Relating, “Knowing One,” and Politics in the Church

Dawne Moon,
addressing the 2009 Conference

Moon_Dawne_2009It’s really great for me to be here, because Presbyterians were actually my first contact with people who believed there was a place for gay people in the church. My best friend’s family when I was growing up were members of Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. It was a More Light congregation very early on. I myself grew up Methodist, in a very devout family; my mother eventuallybecame a Methodist pastor after my brother and I had gone away. I left the church because of the issues that a lot of you have with the church. Dealing with the exclusivity and the small-mindedness of people, eventually after years just wore me down until the entire thing became implausible.

Actually a recent study found that the preponderance of gays and lesbians leave the churches or the religion that they grew up in, whatever it is. My research has been in a lot of ways an attempt to reconcile the just baffling ideas that I was confronted with growing up in the church and trying to make sense of what was going on in a very confusing place with a lot of double talk and a lot of hypocrisy. So I appreciate very much the work that organizations like this are doing, to address that. I think that it’s very powerful and very important kind of work to be doing. I am speaking to you from the position of somebody who does identify as secular, but hopefully what I’m saying will resonate in some way.

The church we can see from here: I don’t know much about that. But I know that it’s going to be shaped in part by the struggles that are happening today, and not just the outcome of those struggles, but the process. And that’s what I want to talk about. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when politics come into the church, in spite of what a lot of the people that I encountered in doing my research felt. A lot of people just thought politics is the opposite of the good. Whatever they maintained is good, other people were being political: They’re selfish and political, they’re cynical and political; I’m selfless, I’m gracious, I’m devoted to God, they’re devoted to politics, they’re worldly.

I don’t think that’s what politics is. I think politics is the means to achieving the good. The problem is that when these struggles become intractable, it can be exhausting, it can be aggravating, people get burned out, people leave. Part of the reason that those struggles become intractable is that it’s hard to listen to each other; it’s very wearing because these arguments touch not just on our ideas about what should happen in the world but our world views, our understandings of who we are, who God is and what God intends for us. To have to argue about this constantly can be really tedious, to say the least. The problem is that when we can’t listen to each other, it’s impossible to find a way forward.

I’ve observed recently that political struggle can be productive when it has within it an element of reconciliation, or what Martin Buber called “dialogue.” In the 1960s and ‘70s, racial reconciliation theologians developed ways to deal with the racial tensions in this country and the church and pointed out that we can’t have real reconciliation without whites recognizing and repenting of power differentials, the social structural forms that racism takes. But of course, it’s been a lot easier for whites, those with the power, to focus on being friends, reconciliation at an individual level, rather than working for changes that would actually involve a sacrifice of authority, a sacrifice of material privileges and benefits that whites just get naturally, whether we want them or not. The gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual case is not exactly parallel; but we can learn a lot from racial reconciliation.

For instance, never forgetting that when it comes to the church, this isn’t a question of equal sides duking it out; one side has a great deal more authority. The struggles for racial justice, or any justice, are rarely evenly matched. That’s why it’s a struggle for justice. I actually learned a lot more about dialogue and reconciliation in a completely different case – in the case of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue. This work shed light on things that I was seeing in my earlier research on United Methodists’ debates about homosexuality. So today I’ll share some of my observations from my work as a sociologist that might help people to see a way through conflict and point forward. Some of it might be familiar to some of you no doubt, and I don’t doubt that many people here in this room have more experience than I have with techniques of dialogue and reconciliation. Hopefully, I’ll raise some questions and give people something to think about.

Different people are different

But first, there are some things to keep in mind as we begin this discussion. The first thing to keep in mind is that different people are different. Don’t forget this; you might want to write it down.

Different people are different.  It seems pretty obvious; but when it comes to sexuality, we often forget it.  We often assume that if we know one person who is a certain way, then everybody else who’s kind of like them must be the exact same way.  When Alfred Kinsey did his research on human sexuality in the 1940s, he came up with the seven-point scale of just behavioral variation in people’s lives. Zero is exclusively heterosexual, Six is exclusive homosexual, and this is just in terms of people’s sexual liaisons.  One would be incidental homosexual behavior.  Three is equal parts heterosexual and homosexual behavior.  Five would be incidental homosexual behavior.  Even numbers there are more than incidental, but still predominantly either heterosexual or homosexual. So people could fit anywhere in here, just in regards to behavior.

Part of what this suggests is that someone might vary over time.  If somebody has had one sexual experience in his or her life, that is going to put them either in 0 or 6, but the more experiences they have, the more possible it is for them to be somewhere in the middle.  If we judge or determine somebody’s sexual orientation based on their behavior, then their sexual orientation could change as a result of just having more experience.  He was just talking about behavior.

