Sunday, November 7, 2010

Courage and Structure: more from the Blogosphere

After my post on the Rev. Jim Swilley's recent "coming out", Robert posted an entry in response asking "what is courage?" A few days prior, Ian Corrigan commented on my post concerning the language of  orthodoxy.  In the spirit of efficient blogging, I felt I might be able to answer both my commentators in one entry.

Ian shares my feelings on the dangers of DIY spiritual systems, hearkening to his personal experience and noting:
A big risk in a self-constructed, ad-hoc approach to spiritual work is that you will only manage to affirm the self you already were when you began, with little growth except perhaps in size. You might become a bigger, shinier, more powerful person of the sort you have always been, but you can also miss the opportunity to balance your natural tendencies against their complementary things. Worse, I’ve seen folks exaggerate and empower characteristics that might reasonably be discarded, if their goal was a productive and happy life. (If for some reason – artistic soulfulness or some crap – you don’t seek a productive happy life then I haven’t much to say to you…) This exaggeration of tendencies is, I’ll repeat, a real trap of the ‘do-what-feels-right’ approach to spiritual self-training.
While Robert provides two different examples of how a gay minister might engage with homosexuality.

Fictional Minister Number 1 is a good man in every respect. He is gay. He preaches from the pulpit that homosexuality is wrong while secretly having gay lovers. Is it courageous to preach what he feels is the truth even when he can't practice according to his words no matter how hard he tries? Is it courageous after years of failing to change his own behavior to change his mind and support another point of view? Would it be more courageous to simply admit he is an abomination as he has taught homosexuals are and walk away from the church? I could easily argue all three points. 
Ficitonal Minister Number 2 is a good man in every respect and preaches against gays as being ungodly. He says they should be cast out of the church. His son admits he is gay. Is it courageous to hold onto his son and love his son despite the words Number 2 spews from the pulpit? Or, is it courageous to disown his son, no matter how much he loves him, so that the son cannot 'infect' other members of the congregation? I could argue both ways.
Rev. Swilley is obviously devoted to his religion, Evangelical Christianity.  He is so committed, in fact, that he was willing to follow this path despite his sexual orientation.   It would have been easy enough for him to walk away from the pulpit and the church altogether, especially in the early days when he was preaching to small congregations and struggling to get by.  Yet Swilley persisted in his ministry, painfully aware of his homosexuality yet passionately in love with his faith and his community.

Failing that, he could also have taken the route of "do as I say, not as I do."  Pastors like Eddie Long and Ted Haggard condemned gay rights and the "homosexual agenda" while engaging in trysts on the side.  While Swilley has been quiet about his own sexual history (indeed, it's really none of our business), he never engaged in the kind of gay-bashing and intolerance which is so popular among many Evangelical leaders.  Excerpts from his 2003 book show him wrestling with Scriptural issues and with his community:
Many years ago I worked with my father in his midtown Atlanta church where we experienced what we thought was a great 'revival' among many of the gay and lesbian people of the inner city. Over the years I counseled with these people, took them through what we believed to be deliverance and inner healing, cast demons out of them (or so we thought), and pressured them into heterosexual relationships, including marriage, so that they could live normal lives... During that period I saw everything from grown men vomiting into trash cans, trying to exorcise the demons of homosexuality, to men who had been gay from their earliest memory trying to maintain a sham marriage so that they could fit the definition of being a Christian.


To my knowledge, all these years later, every one of these men and women have gone back to living openly gay lives, and all the ones who were married to the opposite sex are all divorced... I honestly don't know the right way to look at this situation anymore. I know everything that the Bible says about it, but in my heart I really don't believe that people have any control over their sexual and romantic orientation, and that makes me feel hypocritical about some of the positions that I have to take as a minister... when you tell [homosexuals] that if they come to Jesus they will become a new creation, and they expect to change to the point of having their sexual and romantic orientation altered, they are devastated when they discover (only too soon) that it isn't going to happen.
For now Swilley may have found a temporary solution to his quandry.  According to one purported member of the Church of the Now, Swilley is
willing to remain celebate and alone for the rest of his life in order to keep from any sin or jepordizing the church any further…so the problem here is not really a homoSEXuality issue (in the video he even said it wasn’t about sex or relationship), it’s simply about orientation…just because a person is gay doesn’t mean they act on sinful impulse…
We might not agree with Swilley's alleged decision, or with the idea that homosexual sex is sinful.  But we can certainly admire his willingness to take his path seriously, even the parts which he does not understand and which involve the deepest part of his being.  He has accepted the structure and tenets of his faith and struggled to put them into practice at great cost to himself: he has recognized the importance of its tenets concerning sexual behavior as well as its commandments concerning love, tolerance and personal honesty.