Wendy VanderWal-Gritter – a Christian thinker, ministry leader, and straight ally – has long struggled with the dynamic tensions of being a person of faith who also embraces the gay community.
In her book Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church, she writes:
Tolerance often means a somewhat superficial acceptance of everyone’s ideas, beliefs, values, and practice. Differences aren’t really discussed. There can be a sense of coercion with the concept of tolerance, the feeling that it is being externally imposed. I encounter this when I hear the bitterness in people’s voices from within the Christian community whose experience of tolerance has been feeling forced to accept a certain political correctness and being part of systems that suppress true belief and opinion. Granted, some opinions ought not be publicly expressed because of the damage and hurt they would inflict on others. Nonetheless, resentment simmers when this kind of tolerance stifles the expression of deep conviction.
VanderWal-Gritter isn’t the only one concerned by a silencing tolerance. As someone who writes at length about homosexuality and faith, I am often caught between two equally powerful convictions: the desire to protect those who have been – or soon will be – wounded by the words of the Church (a desire that generates an insistence on tolerance) and the desire to create a space where frank, graceful conversation can take place on areas of disagreement. Both needs are real.
I think of my own example: in 2014, I suffered a mental collapse and was unable to engage with non-affirming Christians because the cumulative effect on my psyche was simply too great. I was too wounded, too angry, too lost in my depression and anxiety to engage in such conversation. I am thankful for the friends who nurtured me – who sheltered me from the toxic darts of the church. I needed a good, long soaking in the gay community, away from the burning light of traditional Christianity. I am now much healthier, because I allowed myself shelter from the ugly and invalidating words of those who would, with the best of intentions, undermine my humanity.
With such an experience, it would be easy to say that hard convictions about gay people should not even be voiced – that it is too dangerous, too ugly, too painful to the vulnerable. But I can’t say that.
The research of Moral Psychologist Dr. Jonathan Haidt, as summarized in his book The Righteous Mind, demonstrates that people in isolation almost never change in conviction: the intellect is, Haidt explains, nothing more than the press secretary of our intuitive President, who makes all the real decision. Our convictions will never change when we live in isolation from others who can influence our intuitive sense of the world.
In other words, for those of us who have a vested interest in creating a better world for LGBT people, isolation from those who disagree with us is not an option. Think of conviction as a sapling: without the nourishing presence of sunlight, it will never grow. That sunlight is conversation, community, and the influence of others who challenge our view of the world.This is why Harvey Milk’s powerful words are so prophetic: “Everyone come out!” When individuals know gay people, their intuitive sense of the world transforms, and the world is made better for all.
So two equally pressing needs present themselves to us: the need to protect the casualties of the church who have been driven to madness by being gay in the Christian world, and the need to still, somehow, cultivate connection with those with whom we disagree. In either case, Tolerance is toxic – it silences the victims or it silences those whose convictions can transform. It also cripples me, because how can I see my own blind spots if I demand silence from all who are different from me?
VanderWal-Gritter shows us a better way:
Hospitality, however, creates a very different environment. Hospitality welcomes the other, the stranger, the one who is different. But inherent in this welcome is the acknowledgement of difference. Instead of difference being superficially expunged, differences can be explored. Hospitality enhances our humanity as individuals and as those called into relationship with one another. Tolerance can flatten our humanity with its expectation of enforced acceptance. But such acceptance will rarely lead to embrace.
I will be the first admit that I often fail in expressing this hospitality – to everyone. Like many, I tend the see the world in black and white, a zero-sum game. I have swerved from one extreme of loathing all traditionalists and wanting nothing more than to silence them forever, to the other extreme of getting frustrated with my fellow LGBT siblings for how they have sometimes refused to engage in dialogue with those who disagree with us. I have called for absolute tolerance from LGBT people towards though who disagree with us, and I have called for absolute tolerance from the traditional world towards the LGBT community. I regret that this black and white form of toxic tolerance has hurt people.
But with hospitality, I am able to put down my weapons and my silencing duct-tape. I am now more capable of welcoming all to my table: those, like me, who have been so wounded by the Church that they need a safe and sacred place to rest their badly bruised souls, and those who are completely different from me, but who nonetheless deserve the respect of a listening, challenging ear.