All human beings are unique. Every body is different. Each of us has a unique life experience which results from what we have been given from birth onward (both our genes and our birth-family environment, etc.). Some are born to privilege, others in dire circumstances, some with physical challenges, others with extraordinary physical “good luck” — no genetic time bombs, etc.
The variety of human beings is endless. The stuff of literature, however, is fairly finite, and one of the recurring themes used by writers (whether novelists, essayists, or those who craft screen plays) is the story of someone who overcomes great difficulties or obstacles. For example, the heroic figure who rose out of poverty, or broke free of slavery, or overcame ignorance, racism, disease, handicaps, physical hardships — you name it.
In films, this “overcoming obstacles” is one of that limited number of story ideas. I had some fun with this in my earlier blog, “Everybody knows there are only five basic plots.”
It set me thinking whether we are so conditioned by popular literature and especially the movies that we have trouble with people who accept the circumstances they are in, rather than struggling against them and overcoming them. And I think of St. Paul’s advice, in 1 Corinthians 7, that “each of you lead the life that the Lord assigned, to which God called you.” He begins by talking about marriage, singleness and virginity, but when he comes to these verses (17–24) he also includes circumcision and slavery. Slaves, he counseled, should be willing to accept their enslaved condition, knowing that they are “free in the Lord.”
This is of course one of those passages that gets St. Paul in trouble with modernists, feminists, liberations, etc. But I have thought of this passage as it might be understood by lesbian and gay people — or for that matter, but transgender persons. Are we asked to accept the condition or circumstance in which we find ourselves, make the best of it, and just try to be spiritually free in the Lord even if we feel trapped in what life has dealt to us?
The story of transgender individuals tests this interpretation. Individuals who are born with a male body but perceive themselves to rightfully be female, or the other way around, suffer from gender dysphoria. There is a lot of debate right now about whether this or another label even belongs in the diagnostic manuals of mental health. But if we try to apply St. Paul’s advice — on a parallel track with being single or being married or being a slave, we would have to counsel a transgender person not to seek to change genders, through hormonal treatment or gender reassignment surgery. “Let each of you lead the life the Lord has assigned.”
But then what of the situation for those who discern themselves to be lesbian or gay? Shouldn’t we just accept the fact that we are homosexual, accept our sexual orientation as a given, as part of what life has dealt us?
The rub comes not within ourselves but from others, who weigh in with strong opinions about what it means to “accept.” Conservatives and fundamentalists quickly counsel a transgender person not to change genders but to accept their birth gender and to live (present themselves) as that gender, but take the opposite point of view on homosexuality. They do not believe that we should accept ourselves as gay or lesbian, and live the life “assigned” to us. The conservative would argue that being gay or lesbian was not “assigned” by the accidents or vagaries of human diversity, but chosen as a willful act of human disobedience and sin.
It makes for a fine, coherent systematic view for conservatives. The only problem is, it’s not particularly truthful. Most of us cannot remember choosing to be heterosexual or homosexual, and we don’t discern our sexual responsiveness (arousal, emotional attraction, and even love) as willful acts. We can suppress and stifle our true humanity and human experience—with enough social pressure and internalized shame brought about by the disapproval of others—but that is far from accepting our “condition” and claiming our “freedom in the Lord.” In fact, it’s quite telling that in the very same discussion in 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul also advises those who are single “It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Taken as a whole, Paul’s advice is quite mixed. He strongly counsels those who are unmarried to remain unmarried and to accept their circumstances. He counsels the slave to remain content in his “condition” of enslavement. Yet he suggests that it is not a sin for the single person to marry after all, rather than to be aflame with passion. And he stops short of advising the slave that it’s not a sin to seek freedom rather than to be aflame with anger and resentment.
What rule would Paul give to a person who is lesbian or gay? Are we to be content with being lesbian or gay, and so go ahead and “lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you”? Or to attempt to remain celibate and abstinent, even if constantly aflame with passion? Or aflame with bitterness, loneliness and resentment?
Or as the conservative Christians insist, can a lesbian or gay man overcome the sexual orientation she or he has discerned, through great heroics and with great triumph. Conservatives want to believe the latter, because they have a whole “ex-gay”industry riding on it which they seek to protect from the ridicule of both the LGBT community and of health professionals.
I don’t think I’m through with this one, at all. I’ll get back to this.
—Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles