Always Them, Never Us: Parsing the Evangelical Response to Pulse

Today I watched the video of the most recent Sunday service at my old church, in which the senior pastor begins by discussing the massacre of LGBT clubgoers in Orlando. I wrote a long series of tweets about this, but I have more to add, and I want to collect my thoughts into something more coherent. I am choosing not to link to the church’s website, because my intention is not to single out this one church; rather, I view their response as consistent with and emblematic of the response of white evangelicals to the Pulse shooting.

First, here is a full transcription of the senior pastor’s remarks about Pulse. I apologize for the length, but since I’m not linking to the video, I want to make sure I’m including the full context:

[Last Sunday] As we were finishing our time of worship, I’m sure the news hit many of you that there was another mass shooting in our country. I know that as the news began to trickle out, and as we began to learn more and more, we learned that forty-nine lives were lost and many, many were wounded. And although this has become somewhat of a regular occurrence, every time it seems to break the news, once again we are shocked. 

I think this time in many ways we were shocked because of the hate-filled nature of this particular crime against predominately the LGBT community and in that particular nightclub that they were attending. Why I bring it up today is because I have the feeling the world is wondering, how will the church react? Here is a community of people that live a lifestyle that is contrary to our own, and they understand that. And I have a feeling that many are wondering, how do we, as those who don’t agree with their lifestyle, feel about such a tragedy? Well that should go without saying that we can answer that very quickly: that we mourn with those who mourn, we weep with those who weep – that our hearts are broken. Here were men and women created in the image of God, cut down in life. And for that, and that alone, we weep and we find sorrow. 

I hope you feel that same way, and I hope throughout the week you have been praying not only for the victims’ families and loved ones, but for our country, and for the LGBT community, that they might see that even though we might disagree with their lifestyle, we still have a fervent love for them in the name of Jesus Christ, and we would like to see nothing better than for them to embrace the God that we love. 

I hope you are portraying that with those around you. We are attempting to do that here: we lowered our flag half staff, we have been having strategic conversations with those among our neighbors and neighborhood – we know we live directly across the street from [state university] and there is a large LGBT community [there] – and we are doing our best to express our grief and our love, and at the same time being an open door to be able to proclaim Christ. 

Let’s take a moment and let’s pray not only for our country, but for the victims and the victims’ families. 

Heavenly Father, our heart is broken not only because of the tragedy, but because of the lives that were lost that represent image-bearers. I pray that the surrounding community and our world would begin to see the Church of Jesus Christ rise up as a community of people who love not only one another but love outward to the world. We do weep with those who weep; we pray for those who have lost loved ones and family members and who are heartbroken now, one week later. We pray that you would use the Church of Christ to be the place of healing for many. May the walls come down that separate us as we share the gospel that has a transforming element that transforms those who are far from God, dead in their sins, into adopted sons and daughters, alive in Christ. May that be the outcome. 

Thank you for the grace that you give us; thank you for the forgiveness of sins; thank you that you don’t require us to become something else before coming to you, but we came as we were. May that be the reality of the gospel spread throughout a world that desperately needs it. And may they see Jesus in us.  

Okay. Disregarding the awkwardness of some of his language — he’s defaulting to verbal tics like “not only… but…” because, I think, he’s uncomfortable — this is a solid example of the way most white American evangelicals I know have framed their reaction to Pulse. There have been a handful of vocal religious leaders who have used the Pulse massacre as an opportunity to double down on anti-LGBT rhetoric, but most of the “normal,” non-extreme reactions I’ve seen from evangelicals look like this one, and so I want to examine the rhetorical moves it’s making.

1. Centering Christians in the conversation. The pastor begins his remarks about the massacre by saying that he’s discussing it for the benefit of people outside the church who are wondering what the Church (collectively – he’s acting as a spokesperson here) has to say. His statement isn’t about the people at Pulse; it’s about Christians reacting to Pulse. If not for the need to explain the Church’s position, “it should go without saying … that our hearts are broken.” By framing it this way, he’s saying that he’s not speaking to the victims or to his flock, but to an audience of outside onlookers, about himself and his fellow Christians. 

2. Establishing an “us” and a “them.” This happens right off, too: “Here is a community of people that live a lifestyle that is contrary to our own … how do we, as those who don’t agree with their lifestyle” – and so on. He makes no effort to soften the us-vs-them dichotomy he sees; as far as he’s concerned, there’s no overlap between people who might be “in that particular nightclub” and people who might be in his pews – or in the Christian community as a whole.

