On Actions and Identity
I haven’t written a whole lot about homosexuality on this blog because I view it as a non-issue. I have gay friends. They’re good people. I’m not going to tell them they’re going to hell over something they didn't decide to be. To me, it’s about the same as deciding that all people with brown hair are sinning in an irredeemable fashion – it’s something that many have no control over, and, sure, I could dye my hair and walk around as a blonde, but that doesn’t change the nature of what God gave me. And my roots are going to show through without careful maintenance of a façade. But recently, the blog my coworker runs* – Think Christian – has been doing a series on homosexuality in the church called “Agendas Aside.” They’ve been posting a new post at the beginning of each week, and it’s been a rather outstanding series so far. The basic thesis is “Gay people are human beings too.”
It’s remarkable that this is a novel statement. Each week, I’ve been checking the Think Christian facebook page. And each week, there’s some variation of the same commentary: “Why are we even talking about this? This issue is settled. Homosexuality is a sin, and sure, we should love the sinner, but we can never stop condemning the sin. Are you guys pro-gay or something?”
The snark master in me responded to this last question with a question: “What’s pro-gay? Is it pro-realizing-gay-people-are-human?”
And I was told that what is sinful about people who are gay is not necessarily their identity, but the sexual acts.
I sat there, staring at the comment for a little bit. I initially responded with (and subsequently deleted) a rhetorical question: “Am I heterosexual because I have sex with men or because I am capable of falling in love with them?”
In the church, we like to divide the actions a person takes from who they are as a person, but only when it helps our case. And this, in some instances, is useful – we would like to think that the man who gets drunk and gets behind the wheel of his car has made a mistake rather committed a deliberate, intentional act of malice. It makes it easier for us to think that our brother who date-raped his girlfriend did so out of misguided misreading of the situation, rather than any outright malice on his part.
We do this because we hope that when we screw up, someone will be willing to have the same grace for us, to realize that we, as people, are not irredeemable screw-ups, but rather people who made a mistake and can be redeemed. It was an action we took, not a part of our identity.
The problem, though, is that this behavior is not “Biblical,” as much as it is human.**
We also use thoughts as sin when it’s convenient to us to condemn others – cover up, women, you’re causing your brothers to sin in their thoughts because any man who looks after a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart!
And we use actions as sin when it’s convenient to us to keep ourselves from condemnation – oh, go ahead and be angry at your brother, punch your pillow, because it’s not like you’re actually hurting him, even though Jesus tells us not to be angry with our brothers.. As long as you don’t assault him or whatever, you’re in the clear.
But throughout the Old and New Testament, we are taught that Christianity is much more about where our hearts and thoughts are than the specific actions we take. If our hearts are in the right place, actions will flow from that. If our hearts are not in a good space, our actions will be manifestly sinful. This is complex and often – as noted above – applied inconsistently, despite it being theologically sound.
When we confront an issue that befuddles us, this theology of picking and choosing what actions are sin and what thoughts are not fails. This is especially clear on matters of personal identity.
Being gay is about much more than what one does in the bedroom, just as being heterosexual is as well. You wouldn’t say, “I’m hetero because I have sex with my wife. Also, boobs.” You would say, “I’m hetero because she is what I find attractive, what I fell in love with, and what I want to spend all my time with.”*** When we reduce homosexuality merely to the acts performed, we create a Freudian reduction rather than a Biblical one. We make it all about who with and how people are having sex, rather than whether love happens in healthy ways (we make the same mistakes in prescribing directions about our heterosexual relationships - having conversations about "Can We____?" without ever discussing consent).
But, baby, it’s fact: “gay” as an identity did not exist when Paul was writing. The words and language did not exist to describe this complex personal identity. Paul didn’t draw lines between gay and straight because those lines did not exist – and all he had to go on was the acts that were being committed: temple priests raping little boys, orgies, rape used as an act of worship in cults, etc. The language and understanding of homosexuality as an identity and as a relationship between two loving people of the same sex simply did not exist.
And with our current knowledge about sexuality as a a vital portion of our identity, as an attraction rather merely an act, it is an offense against the heart of every Christian to say that it is possible to condemn gay people for what they do, not who they are. We would not want them to do the same for us, and if we’re honest with ourselves, if we really, truly, only condemned the action, we wouldn’t put celibate teens through psychologically harmful ex-gay therapy and we wouldn't spend time talking about the "homosexual agenda," or try to put together faith-exceptions to anti-bullying laws.
So let’s give them the same grace we allow for ourselves. Let’s not reduce the gay people in our lives to what they do in the bedroom, but pay attention to those they love. We should recognize that their relationships are just as legitimate, have just as much heartbreak, joy, pain and grace, as any heterosexual counterpart.
And please, for the love of all that is good, if you do not actually know gay people – as in, have gay people in your life you would ask to give you a ride to the airport at 4AM – then resist giving your opinion on gay identity. It doesn’t matter until you can say it to your friends face and not get slapped.
*Quick reminder: When posting on my personal blog, I am not writing as a representative of Think Christian in any capacity. I am my own person, giving my opinion, without prompting from TC or my coworkers.
**Note: I am loathe to use the language of "Biblical" vs. unBiblical, so please understand that I am using the term in a loose sense to mean "traditionally an accepted interpretation of a theological concept." You understand why "Biblical" is easier.
***You might say boobs here, too. I'd also note that I'm writing this as though speaking to a heterosexual man - reverse the genders for a heterosexual female, etc.