Advocacy, Bridge-building and Personhood

Of late, I’ve taken to talking a fair bit about personhood in my various presentations. I find myself increasingly convicted and drawn to this concept as a critical piece in efforts of advocacy and bridge-building. When I think about the term personhood, I think of what essentially makes a person who they are. I think of unique individuals, all created in the image of God, all worthy of dignity and respect. Personhood is both a shared and a distinct reality. We share our humanness with one another – unique in all of God’s creation. But our experience of our personhood is distinct – mine is different from yours, yours it different from mine. Our personhood is made up of so many different factors. To name a few: personality, life experiences, values, emotional wellbeing, spiritual growth and vitality, self-awareness, family connectedness, gender identity, beliefs, hurts, successes, sense of responsibility, sexual identity, self esteem, virtues, body image, community support, ability to trust, convictions, experience of mutuality with others, degree of control, intelligence, humour, creativity, capacity to forgive, and comfort level with uncertainty, difference, failure, misunderstanding, and conflict. As I think about personhood, I envision all of these kinds of factors interacting with one another to make up the entirely original and organic package that is each one of us. When someone suggests that a person ought not to reduce their sense of self and identity to their sexuality – I agree. Given the list above, our sexuality is one of many factors. However, it is also a factor that interacts with all of the other factors of our personhood. It is a filter, so-to-speak, that influences the other factors and the subsequent expression of our personhood. In a similar way, other factors, influence our sexuality and how we express and navigate our journey as a sexual being. In this sense, rigid social constructs that define our sexuality will be limited in their effectiveness at capturing a sense of the fluid, interactive and complex aspects of our personhood. I can understand why people work to deconstruct the effect of such constructs. One such attempt that I have been encountering is hearing from people who choose to make no reference to their sexuality whatsoever in their description of themselves. My sense of this attempt, rather than the liberating effect celebrated by those who espouse it, is that such dismissal and amputation of the sexual aspect of our being actually impoverishes our sense of personhood. This impoverishment is due to the absence of considering how our sexuality interacts with all the other factors that make us who we are and how we relate and interact with others. So when someone says, “I’m a Christian man” as an expression of their identity, I fear that they are seeking to erase an essential aspect of their personhood. Making one’s commitment to be a Christ-follower the primary expression of one’s identity is a healthy and mature decision for those who prioritize their faith. I have often encouraged people to find their deepest grounding in the secure and confident knowledge that they are the Beloved of God. But limiting the experience of being a sexual person to a statement of one’s biological sex (and presumably some implication of their sense of gender identity) seems to me to be unhelpful reductionism. Every person is a sexual being. This would also include those who feel asexual, those who experience a sense of internal conflict with the direction of their attractions, or those who experience a fluid and shifting sense of their sexuality. We still relate to and interact with people relationally as those who are impacted by our sexuality. When I had this conversation recently with some individuals who were choosing to identify themselves only on the basis of their Christian faith and their biological sex, their response was that what I was describing was their personality – not their sexuality. This linguistic splitting of hairs seemed to me to be an attempt to disavow themselves from any implication their sexuality (in this case, the reality of lingering same-sex attraction despite living in the reality of opposite gender marriage) might have on their sense of personhood. At the end of the day, I’m merely a mainly straight gal who lacks post-grad credentials in psychology, but as someone who has spent years studying theology, it seems to me that this would sadden the Creator’s heart – because he made us to be sexual beings. And it is not outside of his awareness or understanding that within the human experience of personhood, some individuals, albeit a minority, experience difference from the mainstream. And this difference is something that is not outside of his redemptive and reconciling touch. Not in the sense of amputating or eradicating it – but in the sense of His delight in the ever evolving, ever developing tapestry of diversity that continues to paint the landscape of his crowning creation – human beings. Such difference can bring a richness, a refining difference, a sensitivity to the human experience as we encounter those who express themselves and relate to others in a unique manner – in part influenced by their experience of sexuality. Rather than rejecting such difference, I am more convinced than ever that we have the opportunity to embrace difference as a doorway to a deeper appreciation of human personhood. Advocacy, therefore, for those who find themselves on the margins, is about affirming the beauty of personhood within the individuals who find themselves outside the majority mainstream in their context. Being an advocate is about standing up for another person. It is about being willing to risk rejection from others in the mainstream because you choose to identify with those outside the mainstream. This risk is may be the most effective way to effect change. While it is essential for those on the margins to raise their voices, to assert the value of their personhood as equally valuable and worthy of dignity as any other person, it is unfortunately too convenient for those in the mainstream to disregard such voices as demanding, angry, aggressive, adversarial, or “having a chip on their shoulder”. It is hard to advocate for yourself when you are a minority. But when someone in the majority risks rejection, reputation, and access to the resources that come with being in the mainstream…. that can carry weight. It is the power of powerlessness in action. It is following the example of the Incarnation. I would differentiate advocacy from activism in this way: advocacy is about people and elevating personhood; activism is about issues. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with activism – but I would make such a distinction. I consider myself an advocate – not an activist (generally speaking). And I think bridge-building is most effective when people focus on advocacy rather than activism. Activism, while certainly necessary, inevitably polarizes people between those who agree with and promote an issue and those who disagree with and try to prevent an issue. Advocacy seeks to create space for all people, regardless of differences and disagreements, because it focuses on the common ground of our shared humanity and the necessity of valuing one another’s personhood. Advocacy remembers the words of Desmond Tutu, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself.” Issues are important. And thoughtful advocates need to be informed and sensitive to the reality of issues as they affect and impact the lives of those they seek to advocate for. But if they hope to build bridges in the midst of diversity and foster open dialogue and respectful relating in the midst of difference, they are perhaps better served by refraining from positioning themselves on particular contentious issues. They are perhaps wiser to invest their energies in taking risks for advocacy and standing in identification with people rather than positioning themselves on issues. They recognize that the fundamental change they long to see is equity among persons, mutual valuing among those who experience difference, and peace in the midst of competing agendas. They realize the hard, yet necessary work, of being present with multiple audiences where they can promote this vision of respecting one another’s personhood as a pathway to real and sustainable peace. A challenge to this idealistic vision is the reality that our personhood and the issues we care about collapse together into one cemented reality. When this happens, advocacy is only acceptable when positions on an issue are the same. This is understandable. We care about an issue – because it affects our sense of personhood. We feel that a given issue either impedes or encourages our growth, liberty and expression of our fullest personhood. So the idea that these can be neatly separated is often perceived to be unrealistic though perhaps not impossible. I know I have used this example before, but bear with me. I am a woman in ministry. I preach, teach, lead worship etc. Fulfilling this sense of God’s calling on my life is an extension and expression of my personhood. There are brothers and sisters in Christ who are deeply convicted that at least aspects of my fulfilling this call are contraindicated by Scripture. Some of them are activists in the sense that they seek to prohibit women from serving in ministry. They want to convince others that their position is the only true and correct one. Interestingly, some would also consider themselves to be advocates for women. They affirm that women are given spiritual gifts and ought to use them in advancing the Kingdom of God – but there are limits and conditions on how they can use their gifts. Now, I would disagree with them on some of the boundaries they place on women. But I am confronted with the challenge of whether or not I judge their sense of advocacy to be genuine or not – and whether or not I will receive their attempts as helpful or not. I am faced with the choice to decry their attempts as a cover for some negative ulterior motive or to accept their limited attempts at advocacy as a genuine attempt to affirm and honour the personhood of women. To choose the latter requires maturity and generosity on my part. It would be much easier to write them off with bitterness in my heart for the ways they limit my personhood as a woman in ministry. But I am confronted with the need to honour their convictions – even if I disagree with them. Now, I need to exercise discernment to try to understand if this is about true conviction or thinly cloaked prejudice and misogyny – but if I’m honest usually it is a matter of conviction. The ones who are misogynistic are outright hostile towards women and promote a “they belong in the kitchen or birthing babies” kind of rhetoric. In the face of these ‘advocates’ I have the opportunity to respond in a manner that smells like Jesus as I humble myself, open myself, offer the benefit of the doubt, and receive their attempts to affirm my personhood. In a similar manner (recognizing that these are two distinct examples), sexual minorities are faced with the advocacy attempts of those who, on the basis of their convictions, either hold a side B perspective (God’s calling to gay people is celibacy) or are either unsure or don’t reveal where they land on the question of the appropriateness of sexually consummated same-sex relationships. Such advocates want to affirm the dignity of the personhood of sexual minorities – but hold heteronormative views on sexual relationships. I see a variety of responses from gay people. I see, in some, an understandable suspicion about the true or ulterior motives of these ‘advocates’. This suspicion can translate into attempts to expose the perceived duplicitous nature of such advocacy attempts. I have to wonder, however, if in the process they unwittingly do the very thing Tutu warns us about, “If I diminish you, I diminish myself”. In others, I see a cautious openness. There is a willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt – but this is accompanied by the expectation that the advocate will prove themselves …. And sometimes the process of proving oneself is never really sufficient. Yet others, express cautious openness by engaging in conversation and seeking understanding through dialogue. And in some, I see a mature understanding that convictions, even if they are convictions they disagree with, do not negate a person’s attempt to value the personhood of sexual minorities. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not labelling those who are perhaps suspicious or cautiously open as immature. They may be very mature in a variety of ways in their lives. But I do think the ability to differentiate between convictions about actions and behaviours and the valuing of personhood does demand a level of maturity – simply because it is a very difficult and challenging thing to do. One can be very intelligent and understand all the finer points of a given argument and still lack the humility and maturity to receive well-intentioned advocacy efforts from someone with whom they disagree on a given issue. And while such a response is very understandable – I am not convinced that it will ever lead to peace or unity. And as a follower of Jesus, I am deeply motivated by the reality that peace and unity were things Jesus highly prioritized and prayed for. I don’t expect that we will experience uniformity on questions around sexual ethics anytime soon – either in our society or in the faith community. The need for bridge-building in the midst of difference and diversity isn’t going away. Finding common ground in these endeavours is essential. And the valuing of our personhood, with the recognition that the reality of our sexuality is an essential part of this personhood (note: the reality not the wished for outcome), is one of the most significant points of connection. That will mean we need to learn to extend space and room for one another’s unique convictions – while at the same time standing up for the honest expression of fully authentic personhood regardless of our differences. To fail to do so is to the impoverishment of us all. In my workshop at the GCN conference last weekend, I found myself unexpectedly pleading with the participants to not ‘settle for scraps’ as they sought to find a home, as sexual minorities, within the church. I say unexpectedly because it was not something in my notes – but with my years of experience in preaching and teaching, I knew that it was a moment of Holy Spirit intervention. If those outside the heterosexual mainstream quietly accept the diminishment of their authentic personhood – of which their sexuality is an integral part – it will be to the diminishment of the entire Body of Christ. This is not a statement about side A (committed same-sex relationships) or side B (celibacy). It is a statement about equally valuing our personhood as Beloved creations of the Living God. I believe it is the truest and deepest expression of the greatest Advocate, our Lord Jesus Christ.