Sexuality, harm and the language of love

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
11 Dec 2013

Those who promote criminalisation of, or violence against, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people cannot reasonably claim that this is a sign of Christian love.

Being loving, being Christian

You ask me if I love you
And I choke on my reply
I'd rather hurt you honestly
Than mislead you with a lie

sang Dan Hill in a 1970s song he wrote with Barry Mann.

In church circles, in contrast, the language of love is bandied about to the extent that it risks being devalued. Perhaps this is because Christians are aware that we ought to be loving and are often in denial about less positive impulses.

Even the saintliest may occasionally experience anger, fear, jealousy, prejudice or indifference to others’ suffering. If patterns of injustice are entrenched, we may not notice these or, if we do, rationalise why we do not intervene.

One of the greatest dangers is when harm to a particular group is supposedly justified by piety, patriotism or some other ideal. In the Gospels, Jesus is targeted by religious leaders who think he is blasphemous or demon-possessed (e.g. Matthew 12.22-28), and he warns his followers that “an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God” (John 16.2).

There may be occasions when harming someone is seen as necessary for others’ safety, for instance jailing a serial killer. Some (though not all) might even believe that it is acceptable if, say, a gunman opens fire in a shopping mall or school, for police to kill him if there is no other practical way to protect those at risk.

But it is important to be realistic about the consequences of such actions and try to avoid dressing aggression in the clothing of compassion, for instance by depriving someone of livelihood, liberty, reputation, food or shelter to consolidate the power of a dominant group.

Promoting imprisonment and violence

I do not think it is necessarily unloving for those not convinced of the virtues of same-sex partnerships to express this, provided they are courteous, do not abuse their power and are willing to be challenged in turn about aspects of their own behaviour that others might think immoral. People have varying views on all kinds of ethical issues – shopping, eating meat and so forth. Some even consider being religious as morally dubious.

But encouraging state human rights abuses or promoting untruths that incite violence is unloving and unjust. This includes criminal penalties for sex between consenting adults; being imprisoned or just arrested may also lead to loss of one’s job, ostracism and being targeted.

Jamaica is one of the most unsafe places in the world to be LGBT. In the words of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ 2012 Report on the situation of human rights in Jamaica, they “face political and legal stigmatisation, police violence, an inability to access the justice system, as well as intimidation, violence, and pressure in their homes and communities.”

“In failing to take an active stand against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the State is failing to respect and protect the rights of those targeted. Rather, Jamaica’s major political parties have proposed or defended some of the world’s most stringent anti-sodomy laws while adopting homophobic music for their political campaigns,” the report stated. “The IACHR is concerned that laws against sex between consenting adult males or homosexual conduct may contribute to an environment that, at best, does not condemn, and at worst condones discrimination, stigmatisation, and violence”.

While human rights activists are seeking decriminalisation, others are campaigning to keep these colonial-era laws in place and create a public climate in which hostility to LGBT people continues. Despite Jesus’ call to “do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7.12), some claim they are doing this on Christian grounds.

They have overseas as well as local support. Speakers at a conference organised by the Jamaican Coalition for a Healthy Society and Christian Lawyers’ Association in Kingston in December 2013 included Peter LaBarbera, founder of Americans for the Truth About Homosexuality, and Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern and a member of the Church of England’s general synod from Chichester diocese.

““Do not be like us, do not be like Britain, do not sit idly by as so-called ‘LGBT activists’ manipulate words and laws to achieve dominance in your country,” urged LaBarbera, according to a BuzzFeed news item. He reportedly stoked the flames of murderous hatred by claiming a connection between “homosexual activism and paedophiles”, ignoring the commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exodus 20.16).

Ms Williams urged Jamaica to stand firm against international pressure to decriminalise gay sex, according to this report, arguing that it is a “big lie” that homosexuality is inborn and that instead it is caused by environmental factors such as “the lack of the father” and “sometimes a level of abuse.”

She too apparently sought to link homosexuality to child abuse despite all evidence to the contrary, claiming that “We already have a strong man-boy movement that’s moving in Europe.” Her opponents “hate the line of homosexuality being linked to paedophilia. They try to cut that off, so you can’t speak about it,” she reportedly said. “So I say to you in Jamaica: Speak about it.”

