Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.
Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.
The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.
I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.
Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.
In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.
Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.
I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.
People cheered. I had found truth.
In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.
Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.
Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?
My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.
This was not easy.
Holy Cows are very precious.
However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)
This blog was (2015 post) and is dedicated to the memory of Sophie Scholl and all those who, along with her, harnessed the courage to stand against evil. I have a sense that it is time to urgently resurrect the spirit of what was known as the White Rose. May the people rise.
“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone!”
Sophie, born on 9 May 1921, was the daughter of the mayor of Forchtenberg, Robert Scholl. She enjoyed a fairly carefree childhood, raised in a household that held to a Christian faith which recognised the dignity and equality of all people. Her father’s words would play an instrumental role in shaping who Sophie was becoming: “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.“ Her father and brothers were critical of Hitler and the regime. Nevertheless, Sophie joined a Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls, where she became a squad leader at the age of twelve. Her initial enthusiasm began to wane as she became more immersed in understanding the ideology and motivation of the Nazi party and as she began to observe the treatment of Jews.
Sophie graduated from Secondary School in 1940 and worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. In 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. Undergirded by her studies and her faith, she joined her brother and his friends who held similar political views and who increasingly opposed the Nazi regime. Humanist and writer, Theodor Haecker, was a major influence on her resistance ideology.
The final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and intercepted by Allied forces, with the result that, in the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied aircraft. I wonder what a defeated Germany thought as these papers rained from the sky, the voice of prophets and martyrs, begging them to take courage? I can only imagine the regret as they realised that they would be remembered as a generation that remained quiet in one of the darkest moments of history.
I wonder what our generation will be remembered for? Locking kids in cages? Concentration camps for the most vulnerable? Fear and slander against marginalised communities? The destruction of our planet by greedy governments and corporations?
May the White Rose rise … may courage win the day.
I blogged this piece on Tangier Island back in 2017. As I read it today, I found it helpful and thought I would post it again … perhaps it also finds resonance in your life at this time.
And then one day,
– and I still don’t know how it happened –
The sea came.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.
The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.
Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.
Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …
I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!
I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.
The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!
So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”
Without welcome, even
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine,
less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but coming.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work
You may have noticed the increasing vitriol from sections of the Australian media and politics against transgender rights and inclusion. An example would be The Australian‘s strong anti-trans coverage that highlights this growing backlash.
Have you ever asked yourself what it would feel like to be at the receiving end of such hostility directed at you from people and institutions of significant power? No? If no, that’s a privilege.
To help us understand and create awareness I asked a friend to share their story. I am so grateful that Roe agreed.
Roe is an out and visible trans woman active in the Trans and Gender Diverse community as an advocate, activist, and blogger. Roe is passionate about equality, diversity and inclusion and advocates for all activism to be intersectional and aim to leave no one behind. We do better together, whether that is in regard to LGBTIQA+, mental health, feminism, disability or any other area. Roe is a person with faith history and describes faith now as an interesting relationship with the idea of the divine and faith practice.
Here is Roe’s story …
“I’ll be honest, I am just managing to hold on at the moment. ‘Hold on to what?’ you may ask. Well, hold on to me I guess. Hold on to a sense of me having the same humanity as everyone else, hold on to the fact that I am just as deserving of carrying accurate identification documents as you. Well, to be blatantly truthful, that I am just as deserving of living my life in safety and equality as the next human.
You might think I am being somewhat dramatic, histrionic even, but if you are a cis person – a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth – you don’t have the reference point from which to make such a judgment.
Trans and Gender Diverse (TGD) folk face an ongoing, sustained and targeted campaign against their right to exist, have equality and even to carry relevant documentation to prove who they are. In many places in the world, they are refused access to a safe place to go to the toilet.
Welcome to my world. That’s the space we are in right now!
But didn’t we solve all this with the Marriage Equality plebiscite? In reality, Marriage Equality legislation changed very little for trans folk. The initial legislation had almost zero effect on our rights. In time, it resulted in some changes that stopped us being forced to divorce. In some Australian states, further changes occurred that made birth certificates fairer. But the three most populous states are yet to make this a reality. Yes, this is hopefully in train in Victorian Parliament at the moment but is not a fait accompli and still has the task of getting through both houses of the Victorian Parliament.
