The past few days, in the wake of the violence in Orlando, have revealed the challenge that “progressives” and “traditionalists” within the Presbyterian Church have in talking to one another about human sexuality and identity. There are a few reasons this conversation is difficult, but the heightened feelings and responses of the past few days have highlighted the different understandings of these two groups with reference to human sexuality and identity.
On the “progressive” side, questions of human sexuality are understood to address the person’s essential identity, at least when it comes to same-sex orientation and relationships. To be gay or lesbian is to be defined by the desire for intimacy (sexual and otherwise) with persons of the same sex. A gay or lesbian person is defined biologically and culturally as one who inhabits the world in such a way that they find sexual and personal fulfillment in intimate relationships with persons of the same sex, rather than of the opposite sex. From this point of view it is inconceivable to think of any kind of disjunction between identity and behavior. If a person is gay (if that is a key feature of his or her essential identity – that is who they are) then a denial of the opportunity or actuality of intimate relationships is seen as a refusal of who they are – a denial of their essential identity.
So when someone on the “progressive” side says “God loves all people; God includes all people; God welcomes all people; and the church must do the same,” they mean that a gay or lesbian person is to be welcomed in their essential identity, inclusive of the relationships that flow from and are a part of that essential identity. From this point of view it makes absolutely no sense to speak of a welcome that does not include an affirmation of who the person is as a gay or lesbian person – such a welcome is seen as no welcome at all. Indeed, any suggestion that same sex sexual intimacy may be contrary to God’s intention for human sexuality is seen as a denial of the person – of who they are. Further, this denial will be construed on the continuum of rejection that many gay and lesbian persons have experienced in their families, in the church, and in the wider society.
On the “traditional” side, questions of human sexuality are understood to address an important, created dimension of the human. However, sexual orientation is not understood in essentialist terms – it is seen as a feature of life, but not as a part of the person’s essential being or identity. For traditionalists, God gives the gift of sexual activity and intimacy as an expression of the human created as two, for the furthering of human life, of family, and of human community. It is understood that Jesus, in his personal life and in his ministry, both affirms and relativizes the sexual element of human identity. Many continue to marry, to share in sexual intimacy, and to bear/raise children, but many others find fulfillment in service to Christ as unmarried persons within the community and friendship of his people. From this point of view, sexual orientation is not understood in essential terms, as a defining biological and cultural feature of the person. In fact, “traditionalists” are inclined to believe that the essentialist account of sexual orientation (in terms of gay and lesbian identity) is a particular feature of modern culture – it reflects a socially constructed account of human life that our culture has begun to embrace and live in a deep way.
So when someone on the “traditional” side says “God loves all people; God includes all people; God welcomes all people; and the church must do the same,” they mean that God’s love in Jesus Christ includes everyone – no one is excluded. No one! At the same time, since they do not view human sexuality in terms of essential identity, and resist what they see as a social construction of desire and intimacy that is inconsistent with a scriptural account of the human, they conclude that same-sex sexual activity is not something to be celebrated or affirmed. Needless to say, they understand that this is counter-cultural point of view, and that (without claiming to be victims in any sense, which they are not) they are on the wrong side of history. Nevertheless, they love their sisters and brothers who identify as gay or lesbian, see them as created in the image of God, see them as gifted for service to Christ, and see them as called and equipped by the Spirit to walk in the way of Christ among his people. They do so while recognizing the church has been complicit in the marginalization and harm of LGBTQ persons in the past.
It is evident here, I think, that a conversation between these two points of view is an immensely difficult one. And the already-challenging conversation became more challenging in the wake of the Orlando attack on the women and men (many of whom were gay, lesbian, or transgender) who were enjoying a night out with friends or partners at the Pulse club.
The “progressive” sees this attack on gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a hateful attack on them precisely in their identity as gay and lesbian. They see this attack, and mourn this attack, as belonging on the continuum of hostility that has been directed toward sexual minorities through the decades and centuries. The only answer to such hostility, they believe, is a full celebration of gay and lesbian persons in their identity/intimacy/relationships – anything less is more of the same. Some on the progressive side have gone as far as to characterize all traditionalists as hateful and fearful, as having the same spirit as the Orlando attacker.
The “traditionalist” sees this attack on those who identify as gay or lesbian as a hateful assault on women and men who have been created and redeemed in the love of God and in the grace of Jesus Christ – they also mourn this attack as belonging on a continuum of hostility that has historically been directed toward sexual minorities. They express their solidarity with those who are hated and harmed and killed in this way, and seek to exhibit the love and compassion and healing of Christ in relation to them – they refuse any act of violence against those who are created in the image and love of God. They love sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian or gay, and desire their flourishing and wellbeing, within the heart and community of God’s people. They also understand that the present cultural moment is one in which their love and solidarity with these victims can barely be seen as such.
Again, it is evident that conversation will be difficult for those who hold these different points of view – each perceives human life and identity in ways that are difficult to hold together, especially in the painful and charged atmosphere that has come in the wake of the horrific events in Orlando. But if we can eventually have a conversation that begins with the recognition of the love and compassion that lies at the heart of these two points of view, we will have come a very long way.