Last Friday, Brandon Bitner was the latest in a still-growing list of teenagers who have committed suicide for reasons related to sexuality. A few weeks ago, another young gay man from New York City, Joseph Jefferson, hung himself. Joseph, who graduated from Harvey Milk High and worked at Gay Men of African Descent on HIV prevention, left a final Facebook message before he took his life:
“I could not bear the burden of living as a gay man of color in a world grown cold and hateful towards those of us who live and love differently than the so-called ‘social mainstream.’ Belonging is one of the basic human needs, when people feel isolated and excluded from a sense of communion with others, they suffer… Most will do anything to belong.”
Cody Sanders has wisely pointed out in these pages that our churches have contributed to this crisis not only overtly—through condemnation of homosexuality from the pulpit or anti-gay protests—but also implicitly. In our silence.
Sanders points out in theological language exactly what Jefferson names here: lying at the heart of the problem for LGBTQ adolescents is a desire to belong. Queer teenagers are not finding that space; and they are certainly not finding it in the church. In fact, a Public Religion Research Institute survey last month reported that two out of three Americans believe that gay people commit suicide at least partly because of messages coming out of churches and other places of worship.
How is it that a community that claims to possess truth and love ends up perpetuating these problems?
Looking Below the Surface
In a recent reflection, J. Kameron Carter, of the Divinity School at Duke University talks about Julia Scheere’s Jesus Land, a searing account of a childhood marked by racism in the name of Christianity. In his analysis, Carter names what he calls a “profound pathology” at the heart of contemporary Christianity, in which Jesus names who belongs, and who does not—in effect “policing” the borders of the faith.
I would argue that this “border logic” that shapes racial-religious discourse (think of the Muslim cultural center in New York, the immigration debate in Arizona, etc.) is the same problematic theo-logic behind the borders that define public discourse on sexuality and religion.
Christianity has come to operate through a particular policing of borders—a logic of who is in and who is out—and a logic that led radical philosopher Frantz Fanon to assert, famously:
“This is why we should place DDT, which destroys parasites, carriers of disease, on the same level as Christianity, which roots out heresy, natural impulses, and evil.”
What might this mean for those of us who call ourselves Christians? First and foremost, we need to take these claims seriously—there is a reason that over half of America believes that churches are at least some way responsible for LGBTQ teen suicides.
I used to have a button that simply said, “Silence is the Voice of Complicity.” While we could just name this as a deformed version of Christianity that others are participating in, that we are somehow outside of or immune to, what would this accomplish? Silence toward the way Christianity has operated oppressively seems not only ineffective but also irresponsible. For the church to reconcile ourselves with the LGBT community, we need to contend with the way our past and prevailing theo-logic has operated as an oppressive force.
So why not just jump ship? To disavow Christianity because of its problematic operations strikes me as performing the same complicit move—to attempt and/or pretend that I am not caught up in the problem.
To transform this theology, I believe that many of us who make up Christianity need to understand our own outsider existence, and, in light of this, shift from patrolling borders to crossing them freely.
We Were on the Outside Once
To approach this from the inside, turning to Christian theology, consider the whole business that happens in the Book of Acts—the pouring out of the Spirit onto the Gentiles. Theologian Eugene Rogers points to this scriptural instance of inclusion as an argument for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church.
Might it be, he asks, that the fruits of the spirit evidenced in queer people and relationships are analogous to the pouring out of the Spirit on the Gentiles?
In Romans 11, Paul warns those who have been grafted in to God’s covenantal relationship with Israel not to be arrogant. Note the kindness and severity of God, he admonishes in verse 22. The kindness of God to us depends on our kindness to others. Otherwise, Paul tells us, we will be cut off.
So what might this mean for how we are to understand Christianity, borders, and belonging today?
Border Policing or Border Crossing?
Christianity has often articulated itself through a discourse of purity. Holiness, being “set apart” as the people of God, is a prominent theme—from kosher practices dictated in Levitical law, to Paul’s admonition to Christians to present their bodies as holy and living sacrifices, from the Genevan Calvinists to the German Pietists, from the closed communion table of the Catholic church to the admonition against alcohol in the Nazarene church.
A desire for distinctiveness abounds in the Christian tradition. Perhaps, however, what is at the heart of Christian election is not a rigid purity but rather an abounding openness—an understanding of God’s grace towards that which is not God (us). “The doctrine of election,” Rogers tells us, “is the sum of the Gospel precisely if it teaches us this: that the God of Israel is for the Gentile, too, the One who loves in freedom.”
Belonging is at the heart of the doctrine.
Contemporary theological engagement with postcolonial theory has revealed to us that the borders of our identities—racial and gendered as well as religious, individual as well as communal—are more porous than pure. This leads Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner, and Mayra Rivera, in the introduction to their edited volume, Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire, to make the claim that “a theology that decolonizes the between-spaces of our interdependence will shift its task from boundary-protection to border-crossings.”
The belonging called for in election, in recognition of the hybridity (to use a postcolonial term) of our individual and communal identities, demands such a shift. What I have hoped to offer here is simply one angle through which to both interrogate the operations undergirding oppressive Christian responses to LGBTQ people, especially in light of the recent suicides, and to offer spaces of possibility for a constructive response.
Joseph Jefferson named what is likely behind many of the troubling stories of suicide (teen or adult, gay or straight)—an unmet desire for belonging. Unfortunately, what Joseph identified so clearly is also what caused him to end his own life. Even more unfortunate is that this unmet desire was exacerbated by the policing operations of Christianity. Christians need to contend with this reality so that we can imagine different possibilities—possibilities that lead to life rather than to death.