Earlier this week Julie Rodgers posted a characteristically forthright and gentle explanation of her shift in belief: “Though I’ve been slow to admit it to myself, I’ve quietly supported same-sex relationships for a while now.” This is why she’s just resigned from her post with evangelical Wheaton College’s chaplaincy. The post touches on some of the topics that have shadowed my conversation with Justin Lee, and which I plan to return to in my final post in our dialogue, including the way that Christians ourselves offer a “counterwitness” to the truth of (what I continue to believe to be) the Christian sexual ethic. I want to do two things here.
One is just to thank Julie. It is really exhausting being a “human shibboleth” and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to receive the kind of public hyper-scrutiny, mistrust, and misrepresentation she’s faced while also working in a position dedicated to the care of vulnerable young people. Julie has always impressed me with her down-home honesty and her desire to see the good in others.
And the second thing is to emphasize one point Julie makes. She has seen so much sacrificial love, care and devotion in gay couples, on the one hand; and on the other hand she has seen gay teenagers–including those who are striving to be faithful to the Christian sexual ethic–“marginalized, scrutinized, [and treated as] unwanted and relationally toxic.” She has seen gay people treated as if welcome is contingent on our “holding very narrow beliefs and making extraordinary sacrifices to live up to a standard that demands everything from an individual with little help from the community.” The “good gays” get highly suspect and conditional tolerance; the “bad gays” get harassed and shunned. Why would anybody want to side with the good gays?
Moreover, that kind of treatment isn’t just reserved for those in relationships. The fire I’ve come under (publicly and privately) as I’ve sought to live into the traditional ethic causes me to question whether this is about genuinely held beliefs or straight up homophobia. I say this with nothing but sadness: the kind of discrimination my friends and I have experienced as celibate gays makes me lean toward the latter.
Their relationships are beautiful; our communities are ugly. Who are you gonna believe, the Church or your lying eyes?
This is the world she sees. This is the world lots of Christians see. And it is a big swathe, though not all, of the world I see.
That’s part of why I was so grateful that the preliminary report from the bishops’ Synod on the Family talked about the good work done by gay couples. We have got to show that we’re capable of recognizing love when we see it. To do otherwise, to pretend that love isn’t love when it takes place within a gay relationship, is ungrateful; and it makes us untrustworthy guides to the God Who is Love. We can say that a relationship includes beautiful, sacrificial love, even if it misses the fullness of what God wants for the participants–just as we can see and honor the beauty and witness in Judaism or Buddhism without believing that these ways of life express the fullness of God’s truth.
And speaking of religious differences… I was recently hanging out in a Catholic setting, with a mix of adults and the teenagers in their charge. The teens were a mix of Catholic and otherwise, and I doubt all the Catholic teens were strictly orthodox. One of the teens is openly bisexual, and she was sort of butterflying around the room giggling about how she was going to start a “gay club” in this setting.And the adults interrupted their conversation about how to present Natural Family Planning to teens (this is literal truth), and took some time to joke with her about it. “A gay club? Really? Can I be in your gay club? You’re not gonna discriminate, are you?”
They treated her with fondness, with the kind of “lol okay” attitude adults often take to enthusiastic teenagers. The adults are all orthodox to the point of catechism-thumping, like more orthodox than necessary! (that’s a joke y’all, chill), and they take their responsibility to shepherd these kids really seriously. That responsibility is part of why they responded the way they did. I don’t think they were deliberately thinking, “How can I be a good witness to the truth of the Catholic sexual ethic?”, but I do think they had formed habits of humility and open-heartedness. And as the Cat’lick schools teach you, habit forms character.
They treated this girl like they’d treat, I think, a Lutheran teen or a “spiritual but not religious” teen: not Catholic, sure, not following the Way completely, but not some weird special threat. Someone capable of seeing the beauty in our faith if you stop blocking the Light. Someone you can listen to and like.
It’s possible to be both orthodox and gentle. Some would even say ungentle orthodoxy is a contradiction in terms.
A final small thought: Protestants (especially evangelicals?) may navigate these waters differently from Catholics or Orthodox. For us the sexual ethic is woven into the fabric of the entire Church. We’re pretty strongly cautioned not to view one issue or one area of life in isolation but to view all things as connected. So the beauty of the Church can’t be separated from Her witness on sexual ethics, or at least it’s much harder to make that separation. I was first drawn to the Catholic Church partly by Her beauty, and partly by the willingness of the (straight) Catholics I knew to make sacrifices in their own lives in order to follow Jesus. The beauty we see in the rest of the faith can to some extent sustain us (or keep us leashed, if you disagree with me) when we’re struggling with one element of the Church’s teaching, and it can also suggest resources we might draw on: If everything’s connected then monasticism is connected to the sexual ethic, and art is connected to the meaning of sex, etc.
But I resonated so much with Julie’s post. I’ve had many of the same experiences she’s had. I think almost every gay, celibate Christian I know can resonate with what she says–which is striking in itself, yes?
I interpret them differently, in part because I have found, I think, more havens within the Church for people like me–I’ll write about this more with Justin, but it’s been pretty central to my life that I came into the Church in a time and place where straight people treated me as just another angel-wrestler, just another weird saint-to-be. Community shapes our ability even to understand concepts–this is the After Virtue point again–let alone imagine how we might live out those concepts in our own individual lives and contexts. If you want gay people to even understand what you’re talking about you have got to create communities where we are genuinely welcome and not treated as suspects to be interrogated, ticking time bombs, or weapons in a culture war.