A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part TWO

Dear Reader, this BLOG post is the second part of an interview with Kathy Baldock. For Part One please see this link.

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4.  Many religious people have expressed their concern as they see ‘homosexual behaviour’ as a sin against God and against Scripture. In fact, the Bible has been used as one of the main tools of exclusion. Can you give us some thoughts on this?

It is essential to read any text in context. It becomes even more critical to read an ancient text in ancient context. 

It’s foolhardy to take what we understand about human sexuality today in the 21st century and try to impose that knowledge onto the writings and thinking of people from several millennia ago.

As I mentioned in an answer in Part One, as late as the 1870s, we were just beginning to struggle with the concept of human sexuality questioning the “whys” and “hows” surrounding two people of the same sex and how they could experience a mutual and respectful attraction. It would be another century before mental health professionals understood that there was a natural attraction that some people experienced for the same sex. To imagine the writers of Leviticus or the writings of the Apostle Paul in the first century could have understood these things about same-sex attractions is not within the realm of possibility.

Before the critical period of the 1870s, when sex occurred between two people of the same sex, there was always one person taking the power and dominant role and the other person being subjugated. Every example of same-sex interaction in the Bible is an example of subjugation through rape or violence or excessive or lustful behaviour with full disregard of acceptable social and sexual norms. We would not expect to see any favourable or positive examples of sexual relationships between two males of equal status in cultural literature, and certainly not in ancient texts like the Bible, anytime before the late 1800s.

Again, to be clear, all male-male sexual interaction involved age and/or power differential. The most abrupt change in biblical translations concerning same-sex behaviour was seen in the 1946 Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Here was the first time in any translation, and in any language that two Greek words in the New Testament, “arsenokoitai” and “malakos,” were combined to one word and translated as “homosexual.”

Again, referring back to an answer I gave above, this was a time in medical professions and in the culture where people still did not understand what same-sex attractions even meant. It was seen as a mental illness. 

When the translators of the 1946 RSV were attempting to update previous translations they based their work mainly on the King James (1611), the American Standard (1901), and the English Standard Versions (1885). The translation team relied mainly upon fairly recent translations of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” and catamite and sodomite, respectively, that had appeared in the Moffat Bible (1925). (James Moffatt was a member of the RSV translation team.) Those two words, although somewhat problematic even in the Moffatt translation, were more reflective of the actual meaning of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos.”

 Simply put, the Greek words more reflect a person participating in exploited sex, typically associated with money, and a man taking the social and sexual position of a woman respectively. And once again, they reflect a differential of both power and age between partners. To understand what happened in the RSV, you have to put yourself into the mindset and culture of the translation team in the 1930s and early 1940s when they were working on their specific task. There was so much mystery around who homosexuals were during that period of time.

In attempting to modernise the terms catamite and sodomite, the team thought the “obvious” translation would be a combination of those two words as “homosexual.” 

This was a dreadful, unfortunate, and ill-informed decision.

I had been wondering about the specific translation of these two words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 for several years. Every time I spoke during presentations, I would say that I believed that the translation made by this team was more ideological and cultural than theological. Finally, a friend named Ed Oxford asked me one day, “Kathy, would you like to prove your theory?” My goodness, I thought, of course, I’d like to prove this!

Ed suggested that we dig into the archived materials from the translation team of the 1946 RSV. The head of that translation team was a man named Dr. Luther Weigle. Weigle had been the dean of the Yale Divinity School. Upon his death, all of his papers were housed in the Yale archives. 

Ed and I went back to the archives for five days in September and spent time pouring through dozens of boxes of archived materials and 22 rolls of microfilm materials, each film containing over 2,000 sheets of paper. We found what we were looking for on the third day of searching. 

Amongst all those documents, there was a single exchange of three letters in each direction between a young seminarian and Dr. Weigle.

The seminarian questioned Dr. Weigle and the team’s translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as “homosexual.” The seminarian went on to construct a most excellent case as to why he believed this was an inaccurate translation. It was as if this young man had the clarity we have today about this translation. It was remarkable!

 The stunning finding was that this exchange was the only interaction on this monumental change found in all of those documents.
In the hundreds of articles written about the RSV, absolutely no one referred to the newly introduced word “homosexual” into the Bible for the first time. It did not register on anyone’s radar. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone except this one young seminarian. 

After spending time “living” with Dr. Weigle through his expansive archived papers, I am convinced that the translation team intended no malice. Their translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” to the word “homosexual”, although a damaging and clearly inaccurate translation, was originally done in ignorance.

The other stunning thing that Ed and I found was that nobody had gone through the archives and the microfilms in total before us. In the many subsequent translations of the Bible in which the various translation teams have chosen to translate “arsenokoitai” and “malakos” as homosexual, it certainly appears that nobody went back to the original source and ask the question that we did: “Why did the 1946 translation team opt, for the first time ever, to use this word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible?”

Sometimes, the simplest questions lead to great discoveries.

When I came home from Yale, I kept thinking about all that we had found. This caused me to wonder about the notes, motives and intents of subsequent translation teams, particularly those of The New American Standard Version, The New International Version, the New King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, and the New Living Translation. What was going on in the conversations of the theologians and Bible scholars on those teams?

It becomes quite obvious to those of us who are intent on discovering the purity, clarity, and the true meanings of ancient text in ancient context, that the word “homosexual” does not belong in any Bible translation. So now, I plan on digging into the work of the modern translation teams to try to separate out what they believe is theological work from what I believe is once again ideological and cultural. And, I believe there are even some political implications in these translations as well.

5. I am sure, like me, you have heard untold sad stories of rejection, betrayal, and exclusion of LGBTIQ people from their Christian families and churches. Is this changing at all? Do we have hope for a different tomorrow?

