I won’t ever forget my cowardice. It was fostered by a thousand small decisions to turn away from pricks of conscience, little warning signs that all was not well in my beloved denomination.
One of my favorite classes in seminary was a difficult, small class. The few brave souls who volunteered for this academic endeavor sat around a table with the professor, and we talked about Old Testament Law. Together we dissected the minutiae of the Hebrew text, disagreed with each other about the meaning, drew comparisons with parallel texts, and tried to understand the minds of ancient Hebrews and what they knew of God.
I loved every minute. It was just the type of intense Bible study I craved. In our discussions I was bold, at times contrarian, and always searching for the strand of justice that I began to see running through this ancient text.
I was thrilled with the dawning understanding that even seemingly restrictive texts were bringing justice and healing for vulnerable people. We saw how the law improved the lives of women and slaves, not as much as we have today, but certainly more than the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern nations.
Sitting here, at this table, with these people, holding my own—it was thrilling. I loved the professor. He was and is kind, intelligent, and willing to learn and grow from his students even after decades of study. I was with my people and in my element. This, if anywhere, is where I wanted to be appreciated, where I wanted to shine.
“A Man Shall Not Lie with a Man”
It was bound to happen. One day we began talking about the dreaded verses in Leviticus. “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” In everyone’s opinion, these verses turned out to be verses that had no nuance. Our professor explained how the restriction could be applied to women as well a men, but that was the limit of understanding beyond the literal. These texts, far from being more liberating than other nations, were more restrictive. They were clear. Important. Undeniable.
Then he started talking about a friend from college. I don’t remember the exact words, but I’m not exaggerating to say it was something like this: “He got caught up in the whole gay lifestyle. He left the church and God completely, had hundreds of sexual partners, was always at gay clubs, developed health problems, and it was decades before he finally returned to God and gave up homosexuality. Homosexuality is a dangerous thing, and God has no tolerance for it.”
I sat there stunned. He doesn’t understand at all. He doesn’t realize that there are countless queer people living out their sexuality in committed relationships, raising families, and generally being stable and healthy. Here is the man who literally wrote the book on sexuality in this church, and he doesn’t know the first thing about queer people. He has accepted and is perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.
A response rose in my mind but died before it reached my lips. I wanted to speak out, but I didn’t. I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know I was attracted to women.
Confronting My Selfishness
An unexpected lesson I’ve learned in all of this is how much more selfish I was than I ever thought. I used to think it would be selfish to do what I wanted to do, pursuing relationships with women. Before I pushed it down deep into the recesses of my psyche, dating women seemed so right to me. In my mind, selfishness would be giving into these desires.
I’ve since realized that my true selfishness lie in another direction. There were a million little domesticated selfish decisions in my religious life.
This story is an example. I should have spoken up. It was a difficult position. I was already afraid that people would think I was gay, how much more so if I appeared to know something about gay people? Yet it was one of hundreds of acts of self-preservation. Some were less innocent.
Even before I acknowledge my own queer identity, when I was trying desperately to label my attractions to women as simply feelings that had nothing to do with identity, I was still acutely aware of the lack of compassion in the church. I couldn’t get my conscience to shut up about it. I worried that we were wrong, not just about LGBT people, but about our approach to scripture.
One thing stuck with me from that class, and it disturbed me. In each discussion we had to find a strict biblical argument to justify unjust laws, such as those about slavery. It was implicit that our goal was to show that unjust laws were accommodations to move people in the right direction, even if the laws didn’t get them all the way there.
We used a small arsenal of theological tools to accomplish this, but one argument that was never used was simple human compassion. No one ever said that slavery was wrong because it hurts people and is incompatible with a loving God. We seemed to be missing the forest for the trees.
Why were we all Christian in the first place if it wasn’t for the teachings of Jesus to have love for all? It bothered me. The whole thing bothered me. Why did we care more about these tools than we did about people?
But I still wanted a seat at this table. I’d worked so hard to be here. In in my selfishness I labeled these pricks of conscience “doubt.” This turned out to be a useful label for dismissing compassion.
Looking back it’s clear that those things that became unquestionable in my mind turned out to be all the things it was most convenient for me not to question. Those questions could cost me any chance at a job. Later when I was hired as a pastor, they could quickly get me dismissed.
If I paid too much attention to the wrong hurting people, the one’s the church was uncomfortable talking about, and if I cared about them too much, spoke about them too much, or even changed the way I thought about what behaviors are and aren’t sinful, I would be putting myself at risk. The loss could be devastating.
So I didn’t question. Now that I have stepped forward, now that I have lost all those things, I can see my former doubts for what they were. Selfishness. Plain, simple, naked, selfishness. It caused me to abandon the ones Christ cared for the most all the while calling myself a Christian minister. I got so much out of hanging out with the 99 sheep that were never lost that I didn’t care about the 1 sheep we were not only leaving behind, but banishing from our midst.
The collective behaviors of the ministers and leaders of churches, of which I was one, are causing more suffering than I cared to admit. I was also far more culpable than I let myself believe. It’s easy in large organizations to disperse the guilt to everyone but yourself, thinking you’re better, you’re different, you’re balanced and reasonable.
The true extent of my knowledge and compassion was that I sometimes felt guilty, and in my attempts at better understanding I had read two books on the subject. They were both non-affirming opposed. How I could be so selfish? The answer is terribly simple. I wanted to belong.
Already, I have had people dismiss my views on same-sex relationships because of my own orientation. The accusation is that I’m selfish. I just want to do what I want to do. I’m sure I am many things, and I’m sure I have lots of ways I need to grow, but affirming my sexuality and the sexuality of other LGBT people is a sign of spiritual growth, and doing so was not a selfish act.
Losing my career, risking loss of family, testing every relationships that has sustained me from my childhood, and becoming an outsider in the church I’ve spent my life serving was the cost I paid. I paid it gladly because I saw I pure vision of God, the gospel, and compassion. It gave me great joy, enough to sell all I had to attain it. It was not selfishness. Selfishness kept me in the closet for years, and it was compassion that finally brought me out.