by Anthony Austin
During my final year at Canadian Nazarene College, my roommate opened up to the school community and shared that he was gay. While I don’t know the details of what happened from an administrative point of view, the end result was he no longer being welcome to pursue his theological education at that institution, and his hopes of being a pastor ending. At the time I saw him as a victim of circumstance, someone who was at the mercy of the college and its community. What I doubt he knew at the time, and what I certainly didn’t understand, was his coming out (something I initially perceived as a powerless act) would later become a defining moment in my life, and I suspect in the lives of many others.
For an LGBTQ individual, revealing one’s sexual orientation often begins within the immediate circle of loved ones, those with whom deep relationships are already formed. If my roommate and I had not already built bonds of friendship, I doubt his coming out would have had any lasting impact on my life. At that time I did not know anyone who was openly gay or lesbian, and he instantly became the personal connection to a once-detached stance on this issue. Prejudice and discrimination can no longer be expressed in an ideological/moral vacuum when someone we know and love is impacted and hurt by these views. My personal relationships with LGBTQ persons are why I care so deeply about this issue. It is through our relationships that real change occurs.
When gay men and women, and transgender and bisexual people, ultimately accept who they are and reveal their orientation to friends and family, more commonly labeled “coming out”, it becomes surprisingly symbolic of Dr. Oord’s view that God’s power is expressed as uncontrolling love rather than as an uncaring coercive power.
Isn’t this how God’s power works? Its effectiveness to transform and influence the world is dependent upon the relationship God has with creation. Because real change requires the co-operation of and response from creation, God cannot unilaterally change the world. It’s relational. The very fact that God is not detached from the goings-on in the world is why Dr. Oord and others believe God can be deeply wounded by the things we do and are done to us. Controlling power requires no connection; its power is most effective when there is little to no resistance.
It is precisely because of these relationships that the act of “coming out” exposes one to significant vulnerability, since those we love have the greatest capacity to hurt us. “Coming out” is not risk-free. It is, at best, a calculated risk as LGBTQ individuals have little control over the reactions of others. There is no guarantee things will be all right in the end. Parents have disowned their children, friends have broken off ties, and Christian students have been kicked out of school.
I’m pretty certain my roommate’s life has not been easy. He wanted to serve in a church and that was taken away from him. Mutual friends of ours still post pejorative articles about the sins of same-sex relations or how traditional marriage is under attack. The threat of violence and discrimination is an ever-present reality. I doubt my roommate or any LGBTQ person wants to be a martyr for this cause, but any person who “comes out” knows this is one of the many risks involved. In spite of this, people are still “coming out”. There is power here…
Jesus didn’t walk into Jerusalem simply to be crucified. Jesus entered Jerusalem as a form of protest against the coercive power of Rome. Knowing full well the risks involved, Jesus nevertheless entered the city. God’s love doesn’t give up on the world because the world may reject the divine calling. God’s love shares in our pain because that’s what loves does. Love is not real love if it is not vulnerable, if it does not involve risk.
When parents stand up in support of their LGBTQ children and when friends become activists in solidarity with this community, acts of “coming out” move from the private realm and become a political act, a social movement. Together they challenge the power structures of the status quo by seeking to expose as unjust the dominant narrative claiming heterosexual as the one “normal” orientation. “Coming out” is a public petition for justice, a call for laws that provide and protect civil equality for the LGBTQ community. While these measures are important, they cannot change hearts; only love can.
The temptation when reading Dr. Oord’s book is to confuse God’s uncontrolling love with a love that is undemanding. Although God cannot force a just world into being, God’s love is more than simply a suggestion for justice. It is a demand for it. The potentiality of divine love as true power is only realized when that love transforms and empowers us to act. Coercive power can do neither of these.
One of the most amazing things about my former college roommate is his ability to be graceful and respectful to those who disagree with his so-called lifestyle. He has maintained relationships with people who, in the name of religion, hold views I know are hurtful. He is able to challenge these views without personally attacking the ones who hold them, to patiently wait and trust people can change. His love and kindness toward them can be transformative.
A well-known quote, often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This serves to illuminate the difference between coercive and non-coercive power. With coercive power the arc may be much shorter, easier, and less risky, but it inevitably bends toward injustice. The uncontrolling love of God, wherever it finds expression, is our hope for a more just world.