Craig A. Ford, Jr.
Many of us who follow issues at the intersection of theology and sexuality were surprised by two pieces of news, both released on June 19th, and both about Exodus International: first, an announcement that Exodus International, which classifies itself as “the leading global outreach to church, individuals and families offering a biblical message about same-sex attraction,” was itself closing down for good; and second, that Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, officially apologized to people who identify themselves as members of the LGBT community who were also “hurt by Exodus International through an experience or by a message.” If we take a step back from this and think about exactly what the juxtaposition of these observations presents us with, we are confronted with a question that I find extraordinarily interesting: What does it mean for a Christian organization—one that should presumably see itself as offering a message that must not be incongruent with the so-called “message of the Bible”—to apologize for offering a biblical message about same-sex attraction? The answer to this question, I think, provides us with a timely assessment of the most recent iteration of the politics of Christian heterosexism, while, at the same time, we run ourselves up against a question about the uncertain future of anti-homosexual organizations that claim also to be Christian.
The simplest assessment that one can give of Chambers’ apology is, ironically, that it is quite complex, and the reason why is because the reader is confronted by what could seem to be a doublespeak on Chambers’ part: for while he makes no apologies for the fundamental position that he holds about marriage (a position which dictates his beliefs about sexuality), Chambers believes that the ways through which he and his organization have transmitted that message have resulted in harm for which he and his organization are justifiably culpable. The apology, then, is not for what Chambers and Exodus International stood for, but is rather for how what Chambers and Exodus International stood for was accomplished.
There could be something that seems troublesome—and perhaps even somewhat malicious—about an apology with a form like this one. Think, for a minute, of your own interpersonal relationships: say, for example, that you consider yourself harmed by a friend named Xavier who wanted to apologize for saying some sort of inappropriate comment that reflects prejudicial ideas about an ethnic group with which you identify. If, after having a conversation with Xavier, you discovered that he actually has no desire to rid himself of these prejudices that you find offensive, but that, instead, Xavier does sincerely regret that he made the comment so insensitively or flippantly, what would you do next? On the one hand, you may decline to forgive Xavier, which could very plausibly result from the belief that Xavier’s unwillingness to modify his prejudices, which were the cause of his untoward remark, is the state of affairs at which you take offense. On the other hand, you may, for the sake of the friendship, forgive Xavier, perhaps because, you reason, by remaining friends with him, you might have the chance to show him that his prejudices are truly unfounded, or alternatively, you may forgive him because you believe that, in the long run, the particular prejudices he holds are not that bad, or instead—but less likely—you believe that, in the long run, all prejudices against your ethnic group really aren’t that bad overall. There is also another reason: perhaps in deference to some ideal—freedom of expression, let’s say—you believe that you should forgive him because, even though you hold different ideas, you believe that he should be able to hold and express his own, even if you vehemently disagree with the content of his ideas.
My intention here in bringing up all of these reasons is not to adjudicate among them, but is, rather, to make the point that, when apologies are based on distinctions between beliefs and actions (and thus are “complex”), the choice to forgive or not is complicated by questions that the potential forgiver has about the relationship between beliefs and actions—a relationship that becomes particularly acute when it comes to questions about ideas and actions based on concepts like ethnicity and race or, in Chambers’ case, sexual orientation and God. Now, whether you decide to accept Chambers’ apology or not is not my concern here, and I have no intention of arguing either for or against the proposal that we should accept Chambers’ apology and forgive him. What I’m interested in here is taking stock of the “beliefs” side of the “beliefs and action” relationship. In other words, which are the beliefs about marriage, sexual orientation, and God that are evinced by the apology that Chambers has presented to the members of the LGBT community? In what follows, I proceed under three assumptions (a) that the view is heterosexist which maintains that the solely legitimate form of marriage is one in which the partners are members of different sexes, (b) that the view that believes heterosexism is authorized by the God in which Christians believe is a form of Christian heterosexism, and (c) that Chambers’ views can provide an illuminating perspective on the state of a more progressive form of Christian heterosexism in America more broadly.
