This is one of the talks that I gave for Trinity school for Ministry last weekend.
Beyond the Culture Wars: Listening to LGBTQ people in the Parish Today
I’ve been told that there are two types of people in the world. There are people who work from the particular to the general: they start with a single concrete example and then they work out from there, deriving principles along the way. A lot of contemporary writing, especially writing for women, is in this style. You pick up a woman’s magazine and the story almost invariably begins with a little slice of life, someone’s particular story, or a cute event that happened while the author was baking apricot crumble. There are other people who work from the general to the particular. They start with grand universal theses and then slowly focus in their particular area of interest. Everyone who has ever attended high-school knows that this is the way that we are taught to write the introduction to a formal essay. You start with a grand statement like “Star-crossed love has been a perennial fascination since first human beings began to tell stories around the fire,” and you end up with a tight, focused thesis like “Romeo was a trumped up playboy, and Juliet was a ditz.”
Typically, women prefer the former, men prefer the latter. That’s by no means a hard and fast rule – apart from “only women can have babies” almost nothing about gender is a hard and fast rule – but it is a pattern. So naturally because I’m a woman, people tend to assume that I will start with my personal story, and then work outwards from there. And there are good reasons for doing it this way. The best of these is that I have a very unusual story. I was born Anglican. I became involved in a lesbian relationship when I was about 12, and I became an atheist when I was 13. I was little intellectually precocious, and I’m afraid that I became addicted to books at the shockingly young age of five. I started out innocently enough on Dick and Jane, but by the time I was ten I had moved on to more serious stuff, reading Shakespeare by flashlight when I was supposed to be in bed. Lying to my parents about my sleep habits. Sneaking books into the classroom and reading them under my desk. Making up injuries so that I could read in the locker room during gym. This reading thing really started to take over my life. At fifteen I was introduced to John Keats and the shady pleasures of the Romantic revolution in poetry. From Keats I learned that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and this was the start of a downhill spiral. Soon I had moved on from the soft disciplines of poetry and literature into the hard writings of the philosophers. I tried Plato. Marx. Sartre. Kierkegaard. Kant. By the time I was 18 I was a hardened rationalist-objectivist-feminist-atheist with socialist leanings, though critical of Marx’s theory of violent revolution, and I had just come out of the closet as a lesbian.
This is where the story gets kind of weird. I had a girlfriend, the same one that I had been with since I was 12. She identified as bi and we were in an open polyamorous relationship. I had just broken up with my boy-on-the-side after he threatened to murder me for being a cold lesbian bitch. That might sound really horrible, but at the time I was, as I said, a hardened Kantian. I therefore considered a human being to be an autonomous rational agent of infinite worth and dignity. I had also really bought in to Plato’s idea that when someone does evil they harm themselves more than they harm their victim, and that no evil can befall a good person. So as far as I was concerned my ex had exercised his autonomy in an immature way, contrary to his rational dignity, and this harmed him more than it harmed me, so I was indifferent to his threats. Perhaps his description of me wasn’t all that far off.
I also had a male best friend who was a little shocked and alarmed by my total emotional dissociation from this situation, and he undertook to fish the burned photograph with the death-threat written on the back of it out of the garbage can into which I had casually tossed it, and he confronted me about the problem. He tried a lot of arguments that I basically ignored and then finally he discovered my Achilles heel. “If you are out of touch with your emotions,” he said, “You will never be a poet.” This really troubled me. So for the next three days we argued about whether I had any emotions to be in touch with, and whether I had to articulate them out loud in the event that they existed, and finally there was a massive confrontation that went on into the wee hours of the night during which I admitted that yes, I had emotions, but protested that no I couldn’t articulate them, I didn’t even know myself what they were, and this was cruel, and unfair, and why didn’t he go away and leave me alone, and… finally… at about three in the morning I blurted out “I love you….” and then, after a suitable embarassed pause I added, “Not romantically, of course, but not just Platonically either. I don’t know.” And after that we went back to being best friends, and eating ice-cream and playing in a garage band, and arguing philosophy as we had always done.
