Archive for the ‘sexuality’ Category

David: Father

May 5, 2018

This is the sixth in a series on the life of David and David’s Son. 

The crisis began not with a spectacular crime—with adultery, or embezzlement, or child abuse–but with a failing everybody can relate to. David didn’t want to go to work.

In those days a king’s primary responsibility was leading the army. David was not only a skilled fighter, he had always been an eager one. From the days when he jumped at the chance to take on Goliath, he had been fearless and ready to fight. But not now. Springtime was the usual time for armies to take the field, but on this occasion David stayed home. He sent Joab, his top general, into battle with the Ammonites, and remained in Jerusalem.

Perhaps he was depressed. He had accomplished everything he set out to do. He had outlasted Saul, he had defeated the Philistines, he had united the tribes, he had built a palace in Jerusalem. The adrenaline rush was over. David had no more mountains to climb. God had turned down his bid to build a temple. Perhaps his future looked like a dull gray haze, more of the same, forever.

Then, on a sleepless night, walking on the roof, he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. She was the wife of one of his bravest fighters, Uriah, who just happened to be on the battlefield, where David should be. David sent for Bathsheba, they spent the night. It’s doubtful whether Bathsheba had any choice when the king summoned her to his bedroom. Later she sent a message: “I am pregnant.”

That did pose a problem, though not a very big one. In the ancient world, women were disposable, and kings were the ultimate disposers. David had plenty of women. During the seven years he spent in Hebron during the civil war, he had six sons by six different wives. When he settled in Jerusalem he added more wives and concubines, so many and so inconsequential they are not even considered worth naming. (2 Samuel 4:13) It’s very unlikely that anybody would have questioned David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The servants knew all about it, of course, and others probably did too. Nobody said a word. Men do this kind of thing, and you don’t question royalty.

Even the pregnancy could be bluffed through. If you read your European royal history you know that there are lots of affairs and lots of illicit babies, but somehow they all get stuffed in cracks. Nobody seems to notice. Royal life goes on. I presume David could have let Uriah figure out what to do with a wife who gave birth to a child that didn’t look like him. He wouldn’t, if he were wise, mention it to the king.

David evidently couldn’t quite imagine facing down Uriah that way, however. Maybe his own self-image as a righteous man wouldn’t let him take that route. He preferred to try to hide what he had done. He set out to deceive Uriah by inviting him home for a visit from the front. That way, Uriah would sleep with his wife and, when the baby came, could never be sure it wasn’t his.

It turned out that Uriah was too loyal to go home to his wife; he felt that soldiers shouldn’t do that when a war was on. David, perplexed by a man with more honor than he, was thrust into a much worse coverup. He arranged with Joab to send Uriah forward into an exposed position on the battlefield, and then suddenly withdraw behind him. The plan worked. Uriah was killed. The correspondence between David and Joab is extremely cold blooded. “David told the messenger [who brought word of Uriah’s death], ‘Say this to Joab: “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.” Say this to encourage Joab.’” (2 Samuel 11:25)

Who is this cold fish? Is this the same man who wrote psalms proclaiming his personal integrity before God? Is this the same passionate man who refused to kill Saul, who proclaimed his love for Jonathan?

He waited for Bathsheba’s mourning period to be over, and then brought her to the palace to bear his son. Still nobody said a word to him, though surely many talked about it behind the scenes. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

When nobody would talk to David, God did, sending Nathan the prophet.


Nathan was a brave man. Without a shred of human support he strode into David’s court. Nathan told a story about a poor man with a beloved pet lamb, and a rich man who took that lamb to feed it to a guest, though he had plenty of lambs of his own. The story caught David’s attention. He burned with anger, telling Nathan that such a man deserved to die, “because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan cried out, “You are the man!” He spoke God’s message to David: after all God had given him, he “despised the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes.” Since he had killed Uriah, “the sword will never depart from your house.” Furthermore, someone close to David, within his own household, would steal his wives and sleep with them in public. “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.” (2 Samuel 12:12)

It is terrible and humiliating to be caught in the act. It is even worse to be confronted in public, without prior warning. Take all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, consider any President you care to, add any governor or corporate CEO, and ask yourself how they would respond. I can assure you, they would fight back like a tiger. Nobody gets to that powerful position by humbly accepting blame.

