Thursday, June 27, 2013

A response to the end of Exodus International.

Slow down internet please!

This blog has often discussed the intersections of spirituality, gender politics, and sexuality. News in that area has been coming faster than I can process it. Or perhaps it’s merely because I don’t usually follow current affairs so much that it feels this way. Just some of the events:
  • The Police in NSW, Australia are accused of shredding evidence of child abuse in the Catholic Church. This raises questions about how institutions of power support each other and how we can easily be swayed to protect the already powerful.
  • A large evangelical church planting network (SGM) in the US is embroiled in its own sex abuse scandals. The abuse appears connected to its patriarchal theology and religious freedom claims have been used to defend it from scrutiny.
  • The US Supreme Court narrowly declares the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, obliging their federal government to recognize same-sex marriages from states that permit it. What relevance for Australia does this hold?
These topics will have to wait however. I’m still dealing with the super-nova of Exodus International closing its doors.

Exodus International is the largest umbrella organization in the world for those who have historically claimed to heal people of same sex attractions. On June the 19th 2013 Exodus International announced it is closing up shop. Their president, Alan Chambers, issued an apology to the LGBT community for their past assumptions and harm. Alan Chambers has for some time now been putting some distance between himself and his previous public identity as an ex-gay man promoting an ex-gay reality for others. In 2012 Alan Chambers stated that:
The majority of people that I have met, and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them have not experienced a change in their orientation or have gotten to a place where they could say that they could  never be tempted or are not tempted in some way or experience some level of same-sex attraction.

Alan Chambers has also admitted that he is himself part of the 99.9% he refers to.  He has apologized for falsely exaggerating the claims like those made in April 2004 and still published by NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality), that:
“I used to be homosexual and today I am not.….I am one of tens of thousands of people whom have successfully changed their sexual orientation.”

In his apology Alan Chambers stated;
“There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions. I was afraid to share them as readily and easily as I do today. They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away. Looking back, it seems so odd that I thought I could do something to make them stop. Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there. The days of feeling shame over being human in that way are long over, and I feel free simply accepting myself as my wife and family does. As my friends do. As God does”.

What’s the right lens to view this event with? The most pessimistic view is that it means very little. Certainly one consequence of this organization’s closure and its earlier admittance that gay cures don’t work, has been the departure of hardliners into a new network called the Restored Hope Network. This network continues to maintain that a homosexual orientation and being a Christian are incompatible. The Restored Hope Network also maintains the probability of changing sexual orientation via its affiliated group’s courses. It’s worth noting that some of Exodus’ leaders and affiliated organizations have ended up or will end up here. Some might even continue using the name Exodus.

It’s also worth noting that not every gay-cure like organization ever belonged under the Exodus umbrella. Desert Stream, Living Waters is the U.S. based network to which Living Waters Australia belongs. Living Waters Australia uses the network’s resources and run their program. The Australian based group publicly recognizes the unlikelihood of sexuality change although they still use phrases like “sexual wholeness” and “healing from brokenness” in reference to their programs. Meanwhile their U.S. based parent states that:
Regarding sexual orientation change, we at DSM will continue to uphold change as a reasonable goal for Christians with SSA (Same Sex Attraction) who are earnestly seeking Him and who are willing to do the hard work of resolving their gender disintegration through Christ and His healing community. (We realize that not all will graduate into a state of readiness for marriage. However, that should not preclude anyone from seeking full sexual restoration.)

Alan Chambers’ apology is not the complete end to Christian groups considering homosexual attraction as inherently depraved and amenable to some form of healing. However I think something historical and profound has been marked with Exodus International closing. I disagree with people who see it as entirely a non-shift or primarily a defensive tactic against future lawsuits. I do recognize that for many people, including those personally deceived by Alan Chambers and harmed by his ministry, that this apology is probably insufficient to address their pain fully. I agree that it’s lacking in remorse of Chambers to open another ministry immediately upon closing Exodus. Even if his proposed Reduce Fear (the name may change) will be quite different to Exodus I hope Chambers shows the grace not to be its chief spokesperson.
Still, I am prepared to say that the closure of Exodus marks the positive evolution of a lot of Christians' understanding of homosexuality, including gay Christians’ understanding of them selves. I look at this as an example of how we can be optimistic about autonomous self-help movements reforming themselves over time. I have faith in this process even if organizations begin as something quite harmful and doctrinally restrained.

