This may come as a shock, but our conversation about homosexuality is not actually about sex.
I know sex is part of homosexuality. It's right there in the middle of the word and in the middle of our thoughts. But it doesn't belong in the middle of our conversation.
Our global culture tends to make desire our highest good - specifically fulfilling our desires. 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza would be right at home in postmodernism: "Desire is the very essence of man."
David Fitch (a leading missional theologian) recently argued that world has a universal underlying paradigm that "desire is innate, not shaped, cannot be changed, and is who I am." He continues: "This ... is so much part of the water we swim in, it is rarely if ever challenged. It plays deep into the psyches of the sexually charged cultures of the young. It drives the sexual controversies in society at large and in the church." He proceeds to challenge and to break apart that paradigm. I'd like to echo and reframe his arguments here.
First of all, despite our cultural expectations, desire ≠ right.
We believe desire = right (as in good).
Elvis started it out: "It feels so right, so right. How can it be wrong? ... I know that nothing can't be wrong that feels so right." But recent singers have carried forward this philosophy: Ne-Yo ("How can something that feels so right be so wrong?") and Carly Rae Jepsen ("Wrong feels so right").
We have a basic cultural belief that whatever we desire is right. If we want it bad enough, it must be inherently good - or at least good for us. Even if it's normally bad for others, it must be good for us.
However, we know that desire is a fickle thing and not a faithful barometer for ethics. My desire for five bratwursts in two days during was not a good thing. One of the essential elements of criminal prosecution is proving that the accused had sufficient motive (desire) for the crime. We know that desire can easily lead us astray.
We also believe that desire = right (as in having a right to something).
If I really desire it, then I have a right to it. The US Declaration of Independence has enshrined our right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in our national documents, but the entire world has this motto etched on our minds. Do not stand in the way between humans and our desires. That is a good way to get yourself killed.
And yet, we humans desire all sorts of things that aren't good for us or for our society.
Around the world, people put limits on human desire to protect individuals from themselves and from those around them. We require seat belts, ban child abuse, and limit pollution. We know without question that wanting something doesn't make it right.
However, when it comes to sex, desire mostly reigns unchallenged. We have very few unquestioned sexual norms. We expect that individuals should be (mostly) free to fulfill their own sexual desires as they see fit. The only universal standards seem to be: mutual consent (both parties must agree and be of sufficient age and mental capacity to give informed consent) and moderate privacy (no sex in the Wal-Mart check out lane).
Outside of these minimalistic standards, we mostly feel that whatever you want sexually is OK - even good - and that it is your human right to pursue that sexual desire. The standard is simply: "as long as it doesn't hurt someone else."
This works fairly well in the legal realm. Perhaps we should have legal rights to a wide variety of sexual expressions. But the moral and religious realms operate by somewhat different standards, particularly when it comes to Christianity and the Church.
For example, it is my human right to purchase a $10,000,000 home and a $300,000 sports car. However, that may (and probably does) exceed the limits of Christian ethics when a billion people live on less than $1 a day.
Similarly, it is my right to go to a buffet and to eat literally all I can eat. That is not and should not be illegal. However, that exceeds Christian ethics on multiple levels: caring for our bodies, wisdom, gluttony, stewardship, etc.
As Christians, we accept a wide variety of limits on our desires
- sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully, sometimes as a method to shape our character (think Lent). We embrace that marriage means lifetime faithfulness to our spouse. We embrace that following Jesus means not cheating on our taxes or stabbing our coworkers in the back to get a promotion. We pursue all sorts of virtues that have corresponding limitations: honesty, self-control, love, patience, perseverance, faithfulness, etc.
Therefore, as Christians our discussion about homosexuality cannot and must not be primarily about sex and sexual desire. The question is not what we desire and whether we can change that. Some desires can be changed, and some cannot. That's not the point. Desire does not dictate what is right or what we have a right to get.
The Bible consistently affirms that desire in itself is good. Imagine the utter blankness of a life without desire. One read through the Bible eliminates a life without desire as a Christian possibility. Yet the Bible also affirms that our desires are sometimes focused inappropriately, and furthermore, thanks to the work of the Spirit, we are not slaves to our desires. Our desires are not shackles. We are free to work with God to reshape our desires and to prioritize our desires. In time, our deepest desires for love, peace, and joy become our headliners rather than reluctant unlikely side notes attached to our louder desires for pleasure and adventure like so much pork in a Congressional spending bill.
When we talk about homosexuality, we get off track so easily.
We have so much emotion wrapped up into our thinking about sex. We argue vehemently about personal rights and what is right. Powerful positive and negative feelings surge like electricity through all our thoughts and arguments. Although our emotions are important and healthy, when we are sorting through how to make decisions about homosexuality and gay marriage, we actually need to leave desire and sex out of the discussion - or at least on the sidelines.
This debate is actually about marriage - not sex or desire.
When Christians are talking and debating about homosexuality, the real issue is whether gay marriage is an acceptable option for Christians.