Beware comment sections.
I recently wrote a piece here at RLC arguing for affirmation and inclusion of LGBTQ Christians on the basis of compassion. Whenever one of my articles goes live, I also post it to my Facebook, hoping the people in my social network will read the materials and engage in thoughtful dialogue. The comment section that erupted when I posted that piece was so instructive that I’ve spent some time reflecting on it. If you’ve spent any time online recently in social settings, you’ve likely witnessed a familiar phenomenon: the evangelical gaze.
But first, let’s consider the OG gaze—the white gaze—courtesy of Willie James Jennings’s masterpiece, The Christian Imagination (the next four paragraphs are based almost entirely on my limited understanding of this wonderful book).
Race (as a concept, or more accurately a construct) was developed as a tool for the colonial project. European colonizers created a racial scale with Whiteness at the top and Blackness at the bottom. Any people group living outside Europe—regardless of where they were from, or what their distinct art, beliefs, and practices were—registered as some version of Black. While there were hierarchical distinctions in this scale (some peoples were more similar to Europeans in skin tone or culture), Blackness was a category that cut across continents, cultures, and languages.
What’s crucially important for our reflection here is that the real goal of the racial scale was to establish, empower, and protect Whiteness. Whiteness (along with the Europeans who embodied it) was not only the pinnacle of the scale but was its “organizing conceptual framework”—only those in the White category could determine the race of another people, based on how that people related to the features of Whiteness.
Here we see the origins of the white gaze—that evaluative posture by which white people judge the beauty, truth, and goodness of all people and peoples. And the difficult truth many Christians today must face is the historical entanglement between colonialism and Christianity. For centuries, the white gaze was (and in some ways, still is) fused with Christian mission to carry forward a world-reshaping colonial project.
Jennings brilliantly describes this fusion as the moment when the ancient principle of faith seeking understanding mutated to faith judging intelligence. Christianity’s adoption of this evaluative posture, this seat atop the religious scale from which it judges all beliefs and traditions against itself, has had tragic consequences. One of them, according to Jennings, is the complete absence of theological concurrency—the possibility that people with different ways of thinking might form intimate relationships and actually learn from each other.
No, in the colonial project (as in today’s evangelical America), those atop the scale would be doing all the teaching.
It is easy enough to find the evangelical gaze alive and well in our time. One prime example is in evangelical mission work. (I was an evangelical missionary for five years.) When being trained to enter a new context, a missionary is of course taught important lessons about cultural norms and the need to be sensitive. In the everyday aspects of learning a new culture, there is a sense of mutuality and even humble submission to the native people. But not so with the theological mission itself! The missionary is indeed trained to ask questions to learn the native person’s beliefs. Once those beliefs are known, the playbook is clear: affirm what can be affirmed (read: what conforms to my interpretation of the Bible), and challenge anything that can’t be affirmed (read: what is contrary to my interpretation of the Bible).
How can there be any concurrency in a dialogue like this? What can the missionary learn, theologically speaking, from the other person? Nothing! Because anything the person says will be mentally held up against what the missionary already believes about the Bible’s contents. If it matches, then great! If it doesn’t, the missionary must pivot to sharing the gospel message. The theological learning only moves in one direction, and only the missionary can decide if learning has successfully taken place.
This brings us back, I’m afraid, to the comment section of my Facebook post. For there, too, the evangelical gaze is alive and well. In my post, I invited people to engage in kind, thoughtful dialogue—with a reminder and caution that this is a deeply personal issue, and that many queer people would be reading the comment section. This warning failed to mitigate the evangelical gaze as it went to work comparing both me and LGBTQ folks against itself. And just as white colonizers found new peoples around the globe to be deficient in their measuring of white European-ness, so these commenters found both me and my queer friends to be deficient in their measuring of conservative evangelical-ness.
The effects of this evaluation—this judgment—are of course brutal for LGBTQ folks. Two commenters explicitly stated that there will be eternal consequences for any practicing gay person who does not repent of this sin (i.e. live a celibate life). One commenter said he will not attend any same-sex weddings, should he be invited to one.
So to be clear, I’m not the victim here. But I do want to point out that the evangelical gaze—like its white cousin—does not spare anyone. Because I had departed from the accepted evangelical interpretations of a few Bible verses, I too needed to be judged. One commenter told me that people would be in danger of hellfire if they read and believed my words. Another said I was only interested in proving people wrong, drowning out their views, and relying on “appeals to emotion.”
Friends, I’m sure that if you’ve taken a risk to speak, stand, or act for anyone in the margins, you too have felt the pain that comes with solidarity. I pray you will not grow weary! We are all called to follow Jesus into intimacy with those who are hurting and oppressed.
I hope that as you’ve taken even small steps like mine to work for justice, you have had the blessing to see some fruit. When I posted my article, even as the evangelical gaze turned upon me, I received a private message from an old friend of mine who is queer. They told me that reading my piece was “the first time in a long time I haven’t felt hated from someone who I associate with the church.”
Those words, while affirming to me, are utterly heartbreaking.
But I hope they inspire you, as they do me, to keep working for love and justice. Even when judgment is lurking. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from my comment section, when I replied to someone who warned me that I am heading down a dangerous path:
We have arrived at something we can agree on: I am walking down a dangerous road. The road of solidarity with oppressed and marginalized people is always dangerous. It was dangerous for the prophets, dangerous for Jesus, and it is dangerous for folks like me. It’s dangerous because there is always a powerful religious class (Pharisees, conservative evangelicals) who benefit from maintaining a status quo that privileges people who look, act, and think like they do, a status quo that provides the absolution and sanction they need. When those privileges are threatened, it means danger for those in the margins and anyone who chooses to stand with them.
Perhaps someday you’ll join me where it’s dangerous.