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Monday, July 30, 2012

Cracked vessels

This is Jonathan Merritt, son of Dr. James Merritt, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who describes himself as an conservative, evangelical, Southern Baptist Environmentalist who is a faith and culture writer.

The internet has been buzzing for a week about the fact that his "friend", Azariah Southworth, described as a "a “gay, former evangelical blogger,” wrote about an "encounter" the two had during which, Merritt says, they "had physical contact that went beyond the bounds of friendship."

Apparently, that "experience" was in 2009 when the two met for dinner to talk about a blog Merritt had written in which he says that "“Christians must love people who experience sexual brokenness.”  It "happened" as the two were saying their goodbyes. 

The "encounter" came to light after Merritt publicly supported Chick-fil-A restaurants and their stance against homosexuality in general and Marriage Equality in particular. Merritt has said he believes that homosexuality is a sin and favors traditional marriage. 

Merritt and Southworth never met again and stopped corresponding “after a period of time.”

He also said that he does not consider himself gay.
“I don’t identify as ‘gay’ because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers. I'm a cracked vessel held together only by God's power. And I'm more sure each day that only Christ can make broken people whole."
Pop Quiz: Merritt had this "experience" because:
A. It was a set-up - an entrapment by a wicked gay former evangelical to embarrass and shame him.
B. It was an "accident" - because, you know, boys will be boys.
C. Merritt was abused/molested as a child. 
D. Merritt is gay and "struggles" with his homosexual orientation.
E. It is evidence of "The Fall" and further evidence that if you accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of your life, you can "follow the right path" to redemption and salvation (read: Get rid of 'Teh Gay' - because, you know, it's a "choice").
F. All of the above.
Here's the thing: I think "outing" is a very personal matter. I think every LGBT person has to make the decision for her/himself about how public they want to be about a very private matter. I'm not thrilled that Sally Ride 'outed' herself in her obituary but, bottom line, that was her call. Not mine.
On the other hand, when a person takes a public stand about a controversial issue...well....people who live in glass houses should never throw stones. 

I'm not thrilled about this "outing" of Jonathan Merritt. I understand, but I'm not thrilled - for a lot of reasons - but mostly because the evangelical crowd has gotten very slick about the spin they use to "explain away Teh Gay". Their natural default setting is that being gay is not genetic but a choice. 

Choice = Sin.  Especially if you choose to be who you understand yourself to be and come out as an LGBT person - but not if you are an LGBT person who chooses to be something you are not.

You have to "submit to God's will" and "follow God's plan" = What we (the Conservative /  Evangelical / Southern Baptists) have determined is "right", based on an "orthodox" ("correct") reading of Holy Scripture.  

Note Merritt's carefully worded response: “I don’t identify as ‘gay’ because I believe there can be a difference between what one experiences and the life that God offers.”  

Merritt says that, "My story begins at a very young age when an older male who lived in our neighborhood sexually abused me. The experience was followed with a tidal wave of shame and guilt so great that I never told anyone for many years."

When asked how the experience "shaped" him, Merritt replies
"It's bred compassion in me towards others who wrestle with the baggage they carry in life. People like me who passionately pursue God--on His terms and not ours--experience incredible times of struggle along the way. I know what it is like to experience periods of depression, frustration, and confusion. And that's why I live out my calling the way I do, as best as I can, sometimes stumbling along the way."
 So, Merritt may well be gay - he's just choosing not to "identify as gay". 

He "struggles" with his "baggage", "sometimes stumbling along the way." 

It makes him more "compassionate".  He writes:
Although I was unable to choose when I would share some of these painful memories, I am thankful for the opportunity to share it now. I'm thankful that I am able to make better decisions about how to handle a difficult situation. And, I'm thankful that because of grace, I can identify with those who have dealt with similar situations. He said he remains “committed to living the life God demands for those who follow him,” including “the Bible's unambiguous standards for sexuality.”
And, if Jonathan Merritt can do it, why, so can you. And, you. And, YOU! Bonus points: You will become "more compassionate" to others who "struggle" with their sexual orientation and follow "the life that God offers".

