Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Orientation vs. Addiction

Ex-gays often compare homosexuality to alcoholism, in order to demonstrate a moral point.

"An alcoholic can't reverse his alcoholism. But that doesn't make it okay for him to drink."

The comparison is as inapt as it is offensive and annoying. Homosexuality is, plainly, not an addiction, and shouldn't be seen as one.

1. Whereas alcoholics, by definition, are addicted to drink, not all homosexuals are addicted to gay sex, entrapped in "the lifestyle", or obsessively immersed in gay thoughts and fantasies.

2. To be an alcoholic, one must already be addicted to alcohol. This is plainly not the case for self-identifying gays. Aaron Taylor (in response to comments on a post of his) puts it perfectly:
Hmm. There are plenty of gay Christian virgins, but probably no alcoholics that never drank a drink, or porn addicts that never looked at porn.Sex can be an addiction. Sexuality can’t, I don’t think.
I would add that many individuals who self-identify as gay confess they were aware of their orientation at early age, sometimes well before puberty, certainly before any sexual activity later in life. And of those who only discovered they were gay later in life, plenty choose to remain celibate. To liken either group to drunkards is to misrepresent them grossly: it unfairly stigmatizes the innocent (in both cases, but especially that of prepubescent gays), while dismissively downplaying the efforts and commitments of the faithful (in the case of gay celibates).

3. The rehab treatment/support group culture attached to alcoholism doesn't readily lend itself to the situation of many gays. Unfortunately, though, this is essentially the model used by ex-gay ministries like (by what was formerly) Exodus International. Homosexual orientation, on this picture, is a problem that needs to be mitigated, controlled, managed. Hence, the euphemism of "unwanted same-sex attractions" (a mouthful compared to the easier "gay celibate"). This is what comes to mind for many conservative evangelicals who are faced with having to deal with gays in the Church: they reference them to a local ex-gay ministry. 

One of the first things I was recommended, when I finally came out to a church leader back in college, was to join a "Celebrate Recovery" group. Naturally, I was confused. What did I have to "recover" from? I never asked, but my best guess (today) would be that he was presupposing the conventional ex-gay wisdom of the time that a developmental model of the root causes of homosexuality was largely correct, and therefore my homosexual tendencies, which owed their origins to some sort of family-of-origin wounds, were in need of healing (a process, I suppose, succeeded by "recovery").

4. A "rehab" attitude toward homosexuality casts it in purely a negative light. Alcoholics see alcohol as their demise--a reminder of old hurts and mistakes, a continuing source of temptation, and a likely cause for relapse. There is nothing good about their addiction; only bad. This sort of hatred for the object of one's addiction, when applied to homosexuality, can only produce internalized homophobia--hatred of one's own sexual preferences. Taken to heart, this erodes one's sense of self, of which orientation is an undeniable part. Perhaps the only positive thing that can be said about it is the opportunity it presents for further growth and sanctification: how it enables God to work through one's weakness. I'm not denying that this is a very real and important aspect of the experience of many gay Christian celibates, who do see their homosexuality as their "cross to bear" or "thorn in the flesh": the means of their sanctification. I don't think we have to see it that way, however. And to see one's homosexual desires as just that, in my judgment, is a rather limiting view. I much prefer the idea (articulated here) that one's homoerotic attractions need not express themselves sexually, but can nevertheless enrich one's friendships and enable one to love those around him in a deeper, fulfilling way.

True, some Christians who "struggle with same-sex attractions" liken themselves to alchoholics, insofar as they desire something they know to be ungodly and immoral, just as many addicts drink despite not wanting to. But this is true of plenty of other situations, like those wanting to leave an unhealthy relationship but stuck out of fear of change; or those finding it nearly impossible to break away from their involvement in certain cult groups, given how heavily invested they are. To fixate on this one aspect of homosexuality--the prohibition--is to lose sight of the potential good in it all.

For these reasons, I support dropping this tired "alcoholism" analogy altogether. It's inaccurate. It's reductionist. It's unhelpful. But worst of all, it prevents us from seeing the good that our gay brethren have to offer.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The One Jesus Loved

One of the special moments of tenderness between two male friends that appears in the gospel accounts is when Jesus allows John to lean his head up against his chest.
After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus' side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus[f] of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” (John 13:21-25, ESV)
Common translations describe John as lying at Jesus' side. The KJV translates it more accurately as leaning on Jesus' bosom. That better conveys the intimacy of the moment.

