This last weekend I attended the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference. It was my first time attending anything associated with GCN. I was one of the ~600 brand new attendees as the conference has grown from ~700 in 2014 to ~1300 in 2015. Below I will offer my thoughts, reflections, and commentary. I will close this post with an open letter to GCN.
THE SHARING BEFORE THE SHARING
Before I get to reflections, however, there are a few things that need to be said before reflecting on the conference itself.
First, attendance at this event–or any event for that matter–does not necessarily equate endorsement. Impulsively, the default position for so many is that any engagement is automatically a tacit endorsement. I fundamentally reject the blanket use of this premise. This unfortunate coupling (engagement=endorsement) is part of what has caused much pain and hurt over the years regarding issues of gender and sexuality. There are many who have not been given the emotional, theological, or social permission to express grace, kindness, caring, etc. to those they deeply love out of fear of condemnation from their communities (or even themselves, or of God) for “compromising” deeply held ethics and ideals. Family and friends of LGBT peoples have not been able to attend weddings, celebrations, adoption hearings, or allowed themselves to be hosts in their own homes as a result of this coupling. Pastors/ministers are not able to attend conferences such as this (and they do so “undercover”) for fear of the congregation’s reaction. Again, I demur.
I contend that love transcends that link, and even necessitates a complete disruption of the engagement=endorsement coupling. We can love by our presence without necessarily affirming beliefs and ideologies. We can give hugs, food, shelter, conversation, without necessarily endorsing. And we can attend a conference for the sake of education, listening, empathy, without necessarily agreeing. This is not only possible, it is demanded of us if we are to be loving Jesus followers.
Second, I will not share or concede any personal positions on this topic in this review. While some readers may automatically try to decipher my “position” on LGBT issues, theology, or praxis, I maintain that I have abstained from stating any such position in this post.
Third, I hope readers read with the intention of deep listening and reflecting. As soon as we mention the topic of homosexuality, many hearts and minds become immediately “suspicious,” and begin reading material (such as this) for the sake of “confirming” or “denying” these suspicions, whatever they may be. This topic is too important for that kind of hermeneutical heretic-hunting. My hope and prayer is that we come to “the table” (an hommage to this year’s theme) with a true humility, and a true desire to listen, and learn.
The GCN Conference (#GCNconf) is unlike any conference I have attended. It lacks pretension without lacking professionalism. It is as deeply emotional as it is intellectual. It is liturgical, and contemporary. And it does all of this with a true sense of “family.”
Like other conferences, GCN did well in providing a diverse set of experiences, tracts, and offerings for the variety of people in attendance. Contrary to what may be popularly perceived, the conference is not just a room full of LGBT(QIA)+ peoples, but is a conglomerate of LGBT(QIA)+ peoples, pastors (gay and straight), parents/relatives, “allies” (straight people who are supportive), and skeptics. This diversity is substantiated because, as I observed, while gender and sexuality are topics that obviously qualify the entire gathering, it is abundantly clear that the fundamental goal, the most important aspect of the conference is not (in the words of my friend), the “G,” but rather the “C,” in “GCN.” GCN proudly proclaims that no matter where you fall on the issue of gender and sexuality, you can still be affirmed as a follower of Jesus, and you are welcomed. This amounts to attempting and accomplishing the impossible, holding two very contentious and disparate sides together (and the wide spectrum between), in tension, with grace, love, listening, and understanding. Admittedly, I presume (and sensed) that the vast majority of attenders were “affirming,” (what is known as “Side A”), but as I will share below, I attended with a friend who was “non-affirming,” (what is known as “Side B”), and he felt completely comfortable (read below for his story and experience).
So, how can I endorse (which I do) the conference and organization, and commend it (which I do) to all Christians regardless of your theological views on gender and sexuality, and especially if you hold strongly to a view, and especially if this issue has touched you personally? I think @RachelHeldEvans sums up the sentiment well:
What was most palpable at this event that I do not believe I have experienced at any other conference, is the emotional pain that our LGBT(QIA)+ brothers and sisters have carried. Each session was full of personal stories and testimonies that are among the most vulnerable and genuine I’ve ever heard from a platform. Attendees whose hearts were not touched or moved by this reality would do well to seriously consider the compassionate and empathetic ethic of Christianity. While this topic is often discussed in primarily (and often times exclusively) theologically intellectual terms, it may be impossible to speak so clinically after attending #GCNconf.
And that may be one of the best things about the conference; that this issue, and these events are forcing (/encouraging?) the Church to “re-humanize” theology. We would do well to listen, engage with that heart, and repent from our philosophical distillations of such beautiful and powerful concepts such as grace, love, redemption, and salvation.
Quite poetically, the day Westboro Baptist Church arrived to protest with their hateful iconicity was the same day it rained, and a rainbow appeared in the sky.