At this point the story gets weirder. So my best friend, whose name is Chris, introduces me to one of his friends, whose name is Dave. Chris is into Zen Buddhism, the writings of Alistair Crowley, heavy metal music and Russian literature. Dave is a devout Druid, apprenticed to one of North America’s foremost practitioners of Druidism, and he’s reading Sri Ramakrishna, Thomas Merton, Yogananda, Joshu and St. Francis of Assissi on the insructions of his mentor. We break into his father’s liquor cabinet, light up a pipe of cherry tabacco, and start arguing about the existence of God and the supremacy of reason. To make a very long story short, in about six months the three of us butting our heads together come to the conclusion that we should convert to Christianity, which we all do within about a month of each other.
Now, I’m still an existentialist at this point, I’m just no longer an atheist. And I believe that to be a Christian without accepting the teaching of my church on homosexuality is clearly a manifestation of “mal fois,” that’s Sartre’s idea of “bad faith.” If I stay in my lesbian relationship, I will be inauthentic. So I call my girlfriend and explain this to her, and tell her that we’re breaking up.
I want to pause at this point, because most of the time when I’m speaking to a traditionalist Christian audience this is seen as a kind of moral high-point. I choose authenticity and reason over desire and sentimentality. I make a heroic sacrifice for the sake of truth, and the love of Christ. I would like to demythologize that a bit. First of all, I don’t think that my relationship would have lasted if I had kept it up. It was clear that we were moving in different directions, and as I calculated it I was choosing between a long, messy break-up and a swift, clean one. I had just been through a long messy break-up with the boyfriend who ended up burning my photo, and I didn’t want to do that again. Secondly, I had always been a complete coward about break-ups. I usually made the relationship so unbearable that the other person would break up with me, rather than being decent enough to say “it’s over.” I did that very deliberately. I didn’t want to do that here. Finally, in spite of my grand confrontation with Chris about my emotional life, I was still an intensely emotionally dislocated person. I broke up with my girlfriend because I cared about syllogisms more than I cared about people. That’s not a virtue. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It felt like a logical conclusion.
Fortunately, God suffers fools very happily provided they sincerely try to follow His lead. He is the master-conductor of an orchestra composed entirely of mistuned pianos, three-stringed guitars and french-horns that have been in traffic accidents – all of them played by inept 10 year olds with ADD. Such is His genius that with this rag-tag ensemble He is able to produce the music of the spheres. Somehow he was able to take my social awkwardness, my lack of compassion, my unfeeling self-sufficiency, and my almost fanatical devotion to reason and from this very bald and tattered hat He was able to produce a conversion, a vocation, and a love affair.
You’ll remember Chris. The boy that I blurted out “I love you” to at three in the morning while I was still a lesbian and a long way from being a Catholic? Well, we fell in love. Since I knew nothing about Christian sexual morality apart from “though shalt not be gay,” we made love. In due time we also made a baby. Then we got married. This is more or less the unbroken tradition in my family. We have now been married for fifteen years and we have six bad munchkins who make sure that my home is always a mess, and that I have a plentiful supply of diapers to change.
So that’s my story, or at least it’s my conversion story. From here I’m supposed to go on to slowly develop a series of points and observations that lead us gently from my particular experience towards a set of general conclusions. Unfortunately, I don’t think that way. I’m one of those people who thinks from the general to the specific. So I don’t want to start my talk with a nice story, or a slice-of-life, I want to start by zooming way, way out and talking about the nature of history and its relationship to the Church.