But besides behavior, sexuality also includes identity and attraction or desire.  Sexuality varies in regards to all of these things. So if you’re talking about homosexuality, or same-sex orientation, you could have behavior and identity: you can have gay sex, you can identify as gay, but you might not have the attraction.  For instance, in the early ‘70s there was the idea among certain circles of feminists that it was anti-feminist to be involved with a man, so even if you might prefer that, you would work on conditioning yourself to appreciate being with women.  You can have behavior and attraction:  you can have gay sex; you can like it and want to do it, without the identity.  For example:  No, no, no, I’m not gay, that’s just what we do in the locker room after the football game.

Different people are different. People can vary in terms of attraction, in terms of behavior, in terms of identity in a lot of very complicated ways.  That’s one big difference.  And as I suggested in talking about Kinsey, some people can vary over time.  Not because they think that the way they were was wrong and then they repent.  Of course people change in that way too sometimes, often with completely disastrous consequences.  Sometimes people do witness to it working for them.

Or sometimes, someone could be attracted to one person for a long time and then their desire just shifts over the course of their life.  A study of bisexuals found that bisexuals tend to identify as either gay or straight, depending on the gender of their partner at the time.  It’s not necessarily because of any motivation on their part, it’s not because of their views, their political opinions change; it’s because their friends change.  If a woman was in a partnership with another woman, she’s going to be doing lesbian things, hanging out with lesbians, and if they break up and eventually she gets with a man, her friends may say, “What’s that about, so do you hate us now?”  They tend to just fall away from their old friends, so their identification changes, not because of any motivation on their own part, just because of who they happen to be with.  So some individuals vary over time.

If one person changed, that doesn’t mean we all can or should.  Often people say, “Oh well, I know this guy; he’s with Exodus International.  He wrote this testimony, he changed; therefore everybody can change.  No gay person should ever have to live as gay, because look at this guy Andy, he changed.”  It doesn’t follow, just because something does happen, that means it should happen for everybody or it could happen for everybody. Similarly, gay people often say, “I tried to change, and it didn’t work; therefore no one can change.”   It’s the same kind of fallacy as saying if it’s true for one person then it must be true for everybody, because it’s hard for us to remember when we’re talking about sexuality that different people are different.

Just as there is a wide range of experience, of attraction, of identification, there’s also a wide range of views.  I always surprise my students by telling them there are not just two religious views about homosexuality, good/bad or born/choice.  There are a lot of different kinds of views.  It’s important not to let our stereotypical understandings of what someone must think become frozen, so that as we engage and struggle with somebody who disagrees with us, we’re just arguing with a stereotype instead of listening to them.

Six religious views of homosexuality

I want to share with you this little typology I developed: Religious views of homosexuality.  I’m going to talk about six different kinds of religious views, just to shake things up a little bit.  There might be seven, I don’t know.  It’s possible that somebody can use aspects from different views, people can overlap, people can change their minds, people can be sort of muddled or confused, or they might have a perfectly coherent view that draws from different aspects of this.  This is just a heuristic tool to help us to sort out the different kinds of views that might be there.  It’s really important to actually listen to where somebody’s coming from – not where you think they are coming from.  Basically, we’re going to have two anti views, two middle views, and two pro views.

“Anti” views

The first anti view is the “God hates fags” view, the Fred Phelps view.  If you ever see Fred Phelps and the members of his family picketing your church or something like that with their little grandchildren holding the signs with the stick figures going at it, whatever, “No tears for queers,” that’s what I’m talking about.  This very, very deeply anti-gay view that maintains that homosexuality is evil is not limited to Fred Phelps, alas. I’ve talked to people who were told, once they were caught having sex with someone of the same sex, or once they told their pastor they were gay, “You know, there’s just no place for you in our church.  Get out.  We do not want your kind here.”  In this view, homosexuals are evil people and they don’t belong in the church – they’re the opposite to the church. People often tend to assume that anybody who believes homosexuality is sinful probably also thinks that.

This view has been around a long time.  But decades ago people started saying, “Wait a minute, the church is supposed to be for everybody; it’s unchristian to shut people out of the church,” and there started to be some movement in that area.  That led to the more common “Love the sinner, hate the sin” view that might be very familiar to you.  It’s not the same as “God hates fags.”  This view draws from truth with integrity and says, “Yes, it is unchristian to shut gay people out of the church, but we’re firmly convinced that the Bible prohibits homosexuality in these ways, and it’s a sin.”  We’re all sinners but Jesus said to the woman at the well, “Go and sin no more.  I don’t condemn you, but go and sin no more.”

Often the analogy is made that homosexuality is like alcoholism.  Even if it is innate, that doesn’t make it healthy or good.  Getting people to explain to me how homosexuality hurts people was very difficult.  I never got a very satisfying answer:  “It hurts themselves, because they’re not supposed to be doing it because God said no.  If my brother had come out as gay, it would have hurt my dad, because my dad hates fags.”  It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless we think about it as some kind of illness or disease.  There are dysfunctions in people’s lives, there are genetic dispositions to do things that are harmful, and it’s the job of not just the church, but of any loving community, to help people not to hurt themselves, to help people to get better.  Just because it’s innate, doesn’t make it good.  We’re born illiterate, we’re born not potty-trained.  These are not good things; we have to overcome them.  Similarly, some people might have to overcome homosexuality.  One man said to me, “This view that people are born gay and can’t help it just takes away free will.  We all have choices, we’re not robots; and to say that gay people are robots, gay people have no free will and straight people do, is insulting to gay people.”

The “ex-gay” movement clearly fits in here.  Gay people belong in the church, as long as they repent of their homosexuality.  We can welcome them as friends, we can have them at our table, we can have special training sessions to teach them how to play baseball, and they do this.  We can offer therapeutic help in the form of support groups so they can try and overcome it.  I could go on for hours about the ex-gay movement; I find it fascinating.  Two kinds of views that maintain that homosexuality is sinful, that are very different.  In one, it’s fixed in evil people, and in the other it’s not.  These are very different views of personhood.

Middle views

One of the middle views is a little more anti-gay; one is a little more pro-gay.  The first moderate view is:  “We don’t talk about that, why are you talking about this?  We don’t talk about that, why are you still talking about it?”  There’s a positive thing about this, that it can give people space to live their lives, because if no one talks about it, then as long as you don’t get caught, you’re fine.  And if you get caught, no one will talk about it.  So it gives you space to live your life.

On the other hand, there’s a burden, of being in the closet and having people say, “Why aren’t you married yet?” or having people say, “Why are you still living with that person?”  There are huge burdens to it, and it can involve a lot of drained energy, but there’s still the space to live your life.

Interestingly, this is actually the view found in traditional Islam.  We don’t tend to think that, because now in Europe and North America, we tend to think of ourselves as liberal, and Islam as very conservative.  Originally, in the late 19th century, early 20th century, when Europeans started investigating the Orient, which included the Middle East for them, the problem they had with Muslims is that they were too tolerant of homosexuality.  Now that we envision ourselves as so tolerant, now the problem with them is that they’re too anti-gay.  It’s just that they don’t talk about it.  And if you force them to talk about it, they’ll say, “Well, sure yeah, that’s sinful now that you mention it, but why are you talking about this?”

The second moderate view is moving toward the progressive edge, moving toward the accepting end.  It’s a view that espouses tolerance.  It says gay people are born that way and they can’t help it.  This is probably very common in movements like this.  One of my colleagues was in my office the other day, fuming about her students’ intolerance, since gay people can’t help being gay. But this view depends on innateness to make it OK. In this view, anybody who’s anything except exclusively homosexual, a 6 on the Kinsey scale, should do what it takes to be with someone of the other sex. This view implies that if you can possibly help it, you should; but if you can’t help it, we shouldn’t be mean to you.  It implies that not only can’t homosexuality be chosen, but it wouldn’t be chosen – who would choose that terrible thing, who would choose that sad life?

To say the least, it’s not very affirming of gay life.  It’s not very affirming of the wonderful, positive things that come out of it.  It lends itself to a view that homosexuality is a sickness; “those poor souls can’t help it.” It’s not that they intend to look on gay people as pitiful people; but it does force gay men, lesbians, transgender people, bisexual people into this sort of role of the piteous person, the pitiful person.  Similarly, the guy who said “We’re not robots, we have choices, you’re selling these people short,” told me that everybody is inherently bisexual, and it’s everybody’s job to fight off those same-sex urges.  I said, “Really? I’ve met some straight people would say they’ve never had any desire for people of the same sex as them.”  He responded, “They’re lying.”  The reason he knew this was because his roommate in college was a biologist who had mice in his cage, and there were two male mice in the cage and they would have sex.  This doesn’t tell us anything about people, but tells us a lot about this guy who was speaking, but he maintains that we have choices:  I have made a conscious choice to stay on God’s path and to reject my desires for other men, and it’s selling people short to say that they can’t possibly do that because they just can’t help themselves.  It implies if you have any choice at all, you should choose heterosexuality, because it’s great.

