David Morrison on Our War over Homosexuality
Better than newspaper headlines or sound bites on my radio or television, the best way for me to gauge the ebb and flow of battle in the societal war over homosexuality has been to open my daily mail.
Over the last nine years of my quixotic life as a former gay activist turned Christian it seems as if every group directly involved in sparring over the issue, from militantly gay and lesbian to conservative Christian, has written to ask for my money to use against the other. On days when missives from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority shared the same small cubbyhole, I marveled that my mailbox did not explode from having such haranguing prose confined so closely together.
Thus from my left hand a gay and lesbian group pleads for my cash to save the country from power-hungry and already powerful fundamentalist ministers who would criminalize same-sex attraction and whose hate-filled rhetoric encourages the murders of gays. While, from the right hand, a conservative Christian ministry pleads for my money to help them save the country from immoral gay activists out to pervert the country’s youth and force Christians to be silent about homosexuality and hire homosexual people to teach in their schools.
I do not mean to trivialize the struggle over how we view homosexuality or same-sex acts, or to dismiss the work of those who speak for marriage in the public square. As a Roman Catholic, I accept completely the church’s teaching and I fully accept, as one who has buried 18 associates to AIDS over the years, that departing from these ideas brings consequences.
But the way we speak of them brings consequences as well. In their mailings, each side faces a monster. Each side uses many exclamation points in their letters. Both sides seek to protect my life or my values against enormous evil. Reading them together can leave me feeling a bit like one of the unfortunate Northerners who married into Southern families (or vice versa) before the Civil War, and I am struck at how wide the gulf is between these icons and the actual people they are meant to represent.
According to my most trusted statistics, and I admit I try to limit my errors to the side of under-counting, approximately three million Americans have a predominant sexual and romantic attraction to their own sex. Accounting for their parents, a reasonable number of siblings, other family members and friends, it is sensible to suppose for at least 12 million people living in the United States, every sound bite and headline, every charge and countercharge, reminds them of the battle swirling around someone they know and love.
Most of the three million, in my experience, are not gay or lesbian activists and do not publicly identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Most of their family and friends do not identify themselves as someone with gay or lesbian friends or family members. Many of them are Christians, or have been Christians, or have family and friends who are Christians. They constitute a unique pastoral challenge and, if they are not Christian already or if they have left the faith, a significant mission field as well.
But in both these realities, as people in need of both pastoral care and the gospel, Christians have badly failed them. In that failure we risk contributing to the loss of their souls and of discovering one day that it would have indeed been better for us to have been cast into the sea wearing millstones around our necks than to have acted as we have towards them.
Gail’s situation is not that unusual among the same-sex-attracted men and women who often correspond with me. A student at a large, predominantly conservative Christian university in the United States, Gail recently wrote me about the difficulty she would confront if she asked the support of her fellow Christians in her struggle to refrain from acting on her same-sex attraction. “It has been my experience in Christian circles that telling gets you into more trouble than keeping it to yourself,” she wrote.
“Suddenly the people you tell act as if you are stricken with the Black Plague of the thirteenth century. Some don’t know what to say to you. Worse, others that used to be your best friends may not want to have anything to do with you. Still others may doubt your faith in Christ. [My advice to anyone thinking of disclosing would be to] pray really hard for discernment before you decide to tell any other Christians about what your struggles are.”
Experiences like hers, and of thousands of other men and women, make me treasure my apparently singular experience at Trinity Church, a small Episcopal church in northern Virginia into whose company I drifted in the days immediately following my conversion to Christianity.
When, after six weeks of anonymously attending services, I first went to the rector and told him of my life of gay activism and my conversion to Christ, I did so almost trembling with anxiety. After all, I knew what many Christians think of gays and lesbians. I half-expected Nicholas to throw me—politely, since he was an Anglican—out on my ear. But he didn’t. After courteously listening to everything I had to say, he turned to me and said: “David, if you need me to affirm what you do in bed, I cannot, because I think that is sin. But if you need me to affirm you as a brother in Christ, I can do that, because anyone who welcomes Christ is welcome here.” And he, along with his wife and family, and many other families at Trinity, meant it. Their love for me, a seemingly rock-solid gay activist, even as they disputed the immorality in my life, gave me a lasting lesson in Christianity’s depth and reality.
