So when this article (from Rage Monthly – please seek it out) just happened to land in my in-basket this week, I decided it was a sign, and in honor of Holy Week, I thought I’d share it with you. I read it and was quite moved by it; surprising, given its subject and source. I remember PTL. I feared PTL. At the time, I remember hearing rumors that Tammy Faye was really a sweet woman and that she was actually very supportive of gay people, but I thought that had to be some mad queen’s fantasy. Of course, now I know differently. The woman really was amazing, a genuine light in the darkness, and I, along with a large portion of the gay community, have come to embrace her memory. So, to learn that Jay Bakker (pictured), her son, is carrying on her work? Surprising. Amazing. And fascinating.
What he has to say is very eye-opening and echoes a lot of what I feel about the bible, spirituality, organized religion, religious leaders, and the world in general. Enjoy.
Falling To Grace With Jay Bakker
by Randy Hope
Wednesday Apr 20, 2011
Gay-affirming Pastor Jay Bakker is use to being an outsider. Often referred to as the "Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye," Bakker witnessed his family’s Praise the Lord (PTL) Ministries come crashing down amidst scandal in the 1980s. This led to a struggle with his own faith and spirituality, which in the end lead him to found Revolution Church, where he is the co-pastor of a gay-affirming congregation in Brooklyn, New York. Author of the new book Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society, the forward-thinking self-identified "Outlaw Preacher" recently chatted with The Rage Monthly about the transformative power of grace, and his belief that Christian love and compassion should be extended to all people.
While you were raised within the PTL Ministry and the Christian church, you had a unique opportunity to be connected with LGBT people early on didn’t you?
Oh yeah! Most definitely, I’ve always said that the church was the first organization to start "don’t ask, don’t tell." Now that I look back, I realize that I was surrounded by gay people my whole life. I mean I didn’t actually know what it was, but in hindsight I’m like, "Ah-ha, now I know what that was." Actually, in high school one of my best friends was gay. Even when I’ve gone to other churches to pastor, members of the staff have come up to me and whispered in my ear, "I’m glad you’re here." It’s really a shame because I really feel that there is a "don’t ask, don’t tell policy" within the church, which is what creates the extreme prejudice and exclusion.
You’ve also said the church uses what you refer to as "clobber verses." What is a clobber verse?
They are basically the seven or eight bible verses that people have latched onto, to try and prove their argument against homosexuality. Soul Force (at soulforce.org) has a great reference to those verses and the counter points, which something I wish I had early on because I was still researching them in Greek and Hebrew and searching through historic backgrounds to find what Soul Force puts at everyone’s fingertips-the answers to those "clobber verses" in the Bible.
You obviously have different relationship with the Bible than mainstream Christian pastors. What are your thoughts on the "Holy Book?"
The Bible is such a strange book. Even with just sexuality period, simple basic human sexuality, it’s probably not the best place to get advice from. You have polygamy, and women are seen as property for land trade, things such as that made me realize that maybe I needed to start to read the Bible in a different way.
How do you suggest it be read?
Well, its context would be a good place to start. (Chuckling) It wasn’t one book written 2,000 years ago- it wasn’t even a book at all, Jesus had never even seen a book. It was collection of scrolls that got passed around in the church and basically some folks in the Catholic church decided they were going to close the canon and deem what books we’d have and what books we wouldn’t have. There were a lot of them left out and we basically just have what is in the New Testament. So realizing that the Bible should be read in such context is eye opening. People also need to realize that some of the books attributed to Paul weren’t actually written by him. So there are definitely contradictions in the Bible.
So do you see yourself as the editor who has to correct such conflicts?
I’m the messenger who says that it is okay to live with conflict, it’s okay to live with two different stories, and it is okay to realize the Bible is not perfect. Because seeing the conflict in context keeps the Bible from being God, that keeps it from being the final word. It allows for Christ-it allows for hope and it allows for love to be the final word. It was made up of different books when different cultures existed just like we have different cultures today. So, I think that we can read the Bible in that context and measure every verse against the question, "Are you loving your neighbors as you’d love yourself or treating others the way you’d like to be treated?" When Christians supported slavery, it was ultimately that verse that helped to end the practice. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That’s what Jesus said was the ultimate law.
