Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge is the founder/editor of Whosoever, an “online magazine for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Christians.”
She is a self-proclaimed “recovering Southern Baptist.”
Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, will be published this September.
All this puts her in a rather unique position among Christians — she is both one of the flock and one who goes against a belief that has become almost synonymous with the word “Christian” (that the gay homosexuals must be stopped).
She was kind enough to answer a number of questions regarding her beliefs and attitude:
Hemant Mehta: How do you deal with other religious figures who consider homosexuality an abomination?
Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge: I try to deal with all of my opponents with love and understanding. I also try to not take their rants against homosexuality personally. It’s not about me. Something about homosexuality sets them off. Something within them is reacting against the idea of homosexuality or a gay Christian. I want to understand what that is, so I try to listen deeply to them. What I mainly hear is fear and pain. They’re afraid of losing their faith and being wrong on some point of faith is scary — it means they may be wrong in other areas. I also hear the pain. Anti-gay Christians do have a deep concern for GLBT people and want to see them come to God. They often resort to repulsive ways of telling us about their concern, but I can still hear that concern and try to respond to them in a loving manner.
In the end, I attempt to look past the hateful words and actions and try to see the humanity in my opponent. If I can model this, perhaps I’ll get the same consideration in return. I treat them as I want them to treat me, whether they return that treatment or not. I don’t want to argue — I want to understand my enemy and in that way, perhaps eliminate one more enemy when we find common ground. We may still disagree about homosexuality, but at least a door has been opened to dialogue.
HM: Is there a generational gap on this issue in the church? In other words, are younger Christians much more likely than older Christians to be open to homosexuality and the belief that they [homosexuals], too, can get into Heaven?
CC-H: I think there is a generation gap going on, but that’s not to say all younger Christians are pro-gay. There are still plenty of anti-gay young people in the church. They’ve been taught by their elders that being gay is sinful, so they embrace that idea without much thought. I think it may be easier to get the younger Christians to change their minds.
I fear that many pro-gay young adults are simply turned off by Christianity because it’s seen as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay. I do hope, however, that younger Christians within the church will see the error of their elders and bring the church into a more modern understanding of homosexuality and the Bible.
HM: How do you deal with the portions of the Bible which say homosexuality is a sin? On what authority do you take your interpretation? Is it based on the original intentions of the writers? A more liberal viewpoint?
CC-H: I have yet to find a section in the Bible that says homosexuality is a sin. There is no such passage. What the Bible condemns are some sexual acts between same-sex partners (mainly men). The acts condemned include sexual acts done in the context of temple worship (passages in Leviticus as well as Paul’s mention of same-sex acts fall under this category), use and abuse of another person sexually, pederasty or prostitution (condemned in other New Testament passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9), and rape (which is the entire point of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis). Nowhere does the Bible state that the sexual orientation of homosexuality is sinful — it merely instructs anyone, gay or straight, that any sexual act that does not spring from a place of love, respect and commitment to the other person involved is sinful. There is nothing in the Bible that condemns homosexuality, per se, or condemns sexual conduct between two consenting adults engaged in a loving, monogamous relationship.
The authority of such an interpretation comes from a long line of historical criticism of the Bible. There are plenty of biblical scholars who have come to this position including Bishop John Shelby Spong and Walter Wink. Even conservative commentators like Robert Gagnon are now admitting that the Sodom and Gomorrah story is not about homosexuality, but about inhospitality and rape.
The method of historical criticism seeks to understand each passage in the context of the audience to which it was first written. In that context, knowledge of sexual orientation was lacking — the original audience still believed the woman was merely an incubator and the whole of human life resided in sperm. A notion of sexual orientation was well beyond their grasp. In fact, the word “homosexual” wasn’t coined until 1869, so it could not have been used by biblical writers and was only later used in biblical translations after 1946 when the rise of Communism and the “homosexual menace” began to come into our society’s vernacular. Translators in that time made the decision to use “homosexual” to describe the sinful sexual practices mentioned in the Bible. Not a far stretch since homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. It seemed to make sense that these lustful, sinful acts could simply be covered with the new word “homosexual.” I believe translators are mistaken and were guided by their own internal and political prejudices against gays and lesbians — prejudices that persist today thanks to their decision to insert a fairly recent word and concept into an ancient text.
HM: How do other Christians treat you since you are outspoken in your defense of GLBT Christians and how they can be “saved” without trying to change their orientation?
CC-H: Depends on the Christian. Those who agree with me are glad that I am outspoken. Many in our community are afraid to be outspoken for fear that they’ll face reprisals or attacks from other Christians who disagree. So, they’re happy to have me out there advocating for them in the church.
As for Christians who disagree with me, most of the vitriol I receive comes in the form of hate mail. When face to face, most Christians who disagree with me are very civil and curious about my beliefs. I’ve had good dialogue with many Christians who disagree. Most often we end up still disagreeing, but at least we’ve had some contact. The only angry Christians who disagree are usually the ones who show up at Pride celebrations and want to argue with me. I usually smile and say, “God bless you” and walk away. There’s really no need in arguing with those sorts of Christians.
HM: What arguments can convince other religious people that homosexuality is acceptable to the Christian God?
