Like many teenagers in burgeoning evangelical-emergent Christian churches at the end of the nineties, I loved Christian contemporary music (CCM, as it goes). Jars of Clay, Third Day, Newsboys, The Benjamin Gate, Bleach, dc Talk: hearing their familiar melodies never fails to bring a mixture of nostalgia and… well, embarrassment. My current pretentious music-snob self (as some of my friends have affectionately called me) scoffs at my former musical sensibilities. Yet I can’t deny that their collective sound at one time bolstered my energetic, youth-group theology. The music fueled my search for spiritual honesty, and for that I have these bands to thank for a significant segment of my life.
So you can see why my curiosity was peaked last April when I heard through the internet grapevine that Jennifer Knapp was making a comeback. She had been a popular CCM singer-songwriter until she fell off the face of the planet in the mid-2000s. She was also the inspiration for any Christian girl like myself who towed a guitar around everywhere and tried to imitate the worship leaders in the Passion movement. However, when she finally reentered the spotlight last April it wasn’t Jennifer’s music that was making the headlines. It was her sexuality.
In the week after her public announcement, I read her interviews with both The Advocate and Christianity Today. I scanned the comments on blogs. I meandered around youtube to see if fans would post video responses. And I mourned.
It wasn’t her sexual identity as a lesbian that I mourned: I was grateful for her courage and honesty, both with herself and with the CCM community. And I was proud of other Christian artists like Derek Webb who stood beside her.
Instead, I mourned some of the inevitable Christian responses that were unsurprising to me – as a person who grew up in Christian communities in which identifying as both LGBTQ and Christian was oxymoronic at best and a sinful abomination at worst.
Many responses were centered on a pseudo-Christian axiom, found nowhere in the Bible but parroted in pulpits across the United States: hate the sin, love the sinner. More often than not in sermons or blogs or devotionals, this phrase was somehow connected to Jesus and his ministry to the “sinners” on the margins of his culture and society.
The thing is, in my experience of the church (I’m going on 26 years now), I’ve rarely met Christians who truly know how to “hate the sin” without… hating. Not to mention the fact that this phrase is, simply, bad theology. So here’s my request to the churches I come from, the communities I loved well, and who for a time contributed to my spiritual development:
Enough is enough. There needs to be a new message, something radically different from “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Jesus never said it. And he was conspicuously silent about issues of sex and sexuality. He did, however, say that loving God and loving others was crucial. In fact, there were no greater commandments than these (Mark 12:28ff).
I’ve theorized before about the statistics that indicate that my generation is rapidly leaving Protestant churches. I truly think that young adults like myself struggle to find spiritual communities that are both welcoming and relevant, that will love them for who God has created them to be rather than throwing them out for deviating from culturally-constructed norms pertaining to gender, sexuality, etc. Churches these days seem less about loving diversity, embracing ambiguity, and creatively processing our collective journey through life, and are instead more concerned with deciding who’s in and who’s out, who’s the sinner and who’s the saint. The recent suicides from LGBTQ bullying should be more than enough to catalyze Christians into rethinking what they know (or assume they know) about love and sin.
I’ve come to accept that God transcends our definitions, gender binaries, sexualities, and prejudices. And I firmly believe that a person needs to possess the freedom to name themselves so that no institution, peer group, church, or scriptural hermeneutic holds the power over their positive claim on self-identity. I continue to hope that “all things” about my religious tradition “will be made new” so that eventually we'll have a bolder vision of God’s justice and welcome to all, that we’ll figure out how to love and accept difference before the LGBTQ community ultimately leaves the church because of righteous frustration, despair, or worse.