A Review of Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

July is almost over, and we’re finally getting around to our monthly resource review. More than one reader suggested that we review Jeff Chu’s Does Jesus Really Love Me?, and we agreed heartily that it would be an interesting resource to discuss on our blog. After snagging a signed copy at the 2013 National Book Festival, we’ve been reading it slowly over a period of months. We had originally planned to publish this review the week after the Gay Christian Network had announced Chu as a speaker for its 2015 conference. But we decided to take some extra time to reread parts of the book, and we’re glad that we did. We found it an enjoyable read, and are excited to hear Chu speak (and hopefully meet him!) in Portland this coming January.

As usual, we will keep most of our thoughts related to our two focus questions for every review we write: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a different sort of resource than others we have reviewed so far. It neither takes a theological position on LGBT sexual ethics nor offers pastoral guidance for discussing LGBT issues within Christianity. Instead, it tells the stories of several people with different levels of involvement in the conversation. One of the book’s greatest strengths is the level of respect with which it treats each story. Chu is incredibly compassionate, even when taking on interviews with members of Westboro Baptist Church. It’s clear that in writing this book, Chu needed to step as much as possible outside his own assumptions in order to honor his interviewees’ experiences. Of course it is impossible for any writer to ignore his or her biases entirely, but as we read and remained on the lookout for an overt or hidden agenda, we couldn’t find one — unless you count “share people’s life experiences and perspectives on sexuality and Christian spirituality in America.” Celibate LGBT Christian readers, who often face harsh judgments from both liberals and conservatives, will likely find Chu’s empathic approach refreshing.

Another impressive aspect of Does Jesus Really Love Me? is Chu’s appreciation for the process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality and spirituality. From beginning to end, this book conveys the reality that the concerns of LGBT Christians in America extend far beyond the question of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful, and that no one comes to a place of reconciliation on every possible issue immediately after coming out. Celibate LGBT readers will likely appreciate this point because it opposes the increasingly prominent message that reconciling faith and sexuality is as simple as reading and accepting (or reinterpreting) six Bible verses. The book’s four major divisions — Doubting, Struggling, Reconciling, and Hoping — speak to stages that most LGBT Christians experience in different seasons of life.

One of the more obvious ways that Does Jesus Really Love Me? will appeal to celibate LGBT readers is its treatment of celibacy in Chapter 8. Chu begins the chapter with a brief discussion of Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, which leads into his interview with fifty-seven-year-old Kevin Olson of Minnesota. We were impressed by the way Chu frames this chapter generally, but also had some reservations about how it fits into the book’s overall narrative. Like most people involved in the conversation about Christianity and LGBT issues, Chu seems aware of the assumption that celibacy is just a layover on the way to self-acceptance and sexually active relationships. But unlike those who disparage LGBT celibacy as a temporary state that rarely lasts and almost always leads to despair, Chu has decided to explore the questions: “What are the effects of this kind of long-term chastity? What would life look like for the homosexual who, in his relative youth, chose this?” (p. 180). These are necessary questions for discussing issues around long-term celibacy: its sustainability, its emotional impact, and its meaning for those who choose it and those who do not. We were glad to see Chu’s interest in learning about these aspects of celibacy.

Chu tells Kevin’s story with integrity. He speaks to his respect for Kevin’s faith and asserts that Kevin taught him much about celibacy, particularly that it is a continual series of choices rather than a one-time commitment. He also does a fantastic job of using elements of Kevin’s story to describe how quickly people both inside and outside Christianity reject celibate (and non-celibate) LGBT Christians. However, there are elements of Kevin’s story that some readers might interpret as evidences that celibacy is necessarily oppressive, and is at least tangentially related to the ex-gay movement. For example, Chu chose to include that Kevin considers himself “homosexually oriented” rather than “gay” because in Kevin’s eyes, the term gay means acceptance of a sexually active way of life. He also makes mention of the fact that Kevin’s father did not treat him affectionately. Though we have no doubt that these bits of Kevin’s story are true, we wonder if Chu was aware that they might be interpreted as a statement that all LGBT celibates are really operating from within an ex-gay framework. It doesn’t help matters that Kevin’s story appears in the “Doubting” section — the same major division of the book where Chu interacts with Exodus International. We realize that only so many stories can be included in a work such as this, but we wonder why Chu opted to showcase only one celibate person and why he chose a man who admittedly lives the life of a solitary and does not identify as gay. It seems to us that other narratives of celibates who do identify as LGBT and lead lives full of rich interpersonal connectedness would have fit within the scope of Chu’s project, and would have provided a helpful complement to Kevin’s story.

Though the stories Chu tells come almost exclusively from evangelical Protestantism and rarely from any other Christian context, we felt encouraged by the book’s overall message that sharing one’s story as an LGBT Christian is a good thing. Not only does Chu show compassion and respect for all the people he interviews, but he seems genuinely interested in knowing all the details of their stories and how they got to the points in life where they were at the times of their interviews. He’s willing to learn from everyone, and we see that attitude so infrequently when interacting with culture war topics. Though Chu is a non-celibate LGBT Christian, as we read Does Jesus Really Love Me? we sensed that he is the sort of person who would offer encouragement to celibates interested in sharing their stories. Throughout the chapters, he models vulnerability by offering pieces of his own journey of faith and loss of faith and using what he has learned from the interviewees as opportunities for introspection. His writing sends a clear message that LGBT voices in Christianity matter, and that sharing one’s personal experience is helpful both to the sharer and the listeners. Chu seems to believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on the planet, and there’s a lesson in that for all of us celibate LGBT Christians who speak publicly on matters of faith and sexuality.

Despite some minor quibbles, we had great fun reading this book and believe it makes a meaningful contribution to the current conversation. We recommend it to all our friends and readers, regardless of sexual orientation or approach to sexual ethics. If you haven’t had much personal experience with LGBT Christians, you should definitely read Chu’s work. If you are an LGBT Christian, you might read it and find yourself inspired to tell your own story.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Calling or Conviction: “If it’s not about avoiding sin, does LGBT celibacy still matter?”

Today, we are responding directly to a reader question that came after last week’s Saturday Symposium question:

“The tenor of your blog puzzles me more and more with every post. Not saying that’s bad. It’s just that everyone else who talks about this stuff does so while making an affirming or non-affirming argument. My question is do you think a celibate gay person’s commitment to celibacy matters if it doesn’t come along with a statement that gay sex is wrong? Is it good enough that a person feels called to celibacy, or does that call have to come from a place of conviction of sin in order for it to matter or have meaning?”

Before we get started on this one, we refer you to another post where we wrote about why  we choose not to engage in the “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” debate here on the blog. We recommend reading that one first before continuing with this post. The decision to frame our writing project outside this particular debate does not mean that we have no opinions on sexual ethics for LGBT Christians. It also doesn’t mean that we think the question is unimportant. It only means that here in this space, we are trying to have a different conversation. That said, we can proceed to addressing this reader’s question.

