In one of his parables, Jesus quotes Psalm 118, saying, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42). Rev. Dr. Neil G. Cazares-Thomas cites this verse from Psalms in Our Witness: The Unheard Stories of LGBT+ Christians (Cascade Books, 2018), noting, “The people Christ came to love are the ones the church is rejecting,” and that this rejection is often directed at those who identify as LGBTQ+ (89). The passage from Matthew and Psalms is also useful in the context of Our Witness in that editor Brandan Robertson argues that while numbers of Americans (regardless of denomination) who identify as Christian are declining, LGBT+ people are affiliating with Christian groups more and more. Robertson urges us to take this into account, as it suggests “something dramatic is underway that could forever change the American religious landscape” (128). “God is doing a new thing through LGBT+ people,” Robertson agues, which not only speaks to the resilience and perseverance of LGBTQ+ Christians who face marginalization from heterosexual and cisgender people of faith, but also serves as a “call to the church to move beyond its static doctrines and rigid interpretations of Scripture,” embracing a more welcoming message (xviii, 129). Robertson argues that a key first step in heeding this call is in the hearing of stories by LGBTQ+ Christians, which are often ignored, unnoticed, or silenced. This volume brings together accounts written by people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, genders, ages, traditions within Christianity, and identities within the LGBTQ+ community, recounting experiences they have had and contributions they have made in faith communities.
Robertson divides Our Witness into three major thematic sections: rejection, reconciliation, and revival. In the stories focusing on rejection, a major commonality which stood out was non-affirming Christian groups rejecting the many gifts LGBTQ+ people possess and offer. In story after story, LGBTQ+ Christians offer fresh ideas, their physical and emotional labor, and a yearning to be in community with various faith groups. They are often either rejected outright or offered conditional inclusion which demands denying or downplaying their identities, limiting their ability to participate in church life and ministry. Another commonality among the entries in this volume emerges when Robertson introduces the second theme of reconciliation, writing, “I didn’t find the path forward through wrestling with the familiar ‘clobber passages’ in the Scriptures, but rather through discovering a trajectory toward greater inclusion in the Scriptures” (49). While much of the scholarship of LGBTQ+ inclusion and the Bible heavily focuses on a group of verses often weaponized against LGBTQ+ people, many authors in this volume highlight instead scriptural passages which they interpret as welcoming and affirming. For example, Robertson examines passages from Acts 10, when God commands the Apostle Peter to minister to Gentiles, “an example of the Spirit of God doing something that was previously understood to be immoral and unbiblical” (58). Robertson places this passage within a wider ethical trajectory in the Bible which calls for inclusive behavior and argues that, “it is in these same trajectories the keys for full inclusion of LGBT+ people … can be found” (60). Authors writing on the volume’s third theme of revival continue this focus on affirmation in Scripture over “clobber passages.” The approach is both innovative and refreshing in that it encourages readers—many of whom are progressive Christians who fear their deployment of scriptural evidence in theological debates might blur lines between them and their fundamentalist colleagues—to engage in their own studies and discern for themselves the Bible’s inclusive messages. They may then share this knowledge with non-affirming Christians proactively, rather than taking a defensive position if a non-affirming Christian deploys a “clobber passage” which they interpret as anti-LGBTQ+. As Minister Winner Laws writes, “If people of faith become better equipped to state their own theological viewpoints of inclusivity for all people, an ecumenical movement could emerge and unite all people regardless of their sexual orientation. The investment of energy and effort to learn more about God’s unconditional love is worth the effort” (144).
While this volume painted a detailed picture of negative experiences LGBTQ+ people have encountered in Evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, and LDS groups, an area in which this book might have helpfully expanded upon is the variegated experiences LGBTQ+ people have within American Mainline Protestant groups. Several stories of rejection in Our Witness end with people finding spaces of welcome and spiritual growth in Mainline churches (particularly in Episcopal congregations), but this should not suggest that all Mainline churches are as LGBTQ+ affirming as some described in this volume. Heated debates have raged within major Mainline Protestant denominations for decades, and LGBTQ+ people still experience discrimination in many Mainline churches. For example, Robertson notes that Rev. Karen Oliveto became the first openly-gay bishop in United Methodist Church history. But, according to a 2017 Denver Post article by Jennifer Brown Robertson cites, a denominational court declared Oliveto in violation of church law shortly after the appointment because of her sexual orientation, keeping Oliveto’s position as bishop. Further focus on continuing conflicts within some Mainline churches would bring additional depth to the volume’s heavily-stressed point that approaching any faith community (regardless of how progressive it is) can prompt anxiety and uncertainly for LGBTQ+ Christians who have experienced marginalization. Hearing about this uncertainty in this volume’s stories may serve as a jumping-off point for churches to move forward in cultivating welcoming spaces and celebrating the identities of sexual and gender minorities.
In a time of great shifts in the American religious landscape and in LGBTQ+ civil rights alike, Our Witness is a fantastic and needed resource which I highly recommend to LGBTQ+ people of faith, heterosexual and cisgender allies, and all those who seek a fuller understanding of what it means to be welcoming in faith communities. Contributing authors also include helpful links to their blogs, websites, and other publications, which interested readers should utilize to stay connected and deepen their knowledge of the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion in Christianity.
Benjamin Hollenbach is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthrpology at the University of Michigan.
Date Of Review:
October 18, 2018
Brandan Robertson is an author, activist, and minister working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He is the lead pastor of Missiongathering Christian Church in San Diego, California and founder and director of Metanoia, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting inclusion in churches. Robertson is also the author of Nomad: A Spirituality For Traveling Light (2016) and Gay & Christian, No Contradiction (2017).He received his Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Ministry and Theology from Moody Bible Institute (2014) and his Masters of Theological Studies from Iliff School of Theology (2017).
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