Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Struggling With Christianity

I guess I stopped posting yesterday after all. Some things came up.

I've begun reading Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality (Chicago, 2011) by Mark D. Jordan, the gay Catholic scholar and theologian I've mentioned before. Even when I disagree with him, as I often do, I find interesting ideas in his work. And so it is here, on the first page. He recalls the 2005 story of Zach, a gay teenager in Tennessee who was being forced to enroll in a "treatment" program called Refuge, which aimed at "affirming his correct gender identity" (ix).
Refuge was then a program aimed by Memphis-based Love in Action International at thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds. It advertised itself as "the most developed ... intensive program in America for youth struggling with homosexuality." According to published reports, participants spent their days at Refuge studying the Bible, undergoing counseling, and confessing their temptations. They were forbidden to watch television or read anything unapproved. Throughout the day, they monitored each other for campy actions or "gay/lesbian behavior or talk." Because these adolescent "clients" spent nights at home, Refuge reportedly searched them each morning for smuggled "False Images" -- signs of gender-bending or a taste for queer culture.

While Zach was still in the program, his father defended the decision to enroll him by denouncing the homosexual "lifestyle" on Christian television and appealing to parental authority. He told Pat Robertson's CBN, "Until he turns eighteen and he's an adult in the state of Tennessee, I'm responsible for him. And I'm going to see to it that he has all options available to him." The state of Tennessee had other worries: media complaints led it to investigate Love in Action for operating an unlicensed medical facility [ibid.].
I don't disagree with anything Jordan wrote here, I just want to add some comments. I was struck by Zach's father's claim that he was "going to see to it that he has all options available to him." That was just rhetorical grandstanding, of course: if he really wanted Zach to have all options available to him, he'd also have enrolled him in a gay Christian group, a gay Allies group at a secular high school, and encouraged him to date other boys, perhaps requiring him to join a True Love Waits group for gay teens. What his father really wanted was to restrict Zach's options. (I keep getting mental flashes of a Roman judge telling a Christian to burn incense to the Emperor [on pain of martyrdom], just to keep all options available to him. Or an Inquisitor showing the instruments of torture to Galileo, just to make sure he knew all his options.) But it's always important to sound reasonable, especially when you're not.

The other part that grabbed me was "signs of gender-bending or a taste for queer culture." It might be, and probably is the case that the kids' Bible study at Refuge was carefully limited to avoid confusing passages. As Jordan knows, and has discussed at length in The Silence of Sodom, the Bible and historical Christianity contain a lot of gender-bending. I'm not talking about the standard infidels' homophobic cliche about clergy in dresses, though it shouldn't be dismissed altogether. The standard image of Jesus in religious art today is not that of a man with a normal, healthy gender identity according to American Protestant standards: the long hair, the flowing garment. These elements can't be explained away as dictated by historical accuracy, since we don't know what Jesus looked like, but it's not likely that he wore long hair. Christians have always invented their images of Jesus to suit their prejudices and expectations: in antiquity, he was generally depicted as a beardless youth with short hair, following Roman custom.

By gender-bending, I mean options like "becoming eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 19:12), but also the popular trope of the (male) prophet as a woman in labor, groaning to be delivered of Yahweh's Word, or Israel as the Bride of Yahweh, and later the Church as the Bride of Christ. Early Christians were mocked as unmanly for refusing to fight back when struck, but they quickly got rid of that requirement. Most contemporary Christians have chosen to ignore New Testament teaching (and Christian tradition) that exalts sexual abstinence over marriage, but this too was troublesome for early Christian men: for one thing, masculinity required men to have women to rule over. Modern evangelicals have always had trouble reconciling submission to the Lord with normative masculinity; it doesn't help that the Bible says they are to submit to Christ as a woman submits to her husband, and that Christ is their head as they are heads to their wives.

