Letter to JJ
by Nathaniel Brown firstname.lastname@example.org
I recently had a letter from the friend of a friend, a man named JJ, who told this story: There was a weekend retreat going on. This is a retreat where there are a bunch of Christian bands who get together for the weekend, and many teens go (church youth groups), and we adults act as chaperones. About two weeks before it was time to go, I was called to see the Pastor at his office. When I went to the church it was just the two of us in the whole building, and that is when he asked me if I was gay, and I told him yes. He gave me a disgusted look and told me that I could not go to the retreat and he didnt know if it would be good for me to continue going to his church with wickedness in my heart. I left the church, never to return.
What this pastor said and did was an outrage, on several levels, but sadly, it is far from unusual. I wrote back to JJ to say so, and what follows is my letter.
Id like to begin by identifying the levels on which JJs pastor was wrong. These levels stem from culturally-induced prejudice, deceitful propaganda, psychological ignorance, and Biblical ignorance. As Bishop John Spong points out, Sanctified ignorance is still ignorance." Unfortunately, none of these are very surprising, and the combination surfaces all the time. (It even gets elected to the White House ) I hope you dont mind if I format this like a text, but it will help me to write.
Culturally-induced ignorance is a broad net, and it is worth noting that the net spreads a lot wider than homophobia. Briefly, its a common and understandable human feeling that the cultural values we grew up surrounded by, are the Way Things Are. To make an analogy, its a bit like living at the bottom of a well the view is a bit limited by ones position! So far, so natural. Unfortunately, in spite of the size of our country, and its diverse population, we are very isolated and there is an old American tendency to want things to line up and toe the line and conform..
Ill give you an example of one kind of cultural difference: when my Aunt Nancy was in Kenya in 1954 or so, she went out to play tennis one day, dressed in regulation white tennis shorts. She was immediately asked to go back in and cover herself: in Kenya, womens legs were considered erotic and provocative. The irony was that the local women were topless, and thought nothing of it. Cultural, or ethnocentric points of view are the air we grow up breathing, but they do not constitute any absolute right or wrong at least when we finally see that they are cultural, and not Divine Law. Americans in particular tend to take the view that cultural norms are Gods Laws.
Another example: Ive lived and worked in Europe quite a lot. In Europe, millions of people take nude vacations every year: the whole family, for two or three weeks. In Finland, whole families take nude saunas together. No one is shocked. Similarly, no one seems to mind much if youre gay or straight. All my European friends know Im gay they even makes jokes about it, as when we were on a sailing boat with the Slovene Ski Team, and there was a big laugh about who was on top last night because there were an upper and a lower bunk in the cabin I stayed in with one of the (straight) Slovenes.
Our American version of the need for conformity goes back to the Pilgrims. They came over from England to be free to worship the way they wanted (no one in England wanted them around, telling everyone what was sinful and forbidding everything). All well and good so far, BUT, no sooner had they arrived, than they set down rigid rules of their own, and punished or drove people out who did not conform. This instance of enforced conformity reached its climax in the witch trials and hangings in Salem, and is just one example of how our freedom actually has quite another side. You could list the Mormons, the Aryan nations, even the peaceful Amish all people who withdraw to find their version of freedom. Unhappily, this usually means the freedom to establish and follow very narrow guidelines, and an equally strong urge to enforce these rules on others. In some cases this is very peaceful, in others, very exclusive, or even violent. But its an American tradition.
All of which is a longish way of saying that your pastor was very much conditioned by the society he lived and grew up in. It probably never entered his mind to think differently.
The deceitful propaganda issue is enabled by the tendencies we spoke of above: where people know of little else, the ground is ripe for planting and believing - lies. Be that as it may, so many people I think most gay people included have been fed so much poison for so long, that even, maybe especially, people of good will (which I assume your Pastor to have been it is not useful to demonize the other side) simply believe that gay people are everything from child-molesters to you name it, that we are sick (see below), that we recruit. The list goes on and on.
Of course, these things are not true. To speak of only one of these lies, study after study shows that 90% or more of child-molesters are adults of the opposite sex of the victim, that most cases of child-molestation take place within the family or among close family friends (and are under-reported because of silence and reluctance to report which alters the perception of who does what). Several years ago, a Denver childrens hospital reported that one hundred percent of the case they saw involving child molestation were heterosexual in nature. But no metter who is involved, child-molestation is not a gay crime any more than it is a heterosexual crime: it is a pathology that has to do with dominance and power.
