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Homosexuality: A New Conversation

Monday, 6 June 2011  | John Dickson

Australia has come a long way since the dark days when gays and lesbians were legislated against and openly vilified, and when all conversation about the rights of individuals to form their own views about sex was shut down. We no doubt have further to go before homosexuals fully experience the acceptance in society they deserve, but some of us are wondering whether the noble march toward the end of discrimination has inadvertently damaged our moral imagination and limited the public conversation.

Contemporary minds are fixed to think of only two possible camps on the gay issue. Either you are pro-homosexual and therefore open-minded, kind and respectful, or else you are a mean-spirited, homophobic bigot. You are either “for me” or “against me”. No space is given to a third group, much larger than the current discourse allows, made up of people who sincerely want an end to discrimination and who want to show nothing but care and respect toward gay neighbours but whose deeply held convictions prevent them from endorsing same-sex practice. This last clause may get the blood boiling for some, but perhaps that underlines my point. Some of us are unable to imagine how you can care for someone and disagree with their behaviour at the same time.

For me, a turning point came with a David Marr appearance on ABC’s Q&A program. Angela Shanahan, a columnist with The Australian, had tried to explain the traditional Catholic view that God proscribed homosexual practice but still “loved all his creatures”. Marr seized the moment. “You people,” he said in a tone that got the audience laughing in nervous anticipation. “You people have no idea how unspeakably cruel you are.” He mocked the ‘poetry’, as he called it, of God loving gays but banning their sex and concluded amid rising applause, “I have no patience with it anymore. It is just bigotry and cruelty and hatred.” The argument was over.

It was a powerful moment, and many thoughtful Christians realized the significance of it. We have entered a day when, for David Marr and many others, holding to the historic Christian teaching on same-sex activity is itself an evil: an act of bigotry, cruelty and hatred. Though the language was more measured, his more recent Herald piece addressing this topic, “Sacking the Sinful”, was full of loaded descriptions of the church leaders featured—all of them nervous, pent-up and narrow-minded. What else could they be if they thought homosexual practice ‘sinful’! I know and respect each of the people interviewed for the article but I found myself disliking Marr’s version of them.

Perhaps in the tradition of ‘an eye for an eye’ the church deserves some purgatorial derision. No one could deny that professed Christians have used very condescending and spiteful language toward gay people (and, shamefully, sometimes even resorted to violence). But tit-for-tat won’t help us in the long run. The biblical perspective on sex—that all sexual intimacy outside heterosexual monogamy is contrary to the Creator’s good intentions—is not going anywhere; and nor is the gay community. This realization alone demands that we work out together how to have a respectful, nuanced public conversation.

In particular, we have to ask whether holding a moral view is in itself hateful. Obviously, strong moral codes, whether religious or secular, can promote hateful speech and behaviour, but are the codes inherently hateful? Specifically, I want to ask David Marr: Do you not believe it is possible to profoundly disagree with someone’s sexual activity and sincerely care for them all the same? I am not here offering a defence of Christian teaching on homosexuality; I am simply affirming that believers ought to be able to hold their view thoughtfully and respectfully without being considered ‘bigots’ and ‘homophobes’.

This is where I think we could learn from the moral genius of Jesus. He had the ability to hate the sin and love the sinner. I know that sounds clichéd today—David Marr scoffs at the aphorism—but that’s because we have forgotten how to do it. For all our talk of open-mindedness, many have great difficulty seeing how you can dispute someone’s moral opinion or conduct and love them simultaneously. This shows itself in much contemporary discussion of both religion and ethics. If a Christian says she thinks Islam is untrue, she is heard to be demeaning Muslims—and vice-versa. If a preacher condemns materialism as immoral, he is heard to be saying materialists aren’t worthy of friendship. And, of course, anyone who questions the moral status of same-sex activity is thought to be hateful and homophobic. (And it is the activity that is questioned not the desire. Many Christian thinkers regard homosexual orientation as no more morally problematic than heterosexual desire).

There is a failure of ethical imagination here, an inability to utilise two mental muscles at the same time: the muscle of strong conviction and the muscle of compassion for all. Jesus was the master of this ethical exploit. Open the Gospel of Luke at chapter 13 and you’ll hear him condemning certain behaviour and warning of coming judgment. Continue through to chapter 15 and you’ll find him wining and dining with ‘sinners’—those you might have thought were first in line for judgment—and illustrating the point with a parable about a father’s love for his prodigal son. Keep reading to the end of the story and the point is made with disturbing clarity: so seriously did Jesus take sin that he thought he had to die for it; so seriously did he love sinners, a category in which he placed us all, that he thought he had to die for them. He was able to be morally exacting and deeply compassionate toward the same people at the same time—though it is a sad and undeniable fact that many in the church since have had difficulty emulating the feat.