I want to begin by proposing a way of looking at history that might be a little different from the way that we usually think about it. I want you to imagine history as a fractal. A fractal is basically a pattern based on a formula where if you zoom in, no matter how much you zoom in, you will be able to recognize the pattern and if you zoom out, no matter how much you zoom out, you will always be able to recognize the pattern. So if you think of a tree, which is kind of an imperfect fractal, you can see how any given limb of the tree is kind of the shape of the whole tree, and any branch going off from the limb is kind of the shape of the whole tree, and each twig is similar in shape to the whole tree, and even the leaves are kind of shaped like a tree. It’s a rough analogy. A fractal is basically that principle only extended infinitely in both directions. History, then, is a fractal, it doesn’t just repeat itself, but it plays out the same basic patterns over and over again whether you’re looking at it on the level of civilizations, or on the level of particular eras within a civilization, or on the level of an individual human life, or even if you’re just looking at the little narratives that develop over a couple of days, or even a couple of hours. These different nested stories have a common shape which is stretched or deformed in a slightly different way on each of its occurances – which is also a property of fractals – but the formula behind those stories is always the same: the life of Christ.
Okay. Neat. But why am I bringing this up in a talk that’s titled “Beyond the Culture Wars”? There are two reasons for this. The first is that I want to be able to address a common fear of Christians who are involved in the Culture Wars: that is the fear that our age is a time of particular crisis, that things are bad and they are getting worse, and that we are probably counting down to the apocalypse. We are, of course, counting down to the apocalypse but so far the count-down has been on for 2000 years and we’ve been told definitively that nobody except the Father knows when zero hour is set for. And there’s a kind of divine joke in the passage where Christ talks about this. He tells the disciples to watch for the signs that the end is approaching. “Wars and rumours of war” and so forth. If you read the list of signs, they’re not specific at all. They’re all things that are a perennial part of human life. Basically, Christ is reiterating, in a slightly different way, “You do not know the minute or the hour, so always be on your guard.” The conditions of human existence are the signs of the coming of the eschaton.
So are we living in a time of crisis? Yes, and no. We are living through the crisis of Gethsemene, with the spectre of the martyrdom and the cross looming before us on the horizon, not because this is a particularly dark chapter in the history of humankind, but because the fear and the horror and the blood-stained sweat, the betrayal, the confrontation and the arrest of our Saviour are features of the pattern on which all history is based. We face a crisis, but it is the crisis of being historical beings made in the image of God, and called to conform ourselves to Christ.
I would like, therefore, to look at the Culture Wars through the lens of Gethsemane, in particular through the lens of the battle that takes place in the garden.
Throughout much of Christendom there has been a perennial theme, the theme of the spiritual battlefield into which Christian soldiers march out to do war with the devil. This comes, in a large part, from the passage in St. Paul where he speaks of the Christian putting on the full armour of God and taking up the sword of the holy spirit. Militaristic metaphors have consistently spoken to a significant portion of the Christian world – and I’m actually very sympathetic to this on a personal level. I find it very compelling to compare the tactics and strategies of the people of God to the victories at Agincourt or the defeat at Cannae. I also suffer from deep-seated Stoic tendencies, so the idea of arming myself like a staunch warrior, setting my jaw and marching forward into the no-man’s land of the Culture Wars really appeals to me – especially since I clearly lack the physical strength and prowess to become a real Legionary. Not to mention the problem of being female, and not living in Ancient Rome.
The problem with the image of the Christian soldier, the crusader, the Culture Warrior, is that this is not an image that Christ used, and when St. Paul used it he was very careful to make it clear that “we do not war against flesh and blood.” The warrior culture that dominates so much of the Old Testament is transformed by the New Testament, particularly in Christ’s shocking statement “Love your enemy.” Keep in mind that this radical counsel is balanced by a counsel that says that if you hate your wife, and your parents, and your natural relations for the sake of Christ that you will gain a new family, the Church. Christ here, as is so often the case, really upends our categories and our ways of thinking and loving. He cautions us against the potential to idolize the family, and also challenges us to embrace those who we perceive as our enemies.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ shows us what this looks like. This is the first and only military engagement into which He leads His followers, and He actually tells them to arm themselves for the conflict, asking if they have swords. They have two, so those get brought along to the garden. We know that Peter had one of them. So the enemy starts to close in, led by Judas Iscariot, the traitor. Judas kisses Jesus and the soldiers move in to arrest Him. At this point, Peter draws the sword that Christ told him to bring, and he rushes forward against this mob of men armed with swords and clubs. He’s making good on the promise that he made at the Last Supper when he assured Christ that he was ready to die for Him. The odds are hopeless, but perhaps Peter has in mind the great victories of the past, when the Lord drowned the Egyptian chariots, laid waste to the armies camped outside of Jerusalem, or gave victory to Judas Maccabeus and his small band of fighters. Or maybe he has internalized Christ’s words about the necessity of His death. Perhaps Peter simply longs for the opportunity to prove his loyalty and die at the side of his master.
