Time for fear to come out of the closet by Simon Barrow

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
16 Nov 2006

For some church leaders it proved a moment of pain and sorrow, for other observers an occasion of barely disguised schadenfreude at the embarrassment of ‘the moral right’ – the Rev Ted Haggard, leader of the 30 million-strong US National Association of Evangelicals, earlier this month (November 2006) admitted to having gay sex – not just once, but over a period of months.

The scandal, in a part of the church which regards all homosexuality as uncomplicatedly sinful, has absorbed acres of news print, and has featured widely on television and across the web.

Mr Haggard was promptly fired from his position as head of New Life Church in the USA after he revised his initial story. Since the National Association of Evangelicals had apparently put all their headquarters eggs in this property basket too, the episode has been additionally calamitous for them.

The married evangelical leader, who has supported his tradition’s vehement anti-gay stance, first tried to claim that he had simply received a few pats from a ‘masseur’ in a Denver hotel room, and that although he bought methamphetamine he “never used it”.

The defence collapsed a few days later, as Haggard talked in self-recriminatory fashion. He termed himself a “liar and a deceiver” and spoke of “a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark and I've been warring against it my entire adult life.”

But psychologists and others have suggested that the true shadow here may actually be a profound confusion and closeted fear about sexuality within the community that shaped the broken Mr Haggard.

Responses to the drama were swift, predictable and rather brutal. Critics enjoyed a laugh – rather more at the expense of his backers than the man himself. Meanwhile a large section of the evangelical community closed ranks (and eyes) around its ideology.

Typical of this approach was an editorial comment on the Christian Today website, which claimed that the affair was an “exposure of how deeply the sin of homosexuality has taken root in the American society” and that it should occasion the faithful to “look within [their] own walls and battle against the culture of sin that looms before the Church.”

Others will see such an attitude as simply an extension of the culture of repression which led to Mr Haggard’s downfall in the first place – and has condemned countless thousands of others to lives of misery, deceit and denial.

They will suggest that, instead of pulling down the shutters, it might be time for more people in the US evangelical world to raise the curtain on the moral, political and theological complexities surrounding their deep-seated revulsion towards same-sex relations.

There is evidence that this is happening in Britain, with the work of networks such as Accepting Evangelicals and the Courage Trust – who nevertheless find themselves ostracised or ignored in the ongoing life of the wider (read narrower) evangelical community.

Looking in from the outside, it is hard to understand why sexuality has become the defining issue for ‘fidelity to the truth’ in some sections of the church. Perhaps it is because it exposes us to the most joyful and grievous part of our identity.

For many Christians, it seems, amassing wealth at the expense of others or sanctioning war are no bars to recognition within the church – but forming a loving and committed relationship with someone of the same gender is.

The decisive issue, so it is claimed, is the Bible. But one wonders whether it is not more to do with an ideology about the Bible, privileging its own claimants over other interpreters, than the text itself – which, like God, can be gloriously difficult to pin down.

In some matters, the biblical message is pretty unequivocal. The abuse of the poor and the accumulation of unjust wealth are persistently condemned throughout Scripture, and Jesus’ stand against violence in the Gospels is overwhelming. But in these matters, quite a number of those who claim the Bible as their highest authority observe it more in the breach.

However, when it comes to a handful of texts which outlaw certain same-sex acts – in the setting of ancient purity codes, ritualized abuse, tribal survival and cultic prostitution, rather than modern partner-relations, let it be noted – those same people are prepared to condemn utterly, and to tolerate no alternative perspective.

The alternative, of course, is not just about a few decontextualised verses, but concerns a different way of reading the whole Bible. That is the conviction of the scholars who have compiled, in a challenge to ‘straight’ hermeneutics, The Queer Bible Commentary (SCM Press, September 2006). [1]

It is a searing, passionate volume. And it reminds us that what seems to have been most marginalised in a distorted biblicism is the evangel, the good news itself. The Christian message is that the Word became flesh, not concrete. Followers of Jesus are people of a person ahead of being the people of a book.

The function of the texts in Christian performative exegesis is therefore to point to that person (who said nothing about homosexuality, but much about welcoming the outcast), not to become a leaden substitute.

Matters of contested meaning – of which there are many – require wisdom and sensitivity within the vulnerable community called into Christ’s shape, not inflexibility. This means attention to the deep meaning of continuous scriptural reasoning, rooted in friendship and mutual learning.

By contrast, it was dogmatic certainty that enabled many of the righteous to justify slavery on thoroughly ‘biblical’ grounds for hundreds of years - until the deeper pattern of the Spirit became irresistible. Now these same texts that condemned people to mass suffering are seen in a quite different light by careful readers.

It would be a genuine sign of hope if at least some around Ted Haggard began to show a willingness to ask questions of themselves (not just him), and to wonder whether their leaders might not have to seek sad moments of seedy gratification if there was a deeper theology of faithful human relationships available to them.

Giles Fraser commented poignantly in the Church Times (‘When the mask of pastor Ted slipped off’, 10 November 2006): “God calls nobody to be in the closet. For the closet is simply the gay word for hell.”

Regarding Mr Haggard himself, it seems that he was beginning to move before his ‘fall’. He was a hard-line opponent of gay marriage, an advocate of creationism, and a friend of the White House, for sure. But he also opposed some of the more extreme attempts at homophobic legislation in Texas. And he tried to get evangelicals to embrace a more generous environmental agenda.

These, together with the graciousness to others that accompanied his fierce self-denunciation, were gestures toward a renewed tenderness in the midst of what turned out to be overwhelming personal disturbance and turmoil.

It is these signs, Christians in the wider church may believe, not the obvious crashing of heroes from pedestals, which point American evangelicals away from their current head-on clash with both reality and a broader biblical vision.

For as Giles Fraser points out: “Pastor Haggard’s old church was called New Life. That’s what he now needs, a new life. Yes, he needs to be born again. And this time, reborn in the truth. Reborn to be the person that God calls him to be.”

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[1] Deryl Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, and Thomas Bohache (eds.), The Queer Bible Commentary, SCM Press, London 2006. See also: Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard, The Inclusive God, SCM Press, London, 2006.

This is a slightly edited and amplified version of the Ekklesia news comment which appeared on 08/11/06, ‘Haggard revelation exposes evangelical confusion about sexuality’.

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