The Challenge of Idolatry for LGBTI Ministry
Panel: “The Theological Mandate for LGBTI Justice Work”
Global Network of Rainbow Catholics
Author: Bryan N. Massingale, S.T.D. Fordham University. New York, USA
4 July 2019. Chicago, IL. USA
I come to this conversation as a Black, gay priest and theologian. I am informed not only by my sexuality, my faith, and my study of the Church’s ethical beliefs, but also by the traditions of Black freedom struggles in the US, struggles which, at their core, are matters of the soul and the spirit.
I share this because I cannot stand before you as a “hybrid car” that runs now on gas, and then on electricity. The headline is not, “A Priest Comes Out.” This is what happens when people use only that part of my (or your) identity that makes them comfortable, while bracketing the other concerns and facets that are integral to who we are. For example, even though I spend my life dealing with race and racism, in LGBTI settings most people do not want to deal with that; they want to deal only with my writings and thoughts on sexuality – the “sex stuff.”
But for my emotional and spiritual health I cannot, and for my moral and ethical integrity I will not, bracket my “Black” self in order to be “gay,” so you can take what makes you comfortable. You have to take all of me, or none of me. I don’t want to spend my energies building a church or world where only part of me is welcomed, valued, and loved. Because if you accept only part of me, then you are not accepting me!
Moreover, if you aren’t willing to accept all of me, then you aren’t serious about LGBTQI inclusion and equality. Because as the African American lesbian, poet and activist, Audre Lorde, reminded us, many LGBTQI persons cannot engage in single-issue struggles because we do not live single-issue lives. Racism/white nationalism is an LGBTI issue; it often determines who is accepted and who is ostracized even by “us.” Gun violence is an LGBTQ issue. Immigration is an LGBTI issue, not only here in the States but globally as in South Africa and in Europe asylum seekers who are sexual minorities face compound hurdles and stigmas. If we are to be effective advocates for LGBTQI persons, we must be concerned about the entire community, and not only those who can best approximate the white, European, middle-class, heterosexual norm.
With that background, the major theological idea that I wish to share with you is this: The chief problem we face as LGBTQI persons is not a problem of sexual ethics. The most challenging problem we face is that of idolatry.
Let me make this clear by offering an autobiographical testimony. I will structure my reflection around the classic three-step framework used in Catholic social reflection and analysis: “See,” “Judge,” and “Act.”
See: What’s Happening?
I made my first Ignatian retreat – a silent directed retreat – as a seminarian in 1982. One of the passages I was given to pray over was the first creation story in the book of Genesis where God creates the cosmos in six days. In my meditation, I pictured myself as an observer watching the beauty of creation as it unfolded according to God’s word. I saw the stars come to be; the dry lands appear; the earth’s animals and creatures filling the land and the sea; and finally, human beings emerge as the fulfillment of creation. I looked at creation and saw friends and people I knew. It was wonderful.
Except. As I looked at creation and the world’s people, I noticed that when creation was finished, there wasn’t a single Black person. Nor were there any gay people. As I looked at humanity, at all those created in the image of God, there were none that looked like me. Or loved like me. There was nothing in creation that mirrored me.
This deeply, profoundly, shook me. My spirit ached. As the English would say, I was “gutted.” Because it meant that despite eight years of Catholic grade school education, four years of Catholic high school, four years of Catholic university as a theology and philosophy major, and three years of graduate seminary training in theology (and being an honors student too!) – that despite what I had been taught about how all human beings are created in God’s image and likeness – at some deep place within me, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. My own prayer betrayed that I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe that God could be imaged as Black. Or as gay. And certainly not as both simultaneously.
When I reported this prayer experience to my retreat director, she wisely said, “Well, I think you have some work to do.” So she gave me other passages to meditate on, passages that spoke of God’s love. She invited me to pray with these. But I couldn’t pray with them. I didn’t want to hear about God’s love. Because I was angry. I was furious at God for making me Black and gay.
I remember one night waking up and beating my pillow in rage and sorrow, saying over and over: “WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME? I didn’t ask for this! WHAT KIND OF GOD ARE YOU? Why would you make me like this, to endure all of this pain and hurt and rejection?” I screamed and yelled, shaking and sobbing with angry, bitter, sad, burning tears.
It was only after I cried, and moaned, and screamed, and yelled – and exhausted all of my hurt and anger, my fear and pain, my outrage – it was only then that God could break through the cracks of my soul. Then I could hear God when I read these words, “You are precious in my sight, and I love you” (Isaiah 43). I wept again, crying tears of joy. A joy that was inexpressible. And then I could pray the second creation story, from the second chapter of Genesis. The one where the earth creature is formed out of the ground. I saw myself as that original human being, and felt God blowing life – God’s life – into me. I was, at last, truly part of God’s creation.
Judge: Faith Reflection
The major challenge we face as sexually minoritized persons is not a problem of sexual ethics. We tend to think, and we are told, that our problems in church and society stem from our nonconformity with the church’s moral code.
But the church has a solution for that issue. If you sin, you can go to confession. You receive forgiveness and absolution. Many of us know that story. We’ve confessed a lot of our “sins” and failures to live up to official church teaching on sexual morality.
But that’s not our deepest issue or struggle. Our deepest problem – the one that causes us the most pain, alienation, and self-estrangement – is that we’ve been told a false story about God and have been given false images of God. That’s our problem.
Underlying all of the struggles we endure around the world and the stories that we’ve heard throughout this assembly – stories of being kicked out of parishes, ostracized from our families, and in general being not welcome – underlying all of these experiences is a story that Catholicism tells about itself.