These are two middle views:  We don’t talk about sex, and They’re born that way, they can’t help it.  One’s a little more towards the anti side, one’s a little more towards the pro side; but they’re kind of in the middle.

Pro-gay views

The first pro-gay view is the “God’s good creation” view, that God makes some people lesbians, God makes some people transgender, God makes some people bisexual or gay, and that that diversity teaches us more about God’s love.  That diversity teaches us about the different forms that love can take.  It teaches us about the ways that love can transcend social convention.  If we appreciate God’s creation, then we have to appreciate everything that God produces.  Absolutely.  This view also lends itself to the “Of course they’re born that way, of course it’s not a choice” view.  People who embrace this kind of paradigm get very uncomfortable with the idea of somebody changing.  If God made you that other way, then why would you change?

That leads to the sixth view, the “godly calling” view, and as Presbyterians I know the calling is much more familiar a concept to you than the Methodists I was working with before.  You can be called to be a nurse; you don’t have to be born a nurse, you can be called to be a nurse and answer God’s call to be a nurse.  You can answer God’s call to being a pastor.  In queer theology, there’s the assumption, the understanding that you can be called to be transgender, you can be called to be lesbian or gay or bisexual.  You can choose to answer that call, to live in a way, for instance, that challenges the idol people make of social convention, seeing social convention as something that God mandated rather than something people invented to make it easier to tax people or something.  To choose to answer the call, to live outside of those conventions can be a positive choice that somebody can make.  There’s a theologian by the name of Eugene Rogers who makes the argument that God’s love isn’t expressed for human beings in reproduction, in procreation. Because there’s sort of a mandate to do that, people do it because they think they’re supposed to, people do it because they see it as a sort of an evolutionary imperative to be fruitful and multiply, or to just that species reproduce themselves.  He says that God’s love is like adoption.  God’s love is freely chosen; it’s the deepest, most powerful love, and it’s chosen.  God chooses to love us as people.  For him, same-sex relationships are chosen in spite of all the odds, in spite of the failings that human beings have, in spite of the disappointments. In our fallenness, God chooses to love human beings anyway.

Similarly, in spite of all the crap you can get for being gay, you choose to love anyway, and that teaches us about God’s love.  In this view, homosexuality doesn’t have to be innate to be righteous – which is a fine thing, because whatever anybody says, science is not anywhere near proving that homosexuality is innate.  I don’t think it ever will, because sexuality is far more complicated than genes.  It’s possible that some people are born more disposed to like this kind of person, or that kind of person. But what happens in the course of childhood development, what options are available in a particular society, all of that is so huge and so profoundly shaping of who a person is, that isolating a gene isn’t going to be the last word in any of it, particularly because it could be like alcoholism.  There could be a genetic disposition to alcoholism too.  It doesn’t answer the argument, it doesn’t challenge the view. Finding the gay gene could just immediately lead to a whole eugenic movement to abort those fetuses or something.  It doesn’t have to be innate to be righteous.  Who cares if it’s innate or not?  It’s a good thing; it’s a good choice, it’s actually affirming to people whose lives have taken that shape.

These are our six views; and in the course of talking with people, how do you know where somebody stands?  Well, it might help to listen to them.  I’m not saying it necessarily will, because some people just talk a bunch of nonsense, but it could help to listen to them.  There are some very smart people that believe it or not, disagree with us.  It can happen.  Remember that different people are different, not just when it comes to sexuality itself, but views of sexuality.  So don’t treat people as stereotypes.  We have to ask them about their views and really listen to them.

Dialogue and non-dialogue

That brings me to this idea of dialogue.  I know that there are many different forms this takes and that you’re involved with.  There are techniques for this; I’m not going to talk about what these techniques are, I’m just a sociologist.  There are a lot of people who are highly trained in really helpful, productive techniques of dialogue that might be useful at some point as you engage in this struggle.

I want to start with telling a story of what dialogue is not. The congregation that I’m going to talk about did a lot right; but hopefully, seeing what not to do from a distance may make it easier to see it when it happens in our own lives.  In one of the congregations where I did my field research, some meetings were organized by people who thought the church needed to welcome lesbians, gay men and bisexuals into every aspect of the church’s life.  They wanted to become a Reconciling congregation.  These organizers tended to have a very clear view of what was getting in the way of this congregation becoming a Reconciling congregation.  The problem was this:  there were people who were either ignorant about homosexuality, or they were just afraid of homosexuality and of gay people.  They took the word “homophobia” literally.  The organizers attempted to have some reconciliation meetings – seven to eight on Wednesday nights.  Underlying the organization of these meetings was the organizers’ understanding that we’ve got to be efficient about this and move forward, but also that after we have this conversation, then all these stupid people who are being driven by fear will realize that their ideas are stupid and they’ll realize that their fears are unfounded and then they’ll change their minds, or at least step aside, and then we can get on with things.  That didn’t really set up a dialogue, interestingly enough.

