Monday 1 May 2023

Jesus for the Embarrassed

 Jesus for the Embarrassed

A Queer-Eyed Journey Into Christianity

By Larry Tayler

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Picton, Ontario

Sunday, April 30, 2023


Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.


My Mother taught me that prayer when I was six years old. As she said, “You’re a big boy now, Larry, and about to start school, so you need to start talking to God every night before you go to sleep. And if you can’t think of anything better to say, you can use this prayer.” I didn’t understand everything she was saying, but I did know that it was important. She didn’t make a fuss about it, nor did she say that I had to be on my knees, or clasp my hands together, or anything like that. I would just be “talking to God,” which isn’t a bad definition of prayer. And as she spoke, I realized that the ‘Lord’ in this prayer was another word for God. Now, God I had heard about, because I attended Sunday School at the Wellington United Church, so I knew all about God. And I knew about Jesus and that He was somehow connected to God, and that Jesus was human, but not human, and that He had died, but hadn’t died, but I was fuzzy about the connection between God and Jesus. And I still am. My little six-year-old brain hadn’t heard of the Holy Ghost yet, so I wasn’t fussed about the Trinity. And I’d certainly heard our minister, the Reverend Mr. Poulter, talk about God and Jesus in his sermons upstairs in the real church after Sunday School down in the basement each week. I also knew what dying meant – after all, I grew up on a farm and I knew that the chicken clucking at my ankles when I helped my Grandmother Tayler feed our birds in the morning was the same chicken that we ate that night at dinner – my Grandmother’s axe was remarkably efficient. So, yes, I knew what death was. The word that did puzzle me in my Mother’s prayer was ‘soul’. I didn’t understand it then – and I don’t understand it now, seventy years later. And I certainly didn’t understand why I was asking this Lord guy to ‘take’ my soul if I died. That was just creepy. Of course, my Mother’s unstated assumption in her prayer lesson was that there was a God, a male God – out there, somewhere – who kept an eye on me and who cared about me. As my Mother said, “God loves you and knows your name, Larry.” And without warning my little universe suddenly got a lot bigger. It was as if I had graduated to a higher plane of existence where important things were happening. Out of the blue, I had a worldview, and I was transformed. Because that day, my Mother started me on a lifelong journey. She helped create a “God-shaped hole” in my life, to quote the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, although my Mother didn’t use those words. (And it turns out that Pascal likely didn’t use them either, but that’s another discussion.) Recently, I discovered the generous wisdom of theologian Mary Jo Meadow describing the same concept: “For as long as I can remember, God and I have not been able to leave each other alone.” [1] Which pretty much sums things up.


So…with all this rich family history and homegrown theology, why am I embarrassed to call myself a Christian? 


Let me start with a disclaimer (which some of you have heard before) – I am not a theologian; at best I am a self-taught theological enthusiast. I make no claims that anything I say is original. The path I walk has been well trod by others who are wiser and more qualified than I am. What you will hear, however, is an honest effort to put into words my experiences as a Queer, engaged, frequently cranky Christian wanting to understand what I think I believe. 


