Communion - Easter 2008At Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington, the pastor invites everyone to the communion table on Easter Sunday. (photo: © Michael Spencer/Flickr)

I admit that I was taken by surprise when I saw this tweet summarizing theologian and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann as saying that theological conversations about homosexuality are futile. As I have read some of Mr. Brueggemann’s writing and have a great deal of respect for him and his prophetic calls to justice, I promptly went about listening to the interview in question:

“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline.’ And I’ve decided, for myself, that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is, rather, that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. There have always been gays and lesbians; we’d have to acknowledge them.

It’s not fashionable any more to protest pushy blacks. It’s not fashionable to protest pushy women. Those battles are lost, or won. But you can still have great moral indignation around gays and lesbians.

And so I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. So, I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians any more because that’s not what the argument is about.” 

You see, I’m a seminary student, and I’m gay. This, for me, has meant that all of my academic work has surrounded the need for dialogue regarding this very issue. In most denominations there remain deep divisions on issues about whether or not gays should be ordained, whether they should be allowed to marry, or whether they are even welcome in churches.

I took Mr. Brueggemann to mean that such conversations are futile in that issues like homosexuality should be a non-issue — that churches should be able to move past this issue. However, this position ignores the cry of gay people for justice that remains unrealized in many places. As long as theology and biblical scripture are used to marginalize gay people (or anyone for that matter), the conversation is anything but futile! Churches can’t move past this issue because it is still an issue.

Walter Brueggemann has an advantage that I as a gay man do not have; he does not live with the very real threat of homophobia. Enjoying one of the highest places of privilege in our society (straight, white, and male), he has the luxury of being unaffected. He will likely never be hollered at from across the way with insults about whom he shares his bed with. To not have a conversation about the theological basis for the hate that many Christians direct at gay persons ignores our oppression at the hands of those Christians.

But why take the time to dialogue with those who believe my lifestyle is wrong? Because I believe that conversation matters. It is true that there may always be those who are uninterested in conversation. They desire shouting matches that rarely prove anything aside from who can shout the loudest. Still, I believe that most everyone can be drawn into dialogue that does not aim to convert, but rather to foster understanding of one another.

Hans-Georg GadamerIn Truth and Method, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that the most important thing in human relationships is to experience the other in a way that allows them to really speak to us. In this kind of communication, says Gadamer, we do not merely listen and then leave unaffected. Rather, we are changed by way of this experience with another individual.

For this kind of change to occur, for us to be affected by another, we must be open to accepting something from them. I believe that the simple act of pausing in order to have such a dialogue demonstrates an openness to this relational experience that is already present; though it may be deeply hidden.

For those who stand with the oppressed, who seek to bring about justice, taking advantage of that pause, and engaging in dialogue, is essential if justice is to be realized. The challenge is that we must also be willing to be affected by that other individual. For those of us who have experienced blatant hate, this is a scary thought because it asks us to remain vulnerable in front of those we may perceive as enemies. Yet, that openness is what I find so valuable in dialogue. It teaches us to coexist, hopefully in peace.

Let me use metaphor familiar to Christians. The communion table is a place where the church gathers and there represents the community of Christ. Though Christians hold differing ideas about what happens at communion, a common understanding is that in that sacrament there is a deep — even mystical — connection to each other and the divine. It represents the highest form of community for Christians.

Can that image not translate to dialogue, even a theological one, whose aim is to bring about understanding of the marginalized and thus promote justice? Can churches create spaces of communion in which theological conversations about homosexuality are not futile, but are instead catalysts for social justice? Can these conversations lead us to a deep connection to one another and even to the sacred?

I think so. More than that, I think that is precisely what we are called to do.


Jared VázquezJared Vázquez is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jared’s research interests lie in embodiment, identity, and intersectionality. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social ethics with focus on latina/o queer experience. Most recently Jared has been accepted to the 2011 class of the HRC’s Summer Institute for Religion and Theology.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.


