Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2014
We are in the middle of an extraordinary moment in the United States with regard to the acceptance of same-sex intimate relationships. Most states now have legalized same-sex marriage, a reality undreamt of just a few years ago. There is still a lot of resistance to such acceptance, mostly under the name of “Christian values.” It’s still uncertain how the marriage issue will ultimately play out, though the momentum toward acceptance seems irreversible.
The ferment on these issues is seen quite vividly among American evangelical Christians (see my reflections on two books that show that even among evangelicals, there is movement toward acceptance: Does Jesus Really Love Me? and God and the Gay Christian).
Wesley Hill’s book, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality takes a quite different stance than the two books just mentioned. I wonder if the impressive popularity of Hill’s book (it’s still one of Amazon’s best selling books in its “Gay and Lesbian” category even though it was published in 2010) reflects a bit of desperation among those evangelicals opposed to gay marriage. They may be thinking, we need some kind of effective counter to the tide toward acceptance. What better counter than a thoughtful, first-person account from a self-acknowledged gay Christian who recognizes that he has a fundamental and seemingly irreversible attraction toward other men but still affirms the standard account view that leaves him with no option but to embrace a celibate lifestyle?
The changing terrain
It used to be common for evangelical Christianity to offer gays full healing from what was categorized a fundamental disorder. A person with sufficient faith, and perhaps some help from a praying community, Christian therapist, and/or spiritual healer could have their same-sex attraction taken away and live a “normal heterosexual lifestyle.” Numerous ministries, the best known of which probably was Exodus International, promised to help this “reparative therapy” process.
As it turned out, such “reorientation” was never as easy or permanent or widespread as claimed by its supporters. In time, even many of those who believed “homosexual practice” is always wrong came to accept that for some same-sex attracted folks, change was not a realistic option. Exodus International is now defunct and one of its former leaders has issued a public apology for the trauma the organization visited upon many of those who turned to it for “healing” their “disorder.”
Once one accepts that for some people, a sexual identity as one attracted to those of the same sex cannot be changed, it seems that there are two options. One option (taken by Jeff Chu and Matthew Vines, the gay evangelicals who wrote the two books mentioned in my second paragraph above) is to come to a belief that same-sex attracted Christians may follow the path taken by most opposite-sex attracted Christians: marriage. That is, to accept that this attraction is not actually a disorder but simply a morally-neutral disposition characteristic of a minority (say, 5-10%) of the human race.
The second option, taken by Wesley Hill, is to accept that one is indeed likely irrevocably attracted to people of the same sex but to continue to affirm the standard account’s assumption that the rejection of “homosexual practice” includes rejecting the possibility of same-sex marriage. Hence, the requirement that the gay Christian remain celibate. The attraction may be irreversible, but it is still a disorder that must not be acted upon.
A new viewpoint
This celibacy expectation actually seems like a fairly new trend in evangelical Christianity. The expectation before was that a person could change, become “normal,” and enjoy an intimate heterosexual covenanted partnership. On the one hand, it would seem that for a young Christian such as Wesley Hill to accept that his affectional orientation is part of who he is might be more humane than to always be trying to change something that seemed in time to be utterly resistant to change. Yet, in reading Hill’s book, it’s hard to see that this new understanding really signals much progress.
What Hill seems to offer is a life of struggle, loneliness, frustration, and suffering. His agenda is to take this life of suffering and present it as a life of costly discipleship. He honestly describes his own hard times. To his credit, he doesn’t try to whitewash the difficulties he faces. “The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my homosexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death?” (pp. 144-5).
Such honesty seems admirable on a certain level, but it begs the question—why in the world is it necessary for a gay Christian like Walls, seemingly a person of strong faith and integrity, to pay such a cost for an aspect of his personal identity that he had no role in establishing? Though he seems to accept that being gay was not at all a choice for him, he at the same time seems to accept that he deserves to suffer the consequences for such a way of being that dishonors God. Hill describes his prayer: “‘God, help! I would love to say thanks for my sexuality, but I don’t feel like I can. Every attraction I experience, before I ever get to intentional, willful, indulgent desire, seems bent, broken, misshapen. I think this grieves you, but I can’t seem to help it.’ For many homosexual Christians, this kind of shame is part of our daily lives. Theologian Robert Jenson calls homoerotic attraction a ‘grievous affliction’ for those who experience it, and part of the grief is the feeling that we are perpetually, hopelessly unsatisfying to God” (p. 137).
For a self-affirming gay Christian such as Matthew Vines, the presence of the attraction he feels even “before … [getting] to intentional, willful, indulgent desire” is a good reason to see it as innate, even God-given. Vines then concludes that what God cares about are hurtful expressions of that attraction in behaviors that are also immoral for heterosexual people. And that God affirms same-sex committed relationships in the same way God affirms opposite-sex committed relationships. That is, he believes that gays—as gays—can be just as “satisfying to God” as straight people.
