February 12, 2010
About a week ago, I took part in “Conversations on Homosexuality” at Portland Mennonite Church. I can’t say I was completely happy with the overall experience of these conversations. However, there were certainly good things that happened. I am glad for the challenge to express my views in clear and compelling ways. I was happy with what I said and how I said it, though I didn’t get a clear sense from the attendees how I was received.
I do think it is an achievement to have a public conversation on such and intense and controversial issue that remained mostly congenial, calm, and respectful. This is what one attendee wrote to me afterward: “I thought the conversation was wonderful….It felt like such a novelty and a blessing to be able to gather and discuss ‘homosexuality’ calmly and reasonably for a whole day and a half! For the last too many years, it seems as if I (and the whole denomination) have only talked about the issue in hushed tones with people I trust. So before it even started, I was excited about the opportunity….I told [the moderator] afterwards that I thought this was a great first step for Portland Mennonite Church: each ‘side’ got to hear a clear, calm, strongly biblical argument for the ‘other’ position (as well as their own position). To me, that lays a great foundation for future discussion, whereby people can articulate their own positions more clearly, and hopefully each ‘side’ can trust and respect that the ‘other’ does have integrity and biblical faithfulness in mind.”
Most of all, in my experience, the conversation stimulated a lot of thought. In reflecting on the experience, I came up with a number of issues that I would like to think about more. Here’s a brief sketch of those issues.
1. Is it possible that, in the end, there is no “third way?” It came up in the discussion times and also in personal conversations that there must be a “third way” that would provide a way for the churches to be able to hold together these differing views on the moral legitimacy of same-sex intimate relationships. There seems to be a strong stream of Mennonite ideals that points toward a “mediator” approach where we help people to live together with their differences.
However, it is hard to see how finding a “third way” will be possible over this issue. Basically, either same-sex intimate partnerships are okay for Christians or not. There surely are ways to finesse the outworkings of making a decision in one direction or the other (e.g., you decide these relationships are not okay and thus restrict participation of gays in the church but you work hard at being nice to them when they attend or you decide these relationships are okay but don’t make a big, overt public display of that acceptance). However, in the end, the churches will go one way or the other. At the very core of the issue, there does not seem to be a place for compromise.
This is what my friend quoted above wrote about this: “Sadly, though, hearing [the] two clearly articulated positions, my synthesist nature could not find ultimate common ground. The basic nugget of each position is fundamentally at odds with the other; I can’t see how they could be reconciled. Either one thinks that homosexual relationships are sexually immoral per se, or one thinks that same-sex relationships are morally neutral, and judged by the same standards as heterosexuals.”
Personally, I don’t believe that anyone should be pressured to leave any particular church group because of their beliefs on this issue. I think it’s more of a descriptive statement to say that an accommodation of both views seems impossible. However, I also think an awareness of this incompatibility could (should?) lead to accepting that people will likely choose to leave if they are convinced the view they reject is prevailing. Such an acceptance would make it less likely that groups would bend over backwards to keep everyone in the fellowship.
2. The tension between “community” and “mission” as orienting rubrics for congregational discernment. A couple of times in the discussion senior members of the Portland congregation spoke about how important it is to them to hold the fellowship together—to the point that they are willing to subordinate their own convictions on the issue to the sustaining of the community. One person even talked unapologetically about hating conflict and hating the idea that his friends might part ways over this conflict—so it’s better to keep the conflict repressed as much as possible.
As I thought about it, I was struck with the idea that we could think of taking two different approaches to how we should approach these issues people differ on so much. The first approach would place the highest priority on the sustenance of the community; the survival of the group takes priority. The second approach would place the highest priority on the carrying out of the community’s mission, doing the task the group is called to—in the case of the church, we could day, furthering the gospel of Jesus.
Obviously, these two foci are not contradictory or even incompatible. “Community” without “mission” would make the church simply a social club or an idol that takes the place of God in people’s lives. “Mission” without “community” can lead to ideology and a wreckage of broken relationships. The two rubrics belong together. However, I wonder if the church gets into trouble when the community rubric takes priority over the mission rubric.
