We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires.
That’s from Andrew Walker’s review of David Bennett’s new book A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. I can’t tell y’all how weary I am of hearing that criticism from my fellow traditionalist Christians.
The word gay does not necessarily refer to sexual behavior; it can just as easily refer to one’s sexual preference or orientation and say nothing, one way or the other, about how one is choosing to express that orientation. So, whereas “stealing Christian” describes a believer who actively steals as an acted behavior, “gay Christian” may simply refer to one’s orientation and nothing more. This is why I rarely, if ever, use the phrase gay Christian without adding the adjective celibate, meaning committed to a life of chasteness in Christ. To call myself a celibate gay Christian specifies both my sexual orientation and the way I’m choosing to live it out.
Furthermore, it shows no awareness of the ways that, even in traditional Christian theology that views same-sex sexual behavior as sinful, being gay is crucially different than being an alcoholic, a racist, or a slanderer (the parallels Walker mentions in his review). As I wrote in a previous post,
The traditional Christian proscription of same-sex sexual partnerships does not require us to draw such specious comparisons or to say that there is nothing good at all in gay partnerships. On the contrary, even Karl Barth, who uncompromisingly rejects homosexual partnerships as out of step with the Creator’s intention, writes that such unions are often “redolent of sanctity” (Church Dogmatics III/4, p. 166) because they are about the struggle to give and receive love.
It’s not that I’m unwilling to consider thoughtful misgivings about or arguments for avoiding the “gay” label. Consider, in contrast to Walker’s review, this from N. T. Wright’s foreword to David’s book:
There are, inevitably, places where we will agree to differ. David uses the language of LGBT and a few other initials as well; having lived in a world where those on the margins found a peer group with whom they could share sorrows and fears, he does not wish to turn his back on folk for whom that self-description is something of a lifeline. I have come to regard the list of initials LGBTQI as problematic, since each refers to quite different phenomena, sets of circumstances, assumptions, and challenges, and to lump them all together can, from the outside, look like a way of saying, “We’re just going to live by whatever impulses we feel whenever we feel them.” I stress from the outside: I greatly respect David’s insider viewpoint and will, I hope, continue to learn from him.
Notice the humility here. Wright raises a question — are sexual identity labels an invitation to look for solidarity in the wrong way or the wrong place? — but then tries to imagine what might move someone to want to identify by one of those labels. He considers whether the motive might be merely selfish (“live by whatever impulses we feel”), but he also wonders if there are healthier and holier motivations that must be considered as well (“folk for whom that self-description is something of a lifeline”). More of this from Christian leaders, please.
If I could wave a magic wand and change just one thing about conservative Christian discourse right now, I would make it a requirement that every straight person telling gay Christians “Don’t call yourself gay” would have to expend (at minimum) an equal amount of energy talking about what they, the straight critics, can do to make it seem less necessary for gay people to so identify. As Eve Tushnet has noted in what I still think is the best brief commentary we have on this whole problem, “[T]he abuse suffered by gay people reinforces gay identity.” Things would look a lot different in the church if we worked harder on curbing the abuse and worried a whole lot less about hectoring the sufferers over their choice of terminology.