Acceptance as the Precondition for Change: Motivational Interviewing and Jesus and Gay Stuff

A second small post in my intermittent series about things people have asked me in interviews about Gay and Catholic.

I did a long, fascinating interview, which I hope I’ll be able to share with you all fairly soon, in which the interviewer is a secular progressive. He found aspects of my book intriguing, but at one point he said, “Look, I need to push back on you a bit here. You talk a lot about the need for the churches to change and become more accepting and welcoming of gay people. And you want to reduce stigma against not only gay people, but same-sex affection–men holding hands, for example, signs of intimacy which majority American culture for whatever reason reads as sexual. But can you really reconcile reduction of stigma with upholding Catholic morality? Can we really move toward a world where two guys holding hands or declaring their love isn’t stigmatized, but more people believe that gay sex is wrong?”

There are a few different aspects of this question, but I want to focus on the question of reducing stigma while enhancing moral stringency. Because what I pointed out to this guy–after rambling a bit–was that Jesus attempted this same trick. He made the prohibitions on lust more strict, and yet welcomed and succored prostitutes and adulteresses.

Part of how He squared this circle was by prohibiting judgment. Spending your time imagining what those hand-holding guys might be doing is itself immoral. Acting to stigmatize and humiliate them is itself immoral. This obviously makes building a nice Christian society really hard. The tools of shame and social pressure which all societies use to maintain their boundaries suddenly become moral problems, not solutions. Abuse of power comes into focus and we start to see how the tools by which societies maintain order in fact create their own chaos: pharisaism is a state of disorder in the soul, an overturning of the proper hierarchy which places God at the top, the neighbor and the stranger next, and oneself beneath these.

I wonder if there’s a parallel here with some of the current psychological thinking on change. I’m reading this textbook on “motivational interviewing,” which is basically a framework for holding conversations around personal change in attitude or behavior. So you obviously see this stuff all over addiction treatment, and I’m definitely reading it in part to kind of postmortem my own experiences and ask myself what might have helped me when I was drinking, or what did help me for which I’m insufficiently grateful. But I’m reading it mostly to see if it will be helpful to me in crisis pregnancy counseling, which so far I really think it will. And one point the authors make is that accepting someone completely where they are right now paradoxically tends to make them feel freer to change.

When someone perceives that she’s not accepted, she’ll either reject the person who rejects her, or she’ll accept that person’s rejection of her, and fall into despair. Neither of these mindsets are conducive to change. By contrast, when someone is accepted, she begins not only to trust the person who accepts her, but also to see herself through their accepting eyes–eyes which view her as someone of worth, someone who is not defined by her problems or sins. You have to be able to love, relate to, learn from, and listen to the person as she is right now, with all her misconceptions and character flaws and general swirling dust-cloud of disaster, before you will be able to assist her in change. The security of knowing oneself accepted helps provide the courage needed to step forward and make a change. Again, this is what Jesus does: His love of us as we are, while we are still in our sins, is precisely and literally what frees us to change and follow Him.

Right now so much Christian discourse around gay people focuses on what is being rejected. There’s a kind of terror of any hint of acceptance: If you give them an inch they’ll take an ell! There’s a terror of being misunderstood as being too open, too welcoming. Everything gay people do is viewed as sexual and therefore everything churches do to welcome gay people is treated as suspect. This isn’t how Jesus operated; and from a psychological perspective, it probably isn’t in line with how most people learn to change and grow.


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