By Pádraig Ó Tuama
I remember when I first began to hang around with people who had a strong and articulate faith. Various topics would be discussed: clapping your hands during songs, which denominations were “proper” Christians, whether women should preach, whether tongues or dancing should be permitted in prayer meetings. What mattered in these questions, I learnt, was whether I agreed or not. I felt new to this language of faith and did my best to keep quiet.
Unless we were talking about poetry, of course. Then I had a lot of opinions. But poetry did not come up much in teenage discussions.
Here’s my point: Morality is often influenced by tribe. If I disagree with one topic and I hear that you also disagree with that same topic, then we are, for now at least, in each other’s camp. In this kind of belonging, it is helpful for us to know who is with us but also to know who is against us.
This is crude, I know. But unfortunately, I know it is often true.
In both jurisdictions of Ireland, there are Christians who disagree vibrantly with each other about the morality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. For me, this is not an “argument” or a “controversy” or a “topic”. It is a story. And importantly for me, it is my story. I have known that I was gay since the age that other boys in my class knew they weren’t. I learnt quickly - in order to avoid humiliation - how to keep secrets. Then, as my teenage years moved on, I fell more and more in love with the gospels.
I love the gospels more now than ever. I’m on my third theology degree, and in each one, I’ve focused on the texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I find them endlessly beautiful, and I find myself more and more moved by the life, words, actions, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
However, my Christianity is often doubted because I am gay. I am used to hearing people say they disagree with the idea that LGBT people can have moral lives, lives that incorporate a loving relationship. However, I am also used to the truth that LGBT people are used as scapegoats, derided in faith language, and spoken of as if we are broken, corrupt or flawed.
I know that we are all flawed, but when somebody says “I don't embrace my selfishness, so you shouldn’t embrace your sexual orientation,” it comes across as naive.
I swallowed strong doctrines for years and have seen the truth: My sexuality is a gift from God. As such, I - like all Christians - am responsible for living well with the gift of my sexuality; I am responsible for living truthfully, with love, and with honesty. My relationship with my beloved partner is guided by the integrity that I have always tried - and often failed - to keep. This integrity is guided, honed and nurtured by my faith.
I started to tell the truth about my sexuality - quietly - when I was 17. For years, I had a few close friends to whom I came out. For those years, I wished I could share the privilege and entitlement that I saw my heterosexual friends enjoy - they could acknowledge their romances, and, in the company of the church, guide their affections in a way that made space for their love and their faith to each nurture the other.
Every person who has ever acknowledged their romantic inclinations has “come out of the closet”. It’s just that people like me, when we tell the truth of our lives and loves, may well face insult, unemployment, injury, exclusion, marginalisation and ridicule. Just recently, I met a young person who was called “a thing” by her teachers and pastors when she told them she was lesbian. I’ve met people who, when they challenged the words used about them, were branded as heretics and barred from congregational participation.
History shows that when we create sharp boundaries based on one topic or another, those boundaries will eventually rip us apart - whatever side we’re on. We see this in the Bible - can you be a Christian if you’re a Gentile? Can you speak if you’re a woman? Can you own slaves? These divisions rocked the early church and, we know, the texts speak to those divisions in terms of both content and tone.
Our morals need to be held in a moral way. Or, to put this differently, if we are claiming to speak the truth but our truth-speaking causes exclusion, harm, hurt and violence, then the truths that we claim will probably be fruitless.
I recently returned from Uganda where, in February 2014, legislation was passed that further criminalises LGBT people with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Initially, the proposed law had mandated the death penalty, but this was removed. The law was largely written and funded by Christians from different denominations. There were some Christians who objected to it, but the absolute majority of church leaders - Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal and Orthodox - backed the bill when it included the death penalty. LGBT people were already criminalised in Uganda. That law made it worse. It was overturned in August 2014 and it remains to be seen whether it will be reintroduced.
I’ll repeat my point: Our morals need to be upheld in a moral way.
I describe myself as a gay man who is a Christian. Some of my friends disagree - either entirely or partially - with what they might define as my ‘lifestyle,’ but my friendships are not based fundamentally on whether we agree with each other. My friendships are based on the quality of our disagreement.
The Ugandan law - as well as public discussions in Ireland about LGBT people - are regularly found lacking in morality. Truth does not suffer when privilege is named. Public discussion about LGBT people impacts LGBT people more than it does anyone else. It is not untrue to say this. Those who have never had to reckon with the public questioning of their capacity to love defend - by law and by religion - their right to question the capacity of people like me to love.
Once, a woman asked me if I was a “practicing homosexual”. I said that when my relationship is active: it means going to the cinema, listening, making up after an argument, coping with public comment about our capacity to be moral, being worried about holding hands in public because we might be beaten up or spat upon, checking at a hotel if they will give us a place to stay. If this is what it means to be ‘practicing,’ then I practice a lot. I returned the question to the woman - I asked her to talk about when she “practices” her sexuality in her marriage. She answered, “I would hate to have to speak about my life in the way I demanded of you to speak about yours.” I appreciated her honesty.
I know too that there is some anxiety about how people of faith who do not welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are spoken of in public. I’ve never been a fan of returning insult for insult. But I’ve never been a fan of being insulted in the first place either. I’ve cut my teeth as a Christian in trying - and sometimes managing - to speak graciously to those who call me an abomination.
The impact of people’s words on my life has been significant. But I know this: we do not have to wait to agree with each other before we are civil with each other. Dignity needs to go both ways.
So here’s a small manifesto. But it’s a good manifesto. In the name of all that is good - ultimately in the name of God, who is the source of all things good - let us have a discussion the substance of which is matched by its tone.
Let our moral discussions be morally discussed.
Pádraig Ó Tuama is from Cork and now lives in Belfast where he works as the Corrymeela Community Leader. His poetry is published by Canterbury Press, with a publication coming from Hodder in early 2015.