I recently had the opportunity to speak at a small Christian university’s chapel about sexuality, friendship, justice, and the calling of the church. You can listen to the message here. If you don’t have 27 minutes or if you hate references to Harry Potter in talks about sexuality, I cobbled together a partial transcript of the second half of the presentation below. There’s so much else to say, but hopefully it’s a small encouragement.
[After an opening section on the connection between, friendship, empathy, and social justice]:
Friendship, knowledge of someone, creates the foundational commitment that enables acts of mercy and justice to be meaningful, mutual, and ultimately good. Trying to serve people without developing friendship and empathy will only cause harm.
We nod our heads about friendship and community and service, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty of daily life, of making substantive changes to our communities, most Christians leave sexual minorities to fend for themselves.
Gay/SSA Christians frequently feel stuck and isolated between a broader society that increasingly stigmatizes and misunderstands our religious convictions and a church that is often disinterested in or openly hostile to our existence. The church is our family, and yet we have to fight so hard not to be held at arm’s length.
And this is the thing, right? People have tried to “solve” the “problem” of gay people without first befriending and becoming family with us. And I think is because, if I can be stupidly honest again, straight people know that if they ask the right questions about sexuality, they will be called into action, forced change their lives in substantive ways. So instead of a good question, like “What would it take for celibacy (or the traditional sexual ethic) to be experienced as abundant and good?” it’s been easier for people in positions of power to simply place the whole burden on the shoulders of sexual minorities themselves.
This is why it was so popular to say, “Just become straight” or “Just marry someone of the opposite gender” or, as is more popular now, “Why don’t you just shut up about it and stop making problems?” All of that places all the weight entirely on gay people, and requires nothing of the rest of the church community. When it does this, the church is simply avoiding responsibility, and it deserves to be called out for that.
[This is followed by some comments on the particular failures of church communities to embody a healthy sexual ethic]:
And I think this is because, honestly, a lot of our churches have not had a really good social ethic. Have not served our communities in really meaningful, good, or just ways. This is why I think any Christian or any church that wants to have a coherent sexual ethic must also have a rich social ethic and vision for familial community.
Sexuality at its core is about how we relate to people, how we give and receive love in a way that brings life into the world. And sure, that can be sex, right? That’s the obvious one. Procreation. Babies flying out of the womb. Like, that’s the obvious way to bring life into the world. But I’ve found as I’ve participated in community organizing or mentoring or other things like that, that I’m bringing life into the world in my own way – and that’s important and valuable, and I hadn’t [learned to find much value in that]. As Eve Tushnet says, “There are so many ways to love that we have not been trained to see.”
The story of the last five or six years of my life has been learning to see ways in which I am able to love with the full gift of myself and bring life into the world in a meaningful and profound way.
All of this [beauty of] community, though, is only possible if you first learn to become my friend, and together we learn to do justice and love mercy in our communities.
Here’s the thing, guys. I need you to take friendship and community serious, because I, and people like me, don’t have much of a future without you. And – maybe you haven’t really thought about this – you don’t really have much of a future without me. Without us. We need each other, because we are already one body. And if we don’t live in a way that acknowledges the fact that we share the bond of Jesus Christ between us and work to become communities of justice, then we’ve missed it.
[Some comments directed toward the students, followed by the conclusion]:
I’m going to close, I guess, with something I wished for every time someone spoke in chapel about sexuality. This is for everyone, but specifically for those of you here who find yourselves outside the standard gender or sexual norm: You are beautiful, your bodies are good, and you have so much love to give. Live deep into your gifts and callings, and use them to bless those around you, proclaim the gospel, and create a more just society. You are worthy of a family to surround and support you – a family that you can serve and support, yourselves. And the church – imperfect as it is – is better off with you in it.
And I hope you know that when God sees you – in all your human messiness – the heavens erupt with a furiously affectionate
I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you
The rest of the talk (one more time!) can be found here.
I agree with much of what this piece sets forth. Even so, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the term “sexual minority.” We’re never attracted to people in isolation. Our attractions are always dependent on a social script with which we associate that person and within which that person has value to us.
For example, I’ve done several multi-month overseas work assignments. I find that I’m much more attracted to women overseas than in the US, especially in countries where the gender-role expectations are less scripted than in the US. Thus, in the US, my aversion is not to women per se, but to the limited availability of acceptable social scripts for opposite-sex relationships. This is especially true within evangelical church contexts, where “biblical manhood and womanhood” often prevail. In cultures where I have greater freedom to experiment with social scripts that feel comfortable to me, the more attractive women become to me. In the US, however, I generally prefer to hang out with other guys, generally because those relationships are burdened with fewer social expectations.
I’m not suggesting that this describes all people who identify somewhere on the LGBTQ map. But I do think that we may give biology too much credit. The toxic and out-dated gender scripts that pervade American culture are as much a cause as biology for why people opt out of the heterosexual script. And the church has played a substantial role in perpetuating those toxic scripts.
