Rev. Will McGarvey
January 24, 2014
Passing as a Protestant: Another lens on the Bible and human attraction and orientation
I am a happily married, out Bisexual man. I’m a parent, and I’m a Presbyterian pastor.
It took me a long time to be honest with myself about being Bisexual. I grew up a member of the LDS church in Salt Lake City, where heteronormativity is a badge of honor. I always knew that I didn’t quite fit in. Mormonism offers much to the white male. Spiritual and familial leadership was nurtured, taught and expected. I present as a white person, though I learned at age eleven that I have African heritage which would have barred me from the LDS priesthood until the 1978 revelation changed the policy. And while the official policy changed, there was still a set of teachings in vogue about a pre-existent life that purported to explain the origin of racial diversity – of how brown and black people were less valiant in a war in heaven than the white people. The stories of Indigenous Americans being cursed with dark skin in the Book of Mormon also contributed to this sense of living in two worlds. I knew I was different, even though my blue eyes helped me pass as white. I was encouraged to be a teen leader in my Boy Scout and Young Men’s groups, but sometimes I wondered if I would have remained a leader if others knew my family’s secret.
It’s easy to pass as a Bi person. I had the normal crushes of childhood and adolescence but I also found myself attracted to a spectrum of people, from the cute boys to the androgynous girls and the fuller figured women. Of course, personality is a prime factor in attraction. I also grew up in the era of HIV/AIDS and the fear of being considered gay kept me from any form of experimentation. I knew I wanted a family and it was natural for me to fall in love with Becky and start a family. In many ways, being a married man, it would have been easier just to stay in the closet. I eventually left the LDS church for theological reasons – never really feeling forgiven – and my sexual orientation played a role in that realization. It was discovering God’s abundant grace and love that allowed me the strength to seek out a progressive, more rational faith. My journey as a seeker took me many places, and in many ways the quest hasn’t been completed. Going to seminary and diving deeper into the historical-critical method gave me a new appreciation for the many voices within the library that is the Bible. Learning the original languages of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles and recognizing the multiple voices within the texts has shown me a diversity of experience within the biblical narrative that is difficult to recognize in almost every English translation available today.
I’ve been pointing out lately in my teaching and preaching that the majority family system in the biblical narrative is polygamy – specifically patriarchal polgyny – or one husband and many wives. Women were given from one man to another as property. Some family systems included women given as treaty brides, slaves, and concubines. Perhaps it’s easier to see in the original languages, but there is a reason why Jesus had siblings despite the tradition that Jesus was the only child of Mary (Mark 3:31-33). Joseph could have had multiple wives. It explains why he is so much older than Mary. It’s most likely the reason why he protected her in marriage when she was most at risk of death or alienation in the community – he was the only person who could protect her. I now wonder if the women who seem to be with Mary in those hardest of days near Jesus’ assassination by the Roman Empire were Mary’s sister wives? Not everyone wants to allow for such a reading. This is the risk of reading a text from a different language and culture, where words can mean many different things in their context. This is also the risk of those traditions that only read centuries old English translations of the Bible – because familiar words and phrases begin to be taken as the authoritative or traditional rendering of a text that may have had a radically different original context. Such translations gloss over stories of warrior lovers such as Jonathan and David – who commit themselves in covenant loyalty. Chapters away, after Jonathan’s tragic death, David laments
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)
Of course, Jonathan’s father Saul had given David his daughter Michal in marriage and he eventually married or took as treaty wives and concubines dozens or hundreds of other women as wives. The ancient practice of military men taking male lovers isn’t unheard of in the ancient world, but because other parts of the English translations of the Bible describe cultic sex with non-Israelite temple prostitutes as a form of idolatry in the same ways we talk about same gender loving couples today, there continues to be a biased interpretation among the majority of American Christians today. There are seven such texts in the Bible still largely interpreted this way – which means that for many Christians less than .0001% of the text informs their overall paradigm for understanding the diversity of human sexuality.
This is why recognizing that the Bible is a collection of writings from hundreds of authors is so helpful, because it encourages us to look for the metanarratives – while also forcing us struggle with the context and social locations of those narratives that demean or exclude any whole group of people. It forces us to come to grips with with what Phyllis Trible calls the “texts of terror.” The prophets are always instructive in this regard. As the social critics of their day, prophets interpreted the Law based on the justice that people are called into. For Christians, the person of Jesus of Nazareth shows us what love and justice looks like. He always drew the circle wider. It is offensive to me that some of my co-religionists use him as an excuse for their homophobia. I would also include Isaiah 56:3-8, which is one of those texts that universalizes God’s welcome in the Temple – including foreigners and eunuchs, the “illegal aliens and gender variant folks” – not based on any worldly condition but only based on their keeping of the Sabbath and their desire to be a part of the people of God.
