Hearing Voices

My friend Jim has a couple of good posts on listening to people from the “ex-ex-gay” movement. I think he is right: the Church does need to hear from people who have tried to convert from homosexual to heterosexual — especially those Christians who believed they could “convert” their sexuality from being gay to being straight. We need to listen especially closely to those men and women who have sincerely attempted to alter their own sexual orientation and failed. Most importantly, those of us (and, yes, “us” includes me) in the Church who believe that homosexual relationships are sinful need to listen. Before I tell you what I hear, let me explain a bit about where I’m coming from. It is no surprise that there are a lot of confused people out there. And by confused, I don’t mean the men and women who are homosexual. No, I mean the people who think that being a homosexual is, in and of itself, wrong. There is nothing wrong with being gay. I would go further, though, and say that if you are not actively seeking a relationship with God, then you are not better off in a straight relationship than in a homosexual one. The primary concern is our relationship with God. Everything hinges on that. In fact, morality doesn’t matter. Morality plays no role in our relationship to God. This should be clear enough from story of the Publican and Pharisee that the Orthodox begin each celebration of Great Lent with. The tax-collector was the morally disreputable person in Jesus’ day — the person everyone knew was doing wrong, cheating them out of their hard-earned money. In his place, I can imagine a gay man, someone all conservative Christians would “know” is a sinner. The Pharisee stands there proclaiming his piety, ridiculing the tax collector. Likewise, I see many conservative Christians holding themselves up as moral examples, making a very public display of their moral superiority. They kick and scream when they feel they’ve been wronged — when someone has stripped their courthouse of the Ten Commandments or a crèche — and loudly condemn those whose sins are more public. The answer is not to hide your sin, not to be discreet about it. “All have sinned” and no one persons sin is any less or any more than anyone else’s. No one is perfect. No one can exalt themselves above another or look down on another. Jesus told us as much when he said it was the tax collector, not the pharisee, who went home justified. Which means, of course, that I’m no better than the most flamboyant, promiscuous gay man. In fact, I have no right to comment on anyone else’s sin. I’m reminded of the story of Abba Sisoes from the fourth century:

Considered to be a very holy and venerable man, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, “With whom are you speaking, Abba?” “With the angels,” he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next. Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, “You have no need for penance, Father.” Abba Sisoes replied, “I have not yet begun to repent.”

Here is someone no one thought could be condemned, yet, truly embodying the spirit of the publican, he felt he had not yet begun to repent. At this point, I hope I’ve made myself clear: I am in no position to proclaim my own piety or tell others that they are condemned. So what does this all have to do with listening to “ex-ex-gay” people? One thing I hear is a gay man (Peterson Toscano, founder of Beyond Ex-Gay) who struggled for almost 20 years and spent over $30,000 to become “straighten” himself out. It didn’t work. At this point, it sounds like a bad Scientology tale. The first thing that comes to mind (and Peterson says as much) is the obsession with sex. Since the focus is on sex continually, it heightens the awareness and temptation. In another video, Peterson even says that he had more sex when he was trying to “de-gay” himself than he has since he gave it up. But that part of it, obsession with sex, seems to be a part of American Christian culture. Witness sites like Book22.com (a Christian sex-toys web store), or Christian sex toy parties, or even Exodus International’s methods — at least, those Peterson describes. The focus is on sex. Sure, we pay lip service to putting God before all else, but the idea of a married couple voluntarily abstaining from sex? That would be unheard of! Lifelong voluntary “marital fasting” that some saints of the Orthodox church undertook seems impossible and ridiculous to us. As one person described this fasting:

Rather than repudiating the legitimate pleasure taken in eating and in marital relations, fasting assists us in liberating ourselves from greed and lust, so that both these things become not a means of private pleasure but an expression of interpersonal communion.

The second thing I hear is the singling out of this particular sin. As Peterson says: “I thought I couldn’t be gay and a Christian.” While all Christians are called to live pious lives, many of us struggle with a particular sin or temptation. Sometimes, we sin and are not aware that what we do is sin. So, again, the focus on homosexuality, singling it out for special attention and treatment, and not on whether or not homosexuality is a sin, is where we’re going wrong. Consider the advice that St. Theophan the Recluse gave to a young girl: When confronted with a thought to pursue some sin, don’t fight it. Don’t grab onto it to beat it into submission. Instead, let it pass and immediately pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!” By turning our attention to God instead of the thought to sin, we redirect our energy. Note, also, the parallels between the Jesus Prayer and the prayer of the Publican. Finally, and probably most controversially, it makes me wonder about things that we universally agree are wrong today, but that, at the time the New Testament was written, weren’t seen as huge sins. Slavery, for example. I see no evidence that new Christians freed their slaves or started treating them humanely. I also know of no restrictions on ordaining slave owners. Yet, today, we see any kind of slavery, not just the brutal kind sometimes practiced in the early American South, as universally wrong. So what’s the point of all this? What have I found from listening to this ex-ex-gay man? Well, to be honest, I haven’t learned anything. I have taken the opportunity, though, to think through my prejudices and to clarify them a bit. Peterson deserves our compassion: he has been ill-served by a church that tried to take him down a road he simply couldn’t travel — by a church that made his sexuality more important than his relationship to God. The focus should, as always, be on God, not our sin.