Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…

Since our conversation yesterday looked at Matthew Vines’ argument that lifelong celibacy is not biblically mandated for gay and lesbian Christians, I wanted to make space here for another perspective. Thankfully, my new friend Julie Rodgers was quick to graciously agree to join us for another installment of our “Ask a….” series: “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” 

Julie writes about the angst of growing up gay in the church and the hope she finds in Christ's story of restoration. She blogs about all things sexuality, celibacy, community, and (mostly) flourishing on her personal blog and with friends on the Spiritual Friendship blog. Julie earned a Masters in English for the sheer pleasure of stories (nerd alert), served urban youth the past four years through a ministry in West Dallas, and recently joined the chaplain's office at Wheaton College as the Ministry Associate for Spiritual Care. She's known to laugh loud and hard at all the wrong times. Julie loves Jesus. She says she “loves that He entered into the human experience and alleviated suffering in those around Him, and that He absorbed the pain of the world with His life, death, and resurrection.” 

You know the drill. If you have a question for Julie, leave it in the comment section. (Note: We’re only considering questions from the comment section here on the blog, not from Facebook or Twitter.) At the end of the day, I’ll choose 6-7 of the most popular or interesting questions to send to Julie for response. Be sure to take advantage of the “like” feature so we can get a sense of which questions are of most interest to readers. Look for Julie’s responses next week. 

You might also be interested in "Ask a gay Christian..." with Justin Lee, or with this important (and somewhat contrary to all of this) perspective from Matthew David Morris: "What's It Like to Be a Gay Christian?" And you can check out the rest of our "Ask a..." series here. 

Alight, ask away!

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'God and the Gay Christian' Discussion, Week 2

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (Read Part 1.) 

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story is compelling. And he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

Today we look at what is perhaps the most controversial and intriguing chapter in the book—Chapter 3, in which Matthew argues that Scripture does not support mandatory celibacy for gay and lesbian Christians. (Note: As a complement to today’s discussion, look for “Ask a (Celibate) Gay Christian…” next week. I want to make sure our brothers and sisters coming from that perspective get a fair hearing as well.)

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Definition of Terms 

Before we get into today’s discussion, I want to backtrack just a bit to the section in Chapter 2 where Matthew defines his terms, as this is particularly important to today’s discussion. Acknowledging that labels like conservative and liberal, evangelical and progressive, pro-gay and anti-gay all fall short in these conversations, he suggests that identifying Christians as either affirming (supportive of same-sex relationships) or non-affirming (not supportive of same-sex relationships) can be helpful.  So, both Matthew and I are affirming, in the sense that we do no consider monogamous same-sex relationships to be inherently sinful (though, as you will see, we have slightly different reasons for arriving at that belief!). However, someone like Wesley Hill, a celibate gay Christian, or Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics &Religious Liberty Commission believe any same-sex relationship is inherently sinful and are therefore considered non-affirming.  Obviously, no labeling system is perfect, but for the purposes of this particular discussion, these may be (at least momentarily) helpful. Make sense? 

Celibacy 

There seems to be an increasing consensus, even among non-affirming Christians, that some people simply experience fixed attraction to members of the same sex. And thankfully, efforts to “correct” this orientation through “reparative therapy” are falling out of vogue, as they have been shown to ineffective and damaging. 

The predominant view among non-affirming Christians regarding gay and lesbian Christians is that if they wish to remain faithful to Scripture, they must pursue celibacy.  “According to non-affirming Christians,” writes Matthew, “gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option.”  (You see this position reflected in a recent Gospel Coalition post, where those with fixed, same-gender attraction are described as “having SSA”—same-sex attraction—and encouraged to pursue celibacy.) 

 “Celibacy has a long, honored history in the church,” writes Matthew. “We associated it with Jesus and Paul, with Mother Teresa, and with thousands of dedicated brothers and sisters serving Christ in far-flung corners of the world. But there’s a problem. Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon anyone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice. Jesus and Paul both taught this view, and the church has maintained it for nearly two thousand years.” 

Then Matthew unpacks this argument…

Creation

Non-affirming Christians generally argue that the creation of Adam and Eve reveals the limits of God’s blessing for sexual relationships: one man and one woman. As an opposite sex couple, Adam and Eve were best suited to fulfill God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” 

But Matthew argues that 1) the account of Eve’s creation does not emphasize Adam’s need to procreate; it emphasizes his need for relationship (“it is not good for the man to be alone”), 2) the concern for procreation with this particular couple is obvious, as they are the first couple and need to populate the planet! and 3)  the Genesis 2 text does not emphasize the gender differences between Adam and Eve but rather their similarity as human beings.

