The magazine Evangelicals Now has been making some noise on the net with an interview with a minister, Vaughan Roberts, discussing his “struggle with same sex attraction”. The article has been mentioned on the Gospel Coalition site, a major U.S. evangelical and reformed theology site and by several Christian bloggers.
The article has also been blogged about by Andrew Brown of the Guardian. I found his post to be pretty poor in its insistence on re-labelling Vaughan Roberts as gay. I don’t object to re-labelling someone entirely – I’d re-label the Pope sexist and John Howard racist against their own identifications. But I don’t think it’s justified here. Vaughan Roberts gives reasons for not calling himself gay and I can respect them without agreeing with them. I don’t need to re-label him.
I disagree with Vaughan Roberts that gay sex is wrong. I think about right or wrong in such a spectacularly different way to Vaughan Roberts that saying gay sex is wrong is a little nonsensical to me. I have to consider the harms of any action to condemn it. I also consider matters of consent and rights and intent but harms are crucial. When looking at harms I don’t take broad statistics and say whether or not generally speaking something is harmful either. I try and be as specific as possible. Take driving a car for example. Is that wrong or right? Surely that depends on why and how you are driving a car. It would require me to adopt a supreme moral simplicity to ever be able to say that all gay sex is wrong… or right for that matter. It actually feels a lot easier to say that all car driving is wrong. (Except ambulances and fire engines … see what I mean)
In this regard I am not different to even those Christians who think homosexuality is wrong. If you asked many of those Christians if it was wrong to kill somebody almost all would answer that it depends. Many U.S. Christians took the same position about torturing people in Abu Ghraib; it depends. That’s something I find much harder to swallow. Certainly if you asked them if it was ok to drive a car they, like me, would recognize harms and benefits and ask for more information before making any call. A simple yes or no in these areas is generally considered as too simple by all of us.
In the matter of homosexuality, however, Vaughan Roberts and the Gospel Coalition take a dim view of any practice of it at all. I imagine that they might possibly consider homosexual rape worse than a homosexual date but even the latter is never “good”. They are able to give a simple no answer to all gay sex.
This moral position is hurtful to those who are trying to live good gay lives, who have made sacrifices for their partners, and whose loving relationships may feel like one of the best things they have done with their life. This moral position is saying all of that good feeling is misplaced and that in fact the moral heart of the universe (God) is deeply opposed to all that effort.
Vaughan Roberts specifically describes same-sex attraction as a temptation. He calls acting on that attraction sin. However before we respond to Vaughan from a position of hurt we should listen to what he doesn’t say to justify his attitude to homosexuality. In that silence I found reason to question exactly how I disagreed with him and whether any hurt made sense.
Vaughan doesn’t say anywhere that desires for a homosexual relationship reflect different priorities than desires for a heterosexual one. The very real possibility exists after this interview that gay desire is understood as just like heterosexual desire in its motivations. That’s huge. And by huge I mean massively, humongously gigantic.
Consider the difference between recognizing that:
a) gay and straight relationships are both sought by people equally looking for someone to share their life with, to feel passion with, to make sacrifices for and to hold them while they cry over Amy and Rory’s story in Dr. Who and;
b) Straight people are looking for the above but gay people are instead motivated by a desire to get back at daddy, spit in the eye of God, get one’s rocks off in any way possible and so on.
The other thing that Vaughan does not say is that people’s lives are more terrible when they act out homosexuality than when they do not. That again is stupendously enormous. Indeed Vaughan recognizes celibacy as hard (and the way of the cross) while open gay relationships are attractive (though he attributes that to the devil). Vaughan does state that the benefits of remaining faithful to the bible have been promised in this life as well as the afterlife; however he specifically relates that to the loss of family (as in not getting married and having children in this case) and to persecutions. Vaughan doesn’t make a case for his choice of celibacy over homosexuality being reflected in emotional, material or health benefits intrinsic to those choices.
Consider again the differences between;
a) If you experience same sex attraction you may obtain happiness if you pursue loving relationships with someone of the same gender or;
b) No matter what the propaganda of the gay community, people who actively engage in sexual behaviour outside of married heterosexual relationships have short, unhappy and tragic lives.
