What should the Church’s message to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people be?
Typically, this question is quickly framed in terms of sexual ethics: should the Church bless same-sex marriage? Framed in this way the traditional answer—which I fully believe—is that the Church cannot bless same sex marriage, because both Old and New Testaments teach that gay sex is contrary both to God’s plan in creation and to His revealed law. I have written tens of thousands of words and participated in numerous public debates defending this position and responding to various revisionist arguments.
But there is a danger here. In today’s Gospel reading, Christ says, “But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). Again, He says, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
Over the last few days, I’ve been attending a private retreat for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians. Sunday evening, I was asked to offer a few words of reflection for the group. This is a rough transcript of what I said.
Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.
A retreat is an opportunity for refreshment. We leave behind the troubles of our everyday lives, and come here to spend a few days seeking God together.
Each of us comes from a different place. Some of us bring joy and hope to the retreat, others come burdened by grief and anxiety: struggles in prayer, struggles with loneliness, struggles with sin that you may feel mired in. Some had travel problems, unexpected traffic, airport delays, etc. And some bring more serious issues like depression.
Most of the people in this community originally met through online forums. This weekend, we’ve deepened our friendships face-to-face. The conversations this weekend are a reminder that we are really made to know each other face-to-face. It’s far more affirming to sit with a group of friends and talk than it is to exchange messages online—though it’s wonderful to be able to keep in touch with distant friends in a way that was impossible in the past.
But as wonderful as face-to-face contact can be, we are returning home tomorrow. I’d like to reflect a bit on how to move forward.
It has been a difficult season for me. I’ve been transitioning cities, working through heartbreak, living with nearly constant heartache, beginning the long-term career job hunt, and learning to live life without the basic structure provided by classes and coursework. Many of my friends are also struggling through difficult break-ups, divorce, depression, addiction, and deep loneliness. Life is difficult and it is messy, but it also has profound moments of beauty and restoration woven between the pain and lament.
One of the primary ways I’ve thought about my own life as a gay, celibate believer and also about my larger project of trying to make the church more of a nurturing haven for other gay/SSA/queer believers is in terms of what J. R. R. Tolkien called “the long defeat.” His regal character Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, surveying the long years of her immortality and all the seasons of mingled loss and triumph she’s witnessed, says, “Through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” And Tolkien himself identifies with her: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
It seems to me that this philosophy of history, if we may call it that, is the ideal one for anyone who has exceptionally difficult, frustrating, even agonizing, but nevertheless vitally important work to do. For such people, the expectation of victory can be a terrible thing — it can raise hopes in (relatively) good times only to shatter them when the inevitable downturn comes. Conversely, the one who fights the long defeat can be all the more thankful for victories, even small ones, precisely because (as St. Augustine said about ecstatic religious experiences) he or she does not expect them and is prepared to live without them.
This perspective on history and on the individual Christian pilgrimage has meant a lot to me. As someone who hasn’t received one iota of the promised “change” in my sexual orientation that some Christians have held out to me, and as someone who also hasn’t been able to embrace a more progressive understanding of same-sex marriage, I’ve often felt like I’m fighting a kind of long defeat: I’m gay but not seeking a same-sex partner, and I’m still gay and so also not seeking an opposite-sex spouse, and what that feels like is… well, it often feels like the way St. Paul describes his rather stark view of the Christian life in Romans 8: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”
This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.
Last week I saw The Lobster, an extremely sad and violent romantic comedy about a world in which, if you don’t find a romantic partner within 45 days, you’ll be turned into an animal. It’s sort of “Why Our Culture Desperately Needs Spiritual Friendship: The Movie.” I hesitate to recommend it to you guys, because it was really hard to watch, partly because it’s so bleak and partly because it’s bleak specifically about loneliness and feeling like there’s no place in the world for someone who hasn’t found a spouse. But it’s a revealing movie–a funhouse mirror held up to our culture as it really is. I reviewed it here.
But here I’d like to talk about what isn’t in the movie even a little bit, because–and maybe this is spoilerous–what’s totally absent are the three theological virtues.
The moment is burned into my memory. It was night, and I was sitting in my parent’s van. I could easily hear the thumping of the band through the gym walls as they were cheering on my sister and her volleyball team at the community college she was attending. My parents were inside, cheering her on. I was outside in the dark of a cold winter evening—confused, shaken, anxious, hopeless, full of anger, despairing.
The worst thing that my 7th grade mind could think of had just happened.
Twenty minutes before, I had been playing outside the gym when two college guys approached me. I thought that they were just walking by to go inside, so I was surprised when they stopped in front of me. They were talking to me. But, why? I didn’t know anyone who was in college beside my sister. It took only a moment for the confusion to disappear, as one of them had spouted off, “Hey, aren’t you that fag from [____] town?”