It is currently 5:10 pm on a Monday evening, I am sitting on my bed typing these words at a time I would normally be still at my desk working at my day job. But here I am, and I am here, because, well, I couldn’t cope in that space. All day, as I tried to work, I was fighting back anxiety and panic. All the while my phone notifications were informing me of yet another transphobic article published in the media. Mostly the known culprits but not completely. There is anti-trans rhetoric deluging upon us at the moment. It is now open season on the trans and gender diverse communities. Open season on an already known vulnerable community. Open season on a community with a known suicide ideation rate of up to 40%.
How is it possible that Australia’s media regulators can view this conservative media onslaught as responsible reporting? And how did we get here? The answer to that is somewhat unbelievable but quite undeniably the truth: the Liberal Majority government with the majority of blame squarely the responsibility of the last three Prime Ministers who have led that government.
So how did we get here?
Well, it’s safe to say there have been transphobic media releases being published for many years. However, the saturation of it that we currently see can be traced back to the declaration of the marriage equality plebiscite by Malcolm Turnbull due to the workings of previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott. That campaign of two years ago opened the flood gates for transphobic reporting everywhere. Whilst the plebiscite was in the minds of the general public very much about gay lesbian and bisexual folk being able to marry the major target of those campaigning against it were the Trans and Gender Diverse community. That’s not to say we were the only target but we were the bullseye at which was aimed. And most horrendously the most targeted group were Trans Kids. The mostly right-wing, conservative and often religious campaigners targeted the most vulnerable of an already vulnerable community.
Let that sink in.
And lean in and spare a thought for the TGD community.
But of course, that’s not all. The end of the marriage equality campaign happened, the legislation was passed and we all celebrated with great intensity, and rightly so. We thought it was all over, and in some ways it was. Much of the anti LGBTIQA+ rhetoric abated. But it didn’t abate for the Trans and Gender Diverse community.
For the two years since we have seen a steady stream of horrendous things said about us. We couldn’t go a week, and sometimes even a day without opening a newspaper, a twitter feed, a facebook feed without finding ourselves declared to be anything from an abomination, to a trend, to embodied ideology.
This has continued unabated with a steady acceleration to the current situation of where a national newspaper has dedicated an entire section of their online platform to ridiculing and belittling us.
Lean in and spare a thought for your Trans and Gender Diverse friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues. We are in dire need of support.
Many who are politically engaged will remember that 2018 in Australia was the year of turmoil for the Liberal Party. That is certainly true. Many will remember it as the moment that the unexpected outsider somehow managed to emerge as the leader of the nation.
Suddenly Australia had a conservative pentecostal leader. Scott Morrison did not take long to show his disdain for the general LGBTIQA+ community and in particular the Trans and Gender Diverse section of that community.
Scott was, of course, one of the members who ran from the chamber during the marriage equality parliamentary vote in order to abstain from voting against what his own electorate had voted for.
In short order, Scott was in the media in multiple forums deriding the trans and gender diverse community. He wasn’t standing back and trying to appear neutral. No, he was on the attack to make sure we knew he considered us to be less than human, indeed as he stated on public radio, something that made his skin crawl.
First we made his skin crawl.
Then we and those that support us were gender whisperers pushing an agenda to turn the world trans.
Then came his support in the election of openly homophobic and transphobic candidate Gladys Liu.
Then came his derision of the Tasmanian birth certificate legislation as ridiculous.
Next of course was his support of Israel Folau and his transphobic comments – yes many forget that Folou’s post was one in response to the Tasmanian Law reforms.
Then comes his derision of Cricket Australia’s new policy to include trans and gender diverse players as heavy-handed.
As you can see, this shows a dedication by the leader of this nation to deride and speak against equality for transgender and gender diverse Australians. Of course, I am sure this list is not exhaustive either. I am sure there have been comments I have missed.
I ask you to lean in and spare a thought for Trans and Gender Diverse Australians. When open transphobia is proclaimed at the highest level of a ruling government it is as though that transphobia is green-lighted for all and sundry to engage in.
You may think I am making more of it than is there, but I don’t think so. When a single national newspaper can publish 14 anti-transgender articles in a period of two and a half weeks then I don’t think I am exaggerating at all. When the normally progressive and supportive outlets also go full transphobia in their articles then I don’t think I am exaggerating either.
But what does this all mean for the TGD community. Well it means we are in a state of crisis. That whilst there are some good things happening at a systemic level – such as the Cricket policy and the Birth Certificate reforms passed in Tasmania and hopefully to be passed in Victoria, the individuals that form the Trans and Gender Diverse community are in fact in crisis.