Oh my goodness, do we have hope for tomorrow! 

Yes, the damaging power structures are changing. The beginning of the change actually came in the 1960s civil rights movement in America. That directly led to the feminist movement that followed. The feminist movement led to the LGBTQ movement. All of these movements have directly challenged the patriarchal social organisation. 

When you realise the entrenchment of patriarchy over the last twelve thousand years has only been challenged within the last 50 years, this is really a remarkable time to be living in.

All of these dominant structures are beginning to fall. It certainly feels uncomfortable to those who have held the power, and it may even feel uncomfortable and hopeless to those who have been in the minority status. But it is changing, and it is incredibly hopeful. 

When I teach, I try to give people a visible way of understanding how long these power structures have been in place. Patriarchy, gender binaries, and white superiority are intermeshed and have been challenged for the last 50 years in significant ways, and it is collapsing.

6.  What is something you would like to say to people of faith who are really struggling in coming to a place of acceptance of LGBTIQ people – perhaps because they are afraid of the reaction of their church or of ‘displeasing’ God?

I would like people to try to look at this from a different point of view. I think most of us have been told that God doesn’t like LGBTQ people and that LGBTQ people don’t like God. This is what I too believed only 15 years ago. We are told something so often that we are tempted to believe that it’s true and not to question it. 

This is where I found myself many years ago. You may feel like if you question anything that you’ve been told by authority figures that you may be cast out from the tribe, out of the fold. That is a very real risk in many conservative faith environments. As I stated at the onset, it often requires a crisis to prompt us to challenge these so-called truths that have been told to us. People in the pews, LGBTQ Christians, their families, and even pastors are revisiting what we have assumed are “truths.”

7.   Kathy, for your final words I would like you to address the LGBTIQ readers of this BLOG, especially anyone who is feeling particularly fragile and vulnerable right now.

Significant shifts in the culture and the church may indeed seem fraught with chaos. But the chaos can signal something very beautiful in deconstructing systems that man, and not God, has built to maintain power and control.

In the 1960s, it also looked like things were falling apart in the United States. The civil rights movement had kicked in, along with the feminist movement, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. Gay people were beginning to come out of the closet. It was a hopeful time for the non-dominant minorities. 

The momentum of several of these movements was slammed down by the rise of the religious right and their merger with conservative politics in the United States in the 1980s. It continued for the next several decades.

Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are all intertwined. This is the basis of intersectionality. When you begin to dismantle each of them, you inherently dismantle the whole. This certainly does feel uncomfortable to those in the dominant power structures. Heck, the mantra “Make America Great Again” harkens back to the “good old days” when people of colour, women, and gays knew their place. 

What is happening now should be a signal of hopefulness to those on the minority edges. I believe what was started in the 60s and 70s, will come to fruition this time.

The anti-trans pushback from conservative quarters, at its root, is really an attempt to safeguard gender binaries and strict lines between male and female. These binaries are part of a man-made myth. 

The creation account written in Genesis about events no less than 6,000 years ago, even in the most conservative of terms, was seen through the eyes of ancient peoples. It is their account of how they viewed their world, creation, procreation, and the roles of men and women. These ancient writers could have never understood what we now know and are learning about human sexuality and gender identity. Unlike ancient writers, we clearly know that intersex people exist and transgender people exist.

Some staunchly conservative pockets of politics and religion may never willingly change. It is too difficult for some people, after being entrenched in 50 or 60 years of a worldview, to choose to revisit core beliefs. It most often takes a crisis to prompt that questioning. This may be prompted by a child, grandchild, favourite niece or nephew, or co-worker coming out. Some of the greatest transformations happen in the simplicity of relationship. This is what happened to me, thankfully. 

There is great hope that those who are younger and being raised in a reality that not everything is heterosexual, male-dominant, cisgender, and white. Change is coming and it is for the better. 

I have been working in focused LGBTQ activism for over a decade. Conversations for equality and inclusion were tough ten years ago. Now I find that educating willing recipients is highly productive. Of course, of major concern are the lives of those at risk as we progress on the road to justice and inclusion.

My final comment – thank you, Nicole, for the opportunity to share this information. As you prepare yourselves as a nation to welcome and celebrate marriage equality, also be aware that there is still work to do in churches toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people of faith. We’ve had marriage equality in the US for a few years, yet, the progress is virtually unseen inside the walls of the most conservative denominations. We are plodding through the task with education and relationship. I hope our efforts will help those of you who fight a similar fight in Australia. Let this good work be something we Americans can be proud of exporting!

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Kathy’s blog

Kathy’s book

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A Chat with Kathy Baldock: Ally and Advocate – Part ONE

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I was excited to meet Kathy Baldock in person last year when she visited Australia. Over the years I have admired her staunch support as an ally and advocate for the LGBTIQ community. Her writing is well-researched, articulate and informative (you can find more information about Kathy on this link). I am so pleased that Kathy has given of her precious time to introduce herself and answer some questions for this BLOG.

1. Kathy, first of all, thank you for your time. I know many of my BLOG readers will have read some of your research or heard about you. But, as a way of introduction, what caused you to start this journey of advocacy for LGBTIQ people, especially for people of faith?

A very important part of my story is that I came into an advocacy role by way of a crisis in my own life. Frequently, crises stop us in our tracks and we find ourselves re-evaluating things we are sure about and question what once seemed too risky to consider. 
This is also true with much of the Evangelical community. I thought my ways of following God and the understanding I had of Him and His ways were right. I followed the “rules” and they worked for me. Until they did not! 

My marriage of 20 years began to fall apart. My husband had had an affair with an employee in our business who was over 30 years younger. That’ll stop you in your tracks. We had a family business. I was homeschooling our kids. Our social lives were based on church relationships. We were seen as fixtures and leaders in the laity.

