Sunday, January 03, 2010

Beyond the silence

I've noticed how the younger generation of evangelicals seems to