When I began editing an interfaith newsmagazine, my interests naturally led me to write many articles on moral theology, and this in turn led me to write articles on homosexuality, a hotly debated subject among Christians. And after several months of reading much literature on the subject, written from all perspectives, I began to feel that I might want to speak to the gay Christian community, and in particular to those who are lay persons or clerics in pro-gay ministries.
I feel as though I have been selected to preach to the choir. I am sure that all of you reading this are far more knowledgeable about Christian teachings than I am, and that you have undergone far more of the trials that Christians must endure in order to pass through that narrow gate to salvation. C. S. Lewis said, however, that spiritual teachers come not to preach new doctrines, but to repeat old doctrines. With that advice in mind, I will proceed to discuss a New Testament passage that you have already memorized, and I will tell you what you already know.
The passage I have chosen comes from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, in which Jesus is giving his Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Now this, we can all agree, is the most difficult commandment Jesus left us. By comparison, subduing anger toward your brother and staying married to your spouse are child’s play. Even turning the other cheek is relatively easy; one can willingly endure evil while continuing to hate the person who does the evil.
I know that, in my own personal life, this is a commandment I have broken over and over again, so I will not try to explore how this commandment can be fulfilled on a personal level. What I would like to do in this essay is explore what the gay community can learn from this passage.
Let me start by looking at some excerpts from the writings of the gay community. These passages are not typical; I have taken them all from gay Christian literature, so they demonstrate more restraint and charity than is usual in gay publications. Here are a few of the passages that I have found:
On conservative Christians:
“Since the existence of gay and lesbian persons is an assault on two basic fundamentalist doctrines, the fundamentalists are driven to annihilate gay and lesbian people.”
On Courage, a traditionalist organization founded by Father John Harvey as a spiritual support group for homosexual Catholics:
“Courage is an anti-gay group which tries to persuade lesbian and gay Catholics to conform with official Church anti-gay teaching.”
On gay men and women who formerly took part in ex-gay ministries:
“Like the child who defends abusive parents and hides their bruises and scars or the gay/lesbian person who repeatedly goes back to an abusive partner, the abused gay Christian can develop a fatal attraction to abusive and oppressive religion to embrace and defend.” (This passage came from an article that was summarized by its author, a Christian minister, in this way: “An article about the homophobic religious drive of the ‘Ex-Gay’ movement to destroy homosexuals.”)
Now what is going on here? The immediate answer, of course, is that we are reading words written by men and women who have suffered much and will continue to suffer much from the work of what is sometimes called “the opposition.” But that, of course, is precisely the point of the passage in Matthew. We are given no commandment to love our friends; no such commandment is needed. Instead, we are told – the gay community in particular is told – that we must love those who hate homosexuality.
Let us look more closely at the word “homophobic.” Originally, I think, it was used by pro-gay writers as a useful way to describe those people who hate homosexuals. But it has come to mean those who hate homosexuality – or, to strip away the ambiguity, those who disagree with the writer about the morality of homosexual behavior. It is routinely used, for example, to describe people involved in traditionalist religious groups such as the ex-gay ministries.
As I said at the start of this essay, I have had a chance to peruse much literature in this area, and I have also had the great honor of speaking to people involved in both the pro-gay and the ex-gay ministries. I cannot claim to be an expert on either ministry, but if there is one fact that I am certain about, it is that the average member of the ex-gay ministries does not hate homosexuals. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Members of ex-gay ministries love homosexuals, love them with such passion and dedication that they are willing to sacrifice years of their lives in order to help homosexuals. Those members of the ministry who are themselves ex-gay feel as though they are men and women who have barely escaped drowning, yet they are willing to return to the water over and over again to save others who are drowning.
Of course, those who read this essay may argue that the ex-gay ministries themselves are causing the drownings. You may say, as one pro-gay woman said about an ex-gay man with whom she works, “Nobody doubts his sincerity; what worries us is that he is sincerely dangerous.” I will not debate which of your two ministries is right, for the matter is irrelevant. If those in the ex-gay ministry are indeed dangerous, if they are causing incalculable harm to the souls of hundreds and thousands of Christian men and women, if their actions are slowly causing their descent into hell – then, says Jesus, we must love them, and love them with as much devotion as God loves us.
Why? Why on earth should you love a person whose every thought and deed is focused to bring about what to your minds must seem to be illness and suicide and the destruction of souls? Christ has an answer for this as well: in the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, he says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven . . . For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Some time in your life you have sinned. It may be in matters unconnected with the gay community; you may have a tendency to boast too much or to lose your temper or to be slothful in fulfilling your duties. Perhaps you and other members of the pro-gay ministries are wrong about some small point of theology; history shows us that it is highly unlikely that any single religious group holds the full truth of God’s revelation. Or perhaps – it is a possibility that cannot be dismissed out of hand – perhaps you are entirely wrong about homosexuality. Perhaps your sexuality is not a God-given gift; perhaps it is a warped desire, and you are sinning in allowing yourself and others to give in to that desire.