See? Just look at those "mean gays" - those "former evangelicals" who "outed" him.  However,
Southworth himself said,
"Exposing this truth of Jonathan’s sexual orientation is not an easy decision for me. I take no pleasure in doing this. As I type this my stomach is turning because I know of the backlash he will receive. I have thought about what all of this will mean for him and for me. I base my reasoning in the importance of living an authentic and honest life. We must have radical honesty in the character, intentions and identities of our leaders.”
Here's the thing: I believe Jonathon Merritt believes every word he is saying. I mean, really, given his family ties and "the life" it offers him, what choice does he have, really? He has made the choice that works for him - even if that means denying an essential part of how he understands himself and his relationship with God and the rest of the world as he knows it. 

As long as he doesn't hurt other LGBT people in the process, or stand in the way of determining how we see God's hand at work in our lives and the grace that comes from that, he has every right to life his life the way it works best for him.

Maybe he won't be so quick to stand up for businesses like "Chick-fil-A" that contribute millions of dollars to prevent LGBT people from living our God-given lives.

I just hate that other "Conservative / Evangelical / Orthodox / Southern Baptists" will spin this into their usual uber-Calvinist narrative about "human depravity". And, they will. They already have.

The hope I have is that we are seeing the emergence of the new face of evangelicals. More tolerant. More compassionate. More understanding and able to accept what is and not try to change everything to their understanding of how the world works and how people are made.

I've never been a big fan of "tolerance" but I'll take it over judgment and condemnation.

I wish Jonathon Merritt well. I trust his faith will guide him through the turbulent years ahead, knowing that this "encounter" and his earlier experiences of sexting and sharing "inappropriate emails" will follow him all the days of his life.

We're are all, as Merritt says, "cracked vessels held together only by God's power". We need to be "glue" for each other's brokenness - not using Scripture verses to clobber each other into shattered pieces, only to be put back together into the image others have of us. Rather we need to be about loving someone into being the person that is the image in God's eye when they were created.

That includes Jonathon Merritt.

I hope he continues to "passionately pursue God" on God's terms - and not those imposed upon him by either the Southern Baptist Church or the LGBT community - so that, when he stumbles again (and I have no doubt he will at least be seriously tempted to "stumble" again), he will know that God's hand will always be there to pick him up, dust him off, and place him back on the path that leads to Truth.

We call that "Grace".

No matter where that Path of Truth leads any one individual person,  it's an intensely personal journey between a human being and God.

And, that "choice"  is one we all have to live with - whether or not anyone else considers that a "sin".


James said...

If one understands the right-wing fundamentalist world, his "explanation' is perfectly logical. For the, there is no personal responsibility (but there IS personal responsibility for everyone else).

"It's not may fault I did the deed with another man, it was the devil who made me do it - the devil found an evil, depraved molester (and all child molesters are gay, of course) and that man abused me and confused me. It's not may fault, and I am not gay."

Now, when non evangelical right wingers do the deed with a person of the same sex, then THEY are 100 percent responsible for their actions.

This is 100 percent consistent with their theology, ideology, and theology. For them, it is logical.

Katherine Hayes said...

Young Mr. Merritt has such a nice smile. He looks so happy in these photos. I hope he can find real happiness in his heart to match that great smile.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

James - I know, I know. Here's another thing I know: He is the more moderate face of a very violently intolerant religion. I believe in evolution. At least my logic is consistent.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Katherine - I hope so,too. Truly happy people don't feel the need to make gay people unhappy.

Pfalz prophet said...

"Still east and west His love extends
And always, near or far,
He calls and claims us as his friends
And loves us as we are.