Recently the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (an organization that is an embarrassment to many Christians) described homosexuality as more dangerous than smoking. Peter Jensen, Archbishop of the Sydney Anglicans shortly afterwards refused to distance himself from the comments on Australian television. “Catholic Answers” a website and magazine composed of Roman Catholic apologists makes similar claims that “homosexual behaviour kills homosexuals”. Opponents of homosexuality have tried to fold their morality into a concern for people’s health for as long as they have been prevented from just calling gay people witches. They tend to abuse general statistics on gay health indicators to support their case.
The gay movement has successfully improved this conversation about health by showing that a myriad of factors are involved. Evelyn Hooker, as long ago as 1957, proved that if gay people have communities to belong to with a positive self-image then there are no differences between straight and gay mental health. Increasingly the positive lives of gay people who are not reeling from family exclusion and social condemnation have been able to be public examples to younger gay people. Gay advocates have exposed the hypocrisy of shaming and isolating organizations like the Catholic church claiming to teach what is best for gay health. There are real parallels between this struggle and the struggle of indigenous people in Australia to challenge the language of their oppressors in calling them “a doomed race”. However Vaughan Roberts just isn’t on the other side of this struggle either.
Vaughan Roberts seems to answer both the question of the motivation of homosexuality and of the harms with what I listed as option a. (see both a) and b) points above). However the b) points are what I assume to be implied by those Christians who say that homosexuality is wrong. That’s because of the people in the name of Christianity who make those specific claims and it’s because it’s hard for me to see how you could agree with position a) in both questions and yet still say that gayness is wrong. I could only say that gay sex is always wrong if I believed that;
- homosexual and heterosexual desire for relationship are not basically the same aspiration
- and a gay life is consistently observably harming.
Grossly simplifying the whole discussion, people advocating for the celebration of same sex relationships want to move people from position b) to position a) in regard to the above two questions. That is really the entirety of the debate for someone like myself. In Vaughan’s piece it very much seems to me that he is already there or at least is able to be there without contradicting anything he says in his interview. My arguments and indeed those of any gay movements whose history I know are exhausted once Vaughan gets to option a) in both questions. How then can he and I still disagree?
Vaughan gives one reason and one reason only, for saying that he shouldn’t act on his same-sex attraction. He believes that it is the opinion of his scriptures. I do disagree with him on this. I disagree both that his scriptures are all that clear on the issue of homosexuality and that his scriptures reflect anything more than opinions on moral matters. I don’t believe they are authoritative in the way he uses them. But seriously what am I going to have to do to win those arguments? His opinion that these texts are authoritative and inerrant (and mean what he thinks) is really beyond my hope of changing with argument. As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, it can be possible for a person to have a magic book that simply can never be properly tested. I remain pessimistic about that kind of discussion.
What really interests me is the question of if that is his only argument, does it matter? If both he and I agree that homosexual and heterosexual attraction should be viewed as similar motivations and that a person might find (and bring to others) happiness in a same-sex relationship then can we oddly agree to disagree on the actual morality of homosexual behaviour? Vaughan really seems to be saying that the only reason homosexuality is wrong is the attitude of his God. That puts a gay lover at risk of metaphysical harms – i.e. Gods punishment, however I don’t believe in either that God or his punishment. It follows then that Vaughan hasn’t said anything with meaning for me. Can I therefore feel hurt by that? Should I simply say that that is his religion and I have mine?
I’m not sure about any conclusion to this. I am not interested in either sowing dissension or even striving for consensus for no good reason. Vaughan sounds just as concerned as I am about the lack of love shown people who experience same sex attraction. Maybe we should just agree to disagree. I really like his views on whether sexual orientation can change as well. But so much still seems unresolved. If a happy and healthily motivated gay relationship can still be called sin that’s not where I’d hoped we’d end up. I thought being able to convince people that gay lives weren’t sick and suffering ones would mean they would also say gay is ok. It may not though, because of some people’s allegiance to the words in their magic book. I really don’t know where a conversation could go from here.
I realize I have made “an argument from silence”, that is I have made an act of speech out of what Vaughan hasn’t said. This ignores that he might say it elsewhere (such as in his book which I haven’t read). Or that his silence may mean something else than how I’ve interpreted it. If you think that’s the case based on knowing him better please comment. I do think it’s a pretty loud silence on his behalf given the history and context I’ve outlined.