Now I’ve talked about being introduced to God, Jesus, and the Lord, but I’ve not mentioned my first active encounter with the Bible. As a kid, I’d certainly seen lots of Bibles – the Reverend Mr. Poulter read from a large black one at the Wellington United Church. And we had a big family Bible in our home – because, of course, every home had a big family Bible. That’s how the world worked, or at least my little corner of it. Our family Bible had the usual lists of marriages, births, and deaths, plus newspaper clippings about important family events, notably when Uncle Homer got shot down while flying a Spitfire over Germany and when Uncle Mel died while navigating a bomber off the African coast. Impressive stuff for a little kid. And I wish I still had that family Bible. But, alas, it was stolen…which is another story. The first time I remember opening our family Bible to actually read it was Christmas Eve, 1954, when I was eight. I wanted to read the Christmas story for myself. With a little help navigating the Bible from my Father, I sat next to our Christmas tree and read the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Now, I already knew the basic facts of the Christmas story – Mary riding a donkey, there being no room at the inn, Jesus being born in a humble manger, the arrival of adoring shepherds with their flocks, and so forth. So, I was more than a little dismayed that Matthew didn’t mention any of those things, prompting the realization that the Bible, unlike what I’d been taught, didn’t speak with one voice. To Matthew’s credit, however, he did include the guiding star, the wise ones (although not three of them and not kings), and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I figured that Matthew got at least part of the story right. I didn’t realize it, but reading Matthew that evening began what led to a daily engagement with the Bible, which continues to this day. In any case, after reading Matthew’s Christmas story, I rushed outside to see if I could locate Jesus’ star in the eastern sky – I knew that Bethlehem was east of our Wellington-area farm, possibly somewhere even beyond Picton. My Father, bless him, helped me locate a likely star candidate, and I was satisfied. I have to say that my motives for reading the Bible that evening were not entirely pure. I desperately wanted Santa to bring me a Lionel electric train and I figured that being all holy and pious on Christmas Eve would put me on Santa’s ‘Nice List’ and get me the Lionel train. And it worked! I got the train! Alas, it was stolen along with the family Bible. In retrospect, the best gift of that Christmas wasn’t the train – it was realizing that a) reading the Bible was a deeply absorbing experience for me – and it still is; and b) when it came to interpreting the Bible, I liked making up my own mind. And I still do. 


Now throughout my life, at least so far, I’ve always maintained a connection to a faith community. I was born into the United Church of Canada, following strong family ties to Methodism. My Great Grandfather, the Reverend Dr. Melvin Tayler, had a long career as a Methodist minister, including a post-retirement year at Picton United Church in the 1920s after the incumbent minister ran off with the organist. And my Father seriously considered becoming a United Church minister until World War Two upended his plans. When I lived in Australia in the early 1970s, I attended the Uniting Church, created in much the same spirit as the United Church. When I returned to Canada, my dear friends Elizabeth and Rick Rolston introduced me to the richly diverse and welcoming world of the Religious Society of Friends, aka, the Quakers. I became a member in 1974 and have remained a Quaker ever since – almost fifty years. However, I’ve never let that membership keep me from exploring other faith traditions. For over two decades, I happily taught at an Anglican independent school in Toronto and found great nourishment in the thrice-weekly Anglican services that were part of the school’s life. At one of those services, I spoke to the school community about my views on Christianity, after which a dear Jewish colleague told me that I was the most Jewish-sounding Christian she’d ever met, thus kindling an interest in Judaism that led me to seriously consider converting, but I ultimately decided that Christianity was my calling. For a time, after my first husband died, I attended the Toronto Metropolitan Community Church, whose minister, the Reverend Dr. Brent Hawkes, was a valuable source of support for me. And certainly my experiences here in the Presbyterian world of St. Andrew’s have been most affirming. The opportunities to speak to this Circle of Friends that the Reverend Lynne offers me have inspired a wealth of spiritual growth. However, for the last several years, I have not been a poster child for any church, because I rarely attend any Sunday morning worship services, unless you count reading the Sunday New York Times as a form of worship.


It is, however, my involvement with the Quakers that has provided me with the most consistent context for my evolving understanding of – and embarrassment by – Christianity. A wise Quaker friend once asked me how I could sustain my connection to Quakerism if I didn’t regularly attend Quaker meetings for worship. It’s a fair question. My glib answer is that there’s more than one way to be a Quaker. My long answer is…I don’t know.


Back to my timeline...


