The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.
This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.
So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.
I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.
So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.
1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.
2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.
3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.
4. Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.
5. Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.
6. Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.
7. Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.
8. Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.
9. Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in church ministry.
A few months after my friend was murdered by terrorists in a Kenyan shopping mall, I was watching TV. It was Homeland, the thriller series where the lines between good and bad are blurred and the plot is only marginally unbelievable. There came a moment in the episode I found myself relaxing with that one evening where a character has a lead on a likely opportunity to kill a terrorist who was in the early stages of planning an atrocity. He pulls up alongside the terrorist’s car on his motorbike, ready to bomb the vehicle the terrorist rides in. As he does so, he becomes aware of a problem, someone in the terrorist’s car who is not supposed to be there. A child. He rides alongside the car for a while, caught in a terrible moment of indecision. Eventually he rides away, the opportunity untaken, conscience only temporarily salved.
Pre-Westgate, I would have been where most viewers would have been in that sequence – feeling the anguish, aware of the wrestle with conscience, willing him not to kill the child. But this was a new reality I was now in, one where for one week the headlines had been about my friend. There was no conscious mental process. Just this strong, distasteful feeling: take the shot. Risk the child’s life for the sake of those who will be killed. Kill the bastard. I was angry – at the terrorists for what they had done and the way it had changed me, at myself for stooping to their level, at the world for being so unredeemed. I remembered how I had felt, what I said in the aftermath of my friend’s murder: just give a few minutes alone with one of the perpetrators tied to a chair. It won’t take long.
My anger’s intensity has relented in the months since, but the wrestles of conscience don’t go away. The cinema release of Eye In The Sky presented me with an opportunity to see how, or if, I’ve changed. It tells the story of the hunt for members of Al-Shabaab (the group that murdered my friend). They are tracked by drone to a single house – the order to capture them is about to be given when it becomes apparent that they are preparing suicide vests for an imminent attack. The priority moves from capture to kill; the order to release the missile that will save innocent lives is on the brink of completion when a child sets up to sell bread outside the house in question. She will likely be killed if the missile is fired. The rest of the film is the moral, military and political dilemmas being wrestled with, passed up chains of command inside darkened rooms around the globe, all the while the clock ticking down to massive civilian loss of life. Actually, that depersonalises it. Yes, the clock was ticking – to the murder of my friend, all over again.
The film articulates most of the related dilemmas with which I have wrestled since my friend’s death. It justice to most of them, if not ever really articulating as it needs to the political complexities involved. It is a failing – though not a significant one – that we never really grasp the geopolitical backdrop that brings countries to these awful choices. It’s economically directed, the lack of violence ratcheting up the tension to levels where you long for some sort of release. The performances are fine – this an ensemble piece, rather than a star vehicle. Helen Mirren does fairly well despite being miscast; I’d like to have seen more of the brilliant Aaron Paul as the soldier with his finger on the button, Barkhad Abdi is consummate, and every line Alan Rickman delivers makes us ache that at what we’ve lost with his death.
The film offers no answers, no conclusions. Every option is flawed, every character compromised, every view has a valid alternative. The film asks all the questions I have … and leaves them hanging in a Kenyan dustbowl, strewn with rubble and human remains. As a leader I empathise with the personal cost of taking decisions most have no understanding of; thanks to some nameless men and women with guns I now have skin in terrorism game, complicating to previously unimagined levels a decision I’ll never have to take. Some justice systems give – for good reason – the guilty and the judge the opportunity to hear the affect the crime has had on victims and those close to them. I understand that; but now I’ve been as close to violent crime as this, I also understand why such revelations should never be the only factor in sentencing the guilty. I, for one, would be too angry to be just.
I am not by nature an angry or a violent person; though I do have a knack for breaking up violent confrontations. I’ve only ever been properly hit once – by a fan of the same football team I support, in an ironic case of mistaken identity. So it’s strange to find myself intimately involved in the moral quagmire of violence. All I’ve come to know is that my cosy neo-pacifist principles no longer sit so easily or safely – I think I still hold them, but I hold them with alarming looseness.