At the heart of this story is that to be Catholic is to be straight. “Catholic” = “straight.” Official Catholicism tells a story where only heterosexual persons, heterosexual love, heterosexual intimacy, heterosexual families – only these can unambiguously mirror the Divine. Only these are truly sacred. Genuinely holy. Only these are worthy of unreserved acceptance and respect. All other persons and expressions of love, family life, intimacy, and sexual identity are sacred (if at all) only by toleration or exception.
In effect, we are told that we are “afterthoughts” in the story of creation, not part of the original plan. In other words, we are “children of a lesser god.”1 (And that’s if we are even included in what is “holy.” Most often, we are actively rejected as carriers of evil who embody all that is not holy, sacred, and of God).
I know this is heavy and difficult to hear. But we have to be honest. We have to be deep. Yes, we certainly need to rethink our church’s official sexual ethics. But even more, we have to rethink God. We have to get the false “god” out of our heads. Because this false “god” is the deepest reason for both our social persecution and our inner estrangement and struggles with self-acceptance. For how can we love ourselves if we don’t believe we are worthy of God’s love? If we believe we don’t belong in creation, or that God never intended for us to be gay? If we believe that, at best, “God” only tolerates us and our pursuits of love?
But that “god” is a false god, an idol: a human construct made to justify exclusion and injustice. This is why the issue of idolatry is not a matter of interest only for theological “geeks” like me or for those nostalgic for childhood Bible stories about golden calves being dramatically destroyed by Moses.
Idols, as Gustavo Gutierriez reminds us, are murderous gods.2 Idols demand sacrifices: the sacrifice of our integrity, of our intelligence, of our love, and even of our lives. Death threats, the public humiliation and torture of gay people, the killing of trans persons, the epidemic of suicides among us, and the silence of the Church regarding these (e.g., the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, Florida) – all attest to the murderous implications of the idolatry that legitimates homophobic violence. Because people don’t do evil so cheerfully as when they do it in the name of God.
As the Uruguayan liberation theologian, Juan Luis Segundo, put it so well, “Our falsified and inauthentic ways of dealing with our fellow human beings are allied to our falsification of the idea of God. Our perverse idea of God and our unjust society are in close and terrible alliance.”3 Wherever you find social injustice, idolatry is in the neighborhood, just around the corner.
How religious believers image “God” has significant social effects and influences their understanding of justice. By idolatry, I mean the pervasive belief that only heterosexual persons, loves, and relationships are standard, normative, universal, and truly “Catholic.” That only these can mediate the Divine and carry the holy. That God can be imaged only as straight. That this “white heterosexual” God sacralizes social exclusion and stigma. This is idolatry, that is, “the divinizing what is not God.”4
Thus Catholic reflection on sexual justice must summon the honesty and the courage to challenge the Church’s bondage to an alien “god” more forthrightly. To put it bluntly, idolatry is the fundamental theo-political struggle that faces us as believers, theologians, and faith-based activists.
Act: Implications for LGBTI Ministry and Advocacy
So what, then, are we to do? Sisters and brothers, I offer three suggestions for our reflection.
First, we must refuse the lie. We need to assert, without apologies, the precious value of LGBTQI lives. Of our lives. We need to confidently and insistently proclaim that we are equally redeemed by Christ and radically loved by God. We are equally redeemed by Christ and radically loved by God. We can never say that often enough. We need to tell ourselves and one another over and over again: “You are loved. You are lovable. You are sacred. Because you are God’s image.” We must refuse the lie.
Second, we need to cultivate a culture of courage in our church. I am going to quote St. Thomas Aquinas (because as a Catholic, you never get in trouble by quoting Aquinas!): “Courage is the precondition of all virtue.” That is, to exercise any virtue, you must possess courage. If you don’t have courage, you can’t have virtue. We need to create a new church where obedience is not the primary virtue, but where courage is the primary virtue.
This is entirely “orthodox.” We need courage in order to speak our truth in a church that is all too often in bondage to a false god. As Dignity’s founder challenged those who gathered for their first assembly fifty years ago, “If we will not stand for the beauty, holiness, and integrity of our loving relationships, who will?” We must have the courage to stand for the value our love. And the courage to refuse to be silenced.
Finally, we must cultivate a sense of hope. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism is an American virtue. The American myth is that good always prevails over evil, the good “guys” always win, and sooner rather than later. Optimists believe that the victories are low-cost. Optimists believe that all difficulties will work out well.
Hope is very different. Hope believes that good ultimately triumphs over evil . . . but not always. And that the victories often come at a terrible cost; in the process many will pay a very high price. In the words of Arthur Falls, an African American civil rights activist and a member of the Chicago Catholic Worker in the 1960s, when asked what gave him hope in the struggle for justice, he replied: “When you work for justice, you don’t always lose.”
You don’t always lose. That’s Christian hope. Christian hope is grounded in the resurrection. The resurrection was not the last minute rescue of Jesus, a narrow escape from death or a close brush with tragedy. Jesus died – as too often Black trans women die, and as LGBTQI asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants too often die. The resurrection is about what God can bring forth out of tragedy, failure, and death. That’s the faith which sustains us in this slow, frustrating, and even dangerous work for a more just world and a holier church. That’s what gives us hope.
So, my sisters and brothers: it is good to be here. Because when we work for justice, we have Christ’s assurance that we won’t always lose . . . and that ultimately we will triumph.
1 This phrase is the title of an 1986 American dramatic film. It means that people who belong to ostracized and disdained groups must have a lesser god who created them, not the God who created the socially dominant and privileged.
2Gustavo Gutiérrez, “El Dios de la vida,” 40.
3Juan Luis Segundo, Our Idea of God, trans. John Drury (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1974) 8.
4See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2113: “Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. . . Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.”