We are trying to hold on to our well being. We are trying to hold on to the ability to keep the balls of life in the air and make life work. To feel safe on public transport, to walk down the street without terror, to use a public bathroom in safety.
These are some of the things that this means for our community. It is not an exhaustive list by any means. It is just a few quick examples of what life is like for us at the moment. It includes a fear of what we will see said about us everytime we pick up our phone and open a social media or news app.
As we attempt to not just keep the balls of life going but to also have our voices heard amongst the roar of anti-trans voices that we are just humans like all the other humans, that we just want to be able to live our lives safely and in community with equality just like everyone else, we ask you to spare us some thought and to show you support us.
Things you can do:
Reach out to any Trans and Gender Diverse golk you know and check in with them – not just once but regularly.
Show some support visibly. Put a trans sticker on your car, a flag at your desk a supportive filter on your profile pic.
Share trans and gender diverse posts and articles in all your channels and keep sharing. One is not enough.
Write to the editors of the publications that publish the anti-trans rhetoric telling them how disgusted you are.
Post supportive comments in the comments threads.
Call out people for transphobia.
But most of all …
Lean in, spare us a thought and show us that you care, that you see us, that we are valid, loved and equal. Because in this time we need the reminders, we need the visible support and we need the care.
If you don’t know much about trans issues but you support us simply because we are human then that’s great too but maybe it’s time to seek out some resources and better inform yourselves. Google is your friend and many trans folk will happily sit with you and have a respectful conversation with you. Just don’t ask about our body parts or what surgeries we have or have not had.
Lean in and show your support for the Trans and Gender Diverse community. We are in crisis.”
For further information visit:
*At the time of writing, the Vic Birth Certificate reform has passed the lower house 56 votes to 27 and it now moves to the upper house to be debated at the end of August.
Thank you, Roe, for sharing a bit of your journey.
“There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
-Desmond Tutu –
Dante’s hell, as discussed in Part 1, fuelled the human imagination. Eternal flames, endless pain, torturous screaming of people who refused to believe the ‘right way’ … judgement had come!
I still have an email sent to me by a religious leader who was horrified when I first began to publicly express my doubts about some interpretations of hell. The email was well-intentioned, I am sure. He outlined a couple of the actions of world dictators whose corrupt tenure had caused tremendous suffering, gratuitous violence, and the loss of thousands of lives. “Do you think that a just God would simply forgive these people without judgement?”, he wrote. “Of course not. A just God is compelled to serve justice on behalf of the victims.” He then concluded with several Scriptures and a sincere hope that I would see how ‘dangerous’ my ideas were.
I heard his frustration. Retribution has made the known world go round. The ‘Just War Theory’, built largely upon Christian philosophy, is an example of our desperate need to justify retaliation. Some wars have been remembered and deemed ‘noble’ because the punishment was ‘needed’ and therefore going to war was thought of as ‘honourable’. We live by the stories we tell ourselves. We also live by the stories we are told – the history and culture that has shaped our way of thinking. Retribution is one of them. If someone has done something wrong, they need to pay for it. We may deny the thought that we embrace the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, but the ardent belief in an eternal hell and a ‘loving’ God that sends our enemies there, begs to differ!
So, I ask myself honestly, why do humans hang on to the idea of hell with such fervency? To say, “Well, the Bible says so,” I find simplistic and hypocritical. The Bible provides all sorts of directives but we pick and choose what we believe based on many things, including our worldview and the stories that accompanied us through life. Nowadays, most people find the idea of slavery abhorrent, but I could argue a fairly strong biblical case that supports slavery. People did it for centuries. No, we choose to cling to the idea of hell, told and retold through myth, philosophers, artists, zealots, and theologians, because hell, in a sense, provides relief from the overwhelming sense of injustice that we often experience in this world.
Retributive justice is an addictive cycle. The story of punishment and vengeance is glorified and trumpeted with loud overtures wherever we turn. No wonder it has made its way into our theology – our way of thinking about the Divine. We want God to be like us – to hate all the same people we do. After all, is God not the avenger of the innocent? One who threatens us with hell in order to change our behaviour? Some theologians speak about ‘the fall’ of humanity, of the ‘total depravity’ of humans, how are ‘hearts are deceitful’. These dogmas are in line with retributive justice: the offender is defined by deficits and therefore ‘worthy of punishment.’ And, just like in retributive justice, the criminal justice system (in this case, God) controls the ultimate punishment of the crime and criminal … Eternal Hell.
