Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ideas Percolating: The Church, HIV/AIDS, Poetry & Community


I had a few good new ideas at the beginning of the year, most of which seem to have passed on for want of development and conversation. The main energy this year was around community. It's time I got my butt in gear and started to write about them.

The element of community was central in the Anoka/Hennepin School District controversies that I briefly joined in the fall. The District has made its position quite clear on matters of LGBT equality, e.g., having been sued into allowing a lesbian couple to walk together in a high school pep rally last January, canceling performances of a play written by youth for youth for 7th and 8th grade students in Anoka because an anti-gay adult complained about a segment of the play where a young person comes out, and denying any connection between anti-gay bullying and any of the suicides of the previous year in the District, which went against testimony they received over a period of several months in their meetings.

While I continue to support the cause for justice for students in this District, I pulled back from involvement as it became clear that my involvement wasn't directly helpful. But I have other ideas in the works that may be. Time will tell how those will pan out.

Perhaps this community orientation, the need for one community to call itself on how it treats a segment of its population, helped illuminate other thoughts.


Here are three ideas I wish to resurrect with the Easter season:

1. Positive portrayals of Christianity are vital to communal well-being, especially for young people. The voice of condemnation, which belongs rightly to no person, has been too prominent for too long in the church's voice in our society among others. Challenge of culture is one thing; condemnation, or condemnation veiled in "concern," is another. Does one condemn the condemners? This is a good question that begs some further consideration. Progressive faith voices have leveled challenge against judgmental Christianity and judging Christians, but it's still yet to stick on a wider level. But we owe our society the best voices that our faith can provide, and those voices do not preach hate in any form.

2. HIV prevention needs a new focus on the role of community. It's not enough to tell someone to wear a condom, to scare people into abstinence or safer sex by telling them what will happen if they don't, or by shaming people about sex and sexuality. The latest study from the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, Gay Men and HIV: An Urgent Priority, highlights the rise in HIV contraction by gay and bisexual men over the last 5 years (particularly between 2005-2008), and one of the highest risk groups is, bingo, "among white MSM (men who have sex with men), the bulk of new infections are occurring among men in their 30s and 40s" (p. 6), which happens to be my age/race group.

The report offers some ideas for this rise, among which are the factors of social isolation, homophobia, and drug use. I could offer them my perspective on why for some of us staying HIV negative seems an ever-increasing struggle, and for others a lost cause. There are a lot of assumptions and judgments around HIV that still carry the prejudices of the 80s, the ideas of "innocent victims" (or victims at all), of certain people deservedly being punished for having the "wrong" kind of sex or for being "promiscuous," and of honest discussions about sex, its meaning in our lives, and our actual practice of it being still to a great degree taboo. These prejudices and judgments must continue to be challenged as they are killing us.

Can we have an honest conversation about barebacking among gay/bi males? It would involve us being honest about the judgments we have around sex and, more importantly, around each other. Gay men can, it's no secret to ourselves or others, be fairly judgmental at times about whom we would choose to relate to from within the gay universe. Age is a factor, money, accomplishment, ability to exclude or include certain people, HIV status, and most certainly body type. These are not hard and fast reasons for being included or excluded in one group of gay men or another, but they often do influence who will talk to you.

The reasons why people have unsafe sex are not just because we're stupid, uncaring, amoral, disgusting people who (according to some with whom I don't agree) flout God's laws and bring upon ourselves and others destruction, and not just because people outside of the gay community are spewing homophobia. Some of that homophobia comes from within, and needs to be faced honestly and together in smaller and larger levels of gay community, and some of it comes from within ourselves, and must be honestly faced there, with a leading edge of grace in both situations that is sometimes harder to use with oneself than with others.

Can you imagine having an honest conversation about some of these issues in church? Now that we have finished fighting the battle for whether or not Gay and Lesbian people can become pastors or have our relationships blessed in the ELCA, to what further conversations about sexuality, which have been forestalled around these other issues for so long, could the church aid in shedding its grace and commitment to honesty? Long and still a proponent of much homophobia, not only does the church have AIDS, as we have said even in our churchwide assemblies, but the church helps to cause AIDS and HIV transmission, and that still needs to be faced.

There's much more to say on this, for another time. But think about how, if you're HIV negative, HIV is not just someone else's burden, and how, if you're HIV positive, you can work claim the support that was there for you in the community during the hardest years of the AIDS holocaust. That support is there, if only from people like me, who don't always know how best to lend it.

3. Poetry can help build, enliven, and liberate community. This idea came to me as part of a Lutheran Poetry Project, which still has yet to be realized. It came to me as a way to put my own negative energy around being marginalized in my long wait for a call into something positive, and something that all those who have felt marginalized by the church could tap into. You don't need to be a professional poet, published, recognized, lauded, or even much cared for, in order to write poetry, and put your situation out there in your own voice. And your voice may be the one that speaks a needed word of truth and consolation to another who is struggling out there in the night.

