faith, personal

A Change of Heart and Mind

After the recent Supreme Court decision to allow same sex marriages in all 50 states, the internet has been full of celebrations, cautions, laments, explanations, accusations, and recriminations.  I’m here to add one more essay to the pile, but it’s a little different.  I’d like to explain how I changed my mind on the issue of same sex marriage.  I’m an example of how a change in thinking can take a long time.  For me it took seeing how the issue affected a close friend personally to catalyze reconsidering my beliefs.  Then I searched for a new perspective to make sense of the direction my heart was leading me.

First, the background.  Growing up in the evangelical Christian culture, believing that homosexuality was a sin was merely a given.  I don’t remember ever questioning the belief that homosexuals chose their lifestyle and that they were actively living in sin.  It was a self evident belief that everyone in the cultural community shared as far as I knew.  It said so in the Bible, and I believed it.

At our Christian school, seniors were required to complete a service project during the spring before graduation.  Most of my classmates opted to volunteer at a food bank or a home for people with disabilities.  At the suggestion and prodding of my sister, I decided to try volunteering somewhere different, a place called David’s House, a group home for people with AIDS.  I didn’t want to do it alone, so I asked my friend Andy to join me (this is the same friend I’ve written about here and here).  In order to volunteer at David’s House, we first needed to receive training from the Red Cross about AIDS.  They also wanted us to volunteer for more than the day or two that would fulfill our school requirement.  Normally they required a year’s commitment, but they agreed to let us volunteer for only the summer until we left for college.

The AIDS training at the Red Cross was eye-opening for me because I had never had any comprehensive sex-ed at my Christian school.  I recall having some type of abstinence presentation, where they undoubtedly talked about condom failure rates, but nothing about how to put one on.  So when Andy and I were given cards that had the steps of putting on a condom properly and were told to put them in order, we had to make our best guess.  I felt rather embarrassed, both because of my shyness about sex, but also because I was so obviously ignorant.  My embarrassment increased later when a guy from David’s House who was there at the training pressured me to take a few condoms “just in case.”  I had no intention of using them because I was going to wait to have sex until marriage, but he wouldn’t let me say no.  I sheepishly put two in my pocket so he would stop joking with me, wink wink nudge nudge.  He probably thought I was an alien from another planet.

My actual time at David’s House involved mundane things like watching Cops with the residents or mowing the lawn or cleaning out a room after a resident left unexpectedly or sitting and talking with one guy in particular.  I wanted to witness to him, share the love of Christ with him, change him somehow.  I could imagine how it was going to be an amazing conversion story of a man with AIDS coming to the Lord.  But I never gave him any of the scripted Gospel spiels that I knew.  Mostly I listened to his stories.  The closest I ever got to being Christ-like was when I helped him with a bath one evening.  He was so weak and frail that he couldn’t get out of the tub safely without assistance.  These experiences didn’t have any effect on my belief that his homosexuality was his own sinful choice. Though I had a lot of sympathy for his pain and suffering, I still saw him more as a witnessing opportunity than a person.

During college several of my friends were in the closet about their sexuality, but I didn’t find out until after graduation.  I’m not surprised that they stayed in the closet since they would have been kicked out of our small evangelical college in the south if they revealed they were gay.  I’m also not surprised that they didn’t confide in me their struggles.  It’s not that I wasn’t sympathetic when I found out (because I truly was), but that I still held onto my beliefs that they were living in sin.  I don’t think I ever said anything about loving the sinner, while hating the sin, but it’s essentially the approach I took.  When I talked to one of the guys on the phone (we had both moved back to our respective home towns), I told him that it didn’t affect our friendship.  But in my mind, I still felt like he was lost and adrift.  I wanted to help him, and I didn’t know how.  But it wasn’t my struggle.

In the first composition course I taught while a grad student, one of my students wrote a personal essay about being gay and part of the essay was how his sexual orientation intersected with his Christian beliefs.  I didn’t know what to do with it.  I disagreed with the premise that he could be a practicing homosexual and a Christian in good standing, but I also didn’t want to grade him down because I disagreed with him.  I knew that I was likely to disagree with lots of things that students wrote about, so I would have to judge their papers on how they wrote, not the specific topics and whether I agreed with them or not.  But that attempt at objectivity bothered me in this instance because I wanted to help someone who was claiming to be a Christian.  I wanted to help him see his error.

I decided not to write anything directly telling him what I thought, but I figured I could help guide him to see for himself that he was deluding himself that he could integrate his faith with his sin.  I went to the library and skimmed sources that addressed the issue from multiple angles.  I figured it was okay, and more objective, if I presented him with sources that both affirmed and disconfirmed what he believed.  I thought the truth would win out as long as I presented it as one of the options.  I suggested that he read more on the issue.  It was all rather presumptuous of me that he hadn’t thought it all out for himself.  It was his life after all.  I was the one thinking about the issue for the first time.  He had been living it.  I can hardly blame him for not responding to my comments.

