Monday, May 18, 2015

How I Came to Change My Mind on SSU: Part 2. Negative Testimony

A brief excursus before I write about testimony:

As I mentioned in the last post, several of the scholars I respect most have concluded that the traditional understanding is the only faithful option. But, here are other scholars who I respect a great deal who have argued that there is room for a faithful rethinking of that tradition. Eugene Rogers, has written what I think is the best sustained argument for rethinking the Church’s teaching on same-gender relations in Sexuality and the Christian Body. His main conversation partners are a Russian Orthodox theologian, Paul Evdokimov, Karl Barth, and Thomas Aquinas. Jeffery John’s booklet, Faithful, Stable, Permanent, is also quite good. He is more willing than most in the Episcopal Church to critique other attempts at making the case as inadequate. He concedes, for example, that male-female complimentarity has a certain obviousness about it that cannot be dismissed. Another gay theologian of solid creedal orthodoxy, is Roman Catholic monk, James Alison (Faith Beyond Resentment and Undergoing God).

There are others whose theology and/or biblical scholarship I respect who have argued for rethinking the Church’s teaching. The German Evangelical (and fairly conservative) theologian, Helmut Thielicke, argued for a more affirming position in the early 1960’s (The Ethics of Sex). And apparently the great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth, changed his mind to a more affirming position:

In light of conversations with medical doctors and psychologists, Barth came to regret that he had characterized homosexuals as lacking in the freedom for fellowship. In the end he, too, found it necessary to interpret the plain sense of Scripture in light of advances in modern knowledge.
ThinkingOutside the Box, Part 4: The Voice of ‘Progressive Traditionalists

Barth and Thielicke both played a role in decriminalizing homosexuality in German society.

Others are Luke Timothy Johnson, Catharine Pickstock, William Placher, John Milbank, Tom Breidenthal, Sarah Coakley, Rowan Williams, and Evangelical theologian and ethicist, David Gushee (Gushee went through a change of mind similar to mine).

But there is also the testimony I have heard from fellow members of the body of Christ.

Testimony of brothers and sisters in Christ

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

It is a common charge that rethinking the Church's teaching is simply a matter of accommodating the surrounding culture. Though I have been critical of the apparent cultural captivity of much of the Episcopal Church (and yes, conservative Christians are often captive to culture as well), I don’t think it is always and only that.

What has provoked me to take another look and ultimately change my mind has not been what is going on outside the church. Rather, it has largely been the testimony of brothers and sisters within the Church.

That testimony is of two kinds. One is ‘negative’ and the other ‘positive’.

Negative Testimony and Collateral Damage

Over the years several Christians have ‘come out’ to me, or, as it has always felt, 'let me in' on their life. Usually this has included stories of personal anguish.

I have heard many stories of desperate attempts to change through prayer, determined willpower, various ‘healing ministries’, etc. All to no avail. I know there are stories of people who have experienced one degree or another of change in the orientation of their sexual desire and I would not want to dismiss those stories. But, the testimony I have heard and the fact that leaders of ‘ex-gay’ movements frequently end up denying the efficacy of the ‘reparative’ healing therapies they have advocated (see here, here, here, and herecalls into question the significance some conservatives place on such movements and the reliability of examples of change.And the experience of most who have participated in such ministries has been negative (see, this article). 

I suspect the emphasis placed on such healing ministries is actually not as much about evidence of real change as it is about the need for some – mainly heterosexuals – to believe real change is possible for the sake of their own comfort in maintaining the way they understand things. Even conservative Evangelical psychologists/researchers are much more cautious about advocating for such change (see this from Mark Yarhouse of Regent University).

I find much more credible the testimony of brothers and sisters like those I mentioned in the last post who have chosen the hard discipline of celibacy. Their testimonies must not be denied. But, I wonder, given the preponderence of other testimony, if the call to celibacy and the denial of all romance is adequate or necessarily the only faithful option for everyone who is gay or lesbian.