 (There will be more on the creation narrative in subsequent chapters.)

Jesus on Celibacy

In Matthew 19:11-12, when Jesus spoke about celibacy he said, “Not everyone can accept [the decision not to marry], but only those to whom it has been given. For there are  eunuchs who were born that way, and there were eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept this.” 

Writes Matthew: “Notice that none of the three categories Jesus mentions describes what we would call gay men. Instead he describes three types of men who do not marry: men who are sexually impotent, those who are castrated, and those who pursue a call to celibacy. In light of the stringent restrictions Jesus places on divorce, his disciples suggest they would prefer to be celibate. But Jesus says celibacy can only be accepted by ‘those to whom it has been given.’” 

Celibacy is a gift, Matthew argues, and those who do not have the gift should feel free to marry. 

Now, some will certainly notice that this teaching by Jesus is immediately followed by a reference to creation: “Haven’t you read,” Jesus said, “That at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” 

But according to Matthew, this reference does not address, specifically, gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians. “When we study biblical writings about marriage and celibacy the question is not whether Jesus, Paul, or anyone else endorses same-sex marriage,” he writes, “or whether they instead enjoin gay people to lifelong celibacy. They don’t directly do either one…Our understanding of same-sex orientation is uniquely modern, so the question we face is how to apply the basic principles of the Bible’s teaching to this new situation. And what we do see in Jesus’ teaching is a basic principle: celibacy is a gift that not all have.” 

Paul on Celibacy 

The apostle Paul was a big, big fan of celibacy. He even said he wished all men could be like him—celibate and happy about it (I Corinthians 7:6-7). BUT, he says, “each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” 

“It is better,” Paul writes, “to marry than to burn with passion.” 

(Boy was that verse a favorite one on my Christian college campus!) 

In his letter to Timothy, Paul (or whoever is writing as Paul…I know, I know) warns against false teachers who, among other things, mandate celibacy. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods,” said Paul, “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (I Timothy 4:1-5). 

Once again, a New Testament writer speaks of celibacy in terms of a gift for those called to it, not a mandate. Even for a big fan of celibacy like Paul, celibacy does not appear to be mandated for any group. 

Church History

Matthew works in some solid research here, which suggests the tradition teaching on celibacy, for most of Christian history, is that it was a calling, not a mandate. 

Augustine wrote that “no one can be continent unless God give it,” Ambrose that “virginity cannot be commanded” but “is the gift of few only.” Calvin went so far as to say that Matthew 19 “plainly shows that [celibacy] was not given to all, so if anyone “has not the power of subduing his passion, let him understand that the Lord made it obligatory on him to marry.” Even Pope John Paul II in his landmark Theology of the Body argues that celibacy cannot legitimately be forced on anyone. In his view, even clerical celibacy is not forced, because Catholics who feel called to marriage are not obliged to pursue the priesthood. And Karl Barth, in the 20th century, wrote that “a suspicion of or discrimination against sexual life” is not a valid reason to avoid marriage. 

Sexuality is Good 

Here, drawing from the creation account, the incarnation and resurrection, and even church history and the rejection of Gnosticism, Matthew makes the case that— though broken and imperfect—“creation is good. The body is good. Sexuality, as a core part of the body, is also good.” Therefore, any doctrine that teaches Christians to detest their sexual desires is unorthodox, contrary to the most central teachings of the Church.*

(*Matthew has offered further clarification on this in the comment section.) 

The Meaning of Celibacy

Matthew concludes that “the purpose of celibacy is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it, because it sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful. It is not a fulfillment of sexuality for gay Christians, but a rejection of it.” 

Matthew will go on to address, in subsequent chapters,  the question of whether same-sex marriage can fulfill the meaning and purpose of Christian marriage, but his point in this chapter is rather straightforward: Throughout the New Testament and church history, celibacy is set apart as a special calling and never mandated for a specific group of people. 

Of course, let’s face it. There are also no examples in Scripture (or, to my knowledge church history) explicitly supporting same-sex relationships.  So it seems these are the two uncomfortable realities we hold simultaneously…at least for now. 

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Note: Matthew sent me a message this morning pointing me to an article he recently wrote responding to a review that was critical of this particular chapter.   Writes Matthew:  “In short, the main misreading of my argument is that I'm saying that celibacy, for LGBT or straight people, necessarily involves a rejection and hatred of one's sexuality. As I explain in my blog post, I only think that celibacy requires a devaluing of one's sexuality when at least one of the reasons someone is celibate is because they believe all of their sexual attractions are temptations to sin. That's what non-affirming readings of Scripture require gay Christians to believe about their sexual orientation, but that's quite different from orthodox understandings of celibacy, and quite different from how celibate gay Christians can view their sexual orientation if they affirm at least some same-sex relationships.”  Read the whole post here. 

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Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.

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Questions for Discussion: 

- I'd be interested to hear from those readers who, for whatever reason, have chosen a vocation that involves lifelong celibacy. How did you know that this was your calling? Why did you choose it? 

- I'd also welcome the stories of those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians who have chosen to pursue relationships. Did you struggle at all to feel free to follow that path? 

- Finally, what do you think of Matthew's argument here. Do biblical and historical prohibitions against mandated celibacy apply to those gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians trying to decide what their sexuality means for their faith? 

I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation! 

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Changing the Culture that Enabled Mark Driscoll: 6 Ways Forward

I’m not interested in rehashing the recent events and disclosures that led to the near-collapse of Mars Hill Church Seattle and the (temporary?) resignation of pastor Mark Driscoll.  The Seattle Times summed it up well with this article by Craig Welch and with this informative timeline. I’m also not interested in piling on as Driscoll faces the consequences of his actions.  I’ve spoken out against his bullying in the past, and though I stand by my critiques, I don’t feel the need to rehash them. I truly wish Driscoll well and hope this difficult time proves to be a refining fire that leads him down a healthier, grace-lit path. 

That said, to treat this as an isolated incident that no one saw coming and that will never happen again is misguided and dangerous. As Christians, we have to own up to the reality that we helped create a culture that enabled Driscoll’s behavior, (and sometimes rewarded it), and that this culture has to change. I don’t have all the answers on how to make such change happen, but I’ve got a few ideas: 

1.  We must educate Christians about abuse, bullying, and misuse of power in church settings. 

Paul David Tripp called Mars Hill Church, “the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with” and person after person has come forward to say the same. Once held back by fear (and in some cases, nondisclosure agreements), these former pastors and church members are sharing stories of decades of pervasive bullying, shaming, abuse of power, and mismanagement of funds. Questions were routinely treated as threats and stomped out. Challenges to authority were met with public shaming. Disagreements were dismissed as “gossip” and a “threat to Christian unity.” 

To those educated in the dynamics of spiritual abuse, Mars Hill Church has been setting off alarm bells for years, and yet for the many good, godly people involved in the church, the problems went unaddressed until recently.  So why didn’t more people recognize these unhealthy, abusive dynamics? Why didn’t they address them sooner?   

Well, I think it’s because far too many Christians just don’t know how to spot and respond to the signs of abuse—be it spiritual abuse, abuse of authority, or even the physical/emotional/sexual abuse of women and children.  And I believe the impetus is on denominational leaders and on the media (religious and mainstream) to better educate the Christian public on these matters and to better hold church leaders accountable when they abuse. 

For those new to the topic, a really good place to start is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, a book I wish I could mail to every churchgoer in the world. Evangelicals may want to check out the fantastic organization G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) and Catholics, S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). We did a series here on the blog on abuse in the Church called “Into the Light,” which also includes a long list of additional resources, and we will continue to address this important issue in the future.

2. We must value and preserve accountability. 

In 2007 Mars Hill changed its bylaws to limit power to a very small group, effectively giving Driscoll unfettered free reign over the church. When two pastors objected to this structure, they were fired and subjected to a church trial where members were encouraged to shun one of them. For many, this move marked “the beginning of the end” of Mars Hill Church as Driscoll faced little accountability in his decision-making. 

While churches associated with denominations often have structures in place to hold pastors accountable, non-denominational evangelical churches sometimes do not. Preserving some form of accountability is absolutely crucial to maintaining a healthy, non-abusive church, so I would urge all churchgoers to become familiar with how your church leadership is structured and to watch out for authoritarian leaders who seek to consolidate power to their office. If your pastor has little to no accountability, and if your questions about accountability are met with hostility, leave.   Groups that organize national pastor conferences should consider not inviting as speakers pastors who refuse accountability.  Christian media, too, must do a better job of reporting on the organization structure and finances of evangelical mega-churches. Christian reporters are not obligated to paint rosy pictures of churches; they’re obligated to paint accurate ones.  (See also: “Why Mark Driscoll Needs A Bishop” by Erik Parker.) 

