Week 6 Supplement- Erasing Otherness

David Khalaf is a fiction writer living in Portland, Oregon. He and his husband, Constantino, are the authors of Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, forthcoming from Westminster John Knox Press, January 2019. The book will be made available for purchase on Amazon.

No matter where we exist in society, each of us is susceptible to diminishing the other. I was reminded of this one day while I was walking home from the gym and passed a dead bird on the sidewalk. It was a baby bird, not quite a fledgling, that looked as if it had fallen out of its nest. One leg was crooked, and there were a couple of flies on it. I cringed, stepped past the carcass, and muttered one word to myself: gross.

I walked half a block, stopped, and turned around. I’m not sure why. Maybe I figured I would kick it away from the sidewalk or find a piece of cardboard to scoop it into a nearby trash can. When I returned, the bird was still there, motionless, accumulating more flies. I bent over and, on a hunch, blew softly on it. The bird moved. It fluttered its fuzzy wings and kicked its little legs, even the one that looked broken. It shook the flies off itself and opened its beak, gasping for air.

In that moment, my whole perception of the bird shifted. It was not something disgusting to be kicked aside or thrown in the trash. It was a creature that was injured and in pain, a creature desperate for help. Far from being gross, it was something to be sheltered and protected. With one little breath, the bird went from being a thing to being a being.

How did my attitude toward the bird turn so suddenly? What caused the shift? The bird hadn’t changed; only my perception of it had. The difference: I saw the life in it.

How often do we fail to see the life in other people? We do it with staggering frequency, every time we distance people from us by classifying them as other. On a macro level, we treat people as other when they are from a different country, or ethnicity, or religion, or region, or college, or political party. On a micro level, we dismiss individuals because they are weird, or poor, or ugly, or fat, or differently abled. It’s easy to categorize people; we’ve been doing it since we were children choosing tables in the cafeteria at lunch.

But the more we wedge otherness between us and those we don’t like or understand, the less humanity we see in them. This sense of otherness is the great chasm that still divides the LGBTQ community and the conservative church. By casting out queer Christians and the people who love them, the church has created a duality of in and out, a dividing line between those who are following God and those who, presumably, are misled. And the more barriers we put between us and another, the harder it is to see the light of the other person’s spirit, the easier it is to see them as aberrant and abhorrent, and the easier it is to withhold our empathy.

What’s the most common reaction of a person who has never seen two men kiss? Gross. Growing up as a kid in the 1980s, I heard it a thousand times. Gross. Is the only explanation for this visceral reaction that the act of two men kissing is inherently sinful and wrong? Or could it be that church and culture have created so much distance between themselves and the others that they are too far away to recognize a simple expression of love as anything but gross? When we disassociate ourselves from people, they stop being beings and become things. They are dead birds, worthy of nothing but a trash bin.

This is why we see our relationship as one small contribution to a larger mission. As the number of LGBTQ marriages in the world grows, that foreignness people feel toward queer couples will start to diminish. Normalization, however, is only the first step. The hard work in healing the divide is in getting to know those who would reject us and showing them our humanity. Someone can’t be other when we’re doing life together. Someone can’t be gross when we’ve glimpsed the unfiltered, authentic humanity in them. This, of course, requires a willingness on both sides to see and be seen.

If only the church would look in the direction of LGBTQ people and watch them take a breath—see them kick and flutter, fighting for life in a hostile world. What a shift in perception the church would experience. Once we see the humanity in people, it’s impossible to dismiss them as things. No person could be gross, for each is a living, breathing reflection of God.

It’s important here to point out that progressive Christians also fall into the trap of labeling their conservative siblings as the other. Let us not extol ourselves as the nouveau righteous and dismiss those who for so long have dismissed us. If we hope for others to acknowledge our humanity, we must work to see theirs. Those on opposite ends of the theological spectrum or political aisle also flutter and kick in ways we may not see.

As for the actual bird, I contacted a local avian society and followed their instructions: I carefully scooped the bird into a box, then placed it beneath some shrubs for protection. The rest, they said, should be left to Mother Nature. The next time I passed that spot, the bird was gone. I wonder about it every time I go by, because I became invested in it—because for one moment in time we shared life together, and the heart doesn’t easily forget.

Excerpted from Modern Kinship: A Queer Guide to Christian Marriage, © 2019 David and Constantino Khalaf. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

  1. What thoughts and feelings come up when you think of the bird in the author’s story?

  2. Who in your life have you seen as "gross," sinful, or unworthy of your empathy? Have you felt that way about yourself?

  3. God sees the life and beauty in you at all times, even when you don’t recognize it yourself. In what ways can you begin to see yourself and others through God’s loving eyes?

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Week 6 Devotional- Empathy

I was about to explode with rage. My pride was on the line and I couldn’t let my partner at the time get away with mischaracterizing my behavior and intentions. I had to protect myself. We had been in this argument before. In fact, it was one of those arguments you repeat like a good Madonna song.

Needless to say, we were in a long-standing negotiation that looked more like a war zone than one of those conference rooms where deals are struck with handshakes and smiles. My immature tactics to pull him into deeper connectedness were shameful, and his resistance to my “controlling” tactics came across as selfishness. We were both hungry for something different.

