16, Christian, and surrounded by bigots: Dan Savage invites me to answer

Here’s my recent guest-post on Dan Savage’s blog:

I’m a 16 year-old male Christian. I’ve been going to the same church for a very long time now, and have been volunteering there on a monthly basis—until recently, when I received the following email from the church.

This weekend we are focusing on the thought, “What is Marriage?” This will be a special sermon that came as a result of two resent events in our country and state.

First in March, the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley along with the legislature of the state, decided to adopt a new form of marriage law that would include same-sex marriage. This law looks to go into effect by the end of the 2012 year. However, the legislature and the Governor saw fit to allow for a referendum ballot, for the 2012 election period, in November, to deal with how the majority of Marylanders feel about this new law. It is my prayer that we will overturn this immoral and unjust law that has been forced upon us by our legislature.

Second, just last week, the President of the United States, Barrack Obama, decided to come out in favor of same-sex marriages. He became the “first gay president” according to Newsweek, because of this evolution of his views. Again, this was another sad chapter in our nations history.

So with that in mind, I felt constrained by these events to forego what was planned for this weekend service and deal with the subject, “What is Marriage?” I feel a deep conviction about this subject matter and would hope many of you would come out and listen to what the Scripture has to say about this most important of subject matters for our time.

The old saying is so important for these times we live in: “For evil to triumph all is needed is for good people to say nothing.” Well may that not be said of Crosswind Church during this alarming time.

Thanks for your consideration to attend this weekend’s service.

Needless to say, I was angered enough to renounce my membership from the church. This was easy enough, until my pastor called my mother asking to meet with me. I’m being forced to go. I know he is going to hassle me to come back, and challenge my more tolerant view on homosexuality. I wanted to ask you what I should say to him, since you deal with these kinds of people all the time.

Surrounded By Bigots

First off, young hero: if by “my more tolerant view on homosexuality” you mean that it’s your understanding that God does not to the slightest degree consider gay love, in and of itself, necessarily immoral, then, right off the bat, it’s essential for you to understand that about that you are absolutely, one hundred percent correct.

People care about who is and isn’t gay (because people are basically insane about two things: sex, and belonging to the group with the most power). People decided that the Bible says that God cares a great deal about homosexuality (a decidedly ballsy assertion, given that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus so much as mention homosexuality). People happily project onto God their own fears, ignorance, and the hatred that so often results from that toxic combination.

But that’s people. That’s not God.

God—who, after all, is nothing if not creative—made people gay, straight, bi, and every imaginable combination thereof. And he takes as much pleasure in any two gay people finding each other and falling in love as he does any two straight people doing the same.

Obviously, your pastor has a problem with this. And it’s understandable that he would. The man has a lot invested in the tradition of Christianity that holds homosexuality an affront against God. And, as you know, right now that particular worldview—one upon which your pastor’s whole life is predicated—is under serious attack. By the day now more and more Christians—and in fact entire Christian denominations—are proclaiming homosexual love to be as natural as any bird or bee ever was.

Of course your pastor is freaked. Of course he’s panicking. Of course he’s suddenly moved by a “a deep conviction about this subject matter.” Of course he’s going to try to get you back in line ASAP. He’s on a rotting ark that is slowly but surely sinking. Already he feels the water gathering about his ankles. His wanting to meet with you is essentially him kicking at that water.

You, and your view of homosexuality, are the future. Your pastor knows it; your parents know it; I know it; everyone knows it. That writing is on the wall in indelible, glow-in-the-dark paint. Without question your pastor is aware of all the recent studies which prove that the overwhelming majority of Christians your age share your view of homosexuality. And as a result thousands of pastors are right now calling into their offices one or more of their congregants in order to have with them the exact same conversation that your pastor now wants to have with you.

As to that meeting. During the whole of it do not for a moment fail to be anything toward your pastor but calm, kind, polite, and respectful. Doing anything less will hand him the right to consider you as his emotional and/or intellectual inferior, as the fluffy-headed, overheated teenager to whom he can feel even more superior than he’ll likely be inclined to anyway. Don’t make it easy for him to adopt that attitude. He’s brought you in to talk to you about an adult subject. Show him that you’re more than adult enough for that conversation. Be gracious, generous, even-tempered. Readily give the man his props. Let him know that you know that it’s his show.

