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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

When the Church Fails Homosexuals

I have a problem with us Christians. The problem spans denominational divides and it's "Christians' response to homosexuals." The gospel is pretty clear what this response should be since it's the same response Christians are supposed to have toward anyone - Love.

Boom. Blog post over.

Or if you want some clarification, keep reading.

This is not a post about Leviticus and exegesis. It's not a post about St. Paul's letters and Biblical support of or opposition to homosexuality or other alternative sexualities. Not really. Those are important conversations to have but this post isn't theological. It's practical. This post is about how we're failing one segment of the human population, one part of the divine creation in which God is fully present.

We are failing homosexuals by rejecting them. We are failing them by demonizing them, by arguing with science (does Galileo ring a bell?), and by not supporting them in the obvious ways all Christians can agree we should.

Imagine for a moment that when people started to openly identify as gay and they were victimized, violently assaulted, locked out of employment and their livelihood, ostracized from their neighbors like lepers, driven underground, and turned away from every part of "respectable society", imagine that Christians had met homosexuals there. Imagine if we had thrown open our doors, not to say "you are perfect", but to say "God loves you, and so do we." Imagine if we had promised to stand by them to end violence, end employment and benefits discrimination, end victimization, end cruelty. Imagine if Christians, the natural allies of the lowly and the disenfranchised, had partnered with homosexuals and fought for these common beliefs. What a witness we could have been! What bonds of friendship and unity we would have built!

But no, we judged them. Worse, we made conformity the litmus test for inclusion into Christian communities where homosexuals would actually have had a chance to see solidarity, experience a loving community, and hear the message of the gospel. I remember once watching an old documentary about the Civil Rights Movement in white churches. The pastor was trying to convince his parishioners that integration was a good thing. One white woman implored on camera with something like, "Pastor, I mean them [blacks] no harm and I wish them every good. But I just don't want them sitting next to me." If that comparison makes you uncomfortable, it's meant to.

Before homosexuals could be "real" Christians, we demanded sexual purity, a standard most of the adult population in our churches (married or otherwise) couldn't meet. I've been using the past tense here but not much has changed. Just a few weeks ago, Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player. Chris Broussard, another "Christian" NBA player responded by going on national television to declare that if Collins identified as a homosexual then he obviously wasn't a real Christian.

Even today, very compassionate Christians who neither condone nor condemn homosexuality still insist sexual orientation is ultimately a choice, despite the mounting empirical evidence to the contrary. Research also suggests sexuality, rather than an either/or distinction of heterosexual or homosexual, is actually a large spectrum with people falling in between the heterosexual/homosexual (and other?) poles with various degrees of proximity to either one.

Catholics have learned the hard way that we should listen to reason. (Remember my Galileo mention?) And this is why Catholicism, among other denominations, has said there is nothing wrong with being born homosexual. This from one of the most conservative religious bodies on the planet. (For the record, Catholicism makes a distinction between a homosexual nature and homosexual acts.)

But even if you throw out that research and that view, we can all agree that there is a very large number of cases of assault, hatred, and discrimination against homosexuals. And most of this isn't coming from the secular world or atheists. Most is coming from individuals who would identify as "Christian." What does that say about us?

Now homosexuality is a hot button issue with everyone racing to either legalize or outlaw gay marriage. And Christians are leading the charge on the latter. And not just political groups made up of Christians, of course, but identifiable Christian communities, like the bishops, Catholic groups, and evangelicals.

The "Defense of Marriage" is their battle cry. But defense from what? What is the real danger to marriage?

No Christians are protesting, legistlating, or publicly defending marriage by standing against pornography, the oversexualization of women and girls, messages of domination to men, promiscuity, infidelity, rampant divorce, disregard for procreation, messed up notions of what marriage means, our culture's overemphasis on romantic love, frequency of sex as the measure of a marriage's health, and the lack of formation and preparation before marriage. These are all problems of which Christians are well aware. And we're much farther down a dangerous road with respect to all of these other problems than we are with gay marriage. But I don't get letters from the bishops telling me to write my congressman about loose laws on the creation of and access to pornography.

