My Life Is Not a Question Mark: The Harm of "Harmless" Questions

[trigger warning: rape, rape culture, abuse] 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about questions – specifically, what gets treated as legitimate questions within the church and the unintentional harm  inflicted by treating specific things as debatable.

I thought of that again today when I came across this article from Think Christian, a site I occasionally contribute to and know the editor of. The article asks, “What role, if any, does consent play in a Christian sexual ethic?”

And I found myself seething at the idea that consent was a question at all, especially tied to a specifically Christian ideal. It’s a question that should not be asked because the very asking of it indicates a lack of safety within the Church.

I’m a fan of questioning things. Being willing to question those things the Church treated as given helped me arrive at what I feel is a healthier life ethic – healthier because it’s an actual ethic, not just a rule of “say no until the wedding.” Questions have helped me fill out my personhood, so to speak – they’ve helped me to see others as human beings and to see the gray areas in the middle of the black and white absolutes I was taught.

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But, questions can also be dangerous – when we treat the very humanity of another human being as a theological question to be tossed about and debated, we do harm to people.

Take, for example, the raging debate within the church over LGBT people. It’s often framed as “The LGBT Question.” Straight pastors and preachers and theologians spend countless words and hours and blog entries dissecting the question of homosexuality and where it fits within God’s plan for the world and so on and so forth. But in treating it as a question – in asking, essentially, “are these people going to hell?” – they erase and ignore the very people they're discussing.

Everyone’s seen the television cliché where three people are in a room and two of the three are talking about the third. The third person – who is being discussed – will interrupt after a little while and yell, “HELLO. I’M RIGHT HERE.”

When a person's humanity is a question to be debated and discussed, the person themselves get erased. They are in the room. They are right here, right now, listening to people discuss their life as though it’s an intellectual exercise, a fun discussion to keep you up until 2AM with your college friends.

It’s an element of privilege, that a person’s identity is something to be questioned and debated and discussed within frameworks of sin and hell and forgiveness. The Church labels itself as unsafe the very second it treats something that is vitally important to someone as a legitimate question, up for discussion.

This extends beyond LGBT identities, though that is the most obvious example. The aforementioned question of “consent” is another one. All too often, I've seen rape, abuse and consent treated as debatable topics, as though someone outside the experience somehow has an objective eye to determine what really happened. Treating consent as a question revictimizes victims - it tells them that, once again, they may not be believed or trusted.

Debate is good. Debate gets you places. But when the debate is centered around the public question of “is consent important?”, the church just signaled to 1 in 6 women that their experience is “questionable."

One thing I try to remind myself when I discuss hot-button issues is that there is probably someone in my audience who has experienced this trauma or who identifies with that group. Part of letting people know that I’m trying to be a safe space for them is to not treat their lives and their experiences as questions to be dissected and discussed and broken down.

I reject the premise of any question that does not start from a baseline of bodily autonomy and acknowledgement of individual identity.

A pastor treating consent as a matter of debate – and refusing to call nonconsensual sex rape – just told rape victims in the congregation that their stories are up for debate, yet again.

A pastor preaching about abuse who frames abuse as “maybe the husband hits the wife once or twice” just informed the abuse victims in the congregation that the church is not a safe place for them.

A pastor who asks “Can gay people be Christians and still practice homosexuality?” just erased any Jesus-loving LGBT people who might have existed within the congregation.

The Church needs to be very careful about the questions it asks and the things it treats as up for debate. If you treat someone’s identity as a hook for your “interesting” blog post or sermon, you have become yet another in a long line of people who make the Church unwelcoming for anyone who is not like you. My life and my identity and my experience are not your thought exercise.