Worn-out strategies in sexuality debate

The following is an excerpt from the newly released book, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow: What All Christians Can Learn from LGBTQ Lives by Cody J. Sanders and published by Faithlab in Macon, Ga.

By Cody J. Sanders

It matters which questions we choose to ask, and for a long time now, churches have been asking a very limited set of questions about sexuality. Nearly every denomination in the United States — from the most “conservative” to the most “liberal” — is asking some kinds of questions about sexuality.

Our traditional strategy for these questions has been one of suspicious scrutiny. Churches have long been suspicious toward forms of human difference. Whether race, gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, churches have perfected a suspicious gaze toward those who differ from the social or congregational norm.

These suspicious questions typically go something like this: Can someone be both gay and a faithful Christian? How should congregations respond to gay people? Should we allow gays and lesbians access to church membership, leadership positions or ordination if they are involved in same-sex relationships? Are gay people excluded from the covenant of marriage based on their same-gender-loving status?

The strategy of suspicious scrutiny produces a set of questions that assume a particular arrangement of power. Each of these questions presumes a position of inclusion and another of exclusion — inside/outside, center/margin.

Those in positions of privilege by virtue of their heterosexual or gender-conforming identification get to do all the asking. And the questions asked assume the askers occupy a stable center — in this case, a center in which heterosexuality is the presumed norm — and that there are strange others on the margins trying to get “in.”

Beneath the surface, the questions are about maintaining certain boundaries — boundaries of Christian faithfulness, of church membership, of ordination to the clergy, of the covenantal bond and legal contract of marriage.

These limited questions are evidence of a worn-out strategy. Not only are these questions limited in their scope, they are also limiting in their ability to carry our churches into a meaningful future.

This claim may seem too strong at first. But the questions we ask really do matter that much. Questions formed out of suspicion toward human difference do produce certain results, but these outcomes typically take the shape of boundary maintenance.

For example: Can someone be both gay and a faithful Christian? If the answer arrived upon is “no,” then shore up the boundaries of church membership, ordination, Christian marriage, etc. Keep those who don’t fit the norm “out.”

If “yes,” then shift the boundaries outward a bit to include more people in these institutions. Let some of them “in.”

If we’re still unsure, then let’s just agree that these are the boundaries we have for now — probably for good reason — and if they need to change, someone else will have to change them.

No matter how you answer the questions, the strategy of suspicious scrutiny is tepid, ineffectual and unendingly frustrating. As a queer person, I have grown tired of talking about sexuality — and my own life — on other people’s terms.

It is exhausting to answer the same old set of questions again and again. And it becomes utterly infuriating when you realize that the same people are asking these same questions relentlessly with seemingly little interest in any response that contradicts what they already “know” about the subject.

The strategy of many congregations is simply to change the subject in order to avoid questions of sexuality altogether. The only option for many queer people is to get as far away from the suspicious gaze of churches as possible — and often for good reason, after living their lives in ecclesiastical petri dishes, subjected to the poking and prodding of suspicious scrutiny.

And no matter the outcome of the inquiry, all are left with some sore spots, hurt feelings, and broken relationships because the questions themselves construct a situation with little room for anything more than a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer with attendant justifications. Some come out on the “winning” side and others “lose.”

It’s not that questions of inclusion aren’t important. As noted above, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight people have worked diligently to increase the inclusivity of Christian churches and denominations, as well as society at large.

These inclusive spaces provide breathing room for those who desire to practice their faith without scrutiny, follow their callings without hindrance, wed their partners with joy and live their lives in safety.

The questions that lead us to inclusion are, indeed, important. It is largely because these questions of inclusion have been so steadily answered by congregations responding with welcome and affirmation for queer people that we can now consider a new range of questions.

But we simply cannot rest satisfied when we have settled the questions of inclusion because, in the end, they are unimaginative questions with very little life beyond the answer.

They don’t move our hearts, only our boundaries. They don’t provoke our theological imagination, only the rearrangement of our theological beliefs. Too often, they fail to get us moving in creative directions, but only serve to get us stuck in a morass of conflicting views.

It is time for churches to ask new questions by shedding our worn-out strategies of suspicion toward queer people, changing the questions we choose to ask about queer lives, and engaging in a compassionate curiosity that invites us all to learn from queer lives.

Long after queer people have achieved full equality in church and society, churches will continue to need the queer lessons our lives have to offer. We have much to teach.

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