Sunday, August 07, 2011

Identity, Pride, Justice and the Church

Two events happened last weekend, and as I have been reflecting on them, I've had thoughts.  And when I have thoughts, as you know, I tend to write them here.

Event 1: Vancouver Pride Week.  This is a time when Vancouver celebrates gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people.  Some of the events are over-sexualized, but in its best moments, Pride Week shows a marginalized group reclaiming pride in a deep and often denigrated part of their identity. 

Event 2: the Wiconi Family Camp and Pow Wow just south of Salem, Oregon.  This is where I went last weekend with 16 people from my church.  Richard Twiss (whom I quoted in my recent post about Aboriginal day) and his colleagues at Wiconi are all about removing barriers and building bridges to help First Nations people find abundance and life in God.  They affirm, respect and embrace First Nations culture as God-given.  They have been running this yearly family camp and pow wow for six years.

It was a great time of bonding for us as a church family, and also brought a lot of "firsts" for me:  first time drumming around a group drum at a pow wow; first time trying out my fancy dance moves in some intertribal pow wow songs; first time doing a sweat in a sweat lodge.  I also got to meet a lot of First Nations people and hear their stories.  Richard introduced the weekend by telling us that we're all two-legged stories, and that we should try to be good readers.  There were common veins running through the "stories" I "read": Native people finding God; being told by Christian leaders that in order to be true Christians they had to leave their culture behind; and experiencing shame and disorientation.  One woman from LA came to the camp for the first time, with her daughter.  She had recently been told by people in her church that her daughter should stop learning First Nations dances.  After a time of wrestling and confusion, on a whim, she googled "Christian pow wow" and found the Wiconi website.  She arrived at family camp after 24 hours of driving (lots of construction and traffic), still confused and unsure of what to think about her culture and her faith, and how to raise her little girl.

As I listened to more and more stories like hers, I couldn't help thinking of Pride week in Vancouver, and the very similar experiences of GLBT people in the church.  Both Native and GLBT Christians know the depth of pain in having fellow Christians suggest or imply that they should be ashamed of a fundamental part of who they are.

I know that some people will take issue with me comparing someone's race to someone's sexual orientation, in terms of how "essential" they are to identity, or how "changeable" they are.  One's race is obviously very essential to one's identity, and impossible to alter.  But I believe one's sexuality, though perhaps not equal to one's race in these respects, is at least comparable.  While sexuality is complex, depending on many genetic and developmental factors, I feel I can safely say that we don't usually choose our sexual orientation, and we can't usually change it.  Our sexuality is about more than just who we want to have sex with; sexuality interacts deeply with many parts of who we are, like our creativity, our friendships, our ways of expressing ourselves and relating to the world.  And from the evidence I've seen, efforts to change a same-sex orientation into a heterosexual one have rarely been successful, though those who are highly motivated can learn to live celibately or in mixed-orientation marriages.  For the many who have been forced (or who forced themselves) through these programs, the only thing that has changed is an ever-deepening sense of shame, similar to the shame felt by Native children in residential schools as well-meaning Christians tried in vain to change them into white children.  

At one point in my weekend, a Hopi woman at the camp cried out to God: "God, the people in Your church tell us that You created us in Your image, yet they can't love us for who we are."  Hearing her pain made me more convinced than ever that it is unjust and cruel for the church to make any group of people feel like they're disqualified from having been made in the image of God, or from experiencing the love and welcome of God.  It is cruel to suggest to these people that the only way to qualify as image-bearers or people worthy of God's love is to deny, hide, or alter a deep, undeniable and unchangeable part of their personhood.  Even the much more subtle "Don't ask, Don't tell" attitude in the church around sexuality is cruel, because it is another way of forcing people into hiding.  Jesus modelled a different way.  Jesus seemed almost magnetically drawn to the people the religious leaders threw out, those who carried the most shame, and he loved them until the shame slid right off of them and they remembered who they were again.

I know it's not easy.  There are theological issues we will have to work through.  There are the challenges of culture: figuring out what is syncretistic and idolatrous, and what is good and useful for worship.  There are the challenges of sexuality: figuring out what is impure and selfish, and what is beautiful and self-giving.  In the introduction to Richard Twiss' book, John Dawson, a white friend of Richard's, wrote this: "Far be it from me to comment on the complex cultures I see all around me.  It is up to indigenous believers themselves to separate the precious from the worthless in their cultures.  They know the Bible well and they know their cultures well."  I witnessed this thoughtful, prayerful discernment happening around me at the Wiconi gathering.  I'd like to see us say the same thing to GLBT Christians - to admit that same-sex-attracted Christians are the most qualified people to discern what in their sexuality is sinful, and what God delights in.  This is difficult work, and they will need the church's love, support and trust as they discern together.  They may choose to ask the rest of the church for help, but the work needs to begin and end with them, and so far, this has not often been the case.

At the Wiconi camp, I saw many signs of hope.  I saw First Nations people who had discovered God's delight in their cultural expressions, who were released to worship Him out of the fullness of their identity.  I saw strong people who had moved through suffering to a place of forgiving and blessing the very Christians who had hurt them.  I saw elders surround the woman from LA and her daughter at the pow wow, welcoming them into their family, honouring them with a special drum song, sending the little girl dancing joyfully ahead of them, in full regalia.  I saw the re-integration of these people's essential identity, their belovedness as children of God, with all the other God-given aspects of their personhood.  It brought tears to my eyes to see people move through depths of pain to depths of joy.

I believe that the way we treat First Nations and GLBT people are among the biggest justice issues in the Canadian church today.  As Christians, we must own our shameful involvement in residential schools, the suppression and near-obliteration of culture, and promotion of anti-gay sentiments, and we must begin to seek God's forgiveness and the forgiveness of these people.  Until we learn to radically welcome and support one another as Jesus did, vulnerable people will continue to live under burdens of shame and hate, and the church will be deeply impoverished for lack of their gifts and unique expressions of worship.  My prayer is that God will bring us back into the fullness of our identity as His beautifully diverse Bride.