“We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, By our Love, Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
-First verse and chorus of the hymn, “We Are One In The Spirit” by Peter Scholte
Even though I have not actually heard this song for many years now, I often find myself humming or singing it quite frequently. It was a staple in Wednesday morning Chapel in the private Episcopal School I attended in the third and fourth grade, and was led with acoustic guitar, in more of a sing-along than a formal hymn. It was mixed in with other hymns, some traditional including “Lord Of The Dance,” and other more non-traditional, such as selections from “Godspell” (most often “Day By Day”) and even secular songs like “I Can See Clearly Now,” which also received a considerable amount of airplay at the time on local radio.
As traditional in many ways as that school was with its strict dress code/uniforms (I wore a tie more in my youth than I ever did as an adult), fortunately, theologically they were quite non-traditional. There was no talk of hell, no “enemy” or “other” we were taught to live in terror of, and while the Bible was considered Sacred and Holy, there was never any talk of it being “inerrant,” “infallible,” or “literal.” There was no demonization of anyone for having a different point of view or a different sexual orientation (I don’t think that even ever came up, aside from once when a classmate of mine got scolded for accusing someone of being “queer” and being told that it was wrong to judge other people), and we were taught that being “Christian” was about being a good and kind person and being loving towards others.
It was definitely a harsh contrast from the fire and brimstone Southern Baptist church I was made to attend on Sundays (which just left me with nothing but fear and anxiety, and where a grade level Sunday School teacher once traumatized me to the point where my parents stopped making me attend that particular class by accusing me of “not really being saved” because I had never said ‘The Sinner’s Prayer” out loud), and the one I would be forced to attend later on in my youth when my parents got caught up in fundamentalism as I got older and on into Junior High and High School where it was not about what you did to help others, but what you did or didn’t do yourself. (I know in retrospect that one of the gifts that enabled me to salvage my broken faith later in life was being in that Episcopal School for the two years that I was amidst all of the other negative dogmatic influence my young mind was being saturated and permeated with, and I remain forever grateful to this day.)
But all of that is another story for some other time. Right now I want to talk more about the hymn that reminded me of that time in my life, and why it still holds such a profound meaning to me years later. The lyrics are repetitive in a good way, and that refrain, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” is a phrase which to me bears repeating over and over again. I love the music as well, to me it has a Native American feel to it (or maybe that’s just the Cherokee in me that hears that). I know there have been some contemporary covers of it, and it is sung in many churches today (often re-titled as “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”)
Doing some online research, I found out more about the author and the story behind it: Peter R. Scholtes wrote the song while serving as a parish priest at St. Brendan’s on Chicago’s South Side in 1966. The story goes is that he was leading a youth choir there and seeking to find a hymn which would be appropriate for a series of ecumenical and interracial events. As he was unable to locate one, he wrote the hymn in a single day. Another site stated that the hymn came on to be the “banner song of the ‘Jesus Movement.'” (For those not aware, the “Jesus Movement” was where the term “Jesus Freak” originated.) It is one of my favorites to this day, and not just because I dig the music, the fact that I am still a long haired quasi-hippie after all these years, or the wonderful simplicity of the lyrics, but what it truly says: the concept of all of us being One in the Spirit and the indication to others that we are followers of Christ being the extent to which we are willing to be Loving, as is God’s Nature, is one I feel embodies what Jesus is really all about and one I can really believe in and sing with heart and passion.
I have said it many times and will say it again: often times, at least in my experience, whenever someone prefaces a conversation (especially discourse) with inserting the statement “I’m a Christian” or makes sure that whoever they are speaking to hears that proclamation at least once while speaking, more often than not, it is due to the fact that their behavior renders clarification of that necessary and in many cases, can seem to be a contradiction. Let me site some recent examples of this (which I have actually overheard):
“I don’t support same sex marriage and am against gay rights or hate crime protection for gays, because I’m a Christian.”
“I don’t support feminism and I feel wives should submit to their husbands, because I’m a Christian.”
“I don’t support Obama and would never vote to elect him, because I’m a Christian.”
I could go on for pages citing may other examples I have had in personal experience of this sort of thing, such as the time a rather abrasive fellow during our brief talk inserted in his discussion multiple times of how proud he was of being a Christian as he proceeded to demonize just about anyone he could think of who did not believe as he did and blamed all of the problems in his life on “those damn liberals,” or the frighteningly increasing stereotype of those who viciously defend their right to slander LGBT individuals; by rightfully pointing out their use of hate speech can incite violence towards the LGBT Community I was accused of “attacking their Christian faith.” I could even relate the horrible conversation I held with someone who told me “they prayed that there was never a cure for AIDS” and believed that the resulting deaths were “God’s Will,” and he believed this because he was a “Christian,” or the person who got in my face once and stated that my Human Rights Campaign sticker and Bi Pride Flag sticker on my car bumper were “offensive” to his faith as a “Christian.” Then there are those that are downright frightening, and thankfully rare such as, “I support the death penalty because I’m a Christian” or “I support the death penalty for homosexuals because the Bible says so.”
I could go on and on, but I think anyone reading this is likely all too familiar with the type of “braggadocio about being a Christian while simultaneously behaving in a way both anathema and incongruent of being Christ-like while accusing others of doing the same” that I am referring to.
To be certain, these are extreme examples. There are also the ones I felt were trite and even a bit silly (such as “I only get my news from the Fox News Channel, because I’m a Christian and they are the only Godly news channel” – and as much as I truly wish I were making that one up, I have heard it). But there are others, less harsh, where it seems that defining oneself as a Christian is more about lip service and proverbially “talking the talk” rather than “walking the walk.”
Consider for a moment what the first thought many hear when they hear the term “Christian” as an adjective. For most people, all too unfortunately, it has become synonymous with “politically right wing conservative evangelical” thanks to the mainstream media and the amount of capital available to those who are determined to promote their theology as the one “correct” one superior and greater than all others.
I have experienced this when I discover other LGBT individuals discover that I – the unashamedly out bisexual, the radically liberal, the ethically non-monogamous guy that has both a girlfriend and a boyfriend and doesn’t play by orthodox or traditional rules – is a Christian to boot. I don’t go around advertising it any more than I advertise my bisexuality, in the sense that I don’t always go into a conversation discussing it. But as with my sexual orientation, I do not ever hide it, either; it usually comes up if I hear someone “God-bashing” or “Christian-bashing” in conversation, and I will speak up that God is a Source of Love and not Fear, and that not all Christians are as they fear.
Even my friends of other faith traditions and atheist friends are shocked and say, “How can YOU be a Christian?” While I would expect those who maintain conservative evangelical or fundamentalist views to be aghast that I dare to identify as a follower of Christ, it never ceases to amaze me how shocked non-Christians are.
Although many times I will jokingly chalk things up to semantics, I strive to consistently do all that I can to attempt to shatter the mainstream stereotypes which have so unfortunately been created surrounding Christianity. But all in all, given my experience, I really think it’s time for a revival of that Spirit in the hymn I have been discussing, a new “Jesus Movement,” if you will. One which is in my opinion a far more spiritually healthy concept of what for too many the general consensus of “being a Christian” is truly all about.
Although I have been met in the LGBT community with many a raised eyebrow over my faith (and to some degree, my bisexuality and how I experience it as well), I feel it is absolutely imperative that I, and as many others who identify as being LGBT and Christian who feel comfortable being open about it never hide their light under a bushel or feel any sort if apprehension about never hiding their faith.
Assuredly, I am not insinuating being Pharisee-like and bragging about it, nor attempting to elevate ourselves above anyone ever, as neither of those to me are what Jesus would ever begin to do, say, teach or want. Nor does it mean we condemn others who might have a different understanding – regardless of what that might be, and as difficult as it may seem, to offer compassion and love to those who would persecute us.
There is a caveat I always feel to be worth mentioning whenever I bring up the topic of being open and unashamed about faith. It became necessary to me to comprehend as I was growing in my faith as a liberal-minded and open minded Christian that even if we embrace a faith which does not exclude anyone based on sexuality, sexual orientation, different thoughts on tradition, seeing the Bible differently or any related factor that caution still must be exercised when I witnessed an online exchange regarding those who identify with being Christian while condemning others for believing differently.