Either way, I’m sure Peter expected to be rewarded for his courage. Instead, Christ turns and utters the only military command in His career. “Peter, put down your sword.” Then, having rebuked His loyal and faithful follower, He turns to the man that Peter has wounded – the sole enemy casualty in this exchange, and He reaches out and He heals the ear of the servant of the High Priest. This is a man who came to arrest Him. The folks who lobby for same-sex marriage, all they want is to have gay sex and pension rights. This guy was here to turn the only begotten Son of God over to be tortured and killed. This guy is an enemy of Christianity. But Christ heals him.
Nothing that takes place at this moment is coincidental. None of it is random. It is certainly significant that Peter, in his zeal for his saviour, cuts off the servant’s ear. Not his finger, or his toe, or the tip of his nose, but his ear: the organ that would have allowed him to hear the gospel. Christ, in healing the ear, restores the man’s ability to hear and opens up the possibility of listening. We’re not told what happened to this man in the wake of this miracle, but we may certainly hope that this was a transformative moment. Christ’s action was a scandal to Peter, who knew Him. It must have blown the mind of the servant, who thought of Christ as the enemy.
Christ’s action in the Garden is radical. When Christ reaches out and heals the High Priest’s servant, He does not see Himself as healing the enemy. That’s our category, our perspective. He saw Himself as healing the ear of the beloved: He had come to give His life for this man, just as much as He had come to give it for Peter. This is where we find the scandal of the Cross in Gethsemane. I suspect it’s also part of the reason why Peter got into such a funk in the courtyard outside of the High Priest’s house. Peter was ready to die for Christ, and to die with Christ: he had declared this publicly, and he proved it when he stood to fight at Christ’s side. To conceive of Peter’s denial in the courtyard as an act of cowardice is to miss the psychological unity of the narrative: Peter denies Christ here because something happened to his courage between the moment when he drew his sword and the moment that he said “I do not know him.” These words have a particular poignancy if we consider that, in a sense, Peter may really have meant them. Not “I don’t know the man” in the sense of “I don’t know who he is,” but “I don’t know the man” in the sense that He is not who Peter thought. In Gethsemane Christ confronts his most ardent defender with a mystery that Peter cannot understand, and that he is not yet ready to accept. The mystery of a lover who is willing to lay down His life for the sake of those who persecute Him.
After the resurrection, there is a beautiful scene where Christ reconciles with Peter, and reverses the three-fold denial. “Peter, do you love me?” He asks this question three times, once for each of the times that Peter said that he did not know Jesus. Each time Peter affirms his love, and after each affirmation Christ gives him a commandment: “Feed my flock, tend my sheep.” Christ is directing him towards a spirituality which is based on service, care, love: a kind of love which is deeply practical. Tend. Feed.
So let’s take this narrative and see how its pattern applies to the Culture Wars. The Apostles here are a microcosm of the entire church. There is a small minority within that Church who are represented by Judas: they have lost their faith in Christ and are ready to sell out for a handful of silver and betray Him with a kiss. On the conservative side of the Culture Wars there’s sometimes a tendency to imagine that most of the church is represented by this figure: that there is only a small zealous remnant who are truly faithful and the rest are all traitors. This is not the case. Most of the people in the Christian community who we might be tempted to think of as lukewarm, undercommitted, compliant, most of them are represented by the 9 apostles whose activity following the arrest of Christ is described in the gospel only by the words “Then all the disciples deserted Him and fled.” Keep in mind that these apostles who “deserted Him and fled” are remembered among the saints of the church.
