Coming Out: The Great Unlearning

The U.S. Supreme Court rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act is an occasion for all of us to reflect on the long road to rights for the LGBT community in America. My own evolution on gay rights has been a long and winding road as well. I grew up in the 1970′s in a family that was both patriarchal and homophobic from the beginning. Now, of course, as a young man, I had no idea what patriarchy meant or why anyone would even think of being gay. It was assumed that men ruled the roost, and the game was set so that the men seemed to have the power and any male who wasn’t up to snuff was thought of in words that were demeaning at best. This seemed to be the case at school and really everywhere I went. We took it for granted, or at least I did. It was our common culture.

In my own early experience of Christianity nothing threatened this “normal” way of thinking; men preached, women served and no one mentioned that sexuality extended beyond heterosexuality. I really didn’t have a clue of a world beyond that white Protestant, patriarchal world of suburbia.

I went to seminary thinking that I would study theology and religion, and eventually become a pastor or, more likely, a scholar. But something happened that changed everything for me. Without my knowing it, my first friends at Princeton Seminary were the gay community on campus. I was so naïve that I simply took them as a delightful, witty, smart group of folks who made me feel welcome and in whose company my mind and heart felt great delight.

But two or three months into my seminary life, somebody asked me whether I was gay. It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget. My whole body was jarred by the very question, “I’m not gay…” I blurted out. And it was true, but of course, forceful denials like that make one suspicious. “Well, your friends are the gay community on campus.” And I thought, “No, these are people I love and respect and enjoy. It doesn’t matter what their sexuality is, to me.”

To a great extent, this continues to be my perspective now even today; it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is; it matters who you are and what is the quality of your character.

But those early prejudices had to be unlearned. For me, as a professor and educator, learning is the great process of recognizing our prejudices and being critical of them and then, if necessary, to change them. This is something I’ve been doing all my life. And it creates, for me, a powerful sense that life, in all its fullness, continues to unfold. I teach my students that this is what all education is at its core; all research is really all about recognizing what once was thought, questioning it, and then looking at all the data, and then reaching one’s own conclusion.

This happened for me on the gay ordination issue early in my scholarly career. I read all of the books on the issue; I poured over the exegesis of the biblical passages both for and against gay ordination, and I arrived at my own opinion. I simply concluded, that God is on the side of more life and not less. More of our fellow human beings should be able to live, thrive, marry, preach and teach, and so all of God’s children, gay, straight, men and women should be able to proclaim the gospel in word and deed. We should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin or the person that they happen to love.

But this great unlearning takes time, and for some of us, it will take more time. I understand that. One of the reasons that I continue to follow and believe in Jesus Christ is because I believe that Jesus was fully free to step into new territory, and learn and grow and allow others the same freedom. I love Matthew chapter 15, where the Canaanite woman asks for help from Jesus, he refuses and shames her, and she shames him right back, and in the process changes his mind. The great unlearning had to happen even to Jesus.

It feels like the whole country is going through a great unlearning. Our gay brothers and sisters deserve the dignity of the state recognizing their love and commitment; they deserve the same rights that straight people take for granted. In fact, they are demanding, not unlike that Canaanite woman, that this be so. It is time to unlearn our old prejudices and recognize that everyone is welcome at the table.

Check out my article, “Introduction to the Debate Over Homosexual Ordination: Subcultural Identity Theory in American Religious Organizations.” Review of Religious Research 41:1999, pp. 184-206.

  • Frank

    i am glad you admit that you have come to your own opinion and not based your beliefs on actual scripture.

    • James Wellman

      you didn’t read my post… even Jesus had to think again, think for himself, we all have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, (St. Paul), otherwise, you’re letting someone else work out your salvation, and that doesn’t cut it according to scripture.

      • Frank

        I did read it. You wrote “I arrived at my own opinion.” Yes you did all the while ignoring scripture.