"When we begin to make normal something that is contrary to proper family standards, that is social engineering, and we are in serious trouble," she told The Gleaner. "What Jamaica needs to understand is that the homosexual activists have an incremental agenda; because this is where its starts, by them asking for rights, and then our society's morals become redefined."

According to BuzzFeed she claimed that, “We say these things because we’re loving, we’re compassionate, we’re kind, because we care for our children…. It is not compassion and kind to have laws that lead people [to engage] in their sins [that] lead to the obliteration of life, the obliteration of culture, and the obliteration of family.”

Yet her crusade is not good news for children like Dwayne Jones, bullied at school for being effeminate until he dropped out, then thrown out by his father at the age of 14. He found shelter with transgender friends. "He was always very feisty and joking around," one of them later told an AP reporter.

They could not save him when, at the age of 16, he turned up at a street party dressed as a woman. Amidst verbal abuse, he ran but was not fast enough. He was beaten, stabbed, shot and run over by a car. He died in July 2013.

When LGBT people are labelled as either dangerous predators or pathetic victims incapable of true love, or subjected to other demeaning stereotypes, even those who escape physical violence may undergo emotional harm.

Those who campaign for harsh treatment or smear LGBT people as being a threat to others may sometimes believe their own rhetoric. But the mental and physical anguish and breaking of family and community bonds that result are not difficult to predict.

Love and knowledge

To err is human, and people passionately opposed to greater equality for LGBT people or any other minority may be prompted by fear of change, uneasiness about diversity or a range of other factors to act in ways that harm others, while thinking of themselves as benefactors. Indeed they may perceive themselves as victims when their behaviour is criticised or discrimination is reduced.

Being Christian does not mean that we are immune, but the church should perhaps be a place in which we are challenged if we give way to the temptation to demonise or look down on certain marginalised sections of society, which is spiritually unhealthy for us and others.

I'm only just beginning
To see the real you

sang Dan Hill. Someone who claims to love me cannot truly do so if they have no idea about the realities of my life and refuse to listen, instead engaging with an alarming or pitiable fantasy of who I am.

Here the tendency of some Christians to base their views on sexuality on what they believe the Bible says (disregarding all biblical scholarship which presents alternative views) and ignore evidence to the contrary, then insist that their opinions reflect Divine truth, is unhelpful.

For instance some may insist that people cannot really be LGBT, since this is not the way that God created humankind, so being attracted to the same sex (or feeling that one’s physical sex does not reflect one’s inner reality) is a spiritual flaw that can be overcome by anyone who really tries. They may continually cite the examples of a few people who apparently changed their sexual orientation but ignore the cases of numerous others who tried and failed.

Even if this approach does not lead to endorsing violence or state repression, it is less than fully loving, however sincere.

Imagine, for instance, a parent who is told by doctors that her child has a rare allergy to grapes. However she has read in Psalm 104 that God causes:

the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart

and that, at the last supper, Jesus gave his disciples bread and wine and commanded his followers to eat and drink these things in remembrance of him.

Moreover she has heard of someone who supposedly thought he had a grape allergy but grew out of it. So she keeps insisting that her child, now a young adult, drinks wine as a gesture of faith, and he keeps ending up needing medical treatment. Could such a mother’s actions be deemed truly loving?

False equivalence – usually by those who equally blame everyone debating contentious issues and thus disrupting the appearance of harmony in the church – is also a risk. Being upset because one cannot get one’s vicar sacked for being gay is not quite the same as being shunned by one’s family while still an adolescent, subjected to ‘corrective rape’ or beaten to death.

This is not to minimise the distress suffered by those who fear that the order they depend on is being undermined, or to excuse rudeness or unfairness by advocates of greater equality for LGBT people or any other section of society. But it may be necessary to put up with strong feelings surfacing, provided this is constructively handled, and recognising that prejudice and injustice can be deeply damaging.

In this life, we will never know and love others – even those close to us – in the way that God knows and loves. Falling short is acceptable; indeed as Christians we should accept that, as persons and in the church, we will sometimes get things wrong.

Yet striving to love one another is part of our calling, and enables us to grow spiritually. It helps to try to be truthful with ourselves and others about how difficult it is, and how hard it can be to overcome barriers and understand others better, especially if they belong to a section of society which tends to be undervalued.

However the rewards are great: encountering God more deeply, sometimes in unexpected places, reflecting the Divine image more fully and readying ourselves for dwelling with God for ever in a place of infinite love.

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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