Unless you have lived in some kind of media-sheltered cave this week, even if you aren’t the least bit interested in sports, you have heard about the “coming out party” for NBA player Jason Collins. His big front page “coming out of the closet” article in Sports Illustrated hit news stands this week and it has been news worthy for all kinds of media outlets ever since. The opening words of the article, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” sound the gong of new ground having been broken by homosexuals – Collins is the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports leagues. The major American sports leagues have been one of the last unploughed cultural frontiers in the drive toward cultural acceptance for homosexuals. With the publication of Collins’s article, all hell has broken loose on that front.
At the risk of adding more noise to the cacophony this story has created, it does hit at the heart of where my study and thinking have been consumed over the past several months. Over the winter, I talked with a well known blog about contributing articles at the intersection of sports and theology. We were unable to put together a working relationship as I could not provide a definitive answer to my “stance” on homosexuality that they approved of. Somewhere, those guys are breathing a sigh of relief after this article broke! Next month I’m presenting a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference in Nashville, TN entitled “The Power of Sports: A Theological Inquiry into Sports as Exousia.” In it, I argue that sports is best understood as a spiritual Power – the same rubric under which we would place politics, economics, technology, militarism, etc. The furor created by the Sports Illustrated article illustrates the powerful and prominent position of sports in our culture.
Additionally, the Collins story has broken just one week after I authored the candid and provocative piece, “Does a Pastor Have to Have an Answer about Homosexuality?” Ever since my first experience in ministry with teenagers, I have realized that this was the one issue that the church was not ready for . . . and I could hear the footsteps of culture alerting that we had better get ready. The fight for the rights of homosexuals and their cultural acceptance has gone on unrelentingly for better than a decade now (though the real fight has been waging since the 1960’s.). Collins acknowledges the recent burgeoning influence of acceptance in his article and how it has paved the way for him to go public, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”
There is so much to say about this, and there is no shortage of opinions around the world wide web and from television’s talking heads, but I am interested in mentioning a few ways as to how I believe Jason Collins’s story impacts the church as we attempt to catch up in our reflections on homosexuality.
First of all, this is simply another episode highlighting just how pervasive the homosexual orientation is. Collins says that he’s 34, black, and gay – but he’s also huge (7 feet tall), articulate, funny, masculine, well educated (he went to Stanford), from a Christian home (he doesn’t state that he is a Christian in the article, but does say, “My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,”), and, rather incredibly, has an identical twin brother who was unaware of his sexual orientation until last summer when his brother told him. If nothing else, hopefully, Jason Collins can help us finally cast aside the preconceived notions that remain of homosexuals as only effeminate males and masculine females. Clearly, one of the messages the church has to learn from Jason Collins is that our churches are comprised of men and women who have a homosexual orientation – they look like everyone else.
Secondly, as Collins states in the article, times are changing. He says that he couldn’t have done this ten years ago, I think back to the climate in athletics when I was in high school twenty years ago (OK, not quite 20, but close enough!) . . . and to think that there would have been an openly gay player in the NBA – it would not have been believable (and it would not have been well received). Christian alarmist will bemoan the changing culture and note how the culture is at war with the church and that we must hold true to the timeless teachings of the Bible. I understand this concern. I understand the great fear that comes from change. However, as times change, our study of the Bible changes. Maybe God’s Word does never change, but as we ask new questions of it, we may face new answers. I am in the process of reading the book, God’s Gay Agenda, by the openly lesbian pastor, Sandra Turnbull, which I plan to review sometime next week here. She’s got me thinking about things I’ve never thought about, even though they’ve been in the Bible the whole time I’ve been reading it and earning degrees studying it. How often have we studied eunuchs in the ancient world? What do they have to do with homosexuals? I don’t know . . . I just know that I have spent a lot of time in theology classes and exegesis classes – and we’ve never touched on this one. New times are forcing new questions upon us, and those new questions are bringing us to new places in the Scriptures. People who are attracted to the same sex are beckoning the church toward a better understanding of them. No matter what beliefs you may hold on the matter, can’t we at least agree that, unless you are attracted to the same sex to some degree, there is part of them we just don’t understand?
Finally, this discussion is important (maybe even crucial), but we must keep it in perspective. Throughout the article, Collins makes the point that (almost defensively) he’s the same guy that everyone knew. I love the “Three Degrees of Jason Collins” metaphor that he uses – Collins has had a long career in the NBA and has played for several different teams, so no one is separated from him by more than three degrees. Now, everyone in the NBA is connected to someone who is openly gay. And he’s been gay all along. He has a great sense of humor (I love the message he sends to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in the article – “Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.” Being gay is part of Jason Collins, it is not his entirety. One of the important things that church’s must realize in moving forward in this discussion is that sexuality has a place, but must never be at the center of our discussions. From the way Christians often speak, you’d think that our sexuality was our identity. Every gay person I’ve ever known has wanted what Jason Collins wants – “Know that I’m gay, but know that it doesn’t define who I am, no more than your heterosexuality defines you.”
That, I am afraid, may be our biggest obstacle. One of my professors from Fuller, Dr. John Drane, who lives in Scotland, shared an article on Facebook last week about gender and sexuality and noted, “There’s a lot to like about this, but I still can’t get my head around why the main things Christians seem to obsess about nowadays are all about sex of one sort or another. What’s happened that we never hear much about that other three letter word, GOD – except, of course, when God is brought in to back up opinions on the aforementioned obsession with sex.” Really, really well said.
So . . . if it hadn’t already hit the fan, it certainly has now. What next, church? How do we navigate this challenging way forward? How can we have open conversations where we are free to disagree and diverge in our opinions, and yet still promote an openness that is immersed in grace? How can we create atmospheres where homosexuals can feel free to talk openly about their struggles and challenges and not feel judged? How do we address topis of sexuality, but not let them so consume us that we allow our conversations about God to go neglected? And, when push comes to shove, and the rubber meets the road, how do our churches minister to and alongside homosexuals? Where is their place in our congregation? We don’t have to have the answers to all of these questions, but we sure the hell better be ready to ask them.