Ally: a Reflection on Privilege and Humility

Being a straight, white, cisgender MALE Christian ally for the LGBTQ+ community can often feel empowering.  It is easy to feel like I am somehow championing a cause or “changing the world” by creating a better future for the Church.  But here’s the thing, I’m not.[1]

I grew up fundamentalist.  If there was a people group I could be bigoted against, you could bet your bottom dollar I’ve been terrible toward them in my lifetime.  I have used racial epithets. I have liberally used “gay” and “f*g” in attempts to emasculate others, and I have used offensive and verbally violent slurs against women.  Thus, when I critique the positions of others on these things, I do so with full knowledge that I now stand against forms of oppression I had previously been guilty of.

My journey from religious, fundamentalist bigot to emboldened ally is a testament to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life.  I have been delivered from hatred and am now striving to show Christ’s love to everyone, recognizing that each person is intentionally and beautifully created by God.  I have had to learn a lot along the way, and to be honest, I still have a long way to go.

It is for this reason – my own failures and the hard lessons that accompanied them – I have come to realize that the greatest thing any ally can do is strive to remain humble.  And it is around the theme of humility that I want to offer some quick lessons from my own journey.

 

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  1. Listen.

An arrogant ally who insists they know everything is not an ally at all.  They are colonialists profiteering off the suffering of others.  The reality is, this has never been my reality.  I cannot possibly begin to understand from my privileged straight/cis white male position what “this” feels like.   Unless I have walked in this person’s shoes, I could never claim myself as the end-all, be-all authority, so I don’t pretend I do.

When a person who is LGBTQ+ communicates they are offended by something I have said or done, I need to listen It may be difficult for my ego to hear that I could be wrong, there could be anger involved, and the person I’ve offended may even be “in my face” confrontational. That does not make them wrong.

But the reality is, I’m not always the world’s best listener.  I’m often spending more time thinking of my rebuttal than I am concerned about the humanity of my interlocutor.  I’m a born debater, and learning not to spend all my time defeating my dialogue partner, or worse viewing them as an enemy simply for disagreeing, requires an intentional focus on humility rooted in Christ.

As Christians we are called to be students of God’s creation.  We are to study people, to know them and engage them.  Most importantly we are to live with and learn from them.  There is perhaps no greater example of this than Jesus.

Jesus is God.  He could easily have remained the divine, eternal Logos for all of time and found a way to distantly love us into New Creation.  But he didn’t.  The creator God of the universe gave up everything and became human – a baby.  He had to be raised by human parents.  He had to learn to speak the language, he had to learn to walk (Luke 1-2).  He had to learn “us.”

And when he had finally become ready, Jesus engaged us not as the lofty leader of masses, but as the humble king anointed by a prostitute (Luke 7:36-50).  He could have been a mighty ruler, yet he declared himself the servant of all and asked us to join him in the trenches (Matt 20:20-28). And most of all, when he could have rallied the troops to fight the human rebellion of the cross, Jesus instead commanded Peter to put say his sword (Matt 26:47-56).

We are to love our neighbor as ourselves – and in case you are tempted to ask who that neighbor is, Jesus tells us to find our worst perceived enemy and love them (Luke 10:25-37).  1 John 4 instructs us to love everyone with the depth of love demonstrated by Christ in his crucifixion.

So, when an LGBTQ+ person (or anyone who may be different than you) wants to talk – or yell, or cry – about something, consider it a gift that they even want tospend the time expressing to you how you have made them feel, and listen.  One of the greatest blessings in my journey has been seeing, through a commitment to genuine and respectful dialogue, enemies becoming friends and “us” vs. “them” beginning to change to just “us.”

 

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  1. Create Space

I am not the perfect ally; I never will be.  I cannot champion this cause because I do not live it day in and day out.  Every time I write a post, I strive to remain painstakingly aware of the profound and often disturbing privilege I have as a white, straight, cisgender male.  It is not my place to define what it means to be LGBTQ+. It is my job to create space in the minds of those who will respond to (or have shared in) my privilege so they can also hear the voices of those who are being oppressed and victimized.

The goal of an ally is only, ever, to create this space.  We must speak truth and love into the hearts of all who will listen. We must advocate for their ears, their minds, their hearts, to be opened.

When I think of this challenge, John the Baptist comes to mind.  John was a prophet of God.  He had a powerful ministry to which he was called from birth. But John knew his place.  He was not the main attraction; he was only the opening act.  It was his job to prepare the people, to open their minds, ears, and hearts to receive the message of Christ.

