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.
What thoughts and feelings come up when you think of the bird in the author’s story?
Who in your life have you seen as "gross," sinful, or unworthy of your empathy? Have you felt that way about yourself?
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?