by tommy airey
The invitation to “turn around” assumes there is something important and precious we have left behind. It is an invitation to deconstruct what is wrong about our way of life and to reconstruct one that is more characterized by justice & mercy.
Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away The Stone? (1994)
Back in ’08, I began the slow, patient journey of repenting of the homophobia that had been instilled in me by Western civilization in general and, more specifically, the sports & Evangelical Christian cultures that most shaped my moral imagination during the “formative” 80s & 90s. Back then, my world was framed by a triumphalistic masculinity. My Jesus was athletic. And He was kicking ass.
We wasted the summer away playing “smear the queer” in suburban backyards and verbally interrogating the sexuality of our opponents in games of over-the-line and whiffle ball. We attended a Christian elementary school and actively participated in a Bible Church youth group. I don’t remember hearing my teachers and pastors ever specifically condemn the “gay lifestyle,” but I was scripted into a Tradition, a Movement of millions of “faithful” pilgrims making audacious claims about what the Bible says about people that I never really knew, except for maybe a distant aunt or wayward uncle who were “different.” At least I didn’t think I knew anyone who lived on that side of the bed.
For much of my college and early adult life, this issue was stashed away, fermenting in the cellar, alluded to only in dogmatic discussions about what was “clearly biblical.” As it turned out, for me and so many members of my conservative cadre, the issue of (homo)sexuality was just that. An issue. And issues are rarely anything more than an intellectual position, taken on like osmosis, leading to debates, sometimes ferocious.
But then something strange happened to me on the way to becoming a Tebow-like moral pillar. The sinners must have been praying for me. The issue got a lot more complicated. Lindsay and I found ourselves sitting on our couch in our living room in Seal Beach with a view of the Pacific dialoguing with Dale & Stacy Fredrickson about the possibilities that the God we were convinced was enfleshed in the Jesus of the Gospels was, above all else, not concerned with what team we played for, but how we played. Sure enough, the moral universe bends towards a vocation of mercy & justice, averse to all the ways we lock certain people into prisons of impurity.
And then we got steamrolled by seminary, learning that the Bible was not a manual of self-evident truths & principles dictated by The Muscular He-God. This inspirational literary collection, instead, was an ongoing conversation among ancient people of faith & conscience who were adamantly striving to make sense of their neck of the world and the Power of Love that they were compelled created & sustained it, permeating everything. Those of us who still take the Bible seriously (instead of literally) know full well that certain Greek & Hebrew words that English Bible translators render “homosexuality” had nothing to do with two people of the same sex loving each other until death do they part.
And then along came Jesus, whose humble life of mercy & unconditional love was bookended with the disgusting manger & the horrifying cross. Meditate on either of these symbols long enough and we realize that the god made known in Jesus was notorious for being in solidarity with all those little ones left behind by family, government, culture & religion. This would surely include sexual minorities who, throughout the centuries, have been consistently demonized, misunderstood & scapegoated. No doubt about it, these “sinners” would be dining with Jesus.
Surely, nothing about Jesus is “anything goes.” Open up the Gospels and all those red letters bleed out a demanding, denouncing discipleship. But not one word is uttered about Adam & Steve. Surely, the god mirrored in the Way of Jesus cares deeply about the mystery & thrill of sexuality, a consensual and covenantal gift to humanity. Surely, anytime sex is commoditized & coercive, Jesus weeps. Sexual assault, abuse & anguish happen, from time to time, in the Castro or West Hollywood. But we find these in epidemic numbers in American bastions of heterosexuality: the military, college dorms & fraternities & corporate business trips.
Of course, for me, the “issue” of homosexuality finally became enfleshed in real people. Like our friend Ty, an artist & pastor. Like Travis, the head volleyball coach I hired while I was the athletic director 10 years ago. Like Corrine, one of Lindsay’s best friends from high school. Like Michelle, the girl who set most of the curves in my AP classes back in high school. Like Alex, the all-league soccer player, a brilliant thinker who actively participated in my Economics class a couple years ago. Like Erinn & Lydia, whose commitment to simple living, humble service and advocacy for peace & justice continues to challenge our own discipleship. These are just some of the mentors, colleagues, friends & students, evangelizing me with their beautiful, graceful & compassionate lives. I could go on and on and on.
And this is why the Michael Sam ESPYs was one of my favorite moments in 2014. The 6’2″ 261 pound Michael Sam “came out” into our backyards to play. And nobody could smear the queer. He was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. More important, he is an authentic, crying human being longing for healthy intimacy & acceptance, just like everyone else. Through Sam, even football coaches (of all people) have come to realize that “gay” is not an issue or a lifestyle choice. Gay put on flesh and dwelt among us athletes & sports fans.
That groaning in the distance is the god who was scapegoated on the cross begging us all to stop the stone-throwing and to rigorously wrestle the planks out of our own eyes. Repenting is a lot like what Audre Lorde writes about revolution: it’s not a one-time event. Our understanding of what is Real, and the world it stains with Love, begs to spill over from sexual orientation into other chasms of injustice like gender, race & class. Here and now, we can make the commitment to stop the smear campaign so that people of color, women, the indigenous, the poor & gays and lesbians can pave a clear path to the Divine.