There are only two apostles who follow Christ as far as the High Priest’s courtyard, and only one who goes all the way to the foot of the cross. Keep in mind, these 12, they are Christ’s hand-picked men. When the only Begotten Son of God, infinitely wise, reader of men’s hearts, was able to choose the cream of the crop to be the original priests in his church, these are the men He chose. This was the night of their ordination, when Christ has prayed for them and interceded for them and sweated blood for them. This is as good as good as it gets. If you are ever alarmed by the state of the church, remember: this was how she was on the night of her birth.
Now, some of the people in the church today are heroically faithful, persevering in hope, willing to follow Christ to Calvary and to stand there, keeping vigil beside Him as He dies. I have nothing to say to those people, because they are better than me. I am a somewhat befuddled ex-Culture Warrior. I drew my sword. I lopped off some ears. I became angry and discouraged when I realized that this was not what Christ wanted of me, and I have certainly made my denials. I’m Peter. Anyone who is engaged in the Culture Wars is Peter.
So what does the story of Peter in Gethsemane teach us? First, that our way is not Christ’s way. We are to sheathe our swords. Specifically, we are to sheathe them in order to provide an opportunity for Christ to do His healing work. So long as we are fighting against the LGBTQ community, or for that matter any opposing group within the culture war, we are wounding their ears: we are preventing them from being able to hear the message of Christ’s love. Not that Christ’s love for the servant of the High Priest comes in the form of a word. Christ says nothing to this man. He heals him. It brings to mind a saying of Francis of Assissi “Preach the gospel everywhere, and if necessary use words.”
Second, that if we sheathe our swords there will be a terrible darkness. Why do we take up the sword, why fight the Culture Wars in the first place? For obvious reasons. We want to defend America. We want to defend Christianity. We want to defend our children. We want to defend our way of life. These are all things that we love, and we do not want to watch any of them get nailed to the Cross. We feel about the death of any of these things much as Peter felt when he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” To which Christ replies “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
When Peter sheaths his sword, and Christ tells him “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Peter is plunged into a state of spiritual darkness and confusion. Up until this point he had a solid identity: he was a follower of Christ. He thought he understood what that meant, and what it demanded of him. Now he doesn’t know what to do. His courage has come to nothing, his saviour has been taken away from him, his desire for martyrdom has been denied. He is asked about his Christian identity, and he is in no condition to give an answer for the faith that is in him. Instead, he says that he doesn’t know what the people in the courtyard are talking about, the cock crows, he realizes his denial, and he weeps.
This is a very accurate psychological portrait of what it looks like to stop fighting the Culture Wars. It’s hard. So long as you have that sword in your hand, you know who you are. You have an identity in Christ: an identity forged and tempered in violence. It doesn’t matter that the violence is the violence of a com-box war, or a letter writing campaign, or a series of articles. The pen, after all, is mightier than the sword. We can imagine Christ in the Culture Wars crying “Peter, sheathe your pen.” He who lives by the pen, shall die by the pen? If we look at the state of the Mass Media traditional Christianity certainly seems to be dying by the pen.
Third, Peter’s story teaches us that there will be faith beyond this darkness. It provides us with a way forward, a way to be Christian beyond the Culture Wars. “Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep.” There’s an interesting detail here that you can miss in translation, which is that the first two times that Christ asks whether Peter loves him, he asks about agape, a form of love that is simultaneously more unconditional, but also less personal than philia. When Peter responds, he speaks of philia all three times. The third time that Christ asks, He rephrases the question in Peter’s terms and asks about philia, about the kind of love that we think of when we speak of intimate, personal friendship. It’s also interesting that Peter is hurt only this third time, when Christ throws his friendship, his affection into question.
So how do we feed Christ’s lambs, how do we tend His sheep? We start by listening. What are people in the LGBTQ community hungry for? What wounds do they need healed? What obstacles stand between them and the sheepfold? And then we remove those obstacles, and we heal those wounds, and we provide for those hungers.
