Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bridging the Gap

This post is my contribution to the Synchroblog project.

Wendy Gritter has undertaken the unenviable task of seeking out ways to bridge the gap between the opposing sides in the debate over homosexuality. I admit I sometimes wonder if such a reconciliation is possible short of one side capitulating to the other, but then I remember that with God all things are possible. Still unlikely, perhaps, but greater miracles have happened.

Ideally I would envision a church where both sides coexisted, humbly acknowledging that what we don't know vastly outweighs what we do know, and that God reveals to each of us exactly as much as we need to know right now for our own lives. Both (all?) viewpoints would be given space, with each believer allowed to prayerfully determine what God's will is for him or her. But since I have to come down from my ivory tower eventually, I'll settle for laying out some ideas for correcting several underlying problems I have observed that undermine efforts by Side B Christians to reach out to the gay community.

That's not to suggest that Side A doesn't have work to do as well; if we cannot respect Side B's right to exist, then we commit ourselves to perpetuating the cycle of violence by inflicting the very wounds that were inflicted on us. Nonetheless, it is Side B Christians who most often claim exclusive ownership of "orthodox" Christianity, so by extension the greatest burden to behave in a Christlike manner lies on them. I hope this post's focus on the Side B church does not come across as a diatribe; these are all problems that I became aware of while I was still committed to the ex-gay movement, and issues that would eventually need to be addressed even if Side A didn't exist.

(For those not familiar with the Side A/B terminology I use here, an explanation can be found by following this link.)

Hence the following suggestions:

1. Rediscover compassion.

Fundamentalists have for years reduced "compassion" to little more than issuing denunciations and haranguing others into turning from their "sinful ways" so that they won't go to hell - and many evangelicals have bought into that mindset. While shouting "turn or burn" may seem compassionate to those steeped in fear-based religion, it's time to reconsider how loving one is actually being when the recipients of one's "compassion" (and those observing from the sidelines) unanimously see it as something considerably less benign.

Compassion requires far more from the giver than the "courage" to be a belligerent nag. It first demands an investment of time so that the giver can get to know the recipients well enough to understand them and their needs. It then calls for further sacrifices of time, talent and resources as the giver gives whatever is required of himself to meet at least some of those needs. How much are the members of your church willing to sacrifice to show love (genuine love that will be recognizable as such) to their LGBT neighbors?

2. Dethrone the idol.

In theory, most churches recognize that lifelong celibacy is an honorable, biblical calling. In practice, all but a very few heterosexual Christians treat it as an inferior state that is fine for gays but that they would never in a million years consider for themselves. Spend time in just about any church and it will quickly become clear that getting married and having children is unanimously viewed as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Unmarried adults are looked on with pity, and church singles groups are seldom much more than "meat markets."

Meanwhile, any gay person who can't work up enough attraction to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex is flatly told they have no alternative to celibacy and no hope of anything better in this lifetime. It's a godly calling and it's all for their own good, after all, even though the heterosexuals preaching to them would view being relegated to the same situation with sheer horror.

Until such time as the average Christian can honestly say that they view celibacy as a calling fully equal to marriage, and that they would accept it joyfully should God require it of them, and until celibate Christians are consistently treated in everyday practice as fully equal to their married counterparts, the church cannot expect its gay members to view celibacy as anything less than a prison sentence.

3. End the word games.

To the rest of the Western world, "gay" simply means same-sex attracted (at least when it's not being used as a pejorative). It can carry additional implications about how one lives one's life, but for the most part it merely indicates which gender an individual is physically and emotionally drawn toward.

Tell people in an evangelical church that you're gay, however - even if you're committed to celibacy - and you're immediately tainted forever. Exodus International has gone so far as to assert in an official publication that merely calling oneself gay is as bad as being sexually promiscuous, based on the theological notion that to identify with anything "contrary to Christ" is sin (even though they have no problem with identifying as patriotic Americans, despite the teachings of Jesus and Paul that such allegiances should be of secondary importance at best).

