Do I Have a Story?
Can the church learn to listen to gay Christians?
by Joshua Gonnerman
Homosexuality has become an increasingly significant focus in the public arena, far more so than one would expect considering the small percentage of people who experience same-sex attraction. With the fight about same-sex marriage bitterly underway, the controversial repeal of the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy, explosive debates over Chick-Fil-A's stance in favor of traditional marriage, and growing concerns over the bullying of youth who are (or are perceived to be) gay, the question "How do we relate to gay people?" is more pertinent and visible than ever.
But the conversation tends to be dominated by polarized responses that are either pro-gay or anti-gay. Folks on the left affirm same-sex sexual relationships and advocate for gay marriage, while folks on the right tend to respond slowly to troubling issues like gay-bullying and even oppressive systems (think Uganda), ignoring or minimizing the unjust treatment of gays and/or promoting questionable "ex-gay" ideologies and conversion therapies.
As acceptance of gay relationships gains increasing ground in the Western world and in older Protestant denominations, believers of a more traditional bent find themselves faced with a dilemma. Do they maintain their vision of sexual ethics and place themselves in the anti-gay camp—proudly patronizing Chick-Fil-A restaurants, universalizing individual stories that confirm their prejudices, and ignoring the realities of anti-gay violence (whether physical, professional, psychological, or spiritual)? Or do they switch sides and place themselves in the pro-gay camp, adopting an affirming stance, making an idol of the word "marriage," and turning words like "hate," "homophobe," and "bigot" into weapons to be mercilessly deployed against all who disagree?
The current cultural climate makes it clear that the questions have been framed badly. When the Barna group asked non-Christians aged 16-29 to identify the first concept they associated with the church, 91 percent responded with "anti-homosexual." Even more alarming, the same was true for 80 percent of Christians in that same age bracket. When this is how even our own young people view the church, structural changes simply must be made in order for us to engage in genuine conversation.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that more and more gay Christians are standing up, telling their stories, and pushing back (with varying degrees of delicacy) on the standard approaches of Christian conservatives. Particularly striking is the emergence of a contingency of gay (or queer) Christians who are committed to the traditional Christian sexual ethic. In the past few years, we have seen books by Wesley Hill (Washed and Waiting), Melinda Selmys (Sexual Authenticity), and Eve Tushnet (Gay and Catholic).
When I speak on these matters, my fundamental desire is to change the fact that living the gospel is not a real option for most gay people. If we hope to change this sad reality, our response to homosexuality can no longer be a simple "no." Nor can it be a concrete "no" and an abstract "yes," as with those who propose the "yes" of chastity or the "yes" of the cross. While secular society and affirming churches offer a clear, tangible, and attractive picture of what it means to be a gay person, the traditional church—if it hopes to be able to speak to the gay community—must strive to offer a clear, tangible, and attractive picture of what it means to live as a gay person who affirms traditional sexual ethics.
A Posture of Listening
In order for the conversation to become more fruitful, the church must adopt a posture of listening. A shouting match ceases only when one party stops shouting and starts listening. Surely the onus is on us, as the body of Christ, to be the "bigger man" here, as it were. To truly listen to the stories of others changes the dynamic of our relationship with them, and they be- come concretely humanized rather than abstractly demonized. Volunteering at a community center run primarily by and for transgendered persons, becoming friends with Christians of an emergent bent, and having a brother who is an atheist have been transformative experiences for me, because they transformed the issues of transgender, emergent theology, and atheism from theoretical ideas into flesh-and-blood people in my world—and all conversations must take place between people. Even when disagreement remains, it is imperative that relationship must abide.
Those disagreements must also be balanced by agreements wherever possible, and for this to happen we must learn to listen with generosity. When a spirit of generosity rather than fear animates our conversation, we allow the freedom which is due a Christian—a freedom which sees the work of the Spirit as particular to each person, rather than trying to force him or her into a mold which we have named "the work of the Spirit." Concerns over a so-called "gay agenda" must give way to a deep respect for gay people, a respect that enables them to tell their own stories and to speak of their lives as they choose. It may be necessary for us to disagree with a particular conclusion in the story they tell (for instance, equating joy in a sexual relationship with divine approval of that relationship), but we must practice a deep self-examination to make sure that we are speaking because it is necessary and not simply because we are uncomfortable. Insistence on the use of certain language (such as "same-sex attraction" or "struggling with homosexuality"), concepts (such as "burden" and "disability"), and narratives (such as "brokenness," "distant father/ overbearing mother," and "deficient gender identity") must fall away before authenticity can occur.
We must take this stance of listening with generosity even further into a relationship of solidarity, where conscience permits it. One of the great tragedies of the current climate is that responses to homosexuality have become so deeply connected to the debate over same-sex marriage. This results in the one-side feeling justified in its automatic "no" to gay people, because a "yes" would be to compromise a deeply held value of marriage being a heterosexual-only affair. On the other side, it results in enormous amounts of energy and money being poured into a single rights issue when far more serious rights issues remain unchecked in society. In many places, for example, gay people still do not have employment or housing protection. Perhaps most heartbreaking in this country is that in most cities, 25-40 percent of homeless youth are sexual minorities—a prime example of the need for conversations to shift from being rights-centered to needs-centered.
My ethical stance does not permit me to support same-sex marriage, and so I must pass on the dominant gay concern of our day. But by refusing to grant this question the centrality it currently enjoys, I find that a world of opportunities opens up where I can provide support for gay people.