As a pastor, what role do you see the Bible playing in your ministry?
It’s not an answer book, it’s a book of questions and of trying to figure things out and solve them. It’s more of a math book that teaches us some lessons but you have to basically work the problems out for yourself. Unfortunately we have a big problem on our hands, because it is viewed by most as the answer book on homosexuality. That’s because someone (somewhere between 1948 to 1958) arbitrarily decided to add the word "homosexual" into the Bible replacing such words as "male prostitute" or the likes.
So do you think it’s forever changed?
Oh yeah! You can look up the word homosexuality in the Bible today and so people think it’s always been there. Yet, it has only been there a little more than 50 years. People don’t understand that English is a limited language and the Bible wasn’t written in English. It has changed for me, not in a negative way either.
If anything, it’s given me a greater faith, it allowed me to love beyond the Bible-experience God outside the limitations of two pieces of leather. You realize that these people who you once may have looked upon as sinners, are actually seeking God. And they were people just like you and me trying to find him.
With that said, you have obviously had a special relationship with grace in your life? Elaborate on your relationship, and what you truly believe grace is.
I always felt that there was something wrong with me and that I would never live up to the church’s expectations or God’s expectations. So eventually, I just stopped doing any type of that stuff. I had a friend with whom I was discussing it and I told him, "I’m a horrible person, I’m miserable, God hates me." He told me, "And you’re full of sh*t too!" I said, "What?!" He told me that I was trying to earn my salvation, invalidating grace and using Jesus’ death in vain. He told me, "Jesus took care of this. You’ve been forgiven and really, it’s not about you, and you have to accept that!" I thought he was really full of it, until I started to read the Bible for myself when I was about 20. I read and saw all these scriptures about love, forgiveness and the fact that everybody is accepted. The Bible was full of all these beautiful things that I had never seen before- It blew my mind.
Why is that? Weren’t those same words always there?
Indeed they were, but that’s not what we were taught in church. Most of the time, I was never really encouraged to read my Bible. So when I started reading it for myself, I thought it was really good news, but also knew that people had to hear more about this. All I wanted to do was tell people they are loved and accepted no matter what. So that’s what I’ve spent the past 14 years doing-letting people know that they are accepted-period. I always say that even the unacceptable parts are accepted, and I always say by a power greater than them. So many people are not at a point where they can even think about Jesus because they’ve been so hurt in his name. I want people to accept that there are no ifs ands or buts. You don’t have to be more spiritual or less spiritual, you’re accepted where you are. I’ve found great freedom in that concept of grace. God’s grace and love is as much for "the others" as it is for you and me, and I believe that is beautiful-it’s so beautiful that it’s scary.
What message do you have for right-wing Christian leaders?
I really don’t know what else to say to them except, "Hey we need to talk and have a conversation and take another look at this. You need to sit down with some LGBT folks and truly listen without an agenda."
You mentioned God’s love was as much for "the others..." What do you mean by this, who are the others?"
I struggle with it and fight with it, I doubt God all the time. I have a ton of times that I doubt my faith. But it’s that freedom of grace that keeps drawing me back in. It’s definitely not other believers that encourage me to keep following along... well maybe there are a few, but not a whole lot. It’s certainly not the church. It’s the grace and love that rises above everything that keeps me coming back, and wanting to create an atmosphere for people to see that they are loved and accepted.
Even the things that were unacceptable in my life that I had to accept. I had a really bad drinking problem; I realized that even that is accepted through Christ’s grace. I got into a 12-step program, which I’m still in today and I haven’t had a drink in 14 years. It took me accepting the grace from God and not any other reason for me to that. There are people who say, "I won’t drink because of the church" or "I won’t drink because of God." For me, I had to realize God accepted me and then accept him in to my life. God’s love and grace are outstanding and for everyone-they are there even for "bad people" who we may think are evil, the others whoever they may be. It’s for Jerry Falwell as much as it is for you and me.
