Are you wondering where the good news is? It is in surprising and unexpected places.
Before we get to that, I need to give some information up front. I have been pastoring for more than 15 years and have been an active participant in the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process since it began in 2009. Over the course of 2015, I began the process of sharing my story publicly about being gay in orientation. Within the loving support of our church community, my wife and I continue our journey of marriage, honouring one another for who we are. However, we recognize this is not necessarily sustainable, nor even recommended, for everyone who finds themselves in a mixed-orientation marriage.
But back to the issue of where the good news is. My point takes its lead from Sean East’s Dec. 14, 2015, column, “Where is the ‘good news’?”. He raises an important question, and I am grateful to him for that. Regarding the disputable matter of same-sex marriage—and the larger concerns regarding lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) inclusion in the church, I assume—East says he is “most comfortable affirming our historical beliefs, although simultaneously uncomfortable with their articulation and practice.”
I am glad to hear that he is uncomfortable regarding historical articulation and practice, but it is not clear what exactly that means. As a member of the LGBTQ community, I can share what such discomfort means to me. Even though this is not a significant point in his article, I believe that addressing what is behind “being uncomfortable” will significantly speak to the overall question he raises: Where is the ‘good news’?
Members of the LGBTQ community have experienced the “articulation and practice” of “historical beliefs” primarily as bad news, and, in fact, sometimes as life-threatening news. Such articulation and practice have taken on both intended and unintended forms of physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse, and this, I assume, is what East is uncomfortable with.
God’s good news is needed and always directly related to the bad news experienced by people who are marginalized. This is a primary focus of Luke’s telling of the gospel—good news—right from the nativity through to the resurrection and sending. Luke underscores why the coming of Jesus is gospel for those who are marginalized and considered outsiders. So, to understand where the good news is, we must understand what the bad news is, as experienced and articulated by those who have been marginalized, a point not lost on Luke!
A brief overview of the bad news
Over the course of many centuries, LGBTQ people have often experienced the “articulation and practice” of the church’s teaching on human sexuality as violence. Attacks on our bodies, such as beatings, torture, castration, imprisonment, murder, and public executions and burnings have been commonplace throughout the western world.
Too often the church’s teaching has undergirded structural violence. A current example from 2015 was the vocal support of many North American evangelicals for Uganda’s harsh anti-gay laws. The law had included the death penalty for gay people, but thankfully was reduced to a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment. Even in Canada, “gay bashing” is sadly a real-life experience.
Meetings that I co-facilitate for LGBTQ Christians are conducted semi-privately, for reasons of confidentiality and safety. Recently, a young woman told me that she feared for her life should her father find out that she is lesbian. Her family is very religious.
We have been legislated and discriminated against for centuries, as is still the case in the vast majority of countries. Even now in the Unites States, LGBTQ people can still be legally discriminated against in terms of employment, housing and services.
This is not experienced as good news.
Spiritually we have had to endure much abuse from our straight sisters and brothers. This past year a family member stated that I can either be a Christian or gay, but I cannot be a gay Christian! We have been damned, called abominations, and declared by many heterosexuals within the church as unacceptable in the sight of God. For many traditionalists, this is the case even if we are not sexually active. Who we are is judged by many in the church as largely unacceptable.
Straight Christians have their relationships honoured and ritualized, whereas we are often pathologized, shamed and shunned. From childhood on (yes, we existed as LGBTQ children before we were adults) many of us lacked role models for relationships and ways of being that reflected the wholeness of who we are. Not only are our relationships and identities not celebrated, too many of us were subjected to “conversion therapy” and even exorcisms. None of this is experienced as good news.
We have all too often been silenced, shamed and rendered invisible by family, church and the larger society. We are too often talked about but rarely engaged; our stories are largely unheard or ignored by the church. Decisions made about us that directly impact us are made without referencing us in any significant way. This is a form of violence and would be considered unacceptable in many other settings, let alone by entities that are committed to living and working within the peace of Christ, as bearers of good news.
This systemic discrimination, as articulated and practised by many within the church, has exacted a heavy price from the LGBTQ community. Rates of depression, suicide and addictions are high among the LGBTQ community, and for too many Christians it is intensified, not only by the lack of support, but by the ongoing hostility we encounter.
This is not experienced as good news.
For the larger LGBTQ community, they have simply moved on and rejected the church and its so-called good news as being bigoted and harmful. They view the church as out of touch with modern scientific and psycho-social understandings related to the LGBTQ community. That LGBTQ Christians continue in the church is often bewildering to the larger LGBTQ community. To be Christian and to be LGBTQ is looked upon with a certain degree of suspicion, just as it is within the church. We are caught between a rock and hard place.
This also is not experienced as good news.
Where the good news is
First, it is outside the church where God has been busy. Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA have focussed resources into missional identity. One of the core tenets of missional identity is the belief that God is active in the ministry of reconciliation both inside and outside the church. The church is called to bear witness to, and live into, what God is doing. This is good news indeed!
The good news is that outside the institutional church, the Spirit of Christ has been preparing the ground needed for the eventual reconciliation between the church and the LGBTQ community. In the larger western culture, as well as in other parts of the world, attitudes have been moving toward a more fair and just approach regarding the LGBTQ community. I believe this is the work of the Spirit of Christ in culture.
As in other situations of injustice, it has been Christ in the larger culture calling the institutional church to embrace a ministry of reconciliation as it has pertained to marginalized peoples. For example, ongoing gender justice regarding women. Justice issues concerning race, as in the experiences of First Nations peoples, Africans and the African diaspora, and other people groups affected by colonialism the world over.
A core conviction of the missional church is the belief that Christ is active and working in all cultures, in all places, and among all peoples, including LGBTQ people. The church’s task is to align itself with what Christ is up to, but sometimes it takes the church a long, long time to see beyond itself to the work of Jesus. But the good news is there, even if the majority of the church does not see it.
This is good news!
Second, the good news is in the witness of the LGBTQ Christian community itself. The risen Christ is the anchor for many of God’s LGBTQ children who experience exile. As I have gotten to know the LGBTQ Christian community, I have met many people who rely heavily upon God. Their very being and survival relies upon faith in God holding them in the midst of so much turmoil.
Church, community and family structures have not been safe places for many. My own journey has been one of knowing deep within my being that I am the Lord’s beloved as a gay man. There is no doubt that I struggle with sin and brokenness, as is common to all, but it is not because of my gay orientation. My being gay is part and parcel of God’s good, diverse creation, and as his beloved I hear his words, “You are my son and in you I am well pleased.” LGBTQ Christians bear witness to the good news of Jesus in their midst.
This is good news!
Third, the good news is that in Jesus, many LGBTQ sisters and brothers continue to offer their spiritual gifts to the church regardless of their persecution. Jesus has taught us to love our enemy, even if the enemy has been within the very body meant to nurture and care for our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being. We offer forgiveness and persevere in our conviction that some day the larger body will see the error of its ways. Reconciliation will be sought, and apologies offered for “articulation and practice” inconsistent with the good news of Jesus’ peace, as seen by his articulation and practice of love.
We have not, nor will we, always agree when it comes to disputable matters. Romans 14 reminds us to love by carefully tending to each other’s convictions of faith without intimidation, threats or domination.
Love offers generous space, and lastly, this too is where the good news is!
Pieter Niemeyer is pastor of Rouge Valley Mennonite Church, Markham, Ont.