Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Orwellian Obfuscation and the Christian Struggle over Homosexuality

As part of my research for my new book project, I’ve recently been looking into the “Biblical Witness Fellowship” (BWF) within the United Church of Christ (UCC)—a denomination I and my family belonged to for four years when we left the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) to protest its failure to allow for the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian clergy. We chose the UCC then because of its inclusive stance towards gays and lesbians.

But that inclusiveness has not gone uncontested within the UCC—and the clearest, most organized voice of protest appears to be the BWF. The Biblical Witness Fellowship describes itself as a “confessing movement within the United Church of Christ” committed to opposing what its members see as “decades of continued denominational decline that has resulted from the UCC’s theological surrender to the moral and spiritual confusion of contemporary culture.”

This last bit grates on me, because I've heard it so many times. It seems to be something of a defining narrative that conservative Christians carry with them into disputes with their more progressive brethren: the commitments of progressive Christians spring from “theological surrender” to modern culture.

But is this narrative right? Probably sometimes. But always?

For members of the BWF, one of the clearest signs of this supposed “theological surrender” came in the form of the UCC’s 2005 resolution in support of same-sex marriage, which the BWF blog describes as an “idolatrous decision…to attempt to tell God that marriage was whatever we, in our human delusions, wanted it to be,” a decision that “placed the UCC beyond the boundaries of reality.”

In opposition to this “idolatrous” betrayal, the BWF offers the following position statement on human sexuality:

Human sexuality is a gift from God, a reflection of His creative plan. God ordained sexual intimacy to be expressed within the covenant of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside of that covenant dehumanizes, destroys and leads to fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death. We believe our contemporary culture to be a vivid parable of this truth.
What are we to make of this statement? First of all, given my own experience in the UCC, I can attest that the less conservative majority would agree with much that is said in the statement. Specifically, they’d be inclined to agree, right along with the BWF, that sexuality expressed outside the confines of marital commitment is fraught with dangers, risking personal and social harms that the covenant of marriage helps to ward against.

In fact, this is a main reason they support same-sex marriage. Excluding gays and lesbians from access to the marital covenant deprives them of the option to express their sexuality within the stable, intimacy-building context of marriage. Without the social supports of marriage, it’s far easier for sexuality to fall into promiscuity and the various harms this entails—including, arguably, social and psychological fragmentation (as intimacy and sexual pleasure become severed), increases in relational instability and emotional volatility (jealousy and heartbreak and the forms of inner and outer violence these things engender), not to mention the potentially lethal effects of sexually transmitted disease.

But implicit in the BWF statement is the conviction that were the covenant of marriage to become generally available to same-sex couples, sex within the covenant of such marriages would then somehow contribute to the same dire results. Here is where progressives in the UCC differ sharply with the BWF. Both agree that the covenant of marriage plays a crucial role in securing a healthy and life-affirming sexuality—sexuality as God intended it. But while progressives argue that for this very reason the covenant should be available to gays and lesbians, members of the BWF think that extending the marital covenant to same-sex couples would sanctify a kind of relationship that (somehow) brings fragmentation and death even when it otherwise embodies all the virtues of an ideal marriage.

The BWF statement obscures this point by treating “heterosexual marriage” as a single monolithic norm—that is, by attempting to frame our thinking such that we are discouraged from thinking about the heterosexuality of a relationship apart from its conformity to what might be called the "marital ideal," by which I mean the relational ideal that is held up in the institution of marriage and that married couples strive to approximate: lifelong loving commitment, life partnership, sexual fidelity in a monogamous bond in which sexuality nurtures and expresses a multifaceted love that is also nurtured and expressed through emotional openness and honest sharing of oneself with the partner.

Anyone who has known a loving same-sex couple knows that this marital ideal can be pursued by them as well as by any heterosexual couple. But by lumping the marital ideal and heterosexuality together, as if they couldn't be promoted apart from each other, we are discouraged from distinguishing between two very different questions. The questions I have in mind are these:

(a) Are there long-term and pervasive social costs for rejecting the marital ideal as the normative model for expressing sexual intimacy?