To begin with, if a person feels called to celibacy, it makes sense to discuss this calling in terms of vocation. Vocations enable people to manifest the Kingdom of God. They bring people into relationship with God, other humans, and the world as a whole. They call people to live more intentionally. Because of this, our initial response to reading this question was, “Why wouldn’t a person’s vocation matter?” We believe that regardless of a person’s reason for pursuing a particular vocation in the beginning, for the duration, or in the end, the choice to pursue it is significant. It means that a person has decided to follow God in a way of life that will help him or her to grow in holiness. Why would that not be important and meaningful, even if you don’t agree with that person’s reason for making the commitment?

It seems absurd to us that in the eyes of some, LGBT celibacy isn’t “valid” or “real” if a person offers, “I feel called” instead of, “I’m avoiding sin” as his/her reason for pursing celibacy. Rarely do we hear anyone apply the same standard to the vocation of marriage, even though within some Christian traditions one could make a biblical argument that avoidance of sin is the primary reason a person should choose to marry. In 1 Corinthians 7:9, St. Paul writes, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to argue that based on this scripture, a person should marry if marrying is the only way he or she can avoid sexual sin, and other possible reasons for marrying are less meaningful. But nobody makes this argument. Or at least nobody we’ve ever met or read. We don’t hear this argument because most Christians across all denominations would find it ridiculous. Traditions like Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some Protestant denominations have thorough, developed theologies of marriage that span far more than “better to marry than to burn.” Ask yourself, “Does marriage still matter if the married person entered this vocation because of a calling rather than a desire to avoid sin?” Ask a friend. In preparation for this post, we’ve asked several, and every one of them thought the question absurd.

Some who hold to a conservative sexual ethic might say at this point, “A personal calling is fine. Nothing wrong with that. But gay sex is still a sin, and if the celibate person doesn’t believe this, he/she holds a heterodox belief. Without orthodox belief, LGBT celibacy means nothing.” The problem with this statement is that Christianity involves both belief and practice. Believing in a certain sexual ethic is not a prerequisite for practicing celibacy. A person who holds to a belief that your tradition considers theologically unorthodox may very well be engaging in a practice that is orthodox according to your tradition’s teachings. One does not negate the other. You can hold that a person is wrong about a theological issue and still appreciate that person’s commitment to a vocation. Let’s assume for a moment that you belong to a Christian tradition that considers use of contraception a sin. Would you say that a married couple’s marriage is meaningless if that couple isn’t using contraception, but disagrees with the teaching that doing so would be sinful?

This isn’t exactly the same as our reader’s question, but we believe it is related: an argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy — the only option — is meaningless.” We do believe that people should be able to discover their vocations rather than experience vocation as a mandate. However, we are also aware that this belief is influenced by our modern context. Anyone who has basic familiarity with Church history should know that for the first several centuries of Christianity, most people had very little personal choice in the matter of whether they would marry or live as celibates. To say that celibacy doesn’t matter if it’s the only choice available is to declare that thousands of people’s life experiences were meaningless. To those making this argument we ask: are you willing to suggest that there was no meaning to the celibate life of Hildegard of Bingen because her parents — not she herself — decided that she would become a nun? Are you willing to assert that because Hildegard didn’t choose her own way of life, she never experienced a sense of call to monasticism?

Along with this, we think it’s important to point out that people’s understandings of theology and personal calling usually develop over time. As children of the Church, we will grow and change. No one can answer every question about his or her vocation immediately after deciding to follow Christ. We don’t expect people to know everything there is to know about the Bible, Church history, or practices of Christian worship. Relative to marriage, we think most people would find it unreasonable to assert that newlyweds know everything there is to know about marriage. Some of our closest friends have told us that they were married for over five years before starting to have any degree of appreciation for what it meant for them to be married. A novice entering a monastery is hoping to discern what monastic life has to offer him or her. Beginnings of one’s vocation can be an especially spiritually fruitful time as one notes the sparks of “first love” for a particular way of life. In our own lives, we have embraced the process of maturing towards celibacy. We have begun to see our vocation’s first fruits as we have journeyed together, and we look forward to how God will continue to guide and direct our steps. All stories of vocation have meaning precisely because they dramatize how God has walked with particular people throughout their lives.

We sincerely appreciate our reader’s question. This question dovetails into existing conversations about LGBT Christian sexual ethics. Privileging the discussion of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful can prevent Christians from seeing the practical questions around discerning vocations, and this happens quite often in discussions about LGBT issues. We consider it distressing that due to where the conversation is currently, “Does vocation have any meaning?” is actually reasonable question. When we begin talking more broadly about vocation, we can also talk about how LGBT Christians image the Kingdom of God in our midst. We believe it especially important for people who hold a traditional sexual ethic to focus on the positives of vocation rather than the negatives of trying to stay on the “right” side of the line that separates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

When Definition Undercuts Mystery

A reflection by Sarah

“You’re not really a lesbian, Sarah.”

“Why? What do you mean?”

“You like girls, but I can’t see you ever having sex with one, much less having a real relationship with one. If you really are a lesbian, you have sex with women, or at least want it.”

It has been 11 years since my friend Daniel and I exchanged these words over chicken tacos in our college cafeteria. I’ve thought about this conversation on a handful of occasions over the past decade, but never so strongly as within the past week. As I’ve perused the usual blogs and news sources that make their way into my reading queue, I’ve been surprised at how many posts and articles have led me back to the memory of my conversation with Daniel and how it marked the beginning of our friendship’s end.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve had an uneasy relationship with labels and categories, especially those with rigid boundaries that seem arbitrary. Labels and categories have utility. I’m not denying that. But almost always, attempts to define where lines should be drawn result in privileging some experiences while disqualifying others altogether. Because my own experience of sexuality and sexual orientation is not what most would consider typical, I’m entirely uncomfortable with drawing neatly-defined categorical boxes around LGBTQ terminology. Furthermore, I consider the search for one common factor that qualifies certain people but not others as LGBTQ to be a fool’s errand.

More frequently now than ever, I see people defining sexual orientation in a narrow manner. Some people will say that sexual orientation is all about sex or the desire for the sex, or that it should be defined primarily by sexual desire even if it encompasses multiple attributes. Others believe that sexual orientation should be defined by a person’s current level of sexual activity, or the sexual orientation/gender identity of a person’s partner. These ways of defining sexual orientation are often rooted in the definer’s experience of sexuality. If one experiences one’s own sexuality as a desire for sex, then it can be easy to assert that everyone of the same sexual orientation experiences sexuality in this way. I can understand the temptation to this because in the LGBTQ community, it’s common for people to gravitate towards others who have similar experiences of sexuality. For some, having shared definitions for terms like “gay” and “lesbian” provides a sense of unity and comfort.

However, I did not come out as a lesbian because I had an acute, burning desire for sexual intimacy with people of my same sex. For most of my life, I’d had an inkling that something about me was different from other females I knew. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what that meant or what was at the core of it, but everything began to make much more sense once I met other lesbians. Over time, I started to see sexuality and gender as profoundly mysterious. I came to believe that the mystery of sex, sexuality, and gender exists to draw us deeply into meaningful relationships with other people.

As I reflect on my conversation with Daniel, I can’t help but ask myself why we are so uncomfortable with the idea of sex, sexuality, and gender as mystery. Sometimes, answering with “It’s a mystery” is a cop-out and an attempt to quiet discussion. Yet as I take this approach to understanding myself and my lesbian sexual orientation, I am amazed at how much I continue to learn about what it means that I and others around me are sexual beings. I find myself eager to explore further what exactly it means that I am a lesbian, trusting that as God teaches me more about myself I’ll be brought to greater awareness of what my sexual orientation means as part of my identity. Let me be clear: I am not confused about my sexual orientation, and I do not expect one day to wake up and be straight, bisexual, or of some other orientation. But I do believe that God still has much more to show me about who he has created me to be.

Had I not come to a sense of peace in approaching sexuality as a mystery and accepting that it might be beyond definition and categorization, I wouldn’t have been able to make any sense of my sexuality and sexual orientation whatsoever up to this point. I am a lesbian. I experience attraction to women. Occasionally that attraction does include sexual thoughts. However, I experience sexual desire rather infrequently. I can’t even remember the last time I had a desire for sex. I am committed to sharing life with a partner whom I love, but to whom I am not sexually attracted, and who has trouble picking out which letters of the alphabet soup are the best fit. We’re committed to living a celibate way of life together. When I discuss my sexuality with others, some people will assert that I’m not a lesbian if I’m not having sex. Others will say that perhaps I used to be a lesbian but am no longer because I haven’t experienced the desire for sex in such a long while. Then there are those who will tell me that “partner” is not the right word to describe my relationship with Lindsey because I’m not sexually attracted to Lindsey. This latter group will assert that friendship is the only term that can rightly describe our relationship, or that we must be lying about our commitment to celibacy and failing to see that we’re just imitating marriage. Some people assert that I cannot know my sexual orientation because Lindsey hasn’t yet decided on a particular label for Lindsey.

At times, dealing with these assertions becomes maddening. If I were to devote any amount of my precious energy to sorting how my experience squares with established definitions instead of rolling with the terminology that feels most right to me, I wouldn’t have any strength left to focus on loving other people. And one thing I can say for sure about my sexuality is that every part of it involves a broader pattern of loving, relating to, and interacting with others.

I find it irksome when conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity become so caught up in definitions that differences in lived experience never enter the discussion. Eventually, Daniel’s insistence upon defining my sexuality for me led to the very painful decision that ending our friendship was necessary. Lately, I’ve seen the same pattern of conversation happening when it comes to issues of LGBTQ people in the Church. People across a wide range of positions look to rigid boundaries around what it means to be LGBTQ. I wonder if people are so protective of labels and categories because they believe that keeping definitions narrow and based on their own experiences is the only way to ensure that their voices are heard. I wonder if we fail to leave space for the mystery of sexuality and gender because many people see labels and their definitions as valuable guideposts. Perhaps there’s a fear that saying, “I don’t know” in a conversation about sexuality gives critics a new opportunity for attack. But sometimes, at least in my experience, the more I learn about my sexuality, the more I see how little I actually know about this mystery. And sometimes, “I don’t know” are the three most freeing words I can possibly say.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Reasons for Choosing Celibacy

Good morning, readers. By the time you see this post on Saturday morning, the two of us will be almost a full day into a weekend retreat with some of our dearest friends. Please pray for us during this time of much-needed spiritual rejuvenation. We’ll be (mostly) unplugged until Sunday evening, so it’s going to take us a bit of extra time to reply to all responses from last week’s surprisingly popular question. We’ve read them all and have spent the whole week reflecting. We’re eager to get back to you with our thoughts.

Even though we’re out of town and away from the internet for the weekend, we didn’t want to leave you without a new Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: “Why did you choose celibacy?” is probably the most predictable question we receive, both in real time and from blog readers. It seems almost everyone involved in the conversation about Christianity and the LGBT community has an opinion about celibacy, particularly the issue of why some LGBT people choose to become celibate. There are hundreds of reasons a person might choose a celibate way of life. In your opinion, are some of these reasons better than others? Are some more problematic than others? Do a person’s reasons for choosing celibacy matter? Do they matter more for LGBT people than for heterosexual, cisgender people who choose celibacy?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Entering a Celibate Relationship

As you can probably imagine, many people ask us for advice about celibate relationships, how realistic that concept is, and how to make such a relationship work. Several people can be frustrated by our typical reply: we don’t think we’re very good at giving advice. However when enough people ask us the same question, we think we ought to address it to the best of our ability. We know a fair number of people who are living in celibate partnerships, have moved from celibate relationships to non-celibate relationships, or have experienced failed celibate relationships. Newcomers to our blog often ask us if we think celibate partnerships could be a viable vocational option for LGBT Christians more broadly. In responding to that question, we have to keep in mind that we’ve seen so many people hurt within celibate partnerships. That this happens (and probably quite often) doesn’t surprise us. There’s no real guidance from any Christian tradition on what this way of life might mean or look like.

In our own lives, we’ve learned that reflecting on celibacy periodically helps us discern what God would have us do together. We wanted to share some of the questions we encourage others to consider when thinking about celibate partnership as a way of living out a vocation to celibacy. Since we do not consider ourselves capable of making judgments as to whether another person should enter a celibate partnership, we hope the questions that follow might support people discerning whether entering a celibate partnership is a good decision.

1. Is loneliness my primary motivation for seeking a celibate relationship? If the answer is yes, know that being in a relationship (celibate or not) with another person isn’t a cure-all for loneliness. Everyone feels lonely sometimes–even people who are in committed relationships. But if that’s why you’re seeking a celibate relationship, more than likely you’ll find that a significant other will not fill the void.

2. Do I have a strong sense of what my sexual ethic is? If the answer is no, it’s probably wise to take more time to discern your sexual ethic within the context of your Christian tradition before entering a celibate relationship. For any relationship to be healthy, it’s necessary that both partners can talk candidly about this topic, even if there are disagreements. You’ll need to know how committed the other person is to celibacy. If you’re entering an intentionally celibate relationship with a person whose sexual ethic differs from yours, it’s especially important to have your own sorted.

3. Have I come to a sense of peace and acceptance concerning my sexual orientation? We’re going to be blunter than usual with this one: if the answer is no, then you are certainly not ready to begin a celibate relationship. If you try, it is highly likely that you will both end up feeling miserable and the relationship will fail. We have seen this happen many times to people we know and love. We know what it’s like to have trouble accepting oneself as LGBT, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to finding peace and a sense of comfort within your own skin. But if you’re not there yet, please don’t commit to a celibate relationship at this time.

4. Do I have an idea of what celibacy might mean for me? It’s vital that a person who chooses celibacy explores the meaning of this state of life. Some people choose celibacy because they feel called by God. Others choose celibacy in obedience to their Christian traditions even though they don’t feel called. People choose celibacy for the short-term, for the long-term, and indefinitely. Every celibate person is different, but willingness to ask, “What does it mean for me?” is necessary for living a sustainable way of life whether single or coupled.

5. Am I willing to receive and accept spiritual counsel within my faith community regarding my way of life? This one can be particularly tough because most humans struggle with pride, and many LGBT people experience fear after negative past experiences of seeking spiritual guidance. However, it’s necessary to ask this question because we can’t always see clearly the areas of our lives where we are failing to be Christlike. This is especially true when undertaking roads less traveled, such as living a celibate vocation in the same household as another person. It’s okay that saying yes to this one is hard, but if you aren’t willing to do it you are probably setting yourself up for failure by entering a celibate relationship.

6. Do I understand celibate partnership as a loophole within a legalistic celibacy mandate? If you read our blog regularly, you know that we prefer to discuss LGBT celibacy in terms of vocation rather than in terms of mandates. Some LGBT celibates do view celibacy within the framework of a mandate and are comfortable with that. Either way you understand celibacy, it’s not a good idea enter a celibate relationship if you understand the decision as “barely on the right side of God’s law.” This understanding of celibate partnership will likely lead to unhealthy obsessions with line-drawing.

7. Is fear of being sexually active my primary motivation for seeking a celibate relationship? If a friend told us that he/she had chosen celibacy either temporarily or permanently because of fearing sexual relationships, we would gently encourage that friend to seek counseling. If that same friend mentioned thoughts of beginning a celibate relationship in order to avoid dealing with these fears permanently, we would do everything possible to discourage that decision. Fear of sexual intimacy is often linked to fear of other types of intimacy. Entering a celibate relationship will not shelter you from ever having to experience intimacy with someone else.

8. Am I seeking an arrangement that is effectively a same-sex marriage without the sex? It’s possible that there are some celibate couples who do view themselves as celibate marriages, or marriages minus sex. We’re not here to judge those people or those relationships. But the healthiest celibate partnerships we’ve known among our friends have been those that come from very different places than desire to imitate marriage. Controversial statement here: if you do view your celibate relationship as “marriage lite,” it’s unlikely that the relationship will remain celibate. Before entering a celibate relationship, consider how you might learn from monastics and singles as well as married people as you continue to discern your vocation.

9. Do I envision being part of a celibate relationship that is inwardly focused? If the answer is yes, you’re envisioning something quite different from a vocation. Any relationship that is totally focused on itself with no concern for the broader world will likely have difficulty manifesting the Kingdom of God. We believe that this is true for celibate partnerships, other ways of living celibacy, and marriages. If you’re interested in a relationship that involves romantic dates but no greater purpose than making each other happy, you’re missing the point of vocation entirely.

10. Am I willing to take both the good and the bad when it comes to doing life with another person if we decide to live our celibate vocations together long-term? Anytime people commit to living the rest of their lives together, there will be seasons of fast and seasons of famine–spiritually, financially, physically, emotionally, in every way. This is true for marriages, monastics, and other ways of doing life in community. If you’re seeking a long-term celibate partnership, you must have a willingness to be there for the other person even during difficult times. If you can’t do that, you’re probably not ready for a celibate partnership or any lifelong vocational commitment.

11. Am I prepared for the reality that I will make mistakes? If you think life as a celibate pair will be perfect, free from all sin, and ideal in every way, think again. You’re human. You will make mistakes. You will sin against others. If you’re in a celibate (or non-celibate) partnership, you will sin against your partner, yourself, and God at some point (and no, we are not necessarily talking about sexual sin here). If you cannot accept the fact that celibate partnerships aren’t sin-free, you are not ready to enter one.

We’ve found that many people are interested in exploring celibate relationships before they stop to consider their own motivations for desiring these kinds of arrangements. In our own lives together, we’ve realized that entering a celibate partnership and keeping the focus on celibacy takes considerable intentionality. It’s not impossible, but doing so involves commitment to prayerfulness, mutual support, and (sometimes brutal) honesty. We thought through all of our own questions before we decided to explore the possibility that we, as Sarah and Lindsey, would make a good team for the long haul. And we expect that there will be seasons of life in the future when we will need to return to our previous responses for further reflection.

The comments section is open, and we would love to hear your thoughts!

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

The Idolatry of People-Pleasing

It’s no secret that LGBT people in the Church frequently deal with criticism. We’ve spoken to how it can be challenging for LGBT Christians to find a church home, ways that people draw lines to separate the “good” gays from the “bad” gays, how LGBT people are expected to conform perfectly to standards of morality, and how some churches can regard the mere presence of an identifiable LGBT person as a distinct threat. The question is not whether the criticism will come, but is instead how we will deal with that criticism that will inevitably arise. Sometimes, responding directly to others’ opinions and critiques is necessary and helpful. Meaningful conversation would not be possible without some level of disagreement; no one experiences intellectual growth as a result of interacting only with people who share one’s worldview in totality. But at other times we wonder if the urge to respond to real or perceived criticism introduces toxicity into our lives.

In our position as a celibate couple who blog regularly, we feel under the microscope quite often, and that’s to be expected because of our choice to share publicly about our personal experiences. We are coming to realize that there will always be people who claim our relationship is something that it’s not, tell us that we ought to wear our celibacy on our foreheads if we don’t want to be perceived as a threat, claim for any number of reasons that we should stop talking about celibacy altogether, and/or disapprove of our lives in one way or another without ever telling us directly. Learning how to cope with these various levels of scrutiny is a challenge. It’s no wonder that a lot of LGBT Christians, ourselves included, develop people-pleasing tendencies. Though the temptation to please others has an obvious source, we have to admit that focusing our efforts on appeasing others’ judgments is unhealthy.

There’s a fine line between defending oneself and engaging in people-pleasing. In today’s political climate, almost every LGBT person encounters situations where he or she needs to respond to another person’s comment or action. Many LGBT Christians can feel like our place in churches we call “home” is precarious. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong environment can lead to significant consequences. However, always sitting on the edge of one’s seat because one expects to be shown the door can cause an any person to shift from standing up for himself or herself towards dangerous forms of people-pleasing. It’s even possible for people-pleasing to become idolatrous.

Constant people-pleasing behaviors can lead to obsession over what others think. When a person has experienced significant judgment from others, he or she can develop a habit of trying to get inside of the critic’s head. When we assume what another is thinking, we can imagine the worst even in the best of situations. A snowball effect can begin wherein we observe that a member of our parish has glanced at us with an odd facial expression and, not even five minutes later, we are imagining that person must be one step away from complaining about us to our priest. All this happens entirely inside our own heads without any external conversation. In the absence of dialogue, panic arises from envisioning that everyone else is making assumptions about how we live our lives. But regardless of how common a reaction this is, people-pleasing tendencies are destructive because they can put a stopper on real conversation.

People-pleasing can get in the way of seeing where we actually fall short. Obsessing over what other people think can prevent us from searching our own hearts. Feeling the need to prove constantly that we are living faithful lives can block our abilities to appreciate how sin interferes with our relationship with God. Constantly worrying about whether a particular person from church thinks we are not living a proper sexual ethic takes up the headspace necessary to contemplate our tendencies toward pride, anger, and other passions that have nothing to do with sex. From time to time, we notice ourselves thinking more about what might be offending other people in our faith tradition than taking inventory of the real ways we are offending God. We could be a lot more patient, loving, joyous, thankful, and forgiving if we did not devote so much of our time to worrying about other people’s thoughts. The noise created when a person cares so much about what other people think can block God’s still, small voice almost entirely.

When we get caught up in people-pleasing, we do a disservice to others by catering to unreasonable expectations. Doing everything possible to appease another’s sensibilities can be harmful to that person’s spirituality. In instances where others really are making unfair judgments about us, changing totally innocent behavior just to please them effectively removes from them all responsibility for taking a look at their own spiritual lives. Oftentimes, the things that offend us are indicative of the sin lurking in our own hearts and minds. When we make aggressive attempts to people-please, we can enable the judgment within another’s heart and discourage him or her from examining that.

Additionally, we often end up drawing artificial lines and second-guessing behaviors that are totally innocuous. We fret over questions that arise in our own minds: “Will someone find it inappropriate for Lindsey to refill Sarah’s water glass when we’re eating together at church? Is sitting next to or across from each other at the table more likely to result in gossip about the intimacy of our relationship?” As we write this, we’re a bit ashamed of how absurd those questions sound. Maybe some people do analyze our every move in public. Maybe no one does. But whenever we listen to the internal voice that compels us to worry about that, we stop relating to the world as our authentic selves, and we start putting on various masks to everyone else around us. More often than not, attempting to please others leads us to behave rigidly and create arbitrary boundaries that we would never consider implementing during times when we’re tension-free and hanging out with the folks who know us best.

Focusing so much on how certain people see us prevents us from being able to connect meaningfully with others. If we’re worried constantly about what other people think, it’s virtually impossible to get to know those folks as people. When interacting with a person who we know holds some kind of unfair judgment against us, sometimes we have difficulty seeing beyond that judgment. We have trouble remembering that the person we are looking at is a human being who bears the image of God and cannot be reduced to his or her incorrect judgment on the issue in question. Seeing a person as nothing more than a puppet for a particular ideology is dehumanizing and unchristian, and we need to put a stop to that.

Caving to the temptation of people-pleasing distracts us from living into and discerning our vocation. When we do this, we shift away from living a vocation of hospitality, intimacy, vulnerability, and shared spiritual life that is turned outward to the world. Instead we adopt a vocation of, “Do what’s necessary to keep everyone happy with us and prevent them all from realizing that we’re actually human.” This latter “vocation” is no vocation at all. When we are trying to avoid doing anything that rubs another person the wrong way, we can find ourselves paralyzed and doing nothing at all. Vocations involve striving to manifest the Kingdom of God to the world. Doing nothing for fear of upsetting another is a poor witness. We might even go as far as saying it’s burying our talent in the ground. Not only that, it is entirely self-centered and self-serving to behave as though one’s purpose in life is nothing more than, “get through while ruffling the fewest feathers.”

We know we’re not the only LGBT Christians who struggle with the temptation towards people-pleasing. Sometimes it can seem that the only way to have one’s voice heard is strict adherence to all of the expected social and cultural norms of one’s faith community, even if there’s space for more varied discussion in one’s Christian tradition broadly. Perhaps one of the most widely destructive aspects of people-pleasing within the LGBT Christian conversation is privileging of certain terms and key phrases (e.g. “Side B” and “gay sex is a sin”) as the only possible indicators of a person’s theological orthodoxy. Naming the ways that we drift towards people-pleasing personally has been challenging, but we hope that discussing some of its effects on our lives will encourage everyone participating in conversation about LGBT people in the Church to consider ways in which this behavior stunts further development of dialogue. We’re grateful for all of your prayers for us and our vocation as we, with God’s help, work towards ridding our lives of this and other destructive tendencies.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

8 Thoughts on Employment Non-Discrimination Legislation

Over the past couple of weeks, several readers have asked us about our thoughts on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the fact that some religiously affiliated organizations are seeking exemptions, and the recent withdrawal of support from some groups on the left. Other LGBT Christian bloggers have been touching on this subject recently, so we thought we would add our voice to the discussion. We’ve mentioned before that we really don’t enjoy politics, and we’re both boringly moderate, leaning slightly left or slightly right depending upon the issue. Because of this, we’ve decided to approach the topic by listing a few random thoughts on employment non-discrimination legislation and the varied ways we’ve observed friends and acquaintances reacting to news about the ENDA. Here they are, in no particular order:

Both celibate and non-celibate LGBT people face discrimination in hiring and in the workplace. As you can read more about in this post, Lindsey has had firsthand experience with workplace discrimination. This has occurred despite the fact that Lindsey has never had a job where Lindsey has even felt safe to mention Sarah, and it happened at one job years before the two of us had ever met. We’ve also heard about experiences of discrimination that celibate LGBT friends of ours have experienced at their jobs. Because of this, it would be hard to convince us that most religiously affiliated organizations would hire any LGBT person living a traditional sexual ethic and are only concerned about being forced to hire non-celibate LGBT people.

Religiously affiliated employers can elect not to receive federal funding. If the ENDA were to pass and there were no/few provisions for religious exemption, any religiously affiliated organization that did not want to hire LGBT people could elect to stop receiving federal funds in order to be able to continue their current hiring practices. We’re not saying this would be easy, ideal, or even possible in all cases. Some religiously affiliated employers would no longer be able to keep their doors open without the money they currently receive from the government. But it’s incorrect to say that passing the ENDA would mean all these organizations would be banned from existing if they failed to adopt the new regulations. It’s also incorrect to suggest that these employers are being threatened with criminal charges.

Bullying and other forms of discrimination are difficult to address if sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected categories. Both of us have experienced tension within workplaces where the company non-discrimination statement fails to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In these kinds of workplaces, reporting derogatory statements and gay/trans jokes or even confronting a coworker personally about hurtful remarks and actions means outing oneself. It means making oneself even more of a potential target for harassment, and sometimes risking one’s job. We think it’s absurd that an attempt to make one’s workplace safer could result in becoming unemployed. We also find it unreasonable to expect that workplace discrimination will lessen over time if some kind of non-discrimination legislation isn’t passed.

