Celibacy, Choice, and Obedience: In Defense of the “Forced”

A reflection by Sarah

We’ve shifted to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, plus Saturday Symposium posting schedule, so I feel a bit odd writing an additional post for today. But the writing bug bit me, and I figured I could take a quick break from working on my dissertation and the response we’re currently writing to Maria McDowell’s recent piece at the WIT blog (that will be coming out on Monday, in case anyone was wondering. We’ve received a ton of email about it).

Over the past few weeks, gay celibates have been receiving quite a bit of media attention. It began with this article at Slate by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart. Then more recently, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at Religion News Service wrote another article on gay celibacy featuring Julie Rodgers, and Eliel Cruz at The Advocate published an op-ed defending the place of celibate gay Christians in both the Church and the LGBTQ community. Several responses have been written already. Eve Tushnet, a celibate gay Catholic, published this article yesterday, arguing that celibacy (as understood solely in terms of “sexual abstinence”) is not really the point: vocation is. Francis DeBernardo wrote a post on New Ways Ministry’s blog suggesting that celibacy is becoming the new reparative therapy for LGBTQ Christians, and that it is harmful to those who don’t feel a sense of call to celibate vocations. Then, Stephen Long at Sacred Tension published a post today reflecting on Cruz’s piece and stating, “I do believe that it should be a private choice and that neither the church nor the gay community should pressure them. But, as long as the church believes that gay sex is universally sinful, I honestly wonder if that will ever fully be a reality.”

As I’ve read each of these and the comment responses they’ve received, I’ve seen a troubling implication arising over and over again — that there are two types of celibate gay people: those who choose celibacy because they feel called, and those who are forced into celibacy by their faith traditions. I’ve never been good at following the first rule of the internet (“Don’t read the comments!”), so over the past few days I’ve been devouring the comments sections on the three news articles and responses. I’ve seen hundreds of statements such as, “I don’t mind celibate gays as long as they don’t try to force me to be celibate,” and “There’s nothing wrong with gay people who feel called to celibacy. It’s a spiritual gift for some people. But gay people who are celibate just because their church says they have to be are oppressed and delusional.” These comments show a grave misunderstanding of the commitments that some LGBTQ Christians make to celibacy. They fail to consider that regardless of the reason for choosing celibacy, many LGBTQ celibates are — like Eve Tushnet says in her article linked above — more concerned about developing a meaningful, Christlike way of life than with simply abstaining from sex or telling other people they shouldn’t be having sex.

As Lindsey and I have stated repeatedly on this blog, our choice to live celibacy comes from the deep sense of call. We are, like Francis DeBernardo says, the sort of LGBTQ people whose “celibacy is a calling, a response, and a choice.  For them, it is a joy.” We are the category of people Stephen Long says he isn’t talking about in his response to the Cruz piece. It would be all too easy (not to mention prideful) for us to pat ourselves on the back and say, “People are recognizing that some LGBTQ Christians feel called to celibacy. Maybe we’ve had a small role in helping folks to see this.” But that’s not what we’re doing today. Instead, we grieve the false dichotomy that this discussion has furthered.

One of our primary purposes on this blog has been to discuss celibacy as a vocation, and that discussion falls shamefully short when limited to celibates whose stories are like Lindsey’s and mine. We wrote recently that celibacy as a vocation can be meaningful regardless of the celibate person’s level of choice. For a person who is truly interested in making a lifelong commitment to celibacy, whatever the reason, that way of life has to be meaningful in order for it to be sustainable. Lindsey and I did not come to celibacy in the same way as many of our celibate LGBTQ brothers and sisters, but all of us deal with the common struggle of living, as best we can, as imitations of Christ. And we see that as far more important than the question of why a person chose celibacy in the first place.

We use the word “choice” very often in our own writings. We also hear it from others, and it has become a sort of buzzword within the past week. But it seems to us that “choice” does not have the same meaning every time it’s included in an internet comment. Most of the commenters I’ve read this week have implied that celibacy can only be good and valuable when, to borrow Aaron Taylor’s analogy, it’s just another option in a well-stocked grocery store. There’s a common assumption that in order for a choice to be a choice in the truest sense, there must be at least one other available alternative. Most folks who advocate for celibacy being a “choice” rather than a “mandate” are actually saying that celibacy can’t be a choice unless gay marriage is also an available choice within every Christian tradition. They see no possibility that an LGBTQ person could choose celibacy freely as a response to his/her Christian tradition’s more conservative theologies of marriage and sexuality. But people like Eve Tushnet and many of the folks at Spiritual Friendship often counter this assertion when they discuss celibacy as a choice to obey the teachings of their churches.

When I think of the word “choice,” I cannot separate it from the word, “obedience.” All the choices I make every day, no matter what they are, have some connection to my obedience to Christ. For a Christian, no choice can occur in a vacuum. Some of my choices seem freer than others. Whether they actually are or not is up for philosophical and theological debate. Perhaps material for another post.

Back to the topic at hand, I make choices all the time that are for my own good rather than because I necessarily want to select a certain option. Due to a recent diagnosis of Meniere’s disease, I’ve had to shift my diet entirely to very low sodium foods. If you know me in real life and are aware of how much I enjoy sushi, Thai food, and other high sodium cuisines, you probably have a sense of how much I resent that choice. But I made it anyway because I wanted to do everything possible to prevent further permanent hearing loss and minimize my number of missed work days due to vertigo. I chose to obey my doctor because he knows better than I do what will minimize this condition’s damage to my hearing and balance. Some might be thinking, “But you didn’t have a choice. You were forced into that choice because of your medical condition.” Actually, that’s not true. I could be choosing to eat California rolls with extra soy sauce every day. Some days, I do make that choice. And I pay for it with my health, because all choices have consequences. In this situation, the best choice is not the choice I like. It’s a choice that limits how I get to experience certain aspects of life. Some days, it even makes me depressed. It’s a choice I made because there was no other healthy alternative. But it was still my choice. There was a point at which I finally felt ready to say to my doctor, “You’ve told me this is what I have to do in order to be healthy. I don’t understand it, I don’t like it, I’d rather be making a different decision, but I’ll trust you on this one.” However, I hope that someday, I will be able to say that I’ve found a sustainable way of life as a person with Meniere’s disease. It’s because of experiences like this one that I can see why a person might choose celibacy out of a sense of obedience, but still see celibacy in vocational terms.

Obedience is a gift freely given. True obedience comes from a desire to do what is being asked of you, even if you don’t have a full understanding of why it’s necessary or why other possible options would be worse for you in the long run . It does not come from being beaten into submission. If you’ve ever watched a child for an afternoon, you know that it’s impossible to make a child obey if she is absolutely intent on being disobedient. If you’re a good caregiver, you’ll be firm without resorting to abusive tactics to get the child to do what you’re asking of her for her own good. In many cases, the child will eventually come around and choose to obey. But if you’re abusive, she will probably come to resent you. If she does what you ask her to at all in this case, it’s likely coming from survival instinct rather than true obedience. When I hear people talking about forced celibacy, I have to wonder whether they’re speaking strictly of churches that abuse and bully their LGBTQ children into submission, churches that ask all their children to practice a conservative sexual ethic, or both. Most of the time, I think people conflate the two. I get this impression every time I hear someone suggest that people like Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, and Wesley Hill have been “forced” into celibacy and are delusional. Have they chosen celibacy in obedience to the teachings of their Christian traditions? Absolutely. But is this the same as being sexually abstinent because of fear that abuse will come your way otherwise? I don’t think so at all.

I think we need to change the direction of the recent conversation on “chosen” versus “forced” celibacy and “gay celibates who feel called” versus “gay celibates who are celibate because they have to be.” The truth is, we’re all the same in that we’re living every day, making choices, and trying our hardest with God’s help to be Christlike. Lindsey and I would never advocate shaming, beating, manipulating, harassing, or bullying anyone into celibacy. Neither would any of the other LGBTQ celibates we know personally, yet they’re accused of such regularly just because they chose celibacy from a place of obedience rather than a place of, “This is my personal calling from God.” I think the number of people who are actually forced into celibacy through abusive means and stick with it is very, very low. But the number of people who have experienced these sorts of abuses and have eventually chosen non-celibacy is very, very high. Perhaps that’s what leads so many to slap the label of “forced celibacy” onto celibates who don’t feel a “call” to it, but chose to pursue it as part of their Christian vocation because that’s what their churches ask them to do. I hope that future discussions about this topic will involve more kindness, compassion, and questioning. Attempting to judge who chose celibacy for the “right” reasons and who chose it for the “wrong” reasons benefits no one.

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