3.   We must take misogyny and homophobia seriously.

Throughout his 18 years in ministry, Mark Driscoll was well-known for making crude, demeaning comments about women and for mocking men he deemed effeminate or “pussies.” In online rants, he raged against feminism and the “pussification of culture” and referred to women as “penis homes.” From the pulpit, he taught that women owed their husbands oral sex. When evangelist Ted Haggard was caught with male prostitutes, Driscoll blamed Haggard’s wife for letting herself go. 

Driscoll routinely trashed advocates of nonviolence as “pansies,” the emerging church as “homo-evangelicals” who worship a “Richard Simmons hippie queer Christ,” and churches with women in leadership as “chickified,” warning that “if Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He often used the term “gay” pejoratively, and in 2011 issued a call on Facebook for his followers to share stories about and publicly ridicule what he deemed “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders.”  Recently unearthed online rants from Driscoll’s early days as a pastor give us a glimpse of the inner thoughts of a man who throughout his 18 years as a pastor routinely characterizes all the things he detested most in the world as feminine or gay. 

This is blatant, unapologetic misogyny and homophobia, and for more than a decade, the evangelical culture turned a blind eye, inviting Driscoll to headline conferences, publish books, and speak as an “expert” on marriage and gender roles.  Why? Because the evangelical culture doesn’t take misogyny and homophobia seriously.  

“Oh he’s a little rough around the edges,” people would often say to me. “But he’s doing so much good. He’s getting men to go to church! Don’t take it so personally. What are you, the PC police?”  

This is an enormous blind spot within the evangelical culture, one I also see reflected in its ongoing love affair with the Duck Dynasty cast, even after patriarch Phil Robertson has made, racist, homophobic, and (most recently) violently Islamaphobic remarks . Even after I invited several black and gay Christians to the blog to explain just how hurtful the “I Stand With Phil” movement was to them, many evangelical readers brushed it off as no big deal. 

But racism, misogyny and homophobia do not simply offend the “PC Police.” They offend the heart of God. They are sins that damage our relationships with our neighbors and our witness to the world. And if we are going to change the culture that enabled the bullying and abuses of Mark Driscoll, we have to start treating them as such.  As blogger Tyler Clark put it, “When you put out a call on Facebook for people verbally attack ‘effeminate anatomically male’ men, I find myself back in high school—shoved against a locker, with the bullies calling me a faggot.”

How can this possibly be the gospel? How can this possibly be good news if it makes someone feel like they’ve been shoved against a locker, bullied and demeaned?  How we treat our fellow human beings is not a peripheral issue, sidelined by supposedly “good theology.” It’s central. It’s everything. I don’t care whether you are Calvinist or Arminian, charismatic or Catholic, you can’t demean women or bully the marginalized and still have “good theology.”  Misogyny is bad theology. Bullying is bad theology.  And it's time we start identifying them as such. 

4.  We must measure “success” by fruit of the Spirit, not numbers. 

Whenever Driscoll’s bullying behavior was challenged, the response from many in the Christian culture was to say, “Yes, but he’s doing so much good! Look at how his church just keeps growing and growing! He’s even convinced MEN to go to church!”  No doubt this results-based culture influenced Driscoll’s decision to use church funds to pay for a spot on the New York Times bestseller list and to vow to “destroy” other area churches “brick by brick.” 

When Christians measure a church’s “success” by numbers rather than the fruit of the Spirit, we create a culture that looks nothing like the Kingdom Jesus preached. But Scripture does not teach us that the fruit of the Spirit is satellite campuses, book sales, and market share. Scripture teaches us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Jesus said that we identify false preachers, not by their position on obscure theological matters, but by the degree to which their lives exhibit this type fruit.  In other words, getting men to go to church is not the same as making disciples of Jesus, and we best not confuse the two. 

All across the world, there are thousands and thousands of pastors laboring faithfully to help grow and nurture the fruit of the Spirit within their congregations. Some of these congregations are growing and others are dwindling.  Perhaps we should do a better job of honoring such pastors—by thanking them, encouraging them, and  maybe listening to them for a change at our pastors conferences. When Christians measure church success by the standards of American culture—money, power, prestige, numbers—we set ourselves up for scandal, discouragement, and abuse of authority/funds/people. Jesus never promised us success by worldly standards. He only asked that we remain faithful. And far too many pastors are getting the message that faithfulness isn’t enough. 

Character matters.  Integrity matters. Kindness matters. How we do things in the Church matters. All of this is is part of our testimony and when it is compromised in the name of “success,” we loose the very saltiness that is supposed to set us apart. 

