Nigel Chapman, 18 Feb 2014
(Part of a 12-day countdown to A Different Conversation.)
Thus far in this series I have asked why churches need to better engage with same sex issues. Now I’d like to ask how we can do so, starting with the factors that prevent us listening to the experience of same sex attracted people, whether in our churches or our communities.
Planting a church in a ~30% LGBT suburb makes same-sex attraction an unavoidable and unavoidably personal question. There is no avoiding or deferring the questions this raises for Christians, no retreating from public life. There is no acting as if these are marginal or unimportant concerns. There is no controlling the conversation by speaking of it in abstract or impersonal terms, enforcing silence, or talking over the top of anyone. There is no assuming those concerned are absent, or explicitly or implicitly sending them away, or disengaging. These are all ways of not listening, and that is not a practical option.
Can you love someone without listening to them? It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But love is the Christian ethic.
At Surry Hills Baptist Church our experience of listening to same-sex attracted people, Christian and otherwise, has come about in several ways – simply living in the suburb that we do and being open to talk; having deliberately built our community as a safe space for those experiencing crisis, vulnerability or rejection; having people referred to us that other churches cannot accept; and, with the Salvation Army’s OASIS Centre, having run a pastoral ministry conference called A Different Conversation in Surry Hills at Mardi Gras for several years, at which many people have shared their stories, often for the first time.
Evangelicals, in my experience, think of ourselves as a having a natural pastoral and evangelistic focus: we are all about care and communication. We should be good at listening. As I said, without listening, we cannot attain understanding or empathy or trust, which are the qualities most missing and most desperately needed in contemporary conversations about same sex issues.
What prevents this kind of listening from happening more widely in our churches? There are at least three major reasons why we don’t listen to same sex attracted people, their experience of life, or their experience of church.
One obvious reason is that they leave, as the experiences of church that I have quoted over the past few days would suggest. So they’re not around to listen to even if you wanted to do so. But that leadds us to ask, why do they leave, and one reason frequently mentioned is alienation. No-one would listen. Quoting from WTI3 again:
They are all very homophobic and Christian. I fear I would be rejected and outcast. I hate it…I’m a bit stuck, a bit confused. I don’t know whether or not to act on [my sexuality]…Whether I should go against what I’ve been brought up to believe…What’s worse is that being in a Christian family I have no one to talk with about it. (Bethany, 19 years)
Same sex is morally wrong in [the churches] eyes and they did make several references about it is wrong – using the bible of course. So my crisis of who I was and why I was feeling this was left to me to figure out. I could not ask my friends – especially my family – due to them all been in the religion. (Tomlin, 21 years)
This kind of alienation is so unique and distinctive that it poses some obvious questions about churches. Is there any other group of people of young people would find themselves on the outer in this way, even within families? It is difficult to think of anyone else that we would so marginalize, or to whom we we would not listen. Here are three possible reasons why this might happen:
- If love requires listening, do we see no responsibility to love “those kind of people”?
- It is that we wouldn’t know what to say if we got into a conversation?
- Is there nothing we think we could learn, or no difference we think it would make? — Are we, in essence, resigned to bad outcomes when people grow up same sex attracted in our churches?
The first reason, which we would instinctively deny (“We love EVERYBODY”), is plausible if we think about same sex issues as impersonal conflict, like political opposition. If we’re busy fighting “the Greens” [presumed to be irrational], or worrying about how society will suffer from marriage being undermined, or fearing Christians will be persecuted for expressing their freedom of conscience, then we’re not thinking of people to be loved at all, but threats to be repelled. Speaking purely in these terms would surely alienate same-sex attracted youth in churches, and it could be difficult to shift gears when faced with an unavoidably personal situation. All the same, when faced with a personal situation, we would recognize the non-negotiability of love.