As king, David could have Nathan killed, or at least thrown out on his ear. He did not. He said for all to hear, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

It may have been the greatest moment of David’s life. Nathan immediately responded, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”

Die! I wonder whether the proper legal consequences had even crossed David’s mind. People in power inevitably think themselves above all that.

Nathan did not suggest that forgiveness would obliterate all consequences. David would not die, but the baby born out of his unfaithfulness would.

When the baby fell ill, David acted as though his own life was at stake. “He pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” (2 Samuel 12:16-17) The death of any child is a heartbreak as deep as a well, but something more is involved here. David has realized the depth of what he has done. Probably he thinks, I wish it were me who would die. It should be me. An innocent child is suffering and dying for David’s sins.

At the end of a week, the child dies. To everyone’s surprise, David takes the news calmly. He gets up and goes about his business. He comforts his wife Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant again, and gives birth to Solomon. David goes back to his job, joining the army and successfully attacking the Ammonites. The story is not really over, though. In fact, it has barely begun.


Monarchies have problems with sons. It is all too common for princes to develop bad character, probably because the children of prominent men grow up spoiled. This was a problem in Israel even before the monarchy. Levi had bad sons. Samuel had bad sons. Saul, amazingly, had at least one very good son, Jonathan. David’s sons, unfortunately, reverted to the norm.

King’s sons are naturally rivals. Only one of them can inherit the crown, and it is far from unknown for the leading candidate to kill off his siblings before they get a chance to kill him. This rivalry is exaggerated in a polygamous household. The mothers are also rivals with each other, vying for the king’s attention. Each mother wants her son to prosper.

David’s oldest son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister, Tamar. The Bible describes it as a classic infatuation, with Amnon making himself sick with frustration. Eventually, with the connivance of his cousin and with David’s naïve assistance, Amnon lured Tamar into his bedroom and raped her. Afterwards he experienced a classic emotional reversal, becoming repulsed by her. He threw Tamar out of his quarters while she was weeping and in distress. She went to live with her brother Absalom, David’s third son.

David was furious, but he did nothing. It’s the first sign that he is paralyzed by his own guilt. David understands what lust can do: it led him to adultery with Bathsheba and then to murder. How can he condemn his son for doing less?

Absalom had no such ambivalence. He stewed on his hatred for his brother. Eventually he lured Amnon to an out-of-town party, and there, when Amnon was tipsy, he murdered him. Afterward he skipped town to go live with his mother’s family in Geshur, a tiny kingdom east of the Sea of Galilee. Absalom was in exile there for three years, during which David mourned for him every day.

Did David mourn because he saw his own failings being played out in his son? Did he perversely identify with Absalom? Emotions are hard to read but Joab characteristically took a pragmatic approach. He saw that David wanted his son back. He got a woman to tell David a story—shades of Nathan—about her two sons. One had killed the other; she feared that in retribution her only remaining son would also be killed. When David said he would take care of it, she applied the case to him. Hadn’t he banished his own son?

David recognized Joab’s hand in the woman’s manipulation, but he was—as Joab knew—eager to be manipulated. He told Joab to bring Absalom home. His only punishment would be that David would not see him. This posed as a punishment for Absalom. In reality, David was punishing himself. He was the one who longed to see his son. He remained tormented by his own failings, and so refused to treat himself to a reunion.

After two years, Absalom grew impatient. He called Joab to see him, but Joab did not come. He called a second time, with no answer. Characteristically, he set Joab’s field on fire. That got Joab to come. “Why have I come from Geshur?” Absalom asked. “It would be better for me if I were still there. I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.” Absalom had yet to show the slightest hint of repentance. In his mind, Amnon got what he deserved.

When Joab told this to David, he invited Absalom to the palace and embraced him. All was forgiven.

I have asked myself how I would feel toward my son if he murdered his older brother. I find that I can’t begin to imagine it. It’s an unthinkable horror. Compound that with a deep, grinding guilt for your own act of murder, and you get paralysis. That is how it affected David. He didn’t know what he should do to Absalom, so he did nothing.


