Thursday, June 4, 2009

Crisis: Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker on Gay Teens and the Churches

Last year, Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker published a valuable volume of memoirs of the adolescent struggles of gays and lesbians, as they sought to come to terms with being gay. This book, Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America (NY: Greenleaf, 2008) focuses, in particular, on the anguish that many LGBT teens experience in their church-communities.

The mainstream religious journal Christian Century has just published a noteworthy review of this book. The review is by David Gushee, professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, and an ordained Baptist minister.

Gushee minces no words about the conspicuous "moral failure" of the churches in their approach to gay persons:

As an evangelical Christian whose career has been spent in the South, I must say I find it scandalous that the most physically and psychologically dangerous place to be (or even appear to be) gay or lesbian in America is in the most religiously conservative families, congregations and regions of this country. Most often these are Christian contexts. Many of the most disturbing stories in this volume come from the Bible Belt. This marks an appalling Christian moral failure.
Gushee maintains that, while the churches ought to offer gay and lesbian youth the love and mercy Jesus models for us, they offer instead hate and rejection. He calls on the churches to recognize the accuracy of Gold and Drucker's analysis--that is, that the churches have produced a crisis, a crossroads, a moment of choice from which there is no turning back--for gay and lesbian persons. Gushee challenges the churches to deal with this crisis the only way they can do, if they want to claim Jesus as their moral exemplar: repudiate homophobic hatred and discrimination within the churches and in society at large; and work to eradicate such hatred and discrimination, in tandem with other groups seeking to move American culture beyond homophobia.

Gushee concludes, "[A]fter reading these stories, I feel that Christians have something they need to request from God and from gays and lesbians, and that is forgiveness."

And here's my own review, which I placed on the page for Crisis last November:

This is an extremely valuable book, particularly for communities of faith struggling with the request of gay believers for full inclusion, full communion, and equal rights within churches. The book documents well the tragically deformative role that religion often plays in the lives of LGBT persons, by fueling condemnation and often outright rejection or hatred.

In doing so, it provides a valuable reminder that religion can, and often does, play a different role in human life and human communities--a liberating rather than oppressing role. This study suggests that, in order for communities of faith to move from oppression to liberation of gay human beings, they must begin to know actual gay human beings--as human beings and not as stereotyped threats to Christian morality. The book's most important contribution is its first-hand accounts that permit people of faith to hear the stories of gay brothers and sisters and to see the faces of gay brothers and sisters.

Through all of the stories in Crisis there runs a common thread: the thread of shame, depression, isolation, overcompensation, and fear of rejection and failure that gay persons all too often encounter as we claim our identities in a culture (and in religious communities) that reinforce these negative self-images. The stories in Crisis document well the hard work required to sustain self-worth in a culture so unrelentingly negative, a culture in which the name of God is too often used to create obstacles to gay human beings claiming their identities.

As a number of the book's autobiographies suggest, in the uniquely religion-imbued culture of the United States, culture is often informed by religious assumptions and biblical citations, even when those making the assumptions and using the citations have little familiarity with religion. In this regard, there are strong parallels between the struggle of gay persons for liberation today and similar struggles in the past. As with the struggle to overcome slavery, racial segregation, or the subordination of women, gay persons have to deal today with oppressive norms that have been inculturated as religious norms, even when those norms have detached themselves from actual communities of faith.

In dealing with this social inculturation of quasi-religious norms demeaning gay human beings, communities of faith need to remember (by looking back on their response to slavery, segregation, and the subordination of women, for instance) that religion can sometimes be spectacularly wrong. It can end up on the wrong side of history, and of the liberating impulses of history.

Religion has the potential to be salvific, but it also carries the power to be demonic. Look at the Holocaust, burning of witches, Crusades, pogroms, slavery and how can one doubt this? This historical perspective ought to give churches that are certain today of their scriptural warrant for oppressing gay persons and for supporting that oppression in culture pause to think.

I found the Crisis chapters on the risks of being openly gay at work particularly important. Those risks clearly vary from profession to profession. As a theologian who has taught and done administrative work in church-sponsored colleges, I have learned that the churches may well be the last places in the nation to welcome openly gay employees.

There is, sad to say, a unique lack of shelter and welcome for openly gay persons within many churches and church-related institutions. It seems to me that, before communities of faith can call on society to treat gay human beings with respect and justice, they must set their own houses in order by dealing with their history of disrespect and injustice towards gay brothers and sisters--disrespect and injustice still apparent in the personnel policies of many churches and church-owned institutions.

In the final analysis, gay people may bring to the churches gifts that the churches refuse to accept at their own risk. As Crisis demonstrates, in a world in which children are often abused despite our culture's and churches' professed concern for the welfare of children, the gay community demonstrates an extraordinary concern for the well-being of bullied children. Despite the claim by many in both church and society that gay persons are anti-family and non-generative, gay persons can do an admirable job of sustaining families, and, in particular, of reaching out to assist children enduring abuse from peers.

This is a valuable and often unacknowledged contribution of the gay community to church and society. The book documents it well.