This can be addressed to some degree in the abstract. We can talk about general patterns in terms of what LGBTQ Christians need from their parishes and from their faith communities. But the main thing that they need is love. Not just agape, but philia. Not just concern for their good, but comraderie, affection, friendship.
I was asked once by the leader of a ministry to gays and lesbians – a fairly conservative ministry – what they could do better. One of my replies was “Don’t hide in the church basement. Get people in the parish involved. Have straight allies.” This wasn’t received with especial enthusiasm. But this is what we need. If our ministries to gays and lesbians consist of people meeting in secrecy, keeping their sexuality to themselves, supporting one another without very little outside support it’s not going to work. That’s not to say that you can’t have private support groups for sex addicts, for married men who are struggling with same-sex pornography, or for anyone else who just isn’t in a place where they are willing to be out in public. The needs of those people certainly need to be met. But we also need to care for those who are known to be gay or lesbian, bisexual, trans or queer.
Part of this, I think, is to reverse the taboo against coming out in Christian circles. I think there are a lot of people in our parishes who would be willing and happy to support LGBTQ Christians attempting to live out the teachings of the Bible. The usual ministries for Christian singles will not work in this case. Most of these ministries are targeted towards young people, many of them are kind of a dating pool, and it is assumed that people in these ministries are looking to marry. If it is known that a person within the parish is committed to singleness, and that marriage is an unlikely eventuality, then there becomes an opportunity for families within the parish to take responsibility for gay and lesbian parishioners. I remember growing up that there was an elderly women in our parish, a widow whose grandchildren lived far away. My family adopted her. All my siblings called her Grandma Grace. When she became unable to drive, my mother drove her. When she was in her final illness, my mother helped to care for her. If we hadn’t known her life situation, we wouldn’t have known that she needed to be included in our family.
We need to make LGBTQ people our friends. I do a lot of informal ministry, and a lot of what I do has nothing to do with telling the truth about biblical sexuality, or even with listening to people’s problems. A lot of it involves following people on Twitter so that I know when they’re having a bad day. It involves paying attention to what their favourite TV shows are and what music they like – and in some cases, going out of my way to familiarize myself with those shows and that music so that when they’re feeling alone or isolated I can make a comment that will remind them of something that they like. A lot of days, my ministry looks like random jokes about Black Sabbath and Doctor Who. It involves inviting them to come and stay at my house, or going out of my way to stop in and visit them if I’m passing through their state. It involves talking on the phone about nothing much. In some cases it involves calling or writing to my gay friends when I have problems, because people get a lot more out of a relationship when they’re not just a project, a charity case, but a genuine friend who has something of value to offer in return.
This brings me to my last point, which is that LGBTQ people in the parish must be invited to be more than just a pastoral problem. They must be given opportunities to give back, to be contributing adults within the parish family. These opportunities should not take the form of demands, and they should take into account the particular talents of the individuals involved. Throughout the rest of the day, hopefully we will explore more concrete directions for creating vocations and providing gay parishioners with a means of living full lives as faithful members of the Body of Christ.
Cross-posted from sexualauthenticity.blogspot.com
Melinda Selmys is a Catholic writer, blogger, and speaker. She is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism and she blogs at Sexual Authenticity. Melinda can be followed on Twitter: @melindaselmys.
I have read half way though and find it fascinating Melinda!
This is FANTASTIC. Bookmarking to reread… and reread…
Sadly, it seems as if the kind of friendship, welcome, and appreciation that you describe was written out of the final document of this past synod. That’s the kind of thing that eats away at my trust in the successors to the Apostles. Still, I for one hope that simply opening the discussion will lead to a healed Church that is better able to credibly preach the Gospel to the flesh-and-blood humans around her.
Some deep thought here. Thanks. I have a gay friend whom I try to support in friendship and not judge him. I still feel a barrier. Any thoughts?
Thank you for writing this.