Let's Talk About Sexuality

August 21st, 2012

Ever since the President of the United States endorsed gay marriage in May the debate in our nation surrounding sexuality has intensified. It reached a fever pitch in late July when Dan Cathy, the COO of the popular fast food restaurant Chick-Fil-A, made a controversial statement that exploded into protests and hostile debate. After the past few months it would be difficult not to conclude that we are dangerously polarized as a nation in regards to how we view sexuality. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the debate on sexuality has taken a severe toll on the body of Christ leaving it so painfully divided that many Christians avoid talking about the issue directly. The tension surrounding this particular issue seems to point to a larger problem within the church of not knowing how to talk about sexuality in a healthy way.

The Problem

What is it about sexuality that makes it such a divisive and explosive issue within the church? Perhaps it is because sexuality is intertwined so deeply with how we understand ourselves. It certainly sits at the core of who we are as human beings and cannot be separated from our identity. To allow others to challenge or question our beliefs about how we understand sexuality is to place ourselves in a vulnerable position. Like a game of Jenga, we are afraid that if we allow this one piece, our understanding of sexuality, to be pulled away everything might come crashing down. 

Anxiety is present when people of faith are asked to reexamine their understanding of sexuality, especially when they have spent a large portion of their lives in congregations that demanded they view sexuality in one particular way. The invitation to engage in dialogue about human sexuality with differing perspectives is frightening for many Christians. Due to our resistance to speak openly about sexuality, I fear the church has left many Christians in a difficult position where they do not have the tools necessary to discuss how faith and sexuality intersect.

Besides a couple of sessions with the youth group discussing the dangers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, I don’t recall engaging in any serious conversation about sexuality in church until I arrived in seminary. Yes, it took me until I was in seminary to explore these questions from a faith perspective! My guess is that many others who have grown up in the church share a similar experience. The church gives very little help in assisting its faithful to make the connection between their sexuality and God. Unfortunately, many Christians are given an image of sexuality as a dangerous fire not to be played with unless they risk getting burned rather than an image of sexuality as a beautiful part of one’s self created by God that can be expressed in holy ways. It is unfortunate that we let the goodness of our sexuality be twisted into such an unhealthy burden for people to bear. 

The Damage

There are curricula on sexuality within the church that do offer those in the pews a healthy, balanced, and thoughtful perspective on sexuality, but I’ve found that unhealthy voices seem to still garner the most attention when it comes to shaping our sexuality in the church. As an adolescent, I remember a book that was popular called I Kissed Dating Goodbye written by a minister named Joshua Harris. It aimed to provide Christians a guide for dating and a biblical vision of marriage. This book was passed around within the church and given attention by many clergy and youth group leaders. Those who endorsed it believed it served as healthy advice on how to approach relationships and sexuality from a Christian perspective. In reality, it did very little to talk about relationships and sexuality in a realistic or healthy manner. 

The advice it gave to adolescents and young adults, like many other books in this genre, was to repress your sexuality as an act of faithfulness to God. This seems to be the preferred message that the church likes to fall back on when forced to talk about sexuality. The Puritan heritage in this nation has taught many of us to push down our sexuality like a beach ball underwater and use a great deal of our energy to keep it from coming to the surface. It does not take a mental health professional to figure out that this is dangerous. Anyone who has experimented with repressing any type of feeling or emotion knows that it might work temporarily, but that it will eventually come back to the surface, often in unhealthy ways.

Not only heterosexuals, but homosexuals are asked to do the same thing by the church. The church sends gay people a message loudly and sometimes subtly that they are not to express their sexuality in any way. They are to deny this part of themselves and keep it pressed so far down that it will never see the light of day. Perhaps many heterosexual Christians are so uncomfortable with the sexuality of homosexuals because they are uncomfortable with their own. They have been forced for so long to press down their own sexuality that they are terrified of the raw, powerful energy associated with it. The shame and disgust they perceive as being connected to homosexuality is really an expression of their own negative feelings toward their own sexuality. After all, it is easier to attempt repressing our sexuality than to embrace this transforming, life-changing gift that holds the power to make us not only vulnerable but also give us healing and wholeness.

If I am honest with myself I must admit that for many years fear and prejudice shaped my views of sexuality. The judgmental thoughts I harbored towards my brothers and sisters who are part of the LGBT community helped enforce the repression of their sexuality. These views were largely formed within the community in which I was raised that showed no tolerance for homosexuals. The environment that formed me made it clear it was unacceptable to be physically attracted to someone of the same sex; it did not matter if you were in school, church, socializing, or participating in athletics, the message was the same. I would dare say that I was also taught subtly to hate homosexuals. To my regret, I shared in these views for many years without second thought and showed no willingness to budge. I shared jokes that perpetuated prejudice against gay people and often referred to others as "gay" or "homos" to put them down.