"Where generation, class or race
Divide us to our shame,
He sees not labels but a face,
A person, and a name."
Brian A. Wren

Mr. Merritt may honestly seek God, but he must also be humble enough to hear God's response. I defied God's will for me for decades. Exhausted and alone, only then was I ready to listen to God rather than the dogma drummed into my head by people like James Merritt and his denomination. And God immediately sent angels to me, five times in a period of four days, and things started getting better. Just wow.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Pfaltz - That moment of choice was yours to take or decline. Mr. Merritt must come to that moment for himself and have the same opportunity to turn down the noise and listen for the Truth about himself and his life.

That's not going to happen if LGBT people clobber him in the same way that the Evangelicals clobber us. Bottom line: it's his life. Only he gets to live it in the way he chooses.

MarkBrunson said...

You're a holy person, Elizabeth. I wish I could feel as you do, but, I look at that boyish smile and all I can think is "He knows what it's like and still happily does it to others!" There's something defective, inhuman in them - I reall believe that; they are broken vessels, not cracked. I wish I could feel there was hope for them.

I don't.

MadPriest said...

The problem is that not only did gay people allow the evanglelicals to set the agenda, they actually bought into it. They argued about nature v. nurture. Some staked everything on it. Maybe they wanted to be a different "species." We should have just said at the beginning that same gender, faithful, sexual relationships were not morally wrong whatever the circumstances, and refused to get involved in non-relevant arguments about personal sexuality.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Actually, I'm no more holy than you. I've just reached a point in my life where I recognize that, when an Evangelical says what to my ears sounds like "live and let live", I see signs of hope. Okay, so Merritt said "Chick-Fil-A" was okay in donating money to stop Marriage Equality, and he still wants to "convert" the heathen LGBT people but he doesn't use Scripture to clobber us - in fact, says it's wrong to do that. That's a bit of evolution I can applaud.

He's going to have to travel his own path. His torment is his own to deal with. As long as he doesn't torment anyone else, good on him.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MadPriest - You're right. Hindsight is always 20/20. We took the bait but I think, even so, we have made remarkable progress. I'm even willing to say that because their rhetoric ramped up to violence and hatred, we've made the progress we have. I think Merritt is smart enough to know that, so he's toning things down. I may well be terribly misguided and naive, but find some hope in that.

Mark said...

I am torn about this "outing." It is very risky outing someone who doesn't want to to be outed. Consider the consequences to Mr. Merritt. Azariah Southworth was pushing Mr. Merritt to leaving a religious tradition and his family, and this was done without adequate concern of consequence. What is Mr. Merritt had committed or commits suicide? Mr. Southworth would be as guilty as the bullies who pushed Tyler Clementi to suicide. Mr. Southworth may have had good intentions, but I am uncertain he considered the collateral damage.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Excellent point, Mark. Is "outing" a form of bullying? I think it may well be. However, in this case, Mr.Merritt doesn't deny that he's gay;he says he doesn't"identify" as being gay. And, he's a very public figure who has taken a very public stand to support an organization that gives millions of dollars to deny LGBT people their civil rights.

It's a bit more complicated in this particular case.

Anonymous said...

Outing is ethically problematic -- but not in this case. Jonathan publicly supported an anti-gay agenda while privately engaging in same-sex behaviours. I know he must be hurting right now, but public figures, whether bishops, politicians or columnists, need to be held to account. I wish Jonathan would now voice the experience of closeted gay Christians in the church, but he has already chosen to speak for a different constituency -- the very people who devalue gay people. That is a tragedy for him, personally. In order to be accepted by anti-gay evangelicals, he will now need to make comments that appeal to their anti-gay theology. He will speak about "struggling" with a temptation to sexual sin, rather than embracing his sexuality as a valued aspect of his personal identity.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Please, please, please, leave your name. I've only published your comments because you make a good point. I won't do it again because I've said that I won't publish anonymous comments and your excellent points make that "ethically problematic" for me.