This is the second part of the interview I conducted with Justin Lee, the founder and chief executive of the Gay Christian Network in the United States, which has thousands of members and hosts an annual conference. Following on from the huge amount of interest generated by last month’s review of his book, Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate, Justin kindly agreed to answer my questions exploring issues that gay people face within the church. Because he answered my questions in so much depth, I’ve decided to split the interview into two parts in order that they are more manageable. The second installment of the interview will be published later this week.
6. A question I struggle with is whether it is possible for straight Christians to comment on how gay people should live their lives without sounding judgemental? How valid can my views be not fully knowing what it’s like to be gay?
This can be very tricky, and it’s something many Christians struggle with. I don’t think you have to be gay in order to have an opinion on same-sex marriage or the morality of gay sex. As a Christian, of course you’re going to have views on these things. But I think there are two important things to keep in mind as well.
One is that gay people are used to hearing Christians tell them, over and over again, that they’re sinning. Adding one more Christian voice echoing that same refrain isn’t likely to do much good. What gay people really need is to hear more compassionate Christian voices focused on affirming their humanity first and foremost. That doesn’t mean a Side B Christian (one who thinks that gay sex is inherently morally wrong) has to change his views, of course. When Jesus intervened in the case of the woman being stoned for adultery, he wasn’t condoning adultery. He simply recognized that what she needed was more compassion, not more condemnation.
The other thing to keep in mind is that it can be very easy to make pronouncements about how other people should live without really understanding the challenges they actually face. Let’s say you believe that because I am gay, I should commit myself to lifelong celibacy rather than entering a relationship with a guy. I can respect that as your theological view. (Even some gay Christians share that view.) But rather than stopping there, I’d hope that you’d work hard to get to know me, to understand my story, and to consider all the challenges I’d face as a celibate gay Christian. How would I get my needs for love and intimacy met? How do I deal with the loneliness of being single or the prejudice against me because I’m gay? Who would take care of me if I am someday unable to care for myself? With all the time the church has spent talking about whether gay sex is sinful, it has spent relatively little time thinking about what its role should be in helping to address these practical questions, to provide community and support to the gay Christians in its midst. If the church only expresses opinions without offering the supportive follow-through, it comes across as unfeeling.
7. Are there certain things that straight Christians have a habit of doing that really irritate you as someone who is gay?
The thing I find most troubling is when people make assumptions about me or lecture me without getting to know me as a person. As soon as they hear I’m gay, some Christians think they already know what my theological views are, or whether I’m having sex, or what my life must be like, and they are quick to quote Bible passages at me or tell me why being gay is a sin. Instead, I wish they would take the time to ask me about my story first and get to know me for me. They might be surprised that I’m not the person they imagined me to be.
In the end, friendships can only last if people are willing to accept that they are going to disagree on some things. Suppose, for example, that you eat meat and your best friend is a vegetarian who believes that eating meat is morally wrong. Surely you would be respectful of her views, and you wouldn’t ask her to change her views to suit yours. But if she constantly harassed you about your dietary practice, so that you couldn’t enjoy time with her without hearing another lecture about your sin, I imagine that in time, your friendship with her would suffer or disappear entirely. That’s how it is for me as a gay Christian. I know that some of my Christian friends disagree with some of my views, but if they constantly bring it up and try to change my mind over and over again, it’s difficult for us to have a healthy friendship.
8. In your book you’ve criticised the practice of ex-gay therapy. There’s currently a debate going on in the UK about how ethical these therapies are and whether they should be banned. The argument mainly concerns whether people should have the right to take part in this type of therapy if they choose to, irrespective of their effectiveness. Do you have any thoughts on whether restriction of ex-gay therapies would be a positive move, or is it more a case of educating people on the risks and success rates?
That’s a difficult question. In general, I prefer to advocate for people’s freedom of choice on almost every issue. But there are limitations. Our governments do regulate the claims advertisers can make and the products companies are able to sell, particularly in cases where people’s health is at stake. If a company comes out with a new medicine, but scientific tests prove that it is ineffective and dangerous, we would expect the government to take it off the market. If ex-gay therapy were a pill, it would certainly have been banned years ago, based on the studies that have been done about its lack of effectiveness and the real damage that has been done to people.
But a lot of this also has to do with what the therapy is or isn’t promising. I believe it is unethical for someone to promise that they can change people’s orientation through therapy, turning gay people straight. Many years of attempts have shown that therapy can’t promise to take away a gay person’s same-sex attractions or give them opposite-sex attractions, even though a gay person can choose to marry a member of the opposite sex (though I don’t advise it). On the other hand, therapy can help people work through questions of sexual addiction, inappropriate sexual behaviour, feelings of inadequacy, past abuse, or other related issues. It’s just important to realize that this doesn’t turn gay people straight.
9. There is currently an equal marriage bill going through the UK parliament, which looks like it will probably be successful. President Obama has also spoken of his support for equal marriage. How much of an issue is equal marriage beyond civil partnerships on the forums of the Gay Christian Network (GCN) and is there a general consensus regarding it?
The Gay Christian Network has members on both sides of the marriage debate. Some of our members are Side B gay Christians; they are attracted to the same sex but believe it would be wrong for them to act on those feelings. Others are Side A, including many who are in monogamous relationships and would like for marriage to be equally recognized for gay and straight couples.
To be honest, though, most of us don’t spend very much of our time at GCN talking about marriage laws. Our goal has much more to do with building bridges and helping Christians to be more loving and supportive of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people both inside and outside of the church.
10. Where do you feel God is leading you at the moment with your work, especially with the GCN? Do you have any idea what lies ahead?
In a world that has become very polarized around these issues, I’d like to be a voice of compassion and reason, talking to people on both sides about how they can better understand and reach out to those who disagree with them. That’s what I’m working to do with GCN, with my speaking engagements, and with my book. I’m going to keep doing that as long as I can. If I can be that bridge for people, I’ll be happy.
A very big thank you to Justin for spending the time answering my questions. His book, Unconditional: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs-Christians Debate is published by Hodder & Stoughton and can be purchased from various book retailers including Amazon, here.