That wasn’t lost on the people who disagreed with the organizers’ view – people who believed there are very clear prohibitions in the Bible, who did not feel afraid, who were not ignorant, and who were just insulted by the whole operation.  For instance, Mark was a lawyer in his late 30s, who believed that the Bible prohibited homosexuality for reasons of social order.  In an interview after the meeting he attended, he told me, “This reconciling congregation thing, if you observe the way they’re carrying it out, is really very targeted, one-sided; they’re pushing this thing through.  It’s not, well let’s go out and find out how people really feel, it’s: Put them in a room, make them feel uncomfortable, have some minister say that if you think homosexuality is a sin, then you’re probably going to get a gun and shoot a homosexual if you meet one. And then say, ‘How do you feel about the issue?’”  We both laughed when he said that.  He said, “The guy sitting next to me, who was a minister from a neighboring Reconciling congregation, said his discussion was very similar.  He said if you’re opposed to this, then you’re a homophobe, you’re sick, you’re like an apartheid fan – something like that.  I believe it’s just hopeless that they would find out how people actually feel by doing that.  I don’t think they want to know how people feel.  So this wasn’t actually as helpful an operation as it could have been.

In fact, at that meeting, Mark participated in a heated discussion; he said something, and a lot of people started talking over him.  The main person who was taking him on was a woman named Marcia, who had a lesbian daughter. At this meeting, Mark presented a viewpoint that the people of God must stand against homosexuality, both to promote God’s will, and to preserve social order.  A third participant had said something about what he described as the church’s homophobia, and Mark replied, “Is someone homophobic if they think homosexuality is contrary to God’s teachings?  There’s a reason to think homosexuality is not OK, and it’s not a phobia.  It has to do with social order.  Is the idea that homosexual relationships will be seen as comparable to, or as good as heterosexual ones?”

That might have been a place to say, Yes, but nobody said yes.  Instead, Marcia interrupted him.  Marcia said, “Excuse me, but do you think they have a choice?  It seems like you’re saying they must have a choice.”  Notice he didn’t say anything about choice, but she’s projecting that.  Marcia said, “I can tell you, as the mother of three daughters, all about the same age, all with the same father, two of them are heterosexual, and the youngest one, well since she was a year and a half old I knew, she was different.  I didn’t have a name for it back then, but she’s a homosexual.  She did not choose it; in fact she tried very hard not to be.  She tried to fight it.  She was afraid to tell us.  Are you saying she chose that? – because she didn’t choose it.”

Mark said, “Yeah, well if you want to make a genetic argument…”

Marcia said, “Well, how could she have chosen it?  She fought it.  Do you know gay people?”

Mark said, “Sure. I mean they’re not my best friends, but yeah.”

Marcia, “But do you think they chose it?”

In this conversation I see a dynamic that I saw over and over and over.  When Mark began by saying that homosexuality was sinful for reasons of social order, someone could have responded by asking him more about what threat homosexuality poses: “Tell us about this threat to social order?”  You could open a conversation in that way. That’s not what happened.  Rather, Marcia argued against him from the standpoint of choice, claiming that homosexuals do not have a choice about being homosexual.

As the conversation went on, other members took on Mark’s claim about social order by arguing that gay people didn’t choose to be gay, that church members should love everyone, that it’s insensitive to call homosexuality sinful, and that love is not harmful.  Yet they did not address Mark’s central argument on its own terms.  Mark maintained that homosexuality is sinful because Christians must follow certain codes that God has laid out to mark themselves as people of God and to prevent anarchy.

Most of the people that I spoke with didn’t have that definition of sin at all.  Regardless of whether they were in the evangelical congregation or the liberal one, they generally saw sin as separation from God, which didn’t necessarily have anything to do with social order.  But no one challenged Mark’s understanding of what sin was. As I mentioned before, when he asked, “Is the idea that homosexual relationships be seen as comparable to or as good as heterosexual one?” no one said, “Yes, that’s what we’re going for, that’s the plan.”  They didn’t appear to listen to him.  They didn’t register what he was saying, so he left the meeting more convinced than ever that not only had they abandoned God, but they were cynically trying to manipulate people in the church.  Somehow, pro-gay members repeatedly found themselves unable to respond to their detractors within the language of morality, saying, “Yes, same-sex relationships are as good as heterosexual relationships.”  They found themselves unable to listen to what other people were saying, even in a forum specifically created for that purpose.

