Choosing Our Battles: brief reflections from the Middle East on homosexuality and the “marriage equality” controversy

By Martin Accad

Normally the LGBTQ[1] issue is not one that I like to address in public. But since last week’s legalization of gay marriage at Federal level in the US, we have all been flooded by the topic, from the social media to private conversations. Whatever you say, you’re sure to draw angry reactions from one side or the other. So mostly I have contented myself with deepening my friendships with some of my friends who happen to be gay. I have been intentional about spending time with them, listening to their heart and life experiences, learning from their perspective about what it means to live a life saturated with rejection, marginalization, prejudice, and even physical abuse. I have learnt enormously about the complex psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, and theological dimensions of the issue. In the process, I have been transformed and enriched in my understanding of God, self and humanity.

Homosexuality has become such an “issue,” whether for those who champion it or for those who attack it, that it has become a struggle to talk about it without objectifying gay people. Even with these very words, by referring to them as “gay” or “homosexual,” or to the community as LGBTQ (or whatever is the trendiest politically-correct reference these days), I am reducing my friends to their sexuality, as though that were the quintessence of being human. For these generalizations and categorizations, and for the very need to “discuss them” and write about them – which too objectifies them – I apologize in advance to my gay friends. There are innumerable ways that one could comment on the “marriage equality” issue, yet I will reflect only on three areas that the issue brings to mind. To many, my ramblings will sound terribly outdated. To others, it will sound terribly vague and non-committal. But such is the nature of the issue.

First is the question of “nature or nurture,” on which I don’t believe I will ever manage to form a final personal opinion. Sexuality seems to be too complex a dimension of our human makeup to allow for sexual orientation to be neatly classified and ascribed to one of these two forces that shape our human identity. Furthermore, the matter seems to be somewhat irrelevant to the theological and ethical question of “right and wrong.” I have friends who are able to argue convincingly that they were born gay, and others who are able to make a similarly strong case that their sexual orientation was affected by life experiences, upbringing and family dynamics. There are also all the hybrid opinions in between. What I retain from this debate through personal observation and conversations is that “why” one thinks they are gay does not have a direct impact on whether they are at peace with who they feel they are, or whether they have a deep desire to “change.” So rather than engaging in what seems largely to be a fruitless debate, it seems to me that the responsibility of the Church is to be a healing agent for those who are hurting, whether as a result of abuse experienced in childhood, or from wounds sustained in our very midst at the hand of prejudiced emotional and spiritual abuse.

Secondly, this fresh debate has reignited the argument that draws parallels between the struggle for gay rights and the struggle for race equality. This is an important voice that forces society to consider the possibility that, in a few decades, we might look back and be shocked at our silence and inertia in the face of the LGBTQ struggle. I shared my agony over this first-hand experience of human depravity when I visited a “slave castle” in Accra, Ghana, last year. One feels left wondering how on earth humanity could have one day been so degenerate, so prejudiced, so silent, so inert, so inhuman. We should be prepared for that shock, and the thought of it should certainly humble us and cause us to adopt a less exclusivist attitude towards gay people.

One thing that strikes me, however, as I think about this parallel, is how it seems easier to differentiate between opinion and attitude in the LGBTQ issue, in a way that is not possible in the face of slavery and racial segregation. You can be convinced that homosexuality is not a Biblically-permissible lifestyle, yet at the same time behave with limitless grace towards your homosexual friends. Whereas it would be hard consciously to tolerate racial segregation in church once you comprehend it Biblically as an abomination. Or would it? Churches in Lebanon are quite prepared to condemn racial prejudice and segregation, yet we still tolerate holding “domestic workers” in a status similar to slaves in our society. That certainly seems to be a question that we in the Arab world, including Evangelical Christians, should ask ourselves.

Thirdly, one of the more intriguing views I’ve stumbled across over the past few days is the voice from within the LGBTQ community that considers the victory of “marriage equality” as the victory of a subjugating, patriarchal structure, of which only the wealthy within the community will truly reap the benefits. They argue that the non-white, non-rich, emigrant elements of the LGBTQ community in the US will continue to suffer from the many other problems plaguing society, such as poverty, racial prejudice, unequal educational opportunities, and harsh policies towards illegal immigration. They deplore the fact that, over the past decade, the gay marriage issue has stolen all of the attention and most of the financing, which is so desperately needed in other existential areas where most of humanity continues to struggle.

What this view reveals as well is that we are probably witnessing the last days of the Church’s domination of the public debate on moral issues in the United States. The fact that the legalization of gay marriage (or some other form of legal union) has not provoked much reaction in western, central and northern European countries indicates that this tension between the role of the religious institution in the public realm is a more typically American problem. No doubt it could/will be a significant problem one day in the Middle East region as well, where societies are equally religious as in some states of the US.

But when the Church loses its political hegemony, it certainly needs not lose its role as healer and prophet in society. On the contrary, loss of worldly power from the perspective of the Gospel seems to inaugurate the era of the coming of God’s power. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (NIV).

Which brings me to a final question: What’s in that decision for us in this part of the world? And what’s in it for my friends here who are gay? Will they reap any benefits? Will it make their life easier? Will it reduce the social prejudices against them? I suspect that it will do so no more than the abolishing of slavery and the fight for racial equality has done away with racism in people’s worldview in this part of the world. And that’s why I choose to keep my personal views ambiguous; because in the terribly unjust world we live in, it is crucial that we choose our battles carefully. We can so easily get entangled in “issues” that objectify individuals and groups. We can think that our activism is liberating, until we discover that by championing a certain cause we have alienated a no-less significant segment of society.

Though the Old Testament and the New Testament’s Pauline Epistles have a fair amount to say about homosexuality, is it not surprising that Jesus had next-to-nothing to say about it in the Gospels? But surely if he had prostitutes, social outcasts, and tax-collectors (read collaborators with the Roman enemy) as his principal companions, there is little doubt that there were also homosexuals among them, though the religious leaders of his day thought these deserved nothing better than stoning. Jesus knew not to essentialize people based on their behavior. He knew how to recalibrate behavior and reframe it through his perspective of social justice that most mattered to God. And so must his Church practice an open-door attitude to those in society targeted by extreme prejudice, as God invites them to benefit from his limitless grace, love, healing, and transformative embrace.

[1] In case you haven’t already googled it, LGBTQ is an acronym that serves to emphasize inclusion, which stands for Lesbian (L), Gay (G), Bisexual (B), Transgender (T), and Questioning or Queer (Q).

4 thoughts on “Choosing Our Battles: brief reflections from the Middle East on homosexuality and the “marriage equality” controversy

  1. While I strongly agree that people should not be defined by their sexuality Martin should not beat himself up about using terms such as Gay or LGBT Community. These terms appeared from those communities themselves and are used by them without any apparent sense of resentment e.g. Gay News, Gay Pride marches.
    More seriously it was disappointing, given the excellent work IMES is doing in promoting Christian -Muslim dialogue that Martin evades (apart from a veiled reference) the thorny matter of how the Muslim communities react to these issues.

  2. The idea that straight people might be reducing the whole person of a homosexual to a behavior is interesting and helpful.

    Nature v nurture gets you exactly nowhere, IMHO, since every human is born with an inclination to certain sins. The only way out for concerned churches would be to abolish the very concept of sin. What is good for the homosexual must surely be good for the adulterer, etc.

  3. Thank you for this excellent thought-provoking article. I especially liked the danger of objectifying homosexuals we all fall into as we place them into categories. Thank you

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