CC-H: Again, it depends on the Christian in question. For some, like those who paint hateful slogans on signs and go to gay pride parades are really beyond reason. They have so much of their self-identity invested in what they hate that it would take a miracle to turn some of those around. Not to say it can’t happen, but no argument will sway them. Some event would have to happen to give them some sort of epiphany. That’s why I don’t argue with those sorts of Christians. Their hearts and minds are closed. I only hope that by refusing to argue I plant a seed of nonviolence in them that will take root somehow.As for other Christians, some can be convinced by biblical arguments, but that’s usually a dead end. I believe that religious people’s hearts and minds will change in the same way they changed over the issue of slavery and racism. They will come to realize that discrimination against any group, for any reason, is wrong and condemned by God. Even though slavery is never condemned in the Bible, we condemn it today — even though ending slavery goes against “God’s word.” Why did we end slavery then? Because our conscience can’t take the thought of owning another human being. We now know, instinctively, that it is wrong. It was NOT arguments from the Bible that convinced us slavery was wrong — since the Bible says it’s right. We changed because we, as humans, came to a deep understanding that freedom is the right of every human being. That change came slower in the church — but you won’t find a church now that thinks slavery is something we should bring back.
This is how we will change society and the church on the issue of homosexuality. We work to raise the conscience of people so they realize that discrimination against a group of people simply because who they love is ridiculous and wrong. Polls are already showing that the younger generation is realizing this. It’s really only a matter of time before society grants full rights to gays and lesbians. The churches will eventually follow suit, with a minority of churches remaining firm in their prejudice (like the Southern Baptists still discriminating against women in ministry).
HM: What is the best way to approach anti-gay Christians?
CC-H: In a non-defensive manner. If we approach anyone spoiling for a fight, we’ll get one. When I encounter anti-gay Christians I try to do a lot of listening, because if you listen to them you begin to understand that their anti-gay stance has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their own fears. They have a fear that if they’re wrong about this part of the Bible, then the whole house of cards that is their faith comes tumbling down. Gay Christians are a challenge to their idea of biblical authority. They don’t want to have to rethink or re-examine their faith, so it’s easier to make the gay Christian wrong than it is to be forced to examine their beliefs.
Having said that, though, not all anti-gay Christians are raving bigots. Many of them have just never met gay people and are simply in need of an education. Extending a hand of friendship and honest dialogue is often the best gesture we can make. Remember, we’re trying to raise the conscience of people — we do that by being open and ready to talk with anyone who will have a constructive and honest dialogue with us.
HM: How long will it take, do you think, until mainstream Christianity adopts more enlightened views on GLBT issues?
CC-H: For some of the more liberal streams of Christianity, I think it will be sooner rather than later. For the more conservative denominations like the Southern Baptists, I don’t know if they ever will. They still struggle with what to do with their women and only within the past few years apologized for their support of slavery.
HM: What can be done about Christian groups that try to “cure” homosexuality?
CC-H: There needs to be a concerted effort to continue to discredit them. Some good work has been done over the years — since most of their “research” into homosexuality has been debunked and their “experts” exorcised from any respectable professional affiliations.
It also needs to be made clear that, to a person, those who claim to be “ex-gay” will all admit they still “struggle” with same-sex attraction. It needs to be emphasized that all that has changed in these people is behavior, not orientation.
HM: Can you blame GLBT people for leaving the faith after being treated so horribly for so long?
CC-H: No, I don’t blame them at all. I left the faith for many years for exactly the same reason. It’s like leaving an abusive relationship — I applaud anyone who gets out of an abusive situation alive and relatively intact.
I am on a mission to help those who left that they don’t have to suffer in an abusive religious situation. There are many safe churches and denominations where they can return to Christianity if they so choose.
My only concern is that those who leave Christianity find something else that fulfills that spiritual side of themselves. I believe we are hardwired to be connected to something greater than ourselves — whether we call it “God,” “the Universe,” “the Holy,” or “no gods.” I love pagans because their rituals are rich with meaning. They don’t have a “god” that they worship, but they have a deep sense of the holy — a deep sense of awe at being alive. That is a deeply spiritual connection — deeper than most Christians I know.
I explored many faiths — Buddhism, Taoism and the like. I found much of value in each tradition, but returned to Christianity because its traditions and rituals are what connects me to the divine, the holy. It’s where I find my sense of awe. I want all GLBT people to find that place where they connect in that way. It doesn’t have to be in Christianity.
HM: At what age do you feel Christian children (or children in general) should learn about sexual orientation and GLBT people?
CC-H: I think it should be taught as early as possible that some people pair up as boy/girl and others pair up as girl/girl or boy/boy and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the relationship is based in love. Sexual matters don’t need to be discussed until later in life when they can handle that information, but the concept of two people loving one another, regardless of gender mix, should be taught from birth!
HM: Do you think the whole LGBT issue with the church is simply part of a larger rift between strict literalistic interpretations of the Bible and more open liberal interpretations?
CC-H: The GLBT issue is completely about biblical authority. If the literalists lose it’s just another battle they’ve lost over biblical authority. They argued for the rightness of slavery — because God blesses it all through the Bible. They argued for the rightness of racism because God’s word tells us to separate the races. They argued for the rightness of the subjugation of women because the Bible says women can’t be ordained, should never teach a man and keep quiet in church. They have lost all of these arguments about biblical authority and they’ll be damned if they’re going to lose another. So, they’re fighting tooth and nail. They’re losing and they know it, which is why they are fighting so hard right now.
HM: How successful have you been in your quest to change the minds of anti-gay Christians?
CC-H: That’s hard to quantify. I get plenty of emails from folks who say they once believed GLBT people were condemned but have changed their minds, perhaps because of something I’ve written or said. Whosoever, the online magazine I run, receives more than half a million visitors each year and I only hear from a fraction of them. I think I’d be shocked at how many lives I’ve touched over the years. I can only hope that I have planted seeds of change in the hearts of many anti-gay Christians — because the only way we can change hearts and minds is one person at a time.
If you’re interested in exploring these issues more deeply, her book will be out soon and you can pre-order it now.
Feel free to leave follow-up questions in the comments and I will be sure to pass them along.