When people have been wronged, and for many people the effects of the wrong are so traumatic and dominant that it has made life very difficult, retribution is a glimpse of hope. It offers a vague promise of gaining some relief from the pain they bear every day. If that person also holds to a relentless hell narrative then retribution becomes a lot more significant – it is possibly eternal, not just temporary. So hell does not just serve the ‘ruler’ as a form of behaviour control, it also serves the ‘ruled’ because it holds the assurance of justice that every human being craves.
Perhaps your hackles are raised just reading this? Perhaps you feel very uncomfortable as we poke around a deeply embedded storyline? You may have many questions right now … Or you may feel hope? The thought that perhaps the idea of hell, just like the wizard of Oz, is a tired old concept hiding behind a lot of puff, smoke and zealotry.
So if we choose to believe in ‘hell’, how else can we understand it? Can we free ourselves from the haunting of hell? And what about justice? And what the Bible says? Is there another way forward? I believe there is …
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
-Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi –
“Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness. Look deeply into life, and you’ll always find despair.”
― Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept –
Lately, I find the world increasingly loud and overwhelming. I flinch as I scroll through my various social news feeds: The faces of the destitute that have been stigmatised as ‘evil and unwanted’ by the powerful, the look of terror on the faces of animals subjected to human cruelty, the arrogant political pontification that diminishes people to fear and suspicion, a religious system built on nationalistic dogma disguised as gospel … I find it all exhausting and Despair knocks at my door.
So I turn to this uninvited guest, cloaked in a shroud of grey. I invite Despair to my table of life and ask whether it would like a cup of coffee? But Despair, uncomfortable with gestures of kindness, stays silent. “I will have coffee,” says Hope with its soft, lilting tone, “and toast with peanut butter.” Despair seems to smirk. “What is the use?” it whispers. “We never learn. We never change. History is set to repeat itself over and over again … until this blue planet we call home can no longer sustain our stupidity … and we sink amidst our greed and ignorance.”
The table goes silent. The words of Despair have that sort of effect … except on Hope. Hope seems comically deaf to the words of Despair. “This toast is delicious. I love peanut butter. I think I would like another one. And then I am going to take a walk along the beach and observe the rhythm of the waves …” “What a waste of time,” interrupts Despair, “such a meaningless exercise … staring at polluted waters.” Hope is undaunted. “Yes, I have noticed that there is a lot more rubbish on the shore. Fortunately, people all around the globe have noticed this too. All across our beautiful world people are doing something about this.”
Despair stares at Hope. “How come you are still around? I would have thought by now you would have died amidst the chaos and confusion?” Hope returns Despair’s stare for a very long, uncomfortable time. “What if I told you that I don’t die? I have lived … endlessly … and I have seen it all – the fear, the hatred, the destruction … and I am still here.” For the first time since it took a seat, Despair looks up. “Why?” Hope points to the corner of the table where a guest dressed in glimmer and glitter and rainbow colours is reaching for some jam. “There are other forces at play. Whispers and quiet voices that speak life and love to the universe.” Despair groans. “Speak to the universe? And that will stop the forces bent on carnage?” “Not always,” says Hope, “but sometimes.” Despair and Hope stare at each other.
“And that is why you are needed at this table,” says Hope. Despair, used to being kicked, shunned and medicated, looks at Hope in disbelief. “If you don’t come knocking at the door we eat too much peanut butter with toast and forget that there’s still a lot of rubbish in the ocean.” Despair, unaccustomed to being acknowledged, shifts around on the chair uncomfortably. Eventually, it gets up to leave. “Stay a little longer,” says Hope. “O I will return,” says Despair, “but you have reminded me that beyond the rubbish there is a big, blue ocean to look at … and I think I will do that now … and then I will return and remind you that there’s still a lot of rubbish that needs to be removed.”
The table guests stand as Despair leaves. Hope puts a reserved sign on the empty chair. “This sacred guest will return and we will anticipate its return with a welcome … it will remind us that all of us are needed for the task yet ahead. But for now, I would like another cup of coffee.”
“The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.”
