I remember sitting down with my parents after I came out to them and having a conversation that is familiar to many LGBT Christians who come out to their parents. My mom looked at me with tears and said, “You are going to have to make some hard choices in your life. You cannot be in a relationship with Jesus and another man at the same time.”
I was fifteen and while this was the first time this had been laid out in such simple terms, it was a message that I had been aware of since I was little. Gay people cannot be Christians. By the time my Mom told me, I had already spent years internalizing this shame message:
There is a part of me that is dirty that even Jesus cannot love. If I love Jesus, I cannot love a man. If I love a man, Jesus won’t love me.
To hear my parents say it out loud only confirmed it. The choice was clear: singleness or hell.
I cannot fault my parents for this shaming. They were operating under the larger cultural understanding in the church that homosexuality equates to sinfulness. As faithful Christians, it was their responsibility to share that hard reality with me.
“Because of my orientation, my desire for intimacy is sinful.”
At this point, at least where I lived in rural Iowa, there wasn’t a separation between sexual orientation and practice. I could either be “same-sex attracted” and sinful or be straight and okay. Thus, I spent the next five years focusing on trying to change my orientation. This, of course, was unsuccessful despite pouring my entire faith and being into it.
When I moved away from home and started undergrad in northwest Arkansas, my new therapist taught me about separation, which was the university’s official position. By making a distinction between sexual orientation and practice, one can affirm the permanence of orientation without advocating sexual activity.
It made sense to me — I am gay and I don’t have a choice about that. I do have a choice in the way I live my life. This model of looking at homosexuality is now one of the main teachings in our churches. I operated under these ideas for a couple years, but the internal message was still the same: because of my sexuality, I am unworthy of intimate relationship.
One of the world’s leading shame researchers, Brené Brown, defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
As I have started looking at the effects of shame more intentionally in my graduate studies at The Seattle School, I’ve realized that this is the exact message we are telling our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers in the church. Due to something inside of us, we are inherently unworthy of relationship. Because of my orientation, my desire for intimacy is sinful. There is something wrong with me.
This is easy to protest. I hear it frequently: “We are asking these people to live to a higher calling” or “Following Jesus requires us to lay down our crosses” or “Paul says being single is better than being married anyway.” However, as we understand more of how sexual orientation works, I think there are people in the church that understand the damage this is causing.
“Healthy sexuality is deeply integrated into human life.”
The shift from calling “being gay” a sin to separating orientation from action is proof of this. It’s an attempt to condemn actions without condemning people — to put “hate the sin, love the sinner” into our theology of sexuality. The words change from “You are gay therefore you are bad” to “You are gay, that cannot change, but acting on that is bad.”
This shift alleviates discomfort because we no longer have to tell all lesbian and gay people that they’re going to hell. But the messaging still hasn’t really changed: intimate relationships are not an option. The distinction between orientation and activity is more insidious than flat-out condemnation because it masks shame in subtlety and creates an environment where we promote damaging psychological splitting.
Separation is something that doesn’t happen naturally — healthy sexuality is integrated deeply into human life. Yet, for LGBT Christians, we manufacture little boxes and tell them to put desire/sexuality in one and the rest of themselves in another. While I was often told that my desire itself wasn’t sinful, it became increasingly clear that any expression of desire would be met with contempt.
Thus, I was encouraged to completely split myself from my desire. It was something to be squashed and managed. Mental castration. New Testament theologian, James Brownson puts it this way:
“It is in the area of shame that the traditionalist approach to gay and lesbian persons becomes fraught with deep problems. The typical slogans clearly express the ambivalence: ‘Welcoming, but not affirming’; ‘Hate the sin, but love the sinner.’ On the surface, the gay or lesbian person is welcomed into the traditionalist fellowship; but the desires and the emotional orientation or disposition of the person’s sexuality are shunned. Ironically, in this context, the more deeply the gay or lesbian person is welcomed and loved by the fellowship, the more profound the problem of shame becomes.”
“When desires for others of the same sex persist, the result is a deeply internalized sense of shame, frustration, and self-loathing. The self is divided, and shame becomes toxic. Shame always becomes toxic when it is constructed out of double messages (e.g., ‘We love you, but we abhor the way you operate emotionally’). These conflicting messages create divided souls, and those inner conflicts, precisely because they are so shameful, powerfully resist the light of day. They remain submerged, manifesting themselves in depression, scapegoating, sickness, anger toward others, or even suicide.”
We are not designed to split off certain parts of ourselves — we are designed to live as fully integrated beings.
Splitting and shaming also does something else: it kills hope. We are created to be relational. The first thing that God calls “not good” in creation was that the adam was alone. When we encourage suppression instead of healthy expression of desire, we perpetuate aloneness.
“If shame is the byproduct of our church teachings, are they of God?”
For gay and lesbian youth in our churches, a double shaming can happen. Not only do we ever so clearly teach specific sexual ethics (“intimacy with another human is not an option”), we question all relationships. A lesbian teenager cannot hang out one on one with another girl without having her parents or youth leaders worry that there might be something more going on. An adolescent gay man cannot spend large amounts of time with girls because it is socially unacceptable and may damage his “masculinity” more so than it already is.
This doesn’t just come from authority figures, it comes from peers as well. Social ostracization immediately happens when one comes out. With each of these interactions, the message is being conveyed: relationships are off limits. As this happens again and again, it kills hope for healthy friendships and romantic relationships. When this happens in formative years such as adolescence the negative effects can be lifelong.
My freshman year of college, I walled myself off. I barely talked to any of the guys on my hall. I was too embarrassed and scared of what would happen if they found out I was gay. My therapist and I worked hard on learning how to reach out for friendship.
Since then, I’ve made huge progress. However, this is something that my current therapist and I are still working on. When the church continuously sends messages of shame instead of hope, it should be no surprise that people leave in droves.
I think that people are slowly waking up to the true impacts of the church’s current rhetoric on sexuality. For the affirming church, those who believe that God blesses same-sex relationships, combating these impacts is not an issue. Yet, for people who are non-affirming, this creates a problem.
Is there a way to affirm the worth of a person and their relational value while still holding to a traditional sexual ethic? Is it possible to maintain teaching God’s condemnation of same-sex relationships while also combating the shame that these teachings hold?
If we’re going to hold a traditional sexual ethic, this is where work needs to be done. God is not a God of shame and fear. The church should not be a place of shame and fear. If shame is the byproduct of our church teachings, are they of God?
As followers of Christ, we need to be combating shame in every form instead of perpetuating it. There are no easy answers here, but if our teachings are truly of Christ they will not force people into closets. Instead, they will invite us into integration and fullness.
May we be people who issue this invitation.
The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
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