Perhaps significantly, Chambers admits that both his actions and the actions of his organization have effectively distorted and skewed the perception of the Christian God of welcome as, instead, a God of rejection. As Chambers writes in his own words, “More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives” (emphasis his). It is clear from the comment that Chambers wants to draw a distinction between God, on the one hand, and those who choose to follow God, on the other, and, moreover, he wants to point out that the misrepresentation of God is solely the fault of the latter. He even proceeds to identify Exodus International as a major force in the distortion, choosing to analogize the organization to the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son:
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father—to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.
To make such a comparison between the brother of the prodigal son and Exodus International is to identify Exodus International as a jealous and mean-spirited person, an act that is not to be taken lightly when one stands at such an organization’s head. There is no doubt that such a comparison takes great courage to enact, and I do not want to minimize that here. It is nevertheless important to keep in mind, however, what Chambers is not taking away: Chambers, while he wants to emphasize that God does not reject a person, leaves open an interpretation that maintains that the “religious rejection” of persons within the LGBT community is permissible. While a full assessment of this statement cannot be undertaken here, one stands on good ground to question whether one is not coherent who says that Christians can reject someone in the name of their religion whom God does not reject. In any case, a proper treatment of the question would depend on clarification from Chambers about what the word ‘religion’ actually consists in here.
This potential incoherence pervades other portions of the apology as well, coming in equal parts contrition and restraint. For example—once again, admirably—Chambers acknowledges that he desires no longer to “fight you [in the LGBT community] on your beliefs or the rights that you seek,” yet this statement is couched between three other statements in the following paragraph:
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. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.
Because this is a paradigmatic example of a situation in which one apologizes for unacceptable actions, on the one hand, while not apologizing for the beliefs that motivated those actions, on the other, the reader is left with little information about how to interpret Chambers’ desire not to “fight” the rights that LGBT persons seek as well as the beliefs that LGBT persons have. Indeed, what action can one expect from an individual who avows not to “fight” your beliefs in the case where, presumably, the beliefs that you hold and the beliefs that the individual holds are mutually contradictory? While responses can be given, the answer is far from clear in Chambers’ case.
The amount of clarity decreases even more when one juxtaposes Chambers’ protracted admission of hurt and destruction that Exodus International has brought to members of the LGBT community with his beliefs about sexuality and marriage. In another place, for example, he writes:
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.
There is still a lot going on here, even in a passage like this where every sentence begins in some form of “I am sorry”: for while Chambers recognizes that “the gospel truth of heterosexuality” cannot be promulgated without reproach over the testimonies of hurt, shame, and trauma that feature prominently in the stories of ex-gay survivors, Chambers’ attitude about the moral status of the reparative therapies that brought about this shame and guilt is still suspended. Are we led to believe here, then, that the idea of reparative therapy is good, while its various deployments in the past have been bad, and have thus made Exodus International culpable? If this is true, then there still can remain a fundamental link between Chambers’ “deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries [he sees] in Scripture surrounding sex” and the permissibility of a reincarnation of reparative therapy.
Nevertheless, in the above paragraph quoted, there is something that the LGBT community can take to heart, namely that Chambers’ statement effectively rejects the idea that there is something inherent within a non-heterosexual orientation that immediately disqualifies one from being a good parent—and even, if we take his words seriously—from being an amazing one. In the midst of a perhaps incoherent apology, this is something that is quite clear and positive, since many anti-marriage equality campaigns run on some version of the idea that LGBT parents cannot be good parents (or, in what is its more insidious manifestation, the version promulgated by Mark Regenrus who wrote that “children appear most apt to succeed well as adults . . . when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father, and especially when the parents remain married to the present day.”).
