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Sucker Punched

Daniel Williams

“Jesus Christ can set you free from the sin of homosexuality.”

My sophomore year of college, I came home one day to find a long email with that assertion from a former classmate of mine. Later I learned that he had also sent messages to and even traveled to visit others in our college worshiping community. He urged them to condemn the pro-LGBTQ organizing I and others were doing on our campus and chastised them for allowing me to persist in my evil ways while worshiping alongside me.

I felt like I had been punched in the gut.

I’m all too familiar with that punched-in-the-gut feeling. I suspect that most of my lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer siblings are, too. We’ve encountered it in class and while watching the news. We’ve confronted it in micro-aggressions as we browse Facebook and in not-so-micro-aggressions as we walk down the street. (Indeed, let us never forget that far too many of us have not only suffered the punch emotionally, but have also suffered it physically as real violence to our persons as we walk down the street, go on a date, or even as we seek shelter.) We’ve gritted our teeth through it during job interviews and family dinners. And we’ve fought back the tears it brings when it surfaces during a sermon on Sunday morning or during debate on the floor of the General Assembly.

I’m tired of feeling punched in the gut.

And that’s what makes this whole business of being the church such a trick.  As Rev. Sally Wright points out, there is something holy about the conversations to which we are invited with those with whom we disagree. But the problem is that too often we seem to have trouble finding that holy something. It’s hidden beneath layers upon layers of systemic heterosexist and cissexist power differentials. Like the culture in which it is situated, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) implicitly (and until recently, very explicitly) confers much greater access to power to straight cisgender people than to LGBTQ people, a fact articulated recently by Rev. Rodger McDaniel.

None of us approach conversations about the Church’s posture toward God’s LGBTQ children on equal footing. For LGBTQ people, it often feels as though a sword hangs precariously over our heads as we go about discussing ordination or marriage or justice or hospitality. If the sword falls, we might risk our ordinations or our jobs. We might lose a friend with whom we’ve been attending church for years. We might see LGBTQ people blamed again for a loss of congregations, members, and money in our denomination. We might get punched in the gut.

This imbalance of power is a scandal to the Gospel. It attempts to undermine the unity that God has given to the church in Jesus Christ, the same God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. The imbalance of power that we face is an impediment to true conversation.

My former classmate and I exchanged a few more messages, but it didn’t go on for very long. Each message I sent or received left me a wreck. The fears and anxieties I had confronted in order to come out returned, more insidious than ever. I felt powerless and alone. Whatever potential for holiness that conversation held had been obscured and distorted. I ended the conversation. It was the right choice.

When congregations and individuals leave the PC(USA), we risk losing them as conversation partners. We risk missing out on our shared opportunity to uncover that holy something about the conversations we might have with them.

But when they stay, and if we covenant to stay in loving, open conversation with them, everyone has to really mean it. Loving, open conversation is not possible when one party constantly fears getting punched in the gut.

True conversation, holy conversation, does not exist when the privileged party uncritically accepts the advantages they’ve been given. Our call is not simply to conversation, but to joyfully strive to create conversations in which we are all honored fully as children of God – and that is holy.

What experiences have you had working toward creating just and equitable conversations? Share them in the comments!

Daniel Williams serves on the MLP Editorial Board and has been organizing in his communities since he was a high school student in Albuquerque, NM. His organizing experience includes work on student mobilization, worker justice, LGBTQ inclusion, reproductive justice, and numerous electoral campaigns. When he’s not plotting the overthrow of oppressive systems (and very often when he is), he is pursuing his studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

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  1. Ken Cuthbertson #

    Yes, my dear friend, Daniel. Yes. Wisdom and truth, both, are spoken in this. Thank you.

    March 4, 2014
  2. Thank you for this post. I think a lot of reconciling Christian organizations focus on encouraging these “holy conversations” to the extent that putting up with being punched in the gut feels mandatory. This only serves to further beat down those who are, often, thoroughly beaten down already.

    Even in a space like the young adult group at my church, which is full of people who I care about and who care about me, conversations worrying what will happen to the Church if people like me (as a bisexual woman) are treated as fully worthy of God’s love get really old and really painful after a while. Once, I planned a discussion of the subject with a friend of mine from the group who is undecided on the issue; he was gracious and kind and told me he appreciated the chance to talk about it, and I still wound up feeling beaten down–not by him, but by having to have the conversation in the first place. The conversation costs more of me than it does of him. Like Daniel says, we can’t approach it on equal footing, and I question the pressure on the oppressed to consistently start these conversations, again and again, until the privileged come around one by one.

    March 5, 2014
  3. Wayne Mell #

    Dear Daniel,

    As a member of the Presbytery of Santa Fe and former member of its CPM, I thank you for your deeply moving and honest testimony. God bless you.

    March 5, 2014
  4. Madeleine Mysko #

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I keep thinking about “the imbalance of power” as a “scandal to the gospel.” It seems to me that it’s easy to establish ground rules about mutual respect, etc. The hard part is making ourselves aware of our own blind spots. I have seen (in my own conversations with friends who are Christian) that one “side” cannot help but project their sense that they are “right,” that God is on their side, and therefore there can be no safe, common ground. I like your choice of the word “honor.” I am thinking more now about what that means.

    March 5, 2014
  5. Barbara Ellis #

    We are taught in the bible with Jesus words to ‘ Sufffer the little children’ . He does not talk about orientation but everyone. We are all his children so we as church people should be loving the and excepting everyone into our congregations.

    March 6, 2014
  6. Kathy Westerfield #

    Daniel, what a marvelous and compelling piece of writing! Your courage and compassion for this holy work, which has always been there, became even more and more evident as I continued to read. You write so meaningfully about the conversations that must happen, but can only happen when all participants are loving and open to one another. That’s the key – understanding and accepting, as children of God, we are all worthy of that connection of love and belonging. Establishing that holy connection is truly worthy work and so many of us back in Albuquerque and beyond thank you for that. Daniel, please, continue to stand your sacred ground! We are all praying for you.

    March 11, 2014
  7. Paul Debenport #

    As you know, Daniel, I, too, am a member of Santa Fe Presbytery, its COM, and a former member of its CPM. Thank you for “speaking the truth in love.” Thank you for being you!

    March 12, 2014

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