Absalom was a conniver, obsessed with his own good looks and the weight of his hair (2 Samuel 14:26), proud to move around in a chariot with fifty men running ahead of him (15:1). Now accepted back in the king’s court, he became a politician, talking in a friendly way to everybody, and denigrating his father’s administration. In the nature of things people complain about their government and imagine how much better it could be. Perhaps David was depressed and out of sight while Absalom made himself visible. Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (2 Samuel 15:6)

After four years of this, Absalom went off to Hebron, where David had first reigned. There he sprang his conspiracy to kill his father and take over the government.

When David heard about it, he acted decisively—depressingly so. A messenger brought word that “the hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” (2 Samuel 15:13)  David, who had been a hero in Israel since he was a young man, who had always been confident in battle, immediately wanted to flee Jerusalem. He felt sure that if Absalom caught them, they would all be killed. He had no faith in his ability to win a battle against a son who had never led an army.

It seems likely to me that David was still lost in regret. He had failed as a parent. The son he had mooned over all those years now sought to kill him. You can’t fail any more dramatically. He could trace it all the way back to his murder of Uriah. He should have died then. Perhaps he wanted to die now.

But not quite. David still had enough energy to run away.

Second Samuel’s detailed description of David leaving Jerusalem is among the saddest scenes in the Bible. I’ve never heard a sermon on it, and it’s certainly not taught in Sunday school. Nevertheless, it is utterly compelling in its grief and passive regret.

It begins with David pausing on the outskirts of Jerusalem to review his troops. We learn here that during his sojourn in Gath, when David fought as a mercenary for the Philistines, he gained the loyalty of 600 Philistine soldiers. They had abandoned their homeland to follow him. David now tries to send them home. “You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going?”

The men from Gath refused to go home, so David let them follow him, accompanied by their families.

“The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by…. David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.” (2 Samuel 15:23,30)

A man named Shimei, from Saul’s clan, turned up. “He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, ‘Got out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!’”

One of David’s generals, Abishai, wanted to put an end to it. But David stopped him from killing Shimei. “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

“So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted.” (2 Samuel 16:5-14)

Only one scene in the Bible approximates this one: Jesus carrying his cross out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. He too was barefoot, and surrounded by weeping people. He too was mocked and cursed, making no attempt to defend himself. The son of David followed David’s footsteps, a king rejected by his subjects. Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, following in David’s line.

In both cases, the king of Israel suffers, is rejected, and faces death at the hand of his own children.

The difference, of course, was that David was punished for what he had done. He carried his own sins. Jesus made that slow march of tears carrying the sins of the world. He was punished for what we have done.


David was not abandoned. People came out of the woodwork to help him, including several non-Israelite neighbors who brought food and bedding and pots. (2 Samuel 17:27-29) David had loyalists left behind in Jerusalem, too, who worked to undermine Absalom. David’s army remained steadfast. He organized them into three units—the first sign that he was emerging from his emotional paralysis—and was ready to lead, but his fighters insisted he stay behind the lines. “Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us.” (2 Samuel 18:3)

So David stood at the city gate while the army marched out. He should have been encouraging them to fight bravely, but he couldn’t help himself: he told his commanders to treat Absalom gently. The whole army heard it. He was emerging from his depression, and acting like a king, but his heart was still preoccupied with his beloved, murderous son.

The battle was joined in a forest, and soon spread over the entire countryside, with great casualties. Famously, Absalom was undone by his hair. Riding under the branches of an oak, he got his locked tangled in its branches and ended up hanging in the air while his mule kept going. When Joab was told that Absalom was dangling he did not hesitate. Joab took three javelins and plunged them into Absalom’s heart. That was the end of Absalom; his army melted away when they realized their leader was dead.

The good news reached David, but he didn’t seem to care about victory; all he wanted to know was the fate of his son. No one wanted to tell him. Finally, when he learned that Absalom was dead, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

“If only I had died instead of you!” David may be thinking of the battle just concluded, wishing that his army had been overrun and he had been killed, leaving Absalom alive to become king.