The situation was a discussion about both fundamentalist extremists such as the Westboro Baptist Church, as well as about noted evangelicals like Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and others referring to their condemnation of the LGBT Community. The consensus of this particular venue was one which everyone was in agreement with, that the allegations and condemnation these preachers were throwing out were in error, and not at all Christ-like. Yet more than one person made a comment to the effect of, “Boy, are they going to be in for a nasty surprise on Judgment Day/when they die, when they are the ones who end up in Hell!”
I personally found this to be equally as repugnant as all of the times I had a fundamentalist or evangelical tell me where they thought I was headed. This was not “turning the other cheek” or “loving ones enemies” or “doing unto others.” This was to me akin to throwing gasoline on a fire and returning negativity with more of it rather than love. Without making some judgmental statement, I stated what I honestly felt: “They’re already in Hell, a hell of fear. I pray that they know God’s Real, Loving Nature and are able to move past all of these man-made divisions so they can get out of it and get on with life and what Christ really calls us to do, which is to Love One Another.” No one responded, and I dropped out of the discourse, but it always reminds me of how sometimes when we may have felt persecuted, there can be an impulse to want to be “right” instead of doing what I feel is the right thing in accordance to what I believe Jesus taught and not judging or wishing any negative thing on others even if they have done it to us. It is no more right to judge someone on the offensive, the converse, or the defensive; the Christ I believe in warned us of the consequences of judging others at all.
When I suggest being unashamed of being LGBT and Christian, I simply mean by living it. It’s not necessary to redefine what Christian means, but rather to attempt to embody and exemplify what Christ taught. Show others by example that there is a different way and that it truly can and does work. I have discovered as with so many things in life that talk can be cheap, and actions always speak volumes louder than words, and more than in any other area, most predominantly when it comes to our spirituality.
However, the idea of boldly going forth into a world which is not as accepting as the LGBT Community can for some be a much more daunting proposal that can leave many feeling apprehensive. In some circles of the Christian faith and society, we are told we don’t belong from the outset: LGBT people by default are deemed by many to be “sinners” with no place at the table, no place in Heaven, and who have no business calling ourselves Christians or claiming to be Christians. In others, we’re only welcome with a conditional measure of love: if we yoke ourselves with a helping of guilt and shame about our sexuality or sexual orientation, repress our natural feelings, and perhaps worst of all, try to become someone we are not by “changing” our orientation by undergoing potentially harmful forms of “treatment,” then we are “permitted” to call ourselves Christians.
The primary conundrum here is to determine how it is we can move past the human-created, man-made walls of division which unfortunately so much of what we know today is Christianity have created and work towards a place where we can let go of a set list of “rules” and “definitions” of what it is to be a Christian and simply “be”. From my own experience, the answer I have found is to just do it: pretend the walls are not there, and live as if you would if they did not even exist. Some examples of how this has worked for me:
As a bisexual, I had my own experience not only in the heterosexual world but also in the LGBT Community feeling a sense of “not really belonging,” similar in some ways to how I can sometimes feel in the non-LGBT Christian world in the sense that my experience of things is in a way different. I was fine in the bisexual community, although in some areas there was some resistance when I did not identify as the “correct” type of bisexual, because bisexuality for me is the need for intimate relationships with both a female and male partner simultaneously and an instance of “both/and” rather than “either/or.” For me, it is the attraction to both genders rather than falling in love with a person regardless of gender. This means that I am committed to two people in honest relationships rather than one, and even some bisexuals did not understand. When they came to understand that these relationships were all honest and mutual, and that the feelings and commitment I have to both partners are equally caring, genuine and sincere, just from knowing me, the initial skepticism was no longer an issue. Still, even those who might have misunderstood at first did not prepare me for what I was met with in the greater LGBT Community.
To begin with, there was the accusation and the label I got as being a “fence sitter” who was “going through a phase” from many of my gay and lesbian friends. As my female partner and I live together, we were both often accused of “hiding behind heterosexual privilege” (and for an out bisexual, there is no such thing). The whole ethical and honest non-monogamy (or as we call it, bi-monogamy) concept was seen as being threatening to societal legitimacy of same gender relationships by some. And I won’t even go into what sort of resistance there was when they found out I am a Christian. Not everyone was judgmental, but there was a fair amount. There was that same overall feeling I had received from some non-LGBT Christians when I would share the fact that I Love God and am grateful to God for everything and a follower of Christ but as they knew of my sexuality and sexual orientation, they would give off a sense of my “not really belonging.”