Well there’s a bomb to drop. As a gay man I shiver just hearing his name. I can only imagine that it took a lot for you to just say that?
Oh yeah, because he did many bad things to my family. But there’s beauty in love and I got to a point where I realize that there is beauty in loving our enemies, it is the one way to disarm them. That’s how Gandhi did it and that’s how Martin Luther King Jr. did it-they loved those who hated them. They realized that people aren’t the enemy, it’s the messages and the words are the enemy. It’s really easy to put a face on evil and feel that a singular person is the problem. Human nature is the problem, the need to be exclusive, the need to be in your own group, your own little tribe and all the other tribes are bad. That seems to be the major problem. I’m open to a grace that allows me to love and pray for those who are persecuting me-I hope to live to see my enemies redeemed. That’s what grace does and it’s a beautiful thing. The more I look at it, it keeps growing and that’s why I wrote a book about it.
What are your thoughts about religion being thrown around so much?
We have a T-shirt that reads "Religion destroys" or "Religion kills" and I feel it’s true. Religion is a man-made concept where all the rules come in, following Christ for me is much more spiritual. For those who say, "I’m not religious. I’m spiritual" it’s a great place to start. I hope I’m not religious either; I want to follow Jesus to the best of my ability. I want to create a safe atmosphere for people to come to, not just on Sunday, but every day. A place for people to come to hang out, for them to talk, agree or disagree, a safe space for people grow together. To me that is not religion, if one day it becomes religion, then it’ll be great! I’d be telling everybody to call me religious. Somewhere along the road religion got lost to me today and religion has nothing to do with Christianity.
Well, you’ve had many life experiences that have led you to this point. I understand that somewhere along the way you met Jesus in a drag bar?
Yeah! It was one of those things where I was in LA; somehow RuPaul, who was doing the narration for the documentary about my mom, got a hold of me and invited my wife and I at the time to this drag show. I was very hesitant, that "religious voice" or self-condemning voice got a hold of me and was telling me, "Oh you’d better not go there, you know you shouldn’t be seen there." Sometimes I just want to knock that thing off my shoulder, it’s as if an angry preacher is standing on my shoulder saying, "You’re bad." That was about the time I was moving toward becoming an openly affirming pastor and church, but hadn’t publicly stated it yet. While I did hesitate, I went and it was cool.
Dita Von Teese (the famous burlesque dancer who married singer Marilyn Manson) was there and I was pretty stoked, I got my picture with her! When I went outside for a smoke, I met what must have been a seven-foot tall drag queen with the Eiffel Tower on her head. Reluctantly I reminded myself that while I know when someone reaches out I’m supposed to reach back, I don’t always do it perfectly. Still, we started to talk about Jesus and I learned this drag queen was a preacher’s son too. So of course, we talked a lot about what it was like growing up. He went on telling me how much he loved my mom and he was concerned about her cancer. He asked if I’d tell her how much he loved her and that he’s praying for her. I got another picture with him for my mom before going back inside.
Next thing I know, as the show wrapped up, that drag queen got up onstage and began spotlighting the famous people in the crowd. He mentioned Dita Von Teese and RuPaul and everyone cheers. Then he asked if people ever watched ever watch the Praise the Lord ministry and if remember Jim and Tammy Faye. I expected people to boo, but surprisingly at least half the audience raised their hands and cheered. Some laughed because I know they were thinking a drag queen would be coming out doing my mom. Instead, very excited he said, "Well, Jim and Tammy’s son, Jamie, is here!"
Suddenly, this huge spotlight hit me and I thought I was going to die-people cheered and the drag queen decides to tease and ask me questions. First he asked if I was straight and I pointed to my wife at the time, whom he said was a lucky lady. Then things got serious as he put his hands on his hips and went on to tell the crowd about how Jesus loved everybody without judgment. "If Jesus were alive that he’d be at the drag show too. After all, Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the sinners," he said. The crowd began cheering.