I believe a natural process of self-correction towards truth occurs when we privilege the voices of experience. Exodus for all its flaws and sheer arrogance has always been led by people who experienced gay desire themselves. It’s an organization which has not been well controlled by “experts” in theology or for that matter psychology. It’s my optimism that any such organization will eventually get it right because their fundamental approach to knowledge is sound. Essentially I’m making a faith claim that the truth about a condition of existence comes, through democratic organization of those experiencing the condition.

Certain factors constrain this occurring. Organizations can create bureaucratic ceilings that the people they represent can never break through. Instead the ad-men and officials take over. Sometimes the rise to a position of leadership severs a person from the class perspective they used to belong to. Organisations can also be pushed and pulled by external forces and even infiltrated by people with agendas other than self-representation. Lastly a class like “gay Christian” or any other is not homogenous. Exodus has a history of white men dominating its leadership which fails to represent the entirety of “gay Christian”, and of course it has excluded openly active gay Christians.
One religiously specific obstacle to organizations growing in the direction of their members’ truth is an allegiance to scriptural fundamentalism. Alan Chambers has made himself vulnerable and open to change by listening to his own heart and to the voices of those affected by his previous actions. He might call that listening to God and I hope this spirit continues to move him. In doing so he is going to be accused of turning his back on God by those evangelicals who equate listening to God to obeying a certain reading of the Bible. There is an enormous debate about how God speaks and how we listen to God that is happening here. It will fly under the radar of non-Christian observers but it will dominate the topic for many Christians.

This doesn’t mean that Alan Chambers is going to be marching for gay pride soon. It might mean that his proposed new ministry Reduce Fear becomes more like an organization like Centrepeace. Centrepeace is a Christian organization which makes no clear public statement about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and yet focuses on sexuality in its ministry. Centrepeace seems to make a bigger deal out of the exclusion of gay people from church communities than the morality of gay sex itself. It gets very confusing trying to know exactly whether Centrepeace thinks gay relationships should be honoured or condemned, enough so that I worry it might be a Trojan horse for the latter position. That same confusion comes through in Alan Chambers’ apology:
“I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek.”

That’s all well and good Alan (and Centrepeace) for the postman, but speaking for a ministry specifically relating to gay Christians in some way, don’t you have to take a more prescriptive position than that? Maybe not; Alan Chambers might be seriously proposing a single table in which gay Christians can dialogue across different opinions about homosexuality:
Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.”(from Alan Chambers’ apology)

Even if Reduce Fear is not the single table itself, Chambers may be hoping for a seat at it. He may be representing a relatively conservative view. Even so he will have moved further than many other conservative groups in hoping to collaborate with “unrepentant” homosexuals. This would probably be with the Gay Christian Network. This international network “includes both those on Side A (supporting same-sex marriage and relationships) and on Side B (promoting celibacy for Christians with same-sex attractions).” It noticeably does not include members which claim to cure homosexuality.

It was at a U.S. meeting of the Gay Christian Network when Alan Chambers made his “99.9%” comment. In fact I would wager that Chambers is going to make the following pitch. It’s consistent with all his statements and with his own personal situation (married with kids). Chambers is going to say that heterosexual marriage and same sex attraction are not mutually exclusive. He will reject the idea that same-sex attraction can be eliminated but he will argue that heterosexual attraction can be increased or developed in some people. Chambers will ask for Reduce Fear to be a voice in the Gay Christian Network with that “message of hope” for gay Christians who want to be parents. I’m less certain whether the Gay Christian network will accept this position. It’s very close to the ex-gay message of old.