We’re very uncomfortable with the idea that employers should be free to pry into the personal lives of their employees and potential hires. Many LGBT people never mention their sexual orientations/gender identities to employers or prospective employers. As mentioned above, Lindsey has never worked in an environment where it has felt comfortable to mention Sarah. Sarah is also extremely guarded about mentioning Lindsey to anyone at work. The only way a person at our jobs who is not a friend would learn about our LGBT status is to ask us about it directly. We wonder why some employers would consider very private matters like one’s sexual activity or lack thereof indicative of one’s ability to do well in a job…unless of course the job has something to do with sex.

But at the same time, some organizations do have narrowly-defined missions and mandates. Some religiously affiliated organizations feel strongly that all their employees should follow a core set of behavioral standards because they represent their employers publicly and their employers represent the associated religions publicly. Many religious organizations want to be able to hire selectively from a pool of candidates who are part of a certain religion or are at least willing to sign a statement of commitment to upholding certain values. It doesn’t make sense to expect an employer to hire someone whose values do not align with those of the organization. Both of us have worked for religious employers who have required that we sign values statements. It makes sense to us that if this is an expectation for being hired and the potential hire disagrees with the content of such a document, the employer should not have to hire that person. This has nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Freedom of religion is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. One assertion we hear often is that religious organizations and religiously affiliated employers should “catch up with the times.” According to this claim, if a religiously affiliated employer’s values do not coincide with particular values of secular society, the government should be able to impose restrictions upon that employer so its religious values will not be forced upon others. But this argument places artificial boundaries upon the constitutional right to freedom of religion. This is a complicated issue because the right to freedom of religion naturally fosters a pluralistic society in which deeply held beliefs will collide with one another. When organizations have explicit religious tenets at the core of their missions and a piece of legislation could potentially threaten their ability to carry out those missions, concerns about this should be taken seriously and not automatically dismissed as attempts to force one religion’s values upon society as a whole.

Federal non-discrimination legislation is not a cure-all for LGBT discrimination, bullying, and harassment in the workplace and in the hiring process. As much as we believe that there is a need for legislation to make sexual orientation and gender identity protected categories nationwide, we realize that if the ENDA eventually passes, it will not solve the larger problem entirely. It’s likely that there will always be employers who do not want to hire LGBT people or do not want to keep them on staff once they have been hired. The same is true for other protected categories such as sex, race, religion, and national origin. Non-discrimination legislation isn’t going to stop all employers from discriminating — many will just adopt more indirect ways of doing it that can’t be proven in a court of law. This doesn’t mean the ENDA would be useless, but it does mean that the problem of LGBT workplace and hiring discrimination needs to be addressed in other ways as well.

In general, there’s a glaring need for better conversation about this topic and all its intricate parts. Most people we know who feel strongly one way or another about the ENDA and other non-discrimination legislation have good reasons for holding the positions they do. The LGBT community is rightly concerned about workplace and hiring discrimination. Religiously affiliated employers are rightly concerned about religious freedom. But the caricatures that emerge from debate about the ENDA do no favors to anyone on either side, or anywhere in the middle. It doesn’t help when progressives paint religious conservatives as hateful bigots who are obsessed with sex, and it only contributes to further vitriol when religious conservatives describe progressives (especially of the LGBT variety) as entitled crybabies who are out to destroy Christianity and American freedom. These discussions require significant nuance and appreciation for different perspectives. A little humility from all parties involved wouldn’t hurt either.

Do you have more thoughts on employment non-discrimination legislation, ENDA or otherwise? We would enjoy discussing those with you in the comments.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Saturday Symposium: Traditional Sexual Ethics and Mental Health/Wellbeing

Happy Saturday once again! We’ve managed to clear about half our inbox this past week, so we’re making it through those responses to reader emails. Each week, we continue to feel honored by readers who have shared their own thoughts and personal stories with us. The level of vulnerability you have shown challenges us to be more vulnerable. In particular, Sarah’s personal reflection from this week has received many incredibly moving responses. Thank you for flooding our inbox with love and entrusting us with your own stories.

Now, let’s move on to today’s Saturday Symposium question:

How this works: It’s very simple. We ask a multi-part question related to a topic we’ve blogged about during the past week or are considering blogging about in the near future, and you, our readers, share your responses in the comments section. Feel free to be open, reflective, and vulnerable…and to challenge us. But as always, be mindful of the comment policy that ends each of our posts. Usually, we respond fairly quickly to each comment, but in order to give you time to think, come back, add more later if you want, and discuss with other readers, we will wait until after Monday to respond to comments on Saturday Symposium questions.

This week’s Saturday Symposium question: Our question for today comes from a reader email. This reader has written to us with many thoughtful questions and comments, but we found one particularly striking. After reading multiple blogs within the LGBT Christian blogosphere, she recognizes a sense of privilege as a straight person and wants to be compassionate to all LGBT people while holding a traditional sexual ethic. She wonders how it is possible to continue bearing witness to a traditional sexual ethic if so many LGBT people have experienced despair and have even turned to suicide because of the beliefs associated with this approach to sexual ethics. We will be responding to this reader within the next few days, but because the issue raised in her email is a very important one (or at least should be, in our opinion) for all involved in the LGBT Christian conversation, we wanted to pose it for all our readers. How can a person bear witness to a traditional sexual ethic, even if that person believes it aligns with the Gospel, if doing so leads others to despair? Do you think it’s true that a traditional sexual ethic necessarily leads at least some LGBT people to a decrease in mental health and wellbeing? Are there any ways of discussing a traditional sexual ethic that might be less likely to have such an impact? Is a progressive sexual ethic the answer, or is it possible that a progressive sexual ethic might also do harm in some way? If so, to whom?

We look forward to reading your responses. If you’re concerned about having your comment publicly associated with your name, please consider using the Contact Us page to submit your comment. We can post it under a pseudonym (i.e. John says, “your comment”) or summarize your comment in our own words (i.e. One person observed…). Participating in this kind of public dialogue can be risky, and we want to do what we can to protect you even if that means we preserve your anonymity. Have a wonderful weekend!

Blessings,

Sarah and Lindsey

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Learning to Recognize Workplaces Hostile to LGBT People

A reflection by Lindsey

This post has been on my mind for months. It’s been a hard one to write. After all, I didn’t feel quite safe enough to talk about my previous hostile workplaces until I felt reasonably secure in a more supportive work environment.

As we’ve shared before, I have the good(?) fortune of being easily identifiable as a member of the LGBT community because of my appearance. I have always had a hard time figuring out why people generally assume I’m a member of the queer community. My sense of style has remained largely consistent since I was five and has never been about making a “statement.” Until a few weeks ago, I had never displayed anything rainbow on my person, and even then it was only a small ribbon worn by many professional conference attendees to show support for diversity in engineering. But I have found that absolutely nothing I do ensures that I will be treated fairly on the job if a particular employer is hesitant about employing LGBT people. It’s hard to say definitively that my LGBT status was what separated me from any past job, but I have strong suspicions that I have worked for at least two workplaces that, for whatever reason, did not want to employ any queer person. As I’m gearing up to start a new job, I’ve reflected on patterns that emerge when a workplace is trying to get rid of an LGBT employee.

I think it’s important to begin with some simple, factual statements. Employers rarely come right out and tell you that they think you’re LGBT. The more blatant the discrimination is, the more likely it is that the harassed person might seek legal help.  If you have any skills documenting the exact forms of harassment, you might be able to win a wrongful termination settlement on the basis of another federally protected category. Overt discrimination and harassment around LGBT status frequently involves sex, gender, and marital status, and I have no doubt that companies curtail the most flagrant kinds of LGBT discrimination. What company wants to be the poster child for that lawsuit? Instead, companies that would rather not employ an LGBT person frequently try to nudge the individual out the door in subtler ways. To convince a person to leave or gather grounds to terminate the individual, some employers will do everything in their power to create a hostile workplace.

It’s no secret that workplaces have a limited arsenal of strategies they can use to try and nudge a person out of a job, and many of them are just barely on the right side of the law. These can be used against any person an employer is trying to move out the door, LGBT or not. But my experience suggests that the workplace climate can change in nearly imperceptible ways when an employer starts to suspect that an employee is LGBT and decides that hiring a queer person was a mistake. It’s especially important for LGBT employees to be aware of these changes. Here are 3 things I’ve learned to look out for along with some of my thoughts on how to let a workplace know that you’re prepared to play hardball if it tries to make your life a living hell:

1. Evaporating support structures. I’ve been fortunate to work at companies that value retention. When I arrived at these companies, I was matched with mentors who would check in with me occasionally to see how I was doing. Mentees could generally expect to have weekly conversations with their mentors. As I have reflected on my past experiences in difficult workplaces, I cannot think of any meaningful interactions with my mentors after people started to think about whether I may be LGBT.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: I wish I would have settled into a pattern on Day 1, Week 1 of contacting my mentor regularly. I would have looked to the employee handbook for guidance, but I would have communicated with my mentor in writing about expectations for our relationship. Email is a particularly good medium because one has a written record of the conversations. If I had suspected an employer was starting to feel out my LGBT status, I would have spent the next several weeks tracking my interactions with my mentor to see if anything about our relationship had changed. If even the slightest aspect had seemed fishy, I would have discussed my mentorship concerns with my supervisor and/or human resources in writing. Additionally, I would have duplicated the relevant correspondence. For all intents and purposes, your employer owns the correspondence and does not need to give you access to your work email after you’ve been terminated. One particularly hostile work environment suspended my access to my email account less than an hour after letting me go.

2. Shifting responsibilities. Job descriptions tend to be written vaguely and broadly. Virtually every contract I’ve signed has included the line, “and other duties that may be assigned.” It does not take long in a work environment to figure out which duties are most and least desirable. When I have found myself in increasingly hostile workplaces, I’ve noticed a vacuum with regard to explicit responsibilities with clear due dates for deliverables. Simultaneously, I have observed other people receiving desirable duties, but no interest from my supervisors in assigning some of those to me. Additionally, my work duties began to change, and began to mirror those of people with far less experience and skill. Also, I was assigned tasks with such low priority that supervisors lost all interest in giving me any feedback on my work. With other people working on the important and urgent projects, my work became nearly invisible.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: Virtually every company wants employees who take initiative and are self-starters. Long-term projects can be a great way to prove oneself, but supervisors frequently fail to provide timely feedback. When I noticed that I was being assigned nearly exclusively to long-term projects, I wish I’d had the foresight to be firmer in asking for feedback on smaller parts of those projects from my supervisors. Additionally, I wish I had documented the time I had spent waiting for promised feedback from my supervisors. Because employers value team players, I would have documented the feedback I gave to other employees who were working on various short-term projects instead of giving my feedback orally and trusting that my supervisor would hear that I had offered it at all.

3. Increasing supervisory distance. As mentioned in the previous point, doing a good job when starting at a new company requires getting a lot of feedback on one’s performance. It’s really hard to get quality feedback, or any at all, when supervisors keep their distance. One change that I noticed in increasingly hostile workplaces was that my supervisors tended to frame their distance as being motived by the employee’s interest. After all, if an employee reports struggling to get to personal or family obligations in the evening, wouldn’t a compassionate employer explore possibilities of flex time? Giving the employee access to flex time makes the employer look compassionate and understanding. However, if a supervisor starts to use said flex time to be conspicuously absent at hours when the employee is working, I’d encourage the employee to consider looking for a different job.

Here’s what I wish I would have done differently: Workplaces have their rhythms. Through my experiences in hostile workplaces, I’ve learned that few workplaces are interested in modifying those rhythms. I wish I would have taken time to discern each workplace’s natural rhythm. Similarly, I wish I had thought to figure out where and how important decisions got made. People need to collaborate in order to create a workplace that is truly hostile, even if one person seems to be in charge of coordinating all of the puzzle pieces. Some of the more creative arrangements for promoting hostility can lead to supervision-via-documentation rather than supervision-via-relationship. As soon as I realized I was in a situation of supervision-via-documentation, I wish I would have known to start looking for a new job. It’s much easier to find fault with a written report than it is to identify weaknesses in a person one regards as a friend.

As I prepare to start a new job, I have tried to do my homework as much as possible. Even in my two most hostile workplaces, I managed to land on my feet after the fallout because I knew just enough about my rights to signal that my employers had their toes on the proverbial lines. I’d be willing to make a small bet that showing one’s ability to keep a detailed record of workplace climate issues might be the best strategy in cultivating more positive work environments.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

Sexual Abuse, Security, and the Seal of Confession

A reflection by Sarah

Over the past few days, a couple of news items have led me to reflect more on my experiences as a survivor of sexual abuse. Scrolling through my Facebook feed this week, I’ve encountered an array of discussions about whether a priest should ever be permitted to violate the seal of confession. On Sunday, I came across an article discussing the Anglican Church in Australia and its newly authorized amendment to a canon on the seal of confession. The decision, subject to acceptance by individual dioceses, authorizes priests to disclose the contents of confessions in cases of serious crimes. Then yesterday, I stumbled upon another article about a Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Bayhi in Louisiana who is being sued by a family. The family claimed in 2009 that their preteen daughter revealed to Fr. Bayhi in confession that she was being sexually abused, and he had instructed the girl not to report the abuse. The canon law of the Roman Catholic Church prevents priests from even disclosing whether a particular person has had a confession, so it is impossible to verify the family’s claim. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Fr. Bayhi is required to testify about the confession, but he refuses to do so because of religious obligation. I have been following both of these stories and have seen a wide range of reactions. Some people praise the Anglican Church for becoming more transparent while accusing the Roman Catholic Church of doing nothing more than covering up abuses. On the flip side, many people are horrified by the Anglican Church’s decision while praising Fr. Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge for their commitment to upholding the seal of confession.

