Saturday, May 17, 2014

How does a straight guy become a rainbow flag bearer in The Salvation Army?

So, it’s the International Day against Homophobia today.  It’s become a day that I can’t let pass without some reflection and usually a rave of some sort.  The Salvation Army has a wonderful tradition of testimony, so I thought today I’d apply myself to the task of testifying about my journey towards the inclusion of LGBT folks in my life and the life of the church to which I belong.

I grew up in a culture that was overtly anti-gay.  The word ‘poofter’ was a derogatory epithet hurled across the school playground at regular intervals to anyone who crossed the line of unpopularity.  Their offence didn’t have to reflect anything at all characteristic of male homosexuality, it was just a punishment for someone that wasn’t liked at that moment.  The equivalent today would be the way that young people say things like “That’s so gay”, meaning that something is stupid or ‘lame’ without pausing for a moment to consider the implications of associating a particular sexual orientation with stupidity.

I never really gave this much thought at the time, though I’m sure I was both the giver and receiver of this term as a weapon of schoolyard abuse.  It also never occurred to me that people in my school could actually be gay.  I was much too busy chasing girls to consider that any of my peers might have objects of desire that were of our own sex – or that some of those girls might not be interested in me because they’d prefer to be with another girl.  In retrospect it seems rather blind of me not to have noticed this more but I guess you get to be a bit self-absorbed as a teenager.

I guess the first gay people I noticed were those that came out publicly – usually celebrities or notable people of some sort.  Many were musicians and as a musician myself, I had long ago learned to judge people on their music and not worry about anything else.  Their sexuality didn’t affect me directly and I just assumed that some people were naturally like that.  On reflection, this assumption may reflect the fact that I didn’t grow up in the church, so I never had any kind of indoctrination to suggest that same-sex attraction was a choice that people might make against God’s desire for humankind.

The first time I became aware of heterosexism and homophobia within the church was an assignment that I did in my first year of theological studies.  I was in my late teens and had only been a Christian for about a year myself and the discipleship processes that I’d gone through were much more oriented on curbing my own heterosexual impulses towards the young women within my social circles at the time.  It was the late 1980s, the time of the Grim Reaper ads that fuelled a degree of panic and prejudice about HIV/AIDS.  In my Pastoral Care and Counselling class, I took up an essay about how the church should treat people infected with HIV.  In my research, I was shocked at the open discrimination against gay people that suddenly seemed so predominant in the church.  Even then, I couldn’t help but wonder if homosexuality was really a choice that people made against God but the key issue for me was how people who claimed to love God could be so unloving against other humans, specifically those who were ill and suffering what was commonly understood as a death sentence at that time.  The idea of HIV/AIDS as the judgement of God on the gay community didn’t just rest uneasily with me but created a distinct disturbance within.  I couldn’t help but get up and walk out of church when I heard one officer preach this from the platform one Sunday.

Over time, I got to know gay and lesbian people as people long before I found out about their sexuality.  Some of them were my colleagues, working alongside me doing their best to build a better world and care for those who had been marginalised by society.  I can’t imagine how I could ever have constructed a worldview that saw them in any way as inferior to myself – or worse still, condemned in some way to eternal punishment for who they were and the people they loved.  They were, and are, people of deep compassion, great commitment and have given sacrificially of their lives in service to others.  Could God really ignore this in order to focus on what went on in their bedrooms?

I also got to know people who came to The Salvation Army for help who had been bruised and battered, physically and emotionally, because of their sexuality.  All too often the perpetrators of this abuse had been people in their churches, which added a dimension of spiritual abuse to their trauma.  I came across people who had been taught to hate themselves because of attraction to their own gender, who had harmed themselves, who had contemplated and even attempted suicide because they thought that they were abominations in the sight of God.  I couldn’t, and can’t, believe in any kind of God that would want that to happen.

I tried to get my head inside the opposing arguments – was the Bible really as clear on this subject as people said?  I studied the handful of passages that appear to reference same-sex activity in the scriptures.  I looked at them in Hebrew and in Greek and scoured dozens of commentaries seeking insight.  What I learned didn’t give me clarity about a singular biblical position – it revealed a multitude of positions on a variety of behaviours and relationships, none of which seemed to reflect anything like the same-sex relationships I had witnessed and most of which simply mirrored the kind of prejudices and social attitudes that one might expect from their historical contexts.  I struggled to believe that God could really be the author of such hatred.

I was once asked to share my exegetical insights on this subject at a Christian conference and afterwards I was shocked that none of those present in that session really challenged my conclusions about the scriptures.  The dominant questions were no longer about the Biblical messages but instead sought affirmation in the hope that people would be able to ‘pray away the gay’.  I had naively thought that those who seemed to be saying that the Bible was the biggest barrier to their acceptance of same-sex relationships might be swayed by a deeper investigation of the biblical passages in question.  Instead, it seemed like a nagging discomfort with homosexuality was at the root of people’s prejudice and if the Bible wasn’t the most effective tool to sustain their viewpoints, then the ground could easily be shifted sideways to a less empirical space for discussion.  Since then, the evidence of the overwhelming failure of gay ‘conversion’ ministries seems to be well and truly in – though those most determined will persist I’m sure.