But rather than equating this symbolism with the justified, “See, I told you so,” it was received tearfully, and thankfully, as a reminder that God is love, that God is with the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden, and in the midst of “persecution,” God’s presence will still be there. Few, if any, hateful words were said about Westboro. Many, including keynote speaker Vicky Beeching, simply loved.
It is that mood and attitude that governs GCN, a posture of grace, of childlike acceptance, of future and present hope, and of love, even of enemy. Detractors would do well to peer past gender and sexuality, and see the Holy Spirit alive and active.
Lastly, as Justin Lee (founder and executive director of GCN) announced his meeting with Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, it resonated as yet another step in GCN’s mission, to not ignore gender issues, but to look deeper through those issues to see opportunities for justice, healing, restoration, reconciliation, and ultimately, the Gospel lived out in this world.
C. That’s the letter.
Tragic that many naysayers equate homosexuality with gross immorality. Ironic that the alphanumeric symbol for that gross immorality, “X,” is also the Greek letter chi representing “Christ.” I suppose GXN just doesn’t quite have the same ring.
THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS & CONSIDERATIONS
Why gender and sexuality are amongst the most contentious of topics for faith and religion is derived, in my opinion, from three main realities. The first is our biological bias. The second is our theological symbolism. The third is our threaded hermeneutic.
Biological bias. Ask any Junior Higher why homosexuality is wrong, and they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, “because it is gross.” Ask any adult why homosexuality is wrong, and many will tell you, in no uncertain terms, “because it is clearly not the way nature has deemed it,” which is a more sophisticated way of saying “because it is gross.” I have been quite surprised, actually, at the number of conversations I have had with grown adults who shake their heads, scrunch their faces and shoulders, purse their lips, and say, “It’s just wrong! SO, wrong!”
Moral psychologists have illuminated for us that our beliefs and convictions are not made rationally, but rather intuitively and are then rationally supported. Reason, in other words, is enslaved to our intuitions, that which we first “feel.” Understanding this truth in the context of gender and sexuality is deeply important. Many would personally deny this, but if you dig deep, you will find that the “gross impulse” is there for many people (which substantiates my thesis that we never grow up, we just become more sophisticated Junior Highers, but that is for another time).
In addition to recognizing that intuition comes first, reason second, we are additionally hit with the complication that intuition is far more difficult to transform. For someone’s reasoning to shift, all that is needed is a good argument. For someone’s intuition to shift, you need a whole lot more humanity, and it doesn’t hurt to have a huge dose of time as well.
GCN’s response? Storytelling. Brilliant.
No doubt, they wrestle deeply with theology. And a good story teller is actually an artistic theologian and philosopher. Let us not dismiss story as anemic on intellect. The Biblical writers would be our exemplars. Thus, fundamentally, this conference is about testimonies. As Vicky Beeching opened,
We need to be brave with our stories so that people can be brave with theirs.
[This quote by Katherine Center was, I think, augmented from the original: “And you have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.”]
Theological symbolism. The word “sex” is etymologically rooted in the word “secare,” which means “divided,” or “separated,” (as in “section”). This topic is allegorically and symbolically tied to that which is broken in this world. According to the Christian story, our “original” design by God was to be one, with each other, and with the Creator. The divisions between us, due to brokenness, are satiated through “knowing,” the Biblical term for intimate relationships. (In modern Hebrew to this day, you dare not say, “I know ‘so-and-so'” as that has quite explicit connotations). Thus, any “sexual immorality,” any deviance from what we believe to be sexually licit is an affront, theologically, to the restoration of God’s original order.
Navigating the waters of sexuality through theological lenses is no easy task, and it requires an additional dose of symbolic imagination to do so with confidence and integrity. In the absence of those ethics, contention rises.
Threaded hermeneutic. Perhaps the most challenging reality is that this issue really isn’t about sexuality. It’s about hermeneutics. And hermeneutics is about assumptions, and core convictions. And core convictions are about identity. And…
If our readings of these texts is–ahem–“wrong,” then this calls into question the entire hermeneutical program, and the entire history of my belief systems. Pull at this thread, and the entire fabric comes undone. Add to this the “bibliolatry” and “literalism” that is quite rampant in the Church, and you’ve got one doozy of an uphill climb.
Given these three realities, I must reiterate that what GCN is attempting to do is nothing short of the impossible. However, that they are doing it must be commended and embraced for one additional reason: Living in the tension is fundamental to avoiding fundamentalism. (My emphasis here is on the “ism,” of “fundamentalism” for admittedly, the concept, etymology, and history of fundamentalism was not as degenerate then as it is today.) If I hold to one position and essentially refuse to hear another side, I end up living in a theological/ideological echo-chamber in which my psyche becomes more narcissistic, and censors and demonizes that which does not resonate with what I already hold dear. That epistemology is simply untenable, unsustainable, and frankly, douchey. Most tragically, this posturing forces me to amputate my sense of empathy, the very essence of what it means to be human. Without this empathy, there is no listening. Without listening, there is no empathy. It is a vicious cycle of losing our souls.