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
-G.K. Chesterton –
If we had to paint a picture of the Christ that many of us celebrate at Christmas, what would our portrait look like? If the sound bytes that accost us on social media tell us anything, we may get the idea that Christ is a bit like a Texan Ranger, ready to destroy the ‘enemy’ because obviously, God is on his side. The luxury hummer he drives would proudly display the number plate ‘blessed-to-be-a-blessing,’ and all his tweets would have #blessed at the end of it. He would healthy, wealthy and covered in gold dust, as according to the gospel of some, this is the way we are meant to live. Welcome to the idea of Christ, painted by a dominant, privileged consumer culture.
The history and backdrop that informs modern Christianity are complex. Over the centuries every generation has wrestled with what it means to follow in the steps of this Jewish rabbi, and every generation had authoritative voices claim they have found the way to absolute ‘truth’. Maybe we lost so much of Christ in the Constantine era? Or in the many ‘holy’ wars fought with great gusto amongst the factional faithful? Or by preferencing the voice of Augustine? Or the Reformers? Or the fiery depictions of Dante’s interpretation of hell? Today, the misplacing of the Messiah is often evidenced by everything that popular Christianity is against, and fear seems to be the flag flown high from the castles of so many of Christ’s representatives. So perhaps our true depiction of Christ should be this diminutive little person, hiding behind a giant wall in case ‘others’ invade and pollute the tightly held ideas of morality and godliness? Maybe this shrunken little figure sounds more like the shrieking seagulls of ‘Finding Nemo’ – ‘Mine, Mine, Mine, MINE!’
Perhaps if we stop all the noise, engage in some critical deconstruction of current Christian discourse, and spend time reflecting, we come to a sobering recognition – we have ‘sanitised’ Christ into our liking and our image. This safe, disfigured Icon seems to join us in hating all the people we despise, justifying all our violence, agreeing with all our exclusions, shaming all those we shame … we have made Christ and Christmas into us – like a Christmas bauble that has our face on it. No wonder we lose our shit when people don’t want to say “Merry Christmas,” ultimately their resistance to our precious ideas confronts in us a form of deity-narcissism, carefully disguised in persecution and conspiracy theories.
The figure of Christ that walks through the pages of the Gospels seems very unperturbed about whether people are putting the right messages on cards and coffee cups! That doesn’t seem to rile this Incarnate One. Instead, he seems to get a lot more exasperated at, well, at the sectarian shenanigans that really have not evolved over the centuries. Things like religious institutions that have become money-peddling spaces of greed (John 2:13-17), pious power puffs who have become so inflated with a zealotry messiah-complex that they shut the doors of the kingdom to anyone who is not like them (Matthew 23:13), and the continual microscopic dogma examination whilst neglecting the weightier things of God – like love, mercy and justice (Matthew 23:23). I don’t think this Christ person was about making any of our enshrined political-religious traditions great again. He seems far more focused on describing a different way to his followers … where the last shall be first, where devotion is not bound up in what we think about hell or heaven, or whether we ‘sense’ God and have goosebumps – but whether we are feeding the hungry, providing for the destitute, welcoming the stranger, identifying with those on the margins, making the world a safer place for minority groups … When I read the gospels it seems this Christ of Christmas has a message for us all and it’s relatively simple: Don’t be an asshole! This cardinal contemplative notion seems to underscore the words we have of Christ that are in print today.
So, dear readers, as Christmas approaches may it be filled with joy and a good dose of uncomfortable reality. As I write this, I feel uncomfortable for I recognise that I am part and parcel of this dominant consumer culture, rejecting it and then falling right back into its traps! I question my pictures of Christ. What have we done to this child in a manger that could find no human shelter, but was welcomed into a shack by God’s fur children? This child that would grow and challenge the powers of his day that oppressed the poor, the homeless, the refugee? The child that would turn his back on kings and kneel in the dirt with the woman who had become the target of patriarchal, misogynistic scape-goating? The child who would be murdered, not because some wrathful ‘god’ needed a sacrifice, but to demonstrate precisely how radical love really is. We seem to have lost so much of this Christ child in the mayhem of our political-religious pontification. I pray this Christmas we consider resurrecting him … because the message he holds makes this season truly ‘jolly’.
What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humility – Micah –
“As a survivor of the gay conversion movement, it feels amazing to know that our experiences are being heard nationally and that there is finally research that confirms the prevalence and damage of the gay conversion movement in Australia… The messaging of the movement that told me that I was “broken” has caused long-term damage to me” – Chris Csabs, survivor.