Marcia’s final gambit, as you might remember, was to ask Mark if he knew any gay people.  He responded, “Well, they haven’t been my best friends, but sure.”  For many people in this movement, it’s the experiences that they have with lesbians, gay men or transgender people or bisexuals that make them realize that there is no value difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality or normative-genderism or transgenderism.  When I was conducting my research, I would ask people how they came to their current view. Those who believed that homosexuality was sinful cited a range of things.  They would cite the Bible; they would cite their convictions. Or their knowledge that homosexuality was disordered and the creation was about creating order out of chaos.  In contrast, pro-gay church members repeatedly answered the question, How did you come to your views, by talking about somebody in their life – their brother, their child, a friend or sometimes even a speaker or a movie.  I found this a bit troubling, since people like Mark can also know gay people, without its changing anything for them.

For a long time I had trouble figuring out what is it about knowing somebody that makes a difference for some people and not for other people.  This wasn’t just in my research; there’s a more recent study that just came out last spring.  At the Methodist General Conference, a sociologist named Amanda Udis-Kessler observed pro-gay organizers chanting slogans like “See our people” and “Know your people.”  They also set up a table during the ten or eleven days of the General Conference to give delegates the opportunity to sit down and “get to know” a gay man or lesbian.  These strategies didn’t work, interestingly enough.  The assumption that “knowing one” was what made the difference, that “knowing one” was sufficient to change people’s understandings of God and humanity’s place in creation, that assumption didn’t really hold true.  The argument that if you “knew one,” then you’d change your mind, just seemed completely irrelevant to people who believed that homosexuality was sinful.

I hear that there has actually been success at the General Assembly with “personing the issue,” with finding ways that hit home and create some kind of relationship experience.

I’m open to the possibility that this could actually be effective at times for particular people, and I’d be interested to hear stories about that. Other times, organizers will set up a panel or discussion where one or a few gay men or lesbians will try to create an opportunity for something like dialogue. But often these strategies don’t actually accomplish what we hope they will.

I see a couple of shortcomings to this approach.  One, in the church settings that I’ve observed, the gay speakers often end up experiencing pain just by virtue of having to account for themselves and justify their existence in a room full of people who might be hostile about it.  Then they perform pain, and the reason that the church or the people who’ve been holdouts decide to welcome them, is because of the pain that they’ve been in.  Of course the church should welcome people who are in pain. But if the welcome of gay men and lesbians and transgender people and bisexuals is contingent on their being in pain, it can become hard for people to understand why somebody would want to be in the church if they’re not in pain.  What are you doing here?  Do you think you’ve got it all figured out?  There becomes this requirement to demonstrate pain that isn’t required of straight people, or isn’t required of putative straight people.

Similarly, a performance of gay pain doesn’t necessarily convince people that homosexuality is not sinful.  If you’re of the mindset that homosexuality is caused by family dysfunction the way alcoholism is, then of course those people are going to be in pain.  The pain isn’t because of the discrimination, the pain isn’t because they’ve been shut out of the community that they thought was supposed to cherish them with unconditional love forever.  It’s because they suffer from dysfunction; of course they’re in pain.  Pain doesn’t necessarily mean that homosexuality is OK.  It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it’s not a choice, because you can still choose.  An alcoholic can choose not to drink day to day to day, and similarly, somebody disposed towards same-sex sexual experience can choose not to do that from day to day to day.  The assumption is that they would be in less pain if they stopped doing that.

Finally, to me, sometimes these events can feel like an audition for humanity.  Not just for one’s self, but for everybody.  You know: “I’m here to just talk about myself, but really you’re going to decide whether gay people are fully human and are fully capable of doing God’s work and understanding God’s intentions as much as anybody else.  You’re going to determine that on the basis of whether I satisfy your requirements in this discussion.”  It’s like an audition to be not just a member of the church, but to be an equal part of humanity, with a few Simon Cowells in the room saying, “This is terrible, that didn’t convince me at all.”  The difficulty with these strategies, I think, is that it’s not “knowing one” that makes the difference.  It’s relating; and that’s a different thing.

Real dialogue

The strategies that were not as helpful as they could have been didn’t promote dialogue, which is Martin Buber’s term for where relating happens.  Here’s what Buber says about dialogue.  For him, each one of us has two different kinds of “I.”  There’s the “I” in an “I-It” relationship, a relationship to an object.  That can be the object of your affection; it can be the object of asking for directions or getting medical help.  It’s the “I” that is relating to an object.  He says “The “I” of the “I-It” experience is the ego, who occupies himself with his “my.”  My manner, my race, my works, my genius, my need for directions, my hope that my mom will do my laundry for me, my desire for my friend to be there and help me when I’m feeling sad.  It’s not that this kind of “I-It” relationship is a bad thing.  Calling people “it” sounds like you’re dehumanizing them, but Buber doesn’t really mean it that way.  We need to have these kinds of relationships; otherwise nothing would ever get done.

