LGBTQ people and “the harm caused by the Christian religion”
Michael Coren talks to theologian and author Charles Fensham about the hatred of LGBTQ people in conservative Christianity and how to stop it
The issue of LGBTQ2 equality, full acceptance of homosexuals, and the celebration of same-sex marriages are perhaps the most controversial issues facing contemporary Christianity. Indeed for many conservative Christians, the litmus test of faith is less a belief in Jesus Christ than a rejection of homosexuality, which is bizarre as the topic is hardly ever mentioned in the article. all of Scripture, and Jesus never refers to it!
Some denominations have already become what is often called “affirmation,” others are almost at this stage, but most evangelicals – a deeply important group in the United States – remain steadfastly conservative. The Roman Catholic Church declares in its catechism that “homosexual acts as acts of serious depravity” are “contrary to natural law” and that “homosexual acts are inherently disorderly”, but most informed commentators believe that ‘at least a third of all priests are homosexual, not all are celibate.
Father Donald Cozzens argues in his 2000 book The Changing Face of the Priesthood that up to 58% of priests are homosexual, and that the rate is higher for young priests, yet Rome still denies and obscures. This position continues to cause a lot of pain and suffering.
A new book on the subject, Misguided love: Christians and the breakdown of LGBTQI2 + people by Charles Fensham is the last to address the theme, and what makes this volume so unusual and meaningful is that its author is not known primarily as an activist or journalist, but as an academic theologian.
Fensham is Professor of Systematic Theology at Knox College, University of Toronto, author of highly regarded books and articles, and ordained Presbyterian pastor. He has been teaching theology since 1983, starting in his native South Africa, but arriving in Canada after being harassed and raided by security police. He spoke to Maclean’s on the evil done by the Christian religion, in the face of hatred and what needs to change.
Q: Why now for this book?
A: My answer to this question is both personal and social. For me, this book project started in the late fall of 2010, when I was standing by a lake in northern Ontario and seriously considering suicide. The inner rupture between the teaching and attitude of my church and my experience as a homosexual has become unbearable.
As a theologian and full professor, my mind could understand that the church is wrong, but my heart could not. I also realized that this experience is real for many people of faith from sexual and gender minorities and that I need to address it.
At the start of my research, I discovered that things were worse than expected. Research by Peter Newman and Sophia Fantus at the University of Toronto, Social Work, has shown just how vulnerable LGBTQI youth are in our city’s religious schools. The current harm that the Christian religion does in our Canadian context remains staggering. It had to stop and I had to create a resource that deals with hatred and anger against sexual and gender minorities in religious contexts.
Q: Why does a subject that appears so rarely in the Bible, homosexuality, seem so vital to conservative Christians?
A: British historian Alexandra Walsham describes this kind of Christian attitude of aversion, passive aggression and intimidation as charitable hatred. As I follow you on Twitter, Michael, I see how this form of hatred is expressed against you on a daily basis as an ally. The reasons for this form of religious hatred are complex. In my book, I explore a combination of causes for this. I believe this involves factors such as the long history of hatred, arson, drowning and torture of sexual and gender minorities in the name of God. This is combined with our emerging understanding of social bias through the work of Jonathan Haidt, Mary Douglas, Julia Kristeva and René Girard’s scapegoat theory. Shaped by a traditional hostile social environment and internal psychological factors, conservative Christianity mistakenly views an assertive welcome of sexual and gender minorities as a moral failure. The psychological factors and the experience of disgust that they engender are combined with a reading of the Bible that is shaped by these preconditions, leads to so much anger and ultimately harm.
Q: How much damage has been done to LGBTQ2 people over the years by this teaching?
A: One of the aims of this book, and the central part of it, is to tell the story of the rise of Christian hatred towards sexual and gender minorities, from early Christianity to the medieval period, from the Reformation. Protestant to the present day. In the book, I share carefully researched stories of deep damage. It is nothing short of shocking to find torture, live burns, castration and public hangings, beatings behind the wheel and the murder of young adolescents as objects of hatred for Christianity. This is true for Catholic Christianity as well as Protestant Christianity. The damage is deep and persistent.
Q: My reading is that the verses usually quoted to condemn homosexuals are taken out of context, are lawless, or just plain wrong. Would you accept?
A: Renowned conservative rabbi and biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom pointed out how Christians deliberately misread the oft-cited texts in the book of Leviticus against “homosexuality.” The English translations of these texts are problematic and the context is not properly taken into account. It turns out that these texts speak of marital infidelity in a patriarchal context. There is today an abundant and credible literature which shows that every biblical text used to condemn “homosexuality” is interpreted through a deep bias that does not take into account context and time. My book also unpacks the story of the rise of the Sodom myth and its association with homosexuality. This ancient story has nothing to do with people belonging to sexual and gender minorities and everything to do with the use of rape and inhospitality to subdue others. Many people, still shaped by the prejudices described above, insist that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Yet the claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality is simply wrong.
Q: Do you think a change is likely to happen, especially in the evangelical and Roman Catholic world?
A: Changes are happening. When faithful people who carry compassionate Christian hearts within the Roman Catholic Church and in Protestant evangelism hear and see the stories of evil, they question their attitude. When they return to open-hearted biblical arguments, they discover just how problematic the interpretation they imply is. When they meet faithful Christians from sexual and gender minorities, they discover a new communion of love.
So, yes, changes are happening. Of course, it depends a lot on each of these faith and social environments how far the changes will go. Roman Catholicism is unlikely to support marriage equality because marriage is a sacramental doctrine. It is also a tradition that does not directly recognize doctrinal change, but rather, through reinterpretation and pastoral leadership, things change slowly. This process of change is underway. In evangelical circles there is no doubt that charitable hatred and evil will continue, but the hope expressed through this book is that hearts will change and evil will be reduced.