Unfortunately, preachers, politicians, and religious leaders love to spout all these lies. In some cases, this stems from ignorance. In others, it is a deliberate tactic for raising money, or for cementing the faith and conformity of followers: nothing raises money so surely as a cry that something needs to be defended (children being the best button of all to push), and nothing promotes solidarity like a wicked mutual enemy. Over and over, studies have shown that while fanning hatred may not convince the neutral or the opposed, it does very much firm up the allegiance of the already-convinced. And in a society which has not until now known any gay neighbors, homophobia is a red button! Its interesting to note that five or so years ago Ralph Reed, then involved in the Christian Coalition, remarked to the effect that with communism gone, wed have had to invent gays if they didnt already exist.
And anyway, people do get hysterical about sexual matters, especially homosexuality, and especially in the United States. But such fixations say more about the education and wisdom of the hysterical, than about their targets look at the Nazi attitude towards the Jews, the way Japanese Americans were treated during WW II, or at the KKKs attitude towards Blacks. Ignorant, fearful people, especially ignorant people whose fears have been enthusiastically fanned, can be cruel and dangerous, no matter how laudable their ultimate object (safety for children, for example) may be. And fear makes money!
Psychological ignorance is a complex subject. To begin with, all reputable psychological and psychiatric associations in the US have dropped homosexuality from their lists of illnesses. Repeated research, starting in the 50s, has show that a) being homosexual in no way effects negatively ones ability to function positively and effectively (though pressures brought to bear on homosexuals can produce stress and stress-induced dysfunction), and that it is impossible, given a psychological profile, to determine who is homosexual or not; and that b) it is an unchangeable and innate part of the makeup up of a small percentage of humans, regardless of race or nationality.
In 1997, the American Psychological Association condemned therapy that seeks to turn gays from their sexual orientations. The group issued a statement that attempts to turn homosexuals straight carry a potential for harm and that The premise that homosexuality is a disorder is one that is no longer debatable. All responsible mental-health professionals have roundly denounced attempts to change a persons sexuality, and have said that such misguided attempts are potentially very harmful. It is worth noting, too, that even leading ex-gay exponents are now admitting failure: Jeremy Marks, who leads Courage UK and who underwent healing for his sexuality, has described the therapy as futile, and converted his efforts into helping gay people to re-approach the church. Michale Bussee, a founder of the US-based Exodus, as also quit. While anything can be suppressed if enough pressure is applied, it is generally agreed that orientation cannot be changed, and may be downright harmful.
I have saved what I broadly call Biblical Ignorance for last, because it is perhaps the widest and most complex aspect of the question, and because I think it is very important to place Christian religious issues within a broader context of objective reality, as opposed to what someone believes to be true from within a given religious tradition. It needs to be very clear from the very start, that not all religions agree on the issue: gays are welcomed by many churches so at the very least, it has to be admitted that reaction to homosexuality is a very open question.
There is and always will be hypocrisy in religion (s in most institutions), but it is a greater problem for religion to neglect it. If the foundation of religion is a faith led by mystical, ancient beliefs that are strained in the face of scientific evidence, problems in society will worsen, more of the faithful will be exiled, and divisions will widen. The nonsense associated with the shunning of divorced individuals. And the isolation of the homosexual are but a few examples of Christian hypocrisy, based on fear, that hide behind scripture and myth
Robert G. Lahita
Among welcoming churches are the Quakers, the Congregationalists, Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, some Methodist churches, a growing number of Episcopal/Anglican churches, some American Baptists, and it should be said, Reform Judaism The question is very far from closed, and while a few churches seem to be moving into more conservative and restrictive positions (such as the Southern Baptists and their insistence on the inferior position of women), others are moving fairly rapidly towards inclusion. Religious leaders who are outspokenly gay-supportive, and to whom Ill refer below, are Episcopal Bishops Righter and Spong (to name only two), the just-retired Primus of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, Jesuit writer John McNeill and individual clergy such as Howard Bess (American Baptist), Michael Vasey (Church of England), and Mel White (former associate of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell).
There is not the space here to go into the Biblical verses in any detail. Probably the best thing would be to find of one of the books listed below. Pastor, I am Gay, by Howard Bess, is perhaps the easiest to approach. In broad terms, there are seven verses in the Bible which can be taken as ant-homosexual. There are many more about adultery, lending money at a profit, divorce, and not judging, but most anti-gay preachers seem satisfied to ignore these, while concentrating on homosexuality. This reinforces the impression that we are dealing more with cultural training (and an unhealthy fixation on sex) than with real religion: it is easier to criticize the speck in your neighbors eye, if indeed there is one, than to deal with the beam in your own. As Mark Twain put it, nothing needs reforming so much as other peoples habits. Or in Richard Holloways words, The main difficulty for religious traditions is the way they associate God exclusively with their opinions.
But lets take a general look at the verses, albeit still in a more-or-less general way:
A few verses simply do not refer to homosexuality: the Sodom and Gomorrah story has to do with hospitality, not homosexuality - and shows what seems to us today an umspeakable attitude towards women, when Lot offers to give the crowd his daughters but preachers tend to skate over this aspect of the story.
