De-Escalating the Cycle of Fear

I have a particular fascination with the clash between the fundamentalist Christian worldview and the LGBT Christian community. You see, I grew up a fundamentalist Christian. By that I don’t meant that I grew up attending a fundamentalist church or that I was part of a fundamentalist household — although, of course, both are true. What I mean is that I grew up being fundamentalist to the core. It permeated my entire view of life, so I know that mindset from the inside out.

In the intervening years, my worldview has shifted dramatically, a process that started long before I came out even to myself. I still identify as Christian, but I recognize that I’m close enough to the margins of that tradition that there are many who would consider me apostate. Having now lived at both ends of that spectrum, I am able to hear these conversations through the filters of both sides. I can hear what each side is trying to say, I can hear what the other side thinks is being said, and I can live inside the emotional response that those messages trigger. The divide runs right through the center of my being, even when I agree with one side over the other.

Witnessing this clash from this divided perspective has highlighted one thing that both sides have in common that drives this conversation more than any other. This one commonality is fear—fear that often manifests itself as anger but that is still fear at its root. Unfortunately, fear is one of those emotions that grow stronger the more we fight against it and the more we fight against the feared “other.” The only way to defuse this fear is through the compassion that comes from understanding the fear of the “other” even as we disagree with their stance.

A fundamentalist’s fear

It’s easy to see how fundamentalists pose a threat to those of us in the LGBT Christian community. Their condemnation of us has driven us out of churches, pushed us out of families, denied us the ability to serve, and denied us our equal rights. For some of us, it has also cost us jobs, financial support, or personal safety. It can be harder to see how we could pose any threat to them given our minority status and the inequality we face on a regular basis, but the truth is that we pose a major threat to their faith as they understand it.

One of the strongest foundations of the fundamentalist mindset is the belief that any change to the faith as one has received it is tantamount to destroying Christianity altogether. It’s an all-or-nothing stance. For example, if one does not believe that the world was created exactly as it is described in the first two chapters of Genesis, then the entire Bible is worthless, and God ceases to exist. From the outside, it is clear that they pick and choose what to take literally and what not to, but from the inside, strict adherence to the way things were taught to them about what the Bible says and how the faith should be practiced is necessary not just to be saved from hell, but also in order for God to exist at all.

Given the rigidity of this mindset, it is easy to see how threatening we are to them. When we claim that God loves and accepts us just as we are, their version of Christianity has no room to bend to accommodate this claim. If they were to accept our claim that we are equal and acceptable in God’s eyes, it would mean that their faith as they received it is wrong. We would become the rock on which their entire belief system is shattered. The only way to hold onto their faith is to deny that we can be equal.

Many of us in the LGBT community have had to go through that process of having our faith shattered in the process of our coming out. Those of us who still claim a place within Christianity have managed to rebuild our faith in a way that is often stronger and more authentic than it was before the shattering occurred, but we also know those for whom this was not the case. The shattering of their faith was an end to their relationship with Christianity altogether. Those of us who have had our faith shattered know that this is not an easy process. Few, if any, of us would have voluntarily chosen to put ourselves through it except that we were forced to by the conflict between our self-identity and what was “acceptable” in the churches of our youth.

Yet our very existence as publicly LGBT and Christian challenges the fundamentalists we encounter to face that choice. By necessity, they must either deny our claim to be Christian and loved by God, or they must allow their faith to be shattered by our claim by admitting that the beliefs they were taught about us were wrong. There is no other option for them, and choosing to allow one’s faith to be shattered, not knowing whether it will ever come back together again, is not a choice that many will make without being pushed into it. This is the threat we pose to them, and this is the fear that underlies their response to us.

This threat and the resulting fear is the reason that we cannot convince them of the logic of our arguments. It is why they cannot let themselves be moved by the love they may have for us, the goodness they may see in us, or the health and integrity of the relationships we are in. To be persuaded of the truth of our claims, they must abandon their entire faith system and let it crumble to the ground without any guarantee that it can be rebuilt. That is what we ask of them when we ask for acceptance.

Our own fear

On the other hand, we all have had the experience of being condemned by our fellow Christians simply for being honest about who we are, and we all know just how unpleasant this can be. It’s not fun to be told that we are going to hell. It’s not fun to be told that we are broken and wrong and sinful because of the way we were made. It’s not fair that we are denied opportunities because of our gender or relationship orientations. It’s heinous that we are sometimes mistreated and abused because of who we are. It’s not surprising that we are fearful of those who not only treat us this way, but who can do so in God’s name with relative impunity because they are in the majority.