That's because we've failed the homosexual community. Again, you don't have to be a Christian who supports that lifestyle. You just have to be one who can see past it to the reflection of God's image before you and know that it deserves your peaceful, no-strings-attached love.

When Christians start having LGBTQ outreaches and standing with the marginalized and oppressed, we'll be seen as the true followers of Christ. We're called to stop judging homosexuals and stop creating campaigns against them. I'm not saying definitions of marriage aren't important. But it's honestly hard to imagine Jesus on a picket line supporting Prop 8. It's much easier to imagine him amazing everyone (even his followers - us!) by his kindness, by his subversion of our cultural norms, and by his unfailing ability to meet the marginalized where they are. And that's where I want to be too. I want to be in that unexpected, life-giving, radical meeting space.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Living as a Hypocrite

I walked into that beautiful church with a heavy heart. It was my year of living at home after college and my life seemed "out of control." It wasn't, of course, but it was a really difficult season for me. I'd graduated college in Michigan without a job and moved home to North Carolina because it was my only option. I didn't grow up there, so I didn't have any friends or social connections. On top of my feelings of worthlessness, exclusion, and instability I was also hitting an emotional low with my personal relationships. I was caught in sin, caught in my ego, caught in the same patterns of selfishness and hurting others. And the guilt was unbearable.

I was going to St. Pius X parish almost an hour before mass in order to go to Confession. I'd reached a point, as we all do, of seeing clearly my sin and spiritual failures but feeling helpless to really change, to leave it behind and move forward. After all, I've done this all before, the cycle of sin, conviction, repentence, confession, absolution, determination, lukewarmness (or maybe just absentmindedness), and back to sin. The true beauty, the only beauty of Christianity, is grace. But how do I get there? I at least knew that the confessional was a good start.

I walked into that gigantic church feeling the typical sense of shame one does before approaching God and asking for mercy. The church was almost empty except for the sacristan and a few others mulling around. I wandered over to the confessional at the side of the sanctuary and saw there was no waiting line. I thought I probably had the wrong time. But after sheepishly poking my head into the confessional the priest on the other side beckoned me to come in. I knelt down and began.

When I was done this priest, who I could tell was fairly advanced in years, gave me the greatest comfort I could have asked for.

"God is Love."

I no longer remember what else he said before giving me absolution but just that simple phrase, one I've heard a thousand times, was exactly what I needed.

Confession, also known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is by far my favorite sacrament. You want to experience God's love, God's grace? You'll get more here than you know what to with! I like to critique a lot of what Catholics do but by God, we get it right with Confession!

I think the love I felt through the words of the priest and the hope I had leaving sin behind were the real takeaways that day. And really any day you confess your failings before God. Anything and everything a priest will say in the confessional can be summed up by my confessor's words, "God is Love."

It's so odd that we have to be constantly reminded of this. There are times when I can feel like a real hypocrite who professes a desire to live one way and then constantly fails and chooses something else. Are we hypocrites? Are we living a dual life? Yes. Absolutely. But that is the human experience. That is the spiritual life. It's struggle and pain and imperfection. But it doesn't invalidate the beauty, the serenity, the perfect that we do find and are graced to live.

After confession that day, I waited for the other parishioners to arrive and mass to start. The priest from the confessional said mass and gave a homily. He talked about how he was a retired bishop, and how he had spent the better part of his younger days as a priest abroad in India. Calcutta, India. Hearing the sins of a tiny nun. This man had spent the better part of his priesthood as Mother Teresa's confessor. And here he was, an hour before, hearing my own confession. If I didn't feel God's love and providence before, I sure felt it then.

The point I'm trying to express is that we are forced by necessity to live with our natures and our propensity to sin and yet be offered freedom from sin. And just because we fall back into the false self and sin doesn't mean we are worthless. It's a lesson I think every Christian has learned time and again but still needs to hear. Like the creed, we need to say it over and over, plumbing its depths for deeper meaning. It's a lesson I've been lucky enough to hear not only from Mother Teresa's confessor but plenty of other priests along the way.

One thing I hope is helpful is to pass on words of comfort for the sinner. I wish I had a lot of wisdom here. But thankfully others have had that wisdom, which I offer to you. The following is some of the best advice I've been given in the intimacy of Confession over the years. Each should be savored and contemplated.

