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The July 19 issue of The Adventist Review includes a column by Andy Nash, a journalism teacher and pastor at Southern Adventist University, about what he feels is missing from our new documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists: A film about faith on the margins.
On one hand, it's definitely the very best we could ever expect from the Adventist Church's official magazine, and I’m actually very appreciative of Andy using his column to highlight the film. He begins with several positive points about the film. He says it's well done and that we are "skilled storytellers", that the tone of the film is gentle, that the people featured in the film are just people who happen to be gay, that their stories are resonating deeply with audiences, and that many Adventists are starting to wonder how a God of love could ask people not to have the blessing of a loving relationship in their lives.
The very fact that the Review is talking about this film gives me great affirmation that the film is achieving one of our primary goals which is to spark conversation through the lens of real stories about a topic where silence and "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" have been standard practice (at best). Just yesterday an Adventist evangelist wrote me on Facebook to ask what "LGBT" stood for, and I was reminded how very unaware the church generally is about this topic. Clearly just talking about the intersection of faith and sexuality at all is a good thing.
On the other hand, if this is the very best that the Adventist Church can officially say about its LGBT members, it's no wonder many of them never darken church doorways, and it's no wonder that every single gay Adventist who has ever come to one of our story booths has admitted to seriously contemplating or attempting suicide. As one man put it, "The church was my entire life and identity, and I equated God with the church. If the church could so easily condemn me and so easily liken me to those who commit atrocious crimes against others, God must truly despise me. It would be better if I just didn't exist." Reading this column reminds me where he got those harmful ideas.
When it comes to this topic in particular, words (and questions) matter. A lot. When LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than other youth their own age, and when that number doubles to eight times more likely to commit suicide if they come from a rejecting family (as opposed to just a rejecting society or church), we must hold our church leaders and columnists to a higher standard of care when it comes to choosing how they describe gay individuals who are in loving relationships. We cannot continue to casually compare gays and lesbians in committed relationships, as Andy appears to do in his final paragraph, to murders, slanderers, and those who embrace greed, ruthlessness and heartlessness. If we wonder where the righteously indignant roots of homophobia come from, look no further than columns like this.
Please understand that I do not think Andy is homophobic, and I do not for a moment believe he condones violence against gay people. In fact, I think Andy is a genuine conversation partner who is just at the beginning of this question. But we have to start admitting that words have consequences. In the same way that traditional patriarchal interpretations of Pauline writings (many from the same books that the "clobber" texts against LGBT people are found) and the Genesis account of creation and the fall have been used to justify the oppression and subjugation of women in the name of "male headship", these texts and the attitude that says, "It's not me who says this, it's God" are a root cause of violence, self-loathing, and the extreme marginalization that LGBT people in the church face.
My disappointment isn’t that Andy would have produced a different type of film had he spent the last three and a half years making a film about LGBT Adventists; we expected that from the official church spokespeople, and we genuinely respect his perspective. Making space for difference is very important to us. After watching the film, Andy told us that he felt a lot of compassion for the people in it, and he went on to say that he wasn't sure what quite to do with that compassion. That struggle really comes through here in this column, and what he resorted to is what the church has always done on this topic: remind readers of a “clobber” verse and use it as an excuse not to engage on a human or pastoral level.
I don't expect a church spokesperson like Andy to suddenly embrace same-gender relationships with open arms and new doctrines, but I do ask them to wrestle with this more. Please—these are real people, real families, real pain, and real questions. Let’s admit that the days of easy answers are over. Please wrestle with your compassion. Maybe it’s God’s way of trying to lead us to a new perspective in the way that we have moved to new understandings of truth on other matters of morality and how we treat each other. I also ask church representatives like Andy to stop speaking as if gay Adventists haven't wrestled with scripture. They have, they do, and these moments are among the most poignant and moving in Seventh-Gay Adventists.