But secular society sometimes shares a certain reasoning with narrow-minded religion. The logic says: we are able to love only those whose lives we endorse. This can take you in two directions. The religious version reduces the number of people it loves, to match the lifestyles of which it approves. The secular version increases the number of lifestyles it endorses, and derides those who don’t do the same. In both cases the assumption is the same: we are able to love only those whose lives we agree with.

But there are weaknesses in both incarnations of the logic. The weakness of the religious version is its inability to love beyond the borders of its moral convictions; hence the hateful speech, and sometimes violence, of old-time religion against gay people. The weakness of the secular version is an aversion to speaking about ‘morality’ in the first place, especially in the area of sex. Ironically, this too can lead to impatient denunciations, such as Angela Shanahan endured on Q&A.

But there is a third way, based on a different logic. We ought to be able to love even those with whom we profoundly disagree. It must be possible for Christians to question the moral status of sexual intimacy outside heterosexual monogamy while demonstrating respect and care for neighbours who are neither heterosexual nor monogamous. True open-mindedness is not merely accepting as true and valid someone else’s viewpoint; it is the more difficult and noble commitment to honouring people whose viewpoints you reject.

Thoughts naturally rush to other important matters. Why does the church oppose gay marriage? Why should religious schools and organisations be exempt from certain employment laws? And what possible grounds could there be anyway for the Christian critique of gay sex? These are good questions which must be tackled carefully. My point is more basic. For all the important advances we’ve made in this area in recent years, some of the associated rhetoric has damaged our ethical imagination to the point where agreeing with Christian teaching about sex equals cruelty and hatred. It’s time for a more thoughtful and open conversation.


Dr John Dickson is an author, historian and Anglican minister and is a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity (www.publicchristianity.org).


Alberto Moreno
June 7, 2011, 12:39AM
I agree with you, The Pendulum´s Law is a clear image of the diferents positions( Fundamentalism) , but at the end, the equilibrium is the right way, the third way as you mentioned, but no always is easy.... God Bless.
I was ordained as Roman catholic priest and became Anglican two years ago, and I found few smart voices in this matter.
God Bless...
Bob Rogers
June 7, 2011, 8:52AM
John. Thank you for your insightful article - it's a pity it probably will not get any exposure in the wider press because it actually offers a way towards a realistic solution. The problem is, many, at either extreme of the argument do not really wish for a solution; hence the continued vitriol.
You speak of 'loving the sinner while hating the sin'. Surely this has been the basis for more than a hundred years' success of the Salvation Army in picking up drunks off the street and caring for them - never approving of the lifestyle, but recognising that the person is one created and loved by God and for whom Jesus came and died.
Personally I thoroughly enjoy conversing with those of other faiths, be they Muslims, Buddhists, evolutionists, even athiests. I do not engage with them in order to win an argument, or even to put my point across. I do enjoy listening to them in order to find out why they believe what they do. Often I find they have never been offered a viable alternative. More often than not any alternative view has been presented violently and the message has been lost in the telling.
You can't get two more opposites than Phillip Adams and Andrew Bolt, but I enjoy hearing from both of them largely because they are prepared to ask the questions. I don't always agree with either of them, but they do add to my understanding of the day I live in.
Likewise, I have no problem, as an evangelical follower of Jesus, in mixing among folk who are clearly and openly homosexual. How can I judge them when I have no awareness or understanding of who they are or how they came to accept their lifestyle? I do not agree with them, but I do know Jesus Christ loves them.
I recently conducted a funeral for a former Serviceman. His daughter is a lesbian and attended the funreal with her partner. Their sexuality had absolutely no bearing on the fact that they were grieving at their loss at this time. They, too, required words of solace and comfort and I was glad I was able to provide that in a Christian context.
John, thank you for raising the issue. There truly is a third alternative to that so often peddled by the likes of David Marr and often met with the same caustic manner by thos eclaiming to represent Jesus. I think Jesus would have taken that alternative.
Chris Dalton
June 7, 2011, 11:08AM
Thank you John for a considered, thought provoking article. I also read the considered, thought provoking "dissenting" perspective. I find myself agreeing with many of the points raised in both of them. But some might say the Dickson's article is, perhaps, the "dissenting" perspective. On this sensitive topic we need to engage more in dialogue than debate.

