Dear Uncle R.

Sometime in the mid- to late-80s, I wrote a letter to my father’s younger brother, who was at that time doing missionary work with his family in Kenya. I had only met R in person once, perhaps twice; I did not know his children (whom I thought of as “the African cousins”) at all. I did not know the workings of his faith, except that it seemed unimaginable to me and my Unitarian Universalist sensibilities. A high point of my own religious education had been the day in third grade when I led a mass exodus from Sunday School after a substitute teacher attempted to make us read the story of Noah and the flood. “We are Unitarians,” I told my friends during a private moment when the substitute stepped into the hall; “we do NOT read the Bible.” (Some time later, when a flustered group of parents finally located me and my fellow rebels in the field behind the church, popping the heads off dandelions and blowing seeds from the matured blooms into one another’s hair, I remained defiant in the face of my mother’s insistence that–Bible or no–I was required to first tell an adult where I was going, the next time I led a religious revolt.)

But that time was long behind me, when I wrote my sincere plea to my uncle R: Can you explain your faith to me? I was less after the particulars of beliefs and more hungry to understand how those particulars informed the choices he made, guided the way he made sense of the world. If I could understand R, I thought, perhaps I could make sense of my father’s own recent turn to an evangelical, born-again form of Christianity. My house felt in chaos that year–my brother newly away at college, my parents’ marriage threatening to break apart, my own self attempting to assert itself in outraged adolescent confusion. My father’s conversion seemed to lay at the nexus of it all. The only fight I can remember in which I screamed back at him as good as I got pivoted on questions of faith and choice. His insistence that his life was so much better now…and mine could be too, if I would only follow his decision. My insistence that I wanted nothing to do with his Christ or his salvation…and would he just get the hell outta my room RIGHT NOW. (It was not our finest father-daughter moment.)

Can you explain your faith to me?

I never got the reply R wrote me, though he later communicated to me that he had written one. A long, fat letter–the kind that required many postage stamps to mail to the US from East Africa, and thus the kind that tempted people to pocket an envelope for its stamps. While I have occasionally wondered over the years what words that fat letter contained, I have more often thought of it and been moved by the fact that it existed at all. That an uncle who barely knew me had made that effort to share how the world looked through his eyes. That he had been willing and gracious to make that part of himself known to me, known so deeply that his revelation tempted even those who only touched it from the outside.

I have still only met R a handful of times, and I’m still unsure if I’ve ever met all of his sons in person. But he and I have become “Facebook friends” in recent years and formed, I think, an affectionate regard for the slivers of self that we each reveal through the gestured intimacy of social media. Yesterday R reached out to me with a link to this post by Christian blogger Jen Hatmaker detailing her “position on homosexuality.” In it she addresses the challenges, as she sees them, of reconciling compassion for all people, including gays and lesbians, with her Biblical faith in “traditional marriage.” My uncle respectfully asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts with him.

Can you explain your faith to me? 

Yes, R–I can. I’m happy to share. I’m happy you asked.

open bible

Dear Uncle R,

I’m terrible at starting small. So let’s go with…

What is sin?  What is evil?

One question that Hatmaker puzzles over is why, exactly, (homo)sexuality has become such a contentious–and seemingly isolated–source of conflict. Of all the so-called sins, why this one? One point she makes that I am in absolute agreement with is that she would have more respect, in a certain sense, with a person who consistently called out “Every. Single. Sin.” with the same zealotry that is now reserved for the “sin” of being not-straight. “I would not like that believer, but I would at least respect his consistency,” she writes. (I’m right there with ya, Jen.)

But where she–and others who share this line of thinking–lose me is on the concept of “sin” in the first place. Perhaps if I had ever carried a belief in some form of conscious divinity this would make more sense to me? But even then, I doubt it–any divine creator that could come up with the wonderful weirdness that is life on our planet only makes sense to me if that creator stands firmly on the side of more life and more love. Period. Any god that would give human beings the capacity to love one another–only to turn around and police how and when people could exercise that capacity; only to shame them if they didn’t do it “just so!”–well, that’s a god that can go hang out in the kiddie pool with Mr. “Calls Out Every.Single.Sin,” as far as I’m concerned.

But I do believe in evil. And by “evil,” I mean all the human acts that stand opposed to life and love. By “evil,” I mean war and the death penalty and genocide of indigenous peoples and human enslavement both historical and on-going today. By “evil,” I mean private acts as well: the lover who belittles and humiliates her intimate partner behind closed doors. The parent who uses the bodies of his children as objects on which to exorcise his own demons and pain. Anyone who violates the consent and bodily autonomy of another person. Because she can. Because he feels entitled to do so.

