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When forbidden sexuality meets unchanging religious tradition

(RNS) I want you. God says I can't want you. So I must kill you. Was this what happened in Orlando?

A member of the LGBT community holds a candle during a memorial service for victims of the mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Photo courtesy of Rueters/Abhishek N.Cinnappa

(RNS) Multiple reports are surfacing that Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen’s profile was found on gay dating apps, that he had tried to pick up men and that on prior occasions he had patronized the Orlando club in which he massacred so many on Sunday (June 12).

If this is true, it matters a very great deal.

It might move the motivation for Mateen’s horrific act to a very different and psychologically more complex place in which one man’s inability to reconcile himself with his sexuality cost 49 other people their lives — and then cost him his own life.

It might end up making the motivation of the horrifying Orlando massacre look more like: I want you. God says I can’t want you. So I must kill you.

And it opens up the broader issue of the severe mental health challenges facing young people who discover, against the stern teachings of their religious traditions, that they are attracted to members of the same sex.

This intersection of religious authority and forbidden sexuality is a very dangerous one, and it must be navigated by all who are raised in religions that reject same-sex attraction and relationships. It is a problem in multiple religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and leaders in all religious traditions face the urgent responsibility to address it.

As a privileged married heterosexual and an evangelical Christian ethicist, I finally came to terms a few years ago with how terrible this problem is for LGBT Christians and embarked on a reconsideration process. It led me to a posture of solidarity and moved me to open up my traditionalist lifetime-covenantal-marital sexual ethic to include gay and lesbian unions. This was seen as a grave error by some of my fellow believers. But many LGBT people and their families were desperately grateful. It offered at least one way out of the impasse between traditional religion and sexuality.

Look at it this way. When a young person from a strict religious upbringing discovers the powerful force of his own sexuality, it is scary enough. But if that sexual interest flows toward people of the approved sex, religious authorities have at least a marginally comforting answer: You and your sexuality are normal, but you need to wait till you are married to have sex. It’s difficult, but it can be done. Pat on the back, and out you go.

But for lesbian, gay and bisexual young people, the answer is very different: You are not normal. Your sexuality is uniquely sinful, a rejection of God himself. You must repent and change. You can never act on these sexual attractions. How long must you wait to have a sexual or romantic relationship with someone you actually desire? Forever. You can never, ever, do it, or you will incur God’s wrath.

These answers come from all recognized and trusted authorities in the young person’s world — first parents, then also religious teachers and leaders, and finally most friends from church, synagogue or mosque. Quite often the answers are accompanied by the sternest, sometimes the cruelest, verbal, emotional and even physical violence. Even the very tentative declaration that a young person may be feeling some same-sex attractions can send religious parents and pastors through the roof. At best, relationships survive, but the person’s sexuality is rejected by those whose approval matters most.

So when the irresistible force of a forbidden sexual orientation runs into the immovable object of an ancient religious tradition, what is the affected person supposed to do?

A large number of young adults ultimately abandon their religious traditions as hazardous to their health. Some are in gay nightclubs early Sunday morning because they are welcome there — and would not be welcome in church eight hours later.

Others spend years attempting to conform their desires and behaviors to the religiously prescribed options, such as celibate singleness or heterosexual marriage, remaining in their religion at the cost of cauterizing their sexual identity.

Some ping-pong back and forth between these options, both of which they find agonizing and neither of which they can sustain.

Others eventually find peace in creating, or discovering, a version of their faith that can accommodate the sexuality they have, rather than the sexuality that the tradition demands they have. They find a place where they no longer have to choose. This is usually a very long and difficult process.

And it may be that one particularly troubled young man “solved” his problem over the weekend through mass murder.

So, to America’s orthodox religious leaders, I again ask:

Is the consistent, acute, totally predictable psychological distress caused to these young adults by your understanding of God’s moral rules a relevant consideration for your teaching and pastoring?

In light of this suffering and what is now known about human sexuality, do you still believe that this is what the God you are trying to serve really requires?

Might it be that some aspects of your understanding of sexual ethics are revisable rather than the eternal will of God?

Which of you will take some risks to get a serious conversation going about these issues in your faith community, on behalf of your own most vulnerable young people?

(David Gushee is distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is an RNS columnist)

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