I have read various commentators weigh in on the recent announcement by the ex-gay organization, Exodus International, that they are closing their doors and on the simultaneous apology by Alan Chambers for the harm he and the organization have caused. Some have hailed this news as a remarkable turn while others have reacted with cynicism. I am torn.
On the hand, Andrew Sullivan offers “a deep appreciation of their grace-filled decision to re-examine their conduct as Christians and see where the world may have led them astray.” John Shore, on the other hand, is skeptical, describing these announcements as “an appallingly arrogant, cruelly exploitative, and shamelessly self-serving expression of a cynicism so absolute it borders on the sublime.”
What am I to think?
As an out gay man and professor with a research interest in religion and sexuality, I reflect more on the theological implications of queer theory than on the religious and cultural world that has supported Exodus International. But God knows, that was not always the case. I was a seminarian in my early 20s when I came out to my parents and sister, an act that led my father to the precipice of taking his own life in his grief.
For years, my family flailed around together trying out various responses to this thing that had ripped apart our world; one of them was to go to a “reparative therapist” affiliated with an ex-gay movement in my hometown in North Carolina. I only went once, refusing to listen to the honeyed venom of the man who seemed so caring but told me I was caught in the grip of powerful sin that condemned me to hell unless I repented. Exodus International and other programs like it have indeed caused untold pain and harm for queer folk. Repentance from its leaders really is the only faithful response in light of that harm. But have Alan Chambers and Exodus really repented, or is John Shore right to be skeptical?
I still don’t know. So I’ve decided to wait and see. With this decision, I have realized that my evangelical Baptist upbringing is very helpful. Every summer from 7th to 12th grade, I went to camp along with other teenagers from my church. At Look Up Lodge or Ridgecrest or Camp Caswell, we would “get back in touch with Jesus” and rededicate our lives to following Him. Such testimonies were generally offered on the final night of camp as the week’s program was choreographed to lead us to this emotional pinnacle of conviction, love, adoration, fear, hope, and longing.
But what about when we got home? How long did our convictions last? That was always the question with which we sought to measure whether we were truly being led by God or by the emotions of the week. What are Alan Chambers’ convictions? How long will they last? What will he and the supporters of this “new thing”—a thing called “Reduce Fear,” the organization supplanting Exodus International—preach? Time will tell. By their fruits we shall know them.
One thing I do know. Unlike John Shore, I really don’t need Alan Chambers to change his convictions that the only kind of sexual expression inside the will of God occurs in a monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. I understand why Shore worries that “Reduce Fear” will, in fact, only offer a kinder form of condemnation as long as these beliefs still serve as the foundation for whatever Alan Chambers defines as his ministry.
But I also remember my family and the pain that we both endured and inflicted upon one another in the years after my coming out. Today my parents are both in their eighties and they attend a Baptist megachurch in my hometown, having left the church of my youth because of the judgments of some after I had sought ordination in a Baptist church as an out gay man (the optimism of a man in his 20s who has never had reason to question the support of his religious tradition is truly something to behold!).
They may not be reconciled to my being gay, but they welcome me and my partner, our two sons, and the lesbian couple with whom we co-parent our children as members of their extended family. They—and I—finally decided that we would rely more on loving each other than figuring out who was right and who was wrong. That simple, hard decision has indeed reduced fear in our family, so I’ll watch and wait to see if that is what drives Alan Chambers and this new ministry being built on the rubble of Exodus International.