 When it was all working for me, I had had a great ease of telling somebody else what they needed to do with their lives to get right with God. I had the gift of evangelism and I used it. Suddenly, there I was, my life in utter chaos, despite doing all the “right things.” I didn’t suffer a crisis of faith, but I no longer felt comfortable telling another person what they needed to do to bring their life to order. It would have felt utterly hypocritical.

One of the prime ways I dealt with processing the pain of impending divorce was daily hiking; I live within five miles of at least a dozen trails in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern Nevada near Lake Tahoe. Hiking was a way for me to escape the tension in my home and even process out loud what was going on in my head. My husband “demanded,” and I obeyed, that we do not tell the kids, ages 12 and 13, or the staff employees what was happening. It would be bad for the upcoming holiday season and business, so I agonised in isolation as he began to feel a sense of freedom.

I noticed that there was a hiker on the trails who was hiking the same speeds and intensity as I was. After many months of noticing her, one day, at the end of my hike and not wanting to return to the tension of home, I asked if she minded if I joined her on her hike. That’s how I met Netto Montoya. Netto was everything that I was not. She is a woman of colour, an agnostic, has a Hispanic last name, and is a lesbian. Rather than then doing what had been so natural to me in the past, which was “telling,” I opted to listen and establish a relationship. It seems quite funny to admit, but she became a safe spot for me. My Christian girlfriends of many decades were not a safe place. I had agreed with my husband to an unhealthy level of secrecy about the upcoming divorce and knew that private crisis shared, with even close Christian friends, would likely become a prayer request or a “concern” that they would discuss with others. Over the next year, Netto and I became good friends as we hiked together almost weekly. It was obvious to me that she was gay, yet I avoided the subject, as did she. My Christian friends constantly urged me to witness to her so that she would stop being a lesbian and become a believer. Still, I did none of that. I got to know her.

After about a year, Netto finally came out to me. By then, it no longer mattered to me that she was a lesbian. I knew she was a wonderful person and my judgments of gay people had significantly waned.

The friendship with Netto caused me to question so much of what I had heard about LGBTQ people. It’s embarrassing to say and admit, but I had bought into so much of the Evangelical rhetoric that was simply not true. I had believed that gay people experienced lust, not love; and that they made a choice to be gay, that their orientation was not intrinsic to their nature.

Before meeting Netto, no one had ever come out directly to me and told me they were gay. Even in college in the 1970s, though I participated in sports with numerous lesbians, “gay” was not a term we would have used nor understood. We viewed same-sex relationships as a “preference.” 

In friendship with Netto, she brought me into her social circles. Relationships with gay people caused me to question my sureness about my theology concerning same-sex relationships. Yet, it would still be another five years before I would dig into the Scriptures to try to figure out what the Bible actually said, if anything, about gay people.

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Kathy and Netto

2. Your book is such a great source of information for those seeking to understand or educate themselves. As a lover of history, I was particularly impressed by the way you dealt with historical context, as this is most important in understanding the politicising and scape-goating of LGBTIQ people today. What, do you think, are some of the key historical events that people should be aware of in helping them understand the political/religious dynamics at work today?

I’m really glad that you asked this question. The typical way in which traditional Christians have dealt with the subject of same-sex behaviour in the Bible is to view the Scriptures referring to same-sex behaviour in isolation of anything else going on in either the time in which they were penned, as well as ignoring what is presently known about human sexuality.

This question requires a multi-layer answer. 

Many other influences have impacted our beliefs about those who participate in same-sex behaviour. (Incidentally, I am quite intentional about the nuance of words that I use whether this is same-sex behaviour or homosexuality. Clearly, same-sex behaviour is referred to in Scripture, but is it homosexuality — a natural romantic, emotional and sexual attraction to people of the same sex?)

If one looks at same-sex interaction anytime before about the end of the 19th century, it would have been based on power and/or age differentials. It’s also important to note that, typically, few would even be discussing or noticing sex between women until about the 1960s. The entire topic of same-sex interaction focused primarily on sex between two males. Not only was the Bible written through a very distinct lens of patriarchy and gender hierarchy, both have been the social organisational structure of every predominant culture throughout time. For a man to maintain the social and sexual role of being “manly,” he would have had to have been the penetrator in a sexual act. 

Social patriarchal organisation began to gradually shift at the end of the 19th century. Several factors led to this. Many cultures shifted from agrarian-based to industrial-based. With the movement of people to cities and subsequent large concentrations of same-sex populations, people were able to act on curiosities they may have felt but could not have acted on. Equal status men found that they were attracted to other equal status men. Before this time, it would have only been appropriate for a man to have had sex with a lower status man, perhaps an immigrant (or in ancient cultures, a slave), or more commonly, a boy between about the ages of 12 and 20.

The obvious presence of these kinds of relationships caught the eye of people who were beginning to think about human sexuality at the turn of the 19th century. There was a period from about the 1870s until the late 1920s when sex experts (for their day) and thinkers were trying to figure out “what is this thing we’re seeing happening between equal status men?” It was a pivotal point in considering human sexuality.

Another great influence on how we’ve thought about same-sex relationships came from the merger of conservative religion and politics which emerged in the United States in the late 1970s and in Australia at the turn of the 21st Century. Though the beginnings of the understanding of human sexuality may have had quite a slow and scattered process, by the time the 1970s came around, the psychological community certainly understood that attraction to people of the same sex was not a ‘mental illness’, as it once had been thought of, but it was to be expected along the natural spectrum of human sexuality.