In short, let him demonstrate who he is. Let him try to impress you. Just because he is (or was) your pastor does not make him your moral superior. Being a pastor is a job he has; that’s how the man gets paid. Heading a church is inherently no more honorable or worthwhile a job than is anything else anyone does for a living. Pastors too often forget that (and fawning, obsequious parishioners too often let them).

Never forget that the Bible, God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus belong no more to your pastor than they do to you. God speaks to your heart just as clearly as he does his. More clearly, I would say.

Also, come to the meeting prepared. Print out, study for yourself, and then bring with you my The Best Case for the Bible NOT Condemning Homosexuality. Ask the pastor if he’ll read and reflect upon that essay, in the same way that I’m sure he’ll want you to take in and reflect upon one sort of information or another. Also, ask him if in his church he’ll initiate and oversee a series of classes or symposiums whereby the congregation can together fairly, properly, and thoroughly explore the whole question of the relationship between LGBT people and Christianity. If he’s up for doing that sort of thing (and he certainly should be, given his email), tell him that I’ll overnight to him a copy of my book UNFAIR: Why the “Christian” View of Gays Doesn’t Work,” along with a class study guide for it. (Tell him you would like to run the class around that book. Why not?)

If he responds favorably to the idea of his church dedicating to the processing of this issue the time and resources necessary for doing it justice, then that’s wonderful. Then you could go back to that church, because then you’d know it to be a place where discovering the truth is valued above simply being right—where people are encouraged to explore, seek, ask questions, and differ. And why wouldn’t it be that kind of place? A God who desires people to stop asking questions is no God at all: at best that’s a coward with good P.R. God did not bestow upon us the great and nimble minds he did so that we would simply trade them in for lifeless dogma.

I hope that your pastor understands this. But, alas, judging from the arrogant and hostile tone of his letter, I know it’s extremely unlikely that he does. I don’t think that in your meeting with him he’ll be open to anything resembling a genuine conversation. I think that, however subtly, and to whatever degree, he is going to use his time with you to emotionally and intellectually bully you.

Which brings me to my last and most important point. Above all, buddy, protect yourself. Be sure that throughout every moment of your time with your pastor you very carefully monitor and stay keenly attuned to your feelings. If at any point you feel even slightly threatened, or in any way emotionally uncomfortable, do not hesitate to verbally express that. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it or anything—just say something like, “I’m sorry. I hate to interrupt you, but the truth is I’m feeling uncomfortable. I feel like you’re pressuring me, or expressing anger with me. And that’s making it hard for me to maybe hear you as well I might otherwise. Can we maybe rewind a bit, or take a little break, or something like that?”

No sane adult would take exception to a young person saying that to them. (But if the pastor or any other adult in the room does in any way protest that sort of sentiment on your part, get out. Wave adios, and don’t come back. At that point you can be through with the whole thing. You tried.)

Be open, kind, and respectful; be prepared; and make your case for the church as a whole thoroughly and fairly exploring this issue. And above all give yourself permission to keep yourself safe.

That’s it, dude. That’s all you can do.

Good luck! You’re the hero of the day—and I suspect of a great many days to come.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • Ryan

    Go with grace and peace and may God work hand-in-hand with you!

  • Larry Petry via Facebook

    John Shore. Great advice on 1. showing respect and 2. boldly stating when feeling pressured or threatened. though i don’t see eye-to-eye with you on all this, I appreciate your wise guidance for the student as he faces a tough conversation. I hope and pray it’s fruitful and beneficial for all parties involved.

  • Lawrence Petry

    that church has typos.

    ::snicker:::

    • Lymis

      That church has thinkos.

      • n.

        snerf

  • Matt

    “…first gay president”?

    …What? Did the definition of “gay” just radically change overnight? And what’s with the “coming out” metaphor? There was never really a closet for him.

    Epically poor choice of words aside, props to John for his response! Do good, young man! :D

    • Melody

      I guess you missed it, but when President O came out (pun intended) in favor of marriage equality a few weeks ago, Time Magazine’s cover had a picture of him with a rainbow halo over his head, with the caption “The First Gay President?” Needless to say, the expression caught on.

      • Diana A.

        Oh, so that’s where it came from. Okay.

      • Melody

        Or maybe it was Newsweek. (It pays to actually read the letter, Mel.) I just remembered seeing it everywhere in stores. Either way, that’s where it started.

    • Diana A.

      Yeah, technically it should be “the first pro-gay president.”

    • Lymis

      When Clinton was elected, it was with unprecedented support among at least some parts of the African-American community, and in some journalistic circles, he was called “the first black president,” in what I think was a rather tasteless way of saying that black Americans had far more explicit support than ever before. (And, I thought at the time, a pretty weak case for that was made.)