All our lives are journeys that involve challenges, but more difficult still is the life of the person who finds herself, inexplicably, part of a minority. In order to achieve some measure of integration, she must put a significant amount of effort into changing her understanding of herself and the path she will walk in life, but sadly she must do so with relatively little support from those around her. As a result, the stories of gay folks are prone to a certain fragility and often need to be handled with kid gloves. It may be that offering support in this journey of self-acceptance is one of the most important things the church—that is, you and I—can offer to gay people.
Alienation and acceptance
Many gay people struggle with the experience of deep alienation. This is powerfully evoked by Wesley Hill in Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, when he writes of looking at the lives of his friends as if he were looking through a glass door—exposed to a reality at once entirely visible but entirely inaccessible to him. It seems to me that the experience of alienation is, most fundamentally, the experience of difference, considered as a negative concept. If we can come to see difference as a valuable and positive thing, not simply as a deprivation or handicap, then we may have the first beginnings of an attempt to overcome the gap in the perceived value of a gay person's life. If we can allow a gay person to embrace his unusual character and unique gifts as a valuable difference, then we shall have won a great deal of ground in the struggle to improve the conversation. By helping a particular person discern his or her own peculiar calling, we provide a significant step towards helping gay people lead life-giving lives in the church.
A person's story requires more than an understanding of what has happened up to this point. We also need a plot outline and trajectory, to help us sense how the rest of our lives might unfold. The body of Christ must help those within it discern life narratives that are Christ-honoring. We can certainly accept people who engage in activity we believe to be immoral. Indeed, we must accept them, if we hope to be worthy of the name Christian, and we must do so without reservation. But we cannot condone or encourage what we believe is outside of God's plan. Instead, we must offer Christ-giving alternatives.
The stories offered to gay people by mainstream religion and secular society are enticing, offering hope of acceptance, fulfillment, pride, and, most recently, marriage. The stories the more traditionally inclined churches have offered have tended towards either heterosexualization or stories focused on burden/struggle. As long as matters are framed thus, the gospel will continue to be outside the realm of possibility for most gay people. How far this is from the gospel where Christ declares, "I have come that they might have life, and that more abundantly"!
The stories offered to gay people by mainstream religion and secular society are enticing, offering hope of acceptance, fulfillment, pride, and, most recently, marriage. The stories the more traditionally inclined churches have offered have tended towards either heterosexualization or stories focused on burden/struggle. As long as matters are framed thus, the gospel will continue to be outside the realm of possibility for most gay people. How far this is from the gospel where Christ declares, "I have come that they might have life, and that more abundantly!" We can do better.
Most Christians have models for living in accordance with traditional sexual ethics. Gay Christians have few or no models. We propose to them that they must not enter into sexual relationships, but we do not propose to them what their lives should look like.
We have forgotten that marriage is not particularly important in the New Testament, except insofar as it images the relationship between Christ and his church. Today, on the other hand, the church has embraced an idolization of the nuclear family, which relegates those who are not part of a family unit to a significantly marginalized position within the church. As a result, loneliness is one of the deepest struggles faced by gay people in the church. The kind of life and relationship that we value in the traditional church is closed off to a gay person.
Of course, this is not a matter limited to gay people in the church. What we know today as "the single life" is a fairly recent phenomenon, but one that grows more common every year. It is time to recognize the assets that single people possess, such as the kind of mobility and flexibility that can greatly enhance the mission of the church and its service to the world. In the kingdom of God, "freedom from" one thing—in this case marriage— automatically implies means "freedom for" some other kind of communion, service, connection. Single people also provide a visible reminder that our journey is not over and that we are all still longing for final consummation at the return of Christ.
When we as a church come to truly and deeply value the lives of single people, and the particular freedoms they have to offer, then we will find ourselves better positioned to speak to the lives of gay people. We need to recognize in singleness a life-giving and Christ-honoring model that we can propose as an alternative to those who are ill-suited to traditional marriage, whether because they are gay or for some other reason. We must overcome our tendency to see a single person as incomplete, as lacking their "other half."
While we must learn to value the single life, we must also acknowledge that it is not well-equipped to meet the deep relational needs that all humans possess as creatures made in the image of a relational God. What models can we propose to help remedy this danger?
We find the beginning of an answer in the Gospel of John, where Christ says to his disciples, "No longer do i call you slaves, … but I have called you friends." The impact of this statement is lost on us because we have forgotten the depth and riches of friendship. I'm not talking here about the need for connection on a congregational level, although that is important. My focus here is more individual: I am concerned with friendship between two people.
Many people hearken back to their college days as a time when intimate and powerful friendships were formed, often powerful enough to be maintained, albeit in diminished form, for years or even decades after graduation. But why does this kind of personal connection need to be restricted to a particular time in life?
Aelred of Rievaulx, a medieval abbot, reminds us that while celibacy can be challenging, it need not be lonely. His little book, On Spiritual Friendship, is a hymn sung to the depths and joys and treasures of friendship. For him, a Christ-centered friendship has such riches to offer and provides an opportunity for such intimacy and connection that he echoes marital language, describing it as "that virtue through which, by a covenant of sweetest love, our very spirits are united, and from many are made one." What marriage provides for the body, friendship provides for the soul. Here, the relational needs of a human being can be met so fully that Aelred suggests we read of it in John 1, where we are told that "Those who abide in friendship abide in God, and God abides in them."
When we, as a church, come to truly value both intimate friendships and the single life, while at the same time being aware of the need to root deeply them in Christ, we will finally be able to offer an authentic "yes" to gay people instead of the "no" they have too often heard from the church. We will at last be equipped to offer an attractive alternative to the narratives offered by the world and to render the gospel a viable life for our dear gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America. He is an occasional contributor to the Spiritual Friendship blog, in the pursuit of a better conversation about homosexuality in the church.