The number one thing that straight Adventists, both conservative and progressive, had commented about after screenings is the spiritual depth and sincerity of the people profiled in the film. The people in this film do not dismiss scripture flippantly. It's a very easy tactic to dismiss those who disagree with us by saying that they don't value scripture. Or, as Andy termed it, gays who are celibate and abstaining from relationships clearly "love scripture more." I've yet to meet a gay Adventist, celibate or partnered, who could easily fit those neat labels of “loves self” and “loves scripture”. Trust me as a storyteller, there wouldn't be a film if gay Adventists didn't value scripture, their church, and their relationship with God above all else. That's why this film's premise is interesting in the first place. As one of the main subjects of the film says, "People are kicking us out of the church all the time, but we aren't going anywhere. We pay a very high price to keep our faith."
I'm not asking Andy to put aside his theological interpretations; we need each other in order to dialogue. In fact, there's a main storyline in the film that’s there to respect the traditional voice in the church, and I wish Andy had mentioned this. It involves the genuinely loving and inspiring relationship between a gay Adventist and his older brother who is an Adventist pastor. They do not see eye-to-eye on this topic, and they realize that they have a deep, important theological divide. But there's a respect between them and a humbleness. Instead of dismissing the other as someone who doesn't respect scripture, they embrace, in the film's case, literally. They make a genuine attempt to navigate these tricky and complex waters together and respect that they each are responding to God genuinely but differently. There is such hope there, such love, such divine grace being played out in these brothers' lives. I can only hope what's possible for them is possible for the church at large. Maybe we can put aside the fences that say who is in and who is out and just seek Jesus together. That’s my biggest hope.
The big thing missing in the film for Andy is a story of a celibate gay, what he describes as the "truly heroic stories." He spends a lot of real estate touting the website and platform of Wayne Blakely, whose story appeared in the Review a couple years ago, and whose self-described "gay lifestyle" comprised 37 years of promiscuity, brokenness, and addiction that anyone would agree was in need of redemption whether he was gay or straight. (About the "gay lifestyle" term Christians often bandy about, there is no one gay lifestyle just as there is no one heterosexual lifestyle. Peggy Campolo sums it up nicely: "Madonna and I are both heterosexual; we do not share the same lifestyle.")
Andy takes us to task for not including Wayne's story, even though, according to Wayne, he approached us about including him in the film. This isn't the forum to talk in-depth about the process of filmmaking, but suffice it to say that filmmakers rarely find the stories of people who are looking to launch their brand to be compelling, authentic, and genuine experiences that audiences will resonate with. What Andy doesn't mention (though he knew) was that when Wayne wrote us hoping to be featured in the film, he had been celibate for six months–less than a year! Even if we intended to promote celibacy for an entire class of people, featuring someone who had only been celibate for six months after 37 years of the sort of promiscuity that would leave anyone empty would be rightly termed, "Not enough sobriety." It would have been an insult to all of the gay Adventists who have attempted celibacy for years, decades even.
Actually, the truth is that we did include celibate gays in the film, just not current ones. Every person in the film followed that path at one point. One even spent five years in "ex-gay" therapy and was once declared heterosexual. (I'm curious if the "ministry" he was a part of still includes him in their success statistics). Early in the process of making this film, we did go looking for stories of celibate gays who had been at it longer than six months, but we eventually realized that this film wasn't about those who were abiding by the church's prescription. That's a very different story. I would never underestimate the challenge of celibacy and resigning oneself to a life without a partner by your side–that is a very hard path as well–but just look at how Andy treats a celibate gay compared to those in our film. One he spends the better part of three paragraphs promoting, and the others he compares to murderers and the "ruthless." Even if this wasn’t Andy’s intent, and I have a hard time personally believing that it was, it’s definitely how his column reads. (We also eventually eliminated the stories in the film from gay Adventists who were purely “former” Adventists and had left their faith. Again, that’s not where the real conflict is.)
