A Two-Way Bridge: Sexuality, Evangelicals, and Christian Higher Ed

James Martin, SJBecause it was written by a Jesuit in a Jesuit magazine, I suspect that most evangelicals haven’t read James Martin’s “A Two-Way Bridge,” a lecture given to a Catholic LGBT group that was published over the weekend at the website for America. That’s a shame, since his first paragraph could be addressed to evangelicals with some simple changes in the religious descriptors:

The relationship between the L.G.B.T. Catholic [or evangelical] community and the Catholic Church [or evangelical churches] in the United States has been at times contentious and combative, and at times warm and welcoming. Much of the tension characterizing this complicated relationship results from a lack of communication and, sadly, a good deal of mistrust, between L.G.B.T. Catholics [evangelicals] and the hierarchy [um, we’ll come back to this one]. What is needed is a bridge between that community and the church.

Martin proceeds to suggest what it would look like for each side to build a “lane” on this two-way bridge. He acknowledges that such questions “imply a false dichotomy. The church is the entire people of God, and it is strange to discuss how the people of God can relate to a part of the people of God.” So he clarifies that when he talks about “the Church” building its part of the bridge to the LGBT community, he means “the institutional church—that is, the Vatican, the hierarchy, church officials and the clergy.”

Of course, that’s where things get most lost in translation for evangelicals, who recognize no such authority. (For example: the executive director of a center for evangelism named for America’s most famous evangelical pastor and located at the country’s leading evangelical college can tell readers of the flagship evangelical publication that male-female marriage “is a core evangelical belief” admitting no compromise — but I suspect that he will change few evangelical minds by his efforts.) But if we substitute something necessarily amorphous like “evangelical leaders,” then Martin’s advice still deserves a hearing.

For the “first lane,” he urges the church to extend respectcompassion, and sensitivity to the LGBT community. For example, here’s part of what he has to say about the third word:

Martin, Seven Last WordsTo begin with, it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance. You cannot understand the feelings of a community if you don’t know the community. You can’t be sensitive to the L.G.B.T. community if you only issue documents about them, preach about them, or tweet about them, without knowing them. One reason the institutional church has struggled with sensitivity is, in my opinion, that many church leaders still do not know many gay and lesbian people. The temptation is to smile and say that church leaders do know people who are gay: priests and bishops who are not public about their homosexuality. But my point is a larger one. Many church leaders do not know L.G.B.T. people who are public about their sexuality. That lack of familiarity and friendship means it is more difficult to be sensitive. How can you be sensitive to a person’s situation if you don’t know them? So one invitation is for the hierarchy to come to know them as friends.

Then Martin suggests that the LGBT community can help build the bridge by extending the same three gifts to the Church. For example, they could show compassion by giving “the gift of patience”:

Challenging as it may be to hear, and without setting aside the suffering that many L.G.B.T. people have experienced in the church, I wonder if the L.G.B.T. community could give the institutional church the gift of time. Time to get to know you. In a very real way, an open and public L.G.B.T. community is new, even in my lifetime. In a very real way the world is just getting to know you. So is the church. I know it’s a burden, but it’s perhaps not surprising. It takes time to get to know people.

In conclusion, Martin acknowledges that

Some of this may be hard to hear for the L.G.B.T. community. It is hard to step onto that bridge. And some of this may be challenging for bishops to hear. Because neither lane on that bridge is smooth. On this bridge, as in life, there are tolls. It costs when you live a life of respect, compassion and sensitivity. But to trust in that bridge is to trust that eventually people will be able to cross back and forth easily, and that the hierarchy and the L.G.B.T. community will be able to encounter one another, accompany one another and love one another. It is to trust that God desires unity.

We are all on the bridge together. Because, of course, the bridge is the church. And, ultimately, on the other side of the bridge for each group is welcome, community and love.

Marin, Us Versus UsFor an example of what this might look like in the evangelical world, see Jonathan Merritt’s recent interview with Andrew Marin, “a straight man who works to build bridges between Christian communities and the LGBT community” and the author of a new book addressing the topic “through the lens of the largest national scientific study ever done in the LGBT community regarding religion and sexual orientation.”

But I also wonder if Martin’s piece couldn’t also offer encouragement for Christian universities like the one where I work.

As long as I’ve been involved with Christian higher ed, sexuality has been a source of anxiety: for LGBT members of such learning communities, who fear how they will be treated by their fellow students and faculty; for institutional leaders, who fear that society’s growing acceptance of same-sex behavior will result in a loss of religious liberty and even an existential threat to their very mission.

So adopting something like Martin’s or Marin’s bridge-building approach might feel like it entails significant risk — for gay and lesbian students and employees who risk discrimination, censure, or dismissal if they reveal their sexuality; for leaders who risk backlash from conservative constituents sensitive to any hint of institutional drift.

But knowing that it’s too easy for me — a straight man and mere professor who belongs to neither of the aforementioned groups — to say this, let me nonetheless emphasize something I’ve claimed before:

The metaphor of “building bridges” should come naturally to Christian institutions of higher education, which already occupy numerous “borderlands.”

Not only those “between faith and reason, church and academy, public and private, commerce and service,” but those between stages of human development. Sexuality is just one dimension of human identity that is in flux for the no-longer-adolescents, not-yet-adults who are our most important constituency. So not only is it inevitable that this issue is going to arise on our campuses, but in theory, we ought to have much knowledge and wisdom to offer.

I think this is all the more true for institutions committed to the liberal arts, which by their nature take students and teachers into uncomfortable terrain. (Add “bridge” to my list of metaphors for the Christian liberal arts.) For example, my work as a historian necessarily perches me on the divide between past and present, so I’m constantly asking my students and readers to join me in using the skill of empathy to build temporal bridges to eras that will seem both familiar and alien.

And sometimes (not all the time) we find that crossing that bridge changes us… but then people who call themselves “truth-seekers” and “learners” admit that they also straddle the border between unknowing and understanding.

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