Yet, something interesting would always happen. Rather than walk away, or jump on the defensive or the comfort zone of those who were all bisexual like me, what I began to do was just go within and remember that these divisions were exactly like the divisions which I had for so long allowed others to influence me to falsely believe that I had no place calling myself a Christian or that I was somehow “unacceptable” to God, or that God’s Love was somehow “conditional.” I knew in my heart, despite what differing opinions were out there that there was nothing wrong or unnatural about my sexuality or sexual orientation and that my relationships with both the woman and man in my life were a blessing and a gift, and I knew that God did not judge me, so why should the judgment of another person, especially one that likely was simply borne out of a place of not fully understanding have a negative effect on our relationships and prevent the possibility of my somehow being able to help others or make new friends where we could enrich each other’s lives somehow? I decided that I was not going to allow the aspects of who I was that others might not quite understand to be a barrier, I was going to focus on what we did have in common and make what we did not a non-issue.
And in time, once we just spent some time around each other and I always elected to let any differences just be a non-issue, and just strived to be the same loving person I always strive to be no matter of what others think of my being bisexual or the things in my personal life they may not quite understand, sure enough, those feelings of not belonging grew to be replaced by what we had in common: I would donate my time to greater causes of the Community, others would actively seek to ensure that the “B” and “T” never got left out of events at the LGBT Center. The point I am making is when despite whatever differences we might perceive or imagine we have, if we focus on the things we know we all have in common – the need for compassion, the basic human need we all have for love and support in our times of need, the need for communication, a deeper sense of oneness can be cultivated where there might have initially been a sense of division. Over time, as I was able to bring more of my open minded heterosexual friends to support LGBT issues, I was seen as a “bridge builder” rather than a “fence sitter!”
What I had done was simple. The real transformation transpired once I had ceased attempting to justify or defend my identity or my uniqueness (even though I was completely honest, open and unashamed of all of the above) and just proceeded with living and being. If I experienced any feelings not belonging, I just referred back to knowing that despite what differences I have from others, God Created me as I am for a reason and a purpose and I belong somewhere in all of that, I am at peace with who I am and with God, and decided it was a non-issue that should never prevent me from being a part of the world.
I carried this same approach over to all of my life, including my interaction with people who are not in the LGBT Community as well as Christians who are not LGBT. And when life found me living in an area which was not as LGBT friendly as ones I might have lived in in the past, I decided to continue on the same path. Each time, I was pleasantly amazed to discern that while it is not always as easy – and there are challenges, it can, and still does prove to be successful with patience, faith, time and love.
How often is it that we hear of someone who after years of living in a closet of fear suddenly comes out to family and friends they have known for years, some of whom might have at one time been somewhat or even vehemently homophobic, or biphobic, or transphobic only to find their revelation to be transformative in a wonderful and positive way to others? While there are instances that do not always go as well, and coming out does not always work out as we might have hoped or envisioned, I have seen quite a few miracles in my life when an LGBT friend has come out to family, or friends, or even strangers who experience a shift in perspective and a breaking down of imagined walls or barriers once they know that a person who they think a great deal of, who is a good person, who is someone who possesses values and qualities they already admire comes out to them as LGBT. They are a firsthand witness to how the divisions and barriers that we might have allowed the fears and misunderstandings which are unfortunately still too commonplace in society to divide us, and would never imagine allowing the fact that this person is LGBT or whatever fears they might have had surrounding LGBT individuals create a barrier between themselves and this person.
I had my own unfortunate experience in the past of a few people turning away from me after coming out but for the multiple times that a person would say something to me along the lines of “you know, I don’t get it, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about you” and even more so when I would see those same people let go of homophobic talk, or excluding others from God’s Love based on sexual orientation, or even speaking out against any type of discrimination of LGBT individuals as a result, or when it gave someone else the courage to let go of their own fear and at least come out to themselves as LGBT, those few instances have been worth a few not as pleasant experiences to me. And even some of those unpleasant ones later ended up in a positive outcome. Perhaps most profound and meaningful to me was the conservative evangelical Christian who told me, “I don’t understand the sexuality thing, but you are sincere in your faith and it does make me think that in the end, that might not be an issue to God, so it’s not going to be an issue with me, either.”