Although most of the parishioners, steeped in Evangelical Anglicanism, possessed a thoroughly Christian identity and a solid disapproval of sexual expression outside of marriage, many of them, particularly those who went out of their way to befriend me, also knew a great deal about acceptance, compassion, and deep friendship. Including me in their bake sales and car washes, family reunions, Bible studies, and other mundane activities even as they knew I was a gay activist, appears such an insignificant thing. But allowing me to be a part of their day-to-day lives forced me to reevaluate the little box of prejudice into which I had previously placed “Christians.”
Looking back, after eight years of seeking to live chastely as a Christian, I believe my time at Trinity represented a turning point in my early Christian life. While I had accepted intellectually the claims of the historic Christian creeds and experienced a deep emotional conviction of Christ’s reality and love, Christianity’s doctrines and disciplines remained merely concepts. It was the witness of the Christians at Trinity Church that put flesh onto the bones of biblical phrases like “love thy neighbor” and “seventy times seven times.”
Christ had answered me when, in desperation over the emptiness of my life, I cried aloud for him. But it was the Christians at Trinity who made his presence in my life a daily reality and, in turn, provided the witness I needed to abandon even gay pornography and any lingering backward glances for the fleshpots of my former nights.
Sadly, most men and women living with same-sex attraction have had experiences more akin to Gail’s than mine. Many leave the active practice of their faith, and their silence both impoverishes us and bears witness to our stony hearts.
But it does not have to be so. Christians can begin to do things that will change the way same-sex-attracted men and women experience Christianity. There is a middle way between the extremes of condemning both the acts and the people tempted to them on the one hand and abandoning any sexual standard at all on the other.
First, Christians who stereotype men and women living with same-sex attraction as gay, or even worse as “gay activists,” need to stop. They should distinguish between being attracted toward sexual activity with one’s own sex and actually performing such activity or advocating its wider acceptance. The former is a departure from the created order but not in and of itself a moral failing, while the latter receives the established Christian opprobrium gleaned from Scripture, tradition, and natural law.
Currently, as far as I know, only the Roman Catholic Church explicitly includes such an understanding in its Catechism, but I am convinced that Christians would introduce more people with same-sex attraction to Christ if they adopted this discernment. Making the distinction between act and temptation would allow more Christians to understand same-sex temptations in the context of all temptation, both sexual and non-sexual, that they face.
No longer, as happened in the lives of several friends (former Christians), would Christian pastors be able to label same-sex acts as the “worst sins” or the people tempted to them as the “worst sinners.” Even Christians continuing to accept the witness of Scripture that sodomy is one of the sins that cries out to heaven for vengeance must admit that it remains there as part of a group and not singled out as our worst possible failing.
Adopting the Catholic understanding of the matter would also permit Christians to stop mimicking gay activists in their definition of human beings by their sexual attractions. To put it bluntly, there are no “gays” or “lesbians.” There are people who feel some degree of attraction to their same sex and who choose to identify themselves by those attractions, but they are still men and women and they cannot (morally) be reduced to their sexual natures.
Reducing the human person to the sexual might make good fund-raising copy, but it is subtly pernicious in that it moves the discussion away from the sinfulness of acts, of which participants can repent, to that of temptations, for which moral responsibility is much harder to define.
Talk About Sex
Second, Christians, including pastors speaking from the pulpit, should talk more openly and often about sex and include sexual sins among those against which we battle and often need the support of other committed Christians.
Men and women struggling against committing homosexual sins, or having family members who struggle, often face not only the specific stigma of same-sex attraction, but also the stigma of having a sexual struggle generally. This makes all struggles against sexual sins, but particularly those of same-sex attraction, more difficult to face.
A friend of mine who struggles with same-sex attractions confided recently of a charismatic prayer meeting he attended at which a woman had the temerity to pray for her “gay son.” “I don’t want to hear that,” said the woman leading the meeting, clapping her hands over her ears. “This is supposed to be about prayer and peace—none of that other stuff,” she said.
Now I am not advocating that Christians broadcast their personal struggle to all their fellow parishioners. What I am suggesting is that, as happened recently in one parish I know, ministers speaking openly about sexual sins can free individuals in parishes to do likewise. When the minister from the pulpit talked about the realities of adulterous temptations—that King David’s temptations are alive and well in many lives today—he gave several in the congregation the courage they needed to approach other Christians they already knew for help in fighting these temptations.
