Enough with the Either/Ors: Or, Why 'Gay Christian' Is Not an Oxymoron

Most of the time, when I tell friends about the annual conference of the Gay Christian Network, they say, "Gay Christian Network? Sounds like an oxymoron."

Alas, the "oxymoron" stereotype is alive and well. You can't be gay and still be a Christian. You can't be a Christian and still be gay. It's a classic statement of either/or.

Just one problem: A growing number of people profess to be both. Consider the 1,300 people -- most of them living in the landscape of LGBTQIA -- who packed the GCN conference last week. Consider that last year's conference drew 700.

We've seen the weakness of either/or thinking exposed before. Women can't be effective clergy, until they were. You must read the Bible literally to be a Christian, except that many non-literalist Christians (actually, many humans) live the virtues that the Jesus of the gospels cites as evidence of faith.

Now we are starting other debates along either/or lines. You can't be transgender and still be a Christian. Up next, perhaps: You can't be polyamorous and still be a Christian. And we go through the same logic with new words.

In these circumstances, either/or isn't cutting it. We need a different way to think.

A few conversations at the GCN conference brought to mind some of these "different ways," and they're worth sharing here:

Start not with external rules, but with inner wisdom. A few years ago, I suggested that people of faith stop arguing about the external forms of love and instead uphold the habits of the heart beneath them. Similarly, one conversation at GCN reminded me to start with our inner selves -- where Christians believe the Spirit of God dwells -- rather than a set of external dos and don'ts that may, or may not, apply directly to our lives.

Do the dos and don'ts still have value? Absolutely. We can use these external guides as channel markers for charting our course through life; otherwise we risk living entirely in our own heads, mishearing the Spirit, and losing our way. The trouble begins when we turn these guides into rigid boundaries by which we determine who's in and who's out.

Listen to the grass roots for new things. At least for the past six decades, some world-changing ideas have started (or accelerated) on the road to public awareness with a small group of voices sharing their stories. Through this, upholders of the status quo learned not only that gay and lesbian people had a different and authentic narrative to share, but that they were also, well, people. The same is now happening with people who are transgender.

Hear these "new things" in a spirit of inquiry. Often, the first reaction to these stories is labeling as "abnormal" followed by rejection. What if, instead, our first instinct leaned toward inquiry? There's even a biblical precedent of sorts: "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?" the Athenian philosophers said to St. Paul (Acts 17:19-20). "It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means."

Give grace. Give lots of grace. The experience of LGBTQIA people is still new to many people who have never met someone who is gay, or lesbian or queer. And when we humans encounter new ideas, we tend to turn into klutzes. We ask clumsy questions, use the wrong words, and make rookie mistakes ad nauseam. But if pursued with good intent, the goal is noble indeed: To figure it out in order to engage with an open heart. If we can extend the unmerited favor of grace to people still figuring it out -- and we are all still figuring it out -- we can gain allies and turn hearts in a way that no amount of abstraction or condemnation possibly can.

These "different ways to think" carry a risk. They may lead us into places we are afraid to go. They may nudge us into loving more fully, more generously, more scandalously than we ever have, by bringing listening and attention and compassion and grace into a landscape of polarity and hostility. They may, in the long run, remove the either/ors from our thinking -- and, just maybe, tear those stereotypes down.