Y’know what I don’t consider “evil”? Two human beings working to love one another.

I have loved women; I have loved men. The person I married was a man–and in the heart of that “traditional marriage” flowered an evil so deep that even now, three years after the divorce, I have twice this week woken myself up in the middle of the night shouting “no no no!” into the darkness. The purest love I have shared in my life is with another woman. While our thirty-year friendship has remained essentially platonic (not all my relationships with women have), am I truly to believe that had we ever decided to express it sexually, it would have transmuted–like gold into lead–into something “sinful”?

“No form of subordination ever stands alone.”

When I see something that looks racist, I ask, ‘Where is the patriarchy in this?’ When I see something that looks sexist, I ask, ‘Where is the heterosexism in this?’ When I see something that looks homophobic, I ask, ‘Where are the class interests in this?’ –Mari Matsuda (via)

What I think Hatmaker misses in the arguments about “traditional marriage” is that the issue is not strictly about sexual orientation; it is also fundamentally about gender roles. “Why homosexuality has devolved into such an isolated war, I am uncertain,” she says, but consider: if marriage is–and can only ever be–between “one man and one woman,” then man and woman had darn well better be stable and consistent categories. This is not an “isolated war,” whatever Hatmaker may think; debates over the morality of same-sex sexuality also channel a proxy war over what forms of gender expression will be deemed “appropriate” and legible in the wider population.

I have yet to see anyone advocating a King Solomon-style “one man, 700 women” union when talking about what constitutes “traditional” or “biblical” marriage. Rather, the underlying idea to those terms seems to revolve around a concept of gender complementarity, in which “a man” becomes “that which is not a woman” and vice versa. It’s not a concept limited to religions, certainly–but it is a concept pivotal to a host of institutionalized oppressions, including sexism, misogyny, gender violence, and rape culture. And, yes: to homophobia as well. When one’s masculinity depends on how clearly non-feminine he presents himself as being, I think it’s easy to understand how quickly “different from” can get elided with “better than.”

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that all–or most, or necessarily even any–proponents of “traditional marriage” are sexist or oppressive in their personal thoughts, actions, or relationships. I am arguing that the complementary logic of “marriage = one man + one woman” finds close bedfellows in a range of social systems that are patriarchal and oppressive to women and other individuals who can seen in any way as more “feminine” than “masculine.”

As Identity Is to Air

A number of years ago, my mother was approached at a Unitarian church by a woman who had mistakenly assumed she was a lesbian. (I think she wanted to invite mom to join a new group being formed at the church?) I don’t recall all the details precisely–but I do remember my mother’s surprised laughter as she related this story to me. “Oh! Sorry–I thought you were a lesbian!” my mother described the other woman’s words to her, and then her own reaction: “Well, I don’t think so! I mean, I’ve been married almost 40 years!”

What has always stood out to me about that exchange was how quizzical my mother seemed about how to articulate the certainty she felt in her own sexual orientation. Not because her straightness was ever in doubt–but precisely because it had never before occurred to her that any doubt could ever even exist. She knew she was straight because she had always known she was straight. So had everyone around her. So had every institution and social expectation. Knowing her own sexual identity was both as invisible and as automatic as breathing.

Not so much for queer people like me.

My coming…in, I suppose, to knowledge of myself–and later, my coming out to friends, to family, to potential lovers–was fairly smooth, as far as such things go. Everyone’s story is unique, and they can range from easy, like mine, to horrific tales of rejection by family and community. The point is: we’ve all got one. Everyone for whom the normative cultural expectation of  “straight” does not rest comfortably with our own internal sense of self has a story of how they came to know themselves. I don’t know how to describe this feeling to you any better than I expect you would be able to describe to me what “being straight” feels like to you–or how you might feel if you were faced with a world that asked you to separate that part of your identity from the rest of you…and yet to carry on as if you were still whole.

Consider, Uncle R: You are going to be asked to breathe something other than oxygen for the rest of your days. Everyone else will go on breathing oxygen, but you have been singled out to receive some other form of gas. And yet you will be expected to carry on as if this is how your body functions. Do you have the willpower necessary to keep your liver functioning? To keep your blood oxygenated, and red? Is awareness of your own “sinful” nature enough to keep your bronchial tubes filled, after the air has been taken away?