The example of John reminds me we must work to empower the voices of the LGBTQ+ community by pulling back the curtains we (as a society and a Church) use to blind ourselves, exposing the ways in which we have been the bullies who batter and betray our neighbors. So often, we as the Church strive to control God, to dictate how God communicates and who is used for that communication.  We seek to control the message and the method because we desperately want be “sure” that God is on “our” side.

As the body of Christ we must be must be willing to step aside and realize that the Spirit is moving within the LGBTQ+ community.  Thus it is not our place to tell the Spirit what to do or who to use. It is only our job to make the paths straight and prepare the minds and hearts of those who will listen (Mark 1:1-12; Matt 3).

So when the times comes to speak up, I must always remember, I am the opening act, not the main attraction.

 

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  1. Respect Preference

Being raised in the fundamentalist complementarian tradition, one of the hardest things for me to come to grips with was transgender identities.  I grew up on hard gender binaries and essentialism.  Men are MASCULINE and women were FEMININE.  There was no gray space, no third category.   This upbrining has allowed me to examine my own motivations as a lens for considerinf why many in both fundamentalist and evangelical traditions continue to hold to such a binary, essentialist paradigm.

As I see it, the reasons for this are simple.  We want to be normal.  We just want to “fit in.” All humanity strives for acceptance and so we huddle together in like groups.  We then take our identity from that group and begin to set up boundaries based on that group.  Eventually we begin to see that group as THE way.  We go from the desire for normalcy and acceptance to forcing people to accept us by declaring ourselves normative.  It is all about power and control, the ability to define self as “in” by creating a clearly denigrated definition of “out”.

The most difficult aspect of learning to be an ally was setting aside any notion of “self” as defining of the normative experience of all persons.  My self-expression of sexuality or gender identity is not, and cannot, be determinative of the experiences of other persons.

As such, one of the most of the most dangerous things a person can do as a Christian ally is assume that persons of different orientation and life experience will relate to religious dialogue or engendered language in the same ways we do.

This is especially true where issues of patriarchal language are involved.  It is easy and convenient to use masculine pronouns for God.  This has been the way much of the Church has done it for literally thousands of years, and the historical roots and ingrained tendencies are not necessarily easy to shed.  However, if you do decide to use masculine engendered pronouns, it is important to recognize what these pronouns represent for so many.

The rampant abuse of patriarchal privilege has a devastating effect on any society. Whether it manifests itself as complementarian Christianity, a sect of Islam, or any other hierarchical system which favors men, the reality is the same: Patriarchy quite often manifests as a system of unchecked privilege and oppression.

Dr. Elaine Heath defines Patriarchy as:

[A]n ideology, a system of beliefs, values and behaviors that systematically privileges men at the expense of women. It assumes that men are inherently superior to women.[2]

Patriarchy is also often based in the forced normativity of a particular vision of “masculinity.” This strictly enforced concept of masculinity quickly becomes a system which perpetuates the oppressive privilege of a select few men over against and in opposition to anyone considered “non-conformative.”

This type of patriarchal thinking has been used to abuse and oppress the LGBTQ+ community.  To insist upon one set of pronouns when discussing the attributes of God can thus infer to an LGBTQ+ audience that you are not creating a safe place for them to engage in communal experience of God.

The reality is, God is Trinitarian.  Thus, while the incarnate person of Christ is engendered, the other persons of the Trinity are not.  Jesus referring to “Father God” (c.f. John 5) is a metaphor derived from Israel’s history as God’s firstborn (Ex 4).  It is couched deeply in the patriarchy of the 1st century world.  Yet Jesus ministry worked to radically include women.  In fact, Jesus had female disciples (Luke 10, Tom 16) and even referred to himself in feminine metaphors, including a mother hen (Matt 23:37-39).  Further, Jesus is often depicted as the embodiment of the feminine Wisdom (Sophia) of Jewish sapiential traditions (c.f. Matt 11:1-30).[3]

Further, the image of God as Father in Scripture is not monolithic.  A Trinitarian understanding of God cannot conceive of “Father” as an accurate description of the Trinitarian God, but must understand this title as referring only to a specific person of the Triune community that is YHWH, as understood through the Christian tradition.  Thus it is important to note that, while YHWH is depicted as Father in passages like Malachi 2 there is a significant OT precedent for conceiving of God as divine feminine as well.