It’s hard to know where things go from here. I feel like evangelicalism is so wedded to the neo-Freudian family-values script that it’s impossible for “sexual minorities” ever to find a home there. And, by my observation, most evangelical churches are retreating into a kind of fundamentalism, and are doubling down on things like inerrancy, gender roles, and the like. The recent spate of firings from evangelical seminaries is evidence of that. At the same time, millions of evangelicals are walking away, but they’re not really going anywhere in particular. I stopped going to church a while ago. I joined a running club that meets on Sunday mornings. Incidentally, a number of people in the running club are former evangelicals who still believe but who simply grew tired of the toxic culture that’s come to pervade many evangelical churches. When the evangelical vote was spilt between the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, it suggests that something is seriously wrong with where the movement’s gone.
Re. the impending evangelical split – do you think the feeling that all traditionalists are under siege forces Christians to narrow their social circle (if only to provide the comfort of hanging out with very similar people)?
I do. It seems like traditionalists are largely content only to hang out with other traditionalists.
I also think it has something to with the gradual movement of traditionalist evangelicalism back into a kind of fundamentalist authoritarianism.
There is, after all, a tragic flaw in the neo-Freudian “family values” theology that lies at the center of traditionalist evangelicalism. By trying to reduce the complexity of human sexuality to overly simplistic and highly scripted social narratives (e.g., biblical manhood and womanhood), traditionalists actually give undue credence to things like homosexuality and transgenderism. That’s not to say that there isn’t some credence to these concepts. Even so, I believe that they gain greater credence within our culture because of the overly restrictive ways in which we construe “normal” sexuality.
In that sense, evangelicals are stuck i something of a vicious cycle with regard to their family-values theology. The more success they enjoy at establishing a particular “heterosexual identity,” the greater credence they lend to non-heterosexual identities that rise up to challenge it. Thus, one form of absurdity (family-values “Christianity”) gives birth to other forms of absurdity that exist simply to oppose the former.
This doesn’t just arise in issues related to sexuality; it crops up all over the place. I’ve heard it referred to as the “problem of antithesis.” Evangelicalism thrives off of antithesis. In many ways, the sense of being beset by enemies is central to evangelical identity. But the movement seems to be running out of real enemies. By the early 1990s, the culture had largely resolved most of the big social issues that gave life to evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. And most of those issues were resolved in ways that were largely favorable to evangelicals. In the early 1990s, it appeared that evangelicals had the opportunity to establish themselves as something akin to a new establishment.
But it was not to be. Not knowing how to handle themselves in a period of social tranquility, evangelicals concocted the Culture War. This was largely a manufactured war–a solution looking for a problem. Lacking any enemies, evangelical leaders took moves to create enemies, just so that they could have opponents against whom to engage. I guess I saw this coming in the late ’80s. I was a swimmer. In the summer, I would train for a couple of hours at our swim club, and then would hang out for the rest of the day in my Speedo. I didn’t want tan lines, and wanted to show off my lean physique. Then, during the summer before I went to college, the swim club required guys to wear board shorts over their Speedos outside of swim practice. This was done in response to “the growing threat posed by the homosexual lifestyle, which included, among other things, wearing Speedos for activities besides lap swimming.” A few years later, I would start attending a PCA church and be introduced to “biblical manhood” and learn about the existential threats posed to the world order by feminism and male effeminacy. I still remember my pastor’s words: “The marriage bed is the man’s communion table, and dominating his woman sexually in bed is the primary way in which the Christian man communes with God. It is the centerpiece of his devotional life.” I joined an accountability group, which required holding each other accountable on things like getting rid of effeminate tendencies. I stopped swimming laps because I was told that God hated Speedos (and because, as a swimmer, swimming in board shorts feels ridiculous).
In many ways, I think it’s hard for many of us who lived through the Culture Wars to know whether we are gay or not. Through a fair bit of counseling, I’ve actually come to realize that I was probably fairly normal, even if I embodied certain tendencies that Reformed people would view as unmanly. But, under the guise of the Culture War, these were unnecessarily pathologized, leading me to feel wracked with unnecessary guilt. And it was all a sham. Evangelicals needed homosexuality to be a bigger threat than it was, so they concocted a theology that made millions of guys like me into “closet homosexuals” so that they could have a more formidable enemy against which to battle.
The culture is finally coming to realize that, and the evangelical movement has been largely discredited as a result. I walked away from evangelicalism about a year ago. In doing so, I felt like I was reentering a non-evangelical world that I left behind in my early 20s. I feel like a guy who was unjustly imprisoned for the past 20 years, and is just now getting on with life. I often find myself thinking that I’m still in my mid-20s, even though I’m in my early 40s. It probably helps that I’m thin and active, and look much younger than my age. Even so, I feel like the past 18 years of my life were stolen from me. And I find it hard to forgive evangelicals for doing that. I honestly rejoice at every setback evangelicals face. I’ve experienced a return of my sexual attraction to women, now that I’m free to experience that attraction on my own terms instead of on the terms set forth by buffoons at the Gospel Coalition.
Your story… it’s just really sad.
Wow Matt your piece really hit a nerve with me. Lately sucidal thoughts have been creeping up with me. I was thinking about ending it all. But I decided to talk to someone and I allowed my vulnerable small voice to speak for me… You, Wes and Vikki have helped with your posts. It means a lot.