Rescuing Jesus with Deborah Jian Lee

You guys. This book, Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, is everything. I am convinced Deborah Jian Lee is my sister from another mother. I was a convert into American evangelicalism. At the time, I was told it was the “gospel,” and indeed it was, but this gospel emerged out of a very particular historical and cultural context of American history. Without that understanding, my faith felt a bit out of reach, disconnected from my own cultural reality. This book filled those gaps for me, and more than once, I audibly gasped, “aha!” as new understanding dawns of why I was taught what to believe as a young Christian.

And of course, I can’t sing high enough praises of the premise of the book. I believe, with the surest of convictions, that our faith needs to be rescued by the voices from the margins. Stories who have been diminished by systems of power contain a richness that will breath new fire into our faith. And these are the stories Lee tells so beautifully, with journalistic clarity and compelling narrative. As a gay affirming woman of color, I am proud to join in this motley crew to rescue Jesus.

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I am honored to host an interview with Deborah here at my blog today. I invited my friend, Kenji Kuramitsu to engage with Deborah’s book. Kenji is queer, mixed race, and brilliant. His voice is critical, and I’m delighted he agreed to interview Deborah.

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Kenji: Deborah, I resonated with your story in a number of ways. I am an Asian American convert to evangelicalism via Campus Crusade at the University of Illinois. I did the four meetings a week, the missions trips, the evangelism and discipleship thing. It was a love-addicting narcotic, and quickly withdrawn as soon as I began to questioning the anti-queer attitudes of my church (what you name “‘the not-so-secret handshake’ into evangelical acceptance”). I suffered some pretty horrible spiritual abuse as a result, and all that love evaporated pretty quickly. I was asked to publicly repent for my sins of division in front of my Acts 29 church by my pastor who, like Driscoll, was recently asked to step down for plagiarism.

What are your words to women, queer people, and people of color who are recovering from spiritual abuse? 

Deborah: That’s such a great question, and a difficult one to answer in a short space, especially since people face such different forms of spiritual abuse and find recovery in different ways. For starters, I’d say focus on self-care. That may mean removing yourself from your spiritually abusive community, talking to a therapist or surrounding yourself with people who will support you, or all of the above. Community is so important because at the root of spiritual abuse is isolation, loss of community and the belief that you are alone in your “heresy.” Go online and look for a group of like-minded people who can relate to you and share their stories of recovery. Find a spiritual community that celebrates you wholly and doesn’t ask you to mute segments of your humanity. Or, if you just need space apart from religion, allow yourself that space. Give it time. Let yourself heal. Find a method of processing the past that feels comfortable and safe for you.

There’s no prescriptive narrative to recovering from spiritual abuse. For some, their path to healing is forged outside of the church. For others, they feel compelled to return to the church and reclaim the evangelical label because it’s the most honest expression of their faith and/or because it’s a way of taking back ownership of the faith from the powerful.

And above all, know these two things: You are not alone and you are worthy of love.

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Kenji: You talk about the importance of personal relationships in forwarding change on these issues, explaining that as more LGBTQ people become vocal about our identities, the church is increasingly reckoning with its sins of heterosexism. You also name this as a reason why racial justice movements have moved haltingly within racially-insular U.S. evangelicalism.

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether to stay within a community and work to change it from the inside or to give it a go as an outsider. I wonder how you understand your calling, and what advice you might give for those caught in the middle of this question?

Deborah: My answer to that question is constantly evolving. A few years back, when the idea of this book came to me, I saw myself as an outsider, an orphan of the community. Earlier I had come out as queer-affirming, prompting my Christian friends to express worry, pray about my “confusion,” and ask questions like, “Are you even a Christian anymore?” It was those moments that made me believe that my affirming views had disqualified me from Christianity. I still had my personal faith, but I had lost interest in calling myself a Christian when so many of the stipulations of American Christianity contradicted my conscience.

When I began reporting on the evangelical movement as a journalist, I harbored deep skepticism toward claims that evangelicalism was changing and becoming more progressive. I had spent years as an evangelical student leader pushing my community to engage in issues of racial justice and gender equality only to face criticism for eliciting white male guilt and distracting from “core” Christian priorities such as converting others. I walked away from the evangelical world frustrated. Years later, when evangelicals told me that a new generation was rejecting the culture wars, I listened, doubtful. The evangelical community seemed so stuck in its ways I didn’t believe it could truly change; it could only rebrand. And while this is true in many corners, there was so much more to the story. As I reported and made my way through the evangelical world, I met believers on the margins – racial minorities, women, LGBTQ Christians – who shared my skepticism but were compelled by the gospel of inclusion to stay and minister to the very community that had rejected them. 