I suggest that any differences in attitude come primarily from the fundamental issue of whether we regard homosexuality as a sin. This, in turn, depends on how we interpret Scripture, our culture and our life experiences. In this regard I'm very wary of the sin of eisegesis, whereby I may force an interpretation of the Bible to fit a pre-existing belief or outlook that I may have.

If we claim to be a 'church of relevance' in the public square', how we internally handle a potentially divisive issue such as homosexuality is of great importance. Maybe we have to live with the ambiguity of accepting that there is not just one defensible Christian perspective on homosexuality, and that this, paradoxically, upholds the integrity of the Gospel preached by Jesus.
Alasdair Livingston
June 8, 2011, 7:03PM
It is important that we get our terminology right. John Dickson, in his very thought-straightening article, does. But Chris Dalton doesn't. We hear much talk about "banning homosexuality", often from people who want the banning banned, even from discussion. But homosexuality is a condition, not an activity. Banning it would be like banning red hair or left-handedness. The same applies to calling it a sin. It is the activity that arises from the condition that is reprobated in both Old and New testaments.
Steven Ogden
June 29, 2011, 3:04PM
Dear John, Good luck. There is such appalling ignorance in the Church about homosexuality, not to mention naive attitudes about hermeneutics. From an exegetical view, the biblical evidence against homosexual orientation is at best ambiguous. What's more, like slavery, it reflects an ancient and outmoded view of sex and gender. Margaret Farley's "Just Love" is great on developing a framework for Christian sexual ethics and I pick up issues like natural law in my book "Love Upside Down". The big question is why some people do not do the hard yards. My hunch is that homophobia retains its power as long as we continue to avoid exploring the topic and examining our presuppositions.
Ian Packer
June 29, 2011, 3:55PM
"From an exegetical view, the biblical evidence against homosexual orientation is at best ambiguous."

Not according to exegetes like Richard Hays or N. T. Wright who are anything but hermeneutically naive.

Perhaps we need need to follow through the hermeneutics of suspicion on more contemporaneous views of sex and gender too.
Steven Ogden
June 29, 2011, 4:23PM
This is my point. Do such scholars courageously examine their presumptions? I am amazed at the number of reputable biblical scholars who refuse to name and examine their meta-ethic. This is the (usually) unexamined framework we bring to our exegesis. To do so is hard work. It is an act of faith. And it is risky, because we may have to change our position. Besides, there was no Greek or Hebrew word for homosexual. There was no understanding of sexual orientation. There was no understanding of causation (e.g. mental illness as possession). But the key issue is the comparison with slavery. In other words, we all reject slavery, despite the hundreds of biblical texts in its favor. In marked contrast, some people support homophobia on the basis of 5 texts. Can anyone explain this hermeneutical anomaly? Ironically, in the rare instance where conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists change on this matter, it is usually a case of having a son or daughter come out. And then it is a matter of love.
Ian Packer
June 29, 2011, 4:38PM
I suspect it can take courage to take an unpopular point of view in some ivy league institutions contrary to other faculty - e.g. Hays contra Dale Martin.

This debate also needs to be less dismissive of biblical texts because we(?) think them simply 'outmoded'.

The analogy between slavery and homosexual practice is spurious, in my view. But at least I'm saying it's my (current) view rather than merely asserting as unassailingly objective. A very important discussion is hiding under these blanket words "slavery" and "favour".

Nonetheless, actually knowing people who are gay puts a different complexion on how and sometimes what we argue. e.g. Hays's chapter in 'The Moral Vision of the New Testament'.

Still, I can't help but think we charitably endorse the 'hermeneutics' of those who come out where we have and chide the methodology, motivation or integrity of those who come out differently. (pun not originally intended)
Steven Ogden
January 27, 2012, 9:59PM
Homophobia takes many forms. Of course, the most popular version is a morally smug, bible-based, pseudo-intellectualism, that is, a quasi-theology that knows the language but not the meaning. All this serves to underline Michel Foucault's thesis that, from the twentieth century on, we begin the discussion about sexuality from the perspective that homosexuality (like mental illness, disability and being female) is abnormal. Until this is named, the debate will always be dishonest and the systemic abuse and violence against gay and lesbian people will continue unabated. Where is the Christ in all this?

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