Hi y’all. Last week I had the chance to speak at the terrific BookMarx bookstore in Steubenville, OH. (“I’m here to do a job, I won’t buy anything. …I’ll just buy like one or two very slender books.” Walked out with a stack of sci-fi, Rumer Godden, and Italian epics. Some men, some men….) I’d been asked to speak on “unjust discrimination” against gay people, a term which comes from the Catechism. This is roughly what I said.
I started by describing life in a bifurcated culture, where lots of major cultural players from Hollywood to multinational corporations (whose CEOS Americans treat as moral leaders for reasons Ross Douthat has explained better than I could) are strongly pro-gay and yet thousands of teens are still getting kicked out of their houses for coming out.
I talked about a retreat I attended where the leader asked how many of us had either been physically attacked ourselves for our sexual orientation, or had a close friend who was attacked. If memory serves, all of the non-straight people raised our hands. When I tell this story straight people are surprised. In fact I was surprised. I was raised in a progressive enclave (but I raised my hand too). There’s a whole big country out there, God’s Own Country, USA. And in that country being gay or perceived as gay makes you a target for violence, discrimination, parental rejection, and public humiliation in your school and church.
I noted that many of my celibate gay friends had also experienced this abuse and discrimination. People who accept the Christian sexual ethic still lose our jobs when we come out; we’re threatened with expulsion from school, forced into damaging forms of therapy, and kicked out of our homes. On a broader level we’re so often approached in the “traditional” (I hate this word but you know what I mean) churches from a posture of suspicion.
What this suggests to me is that everyone is acting out of fear. Fear and mistrust characterize so much of the discourse around gay people in our churches.
So I asked, What are possible alternative stances we could take? I mean let’s get beyond just not kicking people out of their homes, although that would be nice, you know? Let’s ask what is the content of the “yes” to which we are being called, hidden within the Catechism’s “no” to unjust discrimination.
I came up with four alternatives. Each of these requires us–churches, and in the fourth case also individual gay people–to reject fear and the desire for control. So let’s look at Discrimination vs…
…Support. This is my constant point that we need to support the vocations of people who, for whatever reason, are not called to religious life and are unlikely ever to marry. We need to support caregiving and love in overlooked vocations like friendship, service, intentional community life, and extended-family kinship. You guys know my deal here. We need practical support (including restructuring our economic policies like health insurance), emotional support (aka honor), and spiritual support and guidance. Support the obligations of overlooked vocations in the areas you personally control, whether that means allowing your employees compassionate leave to care for friends, having the college chaplaincy bless friendships among the senior class as they head out into the world, or simply asking after people’s friends and community.
…Welcome. I always think of the words of Thor (always listen to Thor!): “I think if there’s no homosexual couples going to your church that’s probably a bad sign. …You’re probably not having a reputation for actually being Jesus.”
The gay and lesbian ministry at my church has had so many people come and tell us how startling and wonderful it was just to see the word “gay” in the bulletin, or hear it in the announcements at the end of Mass. I have so many friends who speak with the deepest gratitude and relief of the churches they found where they were truly welcomed, with all their doubts and rough edges.Welcoming people means asking how they can serve. We see all these local controversies now where the organist (not that I’m stereotyping, y’all, make a joyful noise) has to quit because he marries his partner. Does this have to happen?
I think it’s completely valid for some Christian organizations to take the position that everyone who works there needs to uphold Christian beliefs (beliefs, not behavior, otherwise you get into gross stuff where public or gossiped-about sin is the only sin). This is my “even the janitor” thing. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the best model, and it definitely shouldn’t be the only model, in part because we need ways for people who are not fully on-board with the faith to serve. I’m not saying you need to have Stephen Fry teaching RCIA, you know, but maybe think about what he could do if he came to you and asked to help. How can we welcome the gifts of sinners: the gifts of the unrepentant, and–this is a different category–the gifts of the unconvinced?
…Solidarity. Married and single people can support one another’s vocations. Honoring friendship and treating some friendships as a form of kinship will be good for stressed-out married people, good for single parents and their kids, good for people who expect not to marry or parent–good for the Body of Christ. Instead of comparing our respective crosses maybe we can help one another carry them.
…Discipleship. If churches view gay people as disciples they’ll know that we are works in progress. A disciple is someone who’s learning. The Apostles got stuff wrong all the time, but they stuck with Jesus. How would you approach someone if you trusted that he wanted to be a disciple? Maybe you should approach him like that even if you don’t have that trust.
And this image of discipleship requires gay people ourselves to move past our own fear and desire for control. Others must accept that we’re often on a long journey in the faith, but we too must seek to live as deeply within the Church as possible. We must accept the Church for Herself. For many of us this will mean acknowledging an ambiguous or liminal status within the Church–and not receiving Communion while we’re in that ambiguous place, where we don’t necessarily believe or live by the Church’s ethic. The suffering we experience in separation from the Eucharist can be its own form of sacrificial witness to the faith. We need more bad Catholics, is what I’m saying here.
The way I think about it to myself is that Jesus is the Eucharist–the Eucharist is His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, as they say. And He is also the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Way: a way of life, an ethic, and that includes a sexual ethic. If we trust the Church to give us Jesus in the Eucharist we can trust Her to show us Jesus the Way. So the Eucharist and the ethic go together.
Different images will help different people. I’m addicted (…ha?) to language of surrender and submission; but Christ the Liberator is working here as well, liberating us from our fears as well as from the oppression we’ve suffered. And my spiritual director at one point reminded me of the Psalms’ image of the tree which grows by the stream. Drawing from the stream of living water, we are constantly replenished and bear fruit. Where we may feel deprived, with little left to give, we can return to the stream and be renewed.
I wrote earlier about the unfairness of forgiveness. There’s an unfairness in the universal Christian call to surrender our control and step out without fear. The fears of so many gay people in the churches are based on painful experience. They’re visceral fears and it’s never our place to judge others for how they react to fear. And yet we are called to step out onto the night tides of the ocean, unafraid.