“Pity the Poor Homo”

I must confess to being highly irritated by Hatmaker’s (quite sincere, I’m sure) hand-wringing over the suffering that gets inflicted on gays and lesbians in the name of Christianity. This is a complicated–and in some circles, controversial–reaction, so bear with me as I unpack it.

Hatmaker writes:

“As I lay in bed, it was instantly and perfectly clear that the gay community has been spiritually beaten, stripped of dignity, robbed of humanity, and left for dead by much of the church. You need only look at the suicide rates, prevalence of self-harm, and the devastating pleas from ostracized gay people and those who love them to see what has plainly transpired.

“Laying next to them, bloodied and bruised, are believers whose theology affirms homosexuality and allows them to stand alongside their gay friends. (Again, you don’t have to agree with this, but there are tens of thousands of thinking, studied people who hold this conviction.) The spiritual gutting of these brothers and sisters is nothing short of shameful. The mockery and dismissal and vitriol leveled at these folks is disgraceful.”

Let me say again: I fully believe she is being sincere. I also agree with her: a Christianity (or any religion) that rejects people on the basis of their core identities–sexual or otherwise–performs a “spiritual gutting” that is indeed shameful. It causes real suffering, some self-inflicted like the suicide and self-harm examples she gives, and some other-inflicted. I believe she uses the words “bloodied and bruised” (and later in the piece, “bloodied and beaten”) as metaphors for spiritual damage–but we live in a society where “bloodied and bruised” can also be a quite literal outcome. Hate crimes are real. Gay-bashing is real. “Bloodied and beaten–to death” is a real risk for some LGBTQ people, particularly those who simultaneously belong to other vulnerable communities due to age, or poverty, or the color of their skin.

Here’s where my irritation comes in. How how HOW is there even a question remaining here?? I stand for life, and I stand for love. I stand for the full humanity of us all. If someone tells me, “This is core to who I am. This is what my humanity contains,” I trust them. I trust them to know themselves better than I ever could. I trust their sincerity, even if the self they are describing sounds as foreign to my experience as breathing without access to air. If I look at someone’s face, if I listen to their words, and all I find is strangeness–I start with the assumption that the limitation is on my side. I do not ask them to provide me further evidence of their humanity as I ponder it. I work harder to understand them and their experiences, if I can. If I can’t, then I work harder to get out of their way and to not be an obstruction as they seek what I seek: to continually grow towards being the most human and most loving version of myself that I can possibly be.

You know what else I don’t do? I don’t wait until someone is prostrate before me, “spiritually [or literally] gutted” and holding up slashed and bloody wrists in “devastating pleas,” before I accord them full acknowledgment of a humanity that is fully the equal to my own. The prurience of her language in this passage turns my stomach. What does it say about me, if I need to consult a community’s suicide rates before I grant their grievances serious consideration?

By the Company We Keep…

I believe that in this post, Jen Hatmaker is sincerely struggling with issues that she experiences as emotionally and religiously profound. I believe her sincerity, and I believe that her intent is loving.

I also think that, when all is said and done, this kind of “loving intent” doesn’t matter much. In issues of human rights and human dignity, intent does not mitigate outcome.

Here is the passage where I think her argument falters on a false equivalence, and it underscores my belief that while it is never easy (indeed, never fully possible) to walk in perfect congruence with our faith, religious or otherwise, for me the decision of where my faith places me is at least simple:

“Also wounded on the side of the road are Christians who sincerely love God and people and believe homosexuality is a sin, but they’ve been lumped in with the Big Loud Mean Voices unfairly. Painted as hateful intolerants, they are actually kind and loving and are simply trying to be faithful. The paintbrush is too wide, the indictments unfounded.”

After all her talk of blood and bruises, of self-harm and suicide, Hatmaker trivializes the opposition to gay rights as consisting of “Big Loud Mean Voices.” Big Loud Mean Voices that she and others are being unfairly lumped in with despite all the kind, loving faithfulness of their intent.

I’ll say it again: in issues of human dignity, “intent” is irrelevant when the outcomes are harmful.

It is a false equivalent to make this an issue of “mean voices.” Sincere Christians who believe that some people’s sexual identities render them somehow more sinful–or more specially sinful–than everybody else may have their feelings hurt when those people tell them they come across as hateful and intolerant. But those specially sinful people are not just getting their feelings hurt, while others debate–with all sincere loving intent–whether or not to accord them full and equal human status. They are also being denied equal access to the citizenship rights that come with civil marriage. They are also getting killed, whether by their own hand or at the hand of someone emboldened by those “Big Loud Mean Voices” of intolerance and bigotry. (Or–I gotta say it, Ms. Hatmaker–inspired by the quiet, pervasive voices murmuring “hate the sin.”) They are also just trying to lead full lives with love and dignity.