      So this “first gay president” thing was an attempt to say that Obama is similarly the first president to explicitly support LGBT Americans, again, in a particularly tasteless and confusing way.

      • http://sermonsinstones.com Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

        It was Toni Morrison.

        Wonderful letter, John. One more piece of advice: you can bring someone,with you. If you know someone–a friend, a parent–who will be able to simply sit there so that you are reminded that you’re not alone, ask them to come with you. (Don’t ask the pastor for his permission. There is nothing he’s going too say to you that he should not be willing too say in front of another.) If they won’t be able to resist speaking, though, don’t netting them.

        • http://sermonsinstones.com Amy

          No idea what I meant to write that came out “netting” and I suspect something came in between the “someone,” and the “with you” before my clumsy fingers and smartphone mangled it.

          The point is, you’re going to work out what you do and don’t want to say, so don’t undermine yourself by bringing someone along who will jump in “helpfully.” But if they can be there for moral support, that might be a help. Best of luck.

  • http://supercrayons64.blogspot.com Blake (Crayons)

    Change is in the air.

    You rock.

    I second what John said about protecting yourself.

  • Jackie Weiss

    Remember, God will be with you in that place. You may be “Surrounded by Bigots” but you are also in my prayers, and I would imagine, in the prayers of many of us.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I don’t think so, since he said it wasn’t any problem for him to quit the church. If he acts right in the meeting, there shouldn’t be anything for his parents to get … wrathful about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/plakin1968 Patricia Lakin via Facebook

    Best of luck to this boy. He may unfortunately face wrath from his parents as well for standing up to the pastor.

  • erika

    word

  • Soulmentor

    For the young man: Yes, you ARE young, but obviously very thoughtful. You have your own mind. Do not be afraid to use it. Your pastor will likely be condescending, pointing out how young you are, how you have so much to learn yet about God and faith, how patience in prayer and scripture study will help you see the light, etc, etc. It will all be a subtle attempt to intimidate you, to make you FEEL like a kid, someone “lesser” than him.

    Don’t buy it. Stand your ground, it is YOU who is on the firm foundation. As John points out, his world is collapsing, sinking, washing away. His “faith”, as he has understood it all his life, is being challenged by this issue and he is very afraid.

    John’s advice is good. Remain respectful and polite even if you don’t feel it. Be the adult in the room. That alone will unsettle him.

    Don’t let the presence of your parents (if they will be present) intimidate you either. That will be the hardest part for you.

    If it comes to it, remember the words of Martin Luther as he faced the challenge to his faith from The Church in his time, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” With those words, he changed the course of Christian history. If you don’t know about him, you can get a quick look at him here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther

    Thru is all keep this in mind; you are not alone. Millions are with you. Whole denominations and churches are with you. 70% of the nation is on your side. Above all, LOVE (God) is with you in this matter.

    • Diana A.

      Amen!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dkwells Diana Wells Miller via Facebook

    What a courageous young man, and it’s very encouraging to see teenage Christians standing up for what is right. If the talk doesn’t go well, I hope he can find a church where he can feel comfortable.

  • Diana Avery via Facebook

    Turn about is fair play.

  • otter

    Call him “Daniel” if you’re going to send him into the lions den. If his so-called pastor is any good at guilt, blame, shame and intimidation, he will come out battered and bloody. Consider how difficult this will be for a young person who has heard and internalized contempt for his own identity! May the angels go with him.

    I hope we hear from him later. I am curious to know if he does it and how it goes.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Otter: If you’d like to know why I don’t fear or think it’s a mistake to send this young man into the “lion’s den,” listen to the recording of my reading of this letter. I address that exact concern at about 13:34 minutes in. thanks.

      • otter

        Yes, good explanation. He will emerge more confident if he faces down authority and stands his ground….please encourage him to tell us how it goes.

      • Jill

        John: is this recording link still up?

  • Bruce Strine

    If this is the church I think it is, it is in my area and I would love to be a support and encouragement to this young man if he needs it. I don’t know if there is any way to connect the two of us, but anyway, I would like to be there for him.

    • Diana A.

      Good for you!

