By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Jacqueline Bussie is the original Outlaw Christian, the title of her hugely popular debut book released by a conservative Christian publishing house. In that book, she laid out her case that a whole new category of Christianity is needed to embrace the millions of people who are excluded by rigid evangelical culture. She urged readers to push back when so-called Christians say they must: “Never question.” Or insist: “Never tell your real story.” Or preach: “Always believe hope comes easily for those who truly love God.”
She called on her readers to bust those myths and join her in a new “Outlaw Christianity,” which she defined in that first book as:
- A new, life-gving faith for those who ache for a more authentic relationship with God and other people by no longer having to hide their doubt, anger, grief, scars or questions.
- An honest, outside-the-law faith for those seeking a hope that really speaks to the world’s hurt.
THE OUTLAW IS—CAUGHT!
The problem came when Bussie—a professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota—actually became an Outlaw Christian.
Based on the success of her first book, her future as an author seemed assured. What Bussie did not realize is that her “outlaw” idea was edgy and popular with her evangelical editors—until she revealed the next steps she wanted to take in her spiritual journey. In writing this new book, Bussie simply assumed that her editors would follow her lead in calling for loving relationships with actual “outsiders”—including Muslim and LGBTQ friends.
Suddenly, her publisher balked. This was truly outlaw territory in evangelical publishing! When they got a full look at her manuscript, back at the publishing house, they apparently slapped their foreheads as they realized: Ohhh, so that’s what she meant in her first book! Now, her outlaw status had become more than just exciting talk that would sell lots of books. It was a real problem for her editors—and for Bussie. She was caught in one of the deepest divides in American culture today.
To put this in perspective, the American publishing industry’s approach to the “Christian market” is split across a Grand Canyon-size gulf of LGBTQ inclusion. Almost as wide and deep is the gulf over whether evangelicals are willing to recognize Muslims as Abrahamic brothers and sisters. Some evangelical “Christian” authors have been able to tiptoe toward friendly relationships with Muslims and still remain in the evangelical camp. But trying to leap across the LGBTQ canyon in a single bound? That quest is doomed—and brings instant exile from the ever-shrinking circle of “Christian” booksellers.
Clearly, Bussie’s editors were asleep at the switch when they approved her original outline for the new book, which included those transgressive chapters. On the other hand, Bussie should not have been surprised when executives at her publishing house finally woke up to what she really meant about Outlaw Christianity.
She faced an ultimatum: She had to cut out all the material in her new manuscript about these two groups.
She dared to ask: What if I refuse?
That choice was dire. Her first book had been such a big hit that Bussie scored an up-front advance payment on the royalties from her second book—a rare benefit lavished on only the most promising authors these days. She would have to pay back that advance, which she had already spent while taking time to write this second book. Then, even if she paid back the publisher and regained the rights to the manuscript—her book would be dead in the water. She did not have a Plan B publisher.
‘IF I HADN’T BEEN CRYING SO HARD …’
In the introduction to Love Without Limits, Bussie describes her reaction this way:
My heart broke. Not for the book or for me or for the tens of thousands of dollars I’d lost, but for my Muslim and LGBTQ friends whose stories had been censored. Power had asked me to sell them out. To—quite literally—delete them. Of course, if I had done so, every word of this book would have shriveled into a lie. The situation’s irony reared up on its hind legs and stared me down. Think about it: I wrote a book about how people of faith are called to love with no exceptions, asterisks or limits. And then my publisher asked me to make exceptions, add asterisks, and set limits. … If I hadn’t been crying so hard, I might’ve laughed.
What happened next, Bussie believes, was the stirring of God’s Spirit. It also was a sign of the direction the American public is moving, according to the Pew Research Center’s tracking of the majority of Americans who now say they welcome gender diversity.
As she tells the story at the end of this new book, Bussie suffered in silence for months. Her hopes seemed to have crashed and burned for a publishing career that could share the good news of God’s inclusive love far and wide.
“Shame, silence and sadness sank me in their undertow,” she writes. Then, after weeks of this grief and frustration, a friend urged her to publicly tell her story. Bussie realized she had little to lose. So, she wrote a short summary of what had happened to her and the book. Then, as inspiration took hold, she pulled out a roll of duct tape and a thick black Sharpie marker. She wrote the word CENSORED on the tape. She slapped it across her own mouth—and posted the story and the photo on Facebook.
The image went viral—at least, viral enough that it reached the iPhone of the influential and inclusive Christian theologian Tony Jones. At the moment, Jones also happened be acquiring new books for Fortress Press, an imprint associated with the inclusive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Bussie is a Lutheran. The match was made. The original publisher was paid off. Bussie’s new book is finally on sale nationwide this month—with all the original material in tact, plus some very pointed additions about the need for Christians to resist censorship. The new book even includes Bussie’s infamous duct tape photos.
‘WELCOMING THE OTHER IS THE FUTURE’
Why did Jones move so swiftly?
“When I read the manuscript and saw the importance of the two chapters they wanted to redact, I was gobsmacked,” Jones told Publishers Weekly magazine. “I suppose an evangelical publisher simply thinks that affirmative, loving stories about Muslims and a LGBT couple are just too frightening to their core readership.”
Jones continued: “Even the largest evangelical publishers live in fear. … They’re hypocrites, because they continue to publish other authors with the same views as Jacqueline but who have written bestsellers. Moderate and progressive Christian houses are the future, because welcoming the other is the future.”
GOLDEN IDEAS FOR SMALL GROUPS
Bussie’s 200-page book is divided into two parts, which cover a total of 10 chapters. Along the way, she provides small-group leaders with lots of choices to organize discussions or workshops. The book could be the basis of a weekend retreat. In a weekly series, 10 sessions would be ideal, but a veteran group leader could easily cluster some of Bussie’s chapters to shorten that time commitment.
