Recently, Wesley Hill posted some wonderful thoughts here about the film Desire of the Everlasting Hills. It is a captivating documentary about three Christians who either return or convert to Catholic Christianity, leaving behind active homosexual lifestyles. There are so many wonderful takeaways, many of which Wes highlights quite well. But I want to focus on one aspect of their stories that struck me as particularly powerful: sacrificial love.
It is no secret that the theological river where I happily find myself swimming believes in a traditional, Side B sexual ethic where all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. I have no qualms with the teaching. However, many times this strongly held belief can go too far, resulting in characterizations of gay people in monogamous relationships that are misinformed or worse (homophobic).
One common way I see this happen is when theological conservatives seek to discredit the love that same-sex couples feel and tangibly display toward one another. I have often heard statements like, “That gay couple doesn’t really love one another. It is simply sinful lust masquerading as love.” The thought is that if they are sinning in their expression of their sexuality, then the love that they supposedly “feel” is false, or is in some way disqualified.
This is emphatically not true of the love that the gay couples in the film displayed for one another. (Warning – spoiler alert! Skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t want the specifics…or just watch the film, already.)
For example, Dan was in a committed same-sex relationship for about a year when he began to develop unexpected feelings toward a female coworker. He found himself not only physically drawn to her, but also yearning to marry her and start a family. Not knowing what to do, he told his partner about these newly awakened feelings. How did his partner respond? He told Dan, “If you can have those dreams, if you can have that life, I want you to have it.” In other words, he loved Dan enough to put Dan’s happiness and wellbeing before his own, even if it meant losing him.
There’s more. Rilene was in a monogamous lesbian relationship with her partner, Margo, for 25 years. Their relationship ultimately ended and Rilene embraced the church’s traditional teaching on sexuality. After the relationship was over, Margo developed terminal cancer. When Rilene found out, she invited Margo to stay with her for Margo’s final months of life, offering personal care. Through tears, Rilene said, “I wanted to make sure that she knew that even though I was turning away from the life that I was not rejecting her, and that I still loved her.” This was not lust. This was sacrificial, dignifying love until the end.
I care deeply about the broader gay community and yearn to see the conversation between conservative and progressive folks advance in positive ways. However, if we intentionally ignore that type of love in gay relationships, we will never advance this conversation. Why should those who disagree with us listen to what we have to say if we willfully deny real and beautiful love given and received? The truth is that they shouldn’t. It is ad hominem reasoning at its worst, and it’s hurtful.
But in addition to being nice, affirming true love wherever it exists helps us show the beautiful depths of committed, spiritual friendship. For those of us who are painting a positive picture of celibacy, we must be able to show how the sacrificial love often experienced in committed sexual relationships is also available within non-sexual friendships. We need to be able to say, “The love that gay partners have for one another is real, but does not need to be expressed sexually to find actualization. It can also be beautifully shown within committed chaste friendships, in which others needs come first.” If we can’t offer that type positive alternative, then no one will consider celibacy as a life-giving option. And in order to present said positive alternative, we must be honest about the love that gay partners are capable of. That very love is still available within friendship!
One more spoiler from the film (for goodness sake, go watch it so you can read the whole post). Speaking of ending her relationship with Margo, Rilene says, “I also don’t want to denigrate the relationship that I had with Margo. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else’s relationship. I think that we all have a deep, deep need for love and we find that where it seems to fit most.” None of us should seek to denigrate true love. But this doesn’t mean that we must accept every aspect of a relationship wholesale and lay aside all difference whatsoever. Instead, we must be able to recognize beauty within the relationship while simultaneously disagreeing with the expression of sexuality. We must be able to hold that tension.
Rilene is right. We all have a deep, deep need for love. And that love is just as legitimately available within celibacy as it is in sexual expression. In our hyper sexualized culture, that message will turn some heads.