Later, when one of my fellow grad students asked me to sign a petition calling for the university to extend benefits to domestic partners, I declined.  She was surprised, probably figuring everyone in the office could be counted on.  I don’t remember how I explained myself.  I knew that I wanted to be a good witness for my beliefs, but I didn’t know how to explain my position without sounding like a jerk.  The truth is that I didn’t really even know what my position was when I was put on the spot, so I asked for time to think it over.  While the idea of domestic partner benefits sounded benign, I knew it was a cover for condoning and encouraging homosexual couples.  I couldn’t support that in good conscience.  She didn’t press me on my reasoning, thankfully, because it would have been embarrassing for her and me.  I had stood up for my beliefs in a small way, but I didn’t feel all that good about it.  Now, looking back, I feel rather ashamed of my lack of sympathy.  But again, it wasn’t my struggle, so I didn’t see how heartless I was.

The pivotal moment for me in all of this personal history is when David came out to me. He was a close friend I grew up with.  He told me later that first year of grad school, a time when I was figuring out who I was in a lot of ways.  It was after we had seen each other at a mutual friend’s wedding.  He wrote it in an email, and I was dumbfounded.  We had grown up in the same church and the same Christian private school.  We had had Bible studies together, gone on missions trips together, played soccer together, sang together, attended youth group together.  We had been on student council together.  We had gone on a double date (with girls!) to the Jr/Sr banquet our school held in lieu of a prom (no dancing allowed!).  After high school we had gone off to different Christian colleges, but would get together at Christmas or during the summer, if our schedules allowed.  I realized with sadness that I didn’t know my friend as well as I had thought and the struggles he had lived through.

I wrote him back what I consider now an embarrassing reply.  Instead of merely telling him that I loved him and that we were still friends and that I would be there for him, I felt the need to let him know that I thought homosexual acts were a sin.  Then I went on about how sin is sin, no matter what it is, and that I didn’t think homosexuality was worse than any other sin in God’s eyes.  I thought I was being magnanimous and compassionate.   Everyone struggles with temptations, I said.  I lamely offered my own struggles with (heterosexual) lust as an example.  What I couldn’t see at the time was that he had probably heard similar judgments from many other well-meaning friends.  Instead of love and acceptance, he heard condemnation as a first reaction.  It’s a testament to his graciousness that we have remained friends to this day.

I asked myself a lot of questions after his revelation, and I didn’t have any answers.  My understanding at the time was that there might be some biological component to homosexuality, but that there were environmental factors as well, and that there must be some large element of choice (how else could it be a sin?).  But the more I thought about it, it didn’t seem possible that David would have ever chosen to be gay.  He had practically the same background as me, with the same teachings on sin and homosexuality.  But if he had been born gay, then that made me very uncomfortable about a God who would create someone with attractions and urges that he could never act on without damning himself.  Everyone wants love and companionship and affection, but he was essentially denied the chance.  It made me doubt the goodness of God.  I asked God how he could be so cruel to David.  I didn’t understand.

I remember talking to a friend about my dilemma.  I knew enough not to out David, so I talked about an anonymous friend.  Somehow the implications of my beliefs about homosexuality and the goodness of God didn’t hit me until I thought about David’s struggle.  I didn’t stop and reflect on my understandings before when I learned about friends from college.  I think the difference is I could see myself in David.  It was easier to put myself in his shoes and see how devastating and impossible it was to reconcile what we were taught with how he felt.

It still took me a long time to change my mind on the questions of homosexuality as sin and same sex marriage, though.  I couldn’t figure out any other way of understanding the biblical passages that mention homosexuality, and I wasn’t ready to throw out my faith.  So I lived with the cognitive dissonance for a few years.  Though I fumbled my initial reply to David, I was determined to be a good friend to him.  I visited him and kept in contact because I wanted to keep him in my life.

I finally fully came around on the issue after reading some books.  As this blog is a testament, books are vital to me.  The first was Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality.  I was familiar with Sullivan from his days at Time magazine, which I started reading regularly when I went to grad school.  I knew he was gay and that he was a Catholic.  I was fascinated that he somehow reconciled those two aspects of his life.  I didn’t see how it could be done.  His book was published in 1996, and it was an early argument for same sex marriage, arguing that opening up the institution to LGBT individuals was both a conservative and liberal move.  His argument was well reasoned, but it was mostly philosophical and political, not biblical, so some of my biggest doubts remained.

Later I read What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage by David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni.  The book provided the additional reasons I needed to complete my change of mind.  I think I was looking for those reasons.  Myers is a well-respected psychologist, author of popular textbooks in the field, and a Christian.  He and Scanzoni grounded their arguments in social science and biblical interpretation.  They pointed out all the benefits of marriage for individuals and for society.  They examined the nature of sexual orientation and how difficult it is to go against one’s orientation.  And lastly, while acknowledging that they are not theologians, they showed that many scholars dispute the interpretations of the passages usually used to prove homosexuality is a sin and abomination.  I felt like I could finally let go of my old beliefs.