If it were indeed possible for more than a tiny handful of homosexuals to develop heterosexual attractions, the notion that we're just "heterosexuals with a homosexual problem" might hold some water. As it is, it just muddles the issue and encourages dishonesty while fueling the illusion that the rest of the church can shunt us into an ex-gay program and forget about us.

If some people find the word "gay" to be a convenient shorthand for describing a part of themselves that is very real and in most cases permanent, it should be accepted for what it is: an effort to be honest and transparent, and not necessarily anything more. By the same token, if some of those individuals do not want to use the word "gay" to describe themselves, Side A Christians need to be willing to accept them where they're at without jeering and telling them they're in denial.

Along the same lines, it's time to retire catchphrases like "change is possible" and "freedom from homosexuality" that strongly imply a promise of orientation change. The semantic hoops that ex-gay spokespersons have to jump through to explain why these terms don't mean what they appear to mean make those same spokespersons appear as disingenuous as the oiliest politician. They contribute nothing that helps same-sex-attracted Christians and they hopelessly confuse the issue for everyone else. The only possible use they have is as propaganda in the advancement of a political agenda, which brings me to my next point.

4. Call off the Crusades.

The religious right's attempt to impose moral purity on the United States through political action has severely tarnished the entire church's reputation, as even some within the movement have begun to recognize. Today the average American views evangelicals as intolerant and hypocritical, labels that are far more deserved than we care to admit.

It does not have to be this way. Historically, some of the church's greatest moments have come when Christians have rallied together to advocate for the oppressed and extend the blessings of liberty to previously disfavored classes of people. Conversely, the church's darkest moments have seen followers of Christ wielding earthly power as a club to beat down those who would dare dissent against church dogma.

Which category does the religious right's crusade against gay rights fall into? Ask any gay person who's not in an ex-gay program (and even some who are), and the answer quickly becomes obvious. Again, it does not have to be this way. It is possible for politically and theologically conservative Christians to support state recognition of gay marriages without compromising church doctrine.

By working with gay people in support of their right to be treated as full citizens, the church can help nourish our culture of freedom and thereby safeguard its own right to only recognize certain marriages within its own spiritual domain. By affirming that we respect the dignity and humanity of our neighbors and that we will fight to defend their right to live freely, we make them our allies instead of our enemies.

It is not the church's job to be the world's policeman. A city on a hill draws travelers to it because of what it has to offer, not by sending out soldiers to drag them in at sword point.

I suspect by this point I've already lost a portion of my Side B audience, so I will close with one last thought before this post begins to appear like a laundry list of grievances. And I hope my suggestions will be taken in the spirit they are meant - as sincere feedback on how the evangelical church can better position itself for bridging that gap. My theology and my view of the Bible may have shifted over time, but I still love the church despite the poor behavior of so many of its members (on both sides of the divide). The civil war currently raging throughout the church does neither side any good, and "victory" by either faction could only come at such tremendous loss that we would be better off just closing our doors and going home.

But I digress. Here are my closing questions:

The religious right's fight against gay rights assumes that we can treat adults like rebellious children in need of a spanking and still expect to win them over once we explain how right we were to beat them down. What would it look like if the evangelical church treated LGBT individuals as the intelligent, responsible adults they are instead of as bratty little kids?

And for the sake of balance, here is a closing thought for Side A Christians. Why do we so often think that we're entitled to treat those who oppose us with the same hostility that we have suffered under? If we do indeed have the moral high ground we claim to hold, how can be better demonstrate that in a way that emulates the example of Christ?

I hope these thoughts don't deviate too far from Wendy Gritter's intent for the synchroblog. Sometimes an existing structure has to be retrofitted before it can grow to accommodate current needs, and the church is no exception.

7 comments:

wendy said...