Chambers made a very strong concession in his address to Exodus International’s last conference. These comments were profoundly pluralistic;
"All sorts of people may live in all sorts of ways. Including ways you might not endorse or condone. But let me let you in on a secret - You're not God. And it doesn't matter what you think anyways. Only God is God and he alone will judge the human heart."
This feels like an offer of peace to precisely the people who make up the Gay Christian Network. But is it a world view that Chambers is committed to? One where people are encouraged to listen to and obey God but where wildly different outcomes of that process are respected as integritous? I find that possibility more fascinating than any other but an unlikely direction for Chambers.

In such an environment people might need to hear other people’s decisions without laying them over their own life. When a straight person says that God wants them to be celibate then others are already able, generally, to hear this as being only about that person - not an ideal for everyone. However when a gay person says that God wants them to be celibate and another says God wants them to pursue a gay relationship can these opinions also be heard as the person just talking for themselves? I don’t see why not, depending on how those decisions are explained.

Problems occur when people claim that their decision - to pursue a gay relationship, to be celibate or even to be in a “mixed orientation marriage” – is connected to general principles that do apply to others’ lives. Quite frankly such a problem is the rule rather than the exception in discussions over homosexuality. Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation believes it is not only possible but essential to include such perspectives as well. (Please check out his personal story here – it’s very interesting.) The Marin Foundation hosts Living In the Tension Gatherings with the goal “that non-Christian LGBTs, gay Christians, celibates, ex-gays, liberal and conservative straight Christians and straight non-Christians all willfully enter into a place of constructive tension, intentionally forming a community that peacefully and productively takes on the most divisive topics within the culture war that is faith and sexuality.”

In a powerful way this format goes beneath the immediate issues of faith and sexuality to address the culture of division and dismissal that usually plagues this conversation. This is not going to be an easy approach for everyone to take. Gay people, who have suffered the one-way monologues of people opposed to homosexuality for decades, may feel that now that Exodus is closing, it is time to celebrate and cement victory – not to listen. They might argue “What courtesy do we really owe our enemies?” Meanwhile hold-out ex-gay organisations continue to refer to the gay agenda as the work of their enemies – enemies of the gospel and God.

However the fault lines of different opinions on homosexuality run through friendships and families – including loving families. It is many people’s reality that those who disagree with them on this issue are not and can never be their enemies. For some people Andrew Marin’s approach is their best hope at preserving the relationships that are most important to them. It also speaks to the reality that people can see in each other a faith or compassion that unites them despite having different views on sexuality. I wish The Marin Foundation the best of success in its work.

Finally, a word of caution; It’s worthwhile to hear Alan Chambers alongside the similar apology of John Paulk, author of Love Won Out, a popular “story” of becoming ex-gay. These two and others like them identify as both ex-victims and ex-perpetrators of the ex-gay movement. They admit they failed to tell their whole truth at the very time they were being the poster-children for the “truth” that homosexuality can be cured.  We should have some sympathy that since their early adult years they have been living weapons in a war against their own acceptance. They have felt obliged to tell the truth-that-suits over and over again as the price of their own acceptance by God. 

A larger question emerges here about the nature of testimonial cultures. What does it mean when people are in a role of spokesperson for change, often before the same families and congregations that required the change? This testified change can be regarding sexual orientation, use of porn, recovery from sexual and physical abuse, escape from addiction, and suicidality. It can range from generally accepted mental health concerns and powerful trauma, to behaviour that is only problematized in certain communities. I hope the closure of Exodus encourages an investigation of what this kind of culture expects of people. I would hope there would be some reluctance to making poster-children of any cause to come from this. This also applies to John Paulk and Alan Chambers and anyone else who might become poster-children for the ex-ex-gay movement. Let’s let these people live their own lives for a while. They oughtn’t be trophies of any side in any war.

No comments:

Post a Comment