When the Center Does Not Hold
I have been pondering upon a lovely reception the other night where Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ-focused organization based in New York City, honored me with their Faithful Servant Award. They invited me to speak for three minutes after some very kind words about me from Ashley Birt, Director of Christian Education at Rutgers Presbyterian Church.
I wanted to share with the people there why Parity is so important to me. I explained that the importance of Parity became clear to me after reflecting on a workshop I attended recently at More Light Presbyterians’ national conference. There, two millennial queers, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and Jay Yoder, led a workshop where they declared that their goal was to make us uncomfortable.
They succeeded mightily with me when they declared that when it comes to intersectional justice there is no center, only difference, and that this is good. This is great, in fact. Difference is what we need to live into. No center.
How in the world could “just difference” work? I didn’t have a clue.
The thought of no center made me so uncomfortable. I remembered that phrase, “The center cannot hold,” from William Butler Yeats’ 1919 poem expressing the European mood after World War I. “Not holding” became terrifyingly real to me as I imagined our myriad differences blasting us in all directions like a social and cultural Big Bang. The center has been important to me as a symbol of the center of my faith, Jesus, the Christ, and I worried that no center might mean no Jesus, which felt dangerous to me.
And then Parity came to mind. Here is a group of faithful millennial queers who dwell in this reality of no center. How do they do it? Their specific mission is the reconciling of sexual identities and faith, two things blasted apart by the culture wars of the past 50 years, fought mostly on the terrain of the church.
Parity holds these together by giving sexual identity and faith, well, parity. Parity insists both were given to us by God and created good. Parity knows how to link differences together — any difference, all difference — without a center.
I named such a connection of parity among all difference as what I truly understand it to be: love.
I said I look to Parity to teach me how to do this as I confess I, a baby boomer queer, honestly have no clue as to how to do this without some notion of center.
I am pleased that my remarks came out pretty much as planned. The next morning, however, it became clear there was so much more to say. Here’s what struck me when I had a chance to think about what I actually said.
It dismayed me to realize how much of my time, talent and treasure has gone to bringing the LGBTQ community into the center. I have sung with gusto many times, “Draw the Circle Wide” only to find, now, that the circle is dissolving away. I would despair that it was all for naught, but the generation who inherits the fruit of our baby boomer labors seems so unruffled by our situation. No center — great!
Jesus as the center of a circle that includes all people may have lost its meaning and power. But it’s just an image. There’s another image for Christ. Let’s hold fast to “God is love,” and how Jesus taught us to “Love one another.” I’ll think of Jesus as the thread that connects our difference in a stunning fabric of parity among us all — a fabric that’s held together by love.
Yeats’ poem ends with a scary image of a mythical monster that has the body of a lion and the head of a man. The center gone, Yeats envisions a second Jesus rising from the nightmarish chaos of the last century and “slouching to Bethlehem to be born.” I don’t think Yeats got it right. We can follow the millennials and Parity to a different way. The second coming will not be Yeats’ terrifying image. It will be love without a center: parity.