Pray for recognition of goodness. Pray for recognition of beauty and joy.
Pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit - fortitude, wisdom, understanding, strength.

Our emotions should be listened to. They tell us something about what is true.

Take time to reflect on your feelings - Why do I not like this person? Why am I annoyed? What do I find this person attractive? What do I find admirable about them?

A sin has to be very serious to be a mortal sin. Give yourself a break.

Let the memories and moments of consolation carry you through the moments of desolation. (Let the 'highs' carry you through the 'lows' in your spiritual life.)

Your sin doesn't define you. You don't have to wait for all parts of your life to be holy in order to grow closer to God.
Above all, know that you are loved.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Two Brothers: On Violence, America, and One Month after Boston

My brother and I are close. Though we're fairly different we still can communicate on the same ground. I'm a social media marketer and religious, Jonah is a writer and editor for a national magazine and may be best described as quasi-religious. But when the news of the attacks in Boston came, we both saw it as an issue of great moment.

We, like everyone else, were left with questions of meaning - What does this mean for our country, for me, for the culture, for peace, for Americans, and for violence elsewhere that goes unnoticed? The following is an edited version of the email exchange I had with my brother in the wake of Boston, in which we discussed blind nationalism, the problem of violence, and how we should respond to these types of tragedies.

Sam: Whenever things like this happen, it is sad but it always makes me critical of our culture. I think the most interesting things were the comments I saw on social media of sympathy, Amero-religiosity, and the lack of attention to violence elsewhere, like Chicago and Guantanamo. Aren't these a problem? Where is our attention and outrage for the huge problems of violence we already have?

Jonah: What makes Boston so bad is the immediacy of it. Who didn't know someone in Boston or from Boston or who was running in Boston? I knew a runner. She crossed the finish line 20 minutes before the bombs went off. And to see the images—they look like a street I could walk down.

Many Americans, and I include myself here, only care about this type of thing when it hits home, so to speak. Oklahoma City. 9/11. Now Boston. Our compassion has a limit, apparently, and it's the United States border. Sure, plenty of people are aware of the horrible violence in Syria, in the Congo, in Guantanamo, in Mexico. But you don't see that type of outpouring of sympathy and support when Syrian troops use rape as a tool of war, for example. I just wish we also felt empathy beyond our borders.

Here's an interesting perspective on what America does and needs to do by Cord Jefferson. He argues that what Americans really need is true courage, which by all accounts we don't really have.

Sam: Jefferson's article asks a lot. It asks for a sort of collective sacrifice and elevation of the communal good that, honestly, Americans seem incapable of embracing post-WWII. It's true to say that we cannot live in fear and this is how we, as a people, triumph. But are people really willing to reject their fears in favor of bravery that is collectively good but makes one personally vulnerable? I'm willing to make that kind of sacrifice. Maybe you are too. But how many can we expect to join us?

We have a sense of nationalism. No one questions that. But it's rare that the goodness of that comes out. Jefferson wants a nation of Gaius Muciuses - the Roman youth who willingly held his hand in the fire in order to prove to an enemy general that Romans care nothing for their bodies, and everything for glory (and Rome and defeating those who endanger them). What a country we would be! But our individualism is too enmeshed. We're too post-Enlightenment. We're autonomous now, and Jefferson is really asking us to reverse that. Maybe we should but it will take more than an editorial to undo at least 200 years of encouragement in that direction.

But I still want to argue that it's our stupidity, prejudice, and selfishness that makes us take note of something like Boston and ignore something like Guantanamo Bay. Injustice was done to us by someone else? How dare they! Systematic, public, government-sanctioned injustice is done by us to others? Ugh...we're tired of hearing about it. That's the mentality and it's a much more troubling one than having a fear of terrorists.

We ignore the regular gun violence in Chicago because it's like Africa: we expect bad things to take place there (and it's mostly happening to a different race). And I throw myself in this boat too. I don't watch or read the news just to stay up on every shooting and the problems of the poor nationwide, let alone in this city or my community. So I'm not really any better. I guess I'm just trying to say that we should be ashamed of the degree to which we ignore the systematic problems of violence around us. Jefferson was right - at the end of that horrific day in Boston, only a handful of people died. Gun violence in our country and what we're doing abroad, like drone strikes in Pakistan, make that death toll seem insignificant.

Jonah: Bravery. That's a term that's been kicked around a lot, lately. The kind required in this situation, I think, is not the hand-in-the-fire kind, though that has its time and place (Birmingham, 1963; Guantanamo, present-time). It's bravery to face the world as it is.

The world is a violent place. Be it domestic violence against women, the Boston bombings, drone strikes that mistakenly kill a dozen innocent people, or the United States' torture campaign over the past decade. So there's a bravery required just to wake up and live in that every day. It's not brave to tackle someone just because they're vaguely foreign. That's cowardly. I think that's what Jefferson is getting at. It's not brave to pull Arabic speakers off a plane because they speak Arabic. We have to learn to say: "You know what, there are crazy people in the world who will do crazy things—bombings, shootings, other stupid shit. But, I believe that most of us are good. And I will be one of those good people and do everything I can to make the world a good place." That's brave. That's what those people who ran toward the explosion displayed.

But that bravery can't be limited to only what's in front of our eyes. And this is what I think is the truly brave part. It has to extend beyond our experience.  In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. said: Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. This is what Jesus was getting at with the Turn the other cheek. We have a choice. We can respond to these types of things violently. But throughout history, that's only prompted more violence. William Stafford wrote a book called "Every War Has Two Losers." You can't win a war. You can't end terrorism with violence. What you can do is try help those who need it—whether it's someone bleeding next to a detonated bomb, or a group of people across the world who need a school and a clinic, or a group of people being forcefully detained for a decade. That's what bravery is: Doing the right thing without knowing whether you'll be rewarded or injured for doing so.

Sam: I think we're exactly on the same page with how we think Americans should act and respond. Sometimes it's really curious that people don't see the common threads in what are universally recognized do-gooders in the best and literal sense of the word. MLK, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, they're all preaching the same principles and they're the people we admire most, the ones we think were "great" and got it right. But there's a strange disconnect. Our society doesn't say you should strive to be a certain type of person like MLK or Ghandi. Our society says you should be whatever type of person you want and even though we have other characteristics we collectively prize, they tend to be culturally specific.

We say that MLK was one of the greatest Americans ever and yet what American would ever admire a president who said, "we need to not chase these wrongdoers to the ends of the earth but rather forgive them and be at peace"? Preposterous! We'd look weak. And strength (read power) is really the greatest of American virtues.

Jonah: I think it goes back to empathy. "No man is an island" said John Donne. Neither is the United States. Which is evident when you look at the response from other countries after 9/11, or even after the Boston marathon. And sure, there are "Free Tibet" and "Save Darfur" stickers on Subarus and Priuses across the country. But there's rarely a collective sense of compassion for people outside of our country. Not for Syria, not for the London tube bombings in 2005, not even for people in poverty or lacking basic necessities. Why? I don't know. I'm guilty of the same thing. I care far more about buying a new pair of skis than I do about donating that same amount to Food not Bombs or Medicins Sans Frontieres. I'll often feel superior merely because I'm aware of a "situation" in another country, but I don't write letters to congressmen, I don't donate. Maybe the reason is: my life is good. I could spend time trying to understand an issue and understand what kind of sacrifice (I use the term lightly) I could make to help a situation, or I could spend it having a BBQ with my friends. I prefer the latter every time.

If there's a solution to that, it's beyond me. But I think MLK and John Lennon and William Stafford and Jesus were all onto the start of it (and I'm going to sound like a total liberal hippy here). It's love. It's love that births empathy. Because we can imagine our own children starving/dying/hurting, we can imagine others' suffering. And that's a start. The world is full of evil, hateful, and crazy people. There's no stopping that. But like Cormac McCarthy wrote, "You have to carry the fire."

Sam: Yeah, I think I really agree with your reasons. It helps explain why we have isolated empathy. (And who knows, maybe people in other countries feel the same way.) If there's any hope for us, it does lie with Love. I think we have the potential to "carry the fire" both individually and as a nation. But it takes being drawn out of ourselves and into true love. That's a very freeing process and it's why truly selfless people never seem to mind being selfless. But are we ready for that process? Do we desire it? Do I? And where can our empathy go so that we aren't ignorant of the world's problems but are directing our efforts to specific areas where we can do good?

It's really the age-old universal problem of human existence - choosing others over ourselves, ideals above wants, and truth over the ego. I'm just not certain we'll ever communally find the answer of Love as a response to violence. One month after Boston, are we any wiser?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why I Really Became Catholic

In conversations this past week it was rightly pointed out that last week's post on Why I Became Catholic helped clarify why I was attracted to traditional Christianity but not why I chose Catholicism specifically. What was it about Roman Catholicism that made me say, "Yes! Here is something true that I've found nowhere else"?

If I had to do it over, I would retitle last week's post "Why I left Evangelicalism." I'd like to say for the record that I believe there is a lot of good in Protestant and Evangelical traditions. In fact, I feel part of my personal mission as a Catholic convert is to help Catholics see where we can learn from our Protestant brothers and sisters. But I did reject a lot of tenets in Evangelicalism as I experienced it growing up. And the specifically 'Catholic' things I found in Catholicism were so overwhelmingly good for me to know.

Some reasons I chose Catholicism specifically

The Papacy - I really think it's hard to consider "Catholicism" outside of the figure of the pope. As I was saying to someone recently, the pope is the linchpin that holds Catholicism together as a unified, trustworthy belief system.

A fundamental problem for Protestantism, in my experience, is authority. Why is one denomination more valid than another? How can I trust one interpretation over another? It seems this requires the answers of "my pastor says, the denomination believes, our translation, the King's version, scholars note," and on and on. I didn't find those answers definitive or personally satisfying. But in Catholicism, there is a clear hierarchy of authority. Because Catholics believe Christ instituted the papacy personally with Peter (Matthew 16:17-19), when we're asked "How can you believe X?" we can answer "Because the pope, Christ's representative on earth, said so." Now, that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But when I looked at Scripture and the tradition of the Church, I found the papacy to actually be a great comfort. Theologically, it's a form of assurance.

Vision of Mary - What would a Catholic blog really be without a mention of Mary?? I hope to do a future post on Mariology 101. But unlike the vast majority of reasons I did join the Church, this reason was not logical but experiential. I offer this story as my own experience, and I make no demands for belief one way or another.

"Mary" was something I was just not on board with when I converted. I didn't understand the Catholic belief here (and a ton of other places, let me tell you) but I was given the grace to simply accept that understanding would come with time.

A couple weeks before joining the Church I was growing extremely anxious. Is this the right choice? What if I get it wrong? I really didn't know if I should 'go through with it' and become Catholic. So I went for a walk around campus to pray, and I desperately asked God for a sign. Of course, this is really immature spirituality but it was all I really had at the time. And God had enough mercy to give me what I hoped for.

As I was walking I looked up and stared at a very large oak tree with the sun shining directly behind it. After a few seconds of taking in the beauty of its leaves, I closed my eyes. And there, in my now (non)vision, the sun shining through the leaves had burned a perfect - I mean absolutely perfect - image of Mary. It was unmistakable. Please feel free to be a skeptic. I normally discount such stories myself as wishful thinking. But it was a true experience for me (the only person it was meant to be true for), and I took it as a sign that I really should become Catholic. I've never looked back.

Salvation - I found a lot more history, tradition, theology, and Scripture validating a Catholic understanding of salvation rather than a Protestant one. The world is both physical and spiritual. They go together. And so a view of sacramental grace just made a lot of sense.

Works and action being part of our salvation was also an important belief for me. Christ rarely tells his disciples what to believe (though it's often revealed to them) but he always tells them to do something: follow me. Other times he denounces those with the proper confession but wrong action and affirms those with the wrong profession but the right action. The Catholic view of faith and works affirmed what I felt experientially was true.

Salvation is a process in Catholicism. Protestants tend to view it as an event, which explains why they always want to know when you were saved. But Catholics believe salvation is a constant process of growing in holiness, of uncertainty, and of much stumbling. And, if you're not careful, you could possibly lose your salvation altogether in extreme cases. I think this is a much more difficult view of salvation to live with but I do think it's the right one.