I'd love to see a painting of this scene, if only just to see what artistic choices were made in depicting it. (An aside: does anyone familiar with art history know if this moment was ever captured in art form?) If I were a master artist, I'd want to capture the moment when John, upon having their enjoyable fellowship disrupted by the abrupt news of Jesus' betrayal--hence slightly confused, not having fully taken in what was just said, but with a glint of worry beginning to form on his brow, having already immediately sensed a hint of unease and tightness forming in his friend's throat, then clearly hearing a note of trouble or sorrow in his voice--slowly lifts his head from Jesus' chest, where just a second ago it lay comfortably and perfectly still, and starts to turn his head to face Jesus in order to look at him squarely eye to eye, and listen intently, so that he might learn what is so profoundly troubling his friend.

Evidently, it is John who is closest to Jesus--in both senses of the word, that is, in terms of both literal proximity and intimacy of relationship--for the other disciples to rely on him to pop the uncomfortable question "Who is it?" It's at this moment, tender as it is tense, when Jesus reveals the identity of his betrayer. (It's a confusing moment, no doubt. Nobody seems to get that it's Judas, even when Jesus hands him the piece of bread while announcing, rather straightforwardly, in no ambiguous terms, that this act will identify his betrayer.)

Jesus speaks to close friends. He shares things that must be held in the strictest confidence (at least for the time being). It's in this setting, with John's head resting against his chest, that he chooses to say some of his greatest prophetic words immediately preceding his passion, death and resurrection.

A word about timing. This takes places just after the foot washing ceremony Jesus chooses to hold before enjoying a nice passover dinner with his disciples. It is the same scene in which Peter--stupidly--requests a full-body wash, thinking it is extra spiritual and will bring him closer to Jesus. (It's worth noting that John--maybe because, being the favored apostle, he was more secure in Christ's love and didn't feel the need to prove himself?--never feels the need to make--at least he never expresses--such a silly request. Or perhaps it's partly for this very reason that he was Jesus' favorite. Mind you, it's only moments later when Philip hastily places another request--one equally dumb as Peter's but even more obnoxious--that Jesus "Show us the Father.")

Older depictions of physical intimacy in same-sex friendships can already be found in the Old Testament, when David and Jonathan are found kissing and weeping as they say their tearful goodbyes. They are the paradigm ancient example of how two straight men can not only put on (what would be by today's standards count as) embarrassing displays of affection without fear of "sinning" or having their sexual preferences misunderstood. There is nothing untoward in expressing such love. David himself was unafraid to proclaim the wonders of a love "more wonderful than that of women" (2 Samuel 1:26).

The example of Jesus and John, perhaps to a lesser degree, suggests the same lesson: as Christians, we shouldn't be afraid of tangible expressions of affection between friends.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Physical Intimacy

Spiritual Friendship contributor Jordan Monge in a somewhat recent post observes that the increased acceptance of homosexuality is likely connected to increased homophobia.

"A consequence of our bizarre cultural blend of both open homosexuality and yet still deep-seated homophobia is that people worry that open displays of affection for people of the opposite gender will provoke misinterpretations of orientation. As college freshmen, I remember the first time that my best friend and I were walking around Cambridge, MA holding hands; we noted after a while that people would probably think us lesbians and promptly ceased such public displays of affection. We had no such concerns back home in more conservative Irvine, California. 
It’s precisely the dearth of this physical intimacy within normal friendships that makes celibacy in the modern world so difficult. Man was made with a need for physical intimacy, but in our rather touch-phobic society, it’s difficult to meet that need outside of a romantic relationship."
I'm inclined to agree. It's a very worrisome trend in our culture today that friends don’t feel the freedom to exercise chaste physical affection, without fear of having their actions misinterpreted or stigmatized.

Yet the Church doesn’t appear to be exempt from fault. True, Christians on average---as Monge rightly observes---do seem better at showing physical affection than their secular counterparts, in a society where touch is taboo; and credit must be given where it's due. But it's doubtful whether this is enough. 