Much has happened to affirm my understanding of the boundless love of God that embraces people of diverse sexualities and genders.  I’ve been blessed to witness and occasionally to be a part of the healing that comes into people’s lives when they are truly accepted for who they are.  I’d like to think that I’ve played my part in beginning to repair some of the damage that the church has done to gay and lesbian people by affirming God’s unconditional love for them and demonstrating their value to the world, the church and myself.  The relatively minor costs that I have borne along the way have only helped me to share a fraction of insight into the wounds that my gay brothers and sisters have had inflicted upon them by others for years.

I don’t expect to change the world.  When it comes down to it, I don’t even think I can change one other person.  Frankly, it’s hard enough to change those parts of myself that could do with a bit of improvement.  But I can’t stand by and be silent while the church that I’m a part of continues to discriminate and cause pain to people because of their sexuality.  This is my journey and here I stand.


Josh said...

What does affirming acceptance of Gays in the church really look like? Does this mean that we accept gays who are legally pledged in monogamous relations (marriage)? Does it mean affirming acceptance of Gays regardless of the stability of their sexual relationships (promiscuity)? There must be some delineation other than just 'love'. There must be as much discipline applied to gay relationships as to non-gay relations. There must be some order for the guidance of all believers and it must meet the Almighty's standard. We all need direction and not just nebulous comments.

JDK said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Josh. My intention here was mainly to share my experience not to set direction. I freely confess that I'm making it up as I go along with love as my guide. That's probably too nebulous for you but that's all I've got for now.

Mark Ferreira said...

While my journey is much different, my conclusions are the same. I admire your bold stance- I'm finding it harder and harder to be silent on this issue. But I know there is hope for our church.

JDK said...

Thanks for sharing, Mark. There is hope.

mdb said...

Is it correct the homosexuality was fairly common when Jesus was living? If this is true and it was/is a barrier to experiencing God's grace, surely Jesus would have said something?

JDK said...

There were certainly a range of different cultural practices and attitudes to sex in Jesus time. Not all are easily equated with our modern understanding of committed same-sex relationships. Nevertheless Jesus said more about divorce and more again about attachment to wealth than any of these things.

With Holy Discontent said...

Thanks for your comments Jason. Much appreciated in assisting me to reflect on our own intentional or unintentianl prejudges, on this subject and others. I have found for me that the deeper my relationship with the fellowship of God gets, and the more of my will I abadon to His desires, the more inclusive I am to others.

ChrisM said...

Jason, I have found my beliefs about Homosexuality challenged whilst in CBC. I grew with the term 'poofter', but in my context it was most certainly directed towards those with a feminine outlook. As well as that, 'poofter bashing' was a common theme that was not frowned upon in the society I was apart of. It was in this area that I was getting more and more confused. It was not because of the Church, but Society. It seemed as if it's values changed surprisingly quickly regarding LGBT and that I was left behind. College has challenged my thinking and beliefs, and helped to slowly change. It has been a journey for me that continues. I hope towards a place where I can better understand God's idea of Love, rather than my own.

Unknown said...

I am constrained to rely on Jesus' grace. Let me not being in the place of putting on someone else a heavier burden than I am willing to bear.

The Holy Spirit deals with my life choices directly with me. I trust Him to do the same for others.

Bill Stolk said...

Jason, thanks for expressing your concerns so well.

I can agree with you on a few points. In particular, parts of the church have treated homosexuals abominably over the years, something that has done untold damage to the lives of people who have probably needed our love more than most. I too grew up in a culture where it was considered acceptable to hang it on homosexuals and call them names - certainly no one in my school would have dared to "come out" for fear of teasing, exclusion and bashing. I think it is a healthy thing that homosexuals can now be honest about their proclivities without feeling condemned for it. I also believe that homosexuals should be welcomed by the church, that they should have the same access to the gospel message - without prejudice - that anyone else does.

What concerns me in the current cultural climate is that the Church is so eager to welcome homosexuals that it is lowering its standards and whitewashing sin. All of us are sinners, and homosexual sin is no worse than, say, adultery or theft. We welcome adulterers and thieves into the church without any question; if they come to repentance and faith, it is expected that they will give up their adultery and stealing. Homosexuality is being treated differently by many, however - we welcome them in and encourage them toward repentance and faith, but we seem reluctant to call homosexual behaviour what it is - a sin. Instead, many are advocating monogamous gay relationships as a way of making the sin look more acceptable.

Now, it's not the homosexual's fault if he has same-sex attraction - most would say they can't do anything about that; but does that we are "homophobic" or "homosexist" if we call homosexual behaviour a sin? Not at all - if it comes down to a person's proclivities, we are doing no less if we call adultery or theft sin. I have a natural proclivity toward attractive women to whom I am not married; does that mean I should follow that tendency and sleep with them? I have a natural urge to take things that don't belong to me because I like them. Should I steal? Obviously the answers are no. I have self control, I can decide not to do these things.

