In a near sob, radio reporter Herb Morrison spoke these memorable words as the Hindenburg Zeppelin burst into flames and crashed, killing 36 helpless passengers in May of 1937. Somehow, the words seem appropriate today as we witness one teen suicide after another associated with anti-gay bullying. On an even greater scale, the suicides are merely the most extreme consequences of gay angst over self-identity and self-worth, borne of a bullying culture … “an oppressive and unjust reality in which every LGBT person is always and everywhere at risk of becoming the target of violence solely because of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
A recurring theme of recent posts here is the question whether individual Christians, congregations and denominations are “part of the solution or part of the problem.” This question, in turn, was triggered by the challenge of former ELCA presiding Bishop, Herb Chilstrom.
What will you say to your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and others in your churches when they tell you they are homosexual?
Although this blog is regularly visited by persons with distinctly differing viewpoints and opinions, few from the conservative side have offered even a meager answer to these questions. Pastor Tony from Wisconsin, a frequent commenter and an unofficial spokesperson for Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), tepidly offered the letter of a Pastor Sorum that has received quite a bit of blogosphere attention, mostly for its harsh judgments of the ELCA and ELCA clergy, but which also offered the following answer to Bishop Chilstrom’s question.
It may also be true that, in our present fallen condition, they experience sexual desire primarily toward those of the same sex and that this is not something they have chosen. But these feelings do not constitute an identity, to which they must conform. Instead, Jesus gives them their true identity as children of his Father and shows them the way of life in his Word. Perhaps that way will include sufficient healing for marriage to be possible. But if they must go the single way, then Jesus will be enough and more than enough for them and will fill their lives with love and every good gift. Sex, after all, is not the end-all and be-all of life.
This answer seemingly suggests the following points: a) being gay is not an issue of identity, b) proper exposure to the “Word” may result in changing the gayness (pray the gay away), but if not, c) gays must remain single and abstinent, and d) sexual intimacy is not an integral component of human love, anyway.
Ann, a regular commenter here, responded forcefully to Pastor Tony’s endorsement of this answer to the Chilstrom question. Ann said,
But we are talking about young people who are in such despair that they choose to take their own lives, or to harm themselves in other ways. Tony’s response is not one that helps the vast majority of LGBT youth, and that’s inexcusable to me. They deal with enough trouble without their churches adding to the problems they face.
For a lot of LGBT folks, the church is the single institution that condemns them the most, and destroys their self-worth the most. That makes me sad and angry because it doesn’t have to be that way. There are young gay and lesbian kids at my church who learn that they are God’s children and God loves them. What a gift that is.
Today, I came across a blog previously unknown to me, and I don’t know the background of the blogger, Cody J Sanders, but several comments echo Ann’s response. The post is entitled, “Why anti-gay bullying is a theological issue.” Here are several quotes from the post, which claims that many Christians, many congregations, and many denominations are, indeed, part of the problem—and not just the Westboro Baptist lunatics:
These suicides are not acts of “escape” or a “cop-out” from facing life. When LGBT people resort to suicide, they are responding to far more than the pain of a few individual insults or humiliating occurrences. When LGBT people complete suicide it is an extreme act of resistance to an oppressive and unjust reality in which every LGBT person is always and everywhere at risk of becoming the target of violence solely because of sexual orientation or gender identity. They are acts of resistance to a perceived reality in which a lifetime of violence and abuse seems utterly unavoidable.
While a majority of LGBT people may avoid ever becoming the victim of a violence, none will be able to avoid the psychic terror that is visited upon LGBT people with each reminder that this world is one in which people are maimed and killed because of their sexual and gender identities. It is this psychic terror that makes life so difficult for many LGBT people. It is this psychic terror that does the heavy lifting of instrumental, systematic violence. It intends to silence and to destroy from within.
Anti-gay bullying is a theological issue because it has a theological base. I find it difficult to believe that even those among us with a vibrant imagination can muster the creative energy to picture a reality in which anti-gay violence and bullying exist without the anti-gay religious messages that support them.
These messages come in many forms, degrees of virulence, and volumes of expression. The most insidious forms, however, are not those from groups like Westboro Baptist Church. Most people quickly dismiss this fanaticism as the red-faced ranting of a fringe religious leader and his small band of followers.
More difficult to address are the myriad ways in which everyday churches that do a lot of good in the world also perpetuate theologies that undergird and legitimate instrumental violence. The simplistic, black and white lines that are drawn between conceptions of good and evil make it all-too-easy to apply these dualisms to groups of people. When theologies leave no room for ambiguity, mystery and uncertainty, it becomes very easy to identify an “us” (good, heterosexual) versus a “them” (evil, gay).
If anti-gay bullying has, at any level, an embodied undercurrent of tacit theological legitimation, then we simply cannot circumvent our responsibility to provide a clear, decisive, theological response. Aside from its theological base, anti-gay bullying is a theological issue because it calls for acts of solidarity on behalf of the vulnerable and justice on behalf of the oppressed.
To those readers out there who generally disagree with this blog, I urge you to let down your defenses for just a moment and to stop arguing about who is right and who is wrong; about whether the church is following the confessions of the 16th century; about whether this Biblical interpretation is more accurate then that one; about whether you’re allowing reason, science and human experience to intrude into your sola scriptura; and ask yourself—quietly, studiously, prayerfully—and honestly–are you part of the solution or part of the problem?
Oh, the humanity!
Executive Director of the Religious Institute (a multifaith organization dedicated to sexual health and justice), Deborah Haffner, offers an op-ed piece in today’s Washington Post that resonates with the themes of this article. Thus, this post is updated to include several quotes from the Haffner piece with a link to the whole. In the first paragraph below, Haffner identifies the problem, and in the second, she raises similar challenging questions to those we have raised here:
All of us have teens and young adults who are gay or lesbian in our congregations, many who are suffering in silence and are at risk. A study done by my colleagues at the Christian Community, found that 14% of teens in religious communities identify as something other than heterosexual. Almost nine in ten of them have not been open about their sexuality with clergy or other adult leaders in their faith communities. Almost half have not disclosed their sexual orientation to their parents. And nonheterosexual teens who regularly attend religious services were twice as likely as heterosexual teens to have seriously considered suicide. We have known for more than thirty years that at least one third of all suicides to teens are to gay youth.
Our young people are dying because we are not speaking out for them. Ask yourself honestly, do the LGBT youth in your community know that you welcome and support them? How would they know? Would they come to you as their minister, rabbi, or imam to talk about these issues? Would a LGBT youth feel welcome in your faith community’s youth group? What have you done to make sure that these youth know they are loved and supported, that you understand that they too are God’s children?
Finally, Haffner issues a call to clergy to bravely speak to the issue, from their pulpits, this coming Sunday. Please read her full article and consider how you and your congregation may become part of the solution.