And I wish for and envision a day where being LGBT is simply a “non-issue” not only in society, but in Christianity as well.
I know that to all too many of us who have lived in, or live in the metaphorical “lion’s den” at times among those who are tragically, however inaccurately convinced that anyone who is LGBT cannot be congruent with being a Christian or is a “hell-bound sinner” and “a threat to traditional marriage” or what have you a lot of this might sound overly optimistic. And maybe it is; I turn on the TV or overhear in public some sentiments that lead me to believe and accept that we still have a long road to travel to get to a place of everyone who calls themselves a Christian feeling or being of “one Spirit.” However, I do know this:
From the beginning, the earliest times described in the Bible, and as far back as we know, there has always been division. But division, just like religious dogma and legalism, is man-made. Humanity created it, and somewhere along the line, attempted to re-invent God in our own image, and attribute our worst qualities such as judgment, favoritism, and non-acceptance of differences to God.
But along came Jesus, and with His teachings, He shattered all of that should we be merely be willing to open our hearts and embrace a new Way of thinking about God, one of Love, and expressing our gratitude to God by being loving and caring to, accepting of, and forgiving of one another rather than being judgmental and giving into our fears. He Taught against division, and of the value of Loving One Another as God Loves us, Unconditionally. Even Paul understood this when he said in Galatians 3:28 that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” When originally written, the verse says:
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer enslaved or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
However, today, my heart knows that we can add to that, “there is no longer black or white, heterosexual or LGBT, Democrat or Republican” and so on. Christ gave us the gift of knowing that regardless of what type of religious dogmas, rituals, legalities or traditions we may have, it is Love that must override all, as that is how we can best reach a greater sense of Oneness with God.
Oneness with God on an individual basis is a Joy and a Blessing, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all work together and cultivate a Greater sense of Oneness with one another? How is it that we can go about fostering a greater sense of belonging in the world, rather than all of the division we have over time allowed to separate us, abolish the fears, and begin to disassemble all of those imagined barriers to God’s Love flowing freely through and to one another? How do we claim our place as individuals and Christians among those who purport that those who are LGBT, those who do not see the Bible as literal, or whatever other factor cannot call themselves a Christian, or a follower of the teachings of Christ?
While I don’t feel that it is necessary that we redefine “Christian” – or even attempt to create some “exact” set definition of it at all. If some “litmus test” for faith did exist, I would surmise that it would be how willing we are to allow God’s Love to flow freely through us to others, but I don’t feel that anyone should attempt to create any solid “definition” of Christianity other than “a follower of Christ’s Teachings” any more than I feel that there is no solid definition of “bisexual” other than “one who experiences attraction to both genders.” There has to be ample room for the vast diversity of all of God’s Creation, for it is as vast and brilliant as every possible hue of the spectrum and then some.
I feel that the best course of action is merely to embody, exemplify and LIVE it, based on what we know of the teachings of Jesus. Don’t tell people you are a Christian. Let it shine through in your actions, instead. If they know you are LGBT, and say “you can’t be a Christian,” then behave like one anyway through actions rather than words, memes, party lines, or an empty, whitewashed tomb of dogma and rhetoric. Show them. Show them and let them know LGBT people are Christians too, however different we all might be on other levels, by our Love. Practicing the teachings of Christ, regardless of who we are or how we understand God, never requires one iota of justification, explanation, or defense.
By our Love. On the surface level, it seems simple: Love thy neighbor as thyself, or, if you prefer, strive to treat all others with the same measure of love as we ourselves would desire to have, even if at times that task can be complex given all of the variables in life and the varying experiences it can throw at us.
But to me, there is more to it than that. It is not only being unafraid to be a loving person, it is being unafraid to live the honest Truth of who we are and who God Created us to be, while being loving. Don’t be afraid to put the Ichthus (a.k.a. the “Jesus Fish”) sticker on your car next to the Rainbow Flag or the Pride Sticker. Yes, it may shock others to know you are LGBT and Christian, but so be it – be bold, be shocking and do not attempt fit a given mold or stereotype. Show others that each and every one of us is a precious and valued integral cog in the vast and mysterious mechanism of Creation, and that everyone has a part to play. Show them that it is humans who imagine the differences – we are all valued and Unconditionally Loved children of the same God.
