Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gays in Churches: Challenge of Difference and Otherness

There’s been a fascinating discussion at several blog sites (here and here) this week of data which suggest that gay Christians continue not simply to belong to churches, but to believe, at surprisingly high levels, despite the viciousness of many churches towards gay persons. The first of the two links above is to an article by David Gibson at Politics Daily, which sparked this discussion.

Gibson summarizes polling data provided by pollster George Barna, whom Gibson describes as “a Bible-believing, born-again Christian,” which shows 70 percent of gay adults identifying as Christians, and 60 percent reporting that faith is very important in their daily lives.

Gibson notes as well that though Barna’s research suggests gays keep a low profile in the churches they attend, research of Scott Thuma, a sociologist of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, suggests “that gays and lesbians who are involved in their churches and denominations are often more committed to the church and more involved in ministry than their straight brethren.”

What to make of these findings? As Gibson notes, it’s possible gays cling to church affiliation of some sort and to active church involvement for the same reason other churchgoers do: church is home and family, a place to find acceptance and affirmation, as well as opportunities to give oneself and one’s gifts in service to others.

It is possible, too, Gibson thinks, that gays and lesbians are drawn to active involvement in faith communities because “the Christian journey of forgiveness and redemption and acceptance resonates deeply” with many gay believers. We know what it is to be hurt, excluded, demeaned, overlooked.

For many of us, that becomes an incentive not to do the same to others, but to work to build communities that make such inhumane treatment of anyone less thinkable. And the struggle of gay and lesbian Christians to integrate a core aspect of themselves stigmatized as abnormal by the social mainstream—their sexuality—with their spiritual life may make many gay believers adept at helping others negotiate barriers to self-respect and self-integration, and at helping others find authentic spirituality.

Above all, many gay and lesbian believers hang on with our fingernails in homophobic churches—and sometimes even engage in active ministry within those churches—because we refuse to allow homophobic people and homophobic social structures to determine who we are. For those of us who believe, our personal worth and integrity as human beings is grounded in the certainty that we are who we are because God wills us into being and loves us as we are. As Gibson says, “Perhaps the simplest and most convincing explanation for the dedication of gay Christians is found in their very high, and highly orthodox, view of the theology of human dignity -- that God created them as they are.”

And, of course, these sociological realities—the surprising continued active affiliation of many gay and lesbian people with faith communities, despite the overt homophobia of many of those communities—create tension within churches. What to do with those who will not go away, and whose very being, whose presence in the worshiping, ministering community, causes dismay to some of their brothers and sisters?

I’m intrigued by the reaction to a summary of Gibson’s article that Jesuit Rev. James Martin has placed on the America website. The second link provided above leads to that summary.

What strikes me in the response of a number of the ardent Catholics who have posted comments about Gibson’s article and Martin’s summary of it is this: for some Catholics, the very existence of gay and lesbian persons—the presence of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion—poses a seemingly insuperable quandary. At a fundamental level, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ would simply like us to go away, those of us who are gay and lesbian.

Our being there is the problem, even more than our being gay. Our being there and being gay, and our refusal to apologize for or conceal our identity, is the problem. The problem we create simply by being there—by existing—for many of our brothers and sisters is the problem of confronting otherness and difference where they do not wish to confront otherness and difference: in church; in their church.

I am convinced that many people see church as a way of escaping from the challenge to deal, on an ongoing basis, with difference that presents a challenge to them. What many believers seek within churches is an enclave of other like-minded, like-skinned, like-thinking, like-educated people with whom to feel comfortable.

For many churchgoers, church and the experience of going to church is about affirming that the world—their world—continues to make sense, when the broader world appears to be falling apart. The self-identity of many churchgoers is built around the assurance that, when all outside symbols of authority appear to be crashing to the ground, at least one thing remains certain: the Bible. God. The authority of pastors. The Truth proclaimed by the magisterium. The catechism and the creed.

For believers with this mindset (and they are strongly represented throughout the Christian world today), the very existence of gay and lesbian human beings produces a painful quandary in the place in which those believers are most intent on avoiding quandaries. The very existence of gay and lesbian human beings, and our presence in the churches (which, after all, tend to attract everyone because they profess to welcome everyone) is a painful reminder that the world is a constantly insecure, incomplete place.

There simply is not, anywhere in the world, the kind of absolute authority and absolute certainty to which we can give ourselves with infantile devotion in the way some Christians want to give themselves to the Bible, or the pope, or the Truth, or the magisterium. Life does not work that way. Never has.

And faith is not about finding a big father or mother to take over our lives and make all the decisions for us. It’s about giving ourselves in an act of radical uncertainty to a God who leads us into the wilderness, on pilgrimage, to places we do not expect to go.

I can understand why many of my non-gay brothers and sisters do not want me or my kind in their churches, even as they place signs outside the church door proclaiming that all are welcome. I can even sympathize with the struggle that my very being—my unapologetic being, my being therecreates for those who go to church in order to be reassured that their world makes sense.

What I can’t do is to become someone else, or to deny who I am, since who I am is God’s precious gift to me, and my world falls apart when I try to pretend I am someone else. And so I have come to think of church differently than many of my fellow Christians appear to think of it.

I’ve come to believe that, while we hanker to avoid disturbing encounters with those who are different and other, God may think differently than we do about such matters. I’ve come to think that maybe the point of life—and of being together in faith communities—is precisely to learn to live with those who are different, who make us uncomfortable and raise uncomfortable questions about the "truths" we take for granted.

And I’ve come to believe that maybe the Spirit keeps sending those uncomfortable others into our midst as a gift to us, to invite us to open our hearts to a God who is, after all totally Other. And whom we perhaps cannot welcome and encounter effectively until we open spaces in our hearts for our brothers and sisters who seem so alien to us.