Out of Focus, Love Demands Its Own Way

Out of Focus, Love Demands Its Own Way
by Jonathan Merrill Cole JonathanTN@aol.com

© 1999 by Jonathan Merrill Cole. Used here with his permission. To appear in the newsletter of Integrity/Memphis

Out of Focus, Love Demands Its Own Way

During the month of March [1999] I made a decision to attend a conference called "Love Won (One) Out" organized by the conservative religious organization, Focus on the Family. Founded by Dr. James Dobson, Focus on the Family (FOTF) promotes an idealized 1950s-style vision of family life based on stereotypes of traditional gender roles. As you may know, gays and lesbians do not factor into FOTF's vision of family values. The position of FOTF regarding homosexuality is that "Scripture is very clear in its condemnation of homosexual conduct, for such sin is a deviation from God's creation and design," but "God loves the homosexual as much as any other person."

FOTF states that gays and lesbians are entitled to the same basic rights as other citizens (e.g. employment, housing, and freedom from harassment). However, under the guise of God's love, FOTF opposes protected minority status for the homosexual community declaring that gays and lesbians are not discriminated against in American society. "They are not like African-Americans, Hispanics or other historically disadvantaged groups, for they have far higher average incomes (This claim has been refuted in an independent study by M.V. Lee Badgett, Ph.D., professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst using scientifically sound data sources.) and education than most Americans, along with a significant political influence." As an Episcopalian, I pride myself in my ability to embrace paradox as part of my faith, but the core philosophy of FOTF is flawed by an ideological inconsistency.

Deciding to treat this conference as an adventure, I mustered my best smile and arrived early on a Saturday morning in March to register for the symposium. It was held at Central Church, one of the local centers of "reparative therapy" in Memphis. Speakers at this conference represented radical right organizations such as Exodus International, Love in Action, the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH), Family First, and FOTF. Topics covered by conference speakers included causes of male and female homosexuality, prevention of homosexuality, treatment of male and female homosexuality, how to react when someone you love is gay, understanding pro-gay theology, the dangers of the "militant homosexual agenda" in the media, and addressing the pro-gay agenda in schools.

Although the speakers tackled topics such as the causes, treatment, and prevention of homosexuality, none had professionally recognized credentials in counseling or represented organizations criticized by most professional counselors. The prevailing outlook of the conference speakers was that scientific findings on human sexuality in psychology and biology must be measured against the "objective truth" expressed in scripture. While I concede that the Holy Spirit divinely inspired the writers of the Bible, I am not sure that the Bible could be considered a peer-reviewed, refereed scientific publication. No offense to the Holy Spirit is to be implied.

Dr. Joe Nicolosi, executive director of NARTH, was the only person in the list of speakers who approached the subject of homosexuality from a secular perspective. The other speakers were born-again, legalistic Christians who either held no degree in counseling or held a degree from a conservative religious college (the kind that require doctrinal agreement from their faculty). Many of the speakers previously suffered from addictive disorders and self-destructive behavior before undergoing reparative therapy. Many suffered from alcoholism, drug abuse, and sexual addiction that were only tangentially related to sexual orientation. Others avoided dealing with their mental health problems by creating separate personalities as female impersonators.

Nicolosi spoke about causes and treatment of male homosexuality. He recognized that homosexuality may have a physiological origin that can be expressed in certain family environments but disputed a genetic cause for a homosexual orientation. To Nicolosi, the male homosexual identity arises from the tired and oversimplified stereotypical family model consisting of an overbearing mother and detached father. The family dynamic in the model induces a poor gender identity in gay males. At the end of his talk, a gay man confronted Nicolosi saying that from the time he was four days old to the time he was 13, he was raised solely by his father. Based on Nicolosi's theory, this man should have formed a "normal" male sexual identity in absence of his mother. Why wasn't he straight? In a more in-depth conversation with this questioner following Nicolosi's presentation, the doctor came no closer to answering this question.