Hill, on the other hand, seems to double down on the “unsatisfying to God”—it’s not only actions but the attraction that is “grievous.” Yet he offers no way out, really. The older view—now discredited—was that the attraction could be taken away. Since it seems to be unimaginable to him that the attraction could be affirmed (maybe in the same way left-handedness is now affirmed for the 5-10% with that mysterious disposition), what is left is a pretty grim life. It seems like a kind of heroic ethic—you know you are doomed to suffer and struggle, so let’s turn the suffering and struggle into a virtue. Hill seems to be growing into this acceptance of struggle: “With patience and openness to the good that may come even from evil, we can learn to ‘hear’ the voice of our sexuality, to listen to its call. We can learn to appreciate the value of our story and the stories of others, because God is the ‘potter’ or ‘storyteller.’ Slowly, ever so slowly, I am learning to do this” (p. 150). Hill comes across as an impressively bright and committed young man in his late twenties. Perhaps he is suited for such a heroic existence (though one wonders a bit at the wisdom of writing such a book at such a young age). It’s hard to see the path he marks out as being very attractive for more run of the mill Christians.
And where does this end up? Not that happily in this life, it would appear. “I am waiting for the day when I will receive the divine accolade, when my labor of trust and hope and self-denial will be crowned with his praise. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ the Lord Christ will say. ‘Enter into the joy of your master'” (p. 150). It surely is comforting to have such a hope for the end of one’s life—but not so comforting to think that between now and then life is basically a matter of struggling along with little hope for joy and a sense of wholeness.
The very experience of life as a gay Christian that Hill describes—the loneliness, shame, and sense of discouragement—has pushed many to scrutinize more carefully the theological bases for forbidding same-sex marriage. It seems so clear. Hill could accept that his orientation is simply part of who he is and is not itself a disorder. Then he could be open to finding a life partner and experiencing the same kind of wholeness that other people—gay and straight—have found in healthy marriages. But perhaps not. Perhaps there is still a theological firewall that would forbid such a move.
If there is such a theological firewall, though, it would seem to require some clear rationale that faces the many challenges that have arisen in the past generation—challenges both on the experiential and exegetical level. This is where I find myself most troubled by Hill’s book. He seems simply to take it for granted that there is such a firewall that he must not even entertain the possibility of breaching. So he doesn’t even try.
For a person who does not assume that such a firewall is present, Hill offers very little by way of justification for his assumption. He simply cites the few well-cited texts in the Bible, accepting without question the interpretations that those texts are “condemning homosexual activity” (p. 62). He does not interact with various challenges to those interpretations (for just one example see this essay of mine). He quotes Robert Jenson with approval: “After all is said and done, Scripture is brutally clear about homoerotic practice: it is a moral disaster for anyone, just as adultery is a crime for anyone” (p. 65).
Like so many others, Hill refers to “homosexual or homoerotic practice” in the singular as if there is only one kind of “homosexual” sexual activity—as opposed to the obvious sense in the Bible that some kinds of heterosexual sexual activity are good and some are immoral. That is, there are numerous “heterosexual practices.” What basis do we have to assume that there is only one kind of “homosexual practice”?
One big problem with this “homosexual practice” assumption is that it removes the responsibility from those who would discriminate against gay people actually to scrutinize the texts that are used to justify such discrimination. It’s enough to quote an English translation of, say 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: “Neither the sexually immoral, … nor men who practice homosexuality, … will inherit the kingdom of God,” and then move on as if this clearly establishes that all possible same-sex intimacy is being condemned—even when we don’t assume that “the sexually immoral” reference condemns all possible opposite-sex intimacy. A careful reading of both Romans 1:18-32 (which Hill simply cites as “condemning homoerotic practice” [p. 63]) and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 makes it clear that both must be read as contextually embedded statements that refer to specific practices, not to a generic “homoerotic practice.”
One could read Hill’s book as the sincere personal testimony of a Christian young adult who deeply hopes to live a life honoring to God. One might feel profound sadness that Hill seems to paint himself into a corner of regret and discouragement with his negative anthropology and anti-gay ideology, but still admire his honesty and commitment to the path that seems right to him.
However, this book is not simply a personal testimony. It is a book that obviously has reached a much wider audience than simply those few Christian gays who may share his commitments about Christian faith, celibacy, and “homosexuality.” This book surely is being used to pressure other gay Christians to take on the same kind of burdens Hill is assuming for his own life. I don’t really have a problem with his choosing the path he has for his own life, but by writing this book he provides a tool that likely is being used in hurtful ways on other young Christians.
The problem of the book is exacerbated by the thinness of Hill’s theological justification for his stance. He perpetuates the shallow bases for strictures that not only contradict the tone of Jesus’s own ministry but hinder the broader Christian world’s ability to wrestle productively with the genuine differences in our approaches. His admittedly powerful personal witness seems more quixotic than prophetic given the lack of justification for its underlying theology. But, sadly, even more than a quixotic witness, his story all too easily serves as a tool of oppression and repression—when, as I read the Bible and Christian theology, it need not do so.