Ever since that Courage conference I’ve been trying to figure out a way to write a post about the many, many, many problems with the way scary statistics about gay people are deployed in some Christian circles. You know the thing I’m talking about: Gay people are more likely to be depressed, to beat our partners, to use drugs and abuse alcohol (why do you call it abuse when the alcohol never complains), to die young and leave a fabulous corpse, lol I’m clearly making myself angry just typing this stuff. There’s always that one study, too, from Amsterdam or wherever?, which is supposed to prove that gay people are miserable even in the most tolerant place on earth, so it’s not Christians’ fault.
I was going to make myself sit down and write up all the different problems with this approach, like the world’s most depressing listicle, when I realized: a) you couldn’t pay me to read that let alone write it, b) obviously while some of these stats are bogus, lots of them are solid–we need honesty if we’re going to address our real problems, and c) it turns out that I can make the most important point by addressing solely the most positive effect of the use of these statistics.
At best, giving a conservative audience of non-gay people a sheaf of scary statistics about gay people will evoke pity. I could see it at the Courage conference: The people at my table looked concerned, surprised, their hearts were touched by the thought of so much pain.
Pity gets a bad rap these days because we associate it with condescension. But I think there’s a reason to have a nonjudgmental, or even positive, word for that wrenching emotion we feel when we recognize that someone else is suffering and we aren’t. Someone else is suffering for reasons that have to do with our difference from them. This isn’t compassion, since compassion entails some form of “suffering-with”; this is the emotion before compassion, what we feel while our distance from the sufferers is as poignant in our minds as the intensity of their pain.
But pity doesn’t always become compassion. Sometimes–especially when we seek to absolve ourselves of blame for another’s suffering–it becomes judgment and condescension. We hold tight to our position as the unsullied ones, the ones who can understand pain even better than the sufferers. From this mindset we may seek to help the sufferers; and then we get annoyed with them when they reject our help.
There is one obvious sign of pity that has become compassion and not condescension. Pity that has become truly Christian seeks to sacrifice.
So if straight people are being moved to pity by scary statistics about gay people, this should be a call to them to surrender something of their own. To sacrifice money or time, for example, donating to or serving with gay health clinics, homeless youth programs, and suicide prevention projects. To sacrifice personal autonomy, if this is something they’re called to do, taking in gay youth who have no safe haven. To sacrifice, at the very least, their self-image as the ones who understand, the ones who know the causes and cures of gay pain better than the people who have experienced it. (Uh, do this one before you do the one about taking in vulnerable young people. Do the next right thing, not the thing after that.)
Compassion is suffering-with; it requires solidarity, standing shoulder to shoulder with those who suffer. You have to give of yourself–and, specifically, you have to be willing to surrender your own high opinion of yourself. That’s how you practice the humility which, over time, becomes solidarity.
Here, have a Pet Shop Boys song about Jesus.
from pain comes pity…