Approaching Homosexuality with Empathy

empathy

By Caroline J. Simon

Homosexuality, perhaps more than any other sexual issue, has historically been couched in terms of what “we” should say about “them.” In order to guard against judgmentalism… all of us, gay or straight, should cultivate both empathy and humility as elements of our process of discernment. If you are heterosexual, try to imagine how your life would be different if the world were turned upside down—if… you often felt you had to conceal this pervasive aspect of who you are. How many small and large facts about yourself would you need to hide? Whatever you think about the issue of gay marriage, you should at least develop empathy for the extra challenges facing homosexuals. If you are homosexual, try to imagine how bewildered many heterosexuals are when they consider that sexual desires may be different for some people than everything they have known and have had culturally reinforced as both normal and normative.

None of us comes to the complex issues surrounding homosexuality without a frame shaped by our upbringing and personal experience. I was raised in a sheltered, conservative environment where I was well into adolescence before I’d even had the category “homosexual” introduced to me. It was many more years after that before I knew of someone who was homosexual. Even now, when I have friends who I know are homosexual, I generally do not go through the world with the categories “homosexual” and heterosexual” enough at the forefront of my mind for it to occur to me to wonder about people’s orientation except under special circumstances—for example, when they bring it up. Looking back on my childhood, I realize that I must have hung around peer groups where either the other kids were just as clueless as I was or where the taboos were so strong that homosexuality was not mentioned. In a way, I think this makes me better off than my children, who by grade school in the early 1990s came home from playgrounds with distressing habits of using sexual slurs that I felt the need to stamp out. “Think about what yelling “You f–” does to people; think what it does to you.” (This is the kind of exhortations children of philosophers have to put up with.) My children grew out of these childish speech patterns long ago, but perhaps none of us is without baggage from the mix of insights, deficiencies and distortions that shaped our growing up.

No matter what our differing personal experiences have been, I suggest that there should be one minimal ethical and Christian common ground: No one should demean someone because of their sexual orientation. Should we go beyond that, as some recommend, to viewing homosexuality as on a par with left-handedness? Should we all be okay with homosexuality? Being “okay with homosexuality” embraces a wide range of approaches—from not being a “gay basher” (either literally or figuratively) to unreserved affirmation of homosexual activity, whether monogamous or not, as a legitimate alternative lifestyle. Where on the spectrum should we be if we seek to be faithful to Christian understandings of humanity and sexuality? Is God “okay” with homosexuality?

However we answer those questions, we need empathy as one tool for moral discernment about homosexuality, but our empathy needs to be expansive. Some of us need to work toward empathy for those who have same-sex desire and face all sorts of challenges because of that; others of us need to cultivate empathy with people whose convictions dictate stances with which we profoundly disagree. Personal narratives from divergent perspectives can help broaden the range of our empathy.

Over a cup of coffee after a recent worship service, a man we’d just met told my husband and me that he had been an Episcopalian until a few years ago. He’d been raised an Episcopalian. But though he had resonated with the liturgy and theology of that denomination, he’d objected to the installation of an openly gay bishop by American Episcopalians. He emphasized that he is “not antigay.” He just thought that ordaining gay bishops was “going too far” and was saddened by the rift it had caused in the worldwide Anglican community. Most Anglicans outside the U. S. continued to object to sexually active gay clergy. He missed the denomination that he still felt was in some sense his spiritual home, but he felt as if American Episcopals had left him rather than the other way around.

I have a friend whose convictions also motivated her to leave her church, but for a contrasting reason. She left the congregation where she was associate pastor. The congregation was evangelical, though part of a mainline Presbyterian denomination. Their elders decided to explicitly stipulate that no sexually active homosexual could be ordained as elder or deacon. My friend is a straight, monogamous, married woman in her fifties. One of her two sons is gay. She decided to resign her position because she did not feel that she could, in good conscience, serve a church that her son would view as yet another reason he had stopped identifying with the faith he’d embraced in childhood.

One more story: I met a young man, John, who was debating a crucial decision. John’s father, a theologically and socially conservative Baptist minister, was dying of cancer. For years, John had concealed his homosexual desires and involvement from his father. He found it very painful to think of his father dying without having known what John considered an important aspect of his identity. But John’s brothers and sisters were begging him to keep quiet. They did not want their father unnecessarily upset in the short time he had to live. John was torn. Was it more loving to talk with his father and trust his father’s ability to respond or to continue with silence? Which would John regret more—being honest and possibly causing pain, or continuing the concealment that in his mind loomed as a chasm between his father and him?

You have your own stories about divisions over issues surrounding homosexuality… These debates encompass issues that are intertwined but do not sort themselves neatly along the “conservative versus liberal” dichotomy so often presupposed in the media… Why do Christians disagree about a matter central to living out the Christian life—either their own life or the lives of others who claim the name of Christ?

Could God have brought it about that those who sincerely seek God’s will would all come to the same conclusion on central human issues? We see ourselves and others in a mirror dimly; I often find human life a riddle. God has also not brought it about that sincere Christians thinking hard and prayerfully might converge on a shared confidence in knowing God’s mind on this (and many other issues).

Is dimness on this issue and other issues a result of the Fall? Or is this a disguised blessing? Could our divergence of perspective become a resource for Christian discipleship? When you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? When you love those who share your views on matters you think central to the faith, what credit is that to you? You don’t need grace for that. We do need grace and mercy and wisdom, and a life saturated with prayerful seeking, to live out life together in light of our very real disagreements.

I’ve often thought about the parable of the prodigal son as a story that is meant to enrich our compassion for God. When the prodigal returns, his elder brother exits the house as the father prepares the welcome feast. How does a father feel when he cannot keep his sons both living in the same house, having the same celebration? Will a shared eternity of enjoying God be possible for all those whom God longs to have fellowship with if we cannot love one another and be in fellowship despite our differences? The kingdom of heaven is a realm in which all those present can be unconditionally joyful about sharing the same “space.”  Can we Christians take baby steps to being able to do that here on earth? Can those of us who think we know God’s will on this matter speak that truth involving ways that are not themselves arrogant or dismissive of alternative views? Can those of us who find this issue profoundly confusing continue to seek wisdom rather than avoiding hard questions and issues? Aren’t we obliged to take such steps by our praying as Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

Taken from Bringing Sex Into Focus by Caroline J. Simon. ©2012 by Caroline J. Simon. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.

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