Or perhaps his memory is casting back to his sin with Uriah. If he had died for his sins then, as he deserved, none of this tragedy would ever have begun.

In reality, his death would not have cleaned up the mess he had made. That is the fantasy many suicides entertain: If I were gone everybody would be better off. But Israel without David as its chief would have been pathetic and vulnerable, as it was under Saul. His sons would have fought just as murderously. David is saying he would gladly give up his own life to prevent these horrible outcomes. But his death would merely change one set of horrible outcomes for another. No one can sacrifice his life to redeem the world. It doesn’t work that way.

David’s public display of emotion disgraces his army. There ought to have been great celebration in David’s camp at the astonishing military turnaround. Instead, “the victory that day was turned into mourning, because on that day the troops heard it said, ‘The king is grieving for his son.’ The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle. The king covered his face and cried aloud, ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 19:2-4)

Joab read David the riot act, telling him he was humiliating the men who had saved his life. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall.” (2 Samuel 19:6-7)

David heard Joab and remembered his duty. He got up and sat in the gateway to review the army. Soon David went back to Jerusalem, setting the administration back in order. He lived the rest of his long life without further rebellion.


What can we make of this long, detailed account of David as father? Three sons ultimately died, while the nation and its king suffered incalculable sadness and disruption. It is a story without a happy ending and without a clear rationale for its telling.

I have heard people interpret these stories seeking wisdom about parenting—concluding that parents should not have favorites, and that parents should discipline their children. True as those lessons are, they don’t get at the deeper meaning of these events, which surely center on David’s failings as a man and the way in which regret clouded his vision. He failed as a parent because he failed as a man and as a king.

A letdown after great effort and great success is very human. If David was depressed and didn’t want to go to work, he is not the first or the last to feel that way. Then he faced a moment of testing. He saw a beautiful woman and tried to self-medicate with sex. From there a cascade of decisions led him to murder, and from murder to moral paralysis, and from paralysis to self-pity and almost to the destruction of his kingdom.

In this study of David I’ve tried to draw out qualities that link David to David’s son Jesus. In this case, however, there do not seem to be any. Jesus was sinless, and furthermore he had no children. David’s problems of sin and regret and paralysis, his failings as a father were not Jesus’s.

Only one aspect of fatherhood does link the two men: their procession out of Jerusalem, weeping, barefoot, taunted, cursed. Both David and Jesus could accurately be called “Man of Sorrows.” That procession is an emblem of the sorrow of our world.

In both cases, the problem of sorrows is rooted in the problem of sin. Sin causes David’s self-destruction and deterioration—his own sin. Sin also causes Jesus’s—the world’s sin. Jesus as well as David might well have said, in grief: “If only I could die instead of you.”

Jesus did.

Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.

Sexuality and Success

January 29, 2014

Ross Douthat has a long and eloquent blog post regarding sexual and family moralism. Essentially his assertion is one that I made years ago in my columns for teenagers: promiscuous sexuality may be harmless for cultural elites in Hollywood and elsewhere, but it is devastating to the lives of the poor and the less-educated. Ironically, divorce and single parenting are rare among the well educated and rich–ironically because as a class they are shocked, shocked that anybody still holds to old-fashioned moralisms. But divorce and single parenting have utterly devastated the poor and lower-middle classes. And surely those well-insulated cultural elites bear some responsibility.

Of course, it’s more than sexuality and marriage. There are other important causes of devastation: the imprisoning of young men in huge numbers, the loss of industrial jobs, the failure of schools, the insane cost of health care, the epidemic of drug use. But since all the data I’ve seen show a very tight linkage between marriage and success, and an even tighter linkage between divorce and single parenting and disaster, there’s plenty of reason for people who genuinely care about the poor to take seriously divorce and single parenting and all the sexual scripts that lead up to them.

