Imagine for a moment that you strike up a conversation with a young woman sitting next to you on a long flight. You exchange pleasantries, talk about work, family life, etc. She starts to tell you about her boyfriend. She tells you that the two of them have been together for years and that she has no intention of ever leaving his side. She talks about the joy that he brings her. She says that she cares about him, and that she wants the best for him. The longer you listen, the clearer it is that this woman has fallen head-over-heels in love.
The conversation starts to take a turn when she admits that her boyfriend is far from perfect. Sometimes she thinks that she puts more work into the relationship than he does. Actually, if she’s being perfectly honest, he can be pretty hurtful. He scares her sometimes. He threatens her. He makes her feel undesirable, and he doesn’t even try to understand her feelings. He has a tendency to treat her as a lesser human, and she spends a lot of time crying about things he has said when he thought she couldn’t hear. She calls him out when he does this kind of stuff, but he always finds a way to turn it around and insist that he’s just acting out of love. She wants to believe that he’s telling the truth, but sometimes she just can’t. She stays anyway.
After all, he’s not always like that. On good days, she feels like she and her boyfriend could change the world together. Those are the days when she feels known and wanted and understood. On good days, she knows that she belongs with him and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her. Yes, she’ll admit, it seems like those days are becoming fewer and farther between… Like she said, he’s not perfect. But she’s pretty sure that if she sticks around, she might be able to fix him. Besides, she needs him.
What would you say to her?
Would you tell her that she’s in an unhealthy relationship?
Would you say that she’s being abused?
Would you tell her to move out and end it?
Have you ever heard an LGBTQ Christian talk about the Church?
This weekend, as a part of the Reformation Project Conference in Chicago, I attended a seminar on spiritual abuse and trauma, led by Teresa Pasquale Mateus, the author of “Sacred Wounds.” She started the workshop by asking the room full of Queer Christians, “What words or phrases do you associate with spiritual abuse?” The answers came rolling in with a disturbing level of ease, requiring no deliberation or second thoughts.
Fear. Control. Threats. Dehumanization. Gaslighting. Blame. Shame. Homophobia. Scapegoating. Isolation. Rejection. Forced compartmentalization. Second class. Silencing. False security. Abandonment. Feelings of inadequacy. Manipulation. Conversion therapy. Anxiety. Dependency. Conditional love. Damnation.
As these words were spoken, faster than Teresa could write them down, I looked around the room and saw weary heads nodding in understanding and legs bouncing nervously. I heard deep and troubled sighs, occasionally accompanied by exasperated laughter. The kind of laughter that says, “This isn’t funny at all, it’s just so incredibly fucking true.” It was devastatingly obvious that no further explanations were needed.
The parallels between the non-affirming church and an abusive partner are startling. And I don’t always know how to deal with that. I don’t always know how to reconcile my genuine love for the Body of Christ with the ways it continues to do harm. I don’t always feel like the relationship is justifiable, and I don’t know if I can tell LGBTQ Christians to keep pouring their energy and affection into an organization that barely tolerates them. I don’t know how to not be angry with the fact that some churchgoers would ignore the hypothetical abusive boyfriend, but lose their minds if the imaginary woman on the plane were dating a female metaphor instead.
I carried this abusive partner analogy in my mind for the rest of the day after that workshop, hoping desperately that it was insufficient and praying for the metaphor to break down.
That night, we took communion.
During the summer, I would sometimes creep into church halfway through the Sunday services. I’d time it so that I got there right after the sermon and the passing of the peace, that way I could walk in, take communion, and then leave before anyone spoke to me.
After coming out, the Eucharist is what kept me coming back to places of worship. I can say with confidence that it is the only reason I still go to church at all. I think for a while I saw taking communion as an act of resistance, and I still acknowledge that there is something powerful about participating in a sacrament that certain people would rather deny me. I felt a need to claim my seat at Christ’s table, even if I wasn’t yet ready for the post-service coffee and fellowship hour.
My understanding of the Eucharist has evolved since then, though I still don’t have the theological language to fully express its beauty or its meaning or its centrality to my faith. I can’t explain the mystery of it, or how the enormity of concepts such as “unity, inclusion, remembrance, and love” seem to somehow be contained in a wafer and a sip of wine. But I can tell you that as I partook in the Lord’s supper on Saturday night with several hundred of my LGBTQ siblings– these refugees and exiles whom I call my friends– the abusive partner metaphor began to weaken.
The thing is, Queer folks are not dating the Church, we are the Church. And I’m beginning to realize that as soon as I start talking about the Body of Christ as an entity separate from myself, I am doing what non-affirming Christians have been trying to do to me for years. Spiritual abuse makes you see yourself as an issue up for debate. It distorts the beauty of the sacraments and turns them into these badges of belonging that you have to fight and work and bleed for. But the reality is that God has already given you a seat at the table. Jesus has already invited you to take and eat. The Body of Christ is already Queer.
This is not to minimize the very real abuse that does happens within the Body. This is not to say that anyone needs to stay in a congregation where they are not celebrated as equals. This is a reminder that “Child of God” is a title that cannot be revoked, and when we internalize that title, we are liberated. We can no longer settle for being tolerated, nor can we ignore the ways in which we have been hurtful to others. After all, the Body of Christ is also Black. The Body of Christ uses a wheelchair. The Body of Christ is undocumented. The Body of Christ is hungry and homeless.
Yeah, sometimes I still worry that I’m acting like the woman on the plane. I still don’t know what kind of advice to give to my fellow gay people who so desperately want to follow Jesus and remain in fellowship with the Church. But I know that when the love of my fellow Christians is insufficient, Christ’s is enough. Christ’s perfect love casts out fear, along with shame, homophobia, manipulation, abandonment, isolation, damnation, and all those other words that we shouted out during Teresa’s workshop.
Christ’s love does not ask me to fight for a place at the table.
Christ’s love says, “This is my body, given for you.”