In one of our heated arguments, I stepped away to cool down. Arguing had finally left me utterly sick and tired of feeling unheard. There had to be another way.

I replayed what he had been shouting for the last several months. It took me some time to imagine his emotional experiences of pleading and begging—especially when all he got in return were my demands, more of what I “needed.” In that quiet moment, as I sat on the edge of my bathtub, I could finally hear what he was saying. He wanted me to love the man he was, rather than force him into the man I thought he should become. Empathy allowed me to hear something other than my own voice. And when I apologized for not listening and insisting my needs be met first, I was able to recognize the damage I had created. In that moment, I think he had the same revelation. His apology came very soon thereafter.

For us, empathy created a sense of vulnerability and safety that allowed us to plunge into deeper relational waters where greater understanding dwells: he pleaded for the freedom of authenticity, and I was begging for a deep sense of safety. Both of our needs were valid. Maybe what kept us fighting was actually our need to get the other to bow down. Whatever it was, we couldn’t see that we were both right. In the end, I was hungry for safety and he was hungry for authenticity; I wasn’t controlling, and he wasn’t selfish. There was more than one version of truth. We needed to listen and empathize with one another to figure that out. To be honest, what shocked me most was learning that empathy did not make me wrong; it created room for his truth to be respected. Empathy saved the day.

To me, Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the greatest catalysts of empathy we read in the Bible. The book of Philemon is rather personal, more so than any other letter of Paul’s in the Bible. And it is often credited as more rhetorically acrobatic than any of Paul’s other letters. Some might say the book of Philemon is a plea wherein Paul tries to lovingly compel his comrade, Philemon. Many scholars, however, would say that Paul’s position as a Rabbi who had great social power gives this letter a rather passive-aggressive, maybe even slightly manipulative tone. I would agree. Paul surely leveraged his privilege and used cunning language and emotional tactics to pressure Philemon.

Paul starts by characterizing his affections. Onesimus had become Paul’s very heart, a sentiment mothers echo when they tell her sons, “You are my heartbeat.” Later, Paul pens one of my favorite lines in this short, but pertinent, letter: “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (Philemon 1:17). Essentially, Paul asserts his power over Philemon, motivating Philemon with guilt more than sincerity. One of the more audacious uses of guilt we see is when Paul encourages Philemon to make a decision out of his “own free will” (Philemon 1:14).

Later in the letter, we read that Philemon may have banished Onesimus because of outstanding debts (which Paul offers to repay). Paul not only asks that Philemon welcome Onesium back, but that he also see Onesimus not as a slave, but as “a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16). Essentially, Paul asks that any disagreement with or wrongdoing committed by Onesimus be forgiven, and—because he is loved—that he be received as an equal. Cunningly, Paul binds Philemon’s moral autonomy.

We do not have an account of what actually happened when Onesimus appeared on Philemon’s door step. But if Onesimus showed up at my door after racking up a debt and Paul had written his letter to me, I might need to have another sit-down, come-to-Jesus moment on the edge of my bathtub. I would need to swallow some pride and rehearse what it would feel like to love Onesimus, just as Paul had. I would have to find the grace to forgive Paul’s guilt-ridden measures and Onesimus’ wrongdoings, but also the willingness to love again.

Empathy that changes lives, restores relationships, and honors the humanity of another is particularly hard, especially when we sit at the top of the “privileged” food chain. Genuine empathy does not, and cannot, maintain the binaries of relational dualism—right versus wrong, the “accurate” version of truth versus the “off-base.” The practice of empathy requires that we simply listen to understand another’s equally valid perspective. Empathy teaches us about the major contradictions that often appear in relationships and the spiritual formation process. As Christian sojourners, we must be prepared to embrace paradoxes, especially if we aim to live in healthy community.

Walking side by side will often require empathy because we all have conflicting—and sometimes competing—needs, wants, convictions, and comforts. What I need in one moment might very well contradict what my neighbor, partner, or parent needs at the very same moment. In relationships, we must find the empathy that helps us honor and respect all involved. Empathy isn’t easy, but it will change the course of your relationships. I promise.

Questions for this week’s devotional:

  1. How might empathy help your relationships transition and transform?

  2. Is there a situation in your life that could benefit from your empathy?

  3. How might you use empathy to support another, even if they challenge or disagree with you?

  4. How might empathy create space for another’s version of truth, a version of truth that might create more relational intimacy?

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Week 4 Devotional: The Imperative Common Denominator

Like the mother of the beloved child in 1 Kings 3:16-28, is it important that we strive to create safety for everyone’s journey, not only by relinquishing the pursuit of being proven right before the Judge, but also by prioritizing your neighbor’s internal essence over it’s external expression. Such a prioritization gives us the ability to love beyond differences and allows us to respect one another’s unique spiritual journey.

Mission, Vision, & Values

Q Christian Fellowship has a bold mission. As we continue to mature and grow, it is important to periodically clarify for the community our focus as an organization dedicated to LGBTQ+ affirming work in the world. It is imperative to maintain social, theological, and relational relevance within the world that we influence.  Above all else, we will seek to love through differences.