I don't approve of teenagers being forced into "treatment" for their homosexuality or gender expression, but that's not exclusively a Christian problem: until very recently, secular psychiatry was happy to mess with young people's minds in those areas. Still, Zach's father has a point: Zach is a minor, and parents have the authority to mold and coerce minor children in many ways. Zach's father can also control his heterosexual life if he had one, or his religious choices. Liberal parents become upset if their kids get involved in reactionary churches, for example, even if they're college-aged. It's not at all unheard of for freshmen to go home for Thanksgiving break and deny that their parents are real Christians, because of new ideas they've imbibed in churches they explored while at school. That's different, of course, but how different is it?

Thinking about this reminded me of a trend from the 1970s and 1980s: deprogramming. At that time there was a lot of concern about "cults," that is, fringe religious groups with tight authoritarian structures, like the Unification Church, known as "Moonie" after its South Korean founder Sun Myung Moon. But there were others. In true Christian fashion, these sects encouraged new converts to cut off ties with their families and make the church their family. As we read in the gospel of Mark:
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” ...
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Say what you will about these groups, they were following in the Master's Footsteps. Some families reacted as Jesus' family did in verse 21, some going as far as to hire private agents to kidnap their kids and "deprogram" them -- which meant in practice keeping them in isolation for long periods, sometimes verbally, physically and even sexually abusing them until they recanted. The rationale was that they had been "brainwashed" by the "cults" and had to be brainwashed back to normal; the techniques were standard psychological torture, designed to break the will of the subject. The media had a field day with both sides, doing alarmist stories about the threat of cults and questioning the ethics of kidnapping religious believers, especially when they were not minors but legal adults. In the end the fuss blew over, partly because (if I remember correctly) some of the subjects of deprogramming sued their captors.

Fundamentalists were just as hostile to "cults" as mainline Christians; I have read books attacking "new religious movements" from a variety of positions, from fundamentalist to liberal to sociological. And true, there's a lot to attack, just as there is with mainstream Christianity. None of these critics liked to be reminded that Christianity had begun as a "new religious movement" or cult, with the same characteristics as the groups its modern adherents reviled.  I don't recall one that admitted it.

If I had to counsel a gay teenager under his or her parents' roof, I wouldn't encourage them to come out until they were old enough to support themselves, especially if they belonged to a very conservative church. Even with liberal parents in the picture I'd remind the teen that parents have a lot of power over them. Where a strongly gender-nonconformist kid is involved, of course, the closet may not be a viable option. We really need to rethink the powers and responsibilities of parents (and adults in general) over children; the potential for abuse is just too great.

If I counseled a gay person of any age who was struggling with Christianity (and I've done so), I'd be a lot more open-minded than most people who think they know me would expect. I once had a long online correspondence with such a person, who was gay and very attached to his conservative, antigay church. I reminded him that Christians disagreed among themselves, so he couldn't really look to other Christians to tell him what to feel or think or do; I also reminded him that he could come out, live a gay life, and still be a Christian, though perhaps not in the church he attended. I advised him to do what his own pastor should (by their standards) have advised: think about it, pray. I wasn't being inconsistent in my own assumptions there, because I know that prayer is often a way of talking to oneself, thinking through issues privately. If this guy prayed and thought matters through and decided that being gay was wrong for him, then he'd have worked it through by himself, not under pressure from me or anyone else. If he prayed and thought things through and decided that being gay was good for him (or, in his terms, that his God approved of it), then he would also have made his own decision. Later he told me that after doing what I'd suggested, he'd concluded that he should come out more, and was distancing himself from his church. If he'd decided to stay closeted for longer, though, that would have been all right too: he needed to come out when he needed to and was ready to, not when I or someone else thought he should.

Whether you see this as a "struggle with homosexuality" (the current bigots' buzzword) or as a "struggle with Christianity" (which I intend to make my buzzword), the struggle isn't going to be resolved soon. Instead of yowling about people who call being gay a "choice," I think we need to stress that Christianity in all its varieties is a choice, and to insist that people have the right to make choices. We also need to deprivilege Christianity and other religious choices -- but that's a topic for another post, I think.