Others verses refer to what are called the holiness code and are part of a long list of things that ancient Jews were to do or not do, in order to set them aside from surrounding tribes; these include circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath observances - all or most of which we have happily abandoned, or at least no longer attach any religious significance to. Some of these laws, such as prohibition against eating pork and shellfish, were probably for very good health reasons, given climate and food storage methods in the ancient Middle East, while others were clearly geared towards maintaining clear property and ownership lines in a nomadic and patriarchal society.
A closer look at the language used illustrates the point that many prohibitions are ritualistic in nature: the Hebrew word which some Bibles translate as abomination more closely resembles the English phrase ritually unclean than our modern understanding of abomination; it was ritually unclean for example, to touch a corpse or to have sexual relations with a woman within a certain time of her menstrual period a woman who had given birth was ritually unclean and had to be ritually purified. Leviticus prohibits touching the skin of a dead pig, planting two different crops in the same field, mixing materials in the same garment; it allows owning slaves (as long as they are from a different nation), stoning disobedient children.
Christians believe that we have stepped beyond (whatever that means) Old Testament Law and Holiness Codes: we simply do not practice or follow Old Testament cultural rules so to insist on seemingly anti-homosexual verses in the Old Testament is to single out a few verses to keep and enforce on others, while happily abandoning rules that might inconvenience the majority. This is using the Bible selectively, and whenever that is done, one is justified in suspecting that the Bible is being used. As someone once said, when you find that God hates all the same things you do, it is time to be careful.
New Testament verses, notably those in Paul, are harder to deal with, but on the whole seem to have been in contextual reference to holiness as well, as for example being apart from pagan rituals such as temple prostitution. I do not believe that Paul had any reference to modern, permanent, stable partnership relations base on love and faithfulness. And as with Old Testament verse selection, anti-homosexual preachers tend to ignore the inconvenient fact that Paul also insists that women keep silent and covered, tacitly endorses slavery (this opens a big can of worms about judging the past by the standards of the present, but Paul has been used to justify slavery, and later, segregation).
We are constantly tempted to find substitutes for the Grace that redeems us in our weakness, by submitting to absolute systems that offer us the strength of personal certainty since they are essentially projections of our own fear and insecurity, not real experiences of God, they are not genuinely healing or sanctifying
In Godless Morality, Richard Holloway, then Primus of the Church of Scotland, points out that simply to apply religious law is to confuse cultural rules with godliness. His point, to over-simplify, is that the rules which are of God must have a demonstrable reason: that they must, in some way, bring us closer to good, or help us to avoid doing evil. As John Harris points out, For a moral judgement to be respectable if must have something to say about just why a supposed wrong action is wrongful. If it fails to meet this test it is a preference and not a moral judgement at all. Rules which fail to meet this test are simply rules for the sake of rules, a cruel and pointless way of making us jump through hoops.
Does God play games? For my part, I find it absurd to think so, or that God cares whom we love: it is the quality of the love that counts. Or, from a different perspective, if a love can bring us closer to God through joy and gratitude, give us a glimpse of what unconditional love must be, teach us reverence for the other and I can attest that same-sex love does all these things then it must be of God! I had left the church before I met Chris. Knowing him and experiencing that love brought me back. And knowing these things keeps me in the church, not only through joy and thankfulness, but to fight, in love, the ideas and people that would drive me out. If we are to know a tree by its fruit, then the tree of homosexuality has brought home a rich harvest, in spite of those who would deny that the tree can bear fruit, or that it exists at all! It is not for nothing that Goethe calls the devil the spirit that always denies.
A few other arguments include the tired old thing that homosexuality is not somehow natural (as if nature = virtue). What does natural mean? On the one hand religion, ethics, monogamy clothes! - do not appear to be common in nature, while eating the young and polygamy do. On the other hand, I can attest that homosexuality is, for me at least, utterly natural: my attractions and by this I mean not only sexual attractions, but my perception of beauty, the place I find friendship and solace have been homosexual since I can remember, and I was certainly never taught homosexuality in my rather conservative, completely heterosexual home! Nor is homosexuality unknown in nature: the whole range of homosexual behavior, from courting through life-time bonding, and to and including raising the young, has been identified in at least 450 species. (This has been largely ignored because a) no one was looking for it, b) when it was seen it was ignored, disbelieved, or not reported, and c) cultural prejudice as when one W. J. Tennent, who in 1987 observed homosexual behavior among his butterflies and wrote an article entitled A Note on the Apparaent Lowering of Moral Standards in the Lepidoptera!)