Following this time, there was a very small span of less than a decade once homosexuality was “de-pathologised” before it became a convenient wedge issue used to motivate conservative voters to get to the polls and vote for conservative issues. Jerry Falwell, the infamous leader of the religious right’s Moral Majority, had as his mantra “Get ‘em saved, get ‘em baptised, get ‘em registered.”

For an overview of the History of Cultural and Religious Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in America please see this link.

3. How much do you think the Australian political/religious world has been affected by the politicising of LGBTIQ people in American history?

American conservative family groups have long been guilty of exporting extremism and dominionism to other countries even as they recognise their influence is becoming less effective in the United States.

For several decades, as the gay rights movement has grown in the United States, some of our political lobbying groups have been meddling in the affairs of other countries and in international organisations. There is a group of religious conservatives called United Families International, primarily based in the Mormon (LDS) church, that have been working within the United Nations trying to influence women’s reproductive rights and the rights of the LGBTQ population in the global south. They have been accomplishing their propaganda work while going fairly unnoticed.

What is more well-known is that some conservative family groups, including Focus on the Family, The Heritage Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, and numerous other “traditional family” organisations, have had an impact in African nations, Russia, and eastern bloc nations. This meddling continues.

The Heritage Foundation, a very conservative think tank and policy group in the United States, is known to have sent representatives to Australia in about 2004 to advise Australia about how to deal with the impending question of same-sex marriage that would at some point come to Australia.

Knowing that Australians would not react quite the same way to the American message used to motivate conservative Christians against same-sex marriage laws, they helped Australians repackage and fashion their message from one of a biblical message to one centred on traditional family values. It is really just a nuance of the same discriminatory and exclusionary message. It also brilliantly played into the deeply entrenched Australian “manly” psyche. Australians have a level of homophobia that does not have a strong American equivalent.

There is a historical tie between criminality and same-sex behaviour in Australia that Americans do not have, at least not to the depth that it resides in the Aussie psyche. When Australia was “founded” (that is even a funny term as if the continent did not exist before the English got there), in the late 1700s as an English penal colony, very few white women were shipped over as prisoners. Same-sex behaviour was obviously happening in prisons and it became associated with criminals. (They even put women in the prisons with men to “correct” the perversion.)

So where the Aussies lack the American religious fervour to be anti-gay as we are, the Aussies are more prone to attach same-sex behaviour to anti-masculinity, perversion, and criminality. This is part of the reason the ‘Vote NO’ groups so heavily focused on the safety of children rather than one man-one women language as did Americans.

When I first started to write a decade ago, the three biggest groups sending the bulk of my hate mail were, in order: men who had been in the military or law enforcement, black women, and Aussie men. Really!

As long as there are leaders in any country who will listen to the message of these traditional family groups, America will likely continue to send and export this merger of religion and politics that has been going on for the last 50 years here. 

The toxic entanglement is certainly being dismantled in the US, but sadly, there is a market throughout the rest of the world for one of our worst exports.

Kathy Baldock

Reno, Nevada
November 25, 2017
kathy@canyonwalkerconnections.com

Part TWO of this blog will be posted tomorrow.

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The Power of Yes

“Love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

YES is a world
& in this world of yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds”
– E.E. Cummings –

Yesterday was a Yes day. It was also a historic day in Australia. 79.5% of Australians took part in a non-binding plebiscite to vote about marriage equality – “Can same-sex couples tie the knot?” 61.6% said Yes – providing the government with a clear and decisive mandate to pave the way for full inclusion.

I watched the moment the results were read over and over again. I cried with my friends. The joy was palpable. The various gathering places were awash with rainbow colours and ecstatic and relieved faces. It has been a very long journey that has taken its toll on many. I thought of some of my friends who are no longer with us and who would have loved to have seen this day … this day when a nation said Yes.

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There were also people who were bitterly disappointed. Amidst my social media feed people called it a ‘very sad day’, lamenting that only a few are still standing for ‘traditional’ marriage, and there were ominous warnings of doom. Others were more gracious, acknowledging that Australia has spoken and were determined to work together in the future.

I watched some of the faces of people responding to the news closely. People that have had to stay strong, keep a measured tone, even when it was their families and their children who were dragged through the mud in what often became a hostile and ugly debate. Yes broke the most stoic demeanour. Yes has power. Yes opens doors. Yes puts out a Welcome sign and means it. There is magic in yes.

We can all identify with the power of Yes. We feel it when we walk into a room not knowing anyone and we look for that Yes face, the person who will welcome us and acknowledge us. Yes is a finely crafted key that unlocks doors. Yes is the bulldozer that crushes fear. Yes speaks of new opportunities and possibilities. For LGBTIQ people in Australia, Yes has paved the way to equality, inclusion and acceptance.

Yes is the language of the Divine.

As Sally Douglas of Richmond Uniting Church wrote so beautifully,

“The scandalous heart of Christianity is not about sexuality or about hetero-normative relationships. It is about the conviction that in the person of Jesus we glimpse the Divine. And that in this Jesus, as sacred text tells it again and again, we discover the Divine who is outrageously including, forgiving and self-giving. In Jesus, we are confronted with the humble Holy One who heals and nourishes and who continues to challenge all people in the Divine’s self-same compassion dynamic, that cannot be contained or diminished, even by all our violence and death dealing.”

Dear friend, have you ever considered the power of Yes? Perhaps you grew up in a No setting with deeply embedded No ideals. So when you hear Yes you automatically think it must be wrong, heretical or simply not for you? Perhaps it is time to consider and examine the No that you have taken as normative for your life?

Yesterday was Yes day. A Yes day that has, and will continue to change lives. May Yes change yours.

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God on My Side?

