When I was a kid growing up in church, I didn’t know any queer people.
We heard about them of course, and mostly we were sad for them. We were taught that their “lifestyles” were lived in defiance to God, that the choices they were making were leading them towards the path of destruction. We felt sorry for them. Surely, they had suffered some type of abuse, some sort of deep trauma, surely something had happened that could explain how they had become what they had become.
We spoke like this because we did not know anyone who was trans, or gay, or bi. Instead, we knew about them, learning of them only through the narrow interpretation of a handful of ancient scriptures. To us these people were so other, so different, so in need of gods love.
And that was it, we didn’t hate Queer people. You couldn’t call us homophobic, we wouldn’t allow that label to stick, we loved them, of course we loved them. We didn’t need to know them in order to love them. Love the sinner, hate the sin! That was the line, and it sprang fresh off our lips whenever the question of acceptance of queer people came into our conversations.
We loved them. Of course, we did. But they had to change.
And yet, they refused to. Society became more accepting, more affirming, more inclusive of queer people. And suddenly, queer people weren’t a silent minority group we could define and cast in our own image, they had their own voice. They were visible, they could speak within society, they could challenge the narrative we had written about them, they could distort our distorted image.
And so, we had a decision to make. We could come to the table, we could listen, we could learn, we could open our minds and hearts to queer people, learn from them the manner in which our image of them was distorted and wrong. Learn and in doing so create space at our table for our own queer children and whānau.
Or we could double down. Clasping hold of our handful of scriptures, we could insist that our interpretation of their humanity was correct. We could inform them that they had to change, that they had to fit within the mould that we set for them, that if they did not, that the wrath of god would get them, if not today, eventually. And when they did not change, when they refused to bow to our interpretation of who they were, we developed new narratives.
No longer were we just sorry for them, now we were concerned, worried, frightened. From our pulpits came fears of the Gay Agenda, this murky underbelly that was out to steal our kids, and destroy our churches. Suddenly, Gay people were not the minority in our stories. They were a dominant force and we? We were the oppressed ones, the minority voice calling for truth and love, in a world that had no room for our way of life.
And yet, for many of us, queer people remained a mysterious other. Known only through the narrow lens our western, colonial interpretation of our scriptures had designed for us.
I’ve been reflecting on all this since the whole controversy around Bethlehem College kicked off. Recently, the college released a statement affirming that they did not intend to hurt anyone. Instead, they acknowledged that “for some, Christian beliefs can feel personally hurtful. Our message to those people is that our intention is certainly not to be hurtful.”
I’ve thought about those words a lot.
Our intention is not to be hurtful.
I’ve reflected on them as I went over the conversation’s I’ve had (some very recently) with young people who believe that because of their sexuality they are hated by a divine being who has ordained that they will be punished and tortured for eternity.
I’ve reflected on conversations I’ve had with rangatahi who due to this belief, are traumatized and psychologically damaged, suffering from anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, because they cannot figure out how to reconcile their sexuality, with everything they’ve been taught about themselves from the pulpit.
I’ve reflected on the journeys of those who I know within the church. Those who have had the courage to come out, to be themselves, who have had to live with the knowledge that people they had loved, now see them as apostate, that once close family and friends, now believe they are destined to be eternally tortured by our great god of love.
I have reflected on the reality, that for queer people, there are places they can’t go. Places in the world, where they will be imprisoned, or even killed, for their sexuality.
And I’ve reflected on how my queer family and friends must be feeling right now.
And then I’ve reflected again on the words of Bethlehem college.
Our intention is not to be hurtful.
And yet, hurtful we have been. Not just Bethlehem College, but the Christian community at large. We have refused to listen to the humanity of others, we have refused to stand in solidarity with our Rainbow whānau, we have insisted on believing in narratives and stories constructed in complete isolation from the genuine humanity of those we have labelled other.
Intention does not matter.
What matter’s is that people are getting hurt.
And more than hurt.
They are dying.
Some people, have sought to frame the Bethlehem College conversation as a conversation which at its centre is about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Surely, BC can believe whatever they want, surely, they should be allowed to express that?
But, this conversation isn’t so much about free speech as it is about the freedom for a child to be safe and cared for in the school and religious institutions their parents choose for them.
Because, regardless of our intentions, what happens when the expression of one’s faith actually causes harm to another? What happens when the way one’s beliefs are experienced within a community or institution results in traumatized children, or in young people suffering from anxiety and depression? What happens when these very young people are inflicted with suicidality, finding themselves in such mental anguish that they wrestle with wanting to leave this earth, because the same people who say they love them, also say that if they acknowledge their sexuality they will burn in hell for eternity? What happens, when those kids fail to receive the care and support, they need from their community? What happens when they die?
We say “Love the sinner, hate the sin”, while refusing to acknowledge that the “sin” we’re talking about is someone’s humanity.
We fail to see how deeply damaging our words are, we sidestep the trauma we cause, palming off the psychological damage that is being done, because, we’re only sharing what the scriptures say. We’re only repeating the words of God.
I have often said that if the fruit of our theology is causing death, then something about what we believe, or how we hold that belief, needs to change.
And the fruit of this theology is death. The only way to deny this is by refusing to listen to the stories and experiences of those who are being hurt.
And so, I am starting to wonder, is it possible to hold this traditional view, without causing harm? Can we truly Love people, while also teaching them that something core to their own humanity – their sexuality – is enough for god to allow them to be tortured for eternity?
I don’t know. But I know this.
The Divine image, revealed through Jesus, is a God of tenderness, compassion and abounding Love. A God that has Her arms wide open, who has room for all people, who does not require we change ourselves in order to be Loved, but accepts all of us, regardless of who we are or how we identify ourselves. A God who stands with the oppressed and marginalized, a God who cares enough to listen, to get involved, to join with those who suffer.
A God who does not stand arm’s length from those who are hurting.
But, kneels beside them.
And welcomes them in.
The controversy swirling around Bethlehem College is an oppurtunity for all of us within the Christian community. An oppurtunity to reflect, to listen, to learn.
The uncomfortable reality is that aspects of our faith are severely harming people. We cannot remain neutral on this point any longer.
People, young people, children, they are not just being hurt, they are being damaged, some are dying.
And so, what do we do with that?
Do we keep going as we are, holding onto our traditions and reaffirming the intention of our hearts, regardless of the harm that is being caused?
Or do we join Jesus on the margins, do we step down from our positions of privilege, do we choose to truly see the suffering of our brothers and sisters, and in doing risk opening ourselves up to the possibility of change?
A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.
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