This article is written by Nathan Despott.
As a gay person raised in a Catholic home, but who spent his late teens and 20s in Melbourne’s evangelical community, the image of a large church with arms open to welcome LGBTIQA+ people is familiar but foreboding. Most of my experience in the ex-gay or “conversion” movement was through long-term involvement in loving and warm local Christian communities that, rather than condemn my sexuality, lovingly intimated that I was “broken”. My ten-year quest for healing was all-consuming and overwhelming.
Since leaving the movement in 2010, it has been morbidly fascinating to watch most formal ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion programs shut their doors, often replaced by celibacy movements and a new wave of churches that call themselves “welcoming but not affirming”.
“Welcoming”, a paradoxical halfway between “condemning” and “affirming”, is the point whereby a church shifts from viewing LGBTIQA+ people as utterly intolerable, instead viewing them as “broken” and in need of gracious support. LGBTIQA+ members often experience close fellowship here, but cannot usually hold positions of leadership or, in some cases, work with young people and children. Researcher Mark Jennings found that most of the Pentecostal/charismatic religious leaders he spoke to held a “welcoming” position.
The recent Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice report (Human Rights Law Centre/La Trobe University, Melbourne) indicates that “while the ‘welcoming but not affirming’ posture appears less hostile than overt opposition to LGBT rights, when its ‘not affirming’ aspects are withheld or disguised… it can be deeply harmful.”
“Welcoming” churches and the conversion movement share a view of sexual orientation and gender as being distinct from their expression (or “practice”). However, this distinction is relatively recent. It is certainly anachronistic to read scripture in this light. The word “homosexual” did not appear in bible translations until the mid-20th century. Modern “homosexuality” was demarcated by early psychoanalysts in late 19th century Europe, viewed as simultaneously intriguing and problematic for roughly a hundred years, then removed from the DSM in 1973.
The Preventing Harm report traces the development of the conversion movement and its ideology of “brokenness” from this point to the present day, where it has become virtually the mainstream lens through which evangelical communities – whether focused on orientation change or celibacy – engage LGBTIQA+ people.
The SOCE Survivor Statement, released by an Australian coalition of affirming organisations in September, outlined the core pseudo-scientific tenets of the ex-gay/ex-trans/conversion movement. While prime minister Scott Morrison responded by declaring that “conversion therapy is not an issue for me”, so central to the faith of a small number of “purity” groups (read: celibacy for queer people) was the “brokenness” ideology that they saw the Statement as an attack on their religious freedom.
Preventing Harm and the SOCE Survivor Statement present the conversion movement not merely as a type of therapy but as a broad movement that invests significant resources and energy in transmitting an ideology of “brokenness” through myriad channels and activities. Both reports recommend legislative interventions, tighter educational controls, regulatory measures for practice, improved media and broadcast standards, and support for survivors.
“Affirming” is distinct from welcoming. Responding to pastors who considered their churches to be “affirming” following a shift from condemnation to support, survivor support and advocacy group Brave Network Melbourne developed a model statement of affirmation. Could pastors and their leadership teams (and their online communications) readily state “We believe LGBTIQA+ people are a loved and essential part of God’s intended human diversity”? Many could not.
Do not misunderstand me. For some of these churches, their forward movement is honourable. Theologically and personally, their journey has been significant – particularly if their welcoming stance has led to rejection from conservative brethren. However, for LGBTIQA+ people of faith, the safety line lies between “welcoming” and “affirming”. While welcoming churches may have opened their arms to LGBTIQA+ people or even actively shunned the conversion movement in favour of celibacy, only affirming churches have completely rejected the “brokenness” ideology and made the theological and pastoral shift to full equality – and therefore safety – for LGBTIQA+ people.
Cherished LGBTIQA+ allies such as leading evangelical ethicist Dr David Gushee, evangelical sociologist Dr Tony Campolo, mega-church leader Nicole Conner , and out-and-proud Christian pin-up Vicky Beeching have all paid a high price for their affirming stance.
Brave Network and similar organisations have openly called on churches to explicitly declare their theological stance regarding LGBTIQA+ people rather than engaging in ambiguities such as “welcoming but not affirming”, which is widely seen as code for “you’re broken but we still love you”. This would prevent people of faith spending years ensconced in communities that slowly erode their mental health. This is because, as LGBT Christian blogger Kevin Garcia states, “welcoming but not affirming is not welcoming at all”.