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I spent the first seven years of my life in a small village in Northern Germany. It was the sort of place where everyone knew each other and the children roamed the streets like herds of sheep. You had to be tough in those herds! Children aren’t always as nice as we like to imagine. My last resort when things got hairy was to remind everyone that my dad lives just a few houses away and he will sort out anyone threatening his daughter’s well-being. That normally did the trick. Dad was respected and no one liked the idea of having an angry German-Russian breathing down their neck. Of course, to my utter disappointment, the times dad did show up and I tried to dob on someone I perceived a threat to the welfare of the community, dad would be as kind and pleasant to the wee human as he could. I remember being furious. Dad was supposed to be on my side!

Several decades later, it occurs to me how hard it is to grow out of this. We simply change the ‘dad’ figure to reason, physical strength, positions of power, or ‘God’. If you conduct a brief search throughout the corridors of human history of wars fought with strong religious ideals, you will discover a common thread: each blood-lusting party had the novel idea that God was on their side. There seems to be a ferocious zeal that overcomes those who believe that the Divine is blessing their violence. As Blaise Pascal dryly commented, Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”

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Those of us who would consider ourselves people of faith may recoil at the idea of thrusting a spear through an opponent’s heart in the name of God, or of terrorising villages and families in order to execute a ‘just’ war on terror, but perhaps we have other ways to vilify those we deem as an ‘enemy’, a ‘threat’, or simply people who have differing views from us. If we can insinuate that we have ‘God on our side’ then there is a high chance that the masses will ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’, and that they will follow our cause without engaging in critical thinking. If we really want to drive a point home, we can ensure that people understand that our idea has God’s backing.

Positions of political and religious influence can be precarious places. These platforms provide all the necessary ingredients for deception, greed and power, which can corrupt hearts. When we adopt a ‘Joan of Arc’ persona and use sentences like “God told me”, we are using our influence, in whatever capacity, with the danger of engaging in control and manipulation – possibly with the best intentions, but still potentially dangerous. No amount of ‘scriptural backing’ gives us the right to put people in such a position that if they question us, they question God.

History should serve as a teacher. Take a moment to consider just a few of the many examples like the Apartheid ideology undergirded by the Dutch Reformed Church, the long history of Anti-Semitism in the Catholic church, the Spanish Inquisition, the Religious Wars of Ireland, the exuberant preachers of the pro-slavery era, the modern day ‘Kill the Gay’ bill enthusiastically propagated and supported by Religious Leaders from the USA, or the horrendous consequence of banning contraceptives in Africa and other parts of the world. We need to consider the wake of destruction that often accompanied ideologies and people of power who claimed God on their side – be it Presidents, dictators, Popes, priests or ministers.

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The moment our idea of God paints us as the ‘Messiah’ to liberate the misguided, evil ‘Other’, we come dangerously close to creating a ‘God’ in our own image, who looks and thinks like us. I would urge us to exercise caution before we marginalise and label those who differ. Many of the dogmas that were held with such certainty in a previous era, are now considered fallacies. Perhaps most confronting is the notion that what often irritates us in others is mirrored in our own shadow side. Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves, said C.G. Jung. The French writer, Vauvenargues, responds: We discover in ourselves what others hide from us and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.”

It is a terrifying thought that God stares back at us from the eyes of our ‘opponent’
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Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
– Patrick Rothfuss –

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Stories: they shape our world, they change our world, they are our world. We all live our lives to the rhythm of a story we have been told and we have believed. The stories we have been told about how our world works and who is in charge has created our worldview. The stories we have been told about our country, its history and context, has shaped how we view and live in the nation we exist in. The stories we have been told about the tribe we call ‘home’ or ‘family’ or ‘extended community’, reflects on how we behave and interact in that space. The stories we have been told about the ‘other’ who does not fit our worldview, imagined national ideas, or notions about tribe or culture, is reflected in our opinions and paradigms of them.

If we really want to understand someone we have to listen to their story. Really listen. This year I completed the first level of a Narrative Therapy course. It was a fascinating exercise on so many levels. I always thought I was a fairly good listener, this course was challenging as I realised how quickly I tended to analyse someone’s story in my own head. The course required us not to do that. Rather, we were asked to listen, to ask questions, to walk alongside the other and allow them to tell THEIR story. Assumptions,  while listening, is one of the great enemies of relationship and intimacy.

I was confronted how a few decades of clutching to certain fundamentalist ideals that shaped my first half of life had affected my ability to listen and hear. Fundamentalism believes its own story as the ultimate truth, therefore anyone else’s story is seen as inferior … in need of ‘salvation’. Fundamentalism is the perfect coloniser. By the very nature of the story it tells, it cannot really listen or validate the story of another who does not hold to the same ideals. That is why fundamentalism is also so good at creating exiles.

Over the last several years I have begun to examine some of the stories I have told myself in those early years. This is no easy exercise. I discovered that some of my self-perceptions are simply other people’s stories of my life and I have believed them. There is a need in all of us to tell ourselves a story about the other – when that ‘other’ wanders off the path of that story it leads to confusion and disappointment. I have done the same to people around me. I have assumed a certain story and was offended when that person did not stick to my grand epic.

We also notice the power of story in our culture. Whoever has the dominant voice defines its terms and agendas. The sad result is that we honour those loud voices, while the stories of others are forgotten. Our fragmented overview, for example, of the Aboriginal culture is a result of listening to the dominant voice of media and questionable history books, whilst neglecting the Dreamtime stories that are the oral textbooks of Australia’s First Peoples.

Truth be told, if we really faced our own shadows we would discover the horrible truth: that in many ways we are all colonisers of other people’s stories. We all want to overlay and control the narrative of the other person’s life according to our own ideas. If you don’t believe me, you should have sat in my office many years ago as I listened to the countless, tearful accounts of young people whose parents refused to listen or acknowledge their dreams for their future, rather forcing them into their own (parent’s) chosen career path. Or just observe the current rush of religious leaders ‘making a stand’ against Marriage Equality and telling their congregation how to vote, whilst failing to listen to the hopes and dreams and stories of so many LGBTIQ people who sit right under their noses. We all like to tell others how to play a certain character in the grand narrative that runs around our heads.