In one other place in his apology, Chambers writes something that is tremendously important for the assessment of Christian heterosexism today, and this is something that Chambers is able to write about himself:
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 a statement like this reflects is essentially a lowering of the psychological standards of success within the ex-gay movement itself since the mid-late 20th century. Whereas before there was (and still is, by the way) a cultural stigma around admitting that one has same-sex desires after one has “finished” the reparative program and has begun to form opposite-sex partnerships, now the declaration of one’s enduring struggle with same-sex desire is a mark of self-awareness and courage. (This attitude is justified in a variety of ways; one way, for example, is to believe that one’s enduring same-sex attraction is an incitement to sin with which the vigilant Christian will have to deal until the end of his/her life. Not to give into same-sex sexual desire, then, is equivalent to resisting any other sort of illicit temptation.) Yesterday, reparative therapies held out the possibility of cure; today, advocates for reparative therapies acknowledge this as an unrealistic goal. Success, therefore, isn’t dependent upon the ability of the person with same-sex attraction to be rid of these feelings; instead, success is based on the ability of the person with same-sex attraction to remain steadfast and resist same-sex sexual activity despite those feelings.
How are we to take stock of an apology from the leader of a Christian heterosexist organization that has a lowered standard for success in “treatment” while perhaps leaving open the door to some successor to the failed “reparative therapy” paradigm? How are we to take stock of an apology that, admirably, has adopted a more progressive view about the parenting abilities of LGBT-identified persons? Finally, how are we to take stock of an apology that avows a sentiment of contrition over the trauma inflicted by certain deployments of an ideology, while this ideology itself is something for which the person is not contrite? The answer to such a question is ambiguous; for an honest realization of the significance of Chambers’ statements, as well as an honest realization of the closing of Exodus International in exchange for its transformation into reducefear.org, which, in Chambers’ words, will represent an effort to host “thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing,” is not to know what to expect.
This is not to say that reducefear.org is doomed to be as devastating as Exodus International was on the existence of LGBT community: this much Chambers is hoping will never happen again; I see no reason to be skeptical of this. What this is to say is that, whatever intentions Chambers has for this group, we should not be surprised if reducefear.org gives us a sense of déjà-vu once it comes into existence. We have no reasons not to expect, even as Chambers has disavowed the goal of eliminating same-sex attraction at a psychological level, that the battle will not be renewed at the level of viewing same-sex attraction as a spiritual malady that can be combatted only through practices like prayer and fasting. In doing this, Chambers updates his organization to be on par with other groups that seek to be a compassionate, welcoming presence while nevertheless affirming a “biblical” perspective about same-sex attraction (for an example of such an organization, one can take a look at Evergreen, which is an organization that proudly claims that it has never had as its goal a “cure” for same-sex attraction).
What, then, is the meaning of Chambers’ apology? Perhaps we will not be too far off the mark to say that the meaning is to bring Exodus International up to date with a heterosexism that has been disillusioned about the prospects of truly eliminating same-sex desire; perhaps its meaning is genuinely to apologize for the devastation that a certain form of heterosexism wrought in the time that it took to reach the conclusion that same-sex desire is, for most people, just something that cannot be eliminated. To enter into dialogue with this premise in mind—that same-sex desire is here to stay—is a small glimmer of hope for those who wish to end heterosexism and who still want to meet people with whom they disagree at a table of dialogue, even if one’s hopes ought to be tempered by what is not being retracted in Chambers’ speech.
Craig A. Ford, Jr., is currently a first-year doctoral student and a Margaret O’Brien Flatley Fellow in Theological Ethics at Boston College. He researches topics at the intersection of moral theology, epistemology, and ecclesiology, and he is currently interested in the formation of the conscience in Christian communities. Craig’s scholarship attempts to integrate insights from critical theory in addition to insights from studies of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class into a moral theology that constructively engages canonically important figures in the Christian (specifically Catholic) theological past. Craig holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a Master of Arts in Religion degree from Yale Divinity School.