So that’s how I ended up changing my mind.  It took a long time, years really.  It took seeing how this issue affected a close friend for me to examine what my beliefs really meant.  My heart slowly changed, but I still needed the justifications and reasons to feel okay about my change of heart.  So reading books with answers I found compelling sealed the change in me. I most recently finished Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships which goes into much more detail than What God Has Joined Together did on the interpretation of relevant biblical passages. It’s been a long process of change.

For the longest time I couldn’t see how my beliefs and interpretations of the Bible kept me from truly seeing others and their full humanity.  I thought I was sympathetic to others, but over and over again I wasn’t, not really.  Without intending to, I  had been arrogant and dismissive and uncharitable to students, colleagues, and friends.  I hadn’t lived up to that most difficult of all rules: to love others as I love myself.  But love wins.

I hope to write some follow-up posts that dive deeper into some of the issues that I have merely touched upon in my all-too-brief summaries of the books I’ve mentioned.  Look for those in the near future.

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8 thoughts on “A Change of Heart and Mind

  1. Great post, over the last few years I have come to some of the same conclusions but I don’t believe much of what I was brought up to believe anymore.

  2. Heather Salfrank Joseph says:

    Lauren Harrison came to Brooklyn this weekend for a short getaway (my son James is in South Dakota with my parents and it was a good break for both of us and a time to catch up). Among many other things, we of course talked about Toccoa and our conservative pasts. In the middle of our conversation, Matt (husband) walked into the living room, and with a big goofy grin on his face interjected: “Yeah, have y’all read Andy Zell’s blog post on homosexuality yet?” – which pretty much brought down the house. Apparently, he’d seen it from Susanna’s feed. In the funky age of social media, they’re FB buddies. I really thought when I walked away from Toccoa, I’d never hear from most people again. And here we are.

    Anyway, after we all had a good laugh about how weird and small the world can be, I checked it out. Thank you for writing this. It’s good to witness, from one former evangelical conservative to another. In fact, I’m going to send the link to a few friends who are still processing.

    I’m not sure if I told you back then (I’m guessing no), but I knew a few individuals in same-sex relationships at Toccoa as well. When they told me, it was with a great deal of shame as an “accountability” measure. Even then the whole thing didn’t sit right with me. I knew something was wrong about all of the shame and guilt and condemnation. The secrecy.

    Matt introduced me to Sullivan and Virtually Normal in 2005, but by then I’d already come to embrace homosexual relationships fully and to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ under the law (that experience at Toccoa, and then later others in DC and grad school transforming my understanding of relationships, sexuality, and faith).

    In reading through your own process, I’m struck by how similarly most evangelical kids I know were taught to “witness” and to “convert” versus to listen. This drive to witness lasted long after I’d even stopped believing it anymore. It took me a long time to learn to truly listen. Have you read “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer? It might resonate with you. Also Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu. I actually ran into Jeff at a joint Easter vigil service this year in Brooklyn and made an absolute idiot of myself (I just stared and said – YOU’RE JEFF CHU!). Good book, though.

    Well – keep on writing and generally being awesome. Apparently now both Matthew and I are followers of your blog 🙂 If that’s not really weird, I don’t know what is. I’d never have believed it possible way back in 1999.

    • Thanks for continuing to read, Heather, and for the very kind words. It sounds like we’ve been on similar journeys with our faith and outlook on life since our college days.

      I did read Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God a few years back with great interest. It was fascinating to see the inside scoop on his parents and aspects of the culture wars as well as his change of mind. I remember reading his book Addicted to Mediocrity (which he wrote when he still went by Franky) while I was at Toccoa.

      I’ll have to check out that book by Jeff Chu. God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines gave me a few other titles to check out as well about faith and sexual orientation. It seems that I’m always adding more books to my “to read” list faster than I have time to read them. Oh well. I’ll get to them all eventually, I hope.

      Your story of how you and Lauren and Matt came to talk about my essay is pretty funny. It is pretty amazing how the world works out sometimes.

  3. Viera says:

    I read this and have struggle with the same issues. I’m not sure I’m convinced by your decision to agree with the Social issues Christian are having to face today about the gay and lesbian community. I took have struggle with it because of my dear friend David. I’m interesting in reading more of your post. Viera

    • Thanks for reading, Viera! Like you, I struggled a long time trying to reconcile my previous interpretations of the Bible with how I saw David. Last year, when I published this, a mutual friend of ours asked me on Facebook if I changed my mind because of the Bible or because of how I felt about David. I had to admit that it was about David and not the Bible, at least initially. I don’t think I could have even read alternate interpretations and given them a fair reading before I started to have a change of heart. But now I am convinced that the Bible, when understood in its historical and cultural context, does not condemn loving same sex relationships of today. I’ve been meaning to write the follow-up post(s) that deal with the Biblical passages for a while, but I haven’t finished yet.

  4. associatedluke says:

    A wonderful testimony of God turning a heart of stone to one for love alone. It’s a hard and long road to break ourselves of our ego and to alter our vision to include those who are “other.” Thanks for your story!

  5. Pingback: Links for July 16, 2017 | strangerextant

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