I watched the film on Palm Sunday evening, the first day of Holy Week; an inexorable journey towards an act of horrific, prolonged, violent innocent suffering. That knowledge adds to the mix that mine is a Jesus who knows what it’s like to be on the end of both unrighteous anger – his murderers’ – and righteous (the anger of His Father which he took the consequences of that day). He didn’t deserve that latter anger, but He took it anyway. It says to me that, along with some alarmingly violent expressions of anger in the Psalms – there is a place for this emotion which is often the least acceptable to church subcultures. It says that innocent suffering is right at the heart of what I have given my life to; it is identified with and wept over, its cost and consequences eternally felt.
On its own, the film left me in anger – and to an extent, that’s OK. It also made me fear that maybe the terrorists win even when we capture of kill them – they’ve reduced us in some way, whether in mind or deed, to their level, even for a moment. But then Holy Week, with its complexities and denials and political blame-shifting and violence and resurrection come along. I don’t understand it any more than I used – probably less so, in fact. But the week gives me a glimpse of when this will end, and that Someone at least understands. And that, for now, is just about enough.
I rated this movie 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com
I often write here about stories. They could be films, they could be books, they could be parts of my own story. It’s because I like stories. Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. We are the only beings on the planet with the capability of telling stories to one another. Stories worm under our defences, help us walk in another’s shoes, see something from a way we haven’t seen before.
Large parts of the Bible are in the form of stories – histories, parables, gospels. They burrow away with truths that detonate in our heart and mind repeatedly days, weeks, months, years after encountering them.
I’m increasingly of the opinion that the debates we enter into as Christians would be changed for the considerably better if we stopped and listened to some stories for a while. Stories take debates out of the abstract and into the everyday. They give a theory a name, an idea, a face, an argument flesh and bones. It’s much harder to use rude names when you’re confronted with someone with their own name.
I was born and raised and remain one of those Christians who broadly fit under the label evangelical. I’m also, in many ways, what you might call an evangelical of a charismatic flavour. I’m not going to explain what those labels mean for me, now: that’s my story and that’s a story for another time. Part of that story is, though, that I grew up with a conservative view of homosexuality. That view of homosexuality remained static over many years; more recently I’ve tried to take a walk round the issue and examine it from different perspectives. It occurred to me that I’d never really examined other points of view on the subject; I’d simply gulped one in with the air I breathed. That can’t be good. As I walked I’ve learned that there are many other stories out there. I’ve learned that there are people in churches of the flavour that I like, who are gay; and they’ve received the message that they’re vile, hated by God and detested. That they can’t love Jesus.
I haven’t finished my wandering around this subject. I can’t say where that wandering will finish, if it ever does. I’m don’t want to call all conservatives homophobes; neither do I want to accept any lifestyle or choice or practice unquestioningly. But I do need to listen. Wherever I finish my wandering, I want to commit to always listening to stories, and always listening well.
So listen with me, will you? And before you and I opine, call people vile or abominations or detested or not-Christians, let’s remember we’re not talking about ideas. We’re talking about a person Jesus died for. A name, a face, a history, a person for whom their sexual orientation is just one part. An important part, to be sure, but only one part nonetheless.
Let’s start by taking 10 minutes to listen to this engaging, humbling, disturbing story.
What, then, shall we say?
We need more stories like this, don’t we? Stories of Jesus and grace and cross and iron nails and visions on beaches. Jesus often seems to do important things on beaches, doesn’t He? Who am I to call this man vile? Who are you?
You’re not, you say. You say you’re just repeating what God says.
Well, Jesus had many hard words to say to those who claimed to speak for God, didn’t He?
What, then, shall we say?
Let’s find a better story.
It’s all about context, as it so often is. More than context, in fact. It’s about context and the well-meaning, not-the-whole-truth, section titles slipped into our sacred text.
“Rules For Christian Households.
Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife … ” (Ephesians 5:22ff)
It’s that section heading that’s the problem. It’s not what Paul wrote. It was added by someone on the way to the printer. On a horse, probably. It’s meant to help us but too often it controls how we understand the text.
