There have been numerous times in my life when I will be in casual conversation with someone, and the topic of religion will come up. Sure, I know there is that old social caveat that there are two topics that are often best avoided in casual conversation-politics and religion-but I think that a great many of us, no matter how much we may strive to do so, cannot help but be drawn to these topics in discussion, be it to state our own beliefs with confidence, air some personal feelings, or simply to share what it is that is so uplifting in our own lives with another who expresses an interest.
Like many other people who have chosen to follow Christ as their compass in their life and spiritual journey, I am open about my faith and beliefs. Though it is not in my character to preach or in any way attempt to push my beliefs on any other person, I will openly share what it is that I believe and how I feel about it. I always attempt to do so in a way that is respectful of the beliefs of those I find myself in the company of. I am personally very grateful to God for the gift I have been given through my understanding of what I feel Jesus really was teaching. Jesus’ teaching gives me a new way of looking at God, hope in difficult times, and an ethic of loving-kindness in my interaction and interpersonal relationships with others that has brought me only joy and happiness in my life. I am as equally unashamed about being a Christian as I am about being a polyfideltious bisexual and a liberal. As a result, there have been frequent occasions where I will be among people who will talk of their faith too.
The conversation I have in these situations gives me a great sense and feeling of “community” until we get to the crucial “dividing lines.” They mention that they thank God for the blessings in their life. I respond the same way. They mention that they spend time in prayer. I agree. They mention that there are too many in this society who do not show love, care and compassion for their fellow human being. And I wholeheartedly agree that all too often people can be self-absorbed and not open their hearts and reach out to others in need, in loving-kindness. But there seems, all too often, that the inevitable “turning point” comes up – one where I am quickly placed into the status of being “outside” of the “real” Christian community. Sometimes, this is based upon discussion of my sexuality. But other times, that does not even come into the conversation. Usually, it is when they discover that my understanding of God and Christianity does not align with the one they have – be it a discrepancy in semantics or a disagreement over doctrine or their insistence on Scriptural “infallibility” over open interpretation utilizing one’s heart, mind, and understanding of the Living Christ. And within moments, the person who a few moments earlier got a look of hopefulness in their eyes that I was a new friend and kindred spirit when I told them I am a Christian, now has a look and a demeanor of apprehension and mistrust, sometimes merely viewing me as the “enemy” and the “outsider”, and in less pleasant scenarios, seeking to demolish and destroy my beliefs and force me into assimilating into that of their particular church’s understanding of what it is to be a Christian.
What I find, often dishearteningly, is that when I meet other Christians, that for me to merely say, “I am a Christian,” or “I look to the teachings of Jesus for guidance and hope in my life,” or “I love God and am grateful for all I have been given in life,” is not enough “evidence” for them to consider me a part of the “Christian Community.” My proclamation to another of these truths in my life is scarcely out of my mouth before the question is posed, often with a bit of skepticism by the person I am speaking to, with one of three “qualification” questions; “What denomination are you?” “What do you believe?” or “What do you think about _______?” (Insert one or several social issues, such as-“LGBT rights,” “gay marriage.” “prayer in schools,” “a woman’s right to choose,” or “the situation in the Middle East,” etc.). My answer then often determines whether they deem me as a brother in the Christian faith, or an “enemy of God” to be not trusted or the target of a conversion effort. In most cases, they definitely no longer consider me a part of the “body of Christ” or the “Christian community.”
On the other side of that equation, there have been instances when I am in the company of those who are of a different spiritual persuasion or belief system than the Christian faith, or who identify as being agnostic or atheist, and discussion will turn to religion or spirituality. I and a few other LGBT Christians I have known have discovered that sometimes telling a group of people who are LGBT who have chosen a different religious path or no religious path that we are Christians can elicit a reaction as shocked as when we tell a fundamentalist Christian that we are LGBT. Their entire understanding of Christianity is defined as “fundamentalist literalist” and they cannot comprehend how I can be who I am and still be a Christian. I try to tell them that it is not that my sexual orientation and/or sexuality and my beliefs are incompatible, but merely that they are being a narrow minded and stereotypical as those Christians who would deny LGBT people inclusion in the “Christian community.” Often, and understandably so, they want no part of the judgmental and fear based Christianity they have become accustomed to lumping anyone who calls themselves a Christian into. But were they to understand the peace and hope, the freedom from fear it has brought so many of us, while they may ultimately decide that another religious path is more for them and opt for that instead, it could at least break down some of the walls that have kept many who might otherwise be Christians out.
I think that a great deal of the problem is that we who are LGBT and non-legalist/literalist Christians have allowed the conservative and fundamentalist Christians to define “what Christianity is” for the rest of the world-meaning-any who are not Christian. When was the last time you saw an album by a “Christian” music act that was a group of non-literalist Christians? When was the last time you saw books that affirms that one can be both LGBT and Christian, or books advocating tolerance for other religions in a “Christian” bookstore? When was the last time there existed a “Christian” singles group where LGBT people were welcomed? Or a televised church service where the pastor preached inclusion of the LGBT Community in the church of Christ? Or, at least a message of love, tolerance and acceptance over “love the sinner hate the sin?” My review of most of these things is that for most things that carry the label “Christian,” liberal Christians, LGBT Christians living openly and without shame, or Christians who do not see one hundred percent of the Bible as literally true are not counted.