For one of my graduate school classes last year we learned to create lists of goals with a counseling client, a process called “goaling.” Our professor went through the process with a classmate and then asked each of us to break up into pairs and work through goaling with our partner. After dictating to my partner, a close friend of mine, we were instructed to begin talking through how to order them and to make sure they were just hard enough to be difficult but not so difficult as to be impossible. After doing this together I had assembled what I felt was a good list. It covered the major areas of my life: spiritual, educational, personal, and financial. My partner felt that after looking at my list something was missing. He didn’t say what he thought that could be other than that it just felt like my list was missing something. At that point it dawned on me the things that everyone else in my class’s list included but were missing from mine. So I leaned over to complete my list that he had been recording on his laptop and wrote the following at the top of my list:
To marry the man I love.
To have a family who is centered on Christ and that we would grow closer to Him and to each other.
To have a home that is a refuge for many.
After writing these it took me a moment to absorb the shock of actually verbalizing these desires. My friend was then satisfied that I had written an honest list rather than merely the list I felt I should write. After looking at it for a moment I then deleted the three additions and left the list as it was originally.
Spiritual Friendship does not have a lot in common with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). On most questions related to sexuality, we hold positions very different from theirs. It is unlikely that they would endorse our approach, and we do not endorse theirs. But we do share a concern with the way sexual minority youth are treated. Two years ago, Jeremy Erickson wrote a post about the Day of Silence, which also linked to this 2010 Day of Silence post from Disputed Mutability, who is a friend of this blog. Jeremy also recommended Bill Henson’s Lead Them Home and Shawn Harrison’s six:11 Ministries as organizations that address anti-gay bullying in a way that is faithful to a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
Some Christians have raised the concern that anti-bullying efforts like the Day of Silence can be used to silence Christians. I believe that the most effective way to address that problem is to make it clear that traditional Christian convictions about sexual ethics are no barrier to acknowledging and trying to fix the bullying that LGBT youth experience. I think that all bullying is important and needs to be addressed. But in order to do that effectively, it’s not enough to just say “bullying is bad.” We need to understand different types of bullying and make sure that our anti-bullying policies are adequate to address all of the problems that need to be addressed. And that means understanding and specifically addressing the concerns of sexual minority youth.
I am not involved with either primary or secondary education. I am not, therefore, in the best position to make policy recommendations, or even to understand fully what the actual situation on the ground is today. I imagine it is quite different from what it was when I was in high school, but I believe that, in at least some parts of the country, the environment is still quite hostile for LGBT youth.
And in one respect, at least, I know that the problem is much worse now than it was in the early 1990s. When I was in high school, I remember homosexuality being mentioned only a half dozen times or so at church. Today, the discussion is inescapable. And as difficult as some of the things I experienced in my teens were, I never had to read a Crisis Magazine comment thread. Internet comments sometimes bring out the very worst in human nature, and if I had read some of those comment threads as a teen, I think it is quite possible I would have been permanently alienated from Christian faith. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6). Many of the comments about homosexuality at Crisis and other Christian publications are a very public expression of the deadly sin of wrath. This calls for a serious examination of conscience and a repentance that is as public as the original sin. Only public humility and repentance can begin to undo the damage to Christian witness done by this kind of public self-righteousness. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that Jesus was not crucified by a conspiracy of sexual sinners: it was the self-righteous religious pundits of His day who plotted to have Him murdered.
In this post, I want to talk a bit about my own experience, in order to highlight some of the ways that it is difficult to be sexually different in adolescence—especially in a culture like ours, which makes sexuality so central to identity, and is divided by such sharp conflicts over sexual ethics.
I’ve written before about how often gay or same-sex attracted people are treated as if the central spiritual and moral issues of our lives are all sexual. For some reason this story strikes me as the most poignant example. But we’re subjected to so many demands that we repeat, “I’m chaste! I’m celibate!” in order to earn an uncertain welcome in the church.
Some straight Christians seem to view everything we bring to our churches solely through the lens of our sexuality. I just heard a couple heartbreaking stories from friends who were told that the abuse they had suffered, or their struggles with addiction, were the result of their homosexuality. I’ve had friends whose pastors assessed friendships and other relationships solely on the basis of whether they helped the friend remain chaste—as if chastity were the only virtue, and friendship was a sort of chastity accountability partnership. Basically, gay people are sometimes treated as if all our experiences are unusually sexually-charged, and all our relationships are either a) focused solely on chastity, or b) near occasions of sin.
This sexualization harms us (and our churches) in a lot of ways.
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