Share Your Reflection

20Reflections

Reflections

Walter Brueggemann has been arguing the case for greater acceptance of lesbian and gay people in the churches for many years (I would especially recommend Struggling with Scripture, 2002, which he co-wrote with William C Placher and Brian K Blount). He has had considerable criticism from those unwilling even to think seriously about the possibility that loving and faithful same-sex relationships should be accepted. I suspect that he is worn out with arguing with those whom he thinks are not ready to engage with the theological arguments in favour of inclusion. 

Savi, 
Thanks for posting comments.  I think I get what you are saying.  However, while he may be "worn out" I am still gay and patriarchal theologies are still used to marginalize me.  I can't afford to get worn out.  This is why these conversations can never be seen as "almost futile."

Thank you for reminding us of the work that Brueggemann has done for social justice.  He has been fighting for marginalized people for a long time.  I for one am a big admirer of his writing and work.

Thanks for sharing your perspectives!
--Jared 

Thank you for writing and sharing this piece.  It's refreshing to see an openly gay religious leader willing to have these conversations.  

Excellent post. In addition, I might add this additional source of discomfort: no one wakes up wondering if he or she is black. To actually know people in happy same-sex relationships (or heaven forbid, identify as bisexual) rattles the "poor homosexual" meme that underlies much of what is called progressive thinking.

If the "conversation"  matters to you, it matters. But leadership on marriage equality is coming from the secular world, where religious objections not only sound increasingly irrational, but are disproved by the reality of what actually occurs when marriage equality is granted.  Families do not collapse; they are strengthened, & very  little  changes for straight people compared to how much changes for LGBT.

Thanks Jared. I hope the theists do continue to have these
conversations. They force not only introspection of each person’s feelings but
require examining just how we use our traditions to determine norms. The more contact people have with people who accept homosexuality, the more likely they will accept it. We have to
examine who handed down the rules and what they might have meant. This includes
understanding who wrote and rewrote the Bible. The examination of this issue
will have an effect on how we view religion generally.

Dialog can keep things in place or
create change. Religion is one of the ways that we pass along dialog through
generations. Not quite as obvious, religion also teaches us how to create
change. 

Amen. I am in the same boat as you Jared. But for me at least I am blessed by being a candidate for ministry in a Church denomination that welcomes GLBT folks in ministry. But there are so many GLBT folks out there that do see the institutional church as a place where hatred and exclusion and injustice is preached and/or practiced. The dialogue must continue at God's Table, in whichever denomination that Table is found.

Peace,

G

Jared, thank you for this article.  I was having a conversation with one of the ladies in my congregation that turned to something that easily could have been a debate on homosexuality.  Instead, we calmly discussed our thoughts while filling water balloons for campers to use soon.  I felt better not because I changed her mind (which I'm not certain if I did) but because this is a woman in my mostly conservative congregation that I was able to kindly discuss with.  
I think that relationship is the key to it all.  Maybe what Brueggemann really needs to correct in his position is where these conversations take place.  If it is some people reserving space on a college campus simply to yell at passing students (which happens in Pitt at least 3 times a year) then they never came to have relationship, but simply to yell.  Don't keep conversation itself limited to signs, yelling, and passersby.  Have the conversation, and have it often, but don't set out to merely yell at each other. 

I'm a newbie here but saw the link on a friend's page. While I agree with the article--that we need to continue having theological conversations about this--I must say it feels like using Bruggeman's quote as the starting point for the argument kind of misses what he is getting at.

I think his point is that we have to continue having conversations, but that we need to also understand what is behind the arguments people are making against homosexuality. Yes it is about people's feelings on gay and lesbian relationships...but perhaps it is also about a fear in general about a world that is slipping out of people's control--and not only privileged people at that. When you have a sizable protest in NYC that brings together representatives from two historical and presently marginalized groups--Jewish and Black folks--all in an effort to put down marriage for another marginalized group, then clearly something is driving that beside a callousness toward marginalized people. I think what Bruggeman is encouraging is not closing off the conversation...but rather trying to seek other starting points that get us to homosexuality but that address the fear and loss of control that seems to be driving so much of the vitriol behind this. From my experience, debating about homosexuality without getting at the reality that people are panicked because "the world is not the way we thought it was going to be" hasn't really been taking us beyond church splits, greater division and increasingly irrational behavior.