Gay celibates in conservative evangelical churches are often warned against the dangers of physical intimacy with members of the same sex. Such admonishments make one suspect whether Christians really understand the true nature of friendship. It's only natural for friends to want to express their love for one another through physical affection. The fact that we deliberately refrain from such public displays of affection, out of fear of being misunderstood, is unfortunate. 

Touch communicates affection and trust. Withholding it signals distrust; discomfort; distance. Without it, we lose a vital way of telling another that we care for them. To deny yourself touch is to deprive yourself of care in that form. Yet this is exactly what we are told to do: "cut off the hand or eye that causes you to sin." In that way, it is said, we may avoid sexual temptation, meaning less opportunity for sexual sin. 

Such advice, however well-intended, does more harm than good, and affirms neither the need for physical intimacy nor its normalcy in friendship.

The continued absence of touch makes it virtually impossible to pursue chastity. Any celibate gay Christian can attest to the importance of affectionate friendships: how the presence and comfort of close friends plays an integral role in one's survival and sanity.

Moreover, I have my doubts as to whether there are usually any real dangers of sexual transgression, at least in--if I may coin the term--mixed orientation friendships. Is there any real danger of a hug turning into homosexual activity when the other person is straight? Maybe in the mind, yes. It might lead to unhealthy fantasizing; feeding unhealthy patterns or temptations, for one to act on, alone, in private. But this is an issue of conscience--an opportunity for us to exercise our discretion, a judgment call for us to make, and not for others to decide. Plus, even if the possibility of sexual activity is real, this is the last thing any sensible gay celibate Christian wants. Perhaps it crosses their mind, but the cost of losing a close friend is too risky. I doubt that's a gamble any gay Christian, who seriously considers his options, wants to make.

Yet shouldn't we watch our for our weaker brother's conscience? Whatever lip service paid to Paul's admonition not to "stumble one's brother" has, in my experience, proved unconvincing: a veneer of spirituality disguising a refusal to confront our elemental discomfort towards friendly touch in western culture. 

In some respects, the situation is even worse for celibate gay believers. Not only are perfectly innocent forms of physical intimacy (or what ought to be recognized as such) still stigmatized to some degree in the Church, worse yet---there’s a moral stigma attached to it, since nobody wants to be seen or suspected as the closeted homosexual who’s secretly “living in sin”.

This worry is always there, with or without an audience. There’s obviously the fear of coming across as gay in public or in front of other people. But image maintenance is a symptom of something far more entrenched. Even in the absence of public judgment or peer pressure, we are afraid of touch. Our culture discourages any serious expression of physical intimacy between two friends---even when no one else is looking.
Inversely, public displays of affection between friends do appear to be less stigmatized in those societies where homosexuality remains a largely hidden and unrecognized phenomenon. For instance, in Korea, having a gay orientation, I'm told, isn't even acknowledged by older generations to be an existing "thing". (Although people there are beginning to develop a greater awareness of homosexuality, as it enters into the mainstream, e.g. through film.) Some people tell me that many Korean-American church subcultures are like this too: the possibility that someone in their congregation might actually be gay doesn't even cross their mind.
This isn't to advocate a return to a former state of society where homosexuality isn't recognized--which is neither possible nor feasible. The homophobic coloring of same-sex touch that discourages physical intimacy among friends is a problem that calls for a return to a richer, healthier understanding of friendship love, not a regress to an outdated conception of sexual orientation.

Here lies a rare opportunity for the Church to foster a space where friends can exercise chaste physical affection, without fear of being misinterpreted or stigmatized. It's a chance for the Church to witness powerfully to homosexuals, by showing how chastity is done, while shedding its own image--the typical media caricature--as a homophobic oppressor of sexual minorities. Doing so, however, first requires reeducating ourselves about the nature of friendship. 

About Me

This blog is a collection of personal reflections concerning faith, friendship, and fraternal love (both eros and philia). It's modeled off some of the stuff written by the awesome folks at Spiritual Friendship. I'm a gay male Asian American Christian in his late 20s. For now, I've chosen to go by my blogger pseudonym Guy. (I'm not completely out, and only a handful of close friends know of my orientation.) Apologies if the writing feels clumsy or disjointed. This is my first time blogging. Hope it's worth the read though. Enjoy!