For instance, there are multiple times within the OT where YHWH is described using distinctly feminine metaphors.  These metaphors depict YHWH as a birthing mother, a protective mother, and a nurturing mother.[4]

It is also noteworthy that the most common word used for the Spirit of God in the NT, pneuma, is actually a gender neutral noun meaning breath or wind.  Thus it is also noteworthy that, while the Gospel of John uses the masculine paraclete (advocate) for the Spirit, the OT cognate used for the breath/wind of God in Genesis 1 is ruach, a feminine noun.

As such, there is a case in Scripture for referring to God in masculine, feminine, and neutral terms.  There is no reason to cling defiantly to a specific set of pronouns in favor of “tradition” when there are, in fact, a plurality of terms and metaphors used in Scripture to describe God.

As such, referring to God in exclusively masculine categories is not simply honoring tradition, it can also be a way of reinforcing an androcentric, patriarchal reading of Scripture to the detriment of all other referents to God.   Further, reinforcing an androcentric reading can also perpetuate the systemic use of the “masculinity” of God in creating the supposedly normative gender strictures inherent to patriarchal religious traditions.

Given the pain these patriarchal traditions have inflicted upon the LGBTQ+ community, it is profoundly inconsiderate and sometimes even re-victimizing to use one set of pronouns at the exclusion of other equally important images of God as feminine and/or neutral.  When writing or speaking on issues of advocacy, it is always important to consider how those words might be seen as triggering by those you desire to advocate for.

I am reminded of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In Galatia – as in many of the Pauline churches – divisions had begun to form.  There were those insisting on a distinctly Jewish way of being Christian.  Paul, however, is quick to dismantle the delusion that being Christian requires one people group to conform to the self-identifying boundary markers of other persons.  Thus, the Gospel rooted in the cross of Christ dispels the antagonism of “self” exerted against a denigrated “other.” Instead, the Church must be a place where our differences find their fullness in Christ and thus promote a mutuality rooted in respect and love for the particularity of our neighbor (Gal 3).

This concept has helped me to move beyond “self” and engage with persons who are widely different than me.  It has allowed me to see the beautiful workmanship of God in my LGBTQ+ neighbor, the careful and intentional hand of an artisan sculpting a masterpiece.  It has called me to a love and humility rooted in imitation of the cross of Christ.

 

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  1. Avoid Microaggressions

Whenever we endeavor to put words to our thoughts – to read, write, engage, or discuss ideas – we engage in poesis, or the exercise of making meaning.  Conversely those engaging us are also engaging in poesis, regardless of our intended meaning. It is entirely possible for the reader and the writer to have completely different experiences of precisely the same set of words.  It is for this reason that it is important to be aware of the dangers of microagression.

Microaggressions are often unconscious presuppositions or internalized stereotypes that manifest themselves in our communication.  I have personally heard people who claim to be allies of the LGBTQ+ community refer to opposite-sex marriage as “the default position.” While an ally may not feel any overt animosity nor desire to denigrate same-sex marriage, the words chosen are still hurtful as they imply (regardless of intention) that being LGBTQ+ is an “unnatural” (but still of course “acceptable”) option.

There are a host of common microagressions that allies can use, stereotypes born of privilege and the lack of the lived experience of active oppression, verbal abuse, and denigration.  In order to demonstrate the difference between what we think we are saying and how these things communicate microagression, I will provide a list of microagressions I, personally, have been guilty of in the past.

  • “You shouldn’t let your sexuality/gender identity get in the way of your identity in Christ.”

This phrase communicates that, in some way, LGBTQ+ identity is not truly compatible with Christianity.  You may very well consider yourself an ally, but your words imply that being LGBTQ+ is somehow a competing identity.  The question I have had to ask myself is: Would you also call being straight/cisgender a competing claim to identity in Christ?

For an excellent article on this, see Kevin Garcia’s post here.

  • Use of the word “homosexuality.”

“Homosexuality” can often prove a problematic word.  This is related to the fact that it is a relatively young word that has been most commonly used to imply a binary of sexuality. Either you are “heterosexual” or you are “homosexual”.  But the reality is, there are a vast spectrum of sexual orientations that don’t fall neatly into a binary – such as asexuality, bisexuality, and pansexuality.  Likewise, not all LGBTQ+ identities are about sexual orientation.  Some – such as transgender, genderqueer, and intersexual – are actually about the intersection of gender identity and birth sex.