The 1980s were years of growth and change. In 1980, I left teaching, vowing never to teach again. It turned out that my time away from the classroom lasted only a decade, but I didn’t know that at the time. I landed on my feet with a job working for the Ontario Arts Council in Eastern Ontario, operating from my home office here in Picton, just a block away from St. Andrew’s, and I also began exploring life as an openly gay man. At a 1983 Quaker Gathering in rural Pennsylvania, I met my late first husband, Spencer, a Quaker man from Toronto, and we fell in love. I got a job at the Canadian Opera Company so I could join him in Toronto. He was an active member of the Toronto Quaker meeting and was involved in lesbian and gay human rights issues in the city. These were the early days of AIDS, with the attendant paranoia and rampant discrimination against gay men. It was also the time of active campaigning to have sexual orientation added to the Ontario Human Rights Code. I joined Spencer in working on both these issues. We believed that by being an openly gay, highly visible couple, we were creating the kind of world we wanted to live in. The personal is, indeed, the political. Part of the work that Spencer and I did in the AIDS epidemic was to attend funerals of gay men whose families had abandoned them. At many of these funerals, Spencer and I and our friends were the only ‘family’ present. And at some of them, as I have said in this sacred space before, there were self-proclaimed Christian protestors yelling at people entering the funeral homes that “God hates fags!” and “AIDS is God’s wrath!” and – that old reliable – “The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” Not the sort of thing you ever unhear or forget. 


But those experiences led me to explore why so many people were using the Bible to promote hatred and intolerance. This, in turn, led me to John Shelby Spong. That name may be familiar to some of you. For many years, Spong was the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Sadly, he died in 2021. He became famous for writing books outlining his progressive, pro-gay Christian beliefs and criticizing churches that used the Bible to malign gay men, lesbians, and other Queer people. And I inhaled his books, most of which I bought at Toronto’s Glad Day Books, the famous Queer bookstore on Yonge Street, now on Church Street. It delights me that Glad Day Books is still in business and that it is the oldest Queer bookstore on the planet. The fact that Spong’s books sold briskly at Glad Day showed me that I was not the only Queer person trying to figure out why Christianity was on this nasty continuum with intolerance and hatred.


Fired up by Spong’s extraordinary books, I realized for the first time that I was ashamed of being a Christian and that Jesus did, in fact, embarrass me. And like pulling a thread from a tapestry, I began to recognize that homophobia wasn’t the only thing that embarrassed me about Christianity: the misogyny, the racism, the antisemitism, the intolerance, the authoritarianism, and the nastiness of some, certainly not all, Christian denominations were profoundly unsettling.


I experienced this homophobia directly during the campaign to include sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code, a campaign that was ultimately successful in 1986, but not without an enormous tsunami of hatred led by some Christian churches. The fact that these churches were actively fund-raising – and issuing tax receipts – to finance their hatred was unconscionable. And the added fact that my tax dollars were subsidizing my own oppression as a gay man was infuriating.


Before I get to my reasons for Jesus embarrassment, I need to say that this list alone cannot sustain a living faith. Merely enumerating the things that I don’t like about Christianity is not enough. And bless my dear husband, Bill, for listening to me try to work through this. Although I believe that my analysis is a legitimate critique of Christianity, there is not enough love or grace informing it. It is filled with anger and my wanting to be right. As the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once wrote, “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow.”[2] My analysis also confuses the actions and beliefs of individual Christians with Christianity itself. As it turns out, I am not so much embarrassed by Jesus as I am embarrassed for Jesus.


That being said, here are my six reasons for Jesus embarrassment:


1.    Let’s start off with our old friend, homophobia. I am embarrassed by Jesus when some Christians embrace homophobia as being Biblically ordained. The most virulent anti-gay views I have ever heard – and I’ve heard a lot of them, many hurled at me personally, and some accompanied by a punch in the stomach – have been screamed by those who say they are upholding the inerrant word of God. Hatred cloaked in pious, Biblical moralizing is not a pretty sight. And homophobia is dangerous. When a group of angry young men chased my late husband and me down Front Street in Belleville one night in the late 1980s, Spencer and I feared for our lives. One of those young men actually yelled, “Bible says death to fags!” So, yes, homophobia is dangerous. And if you think that homophobia is no longer a religious issue, I suggest that you think again. In February of this year, an angry group of parents disrupted a meeting of the York Catholic District School Board. They opposed the use of stickers meant to signal safety to LGBTQ students in York Catholic schools. The stickers, which were printed by the York Region unit of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and placed in some classrooms by individual teachers, featured the words “SAFE SPACE” over the rainbow-hued Queer Progress flag. It’s an elegant and effective way of welcoming Queer students into the classroom. But some parents clearly didn’t see it that way. According to the CBC, one parent said,[3] “[The stickers] shouldn’t say ‘safe space.’ They should say ‘danger zone.’ Preaching confusion in the guise of inclusivity and acceptance is truly disgusting.” Another parent added, “Catholic schools should not allow transgender or LGBT students to attend. It is most certainly not appropriate to engage kids to be open to these ideologies. There are biblical reasons why homosexuality is considered a sin...regardless of what Pope Francis may think.” Then, there’s the “Anti-Homosexuality Law” recently passed by the Ugandan Parliament. Amongst other things, it makes identifying as LGBTQ a crime; enacts a life sentence for anyone engaging in same-sex acts; and imposes the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” It even makes it illegal to NOT report “suspected cases” of same-sex acts. And who paid for and orchestrated the campaign that promoted this wretched law? A well-financed group of American fundamentalist Christians. And sadly, I add the Presbyterian Church of Australia to this homophobic Hall of Shame. In a recent submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission, the church requested the right to exclude Queer students from leadership roles in the more than twenty independent Presbyterian schools in Australia. The church stated that such students would “not be able to give appropriate Christian leadership in a Christian school which requires modelling Christian living.”[4] Back to the Bible, indeed. 


2.    I am embarrassed by Jesus because Christianity has a tragic legacy of white racism in its doctrines. Which means we’re talking about the Roman Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery. Embedded in Papal bulls and decrees from the 1450s to the 1490s, the Doctrine of Discovery allowed European countries to conquer and seize the lands of non-Christians and to annex them to their imperial empires, all in the name of Christianity.  It was also used by European powers to justify the seizure of Africans and Indigenous people for use as slaves on those stolen lands. The Doctrine of Discovery baked into Christianity a profound anti-Black/anti-Indigenous white racism that is still killing and maiming people. Every time an unrecorded grave on the grounds of one of Canada’s shameful residential schools is located, you can trace a direct line back to the Doctrine of Discovery. The intergenerational and genocidal trauma fuelled by the doctrine is a blight on the lives of Indigenous people and People of Colour everywhere. It was only one month ago, more than five hundred years later, that the Roman Catholic Church officially – sort of – repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. Unfortunately, the Papal bulls and decrees that the doctrine was based upon have not been rescinded. The doctrine still lurks in the Indigenous policies of countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia. The white racism that accompanied the doctrine remains pervasive. 


3.    I am embarrassed by Jesus because Christianity also has a tragic legacy of antisemitism seared into its doctrines. Ever since the Roman authorities crucified Jesus, many Christians have blamed the Jews for His death. And let’s be clear what I mean by antisemitism. Unfortunately, that word has lost some of its edge over the decades. As Minneapolis Rabbi Joseph Edelheit says,[5] however, an antisemite is simply “a Jew hater.” Over the centuries, this anti-Jewish malignancy has been eagerly manipulated and abetted by churches, priests, ministers, and governments. Tragically, it also cascaded down to wider civic societies, and it remains stubbornly intractable to this day. Even the terms ‘Old Testament’ and ‘New Testament’ privilege Christianity over Judaism, and I try hard to avoid using them, preferring instead Jewish Bible and Christian Bible. After the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews in World War Two, the Allied democracies joined Jews in declaring, “Never Again!” But every time there is yet another act of antisemitism, we have to say “Never Again!” all over again. It just never seems to end. 