Now that’s not to say that the section heading is intrinsically a bad thing. If you want to find the Parable of The Prodigal Son but can’t remember the reference then it helps to have it in italics at the head of a paragraph. Except, of course, when we come to read it properly. Jesus never gave the parable that title. He just told a story. It’s as much about the (F)father or the elder brother who’d been at home all that time, unaware of the father’s riches that had always been at his disposal. Thus in the case of the parable we don’t so much miss the point as shrink it.
So to submission in marriage, that the husband is the one who calls the shots, is the spiritual leader of the family. That’s how this understood in many Christian circles, especially evangelical ones. I believed it for a little while, because that’s what the text (and other texts) said, right?
Now’s not the time for word studies or extensive theological investigation – others on all sides of the argument have done that much better than I ever could do. Here’s the thing for me, though. The model is Jesus, right? So it says anyway, just the other side of some those pesky and artificial section divides I mentioned earlier. It’s not about marriage first; it’s about Jesus and then it’s about how our relationships can reflect Jesus to others.
The call is to submission out of reverence to Christ … then it’s applied for the original readers in three very particular ways, giving us a way of seeing how this might work in practice. What did Christ, the model and only worthy object of reverence, do? He tossed aside His rights, considered himself nothing, put His Father’s glory and my needs first despite not wanting to drink from the cup. To quote a passage my wife and I had read at our wedding, He:
made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2)
It seems to me that in taking texts like this and saying, this then is how marriage should be in all places at all times – wife submitting to husband – we’re missing the point. For the Ephesians it may not have been missing the point. That was a society whose very stability was built on men in charge, women subservient. So Christ’s people needed to be seen as contributing to society, not messing it up – but still different, still challenging it and calling society to be better. So the challenge was for husbands to actually love wives and not treat them as property; for wives to seek to bless their husband instead of silently resenting one who treated her like dirt. All sorts of change became possible if people did that. It was a radical kind of way of blessing society but also challenging it.
Things are different now. Society, it seems to me, does not depend on submission of wife to husband; or certainly not any of the ones that I’ve lived in. So we model ourselves on Christ in a different way. We do so by thinking about Jesus in a slightly different way.
I’m going to talk about Jesus here in a way which may offend you so that you can see what I’m getting at.
We might say that Jesus submitted to us. Not that we tell Him what to do; but that if we understand submission as it should be at its best – one laying aside needs for the sake of another – then that’s what He did. He gave up His right to be honoured and worshipped in order to be whipped and mocked. He gave up His right to be understood as truth in order to be gossiped about and executed on a trumped-up charge. So that we could be with Him. At a wedding feast.
So the challenge is for men, women, all of us. To give up what we consider to be our rights for the sake of the ones we’re in relationship with. Might I think, as a husband, of having a ‘right’ to sex with my wife. I suppose I might do (in the days of social media, I feel duty bound to point out the ‘I’ is not necessarily me, and I said ‘might’ not ‘do’). But what if my wife needs an early night? What if it’s better to talk or watch a movie together? I give up my ‘right’ and do what will build the relationship; not to get sex later in the week but because it’s good for the relationship. Because that’s what Jesus did. He gave up rights for the sake of relationship with Father and us, and in doing so gained greater honour, more worship. This, in marriage, is upholding society but still challenging it – liberating men and women alike, but challenging our all to easy fall-back position of rights with something all-together deeper.
Important point, here. Do not misread this, as this text is often misused, as an injunction to those who are being abused sexually, emotionally or physically to submit to that abuse. No. If you are being abused, get help and get out. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
This is about the give and take at the heart of all healthy relationships. Recast that as submission, and yes – husbands should submit to wives because Jesus submitted His right to honour for the sake of relationships with us – and in the end gained great honour. In that context, wives submit to husbands – it’s the mutual give and take that makes relationships. It’s not about positional leadership; it’s about making a relationship between two unique creations work.
Apply it to marriage, to parenting, churches, to politics, to workplaces, to sports, to paying taxes, to how you treat shop-workers or waiters or people who sleep outside. How might it look to submit to one another in those relationships out of reverence for the one who made Himself nothing?
That’s why I spell Him with a capital H.
Take a deep breath.