Lost At Sea

January 17, 2014

I didn’t really enjoy watching the movie “Frances Ha,” but I’ve thought a lot about it since. A blurb I read said it was a movie about being young in New York, but that’s not accurate. It’s a movie about being young and lost at sea. Frances is a moderately attractive, somewhat awkward 20-something who wants to be a professional dancer. Like most if not all of the young people who populate her life, she’s depending on her parents for money and (sometimes) for emotional support while at the same time wanting to keep them far away. The plot, if you can call it a plot, steers its way through random events–quirky, embarrassing, clueless and above all awkward. Frances wants friends very much, but she doesn’t know how negotiate friendship. Everybody in her world is on the make, open to anything at any moment yet at the same time unwilling to commit themselves to wanting anything. It brings back memory of junior high school, only these people don’t have braces and their voices aren’t changing.

I don’t know how accurate “Frances Ha” is in its depiction of young, affluent, urban society. I hope not at all. The movie isn’t negative, and it’s not making a point as far as I can see. I’m not sure whether others would see its depiction as horrifying, which I more or less do. To me, it is life at sea–not just for Frances, but as much or more for all her “friends.” They appear to be rooted in nothing, trying to make a life in a fishbowl, like a solitary beta puffing itself up for the mirror image of itself. They talk about sex but would be embarrassed to admit to passion. They say they love each other but they would be unable to say what they want from each other. They have career ambitions–art, publishing, dance, money–and are terrifically competitive but they deny that they really care about success or failure. It’s a shadow world.

So far I’ve failed to find any 20-somethings who have seen it. I would like to know how they perceive it. Is this their world? Do they find it attractive? How do they feel?

The Real Meaning of Tolerance

October 16, 2013

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of tolerance, a virtue that I believe in very deeply. I’m not quite sure I have this figured out correctly, and it’s very sensitive subject matter. Bear with me and correct me (tolerantly) where I’m off.

I’m troubled by the expansion of tolerance into a demand for celebration. The obvious occasion comes when a friend or relative comes out as LGBT. This news may come as quite a shock, especially to people who cling to traditional sexual mores. They may struggle to react with kindness, to accept the person and to accommodate his or her new sexual identity. From what I’ve observed, though, kindness, acceptance and accommodation are often not enough. What is required is affirmation, genuine celebration of the LGBT self. And if the relative or friend can’t truly celebrate? That is felt as a deep offense.

Hardly anyone would insist that all must celebrate their political opinions, tastes in food, and choices in child rearing. But sexual and gender identity is a matter of discovery, not choice, say those who come to a new understanding of themselves. This is who I am–and you must embrace who I am.

No doubt this insistence is also based on the experience of being discriminated against. LGBT people often feel battered. Someone who has painfully found the way to a new self-understanding may say: if you can’t rejoice with me in my new-found freedom, I want nothing to do with you. It’s too painful.

I’m focusing on LGBT, but the demand for affirmation extends to others. Oddly, I think people of orthodox faith often have similar feelings. When they encounter those who think they are fanatics and nuts, some cry foul and complain that they are persecuted. It’s hard to be part of a misunderstood minority, especially when identity in that minority means life to you.

We want to be loved, and in some sense we deserve to be loved.

I think, however, that the insistence on affirmation demands too much. For one thing, you’re insisting that your new self-understanding is the only way to interpret your identity. Yet it’s far from unknown for people to declare a sexual identity and later change their mind. (It’s the same with religious identity.) LGBT identity requires interpretation of feeling and experience. Someone else can question the interpretation–particularly someone who knows the person well, such as a parent. And those doubts will make that person less than celebrative. That’s not necessarily intolerance.

There’s also the extension of identity into lifestyle–as in, I’m LGBT, therefore I must live an LGBT life and you must affirm it. (Or, I’m Catholic and don’t believe in birth control, so you must treat my beliefs as inviolable in public policy.) But one may disagree about what lifestyle should accompany a certain identity. In an entirely different realm, some deaf activists insist that signing, not lip reading or speech, is at the core of true deaf identity. They revile those who teach deaf children to lip read or to speak. Others consider them wrong, though, because (among other reasons) they prevent deaf children from communicating with their own parents and siblings. One can acknowledge that there are good arguments for the signing-only point of view, without accepting that it’s necessarily part of deaf identity.

