Identities Matter

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Chapel talks and evangelical publications have repeatedly claimed that God calls us to find our identity in Christ alone and not our sexual orientation or gender identity. This serves to erase the voices of LGBTQ and Allied people by questioning the faith and motives of those who claim marginalized identities. In the process, these advocates of “Christian-only” identity fail to recognize the many roles and identities that we all carry and are called to live out in submission to Christ. This sort of thinking substitutes denial for honesty, and it ultimately denies the ability of Christ to work through, and rule over, the entirety of our lives.

The assumption that our identity in Christ erases all other identities is rooted in Paul’s use of the phrase “in Christ” in the discussion of the “New Creation” in 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 and the extended baptismal argument in Romans 5-6. In both, Paul emphasizes how Christians share in Christ’s death and having died to the flesh now live by the spirit. Identity erasure advocates, assuming that all non-heterosexual sexual intimacy is sinful, read Paul as saying that those who identify as non-heterosexuals are living the life of the flesh as opposed to the life of the spirit. A fair summary of this argument is “you’re not a sinner, you’re a Christian – stop sinning and stop calling yourself a sinner!” This approach ignores debates about whether scripture in actuality condemns all forms of same-sex intimacy. Rhetorically, this argument seeks to slam the door on those who would dare question the Evangelical party line by challenging the faith of anyone whose experience differs from the dominant heterosexual evangelical Christian experience.

The argument that our identity in Christ erases all other identities is a gross misreading of Paul’s “flesh/spirit” division that is more reflective of Puritanism’s (and Gnosticism’s) abhorrence of the body than of scripture. As it is used in the new testament, flesh (σάρξ) is not in itself evil, it is simply limited and mortal. As descendants of Adam and Abraham, we cannot find salvation apart from the gift of Christ which grants us life in the Spirit. In this way, life in the flesh contrasts with life by the Spirit which is actively shaped by God’s gift of grace. Even when the flesh is portrayed as having a life of its own (as in the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit), the flesh is what happens when we rely on ourselves rather than God. The real danger is not in having an earthly life but relying upon that earthly life for salvation and focusing on that earthly life to the point of selfishness and self-righteousness. (For more on “σάρξ” in the new testament, see Schweizer, Baumgartel, and Meyer’s entry in Kittel, G. & Frietsch, G. (1971) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 7).

When Paul discusses earthly labels and divisions in Galatians 3:27-29 by proclaiming “in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, or is there male and female,” he is not eliminating those labels but limiting their importance under our shared identity in Christ. The effect of this is not to take away these categories but to eliminate the hierarchical divisions that privilege one over the other and offer only one group access to the innermost part of God’s temple. Although it might be entertaining (and perhaps destabilize some oppressive power structures), we are not supposed to start answering “Christian” when asked our gender or ethnicity. We are simply expected to remember that our shared identity in Christ is more important than any earthly division. If we were to follow Paul’s teaching then, and decided to include “neither heterosexual nor homosexual” in Galatians, since these labels are of less importance than our identity in Christ, the faithful thing to do would be to eliminate the hierarchical divide that considers heterosexuality morally superior to homosexuality and assumes only heterosexuals can haven an identity “in Christ.”

Socially constructed identities cannot be escaped. Much as I did not choose to be labeled as disabled due to my visual impairment, I did not choose for society to call my sexual orientation gay. I can choose to ignore or reject this label, but that rejection will not make society view me as normal. In a culture that views non-heterosexual love and the physical expression of that love as aberrant, non-heterosexuals will always be marked off as an abnormal “other.” Our culture, by choosing to treat sexual diversity as remarkable, constructs separate categories of people based on their sexual orientation. By marking lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans*, and queer labels, as “abnormal,” society also creates the purportedly “normal” labels of straight and cisgender. The only reason cisgender heterosexuals can deny that they have a “straight” or “cisgender” identity is because people assume that their sexual identity and gender identity are “normal.” As H. Adam Ackley has argued, only the privileged can claim they do not have an identity.

Queer theorists have long responded to the poor fit of labels for all people (“straight” and “queer” alike) by deconstructing or “queering” labels like “lesbitransgay” and “straight,” in order to highlight how poorly they fit the embodied reality of a real human being who is more than her/zir/his sexuality and gender identity. This is reflective of the life-giving Spirit of God that “blows where it wills” and whose wisdom “none of the rulers of this age” understand. At our best, perhaps we can maintain some humility about all labels in society (including who is truly “born again”) knowing that God confounds, and cannot be controlled by, our expectations and cannot be neatly fit into a one-size-fits-all testimony.

Recognizing the limits of all labels does not, however, mean that we need to deny our experience of where the wind has blown and seems to be blowing. One of the weaknesses of queer theory (and by extension queer theology) has been its tendency to focus on taking apart poor fitting labels at the expense of celebrating and embodying the real lives it seeks to liberate. In the process, the diversity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities and cultures are lost in abstraction.

My sexuality, while not all of me, is a part of me. You cannot know me, if you are unwilling to know my journey, and you cannot know or understand my journey unless you are willing to understand the impact my sexuality has had on my life. Being gay in a world where differing from the “norm” of heterosexuality has cost me deeply and enriched my life deeply. I have lost friends and family over my sexuality, and I have gained love, family, and a far richer calling to ministry. It is through this journey that I have come to reencounter the love of God, and it is through this journey that I can proclaim the unfathomable depth and breadth of God’s love for all of God’s children. Denying my story in a misguided attempt to focus attention solely on my relationship with God denies God’s story as it intertwines with my own. I am a follower of Christ, and the terrain through which I have followed God on this life’s journey is the terrain that will eternally shape my experience and understanding of God’s grace.

Beyond my own journey with God, I am eternally mindful of those others who have travelled similar terrain. As a gay man who once was a gay child growing up in the town in which Focus on the Family was founded, I know the loneliness and pain of worshipping in a church where people like me were labeled the “enemies of God and the church,” and I know from personal experience how the pain of bullying and isolation targeted at that label can drive one to attempt suicide. As a gay man who survived the closet at Westmont College and Fuller Theological Seminary, I know the fear, isolation, and pain of sitting alone in silence as others debate the merits of my life and the possibility of my eternal salvation as abstract issue as if they are somehow equipped to know either. For me, it would be unconscionable to have experienced what I have experienced and to remain silent about it. By claiming my experience as a gay man who has followed Christ all of my life, I lend my name to those who come after me. As more and more lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, and allied folk dare to break the silence and claim their own experience, it becomes harder for those who follow after us to believe that they are alone on this journey.

Simply by living my life in the open and naming my experience, I put a face to those labels like “gay,” “Evangelical,” and “disabled,” that society uses to mark and diminish me as “other.” In the process, I, as a flesh and blood person whose life and journey cannot be contained by stereotypes and labels, through my very existence deconstruct those labels. It becomes harder to stereotype, fear, and demonize the face of someone you know. By claiming my identity as a gay man, I proclaim “I am the face of your enemy. I am the human being behind your fear. If you must cast the next stone, you ought to start with me.”

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