Thursday, October 31, 2013

Your True Worth: On Cowardice and Bravery in the Church

One of my parishioners received a long four-page letter from his brother, a Roman Catholic, condemning his decision to get married to his partner. I wrote the following letter to my parishioner when he forwarded the letter on to me. 

With his permission, I'm reposting the letter here, knowing that what my parishioner is going through is not abnormal in our world and in the church. I have removed their names, but the rest of the letter remains as it was written. The bulk of the letter is responding to the various arguments his brother threw at him. I am not, of course, posting his brother's letter, but given what I say, you can probably get the gist of what he was told. My letter may be a bit disjointed in argument, but that is because I was trying to respond point by point to his brother's argument.

Know this above all else whoever you are and wherever you come from: you are immensely beloved of God and a decision to enter a covenanted relationship with a parter, whether the same gender or the opposite gender, is always a brave and courageous decision to give yourself. It is all the more brave when your blood family rejects you because of it. 

Dear _____,

This is a heavy letter and we can absolutely talk about it on Thursday. Let me just give some of my responses to the points he makes. Know, above all, that I support you and your partner and believe what you are choosing is indeed God's calling for your life. I applaud your courage and integrity.

Brothers and Men / Homosexuality in Today's Culture
Both men and women are indeed sexual beings. However, I fundamentally disagree with your brother that the ending point of sexuality must always be procreation. If he believes that, then he would also have to affirm the other tenets of that position: (1) any form of conception is immoral and (2) couples that are infertile should not have sex. I doubt he holds those beliefs. As our Prayer Book says, the union of two people "in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord." Procreation of children can be a part of a sexual union, but few heterosexual people place that absolute requirement on opposite-sex relationships—a tremendous hypocrisy.

Furthermore, repeated studies have shown there are no adverse affects of same-sex couples adopting and raising children. That is a choice some infertile opposite-sex couples make and is a wonderful choice for a same-sex couple as well. Indeed, studies show that children thrive in two parent households—without regard to them being same or opposite-sex. At the same time, having children is not a requirement of opposite-sex relationships and it is remarkably unfair to say it is so essential to sexual intimacy that without the possibility of procreation a couple should not be together, be they opposite-sex or same-sex.

Also, on the science claims, it's also very clear scientifically that a small percentage of several animal species have same-sex relationships. It's not chosen, it's simply a physical reality. Humanity will not come to an end because this is only a minority of the species in any species. To say that it is "unnatural" shows a complete disregard for what we actually know about nature.

And here is where I really disagree with him: the choice to be in a covenanted relationship with your partner is not a selfish choice. It is choosing to take responsibility for another human being, to covenant yourself to him. Promiscuity with no commitment is the selfish "all dessert and no dinner" choice so common in our culture. Any couple that chooses to covenant, that chooses responsibility to be a part of sexual intimacy is a couple that is choosing the self-giving, responsible path. Your choice to covenant your life with your beloved is a choice that affirms him, one in which you will promise to support him, one in which you will affirm a willingness to lay down your life for him. And just like any opposite-sex couple that makes that choice, this self-giving act is expressed in sexual intimacy. And that is beautiful.

Also, it is hugely disingenous for any Christian to tell another Christian they have to be celibate for their entire life. As a whole, Protestant Christianity since the Reformation has resisted forcing celibacy upon a class of people. That is why we do not require celibacy for priests in our tradition. Some people are indeed called to a celibate life, but the church traditionally understands that as a charism of the Holy Spirit discerned in community. It is never enforced upon a class of people (i.e., priests or homosexual persons). For a heterosexual Christian, who because of his attraction is free to choose to find a mate and be married to tell a homosexual Christian to "man up and take your cross" is, forgive the language, utter bullshit.

And the idea that two adults choosing to commit to one another in a life-long commitment is the same thing as bestiality is so foolish I will not even honor it with a response.