I think that when one belongs to socially dominant groups–like Christians or straight people (but this also applies to people with white privilege, class privilege, the list continues)–then one has an absolute responsibility to listen when someone from a socially non-dominant group tells you that, from their vantage point, you look pretty indistiguishable from the hateful intolerants. If someone tells me my boot is on her neck and she is choking, then it doesn’t really matter why I put my boot there in the first place, does it?

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

In closing, Uncle R, let me thank you for asking me to share my thoughts. I offer you this declaration and explanation of my faith with the same open hand with which you once sent me a fat, many-stamped envelope, and with the same willingness to disagree yet desire to be understood.

My love and respect,

your niece

8 thoughts on “Dear Uncle R.

  1. What is sin? What is evil?

    Good questions. Sorry for the long gap.

    Traditionally, in terms of Christian thought, “Sin” is “missing the mark, like an arrow that’s gone astray. The mark? The life that truly loves god (another term that requires to be examined, described and defined, if possible) with all the heart, mind, soul and strength and (seen significantly in the one) who truly loves his/her neighbor as him/herself. If one wants to remove the first mark that is missed (that of loving god), one is left still with the second (that of loving my neighbor, putting their good and needs before my own while not forgetting my good and my needs).

    What is sin? It’s Brokenness, internal brokenness, that leads us, urges us, presses and pulls us to seek our own good before (and often in place of) the good of others. However, the brokenness quite often translates into inappropriate attempts (broken, if you will) to seek our own good through ways and means that ultimately provide nothing. Always pouring, never drinking.

    Don’t know if you remember the comic strip character Pogo (see, http://theraddonreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/enemy_square.jpg) for a visual assist). His wisdom? “We have met the enemy and s/he is us!” And, as someone once said, “Have I ever considered the fact that the only constant in all my dysfunctional relationships is…me?”

    On the grand spectrum of brokenness, some are at one end (the Gandhis and Mother Theresas who, for all their goodness, nonetheless harbored brokenness seen perhaps only those closest to them), some at the other (the Nazis who gouged out the eyes of young girls for their pleasure). The remainder of us hover somewhere in between, often moving back and forth, as we employ all those inappropriate steps to hide from, run from, and cover up our brokenness.

    Yet, while that “sin,” that brokenness is us; it’s in us; it’s us and yet it’s “other than” us as well. As one writer puts it, “The good that I would do, I cannot do; and the evil that I would not do I find myself doing.” That sin and brokenness has an individual element, my own, and it has corporate, institutional, and social elements. Our inability to deal with our brokenness at the personal level is multiplied exponentially at the social level. Get all kinds of broken people together in one place and you get lots of broken systems, promises, plans, programs, institutions, etc. (Just look at Congress!)

    And, one final thought for now, this sin, this brokenness, this (for those who seek to follow Jesus) rebellion against god is greater, deeper and more exhaustive that any one wrong or any list of “sins.” Sin, at its core, is the source of acts of brokenness.