When we face a conflict within the fellowship such as we currently are regarding homosexuality, it becomes a very different process if we place the priority of keeping “everyone together” at the highest level rather than asking first what is our “mission” as a church and how do we best serve that mission.
3. Those who claim to “hate the sin” but “love the sinner” should be challenged to show evidence of such love. In the course of our “conversation,” a number of times we heard sentiment expressed that it is essential that those who would not affirm same-sex intimate partnerships and would insist that same-sex attraction is a “defect” must nonetheless be very clear about their love for gays and lesbians.
It seems fair to ask for more detail on what this “love” might involve—and for evidence of its presence. What would this “love” involve—and who determines whether it is experienced as love? We would need to hear from the recipients of such “love” whether it is experienced as such. It seems to me we have cause to suspect that the sentiment expressed about the importance of love is more a rhetorical flourish than embodied practice. It would be good to have some evidence to counter this suspicion.
Part of the question is how much of a burden of proof have those on the restrictive side inherited due to our culture’s active hostility toward gay people—including the church. It seems legitimate to ask whether those on the restrictive side, if they truly do want to take seriously a commitment to love, might show their good will by suspending their voicing of opposition to gay Christians’ inclusion in the church—not because they would change their views but more out of respect for the generations of suffering visited upon gay people. Could the restrictive folks bracket their theological qualms for a season simply out of a desire to display genuine love and make a break with the violence of the past?
4. It’s important to get at least an acknowledgment of different “homosexualities.” Those arguing for the restrictive position tend to lump all same-sex sexual intimacy together into one category—often labeled “homosexual practice” (note the singular). However, it seems clear that we think in terms of various different expressions of heterosexual sexual intimacy, and we see significant moral differences between, say, sex within the context of marriage and promiscuous sex. How can there be major moral differences between the various “heterosexual practices” and not be similar differences between the various “homosexual practices.”
The unwillingness of those in the restrictive camp to acknowledge this distinction among “homosexual practices” (note the plural) needs to be challenged. So much of the argument used by restrictives depends on blanket critiques of all gays and lesbians. It is a much bigger challenge for the restrictive perspective to explain what is obviously immoral in the committed relationship between two Christian women than to critique the behavior of promiscuous gay men.
Besides the reality that accepting moral distinctions among various types of sexual behavior among homosexual people would make it more difficult to sustain the restrictive position, I also wonder if here is one place where we see evidence of a simple underlying bigotry against gays and lesbians. It is easier to sustain an “othering” dynamic if you fail to acknowledge parallels between “heterosexualities” and “homosexualities.”
5. Singleness needs to be part of our theology of sexuality too. During one discussion, a participant made the emphatic point that our theology of sexuality must also include singleness; it can’t be limited simply to the experience of married people. This is a challenging and important point. I confess to having failed to keep this element as part of my reflections. On the one hand, I want to argue for the importance of marriage and access to the life-affirming elements of healthy married life must not be denied to people whose primary attraction is to people of their same sex. Yet, I want to recognize and respect the experiences of single people. I haven’t done that enough. I am not clear how being more self-conscious of singleness would affect my thoughts, but I want to try to be so.
6. Self-consciousness about our reading strategy for the Bible is crucial—we should focus the most on the big picture. In my main argument (sketched in Portland Lecture #2), I think I miss the opportunity to be more explicit in describing what I see as the best approach for us to take in relating to the Bible. And, in fact, I even may undermine my approach by focusing so much on particular texts.
I think the meaning of the Bible (we could also say, the “authority” of the Bible) is found most profoundly in the overall story the Bible tells—a story with Jesus’ life and teaching at its center. That should be our starting point when we use the Bible for ethical discernment and guidance, and the most important level for using the Bible. So, my discussion of “hospitality” as a central theme in the Bible as a whole could be emphasized even more along with “God’s healing strategy” of calling a people to know God’s love and to witness to that love so that all the families of the earth might be blessed. Our ethics are most of all accountable to that big story, the work God is engaged in to use God’s people as a blessing for others.
Certainly the more specific texts provide the building blocks for articulating the big story, but their meaning (and authority) are found in relation to the big story, not in isolation from it.
