On the surface, these are the kinds of words that are meant to reassure—to convince the hearer (or speaker?) of the sincerity of love for the other. And yet, we almost always say what we mean—especially when we don’t mean to.
Most often, these words are offered in a moment when the speaker is feeling something like this:
I really think that you are wrong about something (and I feel really uncomfortable around you),
I strongly dislike your behavior,
I know I’m supposed to love you. Can’t you see how good I’m doing at loving you even though you clearly haven’t earned it?
The subtext that comes through when these words are spoken, especially from a parent to a child, are not the promised, unconditional love—instead, it’s the subtle promise of acceptance—delivery on the affective, relational, and emotional/physical feelings of being loved—only under the conditions of acceptable behavior.
I have to tell you, I don’t really think that Jesus ate with people described as “sinners,” in-spite-of their sin. I think he ate dinner at their houses because he enjoyed being with them. I’m not saying that he enjoyed being with them because he saw the potential for how he could change them once he pronounced “go and sin no more.”
I’m saying, he fucking couldn’t get enough of being around these folks.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as sin. What I’m saying is, there’s no such thing as sin separating us from God. If God couldn’t bear to be in the presence of sin (as a lot of really crap theology has claimed), then Jesus cannot be divine—which, last time I checked is, like, the number one heresy in the Christian faith. For real, you can go look it up.
See? Still a heresy.
One story that get’s hauled out to brow-beat this notion is the double creation accounts in Genesis. We’ve all heard some wild-eyed interpreter suggest that God couldn’t stand the sin of Adam and Eve and thus kicked them out of the garden. This reading is only possible in an overly-literalistic (mis)reading of the passage, presuming actual individuals named Adam and Eve in an actual garden, with an actual talking (and walking) snake, with an actual flaming sword blocking their way.
That is a way to read the Bible. It’s not a way that takes seriously the multiple ways the story is told, the highly constructed literary forms, the deeply metaphoric language, the puns in the names of the characters, or the clear etiological nature of the story that make it abundantly evident that it is a theological story, making theological truth claims about the nature of God and origins of sinfulness and God’s original movement towards us to reconcile our relationships into something good.
I’d invite literalist readers to take the text seriously, and see that as soon as people sin, God comes to find them and have a conversation with them. The theological claim that starts in the first story in the Bible is that God looks to hang out with people who sin. And this shows up again and again through the narratives and then, finally, Jesus comes and hangs out at dinner with sinners.
I hear frequently (mainly from Reformed folks) that, “of course we are all sinners.” The inference is that my homosexual love and relationships are inherently sinful, but it’s okay, because they aren’t perfect either. Another way of saying this is something like, “Well, we are all sexually broken.”
What this amounts to is a sort of cheap justification of the “love-you-in-spite-of” language wrapped in the false humility of a staged confession. The reality is, that at the end of the day, while they may admit that they have failures of love that amount to sin within their heterosexual relationships, they believe that homosexuality in and of itself is inherently sinful.
There are even people who take this approach who would say that it’s alright to have a homosexual relationship, because God knows that we are sinners and will love and forgive us anyway.
It’s the old and worn out, “Jesus loved the lepers” routine, in which we claim love while reifying social stigma against a group of people.
Believe me when I say that I have been formed sexually by trauma and a culture of misogyny and heteronormativity. I’ll be the first to admit that my desires are not entirely my own.
We are, all of us, shaped people.
We have experiences that some describe as “brokenness”—pain, addictions, recovery, fetishes, turn-ons, turn-offs, ways we are open to love and ways we are shut down to love. These are a tangle of sin and redemption at work in all of us.
So if, when you say that we are all “sexually broken,” you mean we are all complexly formed and in need of a lifetime of learning how to grow into greater vulnerability and loving relationships, then yes, I am all about that.
But we must be willing to recognize and name with some specificity, the ways in which the language of “sexual brokenness” has been applied socially against LGBTIQ people both historically (sic!) and contemporarily. The “brokenness” of queer sexuality has been the focus of great effort to “fix” an inordinate number of people. It is a stigma, that is laid against the core of a person’s sexuality and used as a label of “less than” what is considered normative (a particular, narrowly imagined cultural brand of heterosexuality).
So the confessional claim of “I’m broken too,” by heterosexuals, holds about as much stigma for them as the term “white trash” holds for me as a white person.
What I mean to say is, it is a label that seems negative, but it doesn’t actually dismantle the privileged position of the person against whom the word is used. Because heterosexuality is privileged with acceptance, cultural celebration, and normative status, the label of “brokenness” or “sexual sin” never condemns heterosexuality itself. Just like calling me “white trash” doesn’t stick in the same way that racial epithets leveled at people of color do, because the white stereotypes don’t take away my white privilege, while the parallel words used against people of color actively reinforce my white privilege.
To use the language of “brokenness” in this way is as shallow as claiming that because white stereotypes exist, then white privilege doesn’t exist and it’s okay to go on defining social norms in terms of white-makes-right culture.
Because in reality, the societal stigma remains, because you’ve failed to distinguish between my actual “sexual brokenness” and my sexuality itself. Heterosexual privilege, in this scenario, is the exemption card of societal acceptance of heterosexual love, which allows the terms “brokenness” and “sin” to really mean very little when applied to straight people and be quite harmful when applied to queer people.
