I remember being quite happy when my values about body, faith, and purpose lined up with those of my parents. With the support of my Protestant evangelistic community as well, I was “bold and fearless,” not caring who might judge me or disagree with me because I was not standing on my own. The anxiety of becoming embarrassed or having my world crashing down because of the ideas I expressed did not exist. My beliefs seemed special and right, and I had constant reaffirmation from family and community that they were.
But now I hold perspectives about spirituality and humanity that I can no longer discuss with ease in front of my family–not without my mother crying and feeling as if she did not know or like the person I had become. This may matter to me more than it might to other people since I have, for over a year now, returned to that home to write my dissertation. I am constantly challenged with the task of creating a space where I can honor my desires, needs, and truths. Like Judith Butler says, if I am a person who exists by doing, when I cannot express/speak/give an account of myself, I cannot fully exist. Family is important, but what gets sacrificed by pretending and silence? It is not only the self, but the chance for deeper, more authentic bonds.
In the field of women’s studies, we base our epistemology on difference and situated knowledges, understanding that conflicting and contradictory perspectives do not have to break us, and that we can benefit from attending to them. Cultural, gender, and power dynamics do not dissolve the chance for healing and productive encounters.
So why then, is it so hard to engage in healing and productive encounters of difference within our own families?
I think it might be because coming out with revelatory information threatens to bring on a paradigm shift. If we share with our loved ones something non-normative about ourselves, they have to make room for new reality in their worldviews. Something hated and/or feared will asked to be loved. And loving always changes us.
I find the passage in Luke 12 about Jesus coming to not give peace but division–“Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”– compelling in that it uses the generational relationships between family members to explain the inevitability of ideological divisions. It is possible that truths involved in words like gay, queer, asexual, and gender-queer or in statements like “I-don’t-believe-in-that-religion-anymore/the-same-way-as-you” might not bring immediate peace in a family. Coming out to the ones we love can create division, as can the silences we keep.
The traditional reading that comes to mind for Luke 12, perhaps learned somewhere along the way of my religious teaching, is that the division described is between those who will accept Jesus’ teachings and those who will not, or between Christians and non-Christians. This is a call to put religious allegiance before family bonds, to be prepared to stay strong despite those you love rejecting you because they do not accept what Jesus preaches. Perhaps the breach will be repaired, perhaps not.
I too see this passage as a description of a harsh reality, but I also see it as a promise. While the message for some would be to accept Jesus/Christianity as salvation, I am influenced by the midrash found in the beginning of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk, that tells of a Jesus who “tried to give up our fantasies of power and revenge. But we could not hear him. As long as he was here among us, we wanted him to take power, to replace the kingship of the Gentiles with the kingship of Israel. But our ideas of God’s rule were still based on domination and subjugation. Only by bringing these hopes to an end with his death could we be forced to give up these dreams and find a different answer within ourselves, the answer that he had been trying to teach us all along.” (9). I understand Christianity’s promise as a relational one. It understands how differing perspectives can create division, but reminds us that it is our responsibility to continually work together to help navigate the evolving world together, assuaging fears and learning about new possibilities for life and identity. Jesus in the Luke passage seemed to be saying that his immediate world was on the verge of a paradigm shift because of his message and upcoming death. I think that he understood that other paradigm shifts would follow.
Asking acceptance from family can be difficult. The lesson I take from my childhood, but also from feminism, is that participation in community can help us to stand up against norms in the world and in our families. May we all strive to create or find communities that help us to stand up for ourselves.
LaChelle Schilling is a doctoral candidate in the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She is living in Oklahoma raising awareness about asexuality and writing her dissertation entitled “Queering Asexuality: A Discourse of Desire and Intimacy. “