I recently came across a boundary set for queer allyship by a Facebook user:
“Okay. I have to say this. If you are going to a church that is not actively putting in the work to understand and affirm Queerness, you are not an ally. And no, having a gay couple attending your church doesn’t automatically make you an ally.“
I think many LGBTQ+ Christians, especially ex-vangelicals, hold this sentiment. I understand where it’s coming from. I get the impulse behind it. That impulse is a large part of why I left my previous parish. Many Christian churches are not safe for LGBTQ+ people, and a participation in these churches that does not work towards change can at times become a perpetuation of discrimination, ostracization, and marginalization. Certainly, those who identify as LGBTQ+ “allies” have a particular responsibility to work towards change.
However, I won’t go so far as to agree the sentiment, that simply being a member of a non-affirming church revokes one’s status as an ally. It seems to be saying that allies are not true allies if they stay in such churches and work for change. A “true” ally, it says, would leave such churches.
One concern I have with the sentiment is that it seems to center upon a largely modern American White evangelical view of “Church.” It seems to treat “Church” as, more or less, a Jesus social club, something which can be moved in and out of like a book club or a job. Perhaps those promoting the sentiment above come from backgrounds where one could easily transition between Church communities and certain Christian denominations, selecting a Church based on one’s interests, inclinations, and preferences.
“Church” is a very different sort of thing for Christians with my racial-ethnic (and ecclesial) background. For many Christians around the world, “Church” is no more a matter of choice than is “family.” (I’m not opposed to the term “chosen family,” but it’s worth noting that this is a largely Western American term and idea, something arising out of a context where absolute autonomy, individualism, and maximizing consumeristic capitalism are significant cultural values.) For many Christians, one is born into a Church which is thoroughly integrated into one’s education, lifestyle, social context, and identity. For many, leaving a Church community means leaving a cultural background, a lifelong identity, and, at times, even family.
For many Christians, “Church” operates similarly to how we conceive of sexuality. It is not so much something chosen, but rather something experienced as having chosen us. It can never be truly separated from our sense of self, even if we chose to “leave it behind.” It is more like racial-ethnic identity or sexual orientation and less just a membership status. (Even during my atheist phase, I couldn’t escape some deep abiding sense that I was inescapably Catholic.)
None of this is to say that there aren’t times when one should leave one’s Church. But the flippancy of the above sentiment suggests that it sees Christianity through the lens of White American Evangelicalism, failing to understand deeply the struggles many Christians face when considering leaving their Church.
My main concern with the statement and others like it, however, is that they demand moral, social, and doctrinal purity, creating shame, and without leaving space for people working through complex issues and in various stages of development. There’s an irony here, a danger to which those of us criticizing or leaving churches can tend.
Many current and former Christians are right to criticize self-righteous churches and communities that put persons under constant scrutiny about whether they are sufficiently “Christian,” with an increasingly narrow definition, and then shame people for failing to meet that definition. These churches demand total doctrinal, social, cultural, and ideological purity and use shaming tactics for those who resist, question, or fail to meet their expectations for the “good Christian.” They are constantly concerned about identifying and marginalizing those who are not “real Christians.”
The irony is that many people leave these Churches, citing these toxic dynamics, and then turn around and employ those dynamics on others. I myself have struggled with the urge to do this. One can still have the “right” ideas but still activate a spirit of intolerance, a demand for total purity, and the dynamics of shame. Many of us have suffered under constant scrutiny by others about whether we are sufficiently “Christian.” Now some suffer under constant scrutiny by others about whether we are sufficiently “proud.” In the above statement, the definition of “ally” is narrowed with a self-righteous phrase many of us have heard from our Christian friends when they are about to shame us: “I have to say this.”
The demand for doctrinal, social, and cultural purity strikes me as, ultimately, the demand for constant excommunication (which is what that statement seems to further). It says, “If you don’t meet my increasingly demanding expectations, then you are out.” I’ve sometimes thought that those on the “religious right” should find “cancel culture” thrilling, that they should see it as a beacon of hope, as something they’ve been trying to employ from their own ideals for some time but have been unable to get into the mainstream. What those on the far right see as the public’s tool of excommunication should excite them, as something they can also use, as they’ve always wanted to, once they gain power. The far left’s refusal to seek services from those they see as morally repugnant is in some ways just another version of the far right’s refusal to serve those they see as morally repugnant. The far left is just doing what the far right has been doing for years.
Sometimes “the right” and “the left” are not as different as they appear. They are often only alternatives by doctrines, but not by dispositions, tactics, and doctrinalism. The real alternative is not between far right and far left, but between a demand for purity and the allowance of impurity. The real alternative is between a demand for angelic spotlessness and the willingness to accept sin as a part of human life. The alternative to excommunicative doctrinarism is to allow space for impurity, for danger, for sinfulness, for people who might be “wrong.” We need some space for impurity on the journey to proper pride.
It doesn’t have to be a ton of space, and it should certainly be watched. But if we want something other than the constant demand for excommunication, the constant demand to redefine people out of our group, then we need to let go of our constant demand for total purity, whether from religion or ideology. We are all in stages and should be given room to breathe while we process and work through them. And when we want people to change and grow, we should not utilize the tactics of shame and domination to get them to do this.
All that is to say, go to the Church that makes the most sense to you. Leave if it is not safe. Work for justice and charity, whatever decision you make.
is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.
This is brilliant. And wise.
It’s true for anti racism work as well.