[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”1631466194″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/41i297mMZLL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”222″]Reconciliation Without History?
A Feature Review of
Us Versus Us:
The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community
Paperback: NavPress, 2016
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Reviewed by Caris Adel
There is a picture on the cover of the Moral Majority newsletter from July 1983 that prominently features a white heterosexual family with hospital masks over their faces. Above their heads is the word AIDS and below, the statement “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.”
For over 4 decades, the conservative and evangelical church has been telling us that LGBT people pose a threat to the American family. This long history of Christian opposition to and the demonization of LGBT people hung over my head as I began to read Andrew Marin’s new book Us Versus Us.
This book is essentially the results of a survey of over 1700 people taken over 6 years which featured open-ended questions. Not only are we getting fresh statistics on the LGBT community and the church, we are also hearing plenty of stories and opinions from them and how their faith communities affected them. Marin says this book is written for both sides – the LGBT community and the church, and therein lies my main complaint with the book. He puts them on equal ground in the religious culture war.
In Chapter 1, he lays out the statistic of 86%, making the case that the church cannot talk about ‘those’ people, because those people are their people. While he does talk about queer people raised in Jewish and Muslim homes, the vast majority of this book centers on the traditional evangelical church.
Chapter 2 focuses on the 54% of the LGBT community that leaves the church after age 18, which is double the general American population who leaves the church. Marin spends a lot of time talking about going slow and having patience with the reconciliation process between the queer community and the church, and if you know his work, you know that his caution has paid off. Marin can speak to churches where LGBT people would not be welcome and vice versa, and that is an invaluable position to have.
But it bothers me when he says “I’m not speaking to who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed. What I want to highlight are God’s commands to people who understand themselves as oppressed.” If you know anything about the church to whom he is writing, you know this is loaded, coded language.
On the surface this book appears to be written to both sides, but it seems like it is written mostly to the conservative church, trying to gently lead them toward a place of loving and welcoming LGBT people. He is doing this by empathizing with the church’s perception of persecution because of their opposition on queer issues, instead of questioning the truth of that perception.
He continues this thread in chapter 3, where he talks about the 76% of the queer community who are open to returning to their faith community; he calls them ‘a mission field ripe for the harvest.’ It is disconcerting that he plays to the assumption that those 8 million people who make up that 76% are no longer Christians because they have left the church.
This chapter is clearly written to the church, because he emphasizes that the issue of sin is actually of little importance to people open to returning. He says that Christians don’t need to refuse to stand up for what they believe – just that they need to live differently.
“Relational healing between the LGBT community and the church cannot begin until reality is acknowledged and accepted. Reconciliation is a present task emerging from the memory of historical events…we don’t have to agree with cultural norms to be faithfully present within our culture and influence its formation.”
Marin is hand-holding the church here. He’s assuring them they don’t have to change their doctrine, because people just want to be known, loved, and accepted – not necessarily agreed with. But by refusing to name the very real and damaging history the church has with the queer community, he is disrupting the process of reconciliation from even beginning. You can’t talk about reconciliation, especially within the context of history (the only history he mentions is Stonewall), without mentioning the Reagan years and Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, AIDS, and even organizations such as Focus on the Family and the American Family Association. That omission is stunning. How can you reconcile something you can’t mention?
He also conflates being a Christian with being involved with a church. Chapter 4 is about the 36% of the LGBT community who have stayed in church. Marin notes that LGBT people under the age of 30 continue going to church at a rate over 10 times greater than those over 30, and 70 times greater than those over 50. And yet not a word on why LGBT people over 50 might have vastly different experiences with the church. People under 30 didn’t grow up in a world where 450,000 people died from AIDS while the church was either silent, or said it was God’s punishment.
In an effort to not totally write off the faith of LGBT people outside of the church, Chapter 5 is about those who pray and that the church and LGBT people can pray together, which will help end this civil war. This is a very limiting view of faith, and again, it plays to his conservative church audience. Which is fine – but a more honest telling would be to talk about activism and pride and volunteering. These are just as faithful a means of living out faith as praying is.
Chapter 6 is about those who have not come out yet, and the age when people do. He talks about the importance of youth ministry and how to create a church atmosphere that doesn’t make people live in secrecy and fear, the importance of which can’t be overstated.
In his conclusion, Marin doubles down on putting both sides on a level playing field. He notes 3 characteristics of the Pharisees and says they are “characteristic of both sides of the current culture war – religious warriors and LGBT activists alike.” He says that he wants both sides to learn from each other, work together and love each other, seeking inclusion and diversity in our lives and communities.
But the church is the one who picked up the mantle of power and used it against the LGBT community. There is no equal footing there. The activism of the community comes as a response to their lives being endangered. The failure to address the seriousness of the issue is disappointing. But I understand why. The conservative church historically has not been able to hold the weight of its sins. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be named. Their feelings should not be prioritized over the deaths and threats to safety the LGBT communities constantly suffers.
Maybe we don’t have pastors claiming that AIDS is God’s punishment anymore, and we are past a time when hundreds of thousands of people are dying, but the religious right of the 1980s got in bed with the government because they knew at the end of the day, it is policies and laws that affect how people live. And their efforts to that end haven’t stopped. There are more than 100 bills in 22 states working to legalize discrimination against LGBT people today.
This book is needed and important to a large group of people – those Christians who don’t believe Christianity and queerness is compatible, and those who have never taken the time to listen to LGBT voices and stories. It confronts the willful ignorance many Christians have about LGBT people and faith. Marin’s gentleness and commitment to living in the tension makes room for this opening. That is no small thing.
I just question at what point do we stop enabling evangelical fragility? If an honest discussion about the relationship between religion and homosexuality cannot even mention its infamous and ongoing deadly history and bigotry, what are we even doing?
There is an incredible scene at the end of Longtime Companion, a movie about a group of friends and the effects of the AIDS crisis on their lives. Two gay men and a woman are walking down to the beach after so many of their friends have died. They look up to see dozens and dozens of people running down the boardwalk to them, and their friends are among them. They greet everyone with cheers, hugs, and excitement at being reunited. The song “Post-Mortem Bar” plays in the background, and you see life as it should have been. And then the party fades, leaving just the three friends alone again on the beach, and you feel the magnitude of the loss.
If conservative and evangelical churches take seriously the call in Us Versus Us to engage with the LGBT community with a posture of love, learning, and acceptance, then I think they will also be forced to reckon with their own history of oppression. As he says in Chapter 1, “Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; reconciliation can’t happen unless there’s a clear memory of the wrongs committed that bring about the need to reconcile in the first place.” If that happens, then maybe the church will look more like a party on the beach; one where lives don’t fade away.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com