Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Triumph of Love, Excerpt #3: The Effects of Categorically Condemning Homosexuality

For Election Day, instead of a political post, I offer the third excerpt from my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic. This excerpt offers a kind of summary of what the book has argued so far, in anticipation of tackling scriptural and natural law arguments for the conservative view. It thus functions well as a short, stand-alone piece (although it does not address all the details that came before or address the various objections that come later in the book). Enjoy!

I’ve tried to paint a picture of what it’s like for gays and lesbians to live in societies that deny them access to legal marriage and condemn every expression of their sexuality. Although Western societies have been moving fitfully away from this model of exclusion, this is the kind of society conservative Christians think gays and lesbians should live in. And because so many gays and lesbians have grown up in such a society, we know what it’s like for them.

My argument so far has been that by endorsing such a society, conservative Christians endorse something that harms their gay and lesbian neighbors. In such a society, gays and lesbians learn from a young age that they’ll never be equal and fully accepted members of their community. Most who try to change their intimate feelings fail, but in the process some trap themselves and their spouses in miserable heterosexual marriages they hoped would “fix” them. If they do form a loving partnership, society will condemn it. Every effort to nurture the bonds of love will be seen as evidence of their commitment to sin. While their straight friends can hope to fall in love and have their partnerships celebrated and supported by the wider community, the best sexual minorities can hope for is to find such support in a marginalized subculture while erecting walls of secrecy and isolation from those who would call their love a sin.

Some internalize the message that their deepest impulse towards love and intimacy is an affront to God. And when promises of change prove empty, they come to see that impulse as a sign that their very nature is a perversion, a blight on the world. Others, struggling to live in self-denial, cling to the praise of the very Christian conservatives who deny them what so enriches their heterosexual peers—a pattern reminiscent of abused children living for intermittent scraps of parental affection. As the only real payoff for their sacrifice, they wear the mantle of “costly discipleship” so tightly they hardly notice it costs them their ability to focus on discipleship.

Some, unable to suppress their deep instinct for sexual and romantic intimacy, pursue it in contexts where normal, healthy constraints on sexuality are absent. Since their sexuality as a whole is condemned, they make no fine-tuned distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate expressions. Loving monogamy becomes no better than casual sex—except that the latter can be explained away as momentary weakness rather than commitment to sin. In such a world, we shouldn’t be surprised when closeted pastors and politicians are caught with their pants down in pathetically tawdry sex scandals.

Other minorities, such as blacks and Jews, are raised by families like them in the ways that mark them off for marginalization. They have the opportunity from childhood to know solidarity with others who are similarly marginalized. Their homes and religious communities offer coping skills and at least some measure of refuge from society’s stigmatization.

But sexual minorities routinely grow up in profound isolation. Fearing rejection even from their own families and churches (at least if they admit who they are), they retreat into the closet—a metaphor for hiding one’s true self from the world and living a pretense. And because intimacy is about sharing oneself with others, the closet impedes intimacy across relationships—with parents, siblings, coworkers, friends, teachers and pastors. Deprived of one kind of intimacy by the categorical condemnation of homosexuality, the closet takes away the rest. Sometimes the isolation and rejection can be almost too much to bear, and all it takes is a final gesture of denunciation or scorn to spark an act of self-obliteration.

Despite all of this, many gays and lesbians make their way to a subculture that accepts them. They shake off self-loathing and the condemnation of their sexuality, and they come to see faithful partnerships as having a worth that other expressions of their sexuality lack. They fall in love, form marriage-like partnerships, and work to sustain them despite a society that not only withholds the social supports and accountability marriage provides but can be overtly hostile. Many have the devotion to do that work, and with the security of those relationships and a gay subculture that steps in to partially fill the gap, many escape suicidal loneliness.

But this bulwark against despair is something conservatives think they ought to be deprived of. Admittedly, many are sincere about trying to make alternative support systems available: ex-gay communities and spiritual friendship networks that aim to help those without the gift of celibacy to endure a life of ongoing suppression of their sexuality. But these alternatives lack what Christian marriage has: the multiple-level intimacy in which physical love is integrated with other forms of closeness in a way that forms a deeper and more holistic connection between embodied spirits than is possible without that physical dimension. And because they lack a framework for expressing sexuality that lifts sexuality out of the realm of animal lust and into a space of human meaning, these alternatives set up those gays and lesbians who lack the gift of celibacy not only for failure, but for failure of a particularly debasing kind: momentary sexual relief in meaningless encounters. As we have seen, such failure can lead to genital-slashing self-loathing.

What conservatives on this issue cannot consistently support is the bulwark against despair that does the most good: a community that supports and celebrates expressions of a homosexual orientation within the context of enduring monogamous love. Conservatives can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be glad there’s a subculture where despairing gays and lesbians are embraced for who they are and encouraged to live out their sexuality with a self-affirming identity. They can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be happy for their gay and lesbian neighbors who form life-enriching same-sex relationships. To think homosexuality is always a sin is, on pain of inconsistency, to think there should be no such subculture and no such relationships.

Suppose someone said something like the following about your most intimate partnership: “No matter how much it enriches your life and no matter how hard you have worked to nurture love and intimacy within it, it would be better if your relationship ceased to exist.” And then suppose they follow it up with something like this: “But even though I think this relationship that means so much to you is a moral blight on the world, I still love you.”

Wouldn’t your natural response be to say, “No, you don’t”?

The portrait I’m painting doesn’t look like a society that loves the gays and lesbians in its midst. The practical implications of condemning homosexuality, which come to vivid life when we listen compassionately to our gay and lesbian neighbors, are hard to reconcile with the Christian command to love our neighbors, including our gay and lesbian ones, as ourselves.