  • http://www.sparrowmilk.blogspot.com Shadsie

    Meh. My opinion of “evil triumphs when good men do nothing” is… well… look at America today, if you will. The idea that you are only worth the material goods you have and what people arbitrarily choose to pay you has gone off the rails into “evil” territory when the wealthy can get bailed out with a quick whine while some of us consider the ability to buy bread and eggs a luxury… (I just came off a rant on my own blog about my…. un-life). “Morality” and “justice” in this country is for people who can afford it. Looking at history, it seems like it’s always been that way until the people on the bottom get sick of it, band together, and demand to be heard.

    And that’s pretty much what’s happening with one particular “scary” minority and them being on the cusp of victory sure seems to bring out the “Oh noes! Our privilage!” crowd out kicking and screaming.

    As for advice… I think it might be helpful to get away from arguing Bible for a moment to argue “America.” Go ahead and point out the countless ammoralities, immoralities and “not-Biblical” things we do and overlook without a second glance. Divorce is pretty easy and widely accepted, for one, and, unlike homosexuality Jesus himself *actually* had some hard words to say about that. What is your church’s thought on gambling? (Some are okay with it, if I’m not mistaken, while others are very no-no-no!) Las Vegas exists. What about other religions? Would your church support the right of a Wiccan coven to meet in their local woods and to do rituals that are meaningful to them if it meant that no one would infringe on the church’s right to meet and pray? Trust me, as “freaky” and “weird” you might find those witches, there are *plenty* of people who consider Christian “magical thinking” loads more dangerous and something they’d make a bannable offense if they could.

    We do not use the Bible as our nation’s governing document, nor the opinion of any church or group of churches. We use the Constitution, which, admittedly, was penned by men who could not forsee our times (I’m remembering a joke here that Jon Stewart once made about them seeing the guns we have today and wetting “all seven layers of their wool pants”) however, it, said document’s core values have been something we’ve all been running a race to catch up to. Values of indvidual freedom and equality are lofty goals – maybe we’ll never completely reach them, but the trick is to keep running.

    To stand up for the rights of one is to stand up for the rights of all (even your own).

  • Allie

    Hey kiddo. John’s advice is good, if your pastor is in fact decent and sane, but there’s every reason to believe he may not be, and you will find yourself threatened by people who do in fact control every aspect of your life and can hold you prisoner and do almost anything they want to you legally. This situation – being forced to attend a church you have resigned from in violation of your own beliefs – is exactly like every other form of abuse young status offenders in our society go through, and your reaction should be the same as that of any other prisoner of war: say what you have to to stay safe, hang in there, and remember in two years these people will be blips in your rear view mirror. They may have absolute power over your body, but they don’t have power over your mind unless you give it to them.

    Young people in America have one thing in common with gay people: they are condemned and denied rights just for being what they are. It’s not that way in parts of Europe, which proves it doesn’t have to be that way naturally. The world does not, in fact, collapse, if the rights of a child to refuse to attend church are defended.

    God bless and keep you.

  • Lymis

    Dear Surrounded by Bigots,

    I’d add a couple of points. First, that you have already renounced your membership in the congregation. The pastor is going to take for granted that he is currently in a position of authority over you. I agree with John to remain calm and courteous. One thing that may help is that at this point he is purely and simply, the pastor of a church you are no longer a member of. He has no authority over you and no call on your deference or obedience. I would keep that in mind, along with the fact that, in essence, you are attending this meeting as a favor to your mother, not out of obedience to the pastor.

    Second, I’ll put money on the bet that the pastor will either explicitly or implicitly frame this as though leaving his particular congregation means leaving the Church and leaving Christianity and renouncing God. I’d be ready for that, and politely but firmly maintain your position that it isn’t true.

    Third, I’d politely avoid getting sucked into any Bible fights over this during this meeting, if that’s where he tries to take it. Pick a phrase like, “I don’t think this is the time and place to go into that” and stick to it. He’ll likely try to take this to a doctrinal place, while you are objecting to his making it political.

    And, no matter what happens, remember, as John said, that your viewpoint on this is the right one, and that no matter what it feels like in that moment, there is a huge amount of support out here.

    And, while this advice is going to suck and isn’t going to be good to hear, it’s advice that a lot of us give to young LGBT kids who are surrounded by bigots. Sometimes, standing up and making a point and visibly fighting for the truth is the right answer. And sometimes, hunkering down, holding privately to your truth, knowing you’re right, and pretending to go along is the best way to survive until you can get out of Dodge and create a life that works better for you. It is not a failure to do what you need to do to survive against overwhelming odds.

