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Thursday, May 24, 2012

And the Spirit and the bride say, come

I wrote this entry two years ago and it has lurked in my Drafts folder since then; by the time I was done with it, it was no longer quite as au courant, and then I never found a good excuse to post it. But it came up in conversation with my old friend Michaela Grey when I was crashing at her lovely New York apartment yesterday (on this, my pre-Wiscon couchsurfing tour of Northern US cities...) so I thought I'd bring it up from the damp cellar of the blog database to the published light of day.

If you are looking for something hopeful in the midst of America's toxic cultural struggles with sexuality and religion, I recommend this video.

It's really long, and the first eight minutes or so are boring, partly because the speaker -- Jim Swilley, the leader of an evangelical megachurch who had recently decided to come out as a gay man -- is stalling. His audience has clearly heard something -- the headline version, or maybe rumors -- and most of them don't like it. He knows that many of them are going to walk out during this conversation; he knows he may lose his church over this. His church is three things for him: a calling, a very successful business, and an extended family. He has spent 52 years not talking about this, and he spends the first part of the video working his courage up.

(He also has what I think is an intentionally dry pulpit style -- wry, cautious, methodical, analytical, self-deprecating, down-to-earth, authentic. To me -- I'm no expert on evangelical homiletics -- he sounds more like a rabbi than a holy-roller preacher. Once he gets going, this works very well; once he gets to analyzing scripture, he's very compelling, in a very, you'll excuse the expression, rabbinic way. His supportive ex-wife Debbie and Pastor Dave, who speak later, have a bit more of what I think of as the traditional, rollicking, can-I-get-an-amen Bible Belt style. They're also really good at what they do. Living in a Blue-State world, it's easy to forget that the sermon, English-speaking America's oldest literary art form and the stylistically dominant one for its first few centuries, is alive and well.)

Jim Swilley may be partly doing damage control in this video -- but he didn't come out as an exercise in damage control. He didn't come out because someone caught him out having illicit sex on the side. Up until a couple of years ago, he was comfortable in a long, loving, and fruitful -- if basically sexless -- marriage to Debbie, and resigned to a celibate grandfatherhood.
He came out because gay teenagers in America are dying in a plague of bullying and suicide, and churches like his, silences like his, are killing them.

To be fair, his church wasn't a gay-bashing church before this. Pastor Dave has clearly been actively a part of the church as an out gay man for a few years now. But it seems like it was mostly not talked about, or, perhaps, couched in terms of tolerance, and making exceptions and allowances for specific folks. It's clear that in a general sense homophobia runs rampant in this community; it's clear that he's talking to an audience some of whom think there's a Satanic gay agenda to take over America, or at least that unrepentant gays are deviants who are going to Hell.

He hadn't said, before, from the top, what he's saying now.

He does a brilliant job of it. He is honest. He is funny (one of the best bits --"the prayer leaders at most of the churches I go to are gay. They may not admit it... oh come on now! Don't act like you don't know this!" -- brings down the house). He is methodical and insightful in hermeneutically decimating the Sodomian, Levitical, and Pauline arguments of the homophobes1, and expressing his rage at their pious hypocrisy. He strikes a balance between showing his flock that he cares about their comfort level, and stopping short of pandering; he assures them that doesn't have a boyfriend, but he doesn't promise them he won't have one later. At times he is brutal: you can go off to a fire-and-brimstone church, he says, but when your gay children kill themselves, don't say I didn't warn you.

There's a lot that's very foreign and alienating to me about the world this video comes from. It's not, mostly, all the talk of people being called and anointed and God speaking to and through them. I have some very good friends who talk like that, and, for that matter, I don't always entirely know how metaphorical I'm being when I say God speaks to me.2 What's weirder to me is the megachurch stuff, the very American view of building religious community as a kind of serial entrepeneurship -- the way they very matter-of-factly quantify successful outreach of the Word of God to a large audience in terms of dollars, for instance -- tossing off phrases like "he built a multi-million-dollar ministry" when telling someone's story (at the same time, there's a moment in the video where Swilley talks about the "prosperity movement" and its fat cat preachers with their fancy cars, with rage and cynicism about the abuses of a system that he's nonetheless a part of... which could, of course, be me talking about the IT industry too.)

Probably the most alienating part -- and, simultaneously, weirdly, one of the most moving parts -- happens while Debbie is talking about why she divorced Jim. She wants to make it very clear to the audience that he wasn't a failure as a husband, that despite her having always known he was gay, it was in no sense a failed marriage, and it wasn't that she wanted out of it because wanted something different for herself3. And it wasn't that they were "living a lie", either -- at least not in the sense that their being a loving couple was a lie.

But in another sense of course it was a lie: a lie of omission, of pretense. They were helping construct an illusion of the homogeneity and perfection and naturalness of straightness. They were pretending. They were not showing where they didn't fit the expectations of the world.

This makes a lot of sense, but what's alienating is that the language she puts this in is all about mission. Because she is one driven, organizationally-minded entrepeneurial soldier of Jesus, let me tell you.

What tipped Jim over the edge (now, to go public) was the wave of suicides and the sense that his silence was perpetuating an injustice. That's easy to understand. But for Debbie (a couple of years ago, when she left him as a wife in order to call him to account as his disciple) the trigger was that the church wasn't growing, wasn't reaching the people it could reach. That's what forced her to look at their marriage, and to decide that it was hypocritical.