5.   We must protect people over reputations. 

Perhaps the most effective silencing technique in Christian culture is telling those who challenge abusive or bullying behavior among church leaders that their objections are “gossip” and “slander” contributing to  “disunity in the Church.” I’ve spoken with many, many victims of sexual abuse who say this was the very language church leaders used to urge them not to report their abuse in a church environment to the authorities. “You don’t want to damage Christ’s reputation in the world, do you?” they were asked.  And indeed, the public response to the Sovereign Grace Ministries child abuse scandal revealed that far too many Christian leaders seem more concerned with protecting the reputations of their denominations, ministries, and pastors than with protecting victims of abuse. 

In an interview on the bog, Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E., put it this way:

“The greatest failure of the church/Christian organizations when it comes to responding to abuse is institutional self-protection.   Too often Christian institutions have been willing to sacrifice the individual human soul in exchange for the protection of their own reputation.   What makes such responses even more heinous is that they are often justified in the name of ‘protecting the name of Christ.’   Such a justification is nothing but a pious attempt at self-protection.  It may come as a surprise to some but Jesus does not need us to protect His name!  In fact, it was Jesus who sacrificed Himself for the soul of the individual.  Tragically, in all of its attempts at self-protection, the Church too often completely misses this beautiful truth.  As a result, many abuse survivors in the Church are pushed away from the arms of Jesus and prevented from experiencing glorious Gospel love.”

Another common refrain is, “What will the world think if it sees Christians disagreeing with one another?”  But when it comes to identifying and stopping abusive and bullying behavior, when it comes to naming racism, misogyny, and homophobia sins, my question is: what will the world think if it doesn’t see us addressing these things? How much more does our reputation suffer when we shrug off or cover up this sort of behavior? 

If we are to change the culture that far too often prioritizes the reputation of the bully/abuser over the health and safety of the bullied/abused, we have to stop shaming victims who come forward with their stories as “gossips” and dismissing Christians who call for accountability as “divisive.” We also have to ensure that our churches are prepared to respond to bullying and abuse when it happens. (For more on that, please check out G.R.A.C.E. and the list of resources from our “Into the Light” series.)
 

6.   We must treat our pastors and church leaders as human beings—flawed, complex, and beloved by God. 

I’m often asked what ought to be done about “celebrity culture” within American Christianity, and having benefitted a bit from that very culture myself, I honestly don’t know if I’m the best person to respond. However, I have noticed that there is a tendency within the culture to see Christian leaders (and writers and activists) as either wholly good—and worth defending at every turn—or wholly evil—and worth opposing at every turn. I am guilty of this myself. Tribal alliances built around shared theological distinctives have exacerbated the problem, and I often find myself succumbing to a “team” mentality wherein those who share my theological or political viewpoints always get the benefit of the doubt while those who do not are demonized.

 I wrote more about this in an article for Relevant entitled, “When Jesus meets TMZ,” but my main point is that our pastors are human. Glorifying them, demonizing them, and placing unrealistic expectations on them is bad not only for the pastors but for the whole Church. As much as I oppose Driscoll’s bullying behavior, I sincerely hope that this brother in Christ—who is beloved by God and with whom I would break the bread of communion in a heartbeat—will find his way. 

But first, we have to work together to create a culture that nurtures and celebrates healthy pastors and healthy people, and that holds unhealthy ones accountable. 

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Some concrete, actionable steps: 

- Educate yourself about abuse in a church environment (see resources under #1) and share your findings with fellow Christians and on social media. Email your favorite religion reporter or Christian publication to request that they increase coverage of church abuse—not just after it happens, but before. Ask your church leaders about possibly taking advantage of training and resources offered by G.R.A.C.E. 

- Learn about the accountability structure and financial policies of your church. If your questions are met with hostility or shaming, leave. 

-If you help plan national conferences for pastors, please consider inviting, celebrating, and learning from pastors whose work produces the fruit of the Spirit rather than basing speaking invitations on attendance, books sales, and fame. Avoid featuring pastors whose churches do not include built-in accountability. And if you attend such conferences, urge organizers to think outside of the box so that presentations better reflect the reality of most pastors’ lives and experiences.  (For more on this, check out J.R. Briggs’ excellent book, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure.)  

- Christians, don’t let racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments “slide.” Stand up for the bullied, not the bullies. Advocate for the oppressed, not the oppressors. And don’t let anyone shame you as “divisive” when you do so. 

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Other thoughts? Ideas? 

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