Breathe in … A bit more … Let it out slowly … And relax.
The gay issue.
I told you to relax, didn’t I? Breathing just that bit faster? Teeth and fists clenched? Tension rising?
The gay issue.
There’s the problem, why there’s so much tension in churches about this. Right there.
The clue is in one of those three words:
the gay issue
Did you spot it?
I lied. Sorry.
The clue’s in at least 2 of the words. Maybe a third.
‘The’ – the definite article. Making it, whatever ‘it’ is into something defined, boundaried, something you have to be fixed on. There’s not much room for manoeuvre, debate or questions there.
‘Issue’ – what is an issue, in this context? Relevant dictionary definitions talk of, for example, “a point in question or a matter that is in dispute … ” (dictionary.com). Is there a ‘point’ in dispute here? Well, yes. Maybe. Really what’s at stake is how some people relate to, have fellowship with, receive authority from, interpret the Bible with, other people. If it is an issue, then it’s a relationship one. Relationship, or a word that implies it would work better.
‘Gay’ – who does that include, actually? Those who practice same sex intercourse? Those who feel oriented that way but choose not to? What about transgendered people? We could go on. The frequent abbreviation is LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender). Sounds more like a personality profile type, but there you have it.
I propose something like … I don’t know. The LGBT relationship dynamic.
Or not. Not quite what I was aiming for. At the moment I’m stuck in the problem.
Then along comes a book like Timothy Kurek’s The Cross In The Closet. It helps me; then again it doesn’t. The author lives in the Deep South of the USA, buckle of the Bible belt, where Christian sub-culture is often seen in one of its more conservative and vocal incarnations. He was, by his own admission, raised in and comfortable with it; he imbibed and then expressed a conservative approach to homosexuality. This book tells the story of his journey. A journey where he feels God is calling him, a single heterosexual male, to live as if he’s gay for a year.
We follow his coming out to his friends and his family, the resultant alienation from people he thought loved him, conversations with what he describes as his inner Pharisee, finding Jesus in unexpected places, being ‘re-outed’ before he was ready to his family as not really gay, the experience of what it really means to live in the closet – as a heterosexual man in a homosexual sub-culture … and much else besides.
It’s a startlingly honest and brave book (occasionally let down by some careless editing – not the author’s fault). He willingly puts himself through all manner of stress and trauma, and ends up realising the issue of judgement runs far deeper in him than he ever dreamed. It’s a prophetic and challenging route to dealing with ‘the gay issue’, by removing the ‘issue’ and definite article, redefining it all as a series of relationships which challenge and stretch and disturb the comfort of all.
If you’re like me, you have a series of questions at this point. Is it fair, ethical, right to lie to people so deeply like this, even if it is in service of something bigger, maybe even just? How were the friendships he formed within the gay community (whatever those last 4 words mean) affected when he came out again as heterosexual at the end of it all? What’s his exegesis of key Bible passages? The first question is danced around, thought about. The second you get walked through what happened. The third – it’s not that kind of book.
Those, and a few more question besides.
The questions reverberate around my head for a time.
Then I’m reminded of a few other things.
I’m reading another book at the moment. It’s a brilliant work of more academic theology called Exclusion and Embrace, by Mirsolav Volf. He talks of the need for truth to embrace and walk in the shoes of the other in order to heal division; and he talks of not sacrificing truth to do so. That says much to those questions, as does the whole of Volf’s book (though it’s a more dense piece of theology set alongside Kurek’s narrative).
The other thing I’m reminded of is something about a man who became sin yet was without sin, and who asked me to take up my cross.
Of course, for some just using the terminology ‘sin’ there is unhelpful. The heart of the issue, you might say.
The Cross In The Closet will probably not shed new light on your understanding of the Bible. It’s not trying to. It won’t make you change your mind, wherever your mind is at the moment. I don’t think it’s trying to do that either. It’s trying to make you think about how you think, which may be a much better place to start.
This book is by no means the last word. There are many, many more words written and not yet written to help us explore and define or redefine or whatever it is we need to do. What The Cross In The Closet gives us is a very, very important new first word.
I rated this book 4/5 on GoodReads.com