What does the future hold? I posit a few possibilities:
As the collective human wisdom matures, our biological biases will be conformed to higher ideals and concepts of humanity, including sexuality.
As our theologies continue to churn we will begin to accept the beautiful ambiguity and flexibility of the theological exercise, historically, and futuristically (cf. The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox)
And since our hermeneutics are deeply threaded, we will most likely see this proverbial sweater unravel. But whether this is good or bad is yet to be seen, for we don’t yet know the full design of the shirt underneath. For some, this will reveal our nakedness. For others, this will reveal a more honest and beautiful truth that we have been covering up for years.
Again, without stating my position, it certainly feels as if the Church’s traditional stance on this (and other) issues will be the last dying breaths of a religion no longer capable of being salt and light. No doubt, pockets of conservativism (again, the “ism”) will continue to persist, but they will remain in the shadows. In the midst of it all, in the words of Gene Robinson, “God Believes in Love.” Let us pray our theology and faith is as committed as God’s.
OPEN LETTER TO JUSTIN AND GCN
Dear Justin and GCN,
I wanted to share with you the story about my friend who attended this year’s conference with me. His background is a familiar one. His daughter came out to him over 20 years ago, and as a “God first, family second” Christian, it was painful, yet clear, that any endorsement of his daughter’s orientation would mean a compromise of his faith. We have been conversing over this issue for several weeks, reading together, (including Torn), thinking together, and our journey culminated in our collective attendance at #GCNConf. He attended willingly, with a mix of anxiety and anticipation, and decidedly “Side B.”
Over the course of three days, my friend has completely shifted from Side B to Side A. He has since contacted his daughter to begin the hard work of reconciliation and restoration of relationship through apology and empathy. In a post-conference conversation, he shared openly about the factors that contributed to the shift, like weights tipping a scale, each one adding additional force.
And he did so with tears.
I have, in my 25 years of ministry, never seen a belief shift as dramatic and as rapid as this one. To his credit, he is one of the most convicted and thoughtful individuals I know, and engages wholeheartedly, carefully, and intentionally with all issues regarding faith and life. He is to be commended for his willingness to be uncomfortable, his open-mindedness to new thoughts and ideas, and his dedication to Christ. But he has also testified that the reading and studying alone would not have made the difference in his opinion had it not been for the conference. Here are some of the reasons, some he has stated, others that I have perceived.
GCN’s focus on Christ. From the outside, it is perceived that gender and sexuality take center place of your organization. We both find that thought impossible to believe after having read your book and attended the conference. It is symbolically apropos that the “C” is in the middle of “GCN.” We understand that gender and sexuality will always be the context of your organization, but we take issue with anyone who would characterize GCN as a primarily “gay” organization (or any other epithet). We have experienced it as a fundamentally “Christian” organization.
Vulnerable stories. Each talk, on main stage and in the seminar options, were a beautiful cascade of personal testimonies. It was Vicky Beeching’s talk that made one of the powerful impacts on my friend’s spiritual journey on this issue. This is important. His confession has been, quite adamantly, that his convictions would only shift through intellectual and logical reasoning — good biblical study. The reality? Story and empathy were the steps and path towards change.
Honoring and affirming disagreements. It has been said that the definition of compromise is that “nobody is happy.” GCN demonstrated that this popular does not have to be true, for it does not take into account the high religious ideas and ideals of our common humanity and spirituality even in the midst of disagreement. That GCN holds, supports, and even honors opposition was a model of Christian charity that is seldom seen or experienced.
Caring for the soul. At least from our vantage point, there was little emphasis on the necessity of “change,” be that orientation or ideology. There was, however, an abundance of care. We consider this to be a true reflection of the heart of Christ.
Convicted civility. This is a term I first heard through Richard Mouw who, I believe is quoting Martin Marty (cf. Uncommon Decency). GCN, though strong on stories, is not short on conviction, which is a common misconception of “love-affirming” ethics.
I’m sure there are other factors, but these are the ones that come to mind.
I mention all this to say that I am not writing to express thankfulness that my friend changed his beliefs. I am writing to express to you, that your work has contributed greatly toward bringing more of the Kingdom of Heaven to my friend, and to his family. And it has done so through the elevation of intentional ethics and values by which the entire Church would do well to be once again captivated.
My parting thought is that GCN ought to admit it is not fully welcoming. GCN and affiliates spurn fear. I guess that makes sense, however, since there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18).
So, thank you for being exactly who God has called you to be. Thank you for providing such a Jesus-centered experience full of the very best of humanity. Thank you for playing a part in my friend’s journey. You have my gratitude and appreciation, and now, my partnership, in your work.