Katherine Unthank wants to apologize. She’s sorry for saying “you can’t be gay and Christian.”
“There are not too many published apologies out there from the conservative Christian side,” she told me during a recent interview. “Having lived there and made the journey out of that, to apologize for the violence that I did is important. People need to go back and say ‘I was wrong’ when they come face to face with God and recognize their own arrogance.”
Unthank’s apology for her words is the focus of her new book Riding Wild Horses Home: A Conservative Christian Apology. She takes the reader on her own journey, physically and spiritually, to make good on a promise to her friend Peggy, the woman she spoke those words to many years ago. In telling her friend, “you can’t be gay and Christian,” Unthank realized she committed and act of spiritual violence against her friend. It was a realization that was slow in coming, but come it did.
It’s as if from the moment I said to her, “If God ever shows me I’m wrong about that …,” God began putting me through what it would take from me to know I was wrong. For a soul as arrogant as mine, it took nothing short of spiritual rape. For me to be able to choose to keep my promise required a journey through that frozen darkness.
She takes us along on that journey through the frozen darkness, a darkness that kept her secure in her own arrogance … the arrogance of knowing. It took suffering her own spiritual violence in the church to realize she couldn’t decide for others who God was, or what God condemned.
“I don’t know whether you can or can’t be gay and a Christian,” Unthank said. “I know that in the name of Jesus Christ you can’t tell people they are not welcome at God’s altar. That’s all I know.”
Instead, we are advised to work out our own salvation with “fear and trembling.” This means making our own decisions about our beliefs, not just taking the church’s word for it.
“Jesus asks ‘who do you say I am?’ I challenge people: spirituality in the form of Christianity is this marvelous individual experience,” she told me. “You must have that personal revelation in Jesus. It’s ‘who do you say I am?’ not who Jerry Falwell or Kitty Unthank says I am. You have to do the work and lay aside everything else and come home to that personal knowledge.”
That groundwork is never easy, and it was difficult for Unthank. The book went through a first draft that her friends called “too technical.” Unthank realized she “had tried to write about spiritual rape in a detached, clinically professional sort of way.”
Her final draft is an eloquent, often funny and completely heart-wrenching recounting of her journey from “knowing” God’s will in all situations for everyone to a true revelation of a God that ultimately is unknown.
To gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons, her spiritual rape has a familiar ring. She was asked to stop leading the youth group because parents objected to her feminist views. The pastor told her she was having “unhealthy” relationships with the girls. She remained in the church for awhile afterward, but was shunned. “People I had known and worshipped with for years simply erased me. I ceased to exist.” She didn’t understand what the shunning meant and says she wishes she had gotten the message sooner, “before the church had to grab me by the throat, lift me to eye level and say, ‘Read our collective lips. You’re unhealthy and unacceptable. Go away.'”
Many gays and lesbians get the message sooner, leaving the church even before they get a chance to be shunned. Spared the experience, gays and lesbians can believe they’ve not been hurt by the church. However, Unthank says these people, too, have suffered spiritual violence and need to realize it, name it, and explore it. She hopes her book can be a first step for many on the road to healing their personal relationship with God.
“When a person can name the darkness, that in itself is light,” she emphasized. “It empowers someone to then begin to move forward. I hope this will help people name that wound.”
She also hopes many conservative Christians will read her book and see themselves in it, and the spiritual harm they do by turning their backs on people within the church. She wants her book to help those who do spiritual violence realize the error of their ways, and begin to heal the divisions that have left so many casualties on the spiritual battlefield.
“We’re commanded to love. That’s the bottom line,” Unthank emphasized. “If we say that Jesus Christ is the God we choose to serve then we don’t have a choice. I hope this book will be one thread in the tapestry that begins to build a bridge between the factions of Christianity.”
That bridge building will take time, as Unthank has learned. One Christian bookstore in Witchita, Kansas refused to sell her book to a woman who had ordered it, calling it “unsuitable.” The store even refused to return the book to Unthank. She wrote the store owner a letter and hopes he’ll read the book one day, and understand that it is this kind of arrogant Christianity that she is trying to end with her apology.
“I may be wrong,” she said with a determined tone, “but when I stand before the God of Jesus Christ and I have to be wrong on one side or the other of this issue, I would far rather err on the side of love and mercy and kindness than on the judgmental side.”
It is the time in her life when she chose that judgmental side that she wishes to apologize for … not just to Peggy, but to anyone who has suffered spiritual harm at the hands of a judging and arrogant, all-knowing church. Speaking as one gay Christian who still feels the pain of her own spiritual rape by the church: apology accepted.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.