My friend Alan Jacobs, a traditional sort of Anglican Christian, wrote this the day after the Obergefell ruling:
Perhaps I am soft on sin, or otherwise deficient in serious Christian formation — actually, it’s certain that I am — but in any case I could not help being moved by many of the scenes yesterday of gay people getting married, even right here in Texas. I hope that many American gays and lesbians choose marriage over promiscuity, and I hope those who marry stay married, and flourish.
I know what he’s saying. I felt that too.
But I was thinking more today, What is that experience? For those of us like me who hold to a Christian view of marriage that contradicts the SCOTUS definition, what does it mean to be moved by scenes of gay marriage?
Well, for starters—and I’m speaking for myself here, not necessarily for Alan—I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. Listen, readers, this is the reality for many gay people who have had a brush with the Christian church in recent years:
So many people have been told (explicitly) that they aren’t welcome, treated as problems rather than persons. They’ve been disowned, had their trust betrayed and their confidences exposed, been kicked out of their homes and their churches, threatened with expulsion. They’ve listened as preachers proclaimed that people like them were destroying the church, that their desires were uniquely and Satanically destructive, that homosexuality by its nature cut them off from God; that their only hope for a faithful Christian life was to repent of their homosexuality, become straight, and get married. All by Christians who claimed that their actions were the result of their faith in Jesus.
And often this abuse—I know labels can obscure complexity but in this case I think naming the abuse is important—is inflicted on people who are trying to live out the full Christian sexual ethic. The treatment they receive would be unjustifiable even if (and even when) they reject Christian teaching on homosexuality, but what’s sort of amazing is that simply self-identifying as gay or even “struggling with same-sex attraction” will earn you condemnation and shame in many Christian communities. Your shame is treated as a sign of faith; any hints of self-acceptance are treated as rejection of God. It should come as little surprise that many of the people who receive this mistreatment eventually reject (what I believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic, and often reject Christianity entirely.
So, I think part of the reason I got a lump in my throat on Friday as I was scrolling through news feeds and seeing gay friends’ pictures pop up on Facebook and Twitter is because I know that for so many of these people, the alternative to their current jubilation has been a gulf of loneliness and marginalization. I persist in believing in the traditional Christian picture of marriage—what G. K. Chesterton once called a “triangle of truisms,” i.e., “father, mother and child”—but I know that when many people depart from it, they’re doing so after undergoing a significant amount of ill-treatment.
And that brings me to the other thing I want to say. The so-called Great Tradition of the Christian faith, the ecumenical mainstream, if you like, has always held, since the earliest days of the apostles (see the infamous Romans 1 passage of St. Paul), that sexual coupling between members of the same sex is immoral. But that traditional teaching has focused its condemnation on the sex acts themselves, not on the legitimate human desire for closeness that may or may not accompany those acts. In other words, traditional Christian teaching has said that gay sex misses the mark of the Creator’s design of human bodies and of marriage: it takes something intended for procreation and male-and-female spousal bonding and care and makes it about something else. (This was the point of Melinda Selmys’ recent post on concubinage.) But that same teaching certainly isn’t condemning all the things about “gay culture” that give us those weepy chills when we see them at their best. Historic Christianity certainly isn’t saying that gay people themselves or their partners are somehow irretrievably perverse and that all their longings and loves are any further removed from God’s design than their heterosexual neighbors’ are.
Nor is the Christian tradition intending to denigrate the many virtues exhibited by gay couples. I myself believe that when the history of our particular time—the time when the church is trying to sort itself out post-Sexual-Revolution—is eventually written, we will look back on gay couples as the among the ones who rediscovered and taught us some important things about the virtues of friendship, things we’d forgotten in our fixation on heterosexual romantic love. I think, for instance, of Andrew Sullivan’s beautiful writings about gay friendships during the AIDS plague years; those stories will be remembered.
When C. S. Lewis wrote about his childhood in his memoir Surprised by Joy, he included a passage about the sort of boys’ boarding school homosexuality he witnessed. Here’s what he said:
People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? … If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that [homosexuality] was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. It was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis… in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love-affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture.
According to Lewis in this passage, homosexuality is “unnatural”—that is, it represents a misdirected expression of eros. But he also immediately sees in the boys who engaged in it a spark of longing for God and of a desire to genuinely love each other.
When some of us traditionalist Christians were moved by the pictures we saw of gay couples, or moved by the real-life visits with our gay friends, the day of the SCOTUS ruling, I think this is part of what we were feeling. We were wanting our friends not to be lonely and alienated from love, and we were wanting them to keep hoping and searching for Love Himself.