I always like seeing this emphasis in discussions of hospitality:
After seven years of marriage, my wife and I have welcomed numerous friends into our home. Once we decide to host friends for an evening, we usually kick into get ready mode, a fast and furious sprint in the days and hours before our friends arrive. We divide and conquer the to-do list: select a menu, complete grocery shopping, mow the lawn, sweep the floors, run the vacuum, clean the playroom, wipe the bird crap off our lawn chairs (we have lots of trees), set the table, clean the playroom (again), and somehow, someway, pray all that happens before the doorbell rings.
Over the years, that to-do list has prepared us for hosting company, but it has also prevented us from welcoming friends in our home. Unwritten Southern rules of offering hospitality with excellence have affected how often we invite people in our home. ‘We should have the __________s over sometime.’ And then we delay or postpone the invitation. Why? Because the to-do list is always there, the gap between our day-to-day home and the presentable, acceptable-for-hospitality version of our home.
But over the past several months, Emily and I are learning to lay those conventions aside. Why? Because inviting friends into our lives when we are only ‘excellent’ isn’t friendship. Sure, there are still times we like to go all out, spruce up the house and cook a huge, Jamie Oliver style meal. It can be fun and it’s enjoyable to do things well. But that standard of excellence is rarely possible with two children under the age of 3. Friendship isn’t about always being ‘excellent’ with one another. Friendship is about preparing a space for authentic conversation. And sometimes authenticity happens when everything is a bit scruffy.
One view, which has many defenders among Christians who believe that homosexual acts are sinful, is that the term “same-sex attraction” is the clearest and most precise term for describing the experience of those who are, from time to time, tempted to commit homosexual acts.
However, the distinction between carnal and spiritual friendship makes clear that there are different ways of desiring union with a person of the same sex, some of which are virtuous and some of which are vicious. Unfortunately, the term “same sex attraction” introduces unnecessary confusion by lumping all of these desires in under one category.
On April 13, Justin Lee and I did a joint presentation, Let’s Talk about [Homo]sexuality, at Seattle Pacific University. Like previous presentations at Pepperdine University and Gordon College, we shared a bit about our own stories, offered some practical tips for building bridges in the midst of disagreement. We also each presented a brief overview of our own beliefs about Christian sexual ethics, Justin arguing that Christians should bless same-sex marriage, and me arguing that they should not. Rachel Held Evans recently highlighted this as the “Best Dialogue” on sexual ethics.
Jokes are one of the first signs of friendship. You have to really know someone to know when the inappropriate may be appropriate, where your nonchalant exclamation of flagrant partial truths will be understood. Jokes about race may be racism or jesting. This is why it’s usually bad form to make jokes about race in public. Only your friends will know the difference.
The same can be said of gay jokes. In general, I’m not a fan of them. But I’ve also come to appreciate them in some ways. I recently made a joke about how I embodied a gay stereotype with some friends, and in many ways, the joke seemed like the opening of a door, the crossing through a threshold. For me to make this joke appropriately, I needed three things: I needed my friends to know me; I needed to be comfortable with myself; and I needed them to be comfortable with me. If any of these are missing, the joke will be misplaced and just awkward. For me to make the joke and for them to understand it as a joke, as a partial truth, is for a friendship to be realized.
Bonhoeffer’s former student, longtime confidante, and first biographer, [Eberhard] Bethge comes through in this book as a significant character—but chiefly as the object of Bonhoeffer’s increasingly lavish affections, the expressions of which in actions, gifts, and words seem to fascinate Marsh perhaps more than they will every reader. Marsh never once refers to homosexuality and only once or twice refers to sexual desire at all, but he frequently paints Bonhoeffer as the ardent suitor while Bethge wants to remain “just friends.” What Marsh doesn’t ever do is explore directly whether a same-sex friendship without sexual desire can be this intense, even erotic in the sense of deep desire for closeness that can become (excessively) possessive. Bonhoeffer, who grew up without a close friend and whose twin Sabine gets married rather young, seems lonely until he meets Bethge, and then pours himself into that friendship as a river surges through a channel rather too small for it. Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more. (Remember, it isn’t as if Marsh is overdelicate about such themes. He is quite willing to detail and pronounce upon the sexual sins of both Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, and to do so without the scholarly cover of actual citation of sources.)
I can’t tell what Stackhouse intends with the sentence just before the parenthesis. Is he implying that if Marsh had ruminated a bit more, he might have concluded that a pursuit of friendship as intense as Bonhoeffer’s must have been fueled by sexual desire (thus lending credence to the idea that Bonhoeffer was gay, albeit celibate)? Or is Stackhouse rather suggesting that more interrogation on Marsh’s part would have shown our suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s being gay to be a post-gay-rights-era preoccupation, all too ready to classify people as either “gay” or “straight” and not attuned enough to the complexity, even for “straight” people, of desire in simple friendship? As I say, I can’t tell, but I’d like to continue the conversation.
When many of my friends moved toward a theology that affirms gay sexual relationships, they did so because they grew weary of saying “no” to love. Several of them described an experience where they were fully committed to the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics when they grew to deeply love someone of the same sex. They remained chaste for a season and prayed for direction, then eventually sensed the Lord saying: You’re free to love.
While many Christians considered their shift an act of rebellion—a plunge into sin—they saw it as the only path to love and intimacy. They recognized that “It’s not good for man to be alone,” and they longed to serve the one they love, share their lives with the one they love, and mutually draw energy from that love to better serve those around them. Many felt like the traditional ethic required them to cut off fundamental aspects of being human in order to be chaste: they felt saying “no” to sexual relationships meant saying “no” to love, and that saying “no” to love meant saying “no” to any intimacy, and that saying “no” to intimacy meant saying “no” to feelings altogether, which eventually led to detachment and isolation. The burden felt unbearable.
O’Halloran points out something I’ve highlightedbefore, which is that when the Church speaks negatively about “homosexuality,” it is not talking about the same thing we generally mean by “being gay.” When the Catechism speaks about “homosexuality,” it doesn’t even mean the same thing we mean by “homosexuality” in everyday speech (as opposed to its meaning within the technical discourse of Catholic moral theology). The teaching of the Church against homosexuality, as O’Halloran notes, “extends only to same-sex genital acts and does not refer to the sexuality as a whole.” The Bishops of England and Wales make this very clear in their pastoral letter Cherishing Life:
In so far as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life … it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered. However, it must be quite clear that a homosexual orientation must never be considered sinful or evil in itself.
Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.
A priest I know—we’ll call him Thomas—had studied in Rome as a seminarian some years ago. While there, he had become good friends with an English seminarian, Joseph, and the two would regularly spend hours walking through the Eternal City and talking. One day, they were walking through a Roman garden, and Joseph slipped his arm into Thomas’, drawing close as they walked. Instantly, Thomas tensed up, caught off-guard and uneasy.
Joseph turned to him and laughed: “Tom, you’re such an American. Relax. I just want to be close to you.”
* * *
We tend to think that touch and sight are things we simply do. We rarely contemplate how these senses are learned, how we not only touch and see, but also touch and see well or badly.
I wrote a post earlier this week that highlighted some of my fears for the future related to loneliness. As some of my closest friends have moved away, I’ve caught myself coming home to an empty apartment more often than I’m used to, more often than I would like. People responded with such thoughtful feedback: encouragement, challenges, pertinent questions and words of solidarity.
It seemed fitting to respond to some of the questions in a consolidated manner, and this one opens the door to exploring some related questions about how exactly we might all come alongside one another: “Julie, when you put on your hoodie and stare into space in your apartment, what are you really longing for?”