My main contention is with those who would try to keep those of us who are LGBT Christians silent and uncounted among the family of faith. Why? It undermines their authority, for one. In my opinion they feel very, very threatened by the concept that a relationship with God through Christ might not have to be filtered through other people, but can actually be interpreted on an individual basis. People might actually begin to see the prejudices they have defended by selectively quoting Scripture as being questionable. And that would put and end to their attempt to keep people they disagree with or dislike out of the church. Inclusiveness is a threat to their being able to define and control the behavior and thinking of their followers, to whatever end that could be.
Unfortunately, even amongst the LGBT community and in some instances, the LGBT Christian community, those who do not subscribe to a certain set of precepts or behavior find themselves not counted either. Rules and regulations that are set to define the “parameters” of “Christian” show there, as well. There have been instances where I and others like me have been labeled by the LGBT Community and other LGBT Christians as a “threat” or “not truly Christian” due to the fact that I am bisexual and have both a female and a male partner simultaneously, because I acknowledge that although Christianity is the most fulfilling path to me and that I feel that understanding the teachings of Jesus is the best way to understand God, other religious paths are equally as valid paths to God, because I do not interpret certain aspects of the Bible as literal history. My way is not the only way, nor a better way than that of anyone else. It is simply a different way. Yet others have excluded me because it does not fit their understanding of what “Christian” is “supposed” to be. And in my opinion, this is not any different from the ultra-conservative Christians who say that one cannot be LGBT and a Christian. It is exclusion based on fear and misunderstanding, letting differences create imagined barriers.
But I seek to express that there should be but one factor that determines inclusion in the “community” of Christ, and that is this: do we, as individuals, strive to follow the one Commandment that I feel truly defines what Jesus was all about? Do we allow love for and gratitude to God and love, care and compassion for one another to be the central focus of our lives, in our decision making, in our relations with others? Yes, that is not an easy task, given the way the world can sometimes be, and no, no one is perfect and going to live up to it a hundred percent of the time, as Jesus Himself and other biblical writers knew. There will be times when we don’t always respond in the most loving way, or become impatient, or make an error in judgment that could cause us to be more self absorbed and less loving than we could have been in certain situations and “miss the mark” (which is the definition of the term “sin”) as opposed to allowing the God, the Love in us to shine through in every situation. But a community where we admit that we are not perfect, that we have our frailties and weaknesses as human beings or spiritual beings having a human experience, that life can be tough but there is always hope, where we turn to the loving ethical teachings of Jesus. That, in my opinion, is what a real Christian community is.
In this community, a person’s individuality would not determine whether or not they should be “included” in the Christian community. It would not matter what their sexual orientation or the ways in which they choose to express their sexuality among consenting adults be they gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual -monogamous, consensual open marriage/relationship or voluntary celibacy – would be. It would not matter if they understood the Bible as history or the Bible as metaphor or a combination of both. It would not matter what political affiliation they were. What would matter the most would be a love for God, a desire to strive to follow an ethic of love for one another as Christ taught, and a desire to share the Unconditional Love God has blessed us all with freely with one another. The one thing we all share as Christians is a desire to be closer to God’s Love, to intimately know God; the walls we create with our own fears sometimes keep others from doing so. Jesus in my heart showed us a better way of knowing God than subscribing to rigid doctrines, rituals, or legalistic rules; instead He showed us that the best way to know God was first hand, hands on, BEING like God. Embodying the nature of God by being loving, and letting love flow through us to others. It’s that simple, yet through the centuries, so much has distorted that sacred message.
Assigning one “designated” meaning to a label such as “Christian” is in my opinion much of the problem. It is not the same though I do find it similar to those who assign one “designated” meaning to other labels, such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “feminist,” “Democrat” and scores of others. One hard-set definition does not fit all, and I feel the same true for “Christian.” I don’t think that “labels” are the problem, but I DO feel that black and white thinking is the problem. I am not suggesting that it is all a depressing, murky gray area either. I feel that God is a rainbow of creative diversity and splendor with so many bright and needed shades of color, and humanity. If we step outside ourselves and our fears and allow it, God will show us that to be resoundingly true. I also think that too many people want to BE God as opposed to knowing God. They want to decide what Jesus really meant based on their own ideas. They want to decide who is included or not, who belongs or not. They want to dictate the rules to others and essentially step into God’s shoes by claiming to speak for God and for Jesus. But I feel that what Jesus advocated more than anything was an un-brokered relationship with God. Rather than rely on someone else’s telling us what God wants for us, we are supposed to seek that within and find out own path, and that following the ethic of Love that God communicated to humanity through Jesus will keep us walking in that direction.
It is my opinion that as long as there is the need among the Christian church to have any group of people who is classified as the “other,” that is to say, individuals who are left on the outside or the edges of the Christian community as being somehow “inferior” or “unworthy” of full inclusion among those who look to the Loving Spirit of Christ as their human representative of the Love of God, then we are missing the mark and falling short of the kind of global community for which Jesus called us to strive. I feel that what keeps us from developing this is our need to “be” God, to decide for others what God wants for them based on our own boxed in understanding of God, recreating God in our ego. To attempt to define God for others instead of letting them find God in their hearts and lives and experience – giving them the same respect we ourselves would want to do so. This to me is what it really is to be a Christian – to show the same love to others that we would want shown to us at all times, the best that we can. Perhaps one way to begin to build this community is to share as much as possible that you too are Christian, or simply that you love Jesus and why. Don’t squabble over doctrinal differences or semantics, debate, or try to convert, just share the love you feel for God openly with another. Try to find that one thing we all share and have in common as Disciples of Jesus – a love for God and hope in Jesus’ message, regardless of how we interpret it. We must realize we are all individuals – an important part of the body of Christ, each with our own unique gift.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.