I am convinced that homosexuality is natural, albeit in a minority of cases. Of course, no one understands genetic conditioning, but I suspect that sexuality lies in the same realm: much is in-built, some is conditioned by surroundings, a little is learned. Sexuality, I submit, is neutral. What you do with it is not, and this carries us back to Halloways argument: heterosexuality can lead to bad things: child beating, divorce and broken families, incest or it can lead to grace. Homosexuality is no different. But it is real, and to drivel about recruiting and choices and leaving the lifestyle is to miss the point entirely. Homosexuality is as real as heterosexuality, and as capable of good and evil.
(How silly the whole lifestyle fantasy is anyway, and what a good example of preserving an illusion in order to justify a prejudice as if homosexuals were all the same, instead of doctors, students, athletes, computer geeks, engineers, teachers, rural, urban )
Another argument which has given much comfort to those who prefer to hate rather than to understand, has been the tired old canard about loving the sinner but hating the sin, which simply ignores the fact that our affectional impulses are an enormous source of good in all of us, and in fact an integral part that cannot be rooted out without pulling the whole house down. As Andrew Sullivan puts it, this had to mean that homosexuality was essentially about sex But what if homosexuality was, in fact, more profoundly about love than about sex? What if it contained, like heterosexuality, all the nobility and failure of the search for intimacy and the need for affection? And what if sex was merely one, albeit profound, way of expressing that intimacy? How was it then possible to separate homosexuality from the dignity of the person? How was it possible to love someone and yet deny him the capacity for love himself? If homosexuals were gifts of God, then how exactly were they incapable of love? Of course, hate the sin twaddle is closely related to the tolerance attitude what they do in their bedroom is their busines, which is even weaker thinking as if a married couples relationship were limited to what they do in the bedroom. This is so silly as to need no discussion.
So the question remains: where do we go?
Our churches must realize that a new understanding has been reached, and that like prohibitions against eating pork, exclusion of homosexuals belongs in the sad past, right beside hatred of Jews and segregation all things that have been supported by the religious and through Biblical selectivism placed blindly in the service of prejudice and personal and cultural taste. The church does change: it has learned that as terrible as divorce can be at times, it can be the gate into new grace through re-marriage. The church has learned that women have as much to offer as men, and that many make fine priests and pastors. It has moved beyond segregated seating and burning witches and heretics. Holloway again: This is the problem that religions have faced at every stage of history. If they are persuaded that the human arrangements that characterize a particular phase of human development and understanding are the final will and commandment of God, how can they ever make appropriate changes to their life?
We want to move as fast as we can; I hope that in my lifetime we will have begun to arrive, but we must also take the time to argue, to try to convince, and have the discipline to show good examples through our own conduct and dignity, and always to work to act through love and to see Christ in our fellow man.
We have to realize at the start that there are some who, for one reason or another, will never go with us into acceptance. That is their right, and we must accord them the same dignity under God that we claim for our own right. Still, there remain many in the center who can gain understanding and acceptance. Mere toleration is not enough: it is equal to standing above and granting a favor. But Jesus teaches us that we must love our neighbor. This is not something we simply sign our names to, it is something we have to do, and have to work at. It includes the hard work of loving the tax gatherers, Samaritans, men, women, heterosexuals and homosexuals: all the children of God whom we must reach out to, and teach ourselves to love.
Leroy Aarons, Prayers for Bobby (Harper, 1995) **** (A fundamentalist mother re-thinks her position on homosexuality after the suicide of her son. Outstanding)
Bruce Bagemihl, Ph.D., Biological Exuberence (St. Martins Press, 1999)
Howard Bess, Pastor, I am Gay (Palmer, 1995) **** (The best book out on scripture, ministering to gay people, Christian attitudes; very highly recommended)
Rob Forman Dew, The Family Heart (Addison-Wesley, 1995) **** (A surperb telling of a mothers growing understanding and support for her gay son. Has to be read!)
Daniel A. Helminiak, Ph.D. What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality(Alamo Square, 1994) (Very good discussion, in depth, of the verses)
Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge Harper Collins, 1997) **(Addresses broader issues of religion, but there is frequent reference to issues of sexuality, and a very good chapter on Christian attitudes towards sexuality)
Richard Holloway, Godless Morality Canongate, 1998) *** (Outstanding and seminal discussion of Christian approaches to morality; thoughtful, logical, inspiring)
John McNeill, Freedom, Glorious Freedom (Beacon, 1995)
Walter C. Righter A Pilgrims Way Knopf, 1998) * (The personal story of an Episcopal Bishop who was tried for heresy for ordaining a gay priest; he was tried and cleared)
John Spong, Living in Sin? (Harper, 1998) *** (A superb discussion not only of specific verses, but also of the broader issues around sexuality; very readable & highly recommended)
Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable (Vintage, 1999)
Michael Vasey, Strangers and Friends (Hodder & Sloughton1995)
Mel White, Stranger at the Gate (Plume/Penguin, 1994) * (a personal oddesy from a fundamentalist perspective)
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