The possibility of life – A reflection for International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia & Transphobia #IDAHOBIT 2020 – #BreakingTheSilence

This is a reflection on two Bible texts: Isaiah 43:1,4 and Mark 5:1-20, created for an online gathering of LGBTI+ Christian groups on Friday 22nd May 2020 – #SpaceToBe, a collaboration between:

You can read the full reflection below, or watch on YouTube here (10.5 minutes).

SpaceToBe event flyer

Hear the word of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

‘Have no fear, for I have taken up your cause; naming you by your name,
I have made you mine. Because of your value in my eyes,
you have been honoured, and loved by me.’

Isaiah 43:1,4

This week began on 17th May, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia & Transphobia – The date was chosen because on that day in 1990 – just thirty years ago – the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’.

This annual campaign began in 2004 to draw the attention to the violence and discrimination LGBTI+ people still experience. This year’s theme is Breaking The Silence – a reminder for us all to speak up when it is safe enough to do so, and call on our allies to do so when we cannot.

This day is now celebrated in more than 130 countries, including 37 where same-sex acts are illegal. There are currently 70 states which criminalise homosexual intimacy, even people suspected of being homosexual. Sentences range from public whipping to 14 years’ imprisonment. In 12 states a death penalty may be enforced. 34 of these 70 states are part of the British Commonwealth, where British colonial laws remain in force.

In England and Wales too we do not enjoy full equality – In 2018-19 police forces recorded a 25% increase in homophobic hate crime and an even more shocking 37% increase in transphobic hate crime.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to break the silence which perpetuates prejudice. This is easier said than done – it takes courage to speak out.

As we come to God as we are, whether we are open or hidden, silent or outspoken, let’s take courage from the word of God spoken through Isaiah:

‘Have no fear, for I have taken up your cause; naming you by your name,
I have made you mine. Because of your value in my eyes,
you have been honoured, and loved by me.’

This text was chosen by an Italian LGBT Christian Network to commemorate this international campaign against the fear and reality of prejudice and violence towards our communities, because our diversity challenges those whose more narrow view of God and humanity does not accept us as we are. We need not fear, because we are valued, honoured and loved by God, and together we can be the change we want to see in our world, and especially in our faith communities.

In the Gospel of Mark we hear the story of Jesus healing ‘a man with an unclean spirit’, then charging him to:

‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’

Mark 5:19

What does this tell us about the challenge to break the silence which perpetuates prejudice, oppression and violence against our communities worldwide, especially in faith communities?

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we as LGBTI+ Christians are ‘unclean’, though some in our communities say we are.

The reason this story speaks to me most profoundly, personally and in terms of my way of being within the wider church on behalf of the LGBTI+ community, is because of what it teaches us about the relationship of Jesus with one who, like us, is marginalised by the community.

Jesus asked the man to name his ‘demons’, which was the first step to healing. Rather than torturing him as he expected, Jesus enabled the man to be free from the dynamics which tortured him, internally and externally. He ‘came out from the tombs’, where he was barely existing among the dead, and was restored to new life, ‘in his full senses’.

This story speaks to me of my own process of ‘coming out’ about my sexuality, and having since supported many others in their own self-discovery, I suspect I am not alone in that.

I reflected on this passage while on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood around 20 years ago. At that time, the story recalled my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, a breakdown ten years earlier. I recalled my sense of anguish, shame, and judgement from a negative image of God and myself. I realised my experience of rejection and loss of dignity were where I needed healing.

I have since learned that this story is just one example in Mark’s Gospel of how the Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules. Mark does not record that pigs can in fact swim, yet he does record that the townspeople were angry, not because their pigs were dead, but because the demons had gone! The true scandal of this story is in this counter-narrative that goes against what Jesus’ audience in his own day might have expected to hear.

Mark’s Gospel shows us that the Kingdom of God is oriented toward those whom society deems flawed and keeps at arm’s length. As Jesus healing the demoniac shows, when the thing we fear most is transformed and brought directly into our midst, our natural inclination is fear and a reliance upon violence to rid ourselves of the change that we cannot explain.

So this story is an example of the dynamics at work when our faith communities, and wider society, display privilege and prejudice to judge us as ‘flawed’ cisgender, heterosexual people, rather than examples of the abundance and diversity of God’s creation in humanity.

What really struck me on hearing this story again was the response of Jesus to the man’s pleas. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m reliably informed that the Greek word for ‘beg’ is used eight times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s gospel, four of them in this passage. Jesus accepts each request, except for one:

‘As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”’

Mark 5:18-19

Jesus restores the man to his own people, and his people to him. Jesus enables him to challenge the dehumanising ‘Us and Them’ dynamic which enabled the community to marginalise him. He becomes a victim of marginalisation with the capacity to talk back to those who marginalised him, and to confront his community with its own violence to one of its own people.

Gay theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the demoniac as:

‘a prophet with the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’

On hearing Padraig’s reading of this story, I experienced the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTI+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. It appears to be the reality for many LGBTI+ Christian advocates. It’s not a template for everyone – for some, it might even be dangerous. But I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church. Easier said than done, though.

Within days of reflecting again on this reading last year, I learned that two LGBTI members of the Church of England’s working group on the Living In Love and Faith teaching document about human identity, sexuality and marriage had left the group because, in the words of trans priest Christina Beardsley:

‘the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again’.

Church Times 01/02/2019

This is why the counter-narratives from the margins, and the challenge to stereotypes of LGBTI+ Christians we see in the LGBTI+ Christian communities gathered here tonight are needed. We are examples of the ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ the Archbishop of Canterbury called for in February 2017, following the Church of England General Synod’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. This act of resistance by Synod representatives was the origin of the Living In Love And Faith group.

It seems Archbishop Justin and his representatives need to be reminded of the words of his own statement:

‘No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people… The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’

Archbishop of Canterbury 15/02/2017

Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and sexual orientation. My prayer for our ministries and communities, is that we may have, as Pádraig Ó Tuama says of Mark’s demoniac:

‘the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’

Amen.

This reflection is adapted from this one I shared at St Bride’s Liverpool in May 2019 at the Open Table Liverpool communion service on the theme of Peace, Reconciliation & Activism.

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