Listening is difficult. To truly listen we need to, first of all, acknowledge our shortcoming as a listener: our inattentiveness, our need for control, our easily offended minds when someone strays from our ideals, etc. Listening says to the other person that you honour them enough to hold their story without interjecting or changing it. To truly listen is to realise that for that moment of time this vulnerable human being, who is confiding in you, pleads with you to be a safe space. Listening without judgement, without the need for dumb cliches, resisting all temptations to change the person who is telling the story, takes time and discipline. If we all learned to listen we would live in a different world.

So, friend, perhaps it’s time to learn to listen – to those around you, to the ‘other’, and perhaps the most ignored voice of all: your own heart.

“Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.”
– Ben Okri –

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Oh The Places You Will Go … And The Places You Must Leave …

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.” Brennan Manning

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I remember walking through the doors of a house we had built in semi-rural Melbourne. It was a home that in years ahead would be the place where many friends and family members would gather – a place of welcome, tears, laughter, food and stories. I loved that home. It was a place that I wanted to grow old in. But it was not to be. The day came that a SOLD sign went up outside the gates, boxes were packed and I took one last look at the magnificent garden that had been a labour of love for my partner, my dad and I. It was so hard to say goodbye.

There are people we meet and places we belong to that have us convinced that they will play a significant role for the rest of our lives. But that is not always the case. Dr. Seuss was right – there are many places you will go, but in life there are also places you will have to leave. Places that can no longer hold who you are. Places that have changed. Places that become unsafe.

This can be incredibly difficult when the commentary in these places is one of welcome, belonging and unconditional love. Places where you have been led to believe that you matter, only to have that change in a moment, can have devastating repercussions. Let me share a story with you – and, yes, the name of this person has been changed.

I knew Harry from when he was little. He used to be in the same Sunday school class as one of my children. I did not know him well – enough to say hello and recognise the various family members. Harry grew up in the faith community I came to as an adult. He had only ever known this place as a spiritual home and the people were his spiritual family. He grew into a young man who became part of the youth group; a strong, dedicated leader, adored by those he cared for on a pastoral level. It all changed overnight.

Harry was gay. It took him a very long time to come to grips with his orientation and the consequences this would have in a conservative religious setting, not only for himself, but also for his family. It was handled kindly at first. Harry was allowed to continue leading, even amidst complaints from concerned parents as word got out. Eventually, Harry fell in love. This was problematic. Harry could no longer lead and was ‘relieved’ from all his responsibility. In an instant he went from a contributing member of the community to a ‘problem’.

Harry tried very hard to keep connected and involved – an impossible task in an environment where someone like him is viewed with great suspicion and concern. Sheepish smiles and general avoidance was probably the only way most community members knew how to handle Harry’s exile. He tried desperately to convince people that nothing had changed – he was still the same Harry they had known, loved and trusted for nearly twenty years. But for Harry, like many others, his status had changed from ‘human’ to ‘issue’. His parents received sympathetic looks and offers for prayer. They rejected them all. Harry’s decision to come out and live authentically, and to fall in love, now meant a whole family somehow found themselves on the margins. The family eventually left the church.

“There are other churches he can go to,” was the comment made when concerns were raised. I wonder whether people really understood the heartache of being forced out of your community simply because of being true to who you are? I wonder whether anyone understood the pain of rejection that Harry had to face and how this haunted him for years to come? I wonder what these concerned parents, that complained about Harry, will do and say when one of their children or grandchildren come out to them?

There are some places we hope will hold us and truly ‘see’ us in times of vulnerability, but that is not always the case. We can stay, endure and hope, but that comes at a price. For LGBTIQ people raised or existing in non-accepting or homophobic spaces, the price is highlighted in the horrific statistics of mental health, self-harm, rejection and suicide. It is extremely difficult to ‘hang around’ in a setting that questions your very identity.

The wheels of change grind very slowly. For many conservative religious people, someone who identifies as LGBTIQ and ‘Christian’ still remains an oxymoron, someone they think who has made a ‘lifestyle choice’ that is against their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. In these settings, the fear and distrust of a community has already condemned that person.

As I have observed my social media feed over the last month of Australia’s Marriage Equality ‘debate’, I am hopeful in that there are many more folk who are seeking to understand, read and educate themselves – they are eager to ask questions and listen to the many stories. I am also discouraged by so much misinformation and continued acceptance of “ex-gay therapy” by religious and political leaders that hold influence. Like a friend of mine says, “Ex-gay therapy and homophobia are like the oxygen in these settings. There is no true welcome there.” If you are an LGBTIQ person in these places, please be careful, they are not safe.

We made a choice to sell and leave our home and place of belonging. It hurt like hell. Yet it holds no comparison to the momentous grief for people like Harry. They most often have had to leave the places of spiritual belonging by no choice of their own. By their very identity they have become the scapegoat that carries a community’s angst and phobias under the guise of orthodoxy and dogma. The place they had loved so deeply is no longer safe.

This blog post is dedicated to the ‘Harrys’ of the ecclesiastical zoo all over the world. It is dedicated to the many people whose stories of heartache have pierced my own heart and who I am honoured to call friends. I want you to know that there are many who see you and who love you … just the way you are. I want to acknowledge the grief you have had to face in leaving behind your spiritual home. I want you to know that your tears have not gone unnoticed. Your lament is heard, I believe in the highest heavens, and the One who became the ultimate scapegoat stands with you on the margins. You are the prophetic voice of protest to a religious world that lost its way when pursuing its ‘rights’ became the focus, instead of the Gospel. You are brave.

