Dan Savage spoke, and the Internet exploded.
He rejected the Bible as “bullshit” in a keynote address to high-school journalists, and then described students who chose to walk away as “pansy-assed.” Since being uploaded to YouTube on April 27, the video of his speech has received over 600,000 views. In describing those who had the courage to take a stand as pansies, Savage flouted his prominent “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign (started in the wake of the suicides of Tyler Clementi and other gay or gay-seeming youth), as well as his less well-known stance against effeminophobia within the gay community. His hypocrisy is painfully evident.
And yet, in the rush to (rightly) condemn, conservative responses have often overlooked the fact that Savage was on to something. In the past year, commentators including Elizabeth Scalia, Melinda Selmys, and Mark Shea have written articles to present the gay community as something other than simply an enemy. Each made clear their adherence to orthodox sexual ethics, but each nonetheless received a venomous response from many of their Christian readers.
Before we can say that Savage was right, we must point out that he also was grossly wrong. Savage is of course wrong to refer to the Bible as bullshit. It is the prime document of the Christian faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and treasured by the churches throughout the ages. Only in Scripture can we encounter Christ and through him reach towards divinization, and the Scripture in which I was raised continues to provide the backbone to my own life of faith.
He is no less wrong to dismiss traditional sexual morality. On this point, Scripture and tradition always have spoken with one voice, and the churches cannot, in good conscience, reject that voice. The traditional sexual ethic is the only possible antidote to the rampant commodification of human persons in contemporary culture. As a Christian who is committed to chastity and who is also gay, I acknowledge and I accept the high claims that ethic makes on my life.
But recall Savage’s original point. It was not “the Bible is wrong;” his incendiary remarks were meant to build up the over-arching concern of Christian non-response to the gay community. He recounts a hypothetical Christian who claims, “I’m sorry, we can’t do anything about bullying, because it says right there in Leviticus, in Timothy, in Romans that being gay is wrong.” Christians have appealed far too quickly to their traditional moral views to avoid offering support to gay people. Here, if nowhere else, Dan Savage has a point.
In my own Roman Catholic Church, the teaching is clear that homosexual acts are immoral, but the presence of homosexual inclinations is not. Most (though not all) Christians of other traditions would agree. But if we make the distinction in theory, its practical application is far too rare. The all-encompassing rhetorical tool of the “lifestyle” is used to reduce the entire identity of gay people to sexual activity, and thus our response to all concerns of gay people becomes an automatic “no.”
Thus, the first line of response conservative Christians offer to the pastoral problem of homosexuality is to try to get rid of the problem through ex-gay ministries or reparative therapy; thus, Christian protest to the Uganda bill was half-hearted at best; thus, the concern for Christians over gay bullying has been minimal, and some Christians have even organized opposition to the opposition of gay bullying. The guiding principle is not the distinction between sexual activity and orientation, but their conflation into lifestyle or identity, and so those who are targeted for being or seeming to be gay are given only the most abstract support for their profoundly concrete humiliation.
“Being or seeming to be gay.” This phrase itself demonstrates that our approach to these questions cannot be conditioned by assumptions of sexual immorality, since some of the youth who are bullied are not even gay. Growing up, my brother experienced nearly as much “gay-bullying” as I did, even though he is straight. The fundamental category of this issue is not one of sexual ethics, but of encountering difference. Surely, the Christian (embraced by a God who is so radically different that he must become one of us to enable relationship) should approve? Surely, the Christian should view the encounter of the Other-as-Other to be deeply significant, and one of our basic ethical dilemmas? Why, then, do we fail to live out that call?
Last year, Biola professor Matt Jenson addressed students in chapel (like Savage’s address, also available on YouTube). After calling Christians to accountability for failing to make a real space for single people, he turns to the question of homosexuality. “The church is right to tell gay people the good news and call them to a life of discipleship, if and only if it is willing to live as their family.” If Christians have any interest in reaching out to the gay community, if we have any hope to speak a message which can touch their hearts as well, we absolutely must be willing to live as their family. Behind his blundering obscenity, behind his facile attempts to explain Scripture away, behind the blatant hypocrisy of his behavior toward those who disagree with him, what Dan Savage means to tell us is, “The church has far too often, and for the most wrong-headed reasons, failed to be family to gay people.”
And he’s right.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, D. C., where he is a doctoral student in historical theology at the Catholic University of America.
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