Discussing LGBT rights in conservative religious communities can be particularly challenging, both for people who are newly out and for those of us who simply wish that everyone would just hurry up and get with the civil-rights program. One can feel that those who reject the rights of LGBT people on religious grounds are using dogma as a fig leaf to hide their bigotry, and in many cases that’s probably true. But there remain a large number of people raised in religious traditions who nonetheless have changed their views on the place of LGBT people in the broader community — and even in the narrower world of their church community.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
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No one is more aware of this than the Rev James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the author of the new bestseller Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity.
“There’s been sea change, at least in the Catholic Church, over the past few years in how LGBT people are viewed. More and more people know LGBT people in their families, and formerly closed-minded people are being challenged to look at this issue in a new way,” said Martin.
The steady march of progress and the social normalisation of gay and lesbian people in pop culture has likely changed attitudes around the dinner table too — even in religious communities. And yet, if LGBT rights are an important and emotional issue for you, a civil conversation with an intolerant friend or relative can be a challenge. I spoke to Martin about the best ways to approach a conversation about LGBT rights with someone who is religious and intolerant.
Leigh Anderson: How would you propose talking to a religious and intolerant person in their own language?
James Martin: I would propose not talking to them and actually listening to them. Frequently these conversations are “how do we talk to these people or how do we talk at these people?” The presumption is that we’re doing the talking (which is very American), instead of us actually listening to them. So the first thing to do is to hear where they’re coming from and meet them where they are — which is exactly what Jesus did.
Don’t win an argument, tell a story
JM: I find stories are a lot more compelling than arguments. So one of the stories I like to tell people is about a gay friend of mine named Mark. Mark was in a religious order and left. He ended up marrying his partner, with whom he’s been together for 20 years. One of the things he has done is care for his partner through a long-term serious illness. I often say to people, “Is this not a form of love?” I just ask that question. So I think it’s less about argumentation than it is about stories, more about what Pope Francis calls a “culture of encounter“.
Frankly, that’s the way Jesus answered questions. When someone asked Jesus, “What is the reign of God,” he didn’t give them a definition. He said, “A farmer went out to sow.” Or, “A woman lost a coin,” or “A man had two sons.” He teaches people in stories, because definitions and arguments will just close our minds down, whereas stories open them up.
So really the invitation, for people who are closed-minded, is to encounter an LGBT person, in all of their complexity, and listen to their story. And it’s also being respectful of people.
LA: So what to say to someone who says, “Well, being gay is a sin?” At the very least it sounds condescending — “I know your eternal life better than you do.”
JM: Being LGBT is not a sin in the Catholic Church. The catechism teaches that. And frankly I think that “hate the sin, love the sinner” is really off-putting, because I have met few people who say that who really actually love the sinner.
If you’re an LGBT person, say, “I’m not sinful simply for being LGBT. I’d like to share with you my experience of growing up, and how I always felt gay or lesbian or as a person in the wrong body.” Just share that with the person.
If person is closed-minded, or is not listening, there’s not a whole lot you can do. But I tend to believe that people are open to experiences. So a closed-minded person who suddenly discovers that his son is gay or her daughter is a lesbian is really forced to look at that differently, because they’re confronted with a person instead of a theory, and with an experience instead of a category.
LA: The Church holds that the sin is actually acting on homosexual impulses?
JM: In Church teaching, any sex outside of marriage is sinful. That that also includes straight people who are living together before marriage, which no one seems to bat an eye at. No one says, “I hate the sin, but love you as a sinner.” Very few people say that [to people in that situation]. The LGBT are the people placed under a microscope, and I think that’s discriminatory.
LA: The sea change you spoke of extends to the broader Christian community — in which prominent evangelical leaders like Jen Hatmaker have expressed their support for LGBT people and same-sex marriage. These public changing-of-minds always seem to prompt Facebook Scripture throwdowns. What would you say to someone who wants to have a Bible-verse argument with you about homosexuality?
JM: You need to understand the Scripture in its historical context. If you look at the Old Testament, there’s a lot of Scripture that said that it’s OK to have slaves, but no one buys that any longer. Or remember that famous Dr Laura letter about Leviticus? Even in the New Testament they understood homosexuality in a far different way than we do today. You need to understand it in its context. Homosexual laws seem to be the only ones that people take out of context these days.
And by the way, Jesus said zero about homosexuality.
LA: What would you say to someone who takes a really hard line, who, for example, wants to cut ties with you because you’re gay?
JM: Then you should cut ties with everyone who sins, which means you would cut ties with everyone you know. So have fun in your church of one.