Most fundamentally, however, no one is required to celebrate every aspect of another person’s core identity. It’s possible to regard a state of life as irreversible, and yet unfortunate. One may love the amputee but regret the amputation. One may celebrate the life of an autistic child, rejoicing in unusual gifts, and yet still wish for a cure. Some may find my white skin and blue eyes creepy and off-putting. I regret that, but I cannot insist that they learn to love white skin before I will have anything to do with them. If they will treat me respectfully, I will do the same to them.

Tolerance, that essential virtue for civility and civilization, is not a virtue for the New Creation. It is for this messy, troubled and sinful creation. Tolerance doesn’t help people who see the world in the same way, it helps people who have core disagreements. Its work is not to obliterate those differences, but to enable us to live together in peace and with dignity despite those differences.

Someone who comes out as LGBT should be honored as a human being made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be, in fact, loved. And vice versa. Those who hold the wrong ideas about LGBT should be honored as human beings made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be loved, difficult as that may be. Tolerance speaks to our relationships with people whose views we abhor and whose nature we cannot appreciate.

Gnostic Sexuality

July 25, 2013

Gnostic sexuality sounds like an oxymoron, but Andy Crouch makes a very interesting argument in the latest Christianity Today that advocates of gay marriage stand on the side of de-bodied sexuality,  seeing the only essentially important facts as those of the heart–will and desire. Whereas traditional Christian sexual morality is rooted in the creation story, with the bodily realities of male and female defining our identities.

Crouch points out that the terminology rapidly replacing “homosexuality” is “LGBT,” reflecting a wider variety of sexual identity than “gay” and “straight.” He adds that Q and A (for “queer” or “questioning” and “asexual”) and even I (for “intersexual”) are increasingly mentioned by those who find existing categories inadequate. That’s not surprising: gnosticism is a highly fluid way of understanding reality.

Sexuality involves both body and heart. But where you start makes a big difference in where you end up.

(I remember years ago struggling to understand what Andy Comiskey was saying about the “ex-gay” movement.  I was so caught up in “sexual orientation” defined as persistent desire that I found it difficult to grasp that there might be a more basic sexual orientation. Comiskey never denied that same-sex orientation was real and strong and highly resistant to change. But he insisted that a more fundamental reality was that of male and female.)

At the end of his essay, Andy Crouch asks whether orthodox Christians have any common ground with our LGBT neighbors. He says that we do: “All of us know, in the depths of our heart, that we are queer.” That is, we struggle to make sense of our desires, which never align very well with our bodies. He mentions pornography as the perfect evocation of desire that seeks to flee the body, to live purely in the realm of yearning after images. “Every one of us is a member of the coalition of human beings who feel out of place in our bodies east of Eden. And every one of us has fallen far short of honoring God and other human beings with our bodies.”


In Remembrance of Exodus

June 21, 2013

Yesterday Exodus International, the umbrella group for what used to be called “ex-gay” ministries, announced that they were closing up shop after almost forty years. That announcement came one day after Exodus president Alan Chambers issued an apology to gays and others for the harm done to them by the ministry model they had built based on changing sexual orientation. The message, I think, is that sexual orientation doesn’t change, just as “ex-gay” critics have been saying for many years. Exodus was wrong to offer programs claiming that it does, and wrong to hide the fact of the leaders’ own continuing sexual attraction to their own gender.

Not everybody agrees. For example Andy Comiskey, a leader in the movement for many years, posted an article that vaguely compared Chambers to a snake–yes, that snake. (Comiskey and other affiliates left to start a new umbrella organization more than a year ago.)

Even Chambers’ apology, if you read it carefully, doesn’t apologize for believing that the Bible teaches homosexual practice is wrong. Chambers still believes that Exodus helped many people, himself included. His main impulse seems to be to operate from grace, not guilt; to stop fighting against people who don’t agree with him; and to be transparent about what really happens to homosexuals who try to change.

It has been years since I reported on Exodus, but I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to the ministry over most of its history, including a number of in-depth interviews. An important caveat for anything I (or anyone) may say about it: Exodus was always a very floppy umbrella over dozens of tiny organizations. Practically the only thing they all agreed on was to have an annual conference. They never shared funds or organizational control between their affiliates (which, by the way, have not gone out of business). Naturally given this lack of structure, there’s tremendous variation.

