THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 106
Morality for gays
(Please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk for archived material)
The state of the Christian Church as regards gay people is such that there is very little discussion beyond the question of whether or not God in his love and forgiveness accepts gay people as he does heterosexual people. This stems from many centuries when homosexual activity between humans was not only considered wrong and sinful but also dirty, perverted, evil and even diabolical.
In such circumstances it is perfectly understandable that the Christian Churches are preoccupied with the simple question of whether being gay is acceptable in a Christian. And the debate will go on for some time yet, maybe for years. There are plenty of Christians who are quite sure that the bible tells them that being gay is sinful, evil etc. Or at the least, that such a state comes from being misled or ignorant.
I don’t want to step back into that debate now - it will, as they say, run and run. The debate has to happen - and, prejudging the result, it will probably take several decades before some Christians sleep easy in their beds with gays in their church. Such is the influence of upbringing and inherited traditions.
Instead I want to move on a step or two and ask about the morality that should guide gay Christians. Patently, as Christians, this morality must come from the same source as for heterosexual Christians. Some gay people who don’t have the Christian faith believe that for gay people there are no barriers to what activities are acceptable. As far as they are concerned ‘anything goes’. But Christians march to a different drum. As gay members of the Kingdom they have different boundaries. How do we discern those boundaries?
In this article I will start by setting out the basic principle by which I consider any Christian, of whatever sexuality, should live. Then I will attempt to offer some thoughts on how that principle might be interpreted by gay people, particularly in the area of sexual relations.
There surely cannot be any doubt that the principle by which all Christians should live has been clearly and succinctly set out by Christ:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.
That first appears in the bible in Deuteronomy (6.5) and Leviticus (19.18) and has been a basic of Jewish life ever since. It was affirmed by Christ (Mark 12. 29-31 and Matthew 22. 37-40) and by Paul (Galatians 5.14) who said that loving your neighbour was the summation of all the law.
In themselves these two dozen words seem so brief and succinct that one is tempted to demand more, but I believe it is sufficient, in conjunction with the life of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, for all Christians in all circumstances. It applies to all aspects of living, including financial matters and sexual relationships. We also have to use the insights provided by other Christians through the years and all the knowledge and understanding we have gained to date in order to apply that principle. It need not be reduced further, nor expanded upon.
For anyone who seeks clarification I would simply ask which of these two dozen words it is that they do not understand. For ‘God’ - look at Jesus. For ‘neighbour’ assume this means the persons near and far who are affected by you. For ‘heart’ assume that it means how you feel as a person. For ‘soul’ assume this refers to the spiritual side of your being.
I believe that if we apply that principle to all our affairs we will be on the track God wants us to be on. Of course there will be some horrendous ethical problems to sort out. As human society develops the advances in technology and other fields present us with new moral questions. Of course we will be perplexed by numerous uncertain areas in practical matters. Naturally we will often have to choose between two greys rather than between black and white. Of course we will have to make decisions constantly. And some of our decisions will be wrong. But if we seek to be guided, honestly, by this principle, set in the context of the life of Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, then I believe that we have a sufficient guide for all of our life.
Lets now take this principle and see how it works out for the gay person in three real life situations. First, where they are discriminated against or persecuted because they are gay. Secondly, where they are engaged in what are called ‘casual’ sexual relationships with other gay people. Thirdly, where they commit their lives to a loving relationship with another gay person.
First, let us accept that gay people are discriminated against at times. Sometimes it matters, often it is treated as unimportant and just ignored by the gay person. But to be shut out is always painful. It is a sign of rejection. Conservative evangelicals, for example, often shut gay people out for very good reasons - they think they are sinful, misguided, sick or evil. Those are very strong reasons.
If you were a member of a group where the spiritual state of the members was considered of primary importance, wouldn’t you want to exclude anyone whom you thought morally twisted or evil? If you did allow them to join in, you would be careful to limit the scope of their influence - you would not want them contaminating others, especially any of the young and impressionable.
But from the point of view of the gay person - especially the young gay person - such rejection sets off all sorts of problems. First, it makes them question themselves about their own sexual identity. They naturally want to be accepted by the group, so they begin to question whether they really are gay. Perhaps they can be ‘normal’ and become accepted by the others. Perhaps they can be ‘cured’ Perhaps, if they marry and have kids, they can ‘grow out of’ their homosexuality? So this rejection sets the seeds of self doubt in the mind and heart of the gay person. Such rejection can even lead even to a disintegration in the personality of the gay person.
But also it makes them feel rejected - because that is exactly what is happening. They are being rejected because of they are gay. People cope with rejection in varying ways. Some laugh at it and go off to join some other group that does accept and value their presence. Some become bitter and angry. Why don’t they think I am good enough, they ask. Still others go off and brood quietly - building up a great force of anger against those who have done the rejecting. And that anger may turn inwards against themselves. And then there are other possible responses. Whichever route these take, it is a painful thing to happen and may lead to all sorts of trouble for the gay person and, indeed, for others around them too.
In addition to rejection and discrimination, gay people are sometimes also persecuted. Let us recognise that this does happen. Many would prefer to gloss over this. They would wish to say that gay people are very rarely persecuted - at least in Britain. Well, they would be ignoring the facts. In the last world war gay people were as much the victims of the Nazis as the Jews. There was not as many of them and it is possibly for this reason that their fate is a largely unrecognised story of the last war.
But coming to modern times, there are persecutions in many countries against gay people. Sometimes they hit the international headlines - as with a boy of called Matthew Shepard in 1998 in the USA. He was a gay student lured off campus and then beaten, lashed to a split-rail fence. He was left for dead, and died in hospital later with horrific injuries.