    By all means, stand your ground, speak your truth, and listen to the promptings of God in all this, and if that means taking this stand is the best thing for you, that’s wonderful and we’re proud of you. But if the best way to take care of yourself is to appear to compromise until you have more control over your own life, that isn’t a failure.

    Finally, be prepared to find that this has far less to do with you than it does with damage control. When I came out of the closet, I was over 30, but similar to you, very involved in my parish, including in a lot of educational roles. It was clear that, while they were putting up a show of concern for me, their biggest concern was that I was going to become a cause, and a crisis, and that by continuing in the parish, people were going to have to deal with the issue. They were more concerned that I would go quietly than they were with whether or not I was going.

    It may serve you to clearly state that you are not disputing or fighting the pastor’s right to teach what he feels is right, or the parish’s right to believe whatever doctrine they believe – and that it is that belief that caused you to resign. The more you communicate (regardless of your intentions – don’t agree to anything you don’t intend to do) that your point is not to deliberately cause scandal, but a simple recognition that you can’t stay in fellowship with them, the more the possibility will be that the pastor will relax about it.

    I also don’t know your particular denomination’s traditions. When my husband came out, he tried to resign, but in their tradition, they had to publicly shun and shame him, and denounce him from their pulpit. One of the assistant pastors worked with him to get him transferred to another congregation of an affirming denomination, and as soon as his old pastor had the letter confirming his new membership, they dropped the whole matter, because he was no longer their problem, and not a word was ever said from the pulpit (though there was, of course, a LOT of vicious gossip behind the scenes.)

    You may want to contact another church that is more affirming and officially transfer your membership. Your previous pastor’s approach to the young member of another pastor’s congregation may be very different from his approach to (in his mind) a wayward member of his own.

  • Kimberly Moser Musci Phillips via Facebook

    Good work, John!

    But isn’t it just a damn shame, that any 16 y/o kid actually needs to be coaching, so he can function as the real adult @ a *meeting* w/ grown-ups. AND that 2 of the very grown-ups in his life who should, by all rights, recognize that ensuring his emotional safety is their #1 priority, have set this scenario up. Set him up.

  • Michael C

    John, you (and your readers) continue to amaze me. You eloquently encapsulate love, logic and humor in every one of your posts. I ADORE your response to Mr By Bigots. I however, am much less word-good than you. I know I would flounder in a meeting with said Pastor.

    If it were me, I’d take a lesson from the Dread Pirate Roberts and just keep my damn mouth shut. Let him rant and rave about Bible passages and morality and God’s Plan for Marriage and resisting the Devil and Iocane Powder, while I sit patiently and silently.

    If’n he tried to pull me into his battle of wits, I would simply inform him that this meeting was for his benefit, not mine.

    When he finishes his diatribe I would thank him and give him a hug (I’m a hugger) and let him know that I will be moving to a church that is more in tune with my understanding of Christ’s love.

    I wish I were as sharp and well-spoken and downright cool as you, but it’ll never happen for me. I’ll just have to be that guy sitting in the corner that never speaks and everyone just assumes is super cool because he’s never proven otherwise.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      Totally winning strategy, Michael C. I love it.

    • n.

      i was thinking of that movie because of the title “what is mawwage” although i am sure he didn’t write it in that accent…

  • Daniel

    Thank you for sharing this, John! It’s stories like these that make me smile. It reminds me a saying I saw recently and have paraphrased liberally.

    “True Christianity is doing what is right regardless of what you are told; and yet so many churches insist that people should do what they are told, regardless of what is right.”

    I wish this courageous young man the best, and I hope that he checks back in to let us know what transpired. And I hope he is strengthened by the support being expressed by John’s readers. You are all an amazing group of people in your own right.

  • Sue Gunter

    I am a co-chair of a Reconciling Committee at my United Methodist Church. Our committee is leading the congregation in a process of determining whether to become a Reconciling UMC – that is, a congregation that openly and specifically welcomes persons of all sexual orientations. We are using your book, “Unfair: Why the Christian View of Gays Doesn’t Work” as a basis for a series of meetings to discuss the issues raised by the book. Do you have or know of a suggested study guide for the book?

    • Diana A.

      Good for you, Sue Gunter and friends!

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

        Yeah, I really appreciated that. I’ve been working on a study-guide; if her group decides to, they’re going to use it at a sort of testing group for it, and then afterwards tell me how it worked, etc.

        • Diana A.

          Wonderful! Sounds like a plan!

  • Siri

    I’d love an update to hear what happened during this meeting.


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