I found that their work is vital to the overhauling of evangelicalism. This faith community can only eradicate its white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism by listening to the people harmed by these ideologies and learning how faith is shaped on the margins.

So how do I understand my calling right now? I’m a Christian, a journalist and a woman of color who sees how the people hurt by bad theology are changing the evangelical world for the better and I will continue telling their stories, holding the powerful accountable and doing whatever I can to shine a light on the beloved community.

What advice might I give for those caught in the middle of this question? 

First, don’t be afraid. Being in the middle can be scary because we live in such a polarized society and the only messages that get airtime come from the extremes. I’ve spoken to so many people who have stayed in hurtful evangelical communities because they feared losing their salvation, their support network, their understanding of the world. Don’t let fear prevent you from living, exploring and asking tough questions. Let yourself linger in the middle, apart from the pressure from the extremes. 

Second, get to know yourself, explore your gifts and actively contribute to the world in a concrete meaningful way. Find a social justice issue that tugs at your heart and show up to support that cause. By engaging with the world you’ll come to understand what you have to offer and ways you can live out your faith authentically. You may find yourself back in a traditional church radically changing evangelicalism from within, or you may find yourself forging a new community and a new life that looks nothing like church but feels exactly the way church should be.

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Kenji: The three identity groups (queer, people of color, and women) you name have distinct histories, but you claim they possess a shared spiritual heritage? What natural working partnerships and ideological connections might emerge in light of this?

Deborah: The evangelical world’s culture of assimilation has long been so binding that in order for progressive activists to make any headway, they need to be selective: they must support one progressive cause while conforming all other beliefs to the conservative party line. We see this in the way Christians for Biblical Equality advocates for women’s ordination and egalitarian marriage, but doesn’t support queer equality or inclusion. This approach dilutes justice movements and cripples intersectional efforts. Approaching advocacy with an intersectional mindset is crucial because it presses for justice to spread to all people, not just the most privileged of the marginalized. 

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More young evangelical leaders seem to understand this, which is encouraging. So much of this is coming to the surface because more millennial evangelicals embody intersectionality in their identities, so they can use their stories to highlight issues such as white supremacy’s impact on queer communities or hetero-sexism’s restrictions on feminist initiatives. For example, Darren Calhoun, an openly gay, African American evangelical justice activist speaks to queer evangelical communities about how their efforts need to expand beyond marriage equality, because queer people of color grapple with poverty, youth homelessness, police discrimination, housing discrimination and other systemic challenges that compound their oppression.

To be clear, people like Darren are on the cutting edge. Conversations about intersectional justice are just starting. My hope is that my book gives language, stories and analysis to this nascent conversation. It’s critical that we hear this because it helps build empathy and bring people out of isolation. There will always be resistance to these stories because they threaten those in power who have controlled the boundaries of evangelicalism for so long. But when you silence people of color, women and queer people, you rob the community of essential facets of God and humanity. We need to end the silencing.

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Kenji: You hint at the way the evangelical movement has given lip service to justice, especially on the issue of race, while it keeps white and male-dominated power structures fully intact. You also note that while “the queer justice movement appears poised to achieve the most significant gains, the racial justice movement continues to deal with the steepest systemic challenges.”

Is it strange to you that while giving lip service to ending racism, evangelicalism as a whole tends to be fractured over issues of race and by an inability to acknowledge white supremacy, while as much as many evangelicals still proclaim queer hostility, there is a burgeoning and hopeful movement there?

Deborah: Yes, it’s strange, but not surprising. White supremacy pervades our culture, sometimes in obvious ways like hate speech and violence, but more oftentimes in systemic ways that remain unseen to the privileged. The evangelical church has not only absorbed society’s racism, it has built it into its very foundation through tactics such as the “homogenous unit principle” which urges churches to maximize growth through forming racially and economically homogenous communities. This strategy gave way to the evangelical mega-church landscape and plays a huge role in why segregation and racism continue to plague American Christianity.