Is it fair to expect a homosexual to remain celebate for life after they make a Christian commitment? It is an unfortunate necessity, and while it may feel unfair, ultimately it is God's fairness that must be brought into question. God requires sacrifice of each of us in order to live the Christian life. For homosexuals this sacrifice may be unpleasant, but it is no less than the sacrifices made by many others for many other reasons.

Let's welcome homosexuals, love them, care about them, heal their hurts where we can, but let's not compromise our standards in order to do so. Let's not water down the clear Biblical teaching on this matter in order to appear compassionate.

JDK said...

Thanks for your comments, Billious. There's a few areas here that we're probably not going to agree on and I'm presently unable to give your points the detailed responses that they deserve. However, if we start together on demonstrating love, care and healing for all people then we'll have advanced a great deal from the position of pain and hurt that too many LGBT people have experienced from the church so far.

Bill Stolk said...

An excellent starting point - however keep in mind that the Bible (including the teachings of Jesus) teaches us not only to love, but to be discerning, or to use your word "discriminating".

mdb said...

Jesus said, "follow me." He didn't say, "sort yourself it then come follow me." He said "follow me."

Of course people who followed him ended up changing (Peter & Paul), but this was after following.

I'm not trying to imply following Jesus will "straighten" you up. But I do think Jesus accepted people (even the 12 disciples didn't believe until after the resurrection!

Brian said...

Jason, this is a well written and interesting read. It is good to read of your journey. I am not without my concerns about your conclusions, and Billious has summed up some of my thoughts.
I look back to the language of my high school days and also wish I wasn't guilty of poor language. But I am.
Perhaps now I can demonstrate love even if that doesn't mean a full acceptance.

Scubatuba said...

I have plenty of gay Christian friends. As soon as the church tells divorced people who have remarried they can't be members then you can talk about not letting LGBTQ folk be members. It isn't sin. The sin is how the church excludes. The church needs to get the plank out of its own eye.

The Horse said...

Thank you so much for sharing that. I have read it 4 or 5 times now and I think I am ready to give you a reply. As you know I am gay, I only came out when I was 33 and far enough away from family friends the church and my community.

Those taunts in the school yard they hurt, the doctrine from the church made it even worse. I was one of those kids who thought I was bound to end up in hell because I was gay. When my first BF was taken from me in a car crash I saw that as God punishing me for my dirty little secret.

It was hard to pretend to be something I wasn't. To lie every day about who I really was. I once asked a minister which was the greater sin. To lie every day, or to be gay ? He never gave me an answer and its hard to live when you don't know.

When I was 33 the whole thing came undone, I had a mental breakdown and coming out was part of the healing process. I had to accept that the Church no longer wanted anything to do with me and that was far more painful and damaging than I had imagined.

My local community turned on my parents and my sister and her family, they were excluded from local events. Recently my mother slapped a woman for insulting her gay son.

When I moved north I tried to find a church that would allow me, I was met with nothing but closed doors and hushed words. I lost my track and became a disbeliever. To me I was made in gods image, so how could I be so wrong in the eyes of his churches.

I sought out religious beliefs that helped support my sexuality and although I have found a couple, I feel I am Isolated from the God I have known my whole life.

Resentment for me and confrontation based on my sexuality happens a lot, I have had my car vandalized and other not so nice things since living here.

Its interesting that you mention the grim reaper ads of the 1980's its because of those I was horrified the first time I had sex with another man that I had AIDS. Reality is neither of us did, and although they were effective they also did huge amounts of damage to an already marginalized group.

I hope soon there will be a day when I can return to the Church to be in touch with the loving God I know, but for now I cant and that in itself is like purgatory, not in hell but not able to be with god either.

I thank you for your frankness on this issue it is one that is close to my heart, your candor and honesty is very much appreciated, and as I stated above I hope one day to be an acceptable member of any church.


JDK said...

Thanks Stuart. It's stories like yours that keep me going on the path towards greater inclusiveness within my church. Really appreciate your honesty and openness

The Horse said...

I believe that the only way for both sides to move forward is to humanize the issues. Its fine to act out against gay people as a whole, because to most people we are a faceless group.

When most people find out i am gay they are shocked. Not because I am gay, but because I don't fit the stereotype of a gay male. So I humanize there idea of what a gay person is.

The idea of doctrine and what is and isn't acceptable for each church is beyond me. I'm just a guy who has been on the receiving end of some horrible treatment. I have many stories of others being treated far worse. I have shed many a tear over the years when I hear of the treatment of others who are gay by their community church and government.

What many forget is that during the time Jesus walked the planet homosexual relationships were part of the every day under the romans. There are also other times during history it has not been an issue.

Its always a question of faith, and its not until we can all sit together that anything will be able to change.

thanks again for your article it was brave and very forward thinking.