Recently, Thabiti Anyabwile (Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition) wrote an article which the Gospel Coalition posted on their website: “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage’“. I have heard this argument before: that the disgust many conservative Christians feel towards homosexuality is a sign of the Holy Spirit working in their consciences and a clear indication that it is wrong.
Whatever your belief about homosexuality and gay marriage, this is an entirely spurious supposition.
I travel all over the world for my work, and have very often had a gag reflex in response to some of the food I have been offered. Is that my conscience telling me that the food is morally bad for me? Or is it possibly more likely to be some deep seated cultural conditioning telling me not to eat this food which is unknown or unappetising to me? I have learnt not to trust my gag reflex in many situations.
But I have also experienced the ‘gag reflex’ Pastor Anyabwile speaks of in a church context. The first time (and a few more, sad to say) that I heard a female worship leader (sorry, Darlene Zschech) and a woman preacher I had literal bad physical reactions. I had been brought up to believe with all my heart that women should not be leaders or teachers. I don’t believe that anymore. But the gag reflex had nothing to do with it – either way. I also had a ‘gag reflex’ the first time I saw a black man and a white woman kissing. I grew up in Apartheid era South Africa where this was illegal, and also considered immoral on the basis of the Bible. Although I remember my church being vaguely opposed to apartheid, we never had any black kids in our Sunday School or youth programmes (it was technically illegal to do so, but some churches didn’t bother obeying that particular law, while mine did). And there were certainly no cross cultural couples around. I had a deep cultural conditioning against such things. I don’t anymore (my family has even adopted a Zulu daughter). But a few years ago, on an international youth pastor’s forum, I asked participants to list their top three biggest youth group issues. Many pastors from the southern states of the USA listed cross cultural dating as their number one issue (and they were opposed to it!).
So, I don’t trust my gag reflex to be my moral guide. I really honestly don’t. And I find it horrific that a person in the position that Pastor Anyabwile is can publicly put forward the level of homophobic attitudes he does in his article.
As I was wondering how to respond, I was delighted to see that one of my favourite Christian bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, had also picked up the story and provided a thoughtful and useful response. You can read it on her blog, or an extended extract below.
God forgive us for these attitudes, and rescue us from the pit from which they come.
Responding to homophobia in the Christian community
Recently, Thabiti Anyabwile wrote a post entitled “The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and ‘Gay Marriage’”, which was posted on his Gospel Coalition-hosted blog.
Now let me be clear: I believe the post exhibits homophobia, not because of the author’s conservative position on same-sex marriage, and not because the author intended to be hateful, but because the post employs degrading, fear-based language to dehumanize gay and lesbian people.
Responding to New Zealand’s recent legalization of gay marriage, Anyabwile laments the fact that pro-gay-marriage advocates have effectively argued their case by appealing to civil rights and by emphasizing loving, committed relationships between gay and lesbian people. Confessing with some agitation that he too found one gay advocate to be “kind, winsome, insightful and reasonable,” Anyabwile concludes that the best way to turn the tide back against gay marriage is to “return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth.”
Christians should indulge their “gag reflexes,” he says, and “return to the yuck factor” when they think and talk about gay and lesbian people, particularly in the context of gay marriage.
He then proceeds to graphically describe gay sex before telling the reader: “That sense of moral outrage you’re now likely feeling… that gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, ‘I feel dirty’ moral outrage is the gag reflex. Your moral sensibilities have been provoked-and rightly so.”
He concludes: “That reflex triggered by an accurate description of homosexual behavior will be the beginning of the recovery of moral sense and sensibility when it comes to the so-called ‘gay marriage’ debate.”
Obviously, the post fails miserably in the logic department by arguing that because some people have a “gag reflex” when they think about gay sex, then gay sex must therefore be immoral. Let’s think about this. A person might get a bit squirmy at the thought of his parents having sex, but it does not then follow that his parents’ sex is inherently immoral. Furthermore, there are heterosexual acts that can be considered immoral\u2014adultery, for example\u2014but that might not induce Anyabwile’s handy “gag reflex.” (Not to mention the fact that much of what he describes as “gay sex” happens in heterosexual sex as well and that any sort of sex, when described purely biologically, can sound kinda gross; let’s face it.) So positioning “icky” as the barometer for morality is just poor argumentation. If, as Anyabwile suggests, this is really the best argument those opposed to gay marriage have, then the movement is in serious trouble.
But far more serious than Anyabwile’s logical failings is the failure of this post to extend any sort of grace or dignity to the LGBT people in question. Instead, he invites those who may already have hostile feelings toward gay and lesbian people to indulge their revulsion and anger.
Concerned that the civility and decorum exhibited by many LGBT rights advocates might make their arguments more persuasive, Anyabwile suggests that the key to “winning” the same-sex marriage debate is speak more graphically about gay sex in order to induce the “gag reflex.” When discussing homosexuality, Christians should seek to create “gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, ‘I feel dirty’ moral outrage” regarding gay and lesbian people seeking to get married.
This is why the post is so damaging and potentially dangerous. Sensing that the consideration of full personhood might sway the gay marriage debate toward legalization, he suggests we should deliberately move away from speaking of gay and lesbian people as multi-dimensional human beings and instead reduce them to sex acts in order to make others more repulsed by them. It is an unabashed attempt to single out, stigmatize, and ostracize an entire group of people, which is the exact opposite of what the gospel calls us to do. Anyabwile frequently uses terms like “dirty,” “yucky,” “repulsive,” “disgusting” and “icky” to describe fellow human beings, created in the image of God, and this is unacceptable.
Can you imagine Jesus reducing those with leprosy to their disease? Or the bleeding woman to her “impurity”? Can you imagine Philip reducing the Ethiopian eunuch to his anatomy or Peter the gentile Christians to the food they ate? Can you imagine God reducing us to our sin?
And what’s with this idea that our impulses necessarily lead us to truth? Are we justified in indulging our gag reflex when we encounter people who are sick, or homeless, or different from us? What about our violent reflexes? Or our indulgent reflexes? Or our racist reflexes? Our greedy reflexes?
Reflex doesn’t make right. And anyone who believes in the pervasiveness of sin within our hearts should agree.
[For those eager to defend Anyabwile, I recommend reading this post from Richard Beck, in which he anticipates such defenses and responds well to them. Please also consider reading Beck’s book, Unclean, which discusses how disgust is a dehumanizing emotion.]
Responding to Homophobia….
Not everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is homophobic, of course. But I do come across what can only be described as homophobia and I suspect I am not alone. I suspect you too may have been in the presence of Christians cracking crude jokes about gay and lesbian people or muttering under their breath about a “disgusting” gay co-worker. Or perhaps you’ve been in a Bible study where it is suggested that all gay people are pedophiles or watched as kids who bully effeminate classmates are given a free pass.
(How easy it is to forget that there are gay people sitting in the pews of our churches. This is not an “us-vs.-them” thing; this is an “us” thing, a humanity thing. Many gay people are Christians, and many Christians have children, parents, friends, and loved ones who are gay.)
So how should we respond when fellow Christians engage in name-calling, bullying, lying, or hateful attitudes like these?
Four things come to mind:
1.\tCall it out.
Ignorance and hateful attitudes thrive when they are normalized and accepted without pushback. Your friends may just assume you agree with them when you don’t speak up about their homophobia. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard Dan calmly respond to a crude homophobic joke with something simple like, “Hey, man. That’s not funny. You’re talking about real people here. Please don’t say that kind of stuff around me.” It’s awkward for about 10 seconds. But it’s better than replaying that conversation over and over and wishing you had said something. And it sends the signal that not everyone is okay with crude jokes or ugly language at the expense of gay and lesbian people. More often than not, there will be someone else in the group who is relieved you said something and may even offer support. And sometimes, there will be someone in the group who is relieved to know he or she is not also hated or despised by you. Try thinking ahead of time about a line or two you can use in situations like these so you’re ready.
(A more personal, and perhaps more effective, response is to talk about the people in your life who are gay. Perhaps your friends will think twice about mouthing off about their “gag reflex” toward gay and lesbian people when they know your brother is gay.)