While “homosexuality” is one common “catch all”, there are others.  For some LGBTQ+ persons, using gay or queer as an all-inclusive term can have the same effect.  It is important to recognize and respect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and not assume one word can encapsulate their lived experience.

  • Asking Pointed Questions

As straight, cisgender persons we would not enjoy people asking us inappropriate questions about our sexual identity.  LGBTQ+ individuals do not either.  The reality is, it is not their job to go out of their way to educate their decidedly more privileged allies.  Do not expect every person you come in contact with to be your living, breathing encyclopedia.  You may have a close friend who’s willing to help you out, and that is all well and good.  But that blogger you follow who confused you by saying LGBTQIA+ doesn’t necessarily appreciate having to interrupt a productive comment thread to bring the straight, cis white guy in the room up to speed.  If there is something you do not understand, we live in the internet age, Google it.

  • Making it all about sex.

There is a tendency among straight Christians to assume that someone identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Pansexual means they discovered their orientation in bed.  Perhaps it is because the term “sexual orientation” can be misleading, but conservative Christians have a tendency to confuse attraction with lust and orientation with sexual activity.  Even allies – myself included – have been guilty of making these sweeping and dangerous assumptions, often rendered in language like “the homosexual lifestyle.”

However, the reality is a straight man does not become straight by having sex with a woman.  At even a young age, he begins to realize that being around girls causes him to feel a way he does not feel around his male friends.  As he matures, these feelings will grow stronger and he will develop deeper attractions and even affections for these girls.  This same young man could enter the priesthood, be a lifetime virgin, and renounce all lustful thoughts and still be considered straight, never doubting his attraction to women.

Why, then, do we reduce the complexity of love and attraction in the LGBTQ+ community to something as base as mere sex?

Eliel Cruz has some excellent thoughts on this here.

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Concluding thoughts:

As an ally, it is important for me to be ever cognizant of positions of privilege and how those translate into the language used.  Even the most well-intentioned words and actions can be a dagger to the heart of the very person on whose behalf I advocate.  There must be a true desire to set aside self in service of neighbor, even if that requires radical changes in patterns of behavior/speech.

It can be easy to place the weight of the world on my shoulders and assume I am the great savior, swooping in like a superhero, wielding my privilege against all who oppose.  However, with this mindset, each failure – every moment of pushback – becomes an enemy to overcome.  Protective strategies and outright antagonism become my methods of choice.

Instead, I must keep my focus always and ever on Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).   I must not seek to exalt myself, but must press onward as compelled by the cross of Christ.[5]  As Christ used his ministry to center the plight of the oppressed (cf Luke 4), I must also decenter myself and center the voices of the LGBTQ+ community.

I must realize that Nate Sparks is not a name the world needs to know.  I must not write out of desire to become a brand, a household name I can bank on for a book deal sometime in the future.   Like Christ in his incarnation, I must set aside my concept of “self”, I must be willing to lay aside my privilege and humble myself as a servant of my LGBTQ+ neighbor (Phil 2:1-11).

It is precisely because I am compelled by the image of the crucified Christ ever before me that I believe I must stand in full support of the LGBTQ+ community’s participation in all sacraments (including marriage) of the Church.

Thus, for me, learning to be an ally from my neighbors in the LGBTQ+ community has been a lesson in learning to be like Christ.

 

 

[1] If you are unclear on terminology surrounding LGBTQ+ identity, see this link for a concise set of definitions.  http://geneq.berkeley.edu/lgbt_resources_definiton_of_terms

[2] Dr. Elaine Heath, “The Levite’s Concubine: Domestic Violence and the people of God” p.12 in Priscilla Papers (Winter,1999).

[3] Elaine M. Wainwright, Shall We Look For Another: A Feminist Reading of the Matthean Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998) pp. 67-83.

[4] For a list of such references, see http://www.womensordination.org/resources/female-images-of-god-in-the-bible/

[5] If you are interested in my work wrestling with the intersection of faith, Scripture, and my support of the LGBTQ+ community, please see here.

Special thanks go out to Morven Baker for her assistance in editing this post.

**Cover Image from http://images.huffingtonpost.com/2015-08-16-1439744437-1871963-blogcomingout.jpg**

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2 thoughts on “Ally: a Reflection on Privilege and Humility

Thanks for taking the time to read and engage. I look forward to your feedback, I welcome any criticism. However, as my goal here is mutualy respectful, beneficial conversation, I only ask that we keep civility in mind with our words. Grace and Peace.

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