(b) Are there such costs for expanding the marital ideal to encompass non-heterosexual couples?

If we do distinguish these two questions, it becomes clear that the framers of the BWF statement want to answer “yes” to both—but this seems highly implausible. If broad cultural rejection of the marital ideal leads to “fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death,” then it would seem that the more we expand the scope within which this ideal holds sway, the better off we are in terms of reducing these harms.

Think about it. If communities that aren’t bound by the marital ideal are more likely to exhibit promiscuity and fickleness in their sexual lives—and if this brings with it both tangible health costs in terms of the spread of STD’s and less tangible social and psychological costs—then shouldn’t we conclude that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples will mean greater promiscuity and fickleness—and concomitant costs—in the non-heterosexual subculture (a subculture that is in part created by the exclusion of sexual minorities from a social institution as foundational and pervasive as marriage)?

Let’s spell it out clearly. To extend the marriage covenant to same-sex couples would mean that these couples are afforded the same social supports for practicing fidelity in a monogamous life partnership that heterosexuals enjoy. Such supports can only reduce promiscuity and encourage relational stability—thereby both reducing the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS and reducing various forms of relational and psychological fragmentation.

Excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, by contrast, means excluding them from two things: first, the basic unit of social life in our culture; second, our primary model of responsible sexuality. By virtue of the former, gays and lesbians feel excluded from society and so gravitate to one another, forming a subculture of their own at society’s margins. Society as a whole becomes more…fragmented. By virtue of the latter, the sexual constraints characteristic of the broader society are less likely to be carried into the LGBT subculture. Their sexual relationships thus become less permanent, more…chaotic and fragmented. And with greater promiscuity comes dissociation of emotional and physical intimacy—an inner psychological fragmentation. Not to mention the spread of deadly diseases.

If sexuality without marriage really does have the negative costs that the BWF identifies, then this will be as true for gays and lesbians as it is for heterosexuals. Which means that restricting marriage to heterosexuals will promote greater “fragmentation, social chaos, violence, and death” within the LGBT community.

In short, a “yes” answer to question (a) above would seem to call for a “no” answer to question (b). The BWF’s capacity to say otherwise depends on obscuring the distinction between these two questions. By obscuring them, the “yes” answer to (a) can be implicitly attributed to (b) in a way that is simply not plausible when we are clear about the distinction.

The obfuscation here makes possible a kind of Orwellian double-speak. An institution is identified as a necessary guard against fragmentation and death; and so, in the name of avoiding fragmentation and death, some people are denied access to this very institution. True means false. Peace means war. Language has become a smokescreen for motivating people to embrace the opposite of reality.

But why throw up such a smokescreen at all? The reason, I think, is this: the BWF is committed to a strong view of biblical authority, one which requires them to treat as inerrant the negative judgment of homosexual relationships coming out of Paul’s epistles. And if such relationships really do embody everything that Paul apparently attributes to them--if they really are just an expression of "shameful lusts" inspiring "unnatural" acts that are "indecent" and "perverted" (Romans 1:26-27)--then how could we officially sanction them by enshrining and uplifting them with the same legal institution that we use to honor the marital relationship that we treat as having such positive worth? Taking Paul's comments here as literally authoritative seems to have some clear implications for how we should and shouldn't treat same-sex relationships.

But the progressive majority within the UCC is concerned that such biblical literalism can be and often is a source of unloving behavior. In effect, the view of the UCC's majority is something like this: If we really pay attention to the actual effects that following through on certain biblical teachings have, we see that those effects are harmful to our neighbors. Using love for our neighbors as the measuring stick for making judgments of “good” and “bad,” what can we say about the categorical condemnation of homosexuality that springs from an uncritical appropriation of isolated scriptural passages? All we can say is that they bear bad fruit.

And so, if we are to be faithful both to the core scriptural call to love our neighbors and to Jesus’ injunction to distinguish true prophecies from false ones by their fruits, we have to set aside certain teachings that seem to flow from an inerrantist approach to Scripture.