Or perhaps not. This is not a question to which I know the answer, and even if I did, I do not believe that the answer would be as important as the central issue raised by the Gospel passage. For even if the time comes when the Church sees clearly the truth about the morality or immorality of homosexuality, other issues will continue to be debated. We see through a glass darkly, and so we must always have charity toward those who see differently.
In November 1997, I attended the semi-annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Outside of the meeting were two demonstrations, one by the Catholic gay organization Dignity and one by the Roman Catholic Faithful, a traditionalist group that fears and opposes changes in traditional Catholic teachings on homosexuality. A member of the latter group told me that his people were protesting out of love. He spoke these words only a few hours after the Most Reverend Anthony Pilla, president of the NCCB, said the following words to his fellow bishops:
“Reconciliation not based on the truth, however difficult the truth may be to accept at the moment, will not be full and lasting reconciliation. At the same time, the truth must be spoken in love. In this sense, even with issues of doctrine, we must try to talk not across a chasm but side by side. At a minimum, wherever there is a sincere desire to respect the Gospel, there is no room for the angry voices and the violent language about which I have already spoken. Some would claim that Jesus himself said that he came to bring not peace but the sword and that Christianity has a long tradition of polemics, going back to the New Testament authors. However, until we are as perfect as Jesus or as inspired as the authors of the New Testament, the better guide for us is the painful history of the divisions among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. This history has taught us the damage done by allowing authentic theological disputes to mushroom into personal and communal hatreds. . . . Similar hatreds . . . have no place, on the threshold of the new Millennium, among us who wish to enter it proudly proclaiming ourselves Catholic.”
These words, you will note, were aimed at those holding to traditional teachings. It is true that the traditionalists have much to atone for; original sin is not confined to any one party. But I am writing here to encourage you to look at the motes in your own eyes. As a start for that self-examination, I would like to ask you the following questions:
During your religious services within the gay community, have you ever prayed for the people of the local ex-gay ministry? Have you prayed for them, not only in hope that God will save their endangered souls, but in genuine thankfulness for the love and dedication and sacrifice that they have given to the Church over the years? Have you asked God to forgive you for your hardheartedness toward traditionalists, for your willingness to fling epithets such as “homophobic” in a willy-nilly fashion, for your blindness in recognizing those truths that traditionalists teach?
Some of you, I know, will be able to answer Yes. One of the most encouraging stories I have had the pleasure of covering is the growth of religious groups that strive to break down barriers between traditionalist and progressive movements. One such group is Bridges Across the Divide, a Web organization founded by a P-FLAG member and an ex-gay man. Meanwhile, in Canada, the traditionalist group of Fidelity and the progressive group of Integrity/Toronto have joined together under the auspices of the Anglican Bishop of Toronto in order to discuss peacefully their differences and their common ground. These and similar groups try to find a way for opponents to reach out to each other in charity – caritas, agape, the love that God has for us.
Such love is not easy. You, who have suffered far more than I ever will, may believe that this essay should never have been written by one who has not endured the particular pains undergone by members of the gay community. I agree; I would far rather have seen this essay written by one of your members than to have written it myself. I am painfully conscious of how little I have suffered in comparison to you. But I am not writing to represent myself; I am writing to remind you of the wisdom of Christian teachings, which transcends anything that even the greatest saint can know.
And so, with that in mind, I would like to address myself to one of you in particular: the person reading this who has suffered the most. I don’t know who you are, but I can guess at your story. You spent your teenage years sickened with fear and guilt, learning through the teachings of your family and your society and your church that your sexuality marked you as a sinner destined for hell. Isolated, perhaps, from the larger gay community, you sought love in the only place you could find it: through fleeting sexual encounters arranged at the local gay bar. Unfortunately, you lived in a state where such encounters were not safe, and one day you were arrested for sodomy. Then your doom truly came. You lost your job, your family ousted you from their midst, your pastor refused you Communion because you were, in the words of my own church’s prayer book, a “notorious evil liver.” Your friends, who claimed to support you, found excuses not to visit you, or worse, they invited you to parties and introduced you to everyone as “our gay friend,” appointing you as their token homosexual. And then, one day, you received notice of the test results, and you hired a lawyer to prepare your will.
Amidst all the darkness of your life, one glimmer of grace remains: you have finally found the partner you sought, someone who will stay with you to the end and whose love is for you the sacramental sign of Christ’s love for the Church. And today, as you began preparing a festal dinner for your fifth anniversary, your partner came and told you that he has been meeting with a member of an ex-gay ministry, and that that person has persuaded your partner that he should break away from his sinful life and leave you forever.
Now what can I say to you? To some extent, all of you share this story; to a large extent, I do not. Speaking at this moment as a lay representative of the Church and in full humility of my own sinfulness, I find that I must say these words to all of you, and in particular to the person whose story I have just told: You have suffered very little. And as proof of this, I open the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke and I find these words written: “And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.'”
Jesus Christ, the second Person of the unchanging and unsuffering God, allowed himself to be mocked and flogged and tortured by men and women like us, and he not only forgave his enemies, but he loved them and he died for them. The rest of us, who have suffered so little, can do no less.
Heather Elizabeth Peterson is the editor of Greenbelt Interfaith News.