The first woman I heard preach was a lesbian at a UCC church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that then became my church home in my early twenties. In Hope and Suffering, Desmond Tutu states that if apartheid were shown to be a Biblical teaching that he would burn his Bible and cease to be a Christian. These two statements that may seem like they have very little to do with each other are both the legacy of reformed theology. It is the same Calvinist Congregationalists in New England who are remembered for scarlet letters and hysterical witch trials who now wear rainbow pins that declare “open and affirming,” and actually embody that ideal by ordaining and installing GLBTQ clergy. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 1994 that apartheid was repealed in South Africa. Apartheid was an abuse of reformed theology to justify keeping whites better than blacks.
I stumbled into that church in Harvard Square with belief in God and anger at church. When I arrived, I found love and hope and my faith again. We actually read more scripture in worship in that church than any other church I’ve ever attended. I was also struck by how much we prayed to the Holy Spirit for guidance in our decisions. But then the reformed understanding of church is “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit. The Bible is the glasses through which we come to knowledge of God and ourselves. But the Holy Spirit helps us understand how we should use and interpret scripture. We are always being reformed because more often than not we exchange the glory of God for mere idols of our own invention.
I had only been attending First Church a few weeks when they announced they were calling Mary as pastor. Everything I had ever been taught to that point was that homosexuality was a sin but then I had also been told that women couldn’t be pastors. I had an internal struggle in which I prayed to God to really convict me if this was a sin. It should have been easy since this was not my personal “sin” and I had yet to invest much emotional energy in these people. Yet, I felt no such personal conviction and had to admit to myself that every prejudice I could muster belonged to someone else, but not to me. I know now why; Homophobia is rooted in sexism and I was deeply wounded by sexism.
When I see articles like this one about “Reformed” Christian marriage, I cannot help but see echoes of the same reasoning used to justify apartheid. The real reason same sex marriage threatens traditional marriage is because it exposes the rigidity of traditional gender roles. There are times when I think that we can lay out most of the big issues with which our current generation struggles with the church and link them all to heterosexism based on gender essentialism. Our emotional struggle with substitutionary atonement (that God demanded Christ’s death to satisfy God’s honor) has to do with beliefs about maleness that our current generation understands less and less. We struggle with concepts like eternal damnation because most of us do not apply outdated gender essential categories of maleness to God even when we call God “him.” We do not imagine that this sort of attitude towards sinners and those who disagree with us as normative for femaleness. And in our current time, most of us cannot see this sort of anger as normative for maleness either. Today’s good father changes diapers and offers to make his wife or his husband a sandwich. Maleness as distant, authoritative, arbitrary, and only showing anger as an emotion is becoming a relic of the past that our current generation overwhelmingly rejects.
In No Future without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about the psychologically dehumanizing effects of growing up in an apartheid culture and being taught inferiority. The example that struck me most was a gut reaction of fear he felt when there wasn’t a white man in the cockpit on a turbulent flight. He realized in that terrible moment that he had “accepted a white definition of existence.” What he described in this experience resonated with the type of doubt and self doubt I know too well as a woman in our heterosexist world. Accepting a culturally constructed, male dominant definition of existence and marginalizing our own experiences is not trusting God, scripture, or confessions over our feelings; it is trusting culturally constructed, male dominant feelings. For protestant Christians who emphasize the priesthood of all believers, it is allowing other people’s experiences to mediate between us and God.
When reformed Christians speak of total depravity, what we mean is that we are so blinded by sin that we cannot perceive the fullness of life that God intends for us. Any arguments for heterosexism based on looking at common patterns of human behavior cross culturally, past or present are based on an assumption that we can determine good, evil and the fullness of God by looking at ourselves. This flies in the face of reformed theology. If heterosexism is the second oldest sin then it is only because sin itself seems so natural.
The Belhar Confession was written to renounce the sin of apartheid. It states, “Therefore we reject any doctrine which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation.” Heterosexism is at its core an absolutization of natural diversity that is hindering and breaking the visible and active unity of the church. The crisis of today is that many are letting their Bibles collect dust and ceasing to be Christians rather than accept that heterosexism is a Biblical teaching. Reformed theology has everything to do with renouncing this sin.