This idea that LGBT people aren’t Christians and Christians aren’t LGBT people isn’t just an unfortunate error of phrasing, but a central theological belief. To show this, I’m going to refer to one of a half dozen articles on this same church’s website expounding on their beliefs. In a paper titled “God’s Design for Sexual Intimacy,” one of the church’s pastors writes:

We believe every act of homosexuality is sin. … We believe that same-sex attraction in and of itself is only a temptation to sin and distinct from the sinful acting out of that desire. … We believe all who remain in unrepentant sexual sin will be excluded from the eternal kingdom of God. …

[However], God has chosen to save to himself people from among the unrighteous. People that he washed, sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus! People completely enslaved in every form of sin, sexual and otherwise. … We believe new life in Christ, not past or present sin, determines one’s identity and future. (Emphasis mine)

Did you catch that move there? What they’re saying is that the true Christian will no longer be “enslaved in” – i.e., participating in – gay stuff, and those who do gay stuff aren’t close to God. No Christians would have been at Pulse, because a true Christian wouldn’t do such a thing. When an LGBT person becomes a Christian, a according to this theology, they are given the power to resist LGBT temptation and a new, non-LGBT identity. If someone still identifies as LGBT, then they must not be a Christian. They’re mutually exclusive. That’s what the senior pastor meant by the “transforming element” of the gospel.

3. Reminding Christians that queer people are people, too — but that Christians know best. Twice the senior pastor describes the Pulse victims as bearing the image of God, and I read this as a subtle but intentional reminder of this to his parishioners, and a statement to any outside listeners, that queer people are fully human. He’d have good reason to think this reminder is necessary; there’s such a vocal contingent of evangelicals who believe LGBT people are subhuman that I’m not going to bother providing links here. So he’s reminding (if not rebuking) his congregation that LGBT people are also made in God’s image.

In fact, he says, they’re “men and women created in the image of God.” Again, this language is intentional; he could’ve chosen other collective nouns to describe the people at Pulse. But in speaking about people at a queer club, where it’s likely that people of myriad gender identities beyond “men and women” were present, he chose language that erases those identities — in keeping with his church’s theology that God makes people as either male or female, determined by genitalia at birth. He’s insisting to his congregation that “we,” Christians, know better than “them,” queer people, who they are.

So what he’s doing with this phrase, “men and women created in the image of God,” is gently rebuke Christians who dehumanize LGBT people….while paternalistically asserting that Christians know better than LGBT people about their identities. (Golly, with framing like that, where on earth might a Christian get the idea that queer people aren’t God-imaging like them?)

4. Reaffirming the borders of evangelicalism. Fred Clark at Slacktivist has written extensively about how evangelicalism requires its members to affirm anti-LGBT and anti-abortion tenets (and how these tenets are proxies for anti-blackness, but that’s another post). The anti-LGBT tenet is apparent in the senior pastor’s remarks above, where he explicitly states three times that he (and the other Christians that he’s speaking on behalf of) “disagree[s] with their lifestyle”; that those killed at Pulse lived “a lifestyle contrary to our own.” This disclaimer is almost reflexive for evangelicals at this point. It functions as an in-group signifier, a flag for evangelical gatekeepers that while he may be speaking compassionately about LGBT people, he’s still solidly anti-gay. He has to couch his “love” in “but we disagree with their lifestyle!” to ensure that no one mistakes his love for approval. 

And it’s a deeply weird thing to say, frankly. It would be like if I couldn’t talk about my brother without reminding anyone in earshot that I sure do love him even though I disagree with his white cishet male lifestyle. Outside of this context, humans don’t talk this way, and with good reason — it’s supremely alienating. If I stressed that my brother’s white cishet male lifestyle is contrary to my own lifestyle every time I mentioned him, it wouldn’t take long for him — and any other white cishet males within earshot — to deduce that I don’t actually see him as a whole person, but foremost as someone whose lifestyle I disagree with. I’d be demonstrating that it’s more important for me to reassert my beliefs every time we interacted, rather than actually loving and being in fellowship with him.

TL;DR: What this all boils down to is that queer people are always Them, never Us. Image-bearers of God, but not fully human. Queer people are Others, not family. Those killed at Pulse died in unrepentant sexual sin, and so they are “excluded from the eternal kingdom of God,” forever outside of God’s love and God’s family. And so this pastor and his church — and the rest of the evangelicals who believe and speak this way about queer people — can be sad about this tragedy from afar, but they can never truly “mourn with those who mourn,” because there is no with. For these Christians, the best possible outcome from the Pulse massacre is for other queer people to cross over from Them to Us, abandoning their identities in the process.

That’s a kind of love we can do without.


For more about the evangelical response to Pulse, I recommend these excellent posts:

“Hate Doesn’t Always Come at the Point of a Gun,” on Love, Joy, Feminism

“Yes, You Hate Me: Christians and Homophobia,” by Samantha Field

“Great Grief,” by Austin Channing

“Why Does Dr. James Dobson Pretend He’s Sad About Dead LGBTQ Folks?” on Sarah Over The Moon

“Some Thoughts on Orlando,” on Registered Runaway

 

 

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