That is, a debate about the meaning of a particular word in Leviticus 18 or 1 Corinthians 6 misses the point if we approach it as if it will be what determines our specific ethical stance.
I should have been more clear that my treatment of the particular texts in my lecture was not for the purpose of using them as determinative for our ethical decisions but rather for the purpose of deconstructing the restrictive use of those texts. Certainly there is an important debate concerning the meaning of those texts; however, the bigger debate is on the relationship between specific texts and the big story and how we make our priorities in using the Bible as a source for our ethics.
The restrictive approach (see the most egregious and influential work, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice) seems generally to understand the meaning and authority to lie in particular words (for example, the weight put on reading arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthian 6 as “homosexual practice” and thus as decisive evidence that all homosexualities are wrong). However, words find their meaning in sentences; sentences find their meanings in paragraphs; and so on—with the deepest, most profound, and most authoritative meaning being found in the book as a whole.
7. The centrality of healthy examples. In my presentations at Portland, I added a dimension that I had not focused on before. I spoke in both my main lectures of a real-life lesbian couple, “Ilse and Jennifer,” who seem to be a healthy embodiment of the life-giving possibilities of same-sex marriage. My idea was to link the discussion to real life people and real life consequences. Imagine these two sincere and faithful young Christian women–what are your bases for condemning their particular relationship and what would be the consequences for doing so?
Perhaps my use of this example did make the issue for real for some people, but it did not get much traction in the discussions. However, as I think more I feel even more strongly about the importance of my example. Most restrictive arguments focus on unhealthy relationships and seek to make the point that the “gay lifestyle” is self-destructive and undermining of society. However, the whole discussion will take on a different tenor if we instead focus on healthy relationships.
Certainly, if we were going to work at defining “heterosexual practice” as an ideal for Christians, we would focus on the healthy expressions of such “practice.” Isn’t it possible that we would have a different perspective on “homosexual practice” if we defined it in terms of its healthiest expressions?
8. How will change happen in the churches? I was asked by one participant whether I knew of any Mennonite congregations where a good, healthy, constructive process of discussion and discernment was occurring, a process that recognized and brought out the big differences and yet let to growth and respect and renewed commitment to the life of the congregation—unity amidst the diversity. I had to say no, I didn’t—and that in fact I have a hard time imagining how such a process could occur.
We talked about this; he pointed out that younger people as a whole don’t seem as certain about the wrongness of same-sex relationships. So we suggested that maybe change will happen in the churches not so much through direct processing, naming the differences, and finding ways to live together with the differences. Maybe it’s more likely that change will come simply by the change in generations—at some point we’ll wake up and realize that the churches are now inclusive.
As I thought about it more later, I decided that the likelihood of change by attrition and evolution does seem more likely than change by debate, discussion, and mutual give and take. This is a descriptive, not prescriptive, statement. I intend to engage in conversation and mutual reflection with people with different views as much as I can. And I will continue to work very hard at presenting my views in careful, respectful, and accessible ways. However, my perception is that this issue simply does not (and it’s hard to imagine how it ever could) lend itself to thoughtful give and take.
I perceived once again that for many on the restrictive side, the commitment to be non-welcoming to gays rests on deep-seated fears, views of God as judgmental and retributive, and other non-named (and likely non-recognized) dynamics.
What I have observed over the years is that many with restrictive views simply tend to leave when they feel like their views will not be predominant. So it would appear that the way things may well work out in Mennonite churches (and perhaps in the denomination as a whole) is that as long at inclusive people are in a clear minority, most people will stay in the churches. The inclusive people are more willing to accept not getting their way (at least in the short run). But when the critical mass shifts and the restrictive population moves more toward a minority status, more of them will leave.
So, probably the most likely scenario for Mennonite churches (and likely the denomination as a whole) becoming more inclusive is simply that inclusive people stay around and continue to voice their convictions, taking the opportunities that arise to act on those convictions. The inclusive people will tend to work hard to avoid alienating the restrictive people, but in time there won’t be many restrictive people left.
We will see, I suppose.