This is a deeply Christian—and, in a way, deeply biblical—critique of certain teachings that seem to flow from certain ways of approaching the Bible as a source of moral teachings. At the same time, it is a deeply Christian and biblical challenge to those ways of approaching the Bible. But conservatives have embraced a narrative according to which progressives are not motivated by deeply Christian concerns or by a fidelity to the actual content of Scripture. They are have, instead, “sold out” or "surrendered" to secular culture.

But the actual motives of Christian progressives (at least many of them) don’t fit with this narrative. Instead, progressives are (generally) motivated by a spirit of Christian love, and they look at the world and their neighbors through loving eyes…and find themselves noticing the “bad fruits” of some very traditional Christian teachings.

The harm that is done to gays and lesbians by the traditional condemnation of homosexuality is a case in point. The eyes of love see bad fruit growing from the tree of Paul’s un-nuanced treatment of same-sex relationships. The eyes of love give an empathetic appreciation of what it's like to be gay, an appreciation that is nowhere in evidence in Paul's comments in Romans. It's as if (surprise, surprise) Paul were writing his comments out of a deep well of ignorance, as if he had no notion of homosexuality as an orientation, no notion that some people might actually pursue monogamous same-sex relations out of such an orientation as opposed to being driven by an excess of lust to have sex with anything that moves, even someone of the same sex. And those of us who have paid compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors know the kind of debilitating effects that result from being told that their impulses to love, to build romantically intimate relationships, can never be anything but sinful (since they can never be towards people of the opposite sex). We know the potentially crushing psychological effects of being systematically excluded from participation in the bedrock social institution of marriage, of being set at the margins of society.

What is going on in the BWF position statement is, if you will, an attempt to turn the tables on this way of approaching the subject—to argue that if we look into the world with the eyes of Christian love, we will see the bad fruit that results from turning away from “heterosexual marriage.” The modern world becomes a “vivid parable” that attests to the costly consequences of rejecting traditional Christian teachings--including Christian teachings about restricting marriage to heterosexual couples.

There is an attempt, if you will, to show that this approach of loving attention to our world—one with deep Christian roots—has implications which converge with those that result when we approach the Bible in the way conservatives are inclined to do: as inspired by God from cover to cover, as the ultimate authority for Christians, as authoritative in its “plain sense” at least when the meaning and authorial intentions are clear. In short, the BWF seeks here to reconcile two deeply Christian ways of reaching moral conclusions: the path of compassionate attention to how practices and policies actually affect individual and social life; and the path of appealing to the authority of clear biblical teachings.

If that argument can be sustained, then progressives who claim to be challenging the latter path on the basis of the former will be exposed as disingenuous. The conservative narrative—according to which progressive Christian ideas are ultimately the result (however unconscious) of selling out to secular culture—can be rehabilitated. Unfortunately, that argument is convincing only with the help of Orwellian obfuscations of the sort we find occurring (perhaps inadvertently) in the BWF's position statement.

Once such obfuscation is cleared away, I think we are left with the following picture: There is a real tension within traditional Christianity, one that has been brought to light by our current understanding of what it's like to be gay. Christian conservatives on the issue of homosexuality think that a certain traditional way of approaching the Bible, a certain way of approaching its authority for the purpose of reaching moral conclusions, is utterly central to an authentic Christian faith. Among other things, they believe that this sort of allegiance to the Bible and to the resultant teachings have to trump the lessons that emerge when we carefully attend, with compassion, to the actual effects of such teachings. Christian progressive, by contrast, think that the lessons of compassionate attention--a deeply traditional Christian approach to engaging with the world, one which is rooted in core biblical teachings--should trump the traditional approach to the Bible that conservatives cleave to. Progressives argue, furthermore, that a different kind of allegiance to the Bible favors giving compassionate attention such trump-card status.

This picture of things doesn’t support what, for conservatives, is surely a rather comforting narrative: “Progressives are sell-outs to modernity, while we conservatives are faithful to tradition.” Instead, we are left with a picture of things according to which the current Christian debate about homosexuality is a debate about what should be held as most central to Christianity—at a time when it is becoming increasingly clear that some deeply traditional elements of the faith are in conflict.

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