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Kenji: The people who kicked me out of my church were evangelicals. You talk about leaving the church to preserve your own faith. You say, “I am a statistic,” and express gratitude for other “orphans like myself,” who hold to a “vagrant and nameless” faith. You’re not trying to hold up your way as a model for all, which is refreshing.
Do you miss it? Do little things bring you back or leave you breathlessly assessing all the grand distance you’ve traveled?

Deborah: I hear a lot of tidy narratives around leaving the faith from the evangelical world and the secular world. The evangelical world likes parables of people leaving the faith only to self destruct, indulge in the excesses of “the world” and wake up in a STD-ridden gutter orgy with a needle sticking out of their arm. The secular world likes stories of pure liberation from religious oppression, characterizing all past proclamations of faith as the meaningless blathering of the brainwashed.

But as most of us know, faith journeys are complicated. I refuse to conform my story to these narratives. After leaving the evangelical world I experienced both tremendous liberation and tremendous loss.

So to answer your question, yes, I miss it. Sometimes I ache because I miss it so much. I miss communion and group worship and laying hands on the sick and hurting. I miss house church and wrestling with the big questions of life and death and meaning and how to love our neighbors. I miss the way communities so quickly mobilize around causes, whether it’s a casserole calendar for new parents or raising money for refugee families. I miss it so much.

But leaving also liberated me and gave my faith the space it needed to grow, mature and disentangle from destructive theological beliefs that compromised my moral values. The corner of evangelicalism I had been embedded in was obsessed with converting people, adamantly anti-queer, skeptical of feminism and resistant to pursuing diversity beyond decorative multi-ethnicity. Despite disagreeing with this ideology, I had internalized it over the years. I needed to leave to sort out my faith and express it authentically, in a way that spread love and gave life to those I encountered. I am so much happier and at peace. I did not self destruct. 

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Kenji: Did your position as a former insider help or hurt you approach people to research your project?

Deborah: It helped to a degree. As a former insider I understand evangelical infrastructure, the players, the language, etc…That helped me navigate the world and find sources to talk to. But I approached this as a journalist and always identified myself as such. I didn’t talk about myself very much, but if people asked me about my personal story, or if it came up, I spoke honestly about it.

Kenji: Have you been able to avoid the influence of one of your interviewees named the “Christian Publishing Industrial Complex” in undertaking this project?

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Deborah: I went with an independent publisher because I wanted complete editorial control of my work. As a result, I wrote a book that speaks truthfully about evangelicalism’s shortcomings and strengths and gives voice to people often silenced by conservative Christian publishers. In Rescuing Jesus, I hold the powerful accountable, I don’t shy away from calling out abusive theology and behavior and I don’t whitewash my sources’ stories. Evangelicalism is messy, heartbreaking and beautiful; I make sure to capture these nuances.

The downside? The biggest Christian booksellers won’t stock my book. Major Christian distributors won’t run ads for the book. Once again, because they don’t pass the litmus tests of evangelicals in power, the stories of those on the margins are being suppressed. But we live in an exciting time of social media and grassroots organizing. Despite the barriers, I’ve heard from evangelicals from conservative corners who have found my book and have been encouraged, transformed and motivated by it. There’s a movement building, a movement of people who are increasingly undeterred by the silencing efforts of the powerful. If we all speak our truth, if we all refuse to amend our stories for the comfort of the powerful and if we do it unapologetically and collectively, then we can begin to shred the muzzle and give our humanity the space it needs to sing and breathe.

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Kenji Kuramitsu: Kenji Kuramitsu is a writer and Master of Divinity student at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary. He is interested in the study of sacrament, public service, critical mixed race theory, and liberation theologies. Kenji was raised both Roman Catholic and evangelical, and was received into the Episcopal Church this year. Kenji serves on the board of The Reformation Project and of the Japanese American Citizens League, where he works to empower other LGBTQ Christians and Nikkei (Japanese in diaspora).

Deborah Jian Lee: Deborah Jian Lee is an award-winning journalist and radio producer. She has worked as a staff reporter for the Associated Press, taught journalism at Columbia University, and written for Foreign Policy, Forbes, Slate, GOOD, Reuters, WBEZ, WNYC, and others. Her latest book is Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians Are Reclaiming Evangelicalism.

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  • Wow, thank you so much Kenji and Deborah. As a queer woman of faith currently struggling with these issues in my church (lack-of-)community, your words are very encouraging to me. I need to read this book!

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