LGBTIQ persons have experiences of people attempting to drive out “demons of homosexuality,” being subjected to electroshock therapy, being systemically legally oppressed, being kicked out of homes, churches, families, clubs, schools, workplaces, bars, government agencies, hospitals—all for simply being who they are as sexual persons. This is not true in anything like this systemic way of oppression for heterosexual people.
To think the words “broken” or “sinful” in this case could mean the same thing to straight and queer people is like thinking the sound of 4th-of-July fireworks could possibly mean the same thing to a sheltered child of USAmerican suburbia and to a child living under USAmerican bombings in Baghdad.
For the (mostly Reformed, straight) people who use this argument, the very notion of being a sinner is not so dangerous. They see the Christian life as one of being complete sinners who are complete saints because of the finished work of Jesus in the world and in our lives. So, for them, the words “sinner” and “broken” don’t coincide with “going to hell.” But instead fit into the matrix of “forgiven and welcomed by God.”
That’s all well and good and easy to internalize if you are heterosexual and have been handed the message by your culture and it’s dominant, Evangelical view that heterosexual relationships are inherently good, designed by God, and blessed.
But what if you’ve been told every day that your desires, the way that your body responds sexually, and the people that you love are inherently evil and that as a result you are going to be eternally separated from a God who loves others but hates you and is going to send you to be tortured forever? The language of “yeah, we’re all broken sinners” feels a little flippant and wholly inadequate for contradicting the messages of oppression and shame.
So, I’d like to talk frankly about where I see some of my own sexual brokenness and sin in my own sexuality.
As a gay man, I have 28+ years of messaging that I have received from my family, my culture, and my faith, about what is normal and good in terms of sexuality. I have the same number of years of messaging from those same sources about what is wrong, and abnormal about what I have known about my own sexuality (with some conscious understanding for at least 20 years).
I am a sexually broken man. I have believed so many lies about myself, about my body. I have tried to contort myself and my desires to fit something that I am not. I have been told that loving people with the kinds of bodies I desire is evil and can only lead to pain, and eventually hell. I have hated myself. And all of this has prevented me from deep vulnerability, relationship, and intimacy with someone who could more fully awaken my desire in a way that would grow my capacity to love God and my neighbors.
In my attempts to be what I was told was normal, I have done harm to myself and the woman that I was married to. I have also, in the midst of this, loved well, lived passionately, asked deep questions, grown my desire, and expanded my capacity to love God and neighbor.
So does this narrative contain brokenness and sin? Yes. Absolutely. Does any of it have to do with my sexual orientation? Well. . . that’s a harder question.
Of course it has to do with my sexual orientation—specifically, I will be so bold as to name it as sin that I have been shamed by society, my family, and the church on the basis of my attraction to other men.
The harm inflicted on me and other LGBTIQ people, in the name of God, morality, and normativity (here’s looking at you, “natural law” deists, masquerading as defenders of “Biblical marriage”) is reprehensible. It has been a roadblock to the good news (gospel) that God delights in my sexuality and wants to use my sexuality to draw me into deeper relationship with God and other people—that God enjoys being around me.
What I am saying is that the “I/God love(s) you, in spite of your sin/sexual brokenness” line is not good news for me as a queer person. What it really is, is another way of saying “expression of your sexuality is sinful.” But more, it’s a way of reinforcing the unquestioned normativity of society by labeling my sexuality itself as sinful, wrong, broken, ab-normal.
So if you say homosexual sex is a sin, well, you’re going to have to do better. Come up with a definition of sin that can stand up theologically, that is formed relationally, and that is bursting not just with compassion, but with Jesus’ passion for hanging out with people labeled “sinful.”
A robust definition of sin must include and address the societal systems that oppress some groups by privileging other groups. It must address what sin is, how it functions, and what it does to our relationships. Finally, it must be met with a definition of redemption/gospel that accounts for a God who both creates LGBTIQ people and who consistently shows up to hang out with the people who get labeled as “sinners” and who also tend to be the groups of people that are oppressed within their cultures and societies.
The more work I do on my white, male, able-bodied, educated privilege (and believe me that list could be a lot longer), the more I begin to realize that societal systems that sort us into privileged and oppressed are designed to distance me from the reality of my own humanity, which is the core out of which I can draw empathy and see the humanity of others.
So often, we cling to social categories that allow us to villainize/reject another group of people in order to distance ourselves from the possibility that we might be villainized or rejected. This is the dynamic that keeps various oppressed groups fearful of one another and that keeps privileged groups blind to conscious knowledge of their own precarious privilege.
What would it mean for you if, whether privileged or oppressed, you could believe that God actually enjoys you for who you are? —actually moves toward you with loving kindess and appreciates you with (rather than in spite of) all your shortcomings and convoluted sexual development and how that’s integral to who you are?
What if the things that you think of as your shortcomings are part of your giftedness in the world?—that you need not leave off your own peculiarity (queerness?) in order to be loved or lovely?
What if each of us truly believed that we are welcome in the world? Would we be more free to truly enjoy being with each other without the need to either pretend to ignore difference or label someone’s difference as a sin/brokenness, simply recognizing and appreciating that they are different from me?
What if our definition for humanity was big enough to encompass all the people that God seems to enjoy hanging out with?