On the one hand, I think she's on to something very profound: that they owed their people authenticity and not pretense, that putting a nice middle-class, straight, happy-family face on things was inimical to their message. "Perfection is anti-Christ." But it's also hard -- particularly as someone from a profoundly non-proselytizing religion with a bad history of being violently proselytized at -- not to flinch at the baldness of her desire to grow their church (which is also their business): "as long as we're pretending about this, Jim," you can imagine her saying, "we're never going to take this thing to the next level."

But she sure knows her audience, and maybe what she's doing is also a piece of tactical brilliance in defense of her friend, ex-husband, and spiritual leader. Because while the people in that room were reached and moved by Jim's honesty and engagement, they are still, at that point in the video, pretty uncomfortable. Then Debbie reframes the whole narrative in familiar terms. They are already sold on mission and on authenticity; that, she tells them, is what this is about, not sex, or politics, or even theology. She doesn't oppose any of what Jim said about homosexuality and homophobia and scripture -- but she brings the focus back to mission. They have a duty to bring God's word into the world; and this lie was in its way. It's not about whether you approve of Jim being gay; it's about whether you love him, gay or not. This, now, is where we show the world how to love.

She gets them feeling it, on their feet and roaring, so that by the time Pastor Dave gets up to give them a testifyin' sermon in which the LGBTQ people of America are Israel in Egypt and the Evangelical religious establishment is Pharaoh, this Bible Belt megachurch audience is all "Hallelujah!! LET MY PEOPLE GO!"

That made me cry.

You know, when I first saw this, I'd been moved and heartened by the "It Gets Better" project, in which a lot of successful and happy gay adults reached out in video form to the potentially suicidal gay kids who are being bullied and harassed in America's high schools, to tell them to hang on. As an adult, they would say, once you can choose where you live and who you hang out with, your life is going to bloom.

That kind of hope is important, and it can get people through -- as the hope of immanent Rapture got Jim Swilley through his own adolescence as a gay preacher's son in the Bible Belt. Plus, unlike the Rapture (which, so I hear, folks are still waiting on), "getting the hell out", to New York or San Francisco or London, is a well-travelled road. That Exodus, from rural superstition and prejudice to urban tolerance and diversity, has saved millions of gay -- or otherwise different -- people's lives and souls4. The implicit or explicit message of many of the "It Gets Better" videos is: leave home. Get yourself to Broadway or the Castro or Harvard or Worldcon or, at the very least, to the New England branch of the Anglican church... where you will be free.

Escape is the longed-for hope of many people suffering under these torments, for very good reasons. The "It Gets Better" folks are right to hold this hope out (even if there are plenty of other kinds of bullying, of snide meanness and hatred of difference, going on in Broadway and the Castro and Harvard and Worldcon and the New England branch of the Anglican church; still: for people targeted by this particular set of oppressions, it gets better there). And this Exodus -- actually an Ingathering, a concentration -- the urban gay anti-Diaspora -- has blessed the world with a tolerant, vibrant, bountiful culture.

But you know what: it's 2012, not 1962, and I actually want more options than just that one for the gay teenagers of the Bible Belt. I actually want them to be able to be free, and loved, and celebrated without giving up their families and their towns and their culture and their religion.

I want them to be told in their own language, by their own people, that God made them the way He did for a reason, that their persecutors are liars and hypocrites whose vicious homophobia -- this murderous sadism cloaked in the trappings of Scripture -- is anti-Christ, and that the followers of Christ will not stand for it. While it's certainly possible to be skeptical of aspects of Jim Swilley's approach (how will the careful balance between being who he is honestly, and trying not to freak out his baseline congregants too much, play out when the first gay couple wants to celebrate a commitment ceremony before that same pulpit?), right now he is in the lions' den, doing the Lord's work. Amen, brother.

  1. And his ultimate answer to them, from Revelations, is maybe the most moving moment of all, precisely because it is not complacently defiant, but vulnerable and uncertain and honest.

  2. In my social world it wouldn't get me very far to go around claiming to have received specific prophecies from God, of course. But you know -- God, the Muse, our better nature, the gros bon ange, the sense of universal harmony with the Tao? I generally think of the mind, the self, as simply an emergent epiphenomenon of the brain. But I also suspect that the idea of a strict separation of the brain, mind, and self from the rest of the universe is a cultural peculiarity of the post-Enlightenment West, and we -- precisely as emergent epiphenomena of the physical world -- are probably much more, and much more connected, than we think we are. And so, you know, I ask God things, and I listen, and -- as I've said before -- I think it's probably precisely the same phenomenon as talking to my stuffed animals, but that doesn't mean I don' t listen. Transcendent supernatural God, immanent pantheistic God-ness, mechanistic rule-based materialist universe -- I think all of these are, in the end, useful but very rough and ultimately inaccurate metaphors for the mysterious place we inhabit.
  3. Jim seems earlier to imply a slightly different account, of tensions beginning to mount after many years and them "getting loud", but it's hardly particularly damning that they disagree on such details. For a recently divorced couple, they're doing a hell of a job of backing each other up.
  4. And if you consider that the same kind of phenomenon is going on in the much more massive rural-to-urban exoduses of Africa and India and China -- maybe mostly around different cultural tensions than homosexuality, like gender and caste and tribe -- we're probably talking hundreds of millions.

Posted by benrosen at May 24, 2012 05:17 AM | Up to blog
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