conversion therapy

Thanks Church–Why I’m a Recovering Evangelical

Three years ago, I wrote a post about facing fear, realizing that at the core of my struggle with faith and sexuality, boys were not the problem: fear was. Around the same time, I finally broke off my involvement in the ex-gay community, and experienced a rush of relief from the shame I carried for being gay in the church.

I use the phrase “recovering evangelical” as Warren Cole Smith uses it in his excellent volume, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church. I won’t repeat his well-versed and thorough research in its entirety, but suffice it to say there is a deep disease in the evangelical church today, and I was thoroughly infected. Let me also pause to say that, like Smith, I approach my critique of the evangelical church from the position of a lover, not a cynic. I am an insider, a family member, to the evangelical church. Which makes the divorce all the more bitter. Because it comes down to this: the church, the Body of Christ, is designed to be a home for all. People like me, who grew up in this home, never wanted to leave. But lgbt people are kicked out of homes all the time; it’s not our wayward feet that leads us astray, it’s active rejection from those whom we used to call family.

As a young gay teen, I was instilled with a deep fear, not that I was hell-bound, but that I was doomed to isolation in this life, among the humans I loved. I wasn’t afraid of hell; I was afraid of myself. I’m not sure which is worse. Both can lead to suicide, and too often that’s exactly what young lgbt people resort to. If your future is monstrous, there’s nothing to live for, and if you’re the monster, you shouldn’t endanger people by continuing to live.

I realized I was gay when I hit puberty, around 12 years old. I was suicidal by 14. By the grace of God, I gathered the courage to come out to my parents instead of taking my own life, and since then fear has never been tight enough to stop my breathing.

But as I began to find personal freedom from the fear of myself and my sexuality, I wondered where that fear came from in the first place, and how wide and deep it really is.

As it turns out, fear is a primary motivator behind much of today’s evangelical theology, culture, and community. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it needs to be said. And if our first reaction is to balk and withdraw from this diagnosis, maybe it would help to consider the incredible courage it takes lgbt people to come out, part of which involves admitting the powerful role fear plays in our lives.

Modern evangelical eschatology is apocalyptic: the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. Since the Fall, humankind has continued to decline, and in our contemporary society we can see increased levels of decadence and depravity. The violence rocking the globe is an inevitable (and therefore to some extent excusable) result of the creation’s “groaning” in wait for Jesus’ return, at which point all things will be made right again, but only after this world has been devoured by fire.

As Smith would remind us, Jesus did not see things this way: his life and ministry were categorized not by fear of the future, but by urgent hope for a redeemed one. Our fear stems largely from events that caused national anxiety, such as the Cold War, Vietnam, and Watergate. Many also considered the creation of the state of Israel the last fulfillment of prophecy, an event that heralded the end times. At this point, we should be able to see that these fears are unfounded.

Nevertheless, they leak into our politics. Gay and bi people threaten the stability of the family; trans people threaten the safety of women and children; nonbinary people are sadly confused snowflakes. In that context, to turn around and suggest that lgbt people, with our lives and identities, have something valuable to offer the church, and aren’t just the uncomfortable leftovers that we have to let in on Sunday? Preposterous.

But we do have something to offer. Namely, the journey towards overcoming fear and shame.

As a recent high school grad, I struggled to stay consistent in the online ex-gay bible studies I was involved in. I had already been suspended from the course a couple times because I hadn’t reached the level of “faithfulness” or “success” that was expected at a certain level. For context, I was trying to “find freedom from homosexuality,” in language that boldly promised an end to “same-sex attraction,” and a realizing of the fulness of our God-given potential (which meant being straight).

At this point, around 19 years old, I had some issues with the program. I had heard the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” repeated ad nauseam, and I still thought it was a useful distinction: whatever was sinful about being gay, the feelings themselves, the fact that I was attracted to other males, couldn’t be sin. At no point had I ever chosen these feelings, and I was literally in the process of choosing against them. How could I be held responsible for something I had no control over? But the rhetoric of the ex-gay community continued to insist on gayness itself as the disease that needed healing, and I internalized this message in a deep and foundational way.

The thing about shame is that it runs deeper than guilt: you can feel guilty over actions, but shame is about identity. And the whole point of confession and sanctification is that sin is an issue of guilt, not shame. Yes, the doctrine of original sin teaches that sin is part of our very nature. But as people indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we are made new, in our entirety.

And honestly, this part of evangelical doctrine (especially total depravity) that postures the “unsaved” and “nonbelievers” as a different category of human, intrinsically less holy, and less capable of virtuous motives than Christians, is frankly gross. It’s exactly the kind of rhetoric that encourages violence against lgbt people: if we are by nature sinful and depraved, by virtue of our sexually gendered selves, then we can never fully enter the communion of saints like straight and cisgender people can.

Unsurprisingly, this was the message I heard from the ex-gay community. You were only acceptable if you were fighting tooth and nail to not be who you were; refusing to identify as lgbt, repenting of any and all sexuality, whether bodily activity or mental fantasies (yep, masturbation and imagination both called for repentance), and praying and hoping for the day when God would unlock your latent attraction to the opposite gender. This was bulwarked by “testimonies” of “successful” ex-gay participants, who often wrote only a few months after taking the course, and admitted to continuing same-gender attraction. Several of them boasted of marriages to opposite-gender partners, which then imploded years later. The overwhelming majority of ex-gay participants, research shows, do not experience orientation change, and many cannot maintain the superficial “lifestyle” changes they tout as victories instead.

Thankfully, my story did not end up as one of those statistics. I ended my involvement in ex-gay communities during college, and have never looked back. Almost immediately, I felt more at home in my own body, more at home with God, and more at home among others.

This is, of course, a deeply personal reason for describing my current state as one of “recovery.” I also think it is important to retain the word “evangelical” in that recovery, because it is the context in which ex-gay communities continue to thrive.

Once again, however, I found that shame runs deeper and wider in modern evangelicalism, and affects other bodies besides lgbt youth. Later, I hope to address the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, the establishment of the single-issue voter, especially in regards to reproductive rights, and the extent to which evangelical politics have become inbred with Western imperialism.

Now, I want to reiterate that I still believe salvation lies in the miraculous power of faith.

Jay Emerson Johnson, in his fantastic book Peculiar Faith, outlines a way forward for Christian witness, using insights from the lives of lgbt people to discern the future of our transformative faith. Commenting on the Book of Acts, Johnson says in asking Jesus whether he would restore the kingdom of Israel, the disciples were missing the point. Whatever the resurrection of Jesus means, it does not entail restoring an orderly past. Instead, it institutes a dynamic and open future.

81% of evangelicals (who voted) voted for Trump. Trump ran on a platform of nostalgia: the slogan “Make American Great Again” is catered to a population who pines for the good old days, which are inevitably a romanticized view of a past that never existed. This false promise blatantly ignores the lives of people of color, women, and lgbt people, none of whom have any “glory days” to look back on (not in this nation, at least).

Christ calls us to more. Taking seriously Christ’s call to ministry among the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed, ends in nothing less than a movement that “overturns economic systems that keep the poor in poverty (Acts 4:34-35); resists institutional authorities jealous of their own power (5:17-26); violates social and class boundaries (8:25-40); and rejects cultural and religious standards of propriety (10:9-30).”

That is a faith I can get behind. These are theologies that give life, rather than take it.

What am I recovering from? Fear and shame. What am I holding on to? Faith, hope, and love. Once the evangelical church can more fully leave behind the former and cling to the latter, I’ll be ready with open arms to receive her again.

Until then, I’m keeping my distance.

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