Along these lines, Christians can admit that heterosexually attracted people, including Christians, have a problem with sexual sins. Some Christian married people struggle against same-sex attractions, others lust for sexual partners outside their marriage, others have problems with pornography and masturbation, and still others face emotional troubles in their marriages. Silence about these problems does not make them go away, and in the case of same-sex attraction, an inability to get support in the struggle only makes it worse.
Christians often underestimate the ways our neglect in addressing this area can compromise our Christian witness, feeling that “the world” does not look closely at what happens in the Church. But a friend’s frustration, a social worker living chastely with same-sex attraction in the West, indicts our complacency. It infuriates him to hear other Christians attack homosexual sin and homosexuals so vigorously when so many of them remain silent on divorce.
“In the course of my practice,” Justin says, “I see far more people—including kids—who suffer from the after-effects of divorce than I have ever seen suffering from same-sex acts.” We compromise our witness to the gospel’s powerful joy and truth when we appear to care more about the sins to which others are tempted than our own.
Not All the Answers
Third, more Christians could admit that we do not have all the answers, or even most of them, to same-sex attraction.
We do not definitively know what causes it and we cannot eliminate it completely in every case, or even the majority of cases. Unless they are careful to welcome people struggling with same-sex attraction, churches that parade so-called ex-gay men and women as examples of an almost Arcadian family life can send a message that they consider proven heterosexuality a condition for membership, when such change is not open to all.
Even Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, a longtime proponent of reparative therapy and a founding member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), admits that at best one-third of reparative therapy clients achieve a complete diminishing of their homosexual desires. Another third experience some change, and the last third no change at all. Christians must ask themselves what message of hope, what message of the gospel, do we have for those other two-thirds?
In my book Beyond Gay, I defend reparative therapy, mostly because I believe same-sex attraction can and does diminish by degrees over time and can diminish to negligibility with the help of a good therapist. But it does not do so in every case and God does not condition our eligibility for heaven on the kinds of temptations (including sexual ones) we face.
Christians need to recognize that all of us struggle against temptations and powers that would keep us from heaven if they could, but over which we are committed to victory. Some of us will struggle against same-sex attractions—and may do so for all our lives. Others will struggle with heterosexual lust or pride or sloth or anger—and may do so for all their lives.
We need to have space for all of them in our lives and churches, ensuring that no one feels rejected because of the particular temptations he faces. “Thank God I finally made it here,” said one exuberant friend after coming into the Catholic Church from a very legalistic group. “Finally I don’t have to feel guilty over things I cannot control.”
Fourth, Christians need to resolve their ambivalence about single people generally. One of the bigger problems faced by men and women living Christian lives despite same-sex attractions is discerning our role within our churches. Churches today are extremely oriented toward supporting families and couples, which they probably should be, but surely there is something else single men and women can do for the Church than be shunted into a room to mingle with other single men and women?
Christians need to realize that marriage is a vocation given to specific single people and that not everyone will be married. Some will have celibacy as a gift, but many others will have it as a struggle. The unmarried have a role to play in the Church that needs to be discerned. Last year the US Catholic Bishop’s conference hoped to jumpstart that discernment process by proclaiming a Day of Jubilee for single men and women in the Church.
Finally, Christians who wink at or approve of same-sex acts, or refuse to call men and women living with same-sex attraction to live the gospel more deeply and truly, need to repent for their unfaithfulness. Loving someone does not mean we love and accept his sins. The easy claim that love justifies all, for example in a same-sex relationship, cannot be countenanced.
As I can personally attest, the loyalty, honesty, tenderness, encouragement, and compassion that make up a long-term loving friendship can be had without acting out sexually. In my own case, these things grew even stronger after my then partner and I stopped the sex, and we might never have known such friendship if Christians at Trinity had not been willing to lovingly call me to stop.
Christians need to keep in mind that our struggle is not as much with the people espousing the bad ideas of the gay rights movement as with the ideas themselves. Flesh-and-blood men and women, people with needs and fears and hopes, stand behind the bogeymen icons of fundraising screeds.
By being honest about our failings and our lack of knowledge, and by treating men and women with respect no matter what their temptations, Christians can begin to make Christ present to people he wants to save.
David Morrison is a writer and editor in the Washington, D.C. area. In addition to writing about homosexuality, identity, and faith, he has covered human rights abuses and population control in the developing world. Morrison is the author of Beyond Gay (Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1999).
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