By Cody Sanders
In a recent Web posting, Executive Director Randel Everett of the Baptist General Convention of Texas stated that the convention’s position on “homosexual behavior” has not changed within the 160-year-long history of Texas Baptists. Presumably this means that the BGCT’s 1982 position statement that “the homosexual lifestyle is not normal or acceptable in God’s sight and is indeed called sin” is the same position held by Texas Baptists in 1850.
Everett’s statement may seem like an obvious, unquestioned reality. “Of course Texas Baptists in 1850 thought the homosexual lifestyle was not normal or acceptable,” readers might heartily affirm. There is only one problem: Baptists in 1850 had never heard of the “homosexual lifestyle” that the BGCT’s 1982 statement condemns. Not only had they not heard of this lifestyle — it hadn’t yet been invented!
French historian Michel Foucault reveals that the advent of conceptualizing the “homosexual” as a particular type of person with a specific “lifestyle” didn’t occur until the 1870s in medical discourse (History of Sexuality, Vol. 1). What’s more, one of the earliest known uses of the word “homosexual” in American English showed up in a medical paper in 1892 (the term “heterosexual” made its debut around this same time). Certainly, same-sex sexual acts have been commonplace from time immemorial — but before the end of the 19th century, anyone could conceivably engage in same-sex sexual acts. It was only with the advent of “homosexuality” as a medical descriptor, that a specific type or kind of person was thought to engage in these sexual acts. What is significant about Everett’s anachronism is that, while in 1850 Texas Baptists may not have tolerated men having sex with men, they certainly didn’t deem “the homosexual lifestyle” abnormal or sinful. In 1850, same-sex sex acts may have been deemed “sinful” — but no church held what Everett views as an unwavering “theological position” on homosexuality.
All of this may seem like semantics to many readers, but there is a significant underlying difference between a church’s condemnation of specific sex acts and a church’s ability to make positions on a presumed “homosexual lifestyle” or the inclusion/exclusion of “homosexuals.” That difference is the ability to make an Other out of a particular group of people. In the 19th century, when the “homosexual” became an identifiable type, we could effectively define gay people as strangers who threaten to undo our religious and social order. We gained the ability to personify the church’s dichotomies of good and evil in a new way: heterosexual versus homosexual. With such definitional power, it became possible to name realities and identities for gay people in a new way and thus subordinate an entire group of people through acts of violence and systematic exclusion. Thus, contrary to Everett’s assertion, Texas Baptists in 1850 didn’t have the ability to act in faithful accord with the BGCT’s 1982 statement, as the “homosexual” as a definable category of people and target of exclusion simply did not yet exist.
It is time to change our hackneyed discourse concerning gay and lesbian people. Thus, I suggest a few questions we might consider asking in our churches:
- Why is this negativity and condemnation of gay and lesbian folks so vitriolic? Surely the harsh rhetoric around gay people in churches isn’t due to the fact that well-meaning people see this as the grievous sin-above-all-sins. Could it be that people are so disturbed by the open inclusion of gay people in the life of the church because it transgresses the dichotomous boundaries we cling to – dichotomies that demand we have an objectified Other to define ourselves against (the same dichotomies that have fueled racism and sexism for centuries)?
- Who is served by this vehement prohibition of openly gay and lesbian people and affirming congregations? Is it the congregations who will rid themselves of long-time members? Or is it larger bodies that can ensure greater power, influence and cash flow by excluding churches that go “too far” in exercising local-church autonomy and risk rocking other churches out of the denominational boat?
- Why haven’t churches rid themselves of gay and lesbian people by now? It’s certainly not for a lack of trying. Why do gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people continue to show up every Sunday morning to sit in the pews beside us, teach in our Sunday schools, provide music for our services and, yes, even preach the Sunday sermon?
Perhaps there is a better way to ask this question: Why, after suffering so much hatred and violence in the name of Christ, do gay and lesbian Christians love Jesus and the church so much?