I have also heard many testimonies of gays and lesbians who have tried heterosexual marriage. The result is rarely happy. Most end in divorce. And even when they don’t, there is collateral damage. I know quite well the story of one such marriage that did not end in divorce. The couple was married in the days before coming out was an option, especially in conservative Christian circles. She did not learn he was gay until sometime after they married. In spite of years of infidelity on his part, they stayed together, raised a family, and remained married until his death. In many ways theirs is a testimony of admirable sacrificial commitment that included more than a little grace. But, I also know enough about the story to know the emotional toll it took not just on the couple but on their children. And I know she now has serious reservations about the wisdom of entering into such a marriage. She does not recommend it. And her experience made her considerably less conservative when it comes to questions of sexuality.

Then there are stories of physical and verbal bullying that gays and lesbians frequently experience. Martin Smith, the former superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, is someone whose maturity in the faith I respect. Here is his testimony about the threat of abuse: Matters of life and deathI do not know anything about the faith of Joel Burns, but the stories he shares, including his own are too common. At the very least, Christians need to ask if the way they talk about and engage those who experience same-sex attraction contributes to this. Silence, let alone the refusal to speak against such bullying, is not an option for Christians who desire to follow the example of Jesus. Stories of Christians opposing anti-bullying efforts are not encouraging.

And there is the testimony of Christian parents of gay and lesbian children. Some parents reject their children outright when they come out. I know others who have loved their children even as they have been clear about their disapproval of their behavior. For many others, having a child come out has provoked a rethinking of their prior convictions. It is telling that nothing seems to change people’s minds like having a gay son or a lesbian daughter.

But mostly, I am haunted by stories like that of Stephen who occasionally attended my congregation, St. Barnabas, in the mid 1980’s while a student a Wheaton College (an Evangelical school in a nearby suburb). Though I did not arrive here until 2000, according to the newspaper clipping in my files, Stephen, who was gay, left the college campus one day and stepped in front of a train. According to witnesses, he assumed a posture of prayer as he waited for the train (where, I wonder, did he hope it would take him?). I do not know if he was consumed with self-loathing, if he despaired of being able to contain what he considered to be sinful desires, was rejected by his family, feared that rejection, or some combination of the above, but the burden seemed unbearable and led him to a drastic and tragic means of resolution. I have spoken with more than one person who knew Stephen and it is clear that his struggle with his sexuality played a part in his suicide.

This is not a unique story. Most testimonies I have heard from brother and sister Christians who are gay and lesbian have included deep and abiding anguish. Though not universal, suicidal thoughts or attempts are a common theme. At the very least, Christians must be sensitive to the reality of these stories.

I do wonder if these are stories of the collateral damage of maintaining the traditional teaching. That teaching has much to commend it. But, is it the shadow of that teaching that many are consigned to lives of despair and death? Are we calling gays and lesbians to a living sacrifice for the sake of their souls or to a sacrifice of death for the sake of our being able to hold onto the way we have come to understand scripture or theology or ourselves?

If, as scripture charges, we are to fulfill the law by bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), we are obliged to listen carefully and sympathetically to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters when they plead for a hearing in the Church. Many have sought to live into the traditional discipline and have found it to be not a dying to self that leads to life but a dying that leads only to death. If "liberals" have not always done a very good job of explaining how SSU fit into the logic of Christianity, "conservatives" have not always done a very good job of demonstrating how the traditional discipline is really good news for their brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian. The resistance on the part of many conservatives to engaging the questions being asked by gay and lesbian brothers and sisters has been as much a part of the problem as the obstacles I mentioned in the previous post. 

When Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for humans rather than the other way around, I wonder if part of what he was declaring was a rejection of moral calculations that find such collateral damage acceptable. Perhaps we need to “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)

This is not so much an argument as an explanation of why I have been willing to rethink the argument. I concede that this does not necessarily require coming to a more affirming conclusion. For me, though, these testimonies raise questions about the goodness of the traditional discipline expected of gay and lesbian Christians and make me willing to reconsider that discipline.

Next: Part 3. Positive Testimony


Previous: Part 1. Obstacles

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