The book’s first part is titled, “People Who Taught Me to Love.” Within that section, Bussie begins her first chapter where we all begin to really become aware of love—with a true story about her first childhood love way back in Peachtree City, Georgia. Such memories remind us that love is a complex and powerful force!
In her second chapter, she turns to a mother’s love, reflecting on both Proverbs and the Gospel of John’s teaching that “we love others because God first loved us.” The golden moment in this second chapter is Bussie’s list of 40 lessons her mother taught her. If you are envisioning a discussion series, just imagine the fun you could have asking participants to draw up their own list of lessons from Mom or Dad—or both. That would be a small-group exercise people would talk about for quite a while! You could print sheets of paper for participants with a colorful border so that people would be tempted to post their lists on their refrigerator doors. Or, they could snap a photo of their lists and share them on social media. Think Pinterest. Spotting those lists just might prompt more people to join your small group.
That’s Bussie’s real talent. Her vocation is education. She’s taught for many years and writes with the engaging assurance that, first, she needs her audience to pay attention. Then, at regular intervals, she needs to drop golden moments that will engage her readers in personal reflections on—”What if …”
In the third chapter, she turns to Jesus’s startling and still controversial teachings about family. What could be controversial in Jesus’s family values? Check out Luke 14, where Jesus tells his followers that they must turn away from their original families—actually “hate” their relatives. No kidding. That’s even the English translation of Jesus’s words in the popular NIV evangelical translation. What could Jesus possibly mean by such a shocking claim? Well, Bussie encourages readers to discuss that—and you’re sure to spark a spirited discussion, if you try that with friends.
Then, she turns back to the ancient story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers—but managed to build a successful career as the pharaoh’s manager during a famine. She ends that chapter with Joseph’s list of eight lessons about family values. Once again, discussion leaders have a perfect opportunity to turn loose participants on their own lists.
And so the book unfolds. The second part of the book is called “More of Love’s Teachers: Places and Things.” Among those chapters is one about lessons we can learn about love—from feet. Yes—feet. Human feet. Curious? Get a copy of Bussie’s book.
‘NONE OF US CAN WALK AWAY’
When Christian ethicist David Gushee made his dramatic decision to publicly call for gay inclusion, one major inspiration was his decades of research into “righteous Gentiles” during the Holocaust. In our 2016 interview with Gushee about his landmark book Changing Our Mind, Gushee talked about the examples of these non-Jews who often gave up their lives to help their endangered Jewish neighbors. There is no escaping those heroic lessons of Christian compassion for “outsiders,” Gushee said. He continued:
We’re in a period where civil rights and social acceptance for LGBT people have moved ahead of the attitudes of a substantial minority of the mainly religious population. People are left disoriented by all of the progress people are achieving and, while many of them may want to move toward inclusion, they’re not able to get fully to acceptance theologically. So, we’re in an era when we’re going to keep hearing these public calls against acceptance—ranging from hateful and odious appeals to ongoing polite but firm differences over theology. It’s now clear to me that all of us who are allies for LGBT people will be required to help sensitize the many Americans who are struggling to accept what is unfolding. I’ve learned that none of us can walk away. This is a calling we must be ready to respond to every day, for the rest of our lives.
Bussie is also Holocaust scholar. “I’ve made the same connection David Gushee made. We have to pay attention to all the people who are being cast out to the margins in our world. You can only be a Holocaust scholar for so long before you realize that we must reach out to oppressed people today.”
For years, like Gushee, Bussie’s research has focused on oppressed and endangered groups. Among her special interests are African-American slaves—as well as both victims and survivors of the Shoah.
“Studying what happened to so many men and women when people in power remained silent—my spirit inevitably moved toward compassionate listening and speaking out,” Bussie said. Although her publisher was surprised—Bussie said that her public record of inclusive teaching and writing has been crystal clear for many years.
“This is not new for me,” she said. “I’m part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and we pushed for years to have our national church ordain gay folks, bless gay marriages and become an inclusive community. I was always part of that movement, including pieces I published in ethics journals. And, I’ve been teaching this in my Christian Ethics classes for 15 years.”
WHERE IS HOPE?
Pew research shows that, despite troubling incidents and angry conservative voices, the tide is turning. So, why are American attitudes inevitably moving toward acceptance?
Bussie sums it up in one word: “Love.”
That’s born out in Pew research as well. Actually getting to know someone from a minority group softens our hearts. As Bussie put it in our interview: “That’s what changed my attitudes—falling in love with people. Just as I describe it in my book—this is what happens when we get to know friends and neighbors or, in my case, my students. This is what happens when we hear their real stories and respond with compassion. I’m proud to include the story of my gay neighbors, who are such great examples of adoptive parents that all parents can learn from them. Their example sets a high standard for all of us—including me as a straight person. I’m glad I got to know them. I’m glad I could tell their story.
“Then, let’s turn back to the scriptures for a moment,” she said. “Jesus is a perfect example of what we’re talking about here. Why did people want to kill him? In my estimation, they were terrified of the wingspan of his love. His example threatened every boundary they had learned to draw and were trying to defend.
“If people do read this new book, I hope they will walk away from it, first, knowing that they are loved by God without limits—and so is every single person they will encounter each day. The one question I hope they will carry with them is: How will I treat the next person I meet so that I am honoring our common humanity?”
CARE TO READ MORE?
VISIT HER ON FACEBOOK—Learn more about his ongoing work by following her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jacqueline.bussie.