What I would hope to see from Andy and those in his position is a willingness to engage on a human and pastoral level. For example, how and where should gay Adventists worship and take their children to Sabbath School if they want to share their faith with their children? What should a church that is lucky enough to have an LGBT Adventist brave enough to walk through their doors do, particularly when that person wants to share their time and talent with the church? What should the response of a parent of a gay child be? Andy is a pastor, and I know that he has gay students in his classes and Sabbath services. These are real questions, and it's disappointing to me as an advocate on this topic and as the parent of a young child to see representatives of my church duck real engagement on a truly important issue of our time.
I'd like to ask that we just start with a listening space. At some point we have to discuss hermeneutics, but given our history, we need to start with a very intentional listening campaign. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, "Listening is the first thing we owe the oppressed." Let's start by acknowledging that this is hard and that the church has been incredibly un-Christian in its treatment of LGBT people and entirely hypocritical about singling out gays for special (in this case, harsh) treatment. What has always amazed me as someone entrusted to gather Adventist LGBT stories, is the enormous love and grace most gay Adventists have for their church.
I wish Andy had stayed for the post-screening discussion of the film; due to a scheduling conflict, he had to duck out right as the credits rolled. His column similarly ducks out right when true engagement and listening might begin. Here's how Andy concludes:
"What other tendencies named in Romans 1 would supporters of a gay lifestyle also encourage struggling people to live out? Worshipping created things? Greed, envy, murder, strife? Gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance? dishonoring parents, heartlessness, ruthlessness? Why is it only this tendency [homosexuality] that's now OK to practice? Because it doesn't hurt anyone else? Or because it hurts only those who practice it?"
As a retired Adventist pastor with a gay son wrote me shortly after Andy’s column was published, "To those of us so deeply involved in trying to help the church rise to a much needed new level of compassion toward LGBT people, Andy Nash's article feels like a punch to the solar plexus."
While I recognize that Andy's series of questions are meant to affirm the church's status quo and its theological paradigms about homosexuality, I am actually deeply appreciative of these questions simply because they so clearly show why the church continues to come up empty on this topic. For many Adventists, lumping every non-celibate gay and lesbian into this list and equating loving same-gender relationships with those who would commit murder or endorse strife, insolence, heartlessness and ruthlessness... well, it just isn't adding up anymore. The old paradigm isn't working. More and more Adventists just know too many gay people now to lump them in the same pile as those who exploit and hurt others. We wonder if we’re missing something. And we know we haven’t treated our gay members as equally beloved sons and daughters of God.
Does a God of love condemn the love, support, and nurture of every gay relationship? As even Andy admits, "It's a hard question that more and more Adventists are asking." We might not know quite what to do with our theology and policies, but we know that we must forge a new path, together. One that doesn’t duck out of real engagement. We must listen. We must love. And we must wrestle. Most of all, when faced with real people and real stories, we must wrestle.
Addendum - In personal correspondence, Andy Nash has indicated clearly that his intent with the rhetorical questions in the closing paragraph of his column was not about equating gays to murderers or the rest of the list in Romans 1. Rather, he says his questions are about how we use scripture. I hope he'll discuss his intent more fully as a comment or a response, as I truly welcome the exchange. Clarifying what we mean about the words and questions we use when discussing such a crucial issue, particularly one where people's lives are so deeply impacted, is important.
Addendum 2 - Special thanks to the folks at The Adventist Review who were gracious enough to provide us access to Andy Nash's review regardless of subscriber status. Click here to read Andy Nash's article, "The Missing Story in Seventh-Gay Adventists."
Daneen Akers is the co-producer/co-director of "Seventh-Gay Adventists" (http://www.sgamovie.com). If you want to journey with gay and lesbian Adventists wrestling with questions about their faith and sexual orientation; if you want to enter a listening space; if you want to laugh at haystacks, Pathfinders, and the quirks of our Adventist heritage that make this community of belonging about so much more than a set of beliefs, email Daneen at firstname.lastname@example.org about a screening in your area.