4.    I am embarrassed by Jesus when some Christians embrace misogyny as a pillar of their faith. The role of women has always been problematic in the Christian faith. Being rendered invisible in Biblical narratives; being barred from leadership in the church; being limited to childbearing and domesticity; being placed on pillars and then treated with condescension; being treated like chattel by husbands – the litany of misogyny goes on. The fact that some churches today still use the Bible to justify the prohibition of women becoming full leaders is both depressing and nauseating. The waste of human potential is staggering.


5.    I am embarrassed by Jesus when some Christians embrace Christianity as a source of political power and justify it as God’s plan. In the first two centuries after Jesus’ death – before Christianity emerged as a separate entity instead of a Jewish sect – the followers of Jesus expressed their faith in a wide variety of ways. There was little commonality in their observances and certainly no central authority. (A fascinating account of this period, After Jesus/Before Christianity, by Erin Vernacombe and others, is well worth your time.) However, all that changed in the year 380 of the Common Era when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I, following in the footsteps of the Emperor Constantine, proclaimed that the Roman Empire would thenceforth be officially Christian. Suddenly, the Jesus movement became an official state religion and therefore a political tool of empire. It had profound implications for the planet. Christianity became a religion of rules, male leaders, hierarchies, political power, and the silencing of dissent. Those who opposed the established Christian order were labelled as ‘heretics’ and were often executed. A disproportionate number of the heretics were women. The transition of Christianity from being a Jewish sect to being a politically powerful and eager part of the ruling hierarchies keeps resonating right down to the Christian nationalism in today’s world. And it’s not just an American phenomenon. There is nothing to support Canadian smugness on this one.


6.    I am especially embarrassed by Jesus when some Christians embrace Christian universalism. These Christians believe that the only path to God, Heaven, and salvation is through Jesus. Non-Christians, in their view, must embrace Jesus to be saved. All other faiths must be experienced through the lens of Christianity, where salvation is exclusively available to Christians. For Christian universalists, the books of the Jewish Bible serve only as an antecedent to the Christian Bible. A Christian fundamentalist once told me that “Jews and Muslims are really Christians underneath it all – they just don’t realize it yet.” And this said with a buoyant smile. The appalling presumptuousness and condescension of that world view are repugnant to me.


So – that’s my six-part indictment of Christianity. There’s a lot to be embarrassed about on that list.


But – an essential but – it’s not enough to sustain me through the tough times. I know that my theme today is embarrassment about Jesus, but I can’t finish without also stating my affirming assumptions about Christianity. And these affirming assumptions are why I continue calling myself a Christian. Here they are, struggles in progress and inadequate attempts at giving words to Mystery: 


1)   We are not alone.

2)   We do not come from Nothing.

3)   We do not return to Nothing.

4)   Two thousand years ago, there was a Jewish working-class Palestinian named Yeshua – the One we call Jesus – who managed to fuse the ferocity of His passion for justice with the immensity of His humanity with the infinity of His Love. In so doing, He threatened the ruling élites of His day so compellingly that they killed Him. 

5)   Under, around, through all these ideas is my last affirming assumption, one that brings us back to that little prayer my Mother taught me seventy years ago: that there is a generative, creative, loving spirit in the Universe that animates our being and accompanies us in our suffering. I am not alone in calling this generative spirit God. And this spirit of God dwells in each of us.


For me, all other Christian concepts are human constructs, embodying the human struggle to make sense of things. This includes the Bible, possibly the most human books ever conceived. Beyond my imperfect words, I understand very little. The one certainty in my journey is that the journey continues.


Thank you.

[1] In Val Webb’s book Like Catching Water In A Net: Human Attempts To Describe The Divine, page 226.

[2]  “The Place Where We Are Right” by Yehuda Amichai in Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems To Open Your World, edited by Pádraig Ó Tuama, page 290.

[3] All parent quotes from CBC News online report by Tyler Cheese, March 5, 2023.

[4] As quoted in The Age (Melbourne) online edition, April 14, 2023.

[5] Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, Homebrewed Christianity podcast, March 31, 2023.