What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
These are the words and wisdom of the writer of Ecclesiastes in what many Christians call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. The writer succinctly names our human dilemma -- that we will repeat our unfortunate mistakes again and again.
This month we are celebrating Black History in the United States and more than 150 years after the abolishment of slavery, we still struggle with the harsh deficit of our shameful history as enslavers.
In a country that professes democracy as a core value, we stumble every day over our stigmatizing choices within our schools and churches and government and homes -- the choice to label our neighbors and citizens as The Other. And, once labeled, we believe we can discriminate and exclude and limit the opportunities for those individuals to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, I am particularly grateful for people of color in our world who recognize and work to stop stigma and its destructive force in our lives. They have done more to help us get over our hatred and separation than the rest of us who enjoy white privilege will ever do.
It is a good thing to honor people of color in our history and our present who have increased our consciousness and catalyzed change and I want to share the story of one of my heroes, a young heterosexual, married person of color, dad and pastor from Nigeria, Sammy Adebiyi. I intentionally included just a few of the labels that our society and culture would attach to him to help the reader "sort" out assumptions about where Pastor Adebiyi might stand on certain issues. But then, we don't really know unless he tells us, do we? And he did tell us.
He wrote a blog in Prodigal Magazine entitled The Gay Community and That One Time Jesus Called Me the N-word. A disclaimer about the possibility for the reader to be offended by the use of the N-word was included.
Pastor Adebiyi tells the story of his transformation from a person who wanted to force gay people to hear his theological position on their lives (i.e., sinful) to a person who wanted gay people to know how much God and Pastor Adebiyi loves them. While he appears to hold to a love the sinner, hate the sin premise (with which I disagree), he has abandoned what I consider to be a much more harmful position and, for this, I am grateful. We change by degrees through dialogue and relationship. Perhaps Pastor Adebiyi and I will both be changed by one another given the opportunity.
He talks about how he learned to love someone whose actions and behaviors he finds unacceptable. How he loves someone he believes is living in sin. He quotes C.S. Lewis:
There is someone whom I love even though I don't approve of what he does. There is someone I accept though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me. There is someone I forgive though he hurts the people I love most. That person is .... me.
I am a practitioner of non-violence as modeled by Mahatma Gandhi. Like Lewis, he taught that we must be transformed ourselves before we can transform others.
When we grasp the impact of stigma on ourselves, we begin to grasp the impact on others. And once we recognize which tools we handily use to "prop up" our stigmatizing beliefs and behaviors (most frequently our "catch as catch can" interpretation of our Holy Books) -- only then do we begin the process of deconstructing whether our choices are good or bad for ourselves and others.
Pastor Adebiyi and I are both on an unpaved road of reconciliation of what the world sees as black and white. This road will not be smooth. But, I am confident he will bless others with his open heart.
I would like to invite him on the next Soulforce Equality Ride when we visit colleges and universities throughout the United States that define themselves as distinctively Christian and where policies and practices prohibit LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) students from fully expressing their sexual and gender identities, for fear of disciplinary action and expulsion.
I think he could really help us with our work if he is so inclined, so I am sending Pastor Adebiyi a link to Allison J. Althoff's article in this month's Christianity Today, a popular magazine of evangelical thought: Hope for the Gay Undergrad.
The article featured an interview with a closeted graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois who revealed his "struggles...with same-sex attraction to a discipleship group" when he was a student. Although the article states he was not ostracized, he was "prayed over" that he would resist his attractions. Can you imagine how that feels to have your friends and faculty try and "pray the gay out of you?"
The article also tells the story of Brent Persun, a Cedarville University alumnus, who survived "ex-gay therapy" as a teen and young adult, and eventually came out thanks to the help of an LGBT alumni association, CedarvilleOut.
The article recounts public forums on sexuality at Calvin College, an unrecognized student organization at Seattle Pacific University for "students struggling with same-sex attraction," Biola Queer Underground, made up of students attempting to change discriminatory policies at Biola University.
All of these schools have been visited by our Soulforce Equality Ride, our flagship initiative to connect and engage in dialogue with (usually religious) colleges and universities that have discriminatory policies or campus environments for their LGBT students. Since the first Equality Ride in 2006, we have been encouraged by the hundreds of discussions, workshops, and panels we have shared with students, professors, and administrators at these schools in the hope that one day, no student will have to choose between an honest expression of their sexual orientation or gender identity and a quality education at the school of their choosing.
There are real consequences when schools have policies of discrimination against LGBT students. The article itself outlines some of them:
Some students with same-sex attractions align with pro-gay student and alumni organizations. Others have left the faith altogether. In a few extreme cases, students have taken their own lives. All in all, dealing with same-sex attractions is a lonely road for many Christian students, and Christian colleges are trying to become places where these students don't have to struggle alone.
- Leaving the faith -- cutting one's self off from God and religious community because of mistaken notions of the biblical interpretation and Christian sexual ethics.
- Suicide -- obviously the worst possible outcome, and all-too-common for queer youth who don't receive proper care and support as they come out.
- Loneliness -- detachment from one's peers, fear of hell and condemnation, hurt and pain around feelings of attraction that should be celebrated, all taking place during the college years, a time in a young adult's life that should be a period of self-discovery and intellectual and social exploration.
Pastor Adebiyi talks about the moment of transformation in his life when he realized that his preaching and his way of being with gay people could encourage these same tragic and unnecessary consequences. This gives me hope.
If a heterosexually identified Christian clergy man of color from Nigeria can change his mind about the way God expects him to treat gay people, then the rest of us may be able to do so as well. Perhaps, there is, after all, something new under the sun.
Maybe that is why those of us who identify as Christian aren't directed to lead our lives out of the teachings of the Old Testament where an eye for an eye was permitted. Perhaps that is why we are directed to lead our lives by the example of Jesus Christ, the One who used the last moments of his life to extend grace and a home in Paradise to a thief.