To learn more about LGBTIQA+ affirmation and the church, check out Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by celebrated ally Kathy Baldock, Changing our Mind by Dr David Gushee, and Undivided by Vicky Beeching. If you are in need of safe affirming organisations, check out One Body One Faith, Affirm or Two:23 in the UK, Equal Voices or Brave Network in Australia, Q Christian Fellowship or the Reformation Project in the US.
There is a growing number of affirming churches – from progressive to evangelical and every denomination in between – across the world. LGBTIQA+ Christians visiting an “affirming” community for the first time can use a statement like the Brave Network statement of affirmation above as a litmus test.
(Nathan Despott is a co-leader of Brave Network Melbourne and works as a research and development manager in the intellectual disability sector in Australia. He thanks Australian LGBTIQA+ advocates and allies Chris Csabs, Nicole Conner and Michelle Eastwood for their contributions to this piece.)
“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark
I have a memory of my dear father tidying my room when I was little. We were living in a small village in northern Germany at that time. I had just started school and I remember coming home to a terrifyingly immaculate room – dad was on a mission as we were preparing to move to South Africa. Instead of expressing gratitude, I noticed something immediately. Flicka was missing! Flicka was an old tattered blue corduroy horse that had gathered dust on one of my shelves.
I turned to dad accusingly, “Where is Flicka?”
“Who is Flicka?”
“My blue horse!”
“O darling, I am so sorry, that thing looked very, very sick and I threw it out.”
“You THREW OUT Flicka?!”
Tears … Trauma … Tantrums
The end of the world had come!
I recovered fairly quickly at the mention of ice cream.
It was time to leave an old toy behind.
Sometimes we leave things behind by calculated choice. Often we simply have to leave things behind because they no longer fit our present reality and life. Some find that strange. I have been accused of changing my theology in some random, fruitless social media stoush. It seems that a change of thought, ideas, or, theology, is a forbidden practice. As a woman who can vote, and someone who witnessed the atrocities under an apartheid regime, I am so grateful for the changes of thought, ideas and theology. May there be many more that benefit our earth and progress us toward kindness and compassion.
One of the many things I have left behind in this second half of life is the need to control God. I ‘found’ God in my teen years and it didn’t take me long before I had God all figured out. I had studied theology. I understood how God is orthodox in dogma and conservative in ideas and politics. Of course, God followed my interpretation of the Bible. Was there another interpretation? Alas, heretics! We won’t even begin to talk about other religions or non-religions. I was a zealous crusader with a mindset to ‘save the world’. And then, one by one, my neatly stacked Jenga blocks began to topple. I recall a vivid moment in the late 90s … it was an Aha moment: my idea of the Divine with all the trimmings, was a mirror of my life, my culture, my history, my religious ideas fashioned in a crucible of social norms and morality – in many ways I had successfully created God in my own image. That providential moment became a splinter in my soul – it began to push me out of my tightly held comfort zone.
Years have come and gone since then. Mercy, like the character V in ‘V for Vendetta‘, took my fearful heart (that I had mistakingly called faith) and led me to the edge of an endless, roaring sea, immeasurable in width and depth. I began to realise how futile my attempts to place God in the box of religious conformity really were. And the sheer arrogance that accompanied such endeavours. So just like Flicka, it was time to leave the God of my making behind.
Now, I know there are people who will read this and react with anger. You know how I know that? Because I was that reader once. I still hear my own voice of outrage – “there are rules, there are boundaries, it’s not a wishy-washy gospel”. I agree. To live in love is fierce living – the path of love demands our all.
I look back now at my first half of life and I am beginning to smile at my attempts to build a totem pole of all the things I thought needed to be in place in order to follow Divine Love. Like an overstuffed shish kebab, I had ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ for everything and everyone. And now I sail the seas of liminality and paradox and feel the wind of mystery on my face. It was time to leave the God of my fearful ideas and interpretations (and that of my modern culture) behind.
I don’t assume to know where you are on your journey, dear reader. You alone are the narrator of your life and the meaning and stories your draw from it. Perhaps you have a faith, perhaps you don’t, perhaps this blog post has brought you comfort, perhaps it has infuriated you? I will not attempt to calm those raging seas. Experience tells me that this is unproductive. Grace is sufficient for all our different lives.
Wherever you are … you are held in love … and that is all that matters.
“For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don’t correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.”
Meredith Jordan, Embracing the Mystery