could theologically argue, I mean, literally could argue as a literalist from the text that the most human humans are non-binary.
Robyn: I mean, you’re preaching the good word, right? When the Scripture was interpreted and I learned this when I was a Biblical language minor in college. We’ve read gender into the Bible and we socially constructed a narrative to fit a particular paradigm, and we need to be careful, like, if we’re going to read the Bible literally, we also need to do the historical work of understanding that Adam just means earth creature and there is no gender assigned to Adam.
Shane: When I think of Jesus, too, I think of Jesus as the embodiment of that, kind of, everything that it means to be human. So often translated the human one, that Son of God is often translated the human one, right? That we see Jesus weep over Jerusalem. We see Jesus flip tables. We see all, kind of, the best of all of the humanity manifest there. I even see that as we look at God. I think it was Lauren Winner that said it’s interesting how we have these churches that are all named a certain way after the metaphors that are most prominent like Church of the Good Shepherd, but she said when have you seen a church of the mother hen?
Shane: We have that image too of the breasted one. All the different languages, words that even the pronouns for the Holy Spirit, you know that transcend gender. So, I see that to be human is to be made in the image of God and we certainly see complexity in God, and even like as you were saying, the first human, it’s pronounced good when they’re helping one another. So that communal nature of God is in us to love and be loved is what we see as were made in the image of God where two or three of us gather, God is with us, this kind of call in the community. So, I vibe with that. I think that one of the things that as I think of the larger global conversation, it really is complicated, right? Because the United Methodist Church again, like where I grew up, is a very white denomination, and yet the U.S. community of the Methodist Church was in some ways more affirming and inclusive than the global church. And I think the word “global” that folks used were just kind of ponds in this maneuvering and everything else. But it doesn’t get easy as you move outside of white American culture either, like when I’m in communities in Latin America and other places. There are still constructs around this that make the conversation complicated.
So, I think it’s not like if we can just get outside of the U.S., all this becomes crystal clear. I think it’s still a really difficult thing when I’m in places. I mean, just like the prosperity gospel, I think has been exported. I think there’s a lot of colonialism that has been too. That’s where I’ve got some serious anarchist tendencies which vibe with a lot of what both of you are saying, you, Lisa, I don’t think that the government should be performing marriages any more than it should be baptizing people. I mean, I think this is a holy work of the church. I do think it’s the role of the government to protect people from discrimination and bigotry and violence and that’s why LGBTQ rights I think should be at the heart of every Christian and no matter how we think about marriage. But, yeah, as I get outside of the U.S. too, it doesn’t feel like it’s an easier conversation for people in other countries. I think we’re still really wrestling with some of the same things and at the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to call some things out, though. I mean, when you’ve got countries where it’s a capital crime or even a crime at all to show same-sex affection, I mean, geez, can we not all rally around undoing that kind of hatred and discrimination. I mean, for the love of everything. A lot of times Evangelical Church has kind of been complicit with these regimes that end up doing some of the most hateful policies in the world. I think we’ve got to stand on the side of love.
Robyn: Yeah. I mean, I can agree with that.
Lisa: Yeah. Okay. So, can I ask you a question? And this is a question for you, Robyn. For you, what is the role of process and grace in this conversation? Because that for me feels like the place where honestly, we just on Freedom Road podcast, we just dropped last month an episode that was specifically about abortion. And the reality that abortion is such a powerful political weapon in our country because it’s never talked about and I think that the same is true for the LGBTQIA conversation. I mean, I experienced a break in my own denomination and ultimately left it because they didn’t talk about it well. When they did talk about it, they talked about it honestly in a cis-gendered, straight, dominating way and they chose the prophets they would listen to and the ones they didn’t. The ones they listen to are the ones who affirmed where they were and they didn’t really give any credence or even listen to or read the people who disagree with them who are incredibly credible theologians and ethicists. And so, I almost honestly felt like a Jim Crow trial, like it felt like a rigged process like the kind that we just saw with the impeachment trial. You’re looking at it going, “We know, we know where this is going,” and this is not an actual process. So, what is the role of process and grace to have the conversation for you?
Robyn: Well, I mean, I think both as a theologian and ethicist, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and also, I have personal experience and I think the role of process and grace is I just want my story to be heard.
Lisa: Yeah. Because voice is agency.
Robyn: Right. And if we can and I know on the podcast, we believe a story can change the world.
Lisa: Yes. Freedom Road. That’s what Freedom Road does. Sorry.
Robyn: Yeah. So, I’m not trying to push an agenda. But I am trying to contribute to social healing and we are so broken in this world and as we see with our American politics, everybody has an opinion and everybody thinks they’re right, but no one is telling stories to one another so that we can actually mobilize. So, process for me is around storytelling and grace is just the opportunity to tell my story and to be heard.
Lisa: Amen. How about for you, Shane?
Shane: Oh, man. I’m just sitting with that. First of all, really grateful for both of you and in particular, Robyn. Lisa and I get a lot of time together and you and I, Robyn, haven’t had quite as much, but I look forward to continuing to learn and listen to you and read everything you write, and all that we’ve kind of created Red Letter Christians for, Lisa’s been a part of it from the beginning on the board is to kind of create a platform where we are sharing our stories in the passions, the fire in our bones, and we’re listening well to each other. I certainly think that we’re better off and wiser and better with your voice among us. And so anyway that you can bring yourself to our community at Red Letter, and likewise any way that I can be a conversation partner with both of you, I sure want to do that. I think we need more conversations like this and more relationships with people that can build that trust. And the humility to realize that as one of my mentors said it didn’t take long for the Israelites to get out of Egypt, but it took a lifetime to get Egypt out of them.
So, we’re kind of trying to get that system out of us, and I certainly still see that it has its hooks and me as a white man, and I want to be a good listener and friend and show up when I need to, to support my friends and that are specially suffering the brunt of exclusion and bigotry and hatred and certainly the LGBTQIA community has experienced that so thanks for this time. And I look forward to more times like this.
Robyn: Yeah, this has been great. Thank you.
Lisa: I just want to say, honestly, I feel like this conversation is sacred. It is a sacred conversation that I hope that others will lean into and begin to open their mouths and voice their stories and the doing that we will knit our broken relationships back together because it’s really ultimately what it’s about is the capacity to love and be loved.
Shane: Yeah. That’s real.
Lisa: The conversations leaders have on the road to justice. This is the Freedom Road podcast.
Thank you for joining us today. The Freedom Road podcast is recorded in Washington DC. This episode was engineered and edited by David Dolt of Sandberg Media. Freedom Road podcast is produced by Freedom Road, LLC. We consult, coach, train, and design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitment, and lead to common action. You can find out more about our work at our website freedomroad.us. Stay in the know by signing up for updates. We promise we won’t flood your inbox. We invite you to listen again next month. New episodes drop around the first day of each month. Join the conversation on Freedom Road.