On April 13, Justin Lee and I did a joint presentation, Let’s Talk about [Homo]sexuality, at Seattle Pacific University. Like previous presentations at Pepperdine University and Gordon College, we shared a bit about our own stories, offered some practical tips for building bridges in the midst of disagreement. We also each presented a brief overview of our own beliefs about Christian sexual ethics, Justin arguing that Christians should bless same-sex marriage, and me arguing that they should not. Rachel Held Evans recently highlighted this as the “Best Dialogue” on sexual ethics.
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a Summit from April 21 to 23, and the topic is “The Gospel and Human Sexuality.” Last night, after the panel had discussed “The Gospel and Homosexuality,” I was scrolling through tweets from people I follow who had been listening in to the livestream. You can access the tweets here, with the hashtag #erlcsummit, and I’ll just note that Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s are the most informative.
It’s probably definitely unwise to make an assessment of a conference based on a Twitter stream, and I’ll almost certainly regret writing this post tomorrow, but a couple of things struck me as especially comment-worthy. (Apparently the video sessions will be available to watch after the summit concludes, which means that I won’t get to them for another day or two.)
Catholic teaching often speaks of the experience of being gay as a “cross” or “trial”:
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination … constitutes for most of them a trial … These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358).
Or, again, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons:
What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross. That Cross, for the believer, is a fruitful sacrifice since from that death come life and redemption.
A common refrain I see from certain conservative Christian commentators is that homosexuality is “celebrated” in Western culture and that people are “pressured” into accepting “the homosexual lifestyle.” In some sense, I can see where this perception is coming from. I’m currently studying at a large public university, and I have previously done internships in very gay-friendly corporate settings. In these contexts, I do feel quite a bit of pressure to change my beliefs and to affirm all loving, monogamous relationships, including gay relationships with a sexual component.
There are many ways that this perception is problematic, however. The biggest problem I see is that the pressure is far from being one-sided. Ironically, the same people complaining about pressure to affirm gay relationships are themselves often creating immense pressure in a different direction. This pressure is often encouraging me to go beyond holding to traditional sexual ethics, but also to change the labels I use, to try to change my sexual orientation, or to focus my efforts and attention on opposing the gay-affirming segments of society. In some ways, I feel this sort of pressure more acutely than I do the pressure to affirm sexual gay relationships. Rachel Held Evans recently expressed this point well while discussing some related issues: “We aren’t ‘giving in’ to the culture; our culture is evangelical Christianity. We’re struggling with that culture, and doing so comes with a cost.” The fact of the matter is that the social connections that matter the most to me are those of my brothers and sisters in Christ.
A lot of information (and misinformation) has been swirling around concerning a recent report by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which criticizes the Catholic Church. Among the claims that keep being repeated is that the UN has called on the Church to “change its teaching” on homosexuality. It’s a claim repeated gloatingly by some in the media (“see, we told Catholics they were wrong, now the UN says so”), and with outrage by Catholic commentators (“how dare those liberal desk-drivers at the UN tell the Church what to do!”). But is it actually true? And, either way, what difference does it make to our efforts to reach out to the LGBT community?
In my last piece, I discussed my own experience as an early teenager finding myself attracted to the same sex. Now, I would like to offer a few reflections on what this means for today’s kids.
We must always start by thinking about how to actually love sexual minority kids. Loving people does not merely reduce to preaching about sexual ethics. Instead, we need to take into account the entirety of Christian teaching. We should start by examining our own hearts. As I wrote about previously, even though I’m not straight, I’ve had to deal with self-righteousness and other negative attitudes towards sexual minorities. I’m certainly not the only Christian to have heart issues responding to sexual minorities, and we need to keep our own motivations at the forefront. Even when sexual sin (which should not be confused with mere orientation) is involved, we must make sure that doctrine matters to us for the right reasons and that we are not only focusing on the sins of others.
Having framed the discussion this way, I will now turn to discussing some specific reflections from my own experience.
Simone Weil once scribbled down the following “method of investigation,” as she called it: “as soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” Ever since I first read that sentence, I’ve wanted to get it tattooed on my forearm—or at least placarded prominently over my writing desk.
Weil’s “method” explains the appeal to me of my favorite kind of writing—the kind that takes a too-neat, too-tidy narrative and shows how I’ve settled for more simplicity than is warranted. I loved, for instance, this sentence from a book review I read a couple of days ago, LaVonne Neff’s take on Jeanne Murray Walker’s The Geography of Memory: “These are my roots, Walker is saying: … my family’s fundamentalist church, full of answers and rules but also full of love.” As soon as Neff evokes the image of a “fundamentalist church” that we were expecting, she immediately prevents us from holding onto it in any straightforward way: this was a church full of care and warmth, in spite of the narrowness.
Always saying “it’s complicated” can be a bad thing. But it also helps to guard against hasty generalizations that could prove to be genuinely harmful to people.
Here’s what prompted this.
I was recently reading my friend Sean Doherty’s testimony of his involvement, as a man who experiences same-sex attraction, in various evangelical parishes in the UK. Sean’s story is deeply encouraging, insofar as it includes sentences like this: “At university I said I was gay, and I never experienced homophobic treatment from other Christians…. [L]ove and acceptance was my consistent experience…. I found the church to be a deeply supportive and affirming place. I was nurtured, given responsibility in ministry, and encouraged towards ordination.” That is a wonderful story that needs to be told. And Sean’s main point—that “homophobia” and “traditional Christian belief about marriage and celibacy” aren’t equivalent—is one that needs spelling out, as Sean does: “[L]ove and unconditional acceptance of gay people does not require approval of same-sex sexual activity…. [M]y experience has convinced me that this prejudice and mistreatment does not come from believing what the Bible says about marriage and sex.”
One of the minor injustices of Martin Luther King’s legacy is that he was such a good speaker that he is often remembered more for moments of soaring oratory, (“I have a dream, today!”) than for the quality of his mind and the clarity of his arguments. The following excerpt from his April 16, 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” illustrates that he was not only a powerful speaker: he is also a first-rate thinker. Indeed, a case could be made (though I do not make it here) that King is the most significant figure in twentieth century American discourse about the Natural Law.
The central point of King’s argument, which he takes from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, is that there is a law higher than human law, and that any human law which is at odds with this higher law is unjust. All human beings are bound to obey the higher law, and thus are bound to obey human laws which are in harmony with this higher law; but, for the same reason, they are bound to disobey laws which conflict with the higher law.
The letter was written in response to a “A Call for Unity” published April 12, 1963 by a group of white Birmingham clergy, criticizing the protests led by Rev. King and local African American leaders.
One of the things that I have long admired and tried to emulate about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is his care to respond non-violently to those who attacked him, at to teach his followers to do the same. He was not passive in the face of evil, but his goal was always to convert those who treated him evilly, not to respond in kind, and not to try to destroy them as they had tried to destroy him.
I thought it would be appropriate, in celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday, to offer the advice King gave at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott for thought and meditation.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus rider. Within days, the black community in Montgomery decided to organize a boycott of the city buses, to protest the discriminatory treatment of black bus riders. Initially intended to last only a few days, the boycott lasted over a year, until the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, and integrated bus service began on December 20, 1956.
Many of you have likely seen this picture that Nevine Zaki posted in 2011, depicting Christians in Egypt protecting Muslims during prayer: