Gay Suicide and the Ethic of Love: A Progressive Christian Response

More often than not, conservatives represent the internal Christian debate over the ethics of homosexuality as if it were between those who hold firm to traditional Christian values and those who have sold out to secular culture. But this way of framing the debate ignores the real motivations of progressive Christians like myself—motivations that spring from real human tragedies.

The other day a young gay man in Oklahoma took his own life. This is not a new or even an unusual occurrence, although it comes in the wake of a string of highly publicized suicides by young gay men; suicides blamed on bullying. But Zach Harrington’s suicide last week highlights the fact that for sexual minorities in America, the problem runs much deeper than overt bullying—at least as that term is ordinarily understood.

Harrington killed himself, not because he was being bullied, but because he became painfully conscious of the self-righteous intolerance of a large segment of his community. Just about a week before he ended his life, Harrington attended a Norman city council meeting in which a proposal to recognize GLBT History Month in the city was debated. Although the outcome was to approve the proclamation, the debate leading up to the vote was hardly an affirmation of gay identity.

On the contrary, the vote became an occasion for those with the most hateful views to be handed a microphone and afforded the chance to tell the community just how sick, sinful, perverted, and disgusting their gay and lesbian neighbors are. According to the Tulsa World report, Harrington’s father “said he feels his son may have glimpsed a hard reality at the Sept. 28 council meeting, a place where the same sentiments that quietly tormented him in high school were being shouted out and applauded by adults the same age as his own parents.”

Predictably, many of the Norman residents who spoke out against the proclamation justified their stance by appealing to biblical teachings. The message was clear: honoring GLBT history was, in their view, an insult to God. As they saw it, the very creator of the universe stood against homosexuality so strongly that any gesture of recognition, any acknowledgment of the lives and struggles of our gay and lesbian neighbors, was an atrocity. To the ears of a young gay man like Zach Harrington, this could only be heard as a fundamental rejection: your life and your struggles don’t matter, because you are an atrocity.

Wearing the Cloak of Righteousness

For Christian progressives like myself, this appeal to Scripture and God to justify anti-gay teachings is both tragic and appalling. But our reasons aren’t rooted in some treasonous embrace of the individualistic permissivism of secular culture. They’re rooted in the law of love. To wear the cloak of biblical righteousness while promulgating the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is, as we see it, unloving.

But why think that? The knee-jerk response of Christian conservatives is to say that it is always possible to love the sinner while hating the sin. Now, since sin is by definition toxic, I actually agree that one can’t love sinners without hating what really is a sin. But sometimes it’s unloving to take something to be a sin in the first place. Sometimes it’s the condemnation of a behavior, rather than the behavior itself, that’s toxic and should be called sin.

Consider a father who forbids all childhood play. Such a prohibition is devastating to the healthy development of children. Even if the father means to promote his children’s welfare but is seriously misguided, this just goes to show how sharp the disconnect is between what the father means to do and what he’s actually doing. No loving person would endorse this prohibition if they knew the truth.

Is the traditional prohibition on homosexual intimacy like that? I think so. And the reason I think so is because, for many years now, I’ve been listening to my gay and lesbian neighbors. I’ve listened to their stories and tried to put myself in their shoes. I’ve heard how the prohibition on “homosexuality” cuts deeper than a mere condemnation of a specific act like adultery. It condemns the very sexuality of gays and lesbians. It condemns who they are. It condemns their love.

When the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is widespread in society, young gays and lesbians learn from an early age that they’ll never be equal and fully accepted members of their community. They cannot change their intimate feelings (even though many try and try, especially those who grow up in conservative Christian environments). And so, if they do form an intimate partnership, their society will spurn it. Every tender moment, every act of faithfulness, every effort to strengthen the bonds of love will be seen as more evidence of their commitment to sin. While their straight friends and siblings can hope to fall in love and have their most important partnerships lifted up, celebrated, and supported by the community, the best that sexual minorities can hope for is to slip under the radar, unnoticed by those who would call their loving partnerships abomination.

Some internalize this condemnation. They accept the message that their deepest impulse toward love and intimacy is an affront to God. And since that impulse is an ineradicable feature of who they are, some come to see their very existence as a blight on the world.

Their rejection of me is as deep as their faith.”

Perhaps a young gay man convinces himself that the rejection and scorn he experienced in high school was just an expression of teenage immaturity. As he moves forward into the adult world, it is with the hope that he is finally leaving behind the social marginalization of his youth. But then his hopes are crushed. Perhaps it is the humiliation of having his romantic intimacy broadcast to the world—combined with a deep shame he can’t shake off, the sense that his love is sin.

Or perhaps it’s a city council meeting in which God and morality are invoked, over and over, by representatives of the community to justify the kind of marginalization and contempt he’s lived with growing up. And he thinks to himself, “Their rejection of me is as deep as their faith.” If a part of him wasn’t convinced that God really did reject him, he might rise up and fight. If someone had pressed into his fingers at that pivotal moment the phone number for The Trevor Project, he might reach out and hear a voice of reassurance, a voice that gave him hope for life by, in part, repudiating the so-called biblical teaching that who he is amounts to an offense against God. If he’d had a sense of belonging to a community that embraced him for who he is, maybe his hope wouldn’t be so fully shattered.

But while other minorities typically grow up as part of a community that accepts them for who they are (as black, say, or Jewish), sexual minorities routinely grow up with a sense of deep isolation, especially when their most immediate community is one that condemns homosexuality. Even if they know on some level that there are communities out there that would accept them for who they are, this abstract knowledge may not mean much next to their experience with the community they identify as their own.

Sometimes this sense of isolation and rejection can be almost too much to bear, and all it takes is a final gesture of denunciation or scorn to spark an act of self-obliteration.

This is not a pretty picture, but it’s the one that emerges when we really pay attention to the lives and stories of our gay and lesbian neighbors. And in the light of this picture, it’s hard to escape the obvious conclusion: It isn’t homosexuality but its condemnation that has the toxic character of sin. It’s not Zach Harrington’s romantic impulses that threaten the beloved community. That threat comes from somewhere else—from, for example, angry citizens at a city council meeting declaring that a symbolic gesture of acceptance is akin to deliberately infecting our public schools with depravity.

Jesus said that we should distinguish true and false teachings by their fruits. And the teaching that homosexuality is a sin—that, in the words of the Southern Baptist Convention, even the desire for homosexual sex is “always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent, and perverted”—this is a teaching that time and again has born poisonous fruits. The shattered promise of Zach Harrington’s life is just one more example in a painful litany.

In the face of that litany defenders of the traditional Christian view dismiss reformers as sell-outs to secular culture. They thump the Bible and quote Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:24-27 as if that settled the matter. Of course, that would settle the matter if one blindly accepted the idea that every passage in the Bible, in its most straightforward reading, represents the inerrant word of a perfectly loving God.

But if we accept this idea, either we’ll need to ignore the lessons drawn from sensitive and empathetic attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, or we’ll need to refrain from practicing such attention at all. After all, when we do attend to gays and lesbians (as love for them calls us to do), it becomes hard to escape the judgment that the supposedly biblical condemnation of homosexuality has been carving a path of destruction through their lives for generations.

And so, if you accept the conservative view about the Bible’s content and its relation to God, either you’ll need to stifle the lessons of compassion and empathy, or you’ll need to refuse to listen with compassion and empathy in the first place.

But can you really have the right theory about a book if the book teaches you to love your neighbors as yourselves, but your theory about it demands that you stifle the character traits most intimately associated with love? If your theory about the Bible leads you to ignore or refuse to hear the suffering cries of your gay and lesbian neighbors, wouldn’t that be a reason to rethink your theory? Put more forcefully, how many gays and lesbians, crushed by the weight of anti-gay teachings, have to kill themselves before we decide that, just maybe, our theory about the Bible isn’t the best fit with the idea that God is love—and hence isn’t the best fit with the content of the Bible itself?

Any theory of the Bible that requires me to ignore my neighbors in favor of teasing out the correct meaning of Romans 1:24-27 seems to do an injustice to the Bible’s heart. If there’s a core message to the Christian Scriptures, it’s that Jesus—a person, not a book—is the fundamental revelation of God. It’s Jesus that John’s Gospel calls the “Word of God,” not the Bible. And in the Gospels, not only does Jesus say nothing about homosexuality, but He is recorded as saying that He comes to us in the form of the neighbor in need—“even the least of these” (Matthew 25:37-40).

Conservatives tell me that when I reject the condemnation of homosexuality I’m selling out to secular values. But the reality is the opposite. Were I not a Christian, I might not be so passionate about gay rights. My passion, born from my commitment to an ethic of love, is intensified every time a young person like Zach Harrington comes to me crying out in need or despair, too often in the most tragic terms.

Confronted with their anguish, how can I fail to see the face of Christ?

eric.reitan@okstate.edu'

Eric Reitan, an award-winning scholar and writer, teaches philosophy at Oklahoma State University. His most recent book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2009.