The Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church will be meeting next weekend in Hampton, Virginia. Among our business is a resolution to recommend omitting the Book of Discipline language around homosexuality. I’ve been dreading the series of angry speeches that will take place in an environment in which it’s impossible for authentic prayerful dialogue to occur. My colleague Tom Berlin has proposed that in lieu of the annual predictable polarizing legislative battle, we try to have some real conversations in our congregations about sexuality with a fair representation of all perspectives. Though I have been open about my desire for the Book of Discipline to change, what I most want is for United Methodists to actually listen to God together and follow the Holy Spirit’s lead instead of organizing into factions and lobbing accusations back and forth. So I wanted to start a conversation about how to have a safe and fruitful conversation, hoping that my loving gracious readers will provide the correction and refinement that my ignorance and privilege require.
1) It needs to be a conversation with God
To be a safe and fruitful conversation, our discourse must be one of continuous prayer. We need to not only start and end our meeting with prayer, but remain in a spirit of prayer while we’re talking with each other and when we part ways to mull over what we’ve discussed. When I say a spirit of prayer, I’m referring specifically to a posture of listening for God to speak and expecting God to speak to us through the Bible and the perspectives of our brothers and sisters around the table. If I come to the table with my talking points to argue, and every time somebody else opens their mouth, I’m planning my retort, I am not in a spirit of prayer and have thus made myself unavailable to the Holy Spirit’s instruction. Unless I come to the table expecting to be taught by God through other people, I have nothing to offer to the conversation.
2) It needs to be about discipleship and not ideology
One of the ways Satan has torn our nation apart is by turning all of morality into a set of abstract issues that you’re either for or against. Because we live in an age of social media, we tend to define ourselves by the ideas we support or oppose rather than how we actually live. In such an environment, “holiness” becomes a spectator sport consisting strictly in commentary. One of the primary functions of the homosexuality debate in our culture, for example, is to give people a way to be moralistic without putting any personal skin in the game. Instead of being a debate about issues, a real conversation about sexuality needs to have the improved real-life discipleship of its participants as its primary objective. So a safe and fruitful conversation about sexuality cannot be a homosexuality debate. It needs to be a conversation about how the people directly involved in the conversation can live out their sexualities in a healthy, holy way.
3) It needs to be holistic
In order for our conversation to be fruitful to our discipleship, we cannot think about sexuality as a set of “issues” that can be addressed as stand-alone entities. As we look to the Bible for teaching, we must do better than a “word-search” Bible study. We should be looking for overarching principles to shape our discipleship rather than proof-texts to fortify our ideology. Our sexuality needs to be understood within the framework of the Great Commandments to love God and love our neighbor. With regard to loving God, we should examine whether our sexual practices constitute worship or idolatry. With regard to loving neighbors, we should examine sexuality in terms of justice issues. With regard to sexual difference, we should be looking at how the Bible handles analogous situations of difference. The goal should be discerning a comprehensive Christian vision for human sexuality rather than a fragmented set of issue stances.
4) It needs to NOT be a decision-making conversation
I don’t believe that our conversation will be safe or fruitful if it’s framed as a decision-making conversation, because then the purpose of the conversation is to argue other people into making the decision I want them to make. This will turn the whole thing into a pressure-cooker where authentic listening isn’t possible. I would be very intentional about saying that no one decision or stance will emerge directly out of our conversation about sexuality because we are simply listening to all the unexpected things God has to teach us for the sake of our personal discipleship. If down the road, it seems that God is calling us to make decisions about stances, that’s fine. But any initial conversation should be strictly about listening to each other and learning from God.
Insofar as we cover topic areas where there are conflicting Christian understandings of aspects of sexuality, we need to get the best representation of all voices so that everyone can see, for example, that marriage traditionalists are not redneck bigots and people arguing for LGBT inclusion are not throwing their Bibles to the wind. The conversation needs to be safe for LGBT Christians to be able to share their experiences along with everyone else without being put on trial or examined under a microscope. It also needs to be safe for marriage traditionalists to share their honest convictions about what the Bible teaches without getting shouted out of the room. The strongest cases for both sides of every issue should be researched and shared faithfully, not in the spirit of trying to argue anyone into changing their views but in order to listen carefully for what God has to teach us through people with opposing views. Again my assumption is that God has unanticipated things to teach us that go way beyond the superficial level of our stances on issues.
6) It needs to name our world’s contexts and hidden agendas
Part of being holistic in this conversation is recognizing that we are never merely autonomous individuals sitting around a Bible dispassionately reading it for instruction. We have been shaped by the confusing mess of agendas that sexuality has picked up within our culture. For example, fifty years ago, sexuality was a huge part of the moral justification for segregation because white women supposedly had to be protected from the uncontrollable lust of black men. This legacy has been partly sublimated today into the way that middle-class people use sexuality to rationalize why poor people stay poor. We need to talk about the way that capitalist advertising has turned female bodies into commodities. We need to talk about the way that we are socialized by capitalism to appropriate sex as consumers of experience rather than sacred beings created for love. We need to talk about the way that men expect women to be responsible for covering themselves up and protecting men from their supposedly uncontrollable sexual urges. All of these agendas and contexts are always under the surface when we have a conversation about sex, so we need to name them and ponder how they shape us.
7) It needs to engage outside critique
Though our primary resources for listening to God are the Bible and the voices of fellow Christians, we need to wrestle with the critiques of Christian sexuality from outside the faith. Over the past fifty years, feminism has had some very important things to say. More recently has been the development of what’s called queer theory. We don’t have to agree with what feminists or queer theorists say, but I think it would be helpful to hear their perspectives first-hand as part of our learning process. By the way, I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m saying that being a feminist or queer theorist means that you’re not a Christian. I’m just saying that we should listen to the ones who aren’t Christian in addition to the ones who are.
So this list of principles is the best I can come up with on my own. I’m hoping that some of my readers can help point out my blind spots and share your own visions for safe and fruitful conversation about sexuality.