Nekeisha, 

I don’t disagree with you that my use of that quote can seem like missing the point.  Maybe I can shed some light on why I did.  Considering Brueggemann’s work for social justice I felt that this quote  is key to the critique that I tried to bring.  I certainly don’t want to come across as critiquing Brueggemann just because I can.  Rather, in light of the rest of the interview I found it strange that he would use those words; “it’s almost futile to have a theological conversation about gays and lesbians.”  

I think you are correct that part of his intention is to find other staring places that get at the deeper issue.  Yet, one could make the same argument had he said that having a theological conversation about racism is futile.  As a man of color I would likely have had the same reaction.  As long as there are marginalized people among us having a theological conversation about their marginalization is not futile; even if they are not at the root of the “larger” issue.  

You are right that debates don’t seem to accomplish much.  That is why I try to distinguish between debates and dialogue.  

Thanks for your reply, I appreciate your point of view!

--Jared 

I, like Brueggemann, am supportive of what you are getting at, but I think you have a deep misunderstanding of what he is saying.  Listen to the whole interview--part of the underlying logic for his work is that you can't always address something head on if you want to create change.  He speaks of King and refers to his speech in which he declares "I have a dream".  Brueggemann says that King wasn't talking about the Civil Rights Act, except he was.  He lauds King for finding a way to change people's consciousness and the world they inhabit, thus allowing a new stance on an issue to become possible.

As you are a seminarian, perhaps using the concept of the CPE experience can get at the same point.  What happens in group work is that others help you mine your own motivations, fears, etc to determine why you are offering that kind of pastoral care.  Often it might have to do with your family, your concept of God, your aversion to blood, whatever it might be.  They help you to locate factors that encourage you to act in a certain way that previously might have remained at the level of the unconscious.

In a similar way, Brueggemann is saying that the conversation about gays and lesbians in the church is almost futile because that actual issue is not even what those who are "opposed to it" are really even responding to.  He thinks that consciously they think they are opposed to these particular people, but that subconsciously, they are revolting against a world that is changing and that threatens their control.  Gays and lesbians have only become the target of this fear.  Thus, if you cannot help them to understand that their real fear is not about gays and lesbians in the church, then talking to them about gays and lesbians in the church is futile. 

I appreciate your views and agree with most all of them, but deciding to use Brueggemann for the basis of it seems off-target.  When you re-affirm your use of Brueggemann and double down, it feels irresponsible.  Regardless, I wish you well and hope that the imagination of our church is opened in the way that Brueggemann envisions and that you (and I) hope for.

Jared, thanks for this.  As an active Disciple, I think this topic is one of the most important issues of justice that Christians face right now.  The situation is improving, but there is still much to be done.  I would make one comment about your article.  I was able to move past many of my old thoughts (and, unfortunately, prejudices) about homosexuality when I became business partners with a lesbian that has been in a longterm monogamous relationship and has adopted children.  Through their example of a beautiful, loving and stable family situation, I came to understand that the issue is not really one of sex, but of love.  The issue needs to be cast not as who "shares your bed" as that triggers many long-standing taboos about sex, no matter who the partner, and makes the subject more difficult to discuss, expecially in a church setting.  Rather, I think we need to think about who you love and who loves you.  Then the issue can be discussed in truly Christian terms.  Perhaps,as it was for me,  it would help others understand that true love is so hard to find and sustain and that no one should be denied the joy that love brings. It is much harder to hate and marginalize someone for whom they love.

In any event, I pray that we will soon learn to be open and affirming to all - no matter who they love.

Larry, 

Thanks for your comments.  I don't disagree with you.  One of the reasons that I use the "who shares my bed" language is because all of the primary texts that are used to support theologies that marginalize queer people have to do with physical acts of sex, not with intimate and deep love.  Thus for me, using that language in intentional.    