It took Harry several years to recover from what he had to walk through. But Dr. Seuss was right, he did find new places to go – places of true welcome and embrace. He did find safe spaces and friends, communities who shared his faith. He did find skilled counsellors who listened and walked with him as he chiseled out a path for a different tomorrow. He also exceeded in his studies and chosen career. He is still with the one he fell in love with all those years ago. Harry is proof that life can be gut wrenchingly hard and life can also be beautiful.

Do not give up, dear friend. There are places you must leave and grieve – and these places do not know it yet, but the loss is ultimately theirs. There are also many new and amazing places and people that await your arrival … Oh The Places You Will Go …

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Joy and the Narrow Path

This post is dedicated to the LGBTI community who were and are a prophetic voice in my life – I am forever grateful.
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On the 15th April it was two years since Dean Beck, Nathan Despott and I sat down at the Joy FM Radio station and recorded an interview to discuss the damage done to LGBTI people through ex-gay therapy programmes. This erroneous idea that LGBTI people are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘healed’ or ‘fixed’ goes a lot further than the programmes run through parachurch programmes or ministry. Rather, it is the very oxygen in most conservative, fundamentalist religious spaces that view LGBTI people of faith as ‘other’.

I should know this because I was part of one of the many people that held this idea that there was something ‘wrong’ with those who identified as anything but heterosexual. My paradigms were supported by ignorance, fear, and religious ‘experts’ who had very LOUD opinions and very little knowledge. My doubts and questions about this harmful exclusion started long before that interview.

Two years on and my world has changed … dramatically. The interview literally brought extremist religious leaders out of retirement. There was a bombarding of emails, letters and flyers. The board of the faith community that I was part of, supportive at first of my right to speak as an individual not representing the church, felt the pressure of lobby groups and found this rather difficult. It became easier to distance myself.

It was one of the more difficult journeys of my life. As I reflect back, I realise that anytime we endeavour to live true to our values we often come against strong power structures. Structures and ideals that are deeply embedded and share an umbilical cord with political agendas (similar to the apartheid ideals in South Africa, or the segregation ideals that spurred the civil rights movement in the USA).

I learnt a lot of things through this experience:

Perhaps the most important learning was the bravery shown by LGBTI people and people of faith. My exclusion and treatment shrinks into insignificance as I listened to many, many stories of heartache, rejection, condemnation, prejudice, and sheer hurtful behaviour by people who claim to hold to the Gospel of Christ, while condemning their brothers and sisters in a most saccharine “O-we-love-you-but-hate-your-sin” manner. I discovered friends and heroes on the margins – a magnificent and fierce rainbow clan that I am honoured to call friends.

I discovered a fairly lonely, narrow path. For someone who has spent a decent amount of time surrounded by loads of people, it was a strange experience. It brought its own significant anxiety. On this lonely path there was not much backslapping and grandiose talk about the modern church or its mission to ‘save the world’ – rather I came face to face with my own shadows, with my own insecurities, and with the painful process of detoxing from a hyperreality that creates religious addicts with a silo mentality.

I learnt that to let go is a death experience. I lost reputation, friends, status, power, influence, and all invitations to speak at other churches stopped rather abruptly. It is a dangerous thing to ask questions and make up your own mind. Letting go meant laying it all down and walking away … perhaps you know that space? Perhaps this is what you are walking through right now?

But I also learnt there is resurrection. There is hope. There is freedom and joy on this narrow path that is very hard to describe. When you no longer fear the threats because there is not much more to lose then, in a strange, paradoxical way, you begin to really live. There is an insanely, happy dance that accompanies those who refuse to be bullied into dancing to the tune of religious, cultural norms. You see, dear friend, the Gospel really is very good news.

I am not sure what the future holds. The life I thought I would lead has died many years ago. But this Easter, in an old Uniting Church in Richmond, I heard the whispers of Resurrection. This surprising narrow path of joy holds treasures I would never have found surrounded by the accolades and approval of others. This resurrection hope quietly beckons me to keep walking … and that I shall.

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Only Children and Fools Tell the Truth!

“Remember, there will be those among the powerful who try to make you say what you know is clearly not true because if everyone agrees to believe the lie, the lie can go on forever … If you want to be a leader, you, too, must refuse to tell the old lies. You must learn to say that those emperors have no clothes. You must see what you are looking at and say what you see.”
— Joan Chittister –
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It is in the mouth of babes that we often find the most profound truth-telling. A child has a way of looking at the world without firmly set prejudice, ideas or concepts. The German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism, writes,
 
“Children often possess gifts which they lose as they grow up. With the years we seem to enter into a prison of conventions and opinions, concealments and unquestioned acceptance, and there we lose the candour of childhood. The child still reacts spontaneously to the spontaneity of life; the child feels and sees and inquires into things which soon disappear from his vision. He forgets what for a moment was revealed to him and is surprised when grownups later tell him what he said and what questions he asked.” (Way to Wisdom)

The perception of a child is beautifully illustrated in the work of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. Anderson tells the story of a vain emperor who lived in exceeding luxury and spent all his money on new clothes. Two swindlers convinced the emperor that they had spun him magnificent garments. The audacious lie was affirmed by his old minister, town officials, noblemen and finally the whole town, all of them afraid to look foolish or be shunned if they admit that the emperor is starkers!