In the case of this article, it would be appropriate to leave a comment saying you do not accept gay and lesbian people being spoken of in these terms, especially by those waving the banner of the “gospel,” or by urging editors at The Gospel Coalition to remove the post entirely. Or, if the article is shared by your friends, speak up. It would be especially helpful if more conservative folks would push back a bit. Remember that silence in this regard can often communicate approval.
Hate grows in the soil of ignorance, and when it comes to sexuality, there’s a lot of ignorance to go around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a well-intentioned Christian say something about how children in gay families suffer (this is not true) or how all gay people are pedophiles (also not true). We can debate the merits of same-sex marriage, certainly, but let’s do it based on facts, not myths. And we can discuss how the Bible and Christian tradition factor into things as well, but let’s be informed about our convictions.
Check out 10 anti-gay myths debunked at The Southern Poverty Law Center to get started, and then follow the links to the various studies and scientific research that is cited there. For books, The Marin Foundation has a handy list here that includes perspectives from both conservative and progressive Christians.
3.\tGet to know some LGBT people and read their perspectives on things.
One of my gay friends said that Anyabwile’s article was the most overtly hateful thing he has read about homosexuality from a Christian blog. My guess is Anyabwile probably didn’t intend his post to be hateful, but had he taken a minute to imagine how it would read to a gay or lesbian teen, for example, he might have chosen his words more carefully.
Deliberately listening to and considering the perspectives of LGBT people can make a huge difference in how we engage conversations around marriage, the Bible, and church. You will learn how phrases like “the gay lifestyle” and “love the sinner, hate the sin” sound to those most impacted by them and your stereotypes will be shattered. (You will also learn why Anyabwile’ statement that “‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are polite terms for an ugly practice” is wrong. Those terms generally refer to sexual orientation.)
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Torn: Rescuing Christians From the Gays vs. Christians Debate by Justin Lee, my favorite book on the topic from a gay Christian’s perspective. For a more conservative viewpoint, you might like Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting. I’d also recommend Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu. Some of my favorite blogs in this regard come from Kimberly Knight, Registered Runaway, and Grace Is Human.
This also might be a good time to connect with (or donate to!) the Gay Christian Network, a wonderful group that provides fellowship and resources to gay Christians, both those who feel they are free in Christ to pursue relationships with the members of the same sex and those who feel they are compelled by Christ to pursue celibacy.
4.\tPreach and live the gospel.
Of course, the very best thing we can do in response to any sort of fear or hate or stigmatization is to preach the gospel like crazy, to spread the good new that, through Christ, God is making all things new and the Kingdom of Heaven is open to all who long for it.
For those who are weary and burdened by religious rules and expectations, Jesus promises rest. For those who hunger for righteousness, Jesus promises satisfaction. For those who are thirsty for refreshing, life-giving, truth, Jesus promises streams of living water. For those who have been marginalized and cast aside, Jesus promises a banquet and a place of high honor. For those who long for reconciliation and forgiveness of sins, Jesus promises mercy and grace. For those deemed “unclean,” Jesus promises embrace. For those who long for communion, there is bread and wine. And for those who long to be baptized, there is water.
The good news is that we aren’t welcomed into God’s family based on our merits or our skills. We aren’t welcomed based on which theological beliefs we can check off a list or how well we fit the religious mold. You don’t have to be straight to be part of this family. You don’t have to be a Republican or a Democrat or an American. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to pray just the right words or know all the right answers. You don’t have to be sinless. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You just have to come. It’s an adoption, not an interview.
The good news is that God doesn’t reduce us the way we reduce one another. God does not see dirty people and clean people, good people and bad people. God sees beloved people. And nothing can separate us from that. Nothing.
Now be warned: Some people find this gospel offensive. They don’t like the idea of sharing a table with all these undeserving, messed-up, “icky” people. They don’t like the idea of this grace thing getting out of hand. But for the suffering, for the hurting, and for the ones who have nothing left to lose, this is very good news.
So preach it like crazy, and if you dare, live it.