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  2. Hello Alice. Next to my keyboard lies a printed, multi-paged copy of your posting. Awesome and somewhat intimidating, even a bit overwhelming: just a few of my internal descriptions of the graciously brutal honesty and transparency you have displayed. My hope is to honor your statements and questions, to the extent I am able, with honesty and transparency. It’s quite likely that I will need time to respond to each point you raise.
    First, let me say how grateful I am that the “fat letter” from Africa didn’t arrive in your mailbox those many years ago. Why? Because, after a quarter century of living outside the United States, after 40+ years of being a “professional Christian” (i.e., one whose life is/was financially supported through Christians and Christian churches), and after embarking quite late in the process of growing up and thinking for myself, I can honestly say, “Many things have changed vis-a-vis what I wrote to you more than 25 years ago. My responses would have been overly-simplistic and shallow, simply because they would have come out of a brain that had been conditioned by the overly-simplistic and shallow indoctrination/education I received when I did my graduate studies in theology. Perhaps this will help you understand what I am trying to say.
    Oliver Wendell Holmes once said or wrote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Say what?
    Much of evangelical (a term in search of a good definition), and, to an even greater degree, fundamentalist Christianity resides on “this side” of complexity. That is to say (and this is MY opinion), the belief system of many “Bible believing” Christians is “second hand,” resulting from the teaching they have received from pastors and teachers and speakers. They have not done the hard lifting required to develop their own critical understanding of the incredibly rich and diverse book they cling to so vehemently. Ask these folks, “Why do you believe such and such?” They will respond: “Because my pastor/Sunday School teacher/Bible school professor taught me that.” When they butt up against the hard (though ultimately permeable) wall of complex questions, they will most often retreat to “The Bible says; my pastor says; my favorite blog says….” Complex questions like:
    * How can we hold to a literal, 6-(24 hour)-day creation that occurred a mere 10,000 (or 6,000, or even four thousand years ago in light of the advances in our scientific understandings and clear evidences of the immense age of the earth? [Don’t forget: Galileo and others were criticized, ostracized and even killed for the mere suggestion that the earth was not the center of the universe!]
    * How can we say “God and his will are sovereign, micro-managing the steps and events of all who live, have lived and will live” without making him, therefore, the author of all the evil in the world (in addition to all the good)?
    * How can we explain evil?
    * How can we say that the Bible we read today is without error (this is conveniently mitigated by suggesting that “inerrant” refers to the original manuscripts) when it is clear that there are some contradictions, emendations, editorial work, etc?
    Often, (but not always) when faced with such complexities, the Christian simply refuses to enter the complexity and stakes their claim on the initial simplicity. But, and I agree with Holmes, there is a simplicity (of faith, of trust, of belief) that can emerge on the other side of complexity – a simplicity that can embrace doubt even as it walks by faith.
    Let me close these initial comments (like a preacher saying, “And finally….”) by stating what may seem incongruous to all I’ve written to this point. I am a Christian, a follower of Jesus, even (as I mentioned to my brother, your father) and a theologically-conservative Christian in terms of my basic positions/beliefs. I hold to the historic creeds of the church (Nicene and Apostles’):
    Πιστεύω εις Θεον Πατερα, παντοκράτορα, ποιητην ουρανου και γης.
    Και (εις) `Ιησουν Χριστον, υίον αυτου τον μονογενη, τον κύριον ήμων, τον συλληφθέντα εκ πνεύματοσ άγίου, γεννηθέντα εκ Μαρίας της παρθένου, παθόντα επι Ποντίου Πιλάτου, σταυρωθέντα, θανόντα, και ταφέντα, κατελθόντα εις τα κατώτατα, τη τρίτη `ημέρα `αναστάντα `απο των νεκρων, `ανελθόντα εις τους ουρανούς, καθεζόμενον εν δεξια θεου πατρος παντο δυνάμου, εκειθεν ερχόμενον κρϊναι ζωντας και νεκρούς.
    Πιστεύω εις το Πνυμα το `Αγιον, αγίαν καθολικην εκκλησίαν, αγίων κοινωνίαν, άφεσιν αμαρτιων, σαρκος ανάστασιν, ξωήν αιώνιον. Αμήν.
    Okay, pardon a little levity, though even the English version of the Apostles’ Creed may seem like Greek to many:
    I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.
    Obviously, one interprets one’s world through one’s worldview and presuppositions. Mine could be categorized as theistic and supernatural. That is, I believe there is a personal God who has made himself (pardon the gender-specific term) known; I believe there is more to life than what we can see, touch, test, etc. Those are my presuppositions.
    I also believe the Bible is God’s self-revelation (mediated through fallen men [and women]), is authoritative and relevant.
    I believe that Jesus did live, did die and die rise from the dead. I choose to believe those things for what I believe are valid personal and historical reasons.
    I believe I will stop here for now. And I’ve not yet really touched the substance of your post. So many words to write and so little time!

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    1. Ha! Only “a bit” overwhelming? To explain, I didn’t set out to write quite such a tome; you unwittingly reached me on a week when I seem finally able to use words again, after several years without. And this question happens to touch on a collection of ideas I’ve been pondering deeply–again, for years. Thank you for providing me such a cathartic outlet! I appreciate your desire to “honor my statement,” as you say, and I hope you know that doesn’t have to mean responding directly to all–or indeed, any–of the things I said. If some of this is resonant for you, in the place you are on in your own journey, I am glad. No expectations! Thank you for the responses you’ve already shared. 🙂

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  3. This is going to take more than one read to fully absorb, a fact I appreciate. I love you, and I love your heart, and your luscious brain. Which makes me sound like a zombie, but you know what I mean.

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