Whether referring to the liturgical commemoration of the visiting Magi or the striking realization of insight or innovation, epiphany is a marker of the extraordinarily rare. Times when the dull mundane begins to sparkle, the status quo bends to the point of breaking, and hope is birthed anew—this is Epiphany.
“Epiphany” is not exactly a word I would employ to describe the increase of affirmation and justicefor lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons—perhaps “struggle,” maybe “trudging journey,” but not “epiphany.”
Nevertheless, there have been remarkably positive changes in our emerging dialogue over sexuality and gender identity.
Since the publication of the Baptist resource, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (RDWT), in 2000: the Episcopal Church elected its first openly gay bishop (2003); six states and D.C. have legalized same-sex marriage; Lutherans (ELCA) and Presbyterians (PCUSA) have opened the pathways of ordination to non-celibate gay and lesbian clergypersons (2009 & 2011 respectively); the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed and signed into law (2009); and “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, welcoming into military ranks openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members. Of course, this just touches the surface of the national scene. Myriad localities and individual churches have made great strides toward justice and inclusion, including many Baptist congregations.
When rendered in one paragraph, these changes do seem epiphanic. But they were birthed from long struggles with a heterosexist and patriarchal status quo that often seems impervious to challenge and nearly impossible to change.
Reconsidering Epiphany: Tradition suggests the Magi were a couple of years in coming to visit the Christ child. Presumably, they traveled for month after month in great difficulty over more than a thousand miles of treacherous territory to make the celebrated visitation. After the homage-paying Wise delivered their treasures, the holy family fled for their lives to Egypt. So perhaps epiphany isn’t too far off after all.
Epiphanic events are the rare and sparkling moments punctuating an ongoing journey that is often mundane, trudging, and sometimes dangerous. And in the journey of dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, we’ve a long way still to travel.
The past decade of shifts—including both progress and regress—raise a few questions that will inform the update and revision of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth in hopes of making it a continued help along the journey of dialogue: I’ve often been congratulated after LGBT rights “victories,” as if I’d won a special queer race, prompting me to inquire: Just whose journey is this, anyway? Our dialogue must increasingly develop a lens that brings into view the intersections of gender, race, class, and sexuality—recognizing that the journey is not for the benefit of some, but impacts us all. Cultivating dialogue within congregations about the intersecting nature of oppressions serves to challenge the separation and isolation inherent in so many liberation “projects” that focus upon one or another of these markers of “identity” but fail to account for and fully confront the tightly woven tapestry of oppression, injustice and violence.
Even as I dialogue with writing contributors to the update, it is becoming evident that we aren’t all striving for the same destination, causing me to ask: Where are we going? I hope for RDWT to represent the diversity of hopes and comingling of dialogical pathways that have emerged in the history of our conversations and confrontations over sexuality and gender identity. While some hope for just a bit more affirmation and inclusion, others strive for a more radical challenge to heteropatriarchy. Articles written over the span of the past two decades will stand alongside one another, inviting some congregations into intentional dialogue for the very first time and prompting churches long-affirming of LGBT people to continue creative movement into new stages on the journey.
While the journey is long and mundane, the dialogue is fraught with danger, and the potential for fully “arriving” is unlikely, may our hopes be attuned to the rare, sparkling possibilities of epiphany along the way.