The crowd unanimously bought into the delusion, except a child. A child who was unaffected by social protocol. A child who was unaware that his or her belonging could be under threat if they spoke up. A child who had not yet learnt to tow the party line or follow the herd mentality. A child stated the obvious: “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

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Foudroyant! How can this little monster utter such truth? Scandalous! Then the ripple started from someone in the back row who just found his voice and a little bit of courage – “He actually is wearing no clothes!” It took a child to tell them what they already knew. The emperor, on the other hand, although aware of the gimmick, continued to parade naked because … well, the show must go on.

Nowhere is this story more applicable than in politics and religion. Currently, we are seeing another historical high of ridiculous political lies, or, *ahem*, “alternative truths”. It is like we have landed in the sewerage pit of global, political stupidity and perhaps it is time to listen to the little, dumbfounded inner child, standing trembling on the sidelines. It is time to wake up. The emperor is starkers and the religious elite is only a few steps behind.

When religion upholds a corrupt, fear-monger, prejudice-inducing political ideal that marginalises and scapegoats those deemed ‘other’,  it is like the old minister pissing into the emperor’s invisible coat pocket. From the time of Constantine, sectors of the Christian religion have played with fire as they have sought to muscle in for power, fame and wealth. This hypocritical, gospel-disfiguring stance must be maintained even when in a moment of gut-level honesty, they recognise what horrific pain they have caused through scapegoating those on the margins.

Richard Rohr would contend that without honest self-knowledge religion ends up being more part of the problem than the solution, resulting in a Christian populous that affirms racism, sexism, and greed with no questions asked. Religious leaders often play host to fear of losing ‘face’ or being ridiculed by those on the inner sanctum of religious power or influence. Rejection by the approval-posse is a heavy burden and it is easier to continue marvelling at the emperor’s magnificent, colourful, non-existent clothes.

I am writing this blog for those who are waking up in the matrix. I urge you to channel the inner child or inner fool, take a deep breath, and yell it loud and clear: “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!” Refuse to be part of a system that excludes others and lives in denial.

“No Emperor has the power to dictate the heart”
— Friedrich Schiller –
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Questions in the Desert – Part One

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Nature’s seasons are a constant reminder that nothing we do or experience in life is permanent. I was part of a mega-church community in Melbourne, Australia, for over thirty years. I never thought that season would come to an end. But it did.

One of the last sermons I gave at this church was on Philip’s encounter with a eunuch in a dusty Palestinian desert, as narrated in Acts 8. Hindsight is a most wonderful thing – looking back now I see the significance of that message in my own life. It is helping me as I learn to dream again, as I reflect on the religion of Christianity and what it has become in modern times, and specifically on the possibilities of a movement that focuses on the love and words of Christ.

Below are some of the notes from this sermon – I will post them over a couple of blogposts so as not to overwhelm the reader 🙂

… The book of Acts, in the New Testament of the Bible, contains vital information linking the life of Jesus and the various epistles (or letters) written after his death. Taking centre stage in this book are two men: Peter and Paul. If it wasn’t for Acts we would know very little about them, especially Paul and his motivation that took him to distant lands. Without Acts we would also not know about Philip, a Eunuch, and questions in the desert …

In Acts 8, we find a disciple of Christ called Philip. The suggested author of Acts, Luke, has taken time to develop Philip’s persona: he was someone who had spread the Gospel in Samaria, and was working throughout the territory of Judea and up the coast to Caesarea. Philip is portrayed as prophetic: he proclaims the Gospel with signs and wonders, he speaks with angels, he is whisked up by the Spirit, and he runs alongside the chariots of mighty men. Luke is painting the prophetic missional character of Philip as a forerunner of the prophetic mission and mandate of the Gospel.

Philip encounters a man from the ‘ends of the earth’. This eunuch is from Ethiopia, which is known in the Bible as the land of Cush. It does not correspond to modern Ethiopia but rather the Nubian kingdom whose capital was Meroe, south of Egypt, which is part of modern-day Sudan.

The eunuch was a wealthy man –  he had a carriage, he could read, he had a driver, and he was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians (a dynasty, not a personal name). He represented people that to the Jewish Christians were at the ‘ends of the earth’. He also represents a people group who have been ostracized and kept away from Yahweh because of his very identity as a eunuch – a mutilated one.

In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to the most abhorred and ridiculed group of men, often being slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. If they did rise to a position of prominence they could not escape the stigma of their sexless condition. Eunuchs did at times rise above their social status and find employment at the imperial court, but they would always be victims of negative stereotyping and ridicule during the Persian period. They were always on the outside – Exclusion was a part of life for them.

Absence of sexual organs meant that eunuchs were stigmatized due to their inability to reproduce and represent that culture’s idea of the traditional family. Their ‘otherness’ was amplified not only by their sexual difference and childless state, but also their exclusion from worshipping in the temple with the rest of God’s family. In Deuteronomy 23:1, it says that “no one who is emasculated or has his male organ cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  This man carried the stigma of imperfection and immorality.

This eunuch, although he would be excluded from the religious festival in Jerusalem, went to worship anyway. And now God came looking for him, the outcast, the stigmatized – and in a marvelous scandalous way he becomes wholly accepted.

“This eunuch, symbolizing the community of ostracised sexual minorities, is among the first of the outcasts from ancient Israel to be welcomed into Jesus’ discipleship of equals.”
–  Jerome Neyrey, paper on the social world of Luke-Acts.

This is indeed a strange and scandalous story. I don’t think those early Jerusalem Christians ever imagined this is what the ‘Gospel to the ends of the earth’ message looked like. Perhaps, like us today, they had a much neater, less risqué, ideal of what it would mean for the good news of an incarnate Christ to travel outside their boundaries and tightly held dogma.

So when we talk about the ‘Gospel’, does it ever occur to us that this God of messy humanity will deliberately mess with our heads and take us as far out of our comfort zone as our obedience allows?

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… Part Two and the first question in next blog …

 

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