But there’s also a different kind of “I’ that comes about far more rarely than the “I” in the “I-It” relationship, and that is the “I” in the “I-You” or the “I-Thou,” the intimate you, the “I-You” connection.  He says the “I” of the “I-You” relationship is the person, open to infinite conversation, open to being touched at the core.  This kind of experience is hard to nail down.  We can’t talk about it in objective terms, but most of us have had this kind of experience, and it might not be just in a conversation with another person, it might be hearing a song that just touches you at the core, or seeing a movie or reading a book where someone is really speaking to you and you feel like you’re communing with that person.  Buber says the “you” encounters you by grace.  It cannot be found by seeking.  We can’t just will an “I-You” intimate connection into existence when we want it to happen.  It cannot be found by seeking.  He also says the relation to the “You” is unmediated.  Nothing conceptual intervenes between “I” and “You”.  No prior knowledge and no imagination, none of those stereotypes that we have of who we’re talking to.  The memory itself is changed as it plunges from particularity into wholeness.  No purpose intervenes between “You” and “I”.  No greed and no anticipation.

The reconciliation meeting, where we’re going to sit down for an hour, we’re going to have four of these so everyone can find the time to come and express their stupid fears and their ignorance, and then we’ll tell them what’s wrong with that, and then we’ll move on – that is not creating a relationship.  That is not dialogue.

Dialogue has no goal, it has no greed, it has no anticipation. It can be very difficult to find the time and to find the space and to find the energy to relate to somebody that you disagree with on a question that’s so profound and so important.  Certainly, you should not do only that, because that can be very draining and it can be very disappointing.  You might find people who aren’t actually willing to be in dialogue with you, and it’s absolutely crucial to have a home, to have the people who restore you, to have the people who energize you for the next part of the struggle.  Drawing from Buber, there’s a practice called “compassionate listening” – listening beyond statements that reflect speakers’ fear and defensiveness, or might trigger defensiveness in others.  It includes reflecting back, or articulating to a speaker the good intention behind their statements, the motivation behind their statements, intentions that the speaker might not be able to articulate her- or himself.

When Mark was talking about social order, rather than telling him how wrong he was, or making points that seemed irrelevant to him, to reflect back to him the shared values behind his comments might mean recognizing his concern for pleasing God.  To say that, “I see it’s really important to you to please God, that that’s the important thing.”  That might have been a way to open a conversation, and then you could say “Tell me more about that,” and then you could say, “For me, it really seems like pleasing God comes from more of a New Testament view of what sin is and what love is, rather than this sort of following the law kind of obedience” or something like that.  You might think of other ways that you could address this concern and move the conversation forward.  It’s hard to say exactly where it would go; but the point is to listen beyond what they’re saying, rather than just thinking, “Oh, listen to this jerk, he thinks that they have a choice,” when he’s said nothing of the kind.

Likewise, at a dialogue retreat that I attended, I met a guy, (another pseudonym) Sam, from Oregon who told me in a casual lunch conversation about meetings that he had helped to organize where environmentalists and loggers were brought together to develop land-use policies.  He remarked, “They came in with all kinds of preconceptions about each other, and sometimes it takes three meetings just to be able to have a civil conversation without people screaming at each other.”  I chuckled and asked why anybody would go back a second time.  He pointed out that if they wanted to have a say in the land-use policy, they had to keep coming back.  Eventually, he continued, they could realize that they all had things in common, that their projections onto each other weren’t accurate or fair.  Loggers didn’t hate trees and animals and want to destroy them all as fast as possible, and environmentalists weren’t concerned more about owls than people.

Buber’s concept of relating helps to shed light on a lot of what I’ve seen in these struggles.  It’s not just “knowing one,” but relating to somebody: my friend, my brother, somebody I saw in this movie.  Relating to someone who is transgender, lesbian, bisexual or gay makes the stigmatization of gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people seem preposterous, dangerous, profoundly unfair. You move from “Oh, yeah, I know it’s hard for them,” to “This is not plausible, how can you think this is OK?”  It’s the relating that makes that worldview transform.  When members of the conservative congregation that I studied, related to LBGT people, it became implausible to them that God could find gay intimacy more sinful than heterosexual intimacy, or find gay people less capable than heterosexuals of doing God’s work.  This distinction between relating and knowing one can help us to explain why pro-gay strategies have often failed, like in the case that Udis-Kessler observed and in the case that I observed.  The strategies are premised on “knowing one.” But relating can’t be willed into existence, certainly not among the unwilling.