That person who just said something hateful towards you because they feel they were justified in doing so because their definition of Christian is heterosexual? Smile and say “God Bless You” anyway. Take the extra five minutes to help the elderly person struggling with their groceries to their car. If you’re having a heated civil discourse regarding politics with someone but run across a point which you do agree on, such as helping the homeless or preventing animal cruelty or some other common cause, shift the focus of the conversation to common ground and to a positive place. When you do experience conflict with another, reach within to find the courage and strength to respond with love, and strive to do so. Be not afraid of offering time to volunteer and help others in need. As difficult as it can be at times, practice wasteful love and forgiveness even towards those who we might perceive to be our “enemies.”
Should you ever feel any need to vocalize the fact that you are a Christian in the midst of a conversation, wouldn’t it be wonderful to overhear people say the following types of things, as opposed to some of the examples I cited earlier?:
“I treat others with kindness and respect despite whatever differences of opinion we might have, because I’m a Christian.”
“I take care of the world God Created and strive to do all that I can to help those less fortunate in life and give of myself to those in need, because I’m a Christian.”
“I elect to live my truth with love and respect for all others while respecting the rights of others to do the same, because I’m a Christian.”
“I always strive to see the good in others instead of seeing what we differ on and refuse to judge others, because I’m a Christian.”
“I support equal rights for all people, regardless of race, creed, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identification or any other imagined division, because I’m a Christian.”
I know I would love to overhear some of those – it would assuredly be refreshing!
Although, as previously stated, I believe that the only “definition” that really works for me of “Christian” is “a follower of Christ,” I can say what it means to me personally. It means to always strive to the best of my abilities to follow the Spirit of the Teachings of Jesus to the best of my ability in all that I do, to live the Truth of the person that God Created me to be with love and respect for all others even when they do not always extend the same courtesy to me, and to do all that I can to reach from within the abundance of Joy, unique gifts and blessings God has Blessed me with to make life a little better for those around me whenever and however I can, and to be as loving, caring and giving as I possibly can. And although I am able to say that I am a Christian with confidence, I never want that to be necessary, as I want others to know that I strive to be loving not because I feel I have to be, but because I want to be, just out of gratitude. I’d rather people know that I am a Christian by how I exemplify love, rather than mere words.
The absolute best way we can show our Love for God, and our commitment to Christ is by one way alone, to me, and that is as the hymn says, “By Our Love.” I acknowledge that regardless of how loving and giving we might be, that there are those who will persist in their insistence that “being a Christian” is about a specific doctrine, eschewing certain things, or being a certain way or belonging to a specific church or some other fashion of exclusivity. But that’s okay. They don’t have to agree for our faith to be genuine and sincere and sacred. For in our hearts, we can know that we are all children of the same God and that as far as God is Concerned, we are truly all One in the Spirit, Beloved Children of the Same Unconditionally Loving God, regardless of any imaginary divisions we may allow fear to create among one another. We can embrace the joy in knowing that God Created us with a purpose, and that we are an integral part of Creation with a purpose rather than an “abomination.” We are a part, of and those intended to help in doing God’s Will, rather than a force in opposition to it. We can rejoice in the gift Christ Gave us in tearing down walls and division with Love and strive to continue that process through our courage. We can take comfort in the knowledge that in practicing the teachings of Jesus as we understand them that we can only be improving the world God Made. And we can know that we need not have the approval of any other human being to know that our Love for and faith in God or our confidently knowing we are a Christian is sincere. We should hold fast to those beliefs come what may, as if we sincerely believe, it can be contagious, as can being loving to others, and being good and kind to others; joy and love are infectious in the best possible of ways. And perhaps, someday, if we persist in letting our faith as Christians shine through our Love, all unity will someday be restored. I know that seems impossible at times, given the ways of the world. But as I am reminded in one of my favorite verses of the Bible which I refer to time and time again, “With God, all things are possible.”
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.