I think this is one of the things Jesus embodied during his life – the ever-present welcome of a loving God. If you read through the Torah and then the Prophets, one sees a progression from the social mores of the age of the Patriarchs (with patriarchal polygamy and strict gender constructions), to an Exodus liberation of slaves, to another inclusion of those previously excluded from among the exiles. While some books like Joshua have tried to turn the Exodus into an apology for the conquest of other indigenous peoples, eventually the message of the Prophets included the locals and outsiders into the family of God. Those distillations of the Law are always universal in their inclusion, an example that even Jesus follows.
Let’s admit that not all Christians agree on what the Bible means, nor how it speaks into our modern world. It is natural for people to focus on only one of the many metaphors in the Bible because it fits their particular cosmology. Sadly, some people are heavily invested in a dualistic, cause and effect, worldview and therefore have a Deuteronomic faith that focuses more on right and wrong, rules and punishment, and who is in and who is out that has led to the culture wars Americans have endured for the last century. The multiple authors of Deuteronomy together espoused a cause and effect theology that essentially says: If you follow the law, you will be blessed. If you don’t, you will be punished. Some Christians still live by this code, which other parts of the Bible speak against this as being overly simplistic (such as Job, the majority of the Psalms, etc.).
What if the ancients were wrong about gender identity and sexual orientation? What if our English translations aren’t the best way into understanding an ancient culture’s understanding of human sexuality? For those who choose only a God of cause and effect, the cost they pay is being able to describe God fully as a God of love. Can God be both a puppet-master and gracious? Philosophers for ages have pointed out that one must ultimately choose one or the other view of God.
Furthermore, the Bible in its original languages uses both feminine and masculine terminology for God. A part of reclaiming a progressive, well considered view of the Divine is understanding the context in which God is described in the Bible and then reminding ourselves that our faith is more alive within the Ultimate than any attempt to describe it. Attempting to enforce pre-modern conceptions of God on post-modern peoples is both an insult to our intelligence and an offense to the ineffability of our experience of the Divine. Who are we to say that God hasn’t changed Her mind and publically come out to accept all her children? If the majority of humanity (over 40% by most estimates) are Bisexual, Pansexual or find themselves romantically or physically attracted to multiple gender expressions, who are we to say that the God who created humanity with such diversity cannot love each and every part of that diversity as well?
Over the last few years, I’ve worked with LGBTQQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, two-spirit) youth and young adults in my faith community. I have found that the time I spent not being out as a Bi-man was a form of lying, of bearing false witness against myself and a loving God. For years this led to hiding my solidarity from those who needed to encounter it the most. Sadly, it was only when I learned that a young man who had visited the church had taken his life that I was convinced that I couldn’t wait any longer to come out, first to my wife, lover and partner – and then also to my faith community.
One of my mentors, Rev. Dr. James Noel who teaches at San Francisco Theological Seminary, ha pointed out that the LGBTQQI2-S community comes to the church every two years at our PC (USA) General Assemblies and begs them to accept us – to love us like Jesus does – in our denominational policies. And then we are surprised when the church says no. I think he is correct. Instead, we just need to take our place of sacrificial service, love and justice in the church. We follow a Teacher/Master/Lord who laid his life down for others. Instead of begging, we need to show the Church another way. The church is forever in need of losing our place of privilege in the world and we can remind the church that it’s not up to them to accept or reject us. We are Christ’s own beloved children and we need to start acting like it. We can live into God’s calling without asking what it will cost the institutional Church because honesty should never be the cost of membership in the church. This is what our youth and young adults are waiting to hear and see. If we won’t follow our own convictions, why should they?
For God’s sake – and for the sake of every queer or questioning teenager – perhaps it’s time we stop passing.
Will has been married to Becky for 26 years. They are the parents of Ian, 25, and Megan, 23 (and CoCo and TyTy, their miniature pincers). Will and Becky live in Benicia, CA. Will has served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Pittsburg, CA, a PCUSA/UCC congregation, now for twelve years.
Portions of this essay has been published in a conversation hosted by Rev. Janet Edwards with Rev. Will McGarvey, published on her blog November 30, 2012. See more at: http://revjanetedwards.com/conversation/conversation-with-rev-will-mcgarvey/#sthash.0NdHdoQF.dpuf
Thank you for understanding the Bible as you do! It makes my heart swell to read these words.