So, how do we get to the church we can see from here?  I want to elaborate the question a bit.  To introduce the concept of dialogue, Buber tells a story about a meeting that he attended in 1914 where someone raised an objection to too many Jews being nominated to help form international organizations.  As you probably know, Buber was a Jewish theologian and sociologist.  Sensing anti-Semitism on the part of the objector, Buber raised his own objection.  Then he writes,

I no longer knew how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to people submissive to him, in a way that remains inaccessible to you, so I directly addressed the former pastor.  He stood up; I stood too.  We looked into the heart of one another’s eyes.  “It is gone,” he said.  And before everyone, we gave each other the kiss of brotherhood.  In this transformation, dialogue was fulfilled, opinions were gone. In a bodily way, the factual took place.

In Buber’s account, speaking from his heart to someone open to him, transformed the man, transformed his objection, and transformed their relationship.  What if the Christian man had not been open to Buber’s words?  What if he felt a personal stake in maintaining his authority as a Christian to decide just how many Jews should be permitted into their group?

Similarly, the question for members of this group and related organizations might be:  What do we do when others feel a personal stake in maintaining their authority as putative heterosexuals to determine whether or which non-heterosexuals should be permitted into their group?  The struggle for this movement is that the playing field isn’t even and that LGBT people have to take more risks.  That’s the struggle for social justice; things aren’t equal.  But if you can walk a fine line, dialogue can provide tools, ironically to move the struggle forward, even if at the same time, dialogue is without goals. It requires a lot of discernment to figure out when it is appropriate to pursue the conversation without goals, and when it is appropriate to bring these goals back in.

When opponents convene to make policy decisions without the transformation of consciousness that comes from relating to each other, the interaction can feel like a war between people from completely different planets.  Dialogue can give participants the opportunity to humanize each other, to see each other as members of the same moral community.  You’re like me, we’re all actually struggling for some of the same things, and we’re doing it in kind of different ways.

For Buber, relating has to emerge organically, often through what he calls shared work.  Shared work means finding opportunities to build relationships, in addition to doing this work – organizing a service project, or being on the committee to oversee the church building renovations, or singing in the choir.  Things like that can be opportunities to build relationships in a non-polarized setting.  Dialogue in good faith; listen to what people are saying and share your own thoughts without the sense that you’re just sort of spinning propaganda.  Share your story of how you came to be where you are, and invite them to share their story of how they came to be where they are.

Sharing stories is a way to overcome this polarization.  Not to interrupt the story, but to hear the story out and say, “OK, now I understand where you’re coming from a little better” can be really helpful.  I know it can also be really exhausting because sometimes you don’t really care how this person got to their stupid place.  If you can find a way to make it interesting, if you can find a way to care, it can actually help.  For me, I seriously just wanted to know what was going on in these debates, seriously wanted to understand, to set my own views aside, which is the methodological requirement of a researcher, but it’s also a helpful thing to be able to do in real life.  Just to be able to say, “I don’t want to put my views out there, I want to know where this is coming from,” and to really care about the answer, can make a difference.

Hearing what people are saying and responding to that and to the good intentions behind it, and possibly seeking training in dialogue to acquire the skills to be able to have those conversations really effectively, can be really helpful things.  But you need to find the balance.

The challenge for the future, I think, is to create dialogue opportunities that allow for real relating, not manipulative attempts to wear others down, not auditions for membership to the church or humanity, but the real kinds of non-goal-oriented relating that I’m sure many of you have experienced at some point or another.  But at the same time, there’s nothing to be gained by dropping the political aspects of the struggle, by dropping the goals.  There’s a real struggle for authority happening when it comes to matters of human sexuality; and LGBT people can’t afford to drop this struggle, and I would imagine that many of you feel that the church can’t afford for you to drop this struggle.

The most effective and exciting political movements that I’ve seen combine aspects of dialogue with a struggle to move forward, never content to just create good feelings and friendships, but always finding ways to move beyond, that somehow are not cynical. Stand on scripture, yes, and insist that this is God’s work and that movement forward has to happen. The challenge for this movement is going to be to find a creative synthesis between these two very different dynamics. I think you can do it, and I think you are doing it. It’s exciting to think back to the world that I grew up in, X number of years ago, and the world that we live in now. This movement has such momentum, is moving so forward, and this is a really hopeful thing. I think you should be firm in that hope, I think there is a lot of hope and there is a lot of good change happening. Thank you very much.

Dawne Moon,
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Marquette University

Address to the
Covenant Network of Presbyterians
November 7, 2009

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