It was not until college that I encountered a person who lived as openly gay. This person happened to be one of my fraternity brothers in college. He chose to be open about his sexuality during his freshman year. Looking back I am in awe of the courage he showed in coming out as a gay person in a community that largely rejected the idea. Unfortunately I did not see the courage in this at the time and I immediately cringed at the idea. While I never confronted him or said anything to his face, I made it known to others that I disapproved. I participated in the mean-spirited voices that rejected him. It is painful to look back on how judgmental and cold natured I was to this individual. At no point did I make an effort to get to know him or listen to his experience. How could I have treated him so poorly? Despite the fact that I disagreed with his sexuality I could have been more civil towards him. Even worse, I did not bother to ask how Jesus would have treated my friend. In the end I made no effort to show any compassion towards him, which my faith at the time obviously called me to do.

Two years ago I entered into marriage with a woman whose father was gay. Her life has been shaped in many ways by the experience of having a gay person as a parent. Sadly, he died in the 1980s at the hands of AIDS before awareness was raised about this awful disease. My deceased father-in-law was a victim of a culture that harbored even more irrational fears about homosexuality than we do today. Many people around him refused to listen to his experience. His story is a reminder to me of how desperate we are as human beings to find a place where we are accepted and loved. When we are forced to live on the margins because we are ostracized it tears us apart spiritually, emotionally, and physically. He was definitely not the first to be damaged at the hands of a hostile culture; an untold number of gay people have been rejected by the church, military, federal government, and other groups.

A Way Forward

It is safe to say that neither repressing our sexuality nor forcing our understanding of sexuality on others, like we have seen from both sides in the Chick-Fil-A controversy, is the answer. The level of conflict we are experiencing both as a church and as a nation is dangerous. Surely, we can all agree that the type of hostility that is being expressed towards one another is not in anybody’s best interest. It is time for real conversation. I am not talking about conversations where people fling Bible verses in each other’s faces or dismiss the other person as close-minded. The type of discussion that is needed within the church needs to be based in personal experience. If we believe in a living God who is actively working in this world then we essentially believe that God is working through our relationships with one another whether we are husband and wife, pastor and parishioner, friends, strangers or even enemies. As a Christian it doesn’t matter how much you despise those who see the world differently, you are called to acknowledge that they are made in the image of God and it is possible for God to speak through them.

What would happen if we made the effort to genuinely listen to the brothers and sisters that we disagreed with over the issue of homosexuality? In case you didn’t know, there are Christians who sit on both sides of this argument. This is not a war solely against the secular world. I know from my experience as a human being and a Christian that when I closely listen to those I despise or disagree with it never fails that I will eventually hear their own pain and struggle and in turn see their humanity. No longer is s/he the terrible person trying to ruin the world, rather, they are revealed as a broken person like myself who is in need of God’s love. I mention this because I feel our personal experience of sexuality is one of the most powerful things we can share in this current debate. It is a lot easier to hide behind verses of scripture and legal arguments instead of speaking openly and honestly about how we have experienced our own sexuality and then listening to the experience of others.

If we are to have an honest conversation about sexuality in the church that brings healing and lessens the polarization we now face, we must ask God to give us the courage to be honest with one another. I try not to throw stones at those who are anti-gay because I know that I’ve shared in the intolerance, hatred, and mean-spiritedness that has caused some much pain for my gay brothers and sisters in Christ. It was not until I was placed in a community that showed tolerance towards gay people that I began to listen to their stories. I heard in their voices individuals who were struggling to be true to God and themselves. Most days I find this is my struggle too. Only through listening to the experiences of people who are gay was I allowed to see the error of my ways and make the changes necessary to better align my life with the ways of Christ. Now I find myself with even a deeper understanding of the pain that gay people must endure due to the discrimination they face every day.

Now I look out every Sunday from the pulpit where I preach and see people who are gay sitting in the pews before me. Some of them are open about their sexuality and others are more reserved. I take seriously my role in creating a safe space for them because I am painfully aware of how much damage has already been done simply because the church refuses to listen to their experience. Because of this unwillingness to listen when it comes to sexuality, we have created a dangerous culture of repression in the church that prevents each one of us from fully embracing this gift God has given us. We all suffer from the silence. If we are to move forward we must begin by being honest with ourselves about the current abuse the body of Christ is perpetuating. For too long the church has swept this issue under the rug, squashed any resistance, and encouraged its participants to remain quiet. It is time for church leadership to find creative ways to have this conversation so that we might eventually open our hearts and minds to the leading of God’s Spirit. Maybe you feel overwhelmed thinking about the size and scope of this problem but remember there is one thing we can control in this situation and that is when the real conversation about sexuality in the church will begin. Are you ready to listen?

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