I think you might be right however that it is the encounter with queer people in loving relationships that  often has the biggest impact on others.  I know from first hand experience.  It was my own committed relationship that helped some in my family come around to accepting me for who I am.

Thanks again for sharing,
--Jared

Thank you for this! Peace...

Thank you for your info.

Is Brueggemann's point that theological arguments about gays and lesbians are not actually about theology?  They sound like that is what it is about, but it is not.  In reality, the theological discussion is a way to rationalize a prejudice that is not merely about gays and lesbians but about a world that is disappearing.  Depending on how your personality is organized, this can mean that your entire sense of self and community is threatened.  One can feel like they are at the top of a large structure that is crumbling and will soon collapse leaving them tumbling into an emotional abyss.  Everything they need to feel that their sense of self is intact appears to be disintegrating.  The result is unbearable turmoil that must be stopped.  I think that Brueggemann saying that the point to consider is this: what is there within the structure of the self and the community that they need to feel whole that makes it necessary for certain people to stridently insist that they know that God condemns people who are "Other" to them.  Why are they so fragile that the Other provokes such a threat?  We all need to feel that our sense of self is intact.  That also requires a sense of support from the culture and those close at hand (their community).  If Otherness threatens this, Otherness must be condemned and stopped.  One must marshall whatever is necessary to achieve this.  Theology, or at least flawed theology, fits the bill very nicely--but it isn't about theology.  It is about a self that is threatened, disintegrating and suffering, one that is dysfunctional and trying hold together.  Theological arguments are irrelevant, so they are futile.

I found Brueggemann's argument applicable to the nation's general attitude toward illegal aliens as well. It seems we must always have a scapegoat.

I don't think that reactions to illegal immigrants can be fairly compared with those towards the LGBT community. Those who judge gays et al. do so for various reasons, be it religion-based, fear-based, whatever. They are for moral reasons, even though LGBT freedoms would not have a significant impact on their life. Illegal aliens, though, are a different issue. First off -- "illegal." They entered the country in an illegal matter, having eschewed the nation's laws for immigration. What makes people more angry about the problem of illegal immigration is that often, the government doesn't seem to care to do anything about it. While some people may dislike illegal immigrants because they are inherently racist, I can assure you that most who foster resentment do so because they are angered by the injustice towards those who DO follow our laws to enter the country, and additionally simply because, why do we have laws that are necessary for the continuation of our country if the government fails to enforce them? Rest assured that most Americans nowadays that are racist towards Hispanics are that way because they are angry about the illegal immigration problem, and not the other way around.

One final thing (and I'm sorry that this is so long-winded; I am very sleepy.): No other world power is experiencing such a ridiculously out-of-control immigration problem. In Europe, which is on the whole much more liberal than the U.S., people are just shocked when they realize how so many people want to grant free access to Mexicans crossing the border. It's just ludicrous and illogical.

This article depends on the sentence "I took Mr. Brueggemann to mean that such conversations are futile in that issues like homosexuality should be a non-issue — that churches should be able to move past this issue."

I would be very interested to know if this is indeed what he meant. I did not read it that way. The rest of the article is an argument against something that may or may not have been said. Without knowing, isn't this a demonstration of futility in communication?

I have great respect for Walter Brueggemann and his writings, learned much and hope to learn more as I reread his books, but I think he would be horrified with people who equate his writings to be equal to the Biblical Canon he is so wise in interpreting. Our conversation should not only be with one another, but conversation with the Scriptures. Just as our racial identity is sacred and cannot be changed so is our sexuality just as sacred. So, in our conversation with the Scriptures we gain insight into the mind of God on all issues.Regardless of our race or sexuality we all stand equally before God--, in need of his love and grace. On that score I will always seek mercy and not justice from God. I know what a sinner I am--, alway in need of forgiveness and a new start. But, at the same time we are all called to promote justice toward all who feel marginalized.
The invitation from Genesis to Revelation is "Come all you who are thirsty and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life." (Rev. 22:17) My heart cities with all those who suffer and are rejected. At different moments in our lives we are all marginalized to some degree, and it hurts. But thanks be to God who never stops loving us.