Who Owns Marriage? (4) evangelical inconsistency and prejudice?

Who_Owns_MarriageI’ve been reading the contributions of other commentators to the conversation about Nick Park’s 4 chapters. Nick is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.

Chapter 1: A much needed conversation

Chapter 2: Remaining true to evangelical values

Chapter 3: Same-Sex Attraction, Scripture and Sin

Chapter 4: Who Does Own Marriage?

Other contributors include Sean Mullan (former Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland); Richard Carson (Chief Exec of Aids Care and Education Ireland); Brian Finnegan (Editor of Gay Community News magazine, Dublin); Kirsty Park (PhD candidate DCU researching non-heterosexual youth, mental health and the internet); Paul Moynan (Director Christian Action Research Education [CARE] Europe); Michael Nugent (Chairperson of Atheist Ireland); David Quinn (Director of Iona Institute, Dublin).

There’s a lot going on in this conversation and the contributions are varied to say the least.

One thing it shows is how same-sex marriage legislation has become a touchstone of political, social, legal, and cultural change while simultaneously raising questions around Christian attitudes to, and treatment of, gay people.

Picking up the last point – the charge of evangelical inconsistency and prejudice towards gay people comes through most strongly in the contributions of Kirsty Park and Richard Carson. Their voices give the book a passionate and sharp edge.

I’m going to focus on what Richard says in this post and Kirsty in later one.

Richard wants to start with the question of ‘what is the story of the Irish evangelical church and LGBT people?’ ‘Who can answer this question?’ ‘Do we have spaces in our churches to answer this question well?’ and ‘Did we do harm?’

His answer to the last question is a firm ‘Yes’.

He talks about the intention gap between evangelical rhetoric and actual impact on LGBT people; about the need for truth telling rather than evangelicals deluding themselves about the harm they have done and continue to do.

In responding to chapter 3, Richard critiques evangelical reticence to use the term ‘gay Christian’ as a refusal to allow gay believers to define themselves. This is symptom of what he calls ‘straight privilege’ – the assumption of the normalcy of heterosexuality in everyday life. This sort experience of the vast majority takes all sorts of things for granted – such as safety, security and affirmation – that are denied gay people. Richard tells it from his experience:

I didn’t need to define my heterosexuality or explain it or, worst of all, explore what might be its ‘cause’. My capacity to love a woman was celebrated, irrespective of my behavioural choices. I did not need to wonder what areas of ministry or career I might not be a part of because I am straight. If I turned on any source of media I could be reassured that being straight would be represented. I was not required to explain or defend all straight people because I am straight. When I was in the church I had spent decades in, I did not hear from the pulpit that we should welcome straight people to our church should they ever enter, just like Jesus did. Being straight was not a political issue to be discussed, debated or legislated for by others who had never embodied the life of being straight. I even went for months without being called straight. My identity is inescapably heterosexual because this is my life. I cannot separate my faith from it as to do so would mean denying the circumstances of the world in which I live. It is so much a part of me that I do not even realise how much it is a part of me.

In effect Richard’s description could apply to other majority identity experiences – white privilege, male privilege, tribal or nationalist privilege.

Miroslav Volf
Miroslav Volf

Which brings back to mind stuff I did in my PhD over 15 years back on nationalism and identity interacting with Miroslav Volf’s analysis of how majority exclusion works in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Now there are obvious limits in parallels from national politics to sexual politics but some are suggestive.

I wrote back then that the overwhelming ‘rightness’ and assumed ‘naturalness’ of one’s (national) identity can make one “blind to the injustices and oppressive character” of that identity.

Political exclusion can function in different ways. One is what Volf calls ‘abandonment’ – where the Other is simply ignored as superfluous to our existence. This leads to indifference – where the Other is dismissed from our world and banished from our thoughts.

This links to a comment elsewhere in the book by Sean Mullan about never reading about, hearing, or preaching, a sermon about homophobia and of an evangelical leader telling him to make sure to wash his hands after a debate with LGBT leaders.

As a result, Richard argues that evangelicals are operating out of an innate “ministry contradiction”; on the one hand offering pastoral support and listening to the experiences of gay Christians while on the other hand refusing to acknowledge straight privilege and continuing to think that “our identity in Christ means that gay and straight are on level ground but the reality is that we conform to and regularly accentuate the pattern of this falsely herteronormative world.”

He wants this innate bias named and straight privilege really felt and understood by evangelicals.

I should say that Richard makes no comments one way or another about traditional Christian sexual ethics. Neither does he really engage with the political and legal question in the book’s title about ‘Who Owns Marriage?’ His focus is on a more honest and equal discussion between gay and straight Christians within the church.

So, since a blog is a platform for discussion, what do you think?

Have evangelicals ‘done harm’ to people within their churches who aren’t ‘normal’ and ‘straight’?

Does ‘straight privilege’ blind heterosexuals to gay experience of exclusion, rejection and indifference?

Richard’s appeal is for a relational approach of listening and mutual respect. How far can this be effective if Christians continue to hold to traditional church teaching of sex as a good gift of God to be used within (heterosexual) marriage and celibacy outside it? And either heterosexual or homosexual sexual relationships outside these boundaries being sinful?

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