I heard something last year that I've not been able to verify, but I would not have difficulty believing to be true: African-American women typically wait 5 years for a first call in the ELCA. Is there a way to verify this? There are not a lot of African-American women who are in training to be pastors in the ELCA.

I had a very dear friend in seminary who was an African-American woman who passed away before the end of her seminary training; she would have been a spectacular pastor, and indeed was to me and many others in our year as neighbors in the seminary apartments at PLTS. I miss her terribly, especially her wisdom and strength. The loss for the church of her ministry is as well incalculable. But are there women like her whose voices are ready to be engaged, yet are being left to the side? That, too, is an incalculable loss for a church in need of its best, strongest, and most graceful voices.

What could these voices, the many besides my own who have felt dishonored in waiting so long for the church to implement or even realize our love and capacity for ministry, have to say to a church that is struggling to define its future in a landscape that does not see Jesus or the church as central, as some have called "post-Christian"? Christianity is itself now marginal in a way that it probably has been at many times in the past, yet is only coming to our consciousness in the last 40 years as being marginal, forgotten, unnecessary, even many times either unhelpful or hurtful to Christians and those who believe other creeds or faiths or profess no particular faith alike.

The stone that the builder rejected will become the cornerstone. This was as true for Jesus himself as it is for his disciples along the way and today whose voices are being forced out of the church due to neglect or more aggressive challenge of the central truths of their lives.

Yet these voices may yet become those who have the most to say as we continue to live lives of faith and honesty, perhaps redefined in some ways in this new age, but close as always to the heart of Christ, which beats most strongly for those most forgotten.

These voices could speak powerfully through poetry, and perhaps are. An effort to bring these voices together into one prophetic source is sorely needed.


All of these ideas have community, our interrelations with others, as well as our self-community, the internal dialogues that we carry on with ourselves, at the center, and see that how we talk together will determine how we as individuals will fare. For far too long in the past, and with renewed vigor in the present through the Tea Party, society has been seen as nothing more than a bunch of individual blips moving past each other on an increasingly complex and desolate screen.

How can new landscapes of conversation and interrelation help inform our future together and individually? I'll be thinking of some of these things more out loud here, and would be grateful for your thinking through them, perhaps in conversation, or at least in your own way.

Our only way forward as a country, church, as families, and as individuals, is with more, not less, care for community. My hope is to stir up a few new directions in finding some ways to approach that building of community. I'd value your effort in this direction as well.


  1. When I first moved to seminary, I was mortified when a young man referred to people as participating in communities of choice. Coming from a relatively poor community in upstate New York -- and who would call poor a choice, right? -- I thought this "kid" was wretchedly privileged and asleep about how other people live. However, years in San Francisco, where a diversity of communities live asshole to elbow, oblivious to one another (except when problems arise), have taught me that communities of choice are rampant. While our churches use the word "diversity" a lot, diversity in our congregations in San Francisco remains a desideratum, not a reality.

    Good for you for being involved in the school system: perhaps one of the few places left where real community happens, where there can be a diversity of worldviews, politics, and, perhaps, religion.

    (Of course, with the proliferation of private schools for like-minded people, ever more people are getting into their own corners and isolating from those who do not share their views, and isolating their children as well. But if the public schools aren't providing an education, who can blame them? Bravo, all the more, oh! non-parent, for being involved!)

  2. In regards to judgmental Christianity: good luck.  For is the church ready to reexamine its theology of atonement and the cross?  As long as the crucifixion is seen as blood sacrifice (on a par with 'honor killings'); as long as the cross is seen as an appeasement of original sin; as long as the beauty of the imago dei is constantly described as soiled and besmirched and stained, requiring God's filicide for forgiveness; etc. the church is preaching eye-for-an-eye judgment.  Preaching peace and justice while glorifying a state-sponsored execution as holy, necessary violence is not dialectic but insane.  Raise up the divine life of Jesus as good, and acknowledge the cross as a symbol of human sin, as evil as a lynch mob's noose or the electric chair.  Confess humanity's need for grace and a Savior.  It comes down to deciding if salvation requires holy murder.  Liberal theologian that I am, I would posit that a religion that sentences its own Christ to requisite, ordained Paschal judgment will never escape  evangelizing that inherited violence and judgment to the world.

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting, Bill. Your point about the doctrine of atonement, particularly in terms of it as being "divine child abuse," is well taken as a general criticism of Christianity. It has me looking back at some work I did 4 years ago on complicated sexuality and the theology of the cross. I remember reading Mary Solberg, theologian at Gustavas Adolphus College, that approached the doctrine of the theology of the cross from a feminist angle in a particularly helpful way. There's something liberating about this doctrine when it is taken from the standpoint of downplaying the sunny, ra-ra, theology of glory, that stands more squarely with us in our struggles. Not to downplay the teaching prowess of my theology professors, but I'm not much one for doctrine, except in how it might resonate with my life. But I will take your words to heart as I work forward on that aspect of my thinking. Bless you!