However, when the stakes are high and when agreement seems impossible, discussions necessarily become polarised: it’s “the gay agenda” versus the “haters”. Large parts of the Christian and gay communities do not believe that the other will respond to reason or values, only that they are some kind of fringe who may at best be stopped from causing (more) damage to good society. Conflict is assumed from the outset and this assumption becomes self-fulfilling: Trust is lost, the walls go up, the rhetoric escalates, the alienation and offence increases. We need to know who’s with us or against us, who’ll compromise and who won’t, and so, like any sufficiently divisive issue, this becomes an test of Evangelical faith in churches. All of this works against listening.
The second reason, that we might not know what to say and so avoid conversation, seems much more likely. It seems in my experience reasonably common for Christians, even when persuaded that the biblical condemnations of same sex intercourse are unquestionably universal (so orientation affects nothing), and consequently thinking that it must be wrong in every situation, to be unable to explain exactly what the problem is when conversing, say, with a friendly young same sex couple living in the apartment next door. This results in the divide which has characterized the recent campaign against marriage equality: in churches, advocates will emphasize faithfulness to scripture, while in public campaigning they emphasize harm to society. Neither approach directly addresses the moral questions in the public square, and private conversations show the same disjunction. It’s difficult to listen if we are avoiding conversation.
And the third reason looks to me to be absolutely correct: Many churches and Christians will feel there is no need to listen because they think there is nothing relevant that could be learned. I would be surprised if it was ever put so bluntly, but that’s what happens when our starting points marginalize anything that a same sex oriented person may have to say about their own experience.
We don’t listen when Christians are skeptical that lesbian or gay people actually exist; if they believe that “orientation” is nothing more than a rationalization of habit, or a delusion fostered to excuse a pattern of behaviour. This happens when Christians speak insistently of “lifestyle choice”, and homosexual ‘desires’ or ‘attraction’ or ‘inclination’, and systematically avoid the terms ‘orientation’ or the use of ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT’ to describe people. Seeing no viable understanding of the situation other than sin and the effects of sin (say, denial), it follows that the only good response is repentance. What then could be the benefit of “listening”, beyond asking whether a person will or won’t face the moral issues? Evangelicals especially will say that obviously they love everyone and want the best for them, and they will see appeals to orientation as living in denial, which can’t help anyone. And others, of course, will see them living in denial about orientation. (The reader may observe that I have only referred to “attraction” thus far in this series; I’ll look at orientation on day #7.)
The obvious problem here is talking to people about their own experience, and telling them what we think this is. Unless there is a lot of trust in place, a few mistakes will easily suffice to write us off as presumptuous idiots. “How would you actually know what I experience?” And the only way to have trust in place would be through empathy and understanding, which is to say, through listening. And even more problematically, this link between of wrong-doing and denial doesn’t automatically apply to young people as they discover themselves to be same sex attracted in the first place, and these, of course, are one of the main groups to which we have pastoral responsibilities.
Not listening is of course reinforced by an originally biblical taboo. By defining a series of mostly sexual Canaanite sins as abhorrent and detestable, Leviticus 18 deliberately makes same sex intercourse unmentionable. This taboo dynamic is then reinforced in several New Testament passages. In Eph 5:5,12, “it is shameful to even mention what [the sexually immoral] do secretly,” and in 1 Cor 6:18, sexual sin is described as more serious than sins that occur outside the body; and these of course are applied to same sex relationships. A taboo is not necessarily a bad thing – we don’t give sexual abuse a “fair hearing,” for example – but a taboo can only be distinguished from a prejudice by explaining its rationale. Scripture itself does not always give reasons for what is wrong with same sex intercourse, often linking it directly to shame or abhorrence, as if the underlying reasons were self-evident.
But when prejudice can only be distinguished from taboo by it’s supporting reasons, and when Christians have trouble explaining the biblical judgments by an appeal to common values, then we look prejudiced. And when, as noted, same sex attracted people have conspicuously poor experiences of church, that is very naturally ascribed to prejudice, not moral principle — and in many cases it may well be prejudice. We can’t listen to people who wont’ even talk to us because they think we’re prejudiced.
These have been some of the issues that keep Christians from learning from the experience of same sex attracted people in our churches, and so developing empathy or understanding, or working to prevent the worst of these experiences. Tomorrow I’ll ask what we can learn, or at least outline what I have learned, from listening.