After attending this conference, I can concede that this "ministry" has saved the lives of individuals suffering from any number of mental health problems. If these persons had not submitted to the moral absolutes of legalistic Christianity integrated into ex-gay reparative therapy, they might still be suffering from these same ailments, or worse --- they could be dead. But for the vast majority of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals who are not alcoholics, drug abusers, or sex addicts, this kind of ministry is unhealthy and dangerous. In 1997 the American Psychological Association passed a resolution that was highly critical of the therapeutic responses of NARTH, reinforcing a resolution from twenty years ago declaring that homosexuality was a not a disorder requiring therapeutic treatment. Regardless of cause, sexual orientation is so strongly integrated into the psyche that it cannot be deprogrammed by "born again" experiences or psychotherapy. Counselors associated with NARTH and Exodus International have carved a niche in their profession in which they prey upon vulnerable and emotionally insecure individuals who have been indoctrinated with the legalistic Biblical interpretation of conservative Christianity. They reinforce an unhealthy religious pathology that encourages self-loathing and hatred of one's sexual identity. The practice of ex-gay reparative therapy amounts to psychological and spiritual abuse.

While the content of the conference spread by FOTF and Exodus International greatly disturbed me, I was gladdened by the message of love and engagement of the gay and lesbian community. It convinced me that efforts on the part of the gay community to engage mainstream society have forced the radical right to soften their rhetoric. In the closing address to the conference, Joe Dallas stated that the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was a missed opportunity of the church to minister to those in need. When the response of Christians should have been love and healing, the prevailing message of the church was derision and ostracism. He stressed that Christians must cease hostility toward gays and lesbians and love them unconditionally. This kind of reaction approaches a true Christian response, the fruits of which should allow for continued communication among gay and lesbian persons, their families, and their churches.

But while legalistic Christians may plan to open their church doors to the gay and lesbian community, they can hardly be characterized as unconditionally loving. Conservative Christians seem unwilling to look beyond the Bible for scientifically derived information on the psychological development of gays and lesbians. They continue to define morality based on ancient Hebrew codes of priestly conduct designed to separate Jewish society from Canaanite culture. They continue to stereotype and misconstrue the behavior and demographic character of the gay and lesbian community in an effort to remove gays and lesbians from social and political life in this country. If this is love with no strings attached, I find their message to be hollow and misleading.

The radical right, in concert with Exodus International's umbrella of "reparative therapy" ministries, represents a serious threat to the sexual and religious freedoms of American citizens. Claiming that homosexuality is an abomination to God is to incorporate a doctrinaire prejudice into one's faith similar to that used to justify slavery, segregation, anti-Semitism, and the subjugation of women. Christians who are serious about the Gospel must recognize this and seek to overcome indoctrinated homophobia and heterosexism in their faith.

Joe Dallas concluded his presentation of pro-gay theology by putting the following question to gays and lesbians: "Do you interpret Scripture in the light of your proclivity, or do you interpret your proclivity in the light of Scripture?" In all fairness, all Christians must ask themselves this question for both doctrinaire prejudice rooted in ignorance and sexual orientation are proclivities. In his letter to the Romans, Paul advised

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God - what is good, acceptable, and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NRSV)

Jesus, the Christ, challenged the sociopolitical conventions and paradigms of his day. He was not conformed to Old Testament Hebrew law as were the Pharisees, but guided by the love and compassion of the Creator. While Jesus valued Old Testament Hebrew law, he offered a lens that should be used when reading the law:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . . and love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22: 37-39, NRSV).

Jesus knew that truth could be found outside Holy Scripture and gave a standard allowing evaluation of such truth. Christians cannot be Pharisees unwilling to look outside codified law to determine moral living. When traditional rules and custom violate the summary of the law given by Jesus, we must strive to reinterpret and redefine how we live. While the Bible is the Alpha and Omega for our understanding of truth, there are many "letters" of mind-renewing truth outside the Bible in between that beginning and ending that allow discernment of God's will for us. ------ Jonathan Cole


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