One of the most difficult things to navigate personally in Churchly conversations about homosexuality and queer relationships is the question of goodness.
Church tradition hasn’t had much good to say, if any at all, about sexualities that are not heterosexual (and even this term could be anachronistic). I am reminded every day when I read conservative material or dialogue with traditional theologians that this is their primary suspicion. Scripture, they tell me, supports a positive vision of men and women in marriage, and places all other contexts for sexual intimacy in the category of “sin.” Since God has built reality in a heterosexual manner and called it “very good,” being gay–having an affect-and-sexual orientation toward one’s own gender-sex–is an unchosen but morally neutral state, as long as you don’t deploy your genitals. Celibacy, should my sexual orientation not shift significantly enough toward straight, is the life-giving option that the Church believes God requires of me.
So, let’s be clear. For traditionalist Christians, my orientation is, at best, a morally neutral characteristic that cannot lead to any good sexual end-purpose.
Before I have a problem with this formulation, let me say that it is, on paper, a vast improvement over the viewpoint that gay orientation is twisted and sinful in itself, that gay people are involuntarily condemned to hellfire, or any other schema that would collapse sexual behaviour and (usually involuntary) orientation together for the sake of spreading condemnation and instilling fear. But I had a recent conversation with a new friend of mine about this, and I have to say, I don’t think that distinction works well, either.
I consider myself a Queer scholar and theologian. What I mean by this is that I find Queer Theory tremendously useful for theological dialogue. One thing that Queer Theory questions is the sense that everyone has to fit into clearly defined boxes that are universally stable and usually expressed as binaries: man/woman, male/female, gay/straight, oppressor/powerless, and so on. When most people set out to speak about gay experience, there is a tendency, especially among Evangelicals of my acquaintance, to try to “nail down” a single, universal cause of homosexuality or a single type of gay person. So: gay people are born that way, are formed environmentally, or choose their orientation. Though some Evangelicals admit that the formation of sexual orientation and “gay identity” is complicated, they nevertheless believe that reality is simple enough to give a single theological answer to the entire gamut of “gay consciousness.” I am going to relay what I heard as particularly powerful aspects of my friend’s story–but it doesn’t have to be yours, or mine; I do think that his story provides a very powerful instance of grace and theological reflection.
For my dear friend, the distinction between being gay and “not being sexual” is an impossible one. Why? Not because he’s been incapable of living a celibate life, but because–and here I hope I state the obvious–sexuality for many people involves more than how they deploy their genitals. Indeed, I think my friend Wendy Gritter’s definition of sexuality as “the drive to overcome our alone-ness” is a solid one. My friend reports that his awareness of being gay gets into the warp and woof of his entire life, like the dye in a cloth. How he interacts with men and women, how he moves and speaks and dresses, whether he talks “too much” or uses his hands, the degree and extent of his empathy for vulnerable or marginalized individuals–all of them, he claims, are influenced by his inner, bodily sense of being a gay man. This sense of being embodied as a gay man–beyond social construction–is reinforced for him by his readings of scientific reports that suggest differing brain structures between straight men, straight women, and gay men.
From his perspective, he cannot avoid being sexual–but the best the Church can do is say to him that this pervasive neutral force within himself predisposes him toward an evil that will cause displeasure to God. The way I heard it, his sense of agency (ability to choose freely) when he believed this way was cut off, and his life was increasingly joyless. Though he no longer affirms the views he was taught within Evangelical churches or ex-gay ministries because “I don’t see good fruit,” and “I couldn’t recommend being part of an ex-gay ministry” to youths he worked with, adjusting the morally-neutral-but-evil-action connection has been difficult.
As we talked, I realised that part of why was so hard for me to hear his story is that it is difficult for me to believe that sexuality is morally neutral in its most fundamental senses. Christian tradition claims, despite all the horrible uses to which it can turn, that heterosexuality is a good gift of the Creator, in part because it allows the human race to reproduce, and in part because the majority of the race finds it to be the key way they find grace to overcome their alone-ness. Most of the Christian tradition has not known the contemporary distinction between orientation and behaviour, and thus speaks with conviction that homosexuality, condemned in Scripture according to most Christians, is not good. Homosexuality cannot teach us anything about the Good News of Christ in itself–it can only be overcome by the power of Christ.
But in effect, this view has put me, my friend, and many other queer Christians, I’m sure, into a joyless double bind. I said to him: “I think things began to change for me when I decided, by faith through my experience and reflection on Scripture, that being gay was a good. Because watch what happens: I gain the freedom to have a genuine conversation about how to put this gift to good use, with God and with the Church. I no longer have to be motivated by fear.”
When I spoke this way, he got a half-smile on his face and his eyes filled with tears. And he said: “I haven’t allowed myself to really consider very much that my gayness might be good. But I know it is not good to live a dis-integrated life.”
Dear Readers, what I most want from my conservative brothers and sisters, while we fight about biblical exegesis, and worldviews, and babies, and healthy relationships, is this: I want them to consider seriously that, while engaging in the very theological and pastoral conversations they are demanding of queer Christians, we have come to an increasing conviction of the goodness of our lives. We have a deep intuition (some would call it the blessing of the Spirit) that our lives can say something strange but positive about the Gospel. Perfect love is driving out fear. We have been surprised by joy. I am speaking as carefully as I can about something that moves me and my talkative friend away from the crippling fear and shame of our old paradigm, taught to us as Gospel truth by men and women we still love. The old paradigm does not “smell like Jesus” to us any longer. It has been a place of death and panic and fear.
Please, my friends! Do not call me, or many of my fellow queer Christians, theologically lazy when I ask you to consider the goodness of our queer lives and characters. When you see grace and beauty and joy–when you see lack of harm and commitment to growth and depth of care–and we tell you that part of the reason this good fruit grows is because God even blesses the joys of deploying our genitals, just as She does with you–please pause, deeply, and consider that we may be right.
I know that “being gay,” whatever that is,
is a big and scary and new thing for many of your people,
I don’t need agreement, Lord–not exactly.
I want to feel respected for living an integrated life,
respected for asking good questions and for having clarity of conscience.
I want people to see your goodness in my living as a gay man,
even if they never understand why you put it there.
Will you heal my heart, Lord,
and teach me to love those whom I (still) call my enemies?
I ask all this in the Name of Jesus your Son,
and in the power of your Holy Spirit.