I’ve learned, though, that there are different layers to fear. The fear that we have of someone who is an external threat to us in some way is real and is directly proportional to the threat we face. But there is often a deeper layer of fear that magnifies the fear of the external when at some unconscious (or sometimes conscious) level we worry that they are right — that maybe we are broken or wrong or deserving of mistreatment or unlovable or unacceptable to God. It is those underlying inner doubts that are like throwing gasoline on a fire when it comes to our fear level.

Let me give you an example from my own coming out experience. Although my first awareness of my same-sex attraction happened when I was about ten years old, I managed to completely repress and deny this even to myself for many years while I was dealing with many other life issues that took priority. I began my process of coming out to myself in my late thirties, and this process of re-assessing and re-evaluating my entire life’s experiences in light of this new understanding about myself was a tremendous challenge to my self-identity and self-understanding. When I first started coming out publicly in my early forties, I experienced a great deal of unexpected rejection from the lesbians I knew because my story did not match an accepted narrative. I didn’t fit the mold and, as a result, was faced with distrust, rejection, and demands that I prove myself. These negative responses were both devastating and terrifying for me at the time.

In my fear, I became very cautious about outing myself to other lesbians and generally avoided them when I could (even though I was increasingly comfortable outing myself to straight friends). Over time, I realized that the overwhelming fear I was experiencing was not a fear of rejection — although the rejection was, of course, unpleasant — my real fear was that their assessment that I was not “good enough” to be a real lesbian since I did not fit the mold was accurate. My own self-identity was still struggling enough to catch up with the changes I was undergoing internally that their rejection triggered my own doubts that maybe I was somehow mistaken or confused and didn’t even know myself! As I’ve had the time to grow deeper into my own self-knowledge, I am more confident in my self-identity, and the rejection by those lesbian friends is no longer as threatening to me. It’s still unpleasant, and I’m still cautious about sharing my story with other lesbians for that reason, but the gut-churning fear is gone.

This parallels my reaction to the condemnation of fundamentalists. Here is another case where I don’t fit the mold of what they expect a “good Christian” to look like. When I am in a space where I am fully confident in my personal relationship with God, I find the pronouncements of fundamentalists on homosexuality to be annoying and ridiculous. I still get angry at the miscarriage of justice when it happens in the name of God, and I still fear nastiness or ugliness from those who believe that way when they find out who I am, but I don’t experience the kind of gut-wrenching, uncontrollable fear that comes from worrying that they are right.

When those occasional moments of out-of-control anger or gut-wrenching fear occur now, I’ve learned that my fear is not really of them or of what they are saying. Those are the times when some part of my childhood conditioning has risen to the surface and activated that deeper fear that my residual inner doubts about my own unworthiness and unacceptability are true. The only thing that effectively addresses my fear in those moments is stepping back and giving myself the self-compassion I need to re-discover and re-connect with the truth I know about myself and my relationship with God. In that space, the fear melts away because my inner doubts are silenced.

Softening fear with compassion

As I continue to sit in this space of witnessing the worldviews of each side, I see so much legitimate fear from everyone involved. Fundamentalists fear the destruction of their faith, which has no room to bend. LGBT Christians fear mistreatment, injustice, and condemnation for not living within the rigid molds that others have created for us. Those are all real fears, but those fears are causing us to be even greater threats to one another, which just escalates the cycle. The only route to softening those fears is through compassion for the fear that the other is experiencing.

As we are able to see fundamentalists through a lens of compassion, we can sympathize with their fear, even as we continue to work toward full equality and justice for all of us. We can recognize that their rejection of us is their attempt to be faithful in the only way they know how, even as we reject that understanding of God as accurate. As we treat our own fears with self-compassion, particularly those insidious inner doubts about our worthiness that we have inherited from our culture, we can clear away the deeper, unconscious levels of fear that can cause us to over-react in unhealthy ways while still being cautious about the real external threats that we face.

Through that softening of our own fear and the increased sympathy for the fears of those who oppose our equality on fundamentalist grounds, we loosen the chains of fear keep us bound and de-escalate the ever-mushrooming cycle of fear that can eat away at us. It sets us free to continue our work toward equality from a more open and less defensive place.