The question is what will be the calling of the church to gay and lesbian people? Will we tell them they have to be celibate, even though we do not require that of any other class of people? Will we tell them to change, even though science has shown how immensely harmful that is? No, we will invite them into faithful, covenanted, relationships, knowing that the power of sexual intimacy for healing our souls is most fully experienced in a covenanted relationship with another person. And inviting people to do that, to get married, in a culture like ours that often despises commitment, is profoundly counter-cultural. That invitation into covenanted relationship is the one the church should issue boldly and proudly.

The Church's Position and Your Family
First off, I would encourage your brother to dig deeper. In particular, I would commend to him Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church by Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is a professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory and is one of the most well-respected biblical scholars in North America. He is also an active Roman Catholic and a former Benedictine monk. In Scripture and Discernment he not only criticizes the traditional interpretation offered by your brother, he also offers a different approach to interpreting Scripture more faithfully, one that served as the basis for the Episcopal Church's articulation of why we fully affirm gay and lesbian Christians in our church, as we described that in To Set Our Hope on Christ.

The Scriptural argument is nowhere near as clear or persuasive as he argues it is. His entire argument is based on six—six—passages of Scripture. The argument has nothing to do with understanding the historical context of those texts—or even paying attention to how Scripture itself interprets them. The most glaring example is that in the question of the sin of Sodom. Ezekiel 16 says clearly that it was excessive food and indifference to the needy. Isaiah 1 says it was injustice, and urges those who would learn from Sodom to "learn to do good, seek justice, and rescue the oppressed." It's only in modern times that people thought the story was about homosexuality. And, to be clear, Sodom and Gomorrah is a story about proposed gang rape. To say it condemns faithful, committed, monogamous relationships is ridiculous. I've preached twice on this specific question (The Sin of Sodom in 2010 and Worthless Worship in 2013).

If he wants to look more closely at those six tiny passages of Scripture—six passages that are wildly and poorly interpreted by people with his view—I'd commend the following short essay on the Bible and Homosexuality. And if he wants to know just how angry it makes some of us clergy to watch the Bible manhandled into a tool for hate and discrimination, something that has led to untold suffering and countless suicides, then I'd encourage him to read this essay and know that, like the author, for me this is not simply an intellectual question.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies with a minor in Biblical Languages, summa cum laude. I hold a Master of Divinity received with Academic Honors and straight A's. I hold a Master of Sacred Theology that resulted in a book published by a peer reviewed academic press. I will argue Scripture with him on this any day of the week and twice on those days when a gay or lesbian person sits in my office crying because of the horrible things people in the church have said to them.

Indeed, even the current Pope has some strong words for those who seem so focused on the question of homosexuality...

And your choice to oppose the Catholic Church and her teaching on this matter is not, as your brother says, an act of cowardice. It is an act of immense bravery to stand up to that venerable institution and say "I am not who you say I am. I am a beloved child of God, worthy of the grace present in covenanted sexual relationship with another person." It is an act of immense bravery to stand up and refuse to let that church tell you how disordered you are.

And your presence in the Episcopal Church, the sacraments you receive here, the challenge you hopefully receive here to be a better person, to more fully conform yourself after the mind of Christ, I hope that it is a gift to you. Because you presence here and your partner's presence here is an immense gift to us. You don't need to be welcomed by the Church. We need to be welcomed by you and forgiven for a history of cruelty and selfishness in our treatment of gay and lesbian Christians.

Your brother is right that the incarnation of Christ, that his Real Presence in the sacramental bread and wine are profoundly powerful realities. However, he seems to miss the fact that part of the importance of the sacraments is that they teach us the way that matter can be an avenue of God's grace. The grace of marriage is experienced in a particular way in the marriage bed, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says in The Body's Grace, in one body's delight in another, a delight that requires covenanted relationship to be healing and not harming. Indeed, as Williams says in that same article, it is tragic that this focus on homosexuality has made so many blind to the very real perversions and dangers that can happen in heterosexual relationships.

Finally, though your brother hurtfully and cruelly says he sees such wickedness in you, that "all of this has left a bad taste in my mouth," know this: I see Christ in you. I see Christ in your partner. And I see Christ's self-giving love for the church in your willingness to commit your life to your beloved, particularly in the face of such un-Christian abuse from your family.

You inspire me.

Through Grace,