I belong to a Christian tradition where confession is offered, and it is encouraged that people make confessions as often as needed. Confession is, without a doubt, one of the most meaningful spiritual practices in my life. Every good confession makes me feel like a newly-illumined handmaiden all over again. Forgiveness is the most incredible of gifts. Each experience of this mystery leaves me feeling washed, renewed, restored, made whole, joyous, grateful, and empowered. At times, going to confession has brought me out of dark depressive episodes. It reminds me that I am a fallible human being, I am far from perfect, I cannot heal myself, and I need the prayers and support of the Church as I journey towards Christ. Sin, repentance, and forgiveness do not happen in a vacuum where it’s just me and Jesus. When I experience a good confession, I leave feeling refreshed by God’s grace and goodness, humbled by my human frailty, and overwhelmed by God’s willingness to share my humanity as much as Christ shares in the humanity of every person. Confession is a great equalizer among people. When we come in repentance, we all strive to humble ourselves to receive God’s grace as fully as possible. In confession, everyone is a sinner.

There are times when I can’t help but remember myself as a 12-year-old experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a member of my childhood faith community. I did not reveal my abuse in the context of a sacramental confession. I remember that when I first told my parents about the abuse at age 14, they refused to believe that I might be telling the truth. Eventually, I learned that other people in my faith community knew this man was an abuser and likely even knew that I was among his victims. However, no one did or said anything to stop him or to make my parents aware that a very real danger was lurking in the pews. As a teenager, I spent many a night lying in bed, muffling the sound of my sobs because the two people I had told about the abuse didn’t believe me (until some time later) and no one else seemed willing to do anything to help. In those moments, I prayed continually that someone would eventually say something.

In my early twenties, I started dealing with the emotional aftermath of my abuse. Working through my trauma with therapists has been a critical part of my healing process. But unlike priests who are committed to upholding the seal of confession, therapists don’t hesitate to break confidentiality in certain circumstances. They are required by law to disclose if a person is a danger to himself/herself or others. Early on in my attempts at help-seeking, I struggled to find the boundary regarding what I could honestly share with a therapist that wouldn’t lead to a response of, “I’ll have to break confidentiality.” As I began to navigate the world of mental healthcare, I wondered, would it ever be safe to share if I was feeling slightly suicidal but with no real intent to act? What would happen if, in a burst of emotional processing, I were to blurt out, “I’m so angry that I could kill (a person)!”? I was also uncertain of what would happened if I would ever disclose more specifics about my abuse, making clear that it had occurred in childhood. Once, I had a therapist at an eating disorder treatment facility tell me that, as a mandated reporter, he had to report my abuse because it had not been reported previously. It didn’t seem to matter that I was 22 at the time I was seeing him, or that the abuse had happened years before and in a different state. I found out later that he had misinterpreted the law, but nonetheless his response to my disclosure removed any agency I might have had in deciding whether or not to report the abuse myself. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been duped; I lost confidence in this person’s commitment to keeping any part of my story confidential despite the almost-total guarantee that what one says in therapy remains private.

I have always been glad that priests and therapists follow different standards. I find it tremendously reassuring that a priest must hold my sacramental confessions in complete confidence. Because of the seal of confession, I feel safe in ridding my closet of every possible skeleton, disclosing the worst of the worst, and opening myself completely for God to heal my brokenness. In confession, I experience an abiding freedom to admit all of the times I have murdered my parents in my heart because they failed to protect and believe me. I have reconnected with my humanity as I can admit to the terrible ways I have abused my own body through eating disorder behaviors, alcohol, and drugs. I have sought reconciliation after so many instances of harming others and myself. I have been able to confess to God parts of my past that are so dark I would never dream of sharing them publicly. Such is the nature of confession. The seal of confession has been a part of Christian traditions for more than a thousand years. It gives us all an equal opportunity to unburden our souls, receive forgiveness from God, benefit from the prayers of the Church, and walk in a new way of life. In confession, the worst criminal imaginable is my equal, even though I have never killed, stolen from, or abused anyone.

If a priest were to break the seal of confession, that equality would be no more. As it stands, Christ waits at the door of the Church shouting, “Come all who wish to repent! Encounter God in the depths of divine mercy!” However, if priests all of a sudden began employing the same standards as therapists, the message would change. Few penitents would come to confession after hearing consistently, “Come all who wish to repent, but do know that there’s a chance you might be waking up the next morning in a jail cell or a hospital bed.” As much as my preteen self was dying for someone–anyone–to know what was happening to me and offer support and help, even if I had disclosed the abuse to a priest in confession I cannot see how breaking the seal would have been in my best interest. Quite the contrary: it would have robbed me of my sense of security within the safest place I’ve ever known. I would have been grateful to know that a religious leader was watching out for me or taking other measures to assess my safety that would not have involved breaking the seal. But I hope that in all circumstances, no matter how severe, priests in my Christian tradition will always honor the seal of confession. Whether I like it or not, my abuser needs God’s mercy and forgiveness as much as I do, and if he seeks it, I say let him. Christ did not come to save only those who have “minor” struggles with sin. Christ does not pour out mercy in a differential manner; He lavishes mercy on all. When Christ himself was dying on the cross, he offered forgiveness to the repentant thief dying next to him. If that action were not incredible enough, he also called out to his Father saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing,” inviting an extension of forgiveness to the very people who nailed him to the cross. Who am I to deny anyone, even my abuser, access to an opportunity to fall at the feet of Christ and ask forgiveness? As I see it, to advocate for a priest’s breaking the seal of confession is to risk denying someone an opportunity for forgiveness.

As I write this, I pray that people in all churches will become increasingly aware of child sexual abuse and other serious crimes, especially those that occur within the Church. I pray that Christian traditions will do everything they can to educate people about child sexual abuse and work diligently to prevent it from occurring. But when it comes to confession, if I had to face the possibility that my priest were on the lookout for the “worst” sins to determine whether to break the seal, I fear that I would never return to this mystery again. Christian traditions that offer sacramental confessions need priests who would face imprisonment, torture, or even death before the revealing the contents of any confession. One who fails to do so endangers the spiritual welfare of all who seek God’s forgiveness through this sacrament.

UPDATE: A friend kindly pointed out to me that if read in a certain way, this post could be taken as my advocating total inaction on the part of the priest when it comes to child sexual abuse being revealed within the context of sacramental confession. To clarify: that’s the last thing I’d ever want to see happen. In my opinion, any priest worth his salt would do everything possible to help the child in question without breaking the seal of confession. In the comments below, I’ve listed some things that my own priest friends have told me they would do if they were to find themselves in such a situation. As always, you can contact us with any questions, and respectful disagreement is welcome in the comment box.   -Sarah

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