What was your reaction to the drag queen pointing you out and then the crowd’s response?
Well at first I was embarrassed - stunned actually - and didn’t know what to do because one minute a drag queen was making cracks about whether I’m gay, and the next minute he was saying these really amazing things about Jesus and grace. But I knew that he couldn’t have been more right. I personally know I’ve had deeper and more real conversations about Jesus in bars than in other places, I mean after all my church is held in a bar. That night at that burlesque club in Los Angeles, I witnessed firsthand a group of people who are judged and rejected their entire life by the church, who are hungrier than many people I know for the love and truth of Christ. It was like they really knew the real deal: revolutionary grace. That’s what they welcomed it into their lives.
How did that night in Los Angeles impact you?
It challenged me to step outside my comfort zone and let me know that what I was doing was right. It taught me that grace crops up where you least expect it and that there truly are no boundaries to God’s love. It helped me towards becoming an openly affirming pastor. It was a pretty incredible experience that I didn’t expect, but had to be open to.
What do you have to say to the many LGBT people who are hungry in faith but turned off by the thought of the church?
What I don’t think LGBT people realize is how much they can bring to the issue. Although they are hurt and wounded, they can help in the healing by being open, as they want the others to be. By sitting down with someone, getting to know them, and letting someone who otherwise has never genuinely known an LGBT person can change people’s hearts. They can be the messengers because those one-on-one’s change people’s lives.
I’m glad you mentioned your mom; after all she’s an icon in our community. What was it like growing up as Tammy Faye’s son?
Well I definitely enjoy shopping (laughing). Seriously, when my friends just want to stop at the store, I tell them that we’re going to walk around the mall for an hour and eat and enjoy it. That’s something my mom and I used to do all the time. We’d go to the mall and have dinner. She’d have dessert before dinner a lot of the times. She was a great mother. At the same time she would restrict us when we’d done bad things and she was definitely a mom.
She could be a little ball of fire when she needed to be. She was a really interesting and unique person who I’m so grateful for the fact she was my mother. I miss her terribly. I’m just happy I had that time with her and wish I could thank her for it. I don’t know if she knew it but she really is the one that showed me her love was the trump card-that love always trumps everything else. She taught me that what was important to people is that they were loved. So I bought into that and that’s probably why I do what I do.
She was the one who took me to my first MCC church; my first gay affirming church and I got to experience that. I walked in and saw the difference. This group of people seemed to want to worship God more than most Christians on Sunday because so many churches have forbid them to, sadly. Because of mom, I’m stepping up. She taught me that I should step forward and be open. Hopefully I’m building on something she taught me and that is being willing to take a stand on something and be affirming.
It must be difficult having stepped forward as an openly affirming pastor for our community. Some people might ask even why you’d do it?
I love it and I know that I can sleep well at night for the work I do. I know from talking with other pastors who say they wish they could do what I do, but they’re restricted. It’s like saying, "I know what I’m doing is wrong, but because the church say Bible tells me to, I’ll continue to twist the rules and say it even if it’s not there." That makes them miserable, which in itself is proof right there that it’s not for God, because they’d have peace inside if it were. I guess I should say that it’s fortunate they don’t have peace-so perhaps that will change things.
Do you see things changing?
Yes indeed people are changing, at conferences where they might have simply said that it was OK to be gay, they now have gay pastors speaking. Also, the more conservative right-wing folks, are pushing back pretty hard and unfortunately right now, they are the loudest. Still, I think they’re changing. I hope that they will truly see what grace is all about; loving one another and understanding one another and sharing in Christ together, no matter who we are or what others might think about it.
Any final thoughts for those struggling to change or for our readers?
I want to challenge everyone to push himself or herself in this same way, so they can learn what boundaries are they putting on grace. They should remember that Christ allowed everyone to sit at his table and who are they to change those rules. Finally, everyone should ask if his or her rules are consistent with grace.
Jay Bakker is the son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner, the co-pastor of Revolution Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the author of the new book; Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society