Thank you for being willing to join the conversation for the synchroblog ... you have wrestled and thought about these realities much more than most. Some of the readers from the synchroblog may have no idea what "Side A' or "Side B" means .... I wonder if you could add a post-script to clarify those terms.....

Misty said...

Well said, Eugene. You are particularly eloquent on the point about "word games," which have created so much confusion in the church it is hard to know where to begin. Thanks for pointing these things out.

Eugene said...

Wendy: Good point about those terms. I've added a link to Bridges Across for those who aren't familiar with them.

CrackerLilo said...

I was on Bridges Across back in the day. As I said at Christine's, I have since gotten married to another woman, realized just how hateful anti-gays can be (being legally divorced against our will can do that), rediscovered my inner grudge-holding bitch, and decided I'd rather make peace with her than people who are mad at me just because I live my life my way.

But so many of my grudges stem from this sentence:

"Compassion requires far more from the giver than the "courage" to be a belligerent nag."

So true. So true. So true. I wish the people who needed to listen, would. I hope some do. Thank you for your eloquent post.

A. Friend said...

Okay, I am a traditionalist, but here is what I agree with:

In theory, most churches recognize that lifelong celibacy is an honorable, biblical calling. In practice, all but a very few heterosexual Christians treat it as an inferior state that is fine for gays but that they would never in a million years consider for themselves. Spend time in just about any church and it will quickly become clear that getting married and having children is unanimously viewed as the be-all and end-all of human existence. Unmarried adults are looked on with pity, and church singles groups are seldom much more than "meat markets."

Spot on (although I am not familiar with the singles groups part).

Meanwhile, any gay person who can't work up enough attraction to fall in love with a member of the opposite sex is flatly told they have no alternative to celibacy and no hope of anything better in this lifetime. It's a godly calling and it's all for their own good, after all, even though the heterosexuals preaching to them would view being relegated to the same situation with sheer horror.

Until such time as the average Christian can honestly say that they view celibacy as a calling fully equal to marriage, and that they would accept it joyfully should God require it of them, and until celibate Christians are consistently treated in everyday practice as fully equal to their married counterparts, the church cannot expect its gay members to view celibacy as anything less than a prison sentence.


Brilliant!
We are at best "damaged goods".
Most straight people don't know very much about themselves when it comes to sexuality unfortunately.

But the most brilliant part of all:

it's time to retire catchphrases like "change is possible" and "freedom from homosexuality" that strongly imply a promise of orientation change. The semantic hoops that ex-gay spokespersons have to jump through to explain why these terms don't mean what they appear to mean make those same spokespersons appear as disingenuous as the oiliest politician.

Boy do you deserve a medal. I have been hoping to post this for some time now but didn't know how. I might end up quoting you!

bridgeout said...

Rediscover compassion indeed!
I first read this post during the synchroblog event. Much appreciated dialog!
If you are interested, I would like to offer you the bridge builder award.
There are two rules for this award: The first rule is to write 3 ways you build bridges between yourself and others. The second is to nominate 3 of your favorite blogs/writers for this award.
Here is the code for the award: if it doesn't come through, email me and I will happily send it to you!
Take care,
Wendy

Jonathan Marc said...

I'm an Orthodox Christian and what's always fascinated me is the overlap in Orthodox Christianity and Evangelical Protestantism (from my personal experience) when it comes to singles living dedicatedly celibate lives in the world. In Orthodoxy we have a very high regard for monasticism (it's often called the 'angelic life'), but if someone decides that the sort of obedience and asceticism built in to our monasticism is not for them, then there's really no place for them :-/.

And amen on your third point - I've never really thought of "gay" as being synonymous with promiscuity, but whenever a Christian identifies as gay to other Christians the missiles come out. If their argument is that it's a disorder like alcoholism, then what's wrong with the word? No one reacts this way to alcoholics who say they're alcoholics, do they? ('No you're not! Say you deal with alcohol attraction!')