I was once turned down for a ministry position because of my sexuality. There was no incompatibility of beliefs or any other conflict; the hiring committee simply informed me in no uncertain terms they could not hire someone with a homosexual orientation for the position. I was devastated, and it was the first time anyone had overtly denied me anything substantial due to conditions I could not control. The rejection hung like a weight in my stomach, and I felt dejected and defeated. I asked a friend if I was overreacting; had I lived such a privileged life as an affluent, English-speaking, white male that I was simply incapable of digesting what felt like discrimination? His response stuck with me: “I don’t think we’re ever supposed to get used to injustice.”
I often wonder what it would have been like to be a gay Christian in the 1950s. I don’t even need to go back that far: What would it have been like to be a gay Christian in the 1980s or ’90s, when words like “abomination” that were still in vogue were the only breaks in the church’s silence about sexuality? It’s overwhelming to consider how far our society (even outside of the church) has progressed in understanding people with different expressions of sexuality, and I am constantly grateful I don’t live “back then.” Unfortunately, although the situation in many churches today is worlds better than what I would have experienced twenty years ago, I believe we still have a long way to go before most sexual minorities will feel safe and comfortable openly working out their faith and sexuality in an average church.
This means I and other people like me are stuck in the middle: I can see clearly how far we have come, but I am painfully aware of how far we still have to go. It’s a tough place to be. If we didn’t have some sense things were going to get better, we could surrender to despair; and if we weren’t intimately familiar with the pain that surrounds us, we could surrender to hope. But we’re stuck in the middle, which means we must take seriously the suffering of our LGBT neighbors along with our hope for what is to come and our expectations for how things should be. There are days in which, over the course of an hour, I experience the absolute best of what is to come (like a long, meaningful conversation with someone who listens to and empathizes with my story) and the absolute worst of where we have been (like a thoughtless comment that trivializes my experience and identity), and the juxtaposition is maddening. This is the awkwardness of growing pains, when our movement in a positive direction inevitably results in some bruises and scratches. One couple showers their lesbian daughter with love and support; the next couple cuts theirs off from the family. One student shrugs off his roommate’s coming out as no big deal; the next student mocks and attacks his gay roommate. One hiring committee welcomes me with open arms; the next tells me they cannot hire someone with a homosexual orientation. We’re stuck in the middle between a world in which people abuse and reject sexual minorities and a world in which people understand and love sexual minorities.
Ever-present for people who are stuck in the middle is the question of whether to desensitize ourselves to the pain of injustice for the sake of preserving our emotional health, to toughen ourselves up into cynics, as it were, so that the dissonance between what we actually see and what we should see doesn’t exhaust us. I’m loath to do so because such desensitization involves permanently losing something (I don’t quite know what to call it: innocence? tenderness?) I’m not ready to give up. For example: When “Jack,” who’s gay, tells me “Phil” cut off his relationship with him as a result of Jack’s coming out, I want to tell Jack, “Forget Phil! His thinking is stuck in the past and doesn’t matter. Don’t give another minute to worrying about what he says, because he’s ignorant!” I want to be desensitized; I want to ignore the pain of what has happened and dismiss Phil as yet another remnant of homophobia and heteronormativity, looking forward to a future in which people like Phil will be more understanding. But I don’t say that, and I know it wouldn’t work anyway, because Phil’s actions do hurt. They hurt because he’s a person, and because he should know better, and because his actions demonstrate that the world is not where it should be. We have to feel the pain of Phil’s actions, because we have to take seriously the injustice we’re up against. It’s possible things would be easier if we didn’t know something better were possible—if we didn’t regularly witness examples of how things ought to be—but we have seen, and we’re no longer satisfied with the falsehood that says it’s inevitable for things to stay the way they are.
Along with that question, also ever-present is the temptation to give in to our impatience for change, to become frustrated with certain individuals’ apathy towards a problem that seems so incredibly critical and central to us. I recently heard an interview (warning: very, very profanity-laden) in which Todd Glass, a comedian, came out and spoke frankly about being a gay man, and as the conversation moved to homophobia, he offered the following exhortation to those who are thoughtlessly homophobic:
“You’re wrong. Time will tell you’re wrong. I always say: If you’re homophobic and you’re out there, you’d better be positive you’re right, because isn’t it gonna blow if all these kids are killing themselves, and later, how convenient, in twenty years, you get to write a book—and God bless you, if you do it—to say how wrong you were? They’re dead. So, why don’t you have a soul searching moment now? Go into your house, shut the door, and be [completely] positive you’re making kids feel like crap for no good […] reason.”
Though I lack Glass’s boldness, I’ve often suffered the same impatience with people who say they “just haven’t gotten around” to thinking through LGBT issues or that “the time isn’t right.” What will it take, I want to ask, for you to recognize how serious and urgent the situation is for your LGBT brothers and sisters? And what sort of pain is your ignorance causing in the meantime? (Nevertheless, I’m well aware there are other issues equally or more important to which I haven’t given proper attention, and I must repent for those injustices to which I have remained blissfully ignorant.)
In any case, this cognitive dissonance between what is and what should be is nothing unique to me; in fact, it’s the same unresolved posture in which all Christians balance as we acknowledge the reality of God’s work in the world but wait for him to finish the job. Bible types call this the “already and not yet”—as in, God has already redeemed the world through Jesus, but God has not yet redeemed the world because we are still waiting for his glorious conclusion to the story of the universe. We already know how the story is going to end, but we are stuck in the middle because that ending has not yet come. I think this tension is what Romans 8:18-24 describes:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?”
The birth metaphor captures well the tension between the already and not yet: Neither the intense pain of the pregnancy nor the earnest gladness of welcoming a new life (that which is already, in the pregnancy, but not yet, until the birth) completely silences the other. The gladness is real and present and will last well beyond the pain; but until the child comes and the labor pains cease, the pain is also real and present. Only the pregnant mother can completely appreciate that tension.
This is why people who are stuck in the middle are so incredibly important: We’ve felt the intense agony of injustice enough to keep us from the naive optimism of those who are blind to the problem, but we’ve glimpsed enough of the beauty of the outcome of this world to keep us from the cynical despair of those who see no future. At the same time as we legitimately feel the pain of the world, we can confidently declare it will not last forever. Someone must declare this, lest we all grow accustomed to a reality in which we accept injustice as inevitable.
I say all this with confidence because I believe justice is near the heart of God. This is one of those rare matters in which scripture speaks with a unanimous, persistent, clear voice (if only the same could be said for sexuality!): God will not suffer injustice for long. Ours is a God who “loves justice” and “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Psalm 11:7, 103:6). We should consider it “unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice” (Job 34:12). And this is the crucial part: We must continually look forward to the coming fullness of God’s reign, when “with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). Injustice is not part of God’s design for the world, so we must not get used to it. If you receive power and privilege from a system that silences and oppresses others, don’t get too comfortable in that precarious position of dominance. If you are a victim of a system that silences and oppresses you, please, please believe me when I say this is not how things are supposed to be and is not how things will be forever. The outcome of our story is justice.
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