One thing I will say is that it was never a deep secret that homosexual feelings persisted. I had a number of Exodus leaders say as much to me over the years. It’s true that they didn’t necessarily mention that fact when first meeting with desperate, guilt-laden, deeply closeted men and women who came to them for help.

Most of the Exodus leaders were Christians of a charismatic or pentecostal persuasion. They believed in transformation. They wanted to offer hope, not uncertainty, the same way charismatics do someone coming to them for healing of brain cancer. However, none of the people I interviewed spoke of transformation as a simple, magical, pray-once-and-it’s-done business.

As I reported in 2007, “An older, wiser ex-gay movement is certainly clearer about what it has to offer. Early hopes for instant healing have given way to belief that transformation occurs through a lifetime of discipleship.”

I had attended the annual Exodus conference. I wrote, “This conference features little motivational hyperbole. Alan Chambers, the low-key opening-night speaker, emphasizes that there is no step-by-step formula for overcoming homosexuality. ‘Hear me loud and clear: You’re not going to get cured this week. … We don’t choose our feelings, but we do choose how we are going to live. I choose every day to deny what comes naturally to me. … I have to rely on Jesus Christ every day.'”

What many ex-gay critics failed to note was that Exodus wasn’t started by preachers or psychologists in order to minister to benighted homosexuals. It was launched by homosexuals who, because of their Christian faith, sought help and rarely found it in the church. So they started tiny, starving organizations that offered understanding and hope. Most of the time churches kept these organizations at arm’s length, as though homosexuality might be catching, while at the same time directing to them the regular flow of agonized Christians struggling with their homosexual identity. The closest parallel is AA–a grassroots organization run by victims for victims. Whenever I talked to Exodus leaders I was struck by the gallows humor, the lack of triumphalism. I wrote in 2007, “This may be the only group in America that realizes all the way to the bottom that when you decide to follow Jesus, you don’t always get to do what you want to do.”

But yes, they did sometimes talk and write triumphalistically, and seemed sometimes to promise great transformation of sexual orientation. They publicized apparent successes, and ignored transparent failures. Backsliding and moral failure were frequent, especially in the early days. Most importantly, most of those who joined their programs failed to experience lasting and meaningful change of sexual desire. For many, such failure was shattering.

Homosexuality is defined by erotic desire for your own gender. Despite much thinking and theorizing, it remains unexplained. Homosexuals do not choose their desires any more than heterosexuals do. But where do these desires come from? They make no evolutionary sense. 

Homosexuality is not exactly “like” anything else, but I think it is helpful to put it into the context of other forms of desire and our attempts to control or change them. Alcoholism is an example: the desire for alcohol is persistent and unexplained, and it is very difficult to change. AA has some success, as does the Betty Ford clinic, but also lots and lots of failure.

The prevalence of obesity, and the general failure of all dieting programs, should equally warn us against any suggestion that we understand desire or know how to transform or control it. If food desires are that strong and resistant to change, surely sexual desires are more so.

But this should not lead to a counsel of despair. Change is difficult; change is not impossible. Some people do lose weight. Some people channel or sublimate their homosexual desires. The current ethos of sexual liberalism would suggest that any attempt to limit sexual expression is inherently stifling if not damaging. But Christians (and others) are likely to find this an unproved assertion, and to regard the legacy of sexual liberalism as highly questionable. Granted that there have been improvements in our lives since the beginning of the sexual revolution, is the overall impact really positive?

 Exodus is gone, and with it any sense that Christians have a “cure” for homosexuality. A lot–not all, by any means–of homophobia has gone too, largely because a generation of homosexuals had the courage to come out and give the rest of the world a chance to know them as ordinary human beings. It’s clear that homosexuals are being visibly integrated into mainstream American life–into the military, into marriage, into sports. They have always been there, of course, but not visibly so.

