Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts For the Week

From the wisdom of Mark Twain, some quotes to ponder:

•Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.

•Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul.

•Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes and wishes he was certain of.

•In religion and politics, people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.

•When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.

•The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.

•Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do then by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

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.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Sin is one of those concepts that is universally understood, but when pressed for specifics, everyone's list is a little bit different. There are certain big sins that nearly everybody would agree on (murder, robbery, lying, etc.), but even those sins aren't always clear cut. Is it a sin to kill an attacker in self-defense, or an enemy soldier in time of war? Should a starving man who stole a loaf of bread be treated as a criminal? Is lying immoral even when telling the truth would cause greater harm? The world is a complex place, and gray areas abound.

To the fundamentalist, of course, there can be no gray areas. Either something is sinful, or it is not, and the Bible is believed to contain comprehensive instructions for telling the difference. With very rare exceptions, however, even fundamentalists don't follow every command found in the Bible; some amount of picking and choosing is conceded to be necessary to determine which sins are universal in nature and which were particular to ancient Israel and/or the first-century church.

The fact that no broad consensus exists on exactly which commands are still relevant today (aside from a few of the big ones) nonetheless fails to deter even some moderate evangelicals from making sweeping proclamations about "biblical morality." Likewise, the fact that the Bible fails to address many of today's pressing issues does little to deter those same believers from viewing it as a divine encyclopedia.

But as appealing as it may be to try to sweep away all of life's complexities by adhering to what is little more than a "soundbite morality" that can respond to every situation with a simple do or don't, such an approach is woefully inadequate to the realities of everyday life. What may be the best course of action in one situation may have disastrous consequences in another. What may help some people may be harmful to others.

Even medical science recognizes that no two people are exactly alike, as doctors and researchers increasingly move away from talking about "the" cure for a disease in favor of addressing the cure for Joe's disease, which may differ in important ways from the cure for Sally's disease, even if Joe and Sally were both given the same basic diagnosis. Similarly, our legal system has historically understood that breaking the letter of the law does not necessarily mean an individual is deserving of punishment; each case is unique, hence the presence of a jury composed of ordinary citizens who have the power to acquit a defendant even if the facts of the case clearly point toward guilt.

How, then, can we ever determine what is morally right if we have to take into account the uniqueness and complexity of each individual? The short answer is that we can't, at least not as absolutely as the fundamentalists in every belief system insist that we must be able to. And fortunately, the Bible doesn't require us to. By boiling everything down to two essential commands (love God and love others), we are free to pursue that which is good without having to forcibly twist every situation to fit a rigid, one-size-fits-all mold.

In addition, we have the Holy Spirit as a guide to help us determine what is right in any given circumstance. Fundamentalists don't care much for the individualized nature of the Holy Spirit's guidance; within their legalistic mindset, only an iron-fisted authority that treats everyone exactly the same can possibly be just, and so the Spirit is relegated to Divine law enforcement duty or pushed into the background entirely.

Back to the issue at hand, based on our two essential commands we can place all sins into two basic categories: sins against others and sins against God. Both categories are broad enough to be ambiguous, but the former is the more tangible of the two. When we cause harm to another person, whether through action or inaction, malice or neglect, we sin against them.

Even then, it's not always clear-cut; when the needs of multiple people conflict, it's not always possible to prevent harm to everybody involved. Sometimes a lesser harm is necessary to prevent a greater harm. And even acts of genuine compassion can go awry. The assistance that helps one person get back on his feet may hinder the recovery of another by creating dependency. The confrontation that corrects one person's course may emotionally destroy another. The advice that mends one relationship may permanently ruin another.

I'm convinced that much of the success the early church lay in the fact that it was composed of small, close-knit communities. The only way we can truly love people - to make the world a better place for them and minimize our sins against them - is to get to know them intimately. Likewise, even when we know a person very well we don't always know what's best for them, no matter what the Bible appears to say on the subject. The less time we have invested in getting to know someone, the less valuable our advice to them can be.

Even under ideal circumstances we can't always know in advance what the outcome of our actions will be. Part of adulthood is learning how to make reasonably educated choices, and learning how to accept responsibility for the consequences of those choices.

It is, in fact, responsibility that fundamentalists fear most. For them, the consequence of being wrong is eternal punishment, so they necessarily formulate a theology that enables them to divest themselves of all responsibility. If one's actions are done out of obedience to what "the Bible says," then any negative consequences cannot truly be bad since God is responsible for them. The detachment from reality that this mindset creates becomes validation that one is becoming more "heavenly minded," and thus it feeds upon itself.

But if the sins we commit against others cannot be measured in terms of real-world consequences, then the command "love your neighbor as yourself" is useless at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. If the spiritual effects of our actions are so detached from their physical and emotional effects that the latter must sometimes be disregarded as Satanic deception, then there is no limit to the abuses that we can commit in God's name once we've invented a "biblical" support for them.

Similarly, we must be careful about what we proclaim to be a sin against God. We can certainly learn from the Bible some of the things that distress God, but if human beings are too complex for us to neatly compartmentalize, how much more beyond our grasp is an infinite being? And God, who understands us better than we understand ourselves, is going to be less caught up in the superficiality of outward appearances than we mortals are. One person's action that appears flippant from our vantage point may in fact be an act of sincere devotion. Only God Himself is wise enough to discern the difference, and we run the risk of sinning against both him and our brother or sister when we are too quick to condemn that which we don't fully understand.

Some might argue for a third category of sin: sins against oneself, or any action that might be considered a "victimless crime." Sometimes self-harm is arguably a sin against those around us, given how interconnected all but the most isolated individuals are, and there's a case to be made for considering it a sin against God in any case, since we are harming somebody that He loves.

Even here, however, life is too complex to divide into neat categories. Just because somebody is overweight, for example, it doesn't automatically follow that they are a glutton. As in all other things, at the end of the day the best we can do is to humbly acknowledge how little we actually know as we actively seek to learn God's direction for our own lives - a daunting enough task without throwing in the burden of trying to determine God's will for anyone else.

Setting aside our need to be in control of everything can be extremely difficult to do - fundamentalists, for all their talk about submitting to God's authority, merely seek to hold onto that control by reducing God's will to a cudgel that can be wielded against others (violently if necessary) in the name of love. Real love for others, however, respects the uniqueness and autonomy of others by relinquishing our desire to reshape them in our own image. And real love for God includes giving up every effort to usurp the authority that can only rightfully belong to him.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Life Soundtrack 15

Blind, by Lifehouse

The chorus of this song evokes memories from the time I fell in love with a close friend (not consciously, but no less deeply for it) and then had to let him go when he met the woman who is now his wife and moved away to be with her.

After all this time, I never thought we'd be here
Never thought we'd be here when my love for you was blind
But I couldn't make you see it, couldn't make you see it
That I loved you more than you'll ever know
And part of me died when I let you go

It wasn't until years later that I was able to piece it all together and figure out why saying goodbye to him hurt so much more than any of the other goodbyes I've said over the course of my life. Not that there ever could have been anything more than friendship between us - and not that I would have ever tried to hold him back even if I'd thought I could have - but at the time the pain was very real.