The following year there was the terrible bomb in a Soho Pub, planted by a homophobe because the pub was frequented by gay people. It killed three people and injured many more. There are frequent attacks on gay men on the various Commons around London. In a questionnaire in this country to 2.500 gay people, over half said that they had been the victim of a homophobic incident. This is happening in our own country week by week.
Another aspect of persecution is where young people are pilloried and targeted by their peers because they are gay. Although some cases are reported, we mainly know about this because grown men tell us how they were persecuted by other teenagers on account of their being gay. The sin here is to be ‘different’.
Whether discriminated against or actually persecuted, the response of the gay Christian should be the same: a determination to maintain a loving and accepting attitude. Our example here is Jesus himself who went through the trial before Pilate and then through the crucifixion without his love and forbearance breaking down at any point. No one is suggesting that this is easy or that it is not very costly. But that is our example and, by God’s grace and with his strength, that is the path we have to tread. Render no man evil for evil.
The second aspect of being gay that I want to look at briefly is the case of what are sometimes called casual sexual relationships. What does Christian morality have to say in such matters? Here I am on much more controversial ground! And whatever I say will find disfavour with some! However, I will make a start on the subject.
I believe that the same basic principle applies. We must make the love of God, and the love of those we interact with, the priority in our attitude. Therefore we have to start with the premise that we will not use another person (or allow ourselves to be used) just for sexual gratification. We will not debase the other person by using them as a thing for our enjoyment. This simple direction has enormous consequences! I therefore come down to the practical advice that two Christians of the same sex should observe the same attitudes and self discipline as is expected of a heterosexual Christian couple in the same situation.
Such directions are much more easily said than lived out! When emotional and sexual desire threaten to overwhelm it is very hard to remember the principles by which we want to live! That has been the experience of young people (and some older people too!) over the centuries. That does not devalue the principle. It simply means that we must not go into an encounter intending (while we are stone cold sober) to devalue the person we intend to interact with. It means that we listen insofar as it is possible to the voice of reason/conscience and not let ourselves pretend - something we all do so easily - that things are otherwise than they are.
It has to be accepted that whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, sexual desire may overtake your principles. It happens. And it happens to a lot to young people of whatever sexual orientation who have a strong sexual desire and who are, perhaps, less inhibited by convention and custom. This is widely recognised. And whatever sort of sin we fall into - as we all do all the time - there is the forgiveness of God available to us as we recognise our failure and resolve to do better in future. I believe that sexual sin offends considerably less than any sign of pride in a person.
Sex by two heterosexual people before they marry, off limits fifty years ago, is tolerated and even sanctioned today by many as being a sensible thing to happen en route to their marriage. Whether this is right or wrong must be decided by the people themselves, but presumably this also extends now to gay couples. In all these cases, as indeed in this whole area, Christians have to be guided by the Holy Spirit - always trying to ensure that we are not misleading ourselves.
It is not only religious people who want to uphold the state (‘sanctity’) of marriage, and casual sex and recreational sex are often seen as enemies of marriage. Whether pre-marriage sex is as destructive may be slightly less controversial.
What is unacceptable for the Christian is the free-for-all attitude to sex which seems to be acceptable to so many people these days. When sex moves to that level of easy availability in society then I think the Christian has to stand out against it as it surely debases something that is special and of value between two Christians who are committed to each other in marriage.
The Christians (and others) who want to put a ring fence around sex in order to preserve it for marriage, are surely right in principle. The present hedonistic race for casual sexual experience robs those who participate of what might be something of very special significance for them if it were kept for when they are married. Assuming, of course, that they want to get married eventually!
Having said all of that, I have to accept that the whole concept of marriage and the way sex is regarded is in the melting pot in today’s society. The crucial change in the last hundred years has been the advent of safe contraception, about which there are very diverse Christian views. Some churches regard sex as purely for procreation. Others see it as also a pleasure and joy, apart from procreation, given as a gift from God to humankind. This is a major difference between Christians. At a time when society seems to be going towards recreational sex without any prohibitions, it is difficult for Christians to speak with one voice. Everyone, of course, is against incest and paedophilia but otherwise all is in flux in today’s society.
Turning to the third aspect I want to glance briefly at whether gay people who commit themselves to each other should have the right to marry.
In Britain we have, in an enlightened way, made it possible for two gay people, by undergoing a legal act, to enjoy virtually the same status as two married people. This is not marriage although it’s effect is almost tantamount to it and may well come to be regarded by society generally as marriage. Should gay people be enabled to move beyond the present system and fully enter into a ‘married‘ state in the eyes of the law?
Personally I think that two gay people who love each other should be able to legally commit their lives to each other in the same way that heterosexual couples do. I think that act should be blessed by the church (if they so desire) and be recognised by society as fully equivalent to marriage.
What I am not sure about is the terminology: whether what they would have should properly be called ‘marriage’. I cannot but think that the man-woman/children relationship is unique and therefore we need to call the man/man or woman/woman union something other than the term used for the man-woman/child relationship. This view is to some extent counterbalanced by the fact that gay couples, like childless couples, can adopt children these days - thereby making their two generational family parallel to the heterosexual marriage that has offspring. May be I am so accustomed (i.e. old fashioned) to using the word marriage for the man-woman link that I am reluctant to lose its present significance. This is another aspect of a huge subject I hope to tackle in more depth in another article.
I have only been able to touch on the areas I set out to cover - each aspect opens out into a vast field for comment! There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a turbulent period of change in the area of publicly accepted morality and it is by no means clear where society will finish up! I am profoundly glad that gay people are already widely accepted in society, and this acceptance will surely increase. Rearguard actions are being fought against these changes by some on the grounds of religion. This may delay full acceptance for a time and the tide will ebb and flow. But then there have always been those who hold onto the familiar and the comfortable rather than reach out to the new, and we must just be patient.