Owen Strachan and Gay Identity

When you hear “Gay Christianity,” you might assume that the phrase refers to Christians who reject the church’s historic teaching on sexuality, in particular the part about sex being reserved for opposite-sex unions. However, there are many Christians who, while affirming the church’s historic teaching on sex, want to work harder to accommodate members of the LGBT community. Revoice is a conference for Christians seeking ways to help the church to better love LGBT people while also maintaining its teaching on sexual ethics.

Owen Strachan has written an article that mischaracterizes both the Revoice conference and the general move towards affirming LGBT people that some Christians are making. Some of his concerns are understandable, particularly if “affirming LGBT identities” means claiming that same-sex attraction is part of God’s design or that sexual orientation is a fundamental feature of one’s identity. But I don’t think that’s what the folks at Revoice are up to.

Strachan refers to just a few items from the Revoice website to make his point that the conference is “biblically unfaithful and fundamentally unsound”:

One presenter will speak on how “queer treasure, honor, and glory” will be brought into the New Jerusalem; another presenter identifies as “bisexual” and is “actively involved” in the Chicago “LGBTQ community”; a third key participant argues that “Simply experiencing attraction to the same sex (or being gay) is not in itself a morally culpable sin.”

The first example is a simple mischaracterization that I hope is the result of careless reading. Here is the summary of the session that Strachan quotes from:

REDEEMING QUEER CULTURE: AN ADVENTURE

Presenter: Grant Hartley

For the sexual minority seeking to submit his or her life fully to Christ and to the historic Christian sexual ethic, queer culture presents a bit of a dilemma; rather than combing through and analyzing to find which parts are to be rejected, to be redeemed, or to be received with joy (Acts 17:16-34), Christians have often discarded the virtues of queer culture along with the vices, which leaves culturally connected Christian sexual minorities torn between two cultures, two histories, and two communities. So questions that have until now been largely unanswered remain: what does queer culture (and specifically, queer literature and theory) have to offer us who follow Christ? What queer treasure, honor, and glory will be brought into the New Jerusalem at the end of time (Revelation 21:24-26)?

Strachan writes: “There will be nothing unholy in the celestial city, nothing sinful that will be brought to the worship of the crucified and resurrected Lord of the church.” Need this claim from Strachan contradict what is written in the above summary? Only if you make an unwarranted assumption about what exactly “queer culture” is. Strachan seems to think that “queer culture” must be characterized by an acceptance of homosexual activity or something similar. But “queer culture” is just the culture that is born from the experience of LGBT people (or people who experience same-sex attraction/gender dysphoria). The boundaries aren’t rigidly fixed, but any cultural artifact that either was created by an LGBT person or portrays LGBT people sympathetically would probably fall under the “queer culture” umbrella. Are we to believe that all of this is “sinful” and “unholy”?

The second example demonstrates that Strachan holds some assumptions about what it means to identify as LGBT. He seems to think that saying, “I am gay,” is equivalent to saying, “experiencing homosexual desire is fundamental to who I am as a person.” It’s certainly possible that many people mean that, even self-identified LGBT Christians. However, it’s also reasonable to interpret “I am gay” as shorthand for “same-sex attraction is a significant component of my lived experience that has shaped my view of the world.” Likewise, people with anorexia might say “I’m anorexic” without implying that anorexia is somehow fundamental to who they are as people.

LGBT Christians need some way to communicate their experience and how it has shaped them, and the alternatives to saying “I’m gay” or “I’m transgender” are clunky enough that I find it entirely understandable if people don’t want to use them. “I experience same-sex attraction,” or “As a Christian who struggles with same-sex attraction…” vs. “I’m gay,” or “As a gay Christian…” etc. Identifying as gay is not the same as saying “being gay is who I am.”

With the third example, Strachan is making a point that has only tangential relevance to whether Revoice is “fundamentally unsound.” He writes: “I can note that a fellow man is good-looking, but if I am attracted to him (even for an instant), I am sinning, and I should instantaneously confess my sin to God, repent of it, and seek in the fullest possible extent to build in ways of preventing said sin in the future.” I am inclined to think it would be more precise to say that the hypothetical attraction would be sinful. But would he really be sinning?

I don’t know. Maybe. But in any case this disagreement about whether experiencing a sinful desire is a way of sinning isn’t limited to situations that involve same-sex attraction. And if the conference speaker is wrong, it would be wrong to blame this belief on “gay Christianity.” The belief that experiencing a desire to sin is not a form of sin itself is not the result of wanting to affirm LGBT identities, but of trying to deal with the fact that we do not always choose to experience sinful desires. Obviously, we’re culpable for giving into them, but for experiencing them? Something about that seems intuitively wrong. Perhaps my intuition is incorrect, but that’s not because it’s trying to justify homosexuality.

I think Strachan’s whole article stems from a misunderstanding about what Revoice is up to. He seems to think they’re highly concerned with affirming LGBT identities, when in fact they’re concerned with the understanding the experience out of which such identities are born. Whereas Strachan writes repeatedly about LGBT identity, sinful identity, etc., the word “identity” doesn’t even show up on Revoice’s page. You can go check for yourself.

Perhaps we need better language to distinguish between identity and experience. There are things about me that have heavily shaped my experience that are not fundamental to who I am as a person, even though the experiences that have resulted from them are foundational to how I view the world. For instance, I struggle with depression. The experience of depression has helped to make me who I am, but it is not who I am. Likewise, the experience of being LGBT undoubtedly shapes people at the deepest level, even though LGBT-ness itself isn’t fundamental to their identity. Revoice is not affirming LGBT-ness as an identity; rather, they are affirming the identities of people who are united by the common experience of living as LGBT persons. If the church cannot recognize that distinction, then it will fail to adequately care for LGBT people.

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Courts Don’t Strike Down Laws

I recently read an excellent article titled “The Writ-of-Erasure Fallacy,” by Jonathan Mitchell. It is long, and laypeople might have a difficult time wading through it. But the key point is extremely important, and it is something that everyone should know. In short: courts don’t strike down laws.

This might come as a surprise, because many people think that this is precisely what courts do. They interpret the Constitution and strike down any laws that they take to violate it. After all, how could a law continue to be a law after the Court has declared that it violates the Constitution?

Mitchell’s article explains how. In order to understand his thesis, however, one must understand what it really is that courts in our legal system do.

Courts resolve cases and controversies. In order to resolve cases and controversies, judges must look to the law to determine what right has been violated and whether a remedy exists for the violation. When appellate judges (such as the justices of the Supreme Court) decide cases, they create precedent which binds lower courts. For example, if the Supreme Court interprets a statute to resolve a particular case in a certain way, then all lower courts will be bound to resolve similar cases in a similar way.

Sometimes, courts have to determine whether a statute is constitutional. After all, if a statute violates the Constitution, then it would be unlawful for a court to apply it to resolve a dispute. Suppose, then the Supreme Court resolves a case, holding a statute unconstitutional in the process. Lower courts would then be bound not to apply the statute.

The statute, nevertheless, remains a statute.