        • James Wellman

          Nope, after thoroughly going through all the evidence, reading all the critics. You too, have to do the same thing… don’t try to sneak out of doing the work and working out your OWN salvation. Besides, unlike fundamentalists, who believe more in scripture than in God, I believe that the scripture, personal experience, social science and tradition are each as critical in making judgements. Check out the Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church USA… this will educate you on my take on scripture the multiple sources of interpretation of scripture. Scripture alone is simply a fantasy that people make up to beat other people up, and its false. EVERY Christian tradition, besides American fundamentalism, has said the same thing. So, maybe you are saying, American fundamentalism finally got it completely right. Hm… well. Now there is self-righteousness in its most preening form.

          • Frank

            Well thanks again for letting us know about your low view of scripture. Your deception runs deep. I hope you will one day wake up and see your folly.

            I have studied quite extensively. Every instance of homosexual behavior is condemned and there is not one positive mention. How sad you are living off your flawed human option instead of the eternal truth of God.

  • johnnay blaton

    ? Jesus had to unlearn? Go through his own experience and think again? No, no, no! This is wrong exegesis fueled by a misunderstanding of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Jesus the Son of God did not “learn” anything or have a new revelation in Matthew 15. In Matthew 15 Jesus is not “shaming” the woman, but testing her faith. Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, ogreat is your faith! pBe it done for you as you desire.”qAnd her daughter was phealed instantly. You can’t read over this passage and say, “oh silly Jesus! I’m so glad you learned to accept the Caanaite Woman and got over your racism.” That is ridiculous. Its difficult to find the motives behind the words and actions of Jesus sometimes, but we don’t come up with answers which contradict the very nature of Jesus the Son of God, whom God the Father knew he would send to earth before the dawn of creation. How can a God like this unlearn something? I believe your liberal exegesis does a great diservice to Jesus.

    One other thing, I believe you are using the word “gay” to ambiguously here. Do you mean people who affiliate themselves as gay: meaning they have and will have sex with their own gender? Does gay mean: people who are sexually attracted to their own sex? Does gay simply mean: people who have sex with people of their gender? Their are plenty of passages in the bible (Romans, Corinthians) which clearly say that homosexuality is wrong. How can we in good conscience give ordination to someone who proudly associates themselves with a sin? In Romans 1 homosexuality is simply listed with many other sins (disrespecting parents, greed, ect.). The association of homosexuality should be viewed in its place as one of many sins, and not as an alternate to heterosexuality or just a different way of doing life or of identity.
    One person in my life has come out as gay, who used to be spiritual mentors to me and whom I served with. God literally gave him a word of knowledge about me and he talked to me when I was in a vulnerable embarrassed state. So to see him come out as gay (meaning his sexual orientation is toward men and he is proud of it) is very sad. There wouldn’t be a problem if he admitted he was attracted to men, but the problem is that he is proud of this and will probably enter into a relationship with another man in this way. Pride the ultimate sin is at the root of the gay movement in America. Let us pray that God would free these people from this lifestyle and let us love them through both kindness and living out the life of Christ. “I was blind, but now I see.” May God break the chains of the homosexual identity from brothers who have left the road of calvary.

    • James Wellman

      Well, I think you’re denying Jesus’ humanity, he felt forsaken, he suffered, he learned (unless you’re saying he was never a child) it wasn’t just word play…. we’ll have to go our separate ways on all of this. Peace, my friend.

      • johnnay blaton

        I’m sorry if was rude. I just felt strongly. I definitely affirm Jesus humanity, As Luke 2:52 says “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” I still think you misinterpreting the passage thinking Jesus made a mistake here and was at first not compassionate, but had too learn, however, you make me dig deeper. I will continue to ponder and consider this. May God’s truth illuminate us both.

  • johnnay blaton

    Working out your salvation with fear and trembling has nothing to do with discovering whether we should ordain homosexuals as pastors…..completely nothing to do with that.