Christians have to figure out how to deal with this. The impulse to love and accept is strongly embedded in our Scriptures. But so is the belief that homosexual expression is a distortion of God’s intended sexuality. This poses a terrible dilemma. Exodus seemed to point a way out of it: homosexuals can change. Now we know that homosexuality is part of the human condition, that it persists. We know that homosexuals are not “them” but “us.” Difficult? Yes, but not unprecedented. So many aspects of human life are unexplained, persistent and contrary to what we believe should be so. We are creatures of such contradictions, seeking to live in our present reality with love and acceptance, yet also with the powerful urge for transformation. That is why I lie awake at nights. That is why I pray.

Why Abortion Won’t Go Away

April 23, 2013

Ross Douthat has an outstanding short essay on the media response to Kermit Gosnell, the doctor who killed newborns. He quotes, at length, from abortion rights advocates, and gives them their due. They are right in saying that doctors like this would be a lot less likely to exist if there were easy, convenient access to professional abortion clinics. In a perverse way, restrictions on access actually enable devils like Gosnell.

Where such abortion rights advocates never go, however, is the bloody and physical reality of late-term abortions. They don’t focus on the actual fetuses/babies –one different from the other only by the matter of whether a doctor is operating on them inside the womb or outside. And that, Douthat points out, is what is so awful and compelling about Gosnell’s case.

One might have expected abortion controversies to have dried up long ago. The reason they persist–the reason why abortion is not really accepted after forty years of legal practice–is simply those fetuses/babies. It is very difficult to focus on them and remain free and easy about abortion.

Clearly, we live in a time when people want to go about their sexual business without minding anybody’s moral scruples. Most would rather live and let live and not think about it. Given that strong current of sexual individualism, I can’t see abortion rights really becoming threatened in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, I don’t see the issue quite disappearing, either. We don’t have to think about those fetuses/babies most days. But cases will surface to remind us of them.

Gay Marriage is Conservative Victory?

April 3, 2013

A very interesting column from David Brooks. He salutes gay marriage as a lone modern indicator of people voluntarily seeking to bind their freedom in commitments.

“Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.”

Gay marriage is thus a conservative victory, in his telling, and he wonders whether it will lead to a trend. ” Maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice.”

Gay Marriage Is a Done Deal

March 28, 2013

Gay marriage is a done deal. It will soon be legally sanctioned nearly everywhere in America, regardless of what the courts say. Public opinion has swung decisively.

It’s certainly surprised me. I remember reading Andrew Sullivan advocating gay marriage (in 1995?) and thinking he was far out on the edge.

How could America change its mind so quickly? Here are some reasons:

–Gays comprise a very small percentage of the population, indivisible from the rest of us (i.e. not identified with any ethnicity or income level or gender). It’s hard to imagine such a tiny minority making much difference in society. Thus it’s not that threatening. And it’s hard to stigmatize gays as belonging to “them” once you know a few. The brave homosexuals who came out of the closet and demonstrated that they were ordinary folks have driven a lot of this change.

–As David Brooks wrote yesterday, gay marriage is socially conservative. It values family stability and lasting love. In contemporary America gays seem to be virtually the only people thoroughly excited about marriage. How can you be horrified? Plus they make their appeal on the basis of fairness, a hard claim for any American to deny.

The really odd thing is that while gays rush toward marriage, marriage is in trouble among non-elite Americans. If you didn’t finish college your chances of getting married and staying married are small. The odds are good that a child in non-elite America will grow up without two parents.

The acceptance of gay marriage is closely related to a deeper, longer-running trend toward defining marriage by love alone. Through most of history marriage was also an economic partnership and an arrangement for producing offspring. (Reading Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now impressed this on me once again.) Many also saw marriage as religiously holy, a window into God’s relationship to his people. Such factors operate on a longer timeline than merely human love, which is famously volatile. (Consider Shakespeare’s sonnets.)

What will marriage look like a generation from now? Gay marriage will certainly be part of the mix. But marriage may be a temporary, shifting affinity significant to only a minority of people. Because what is the point, if all you need is love? You don’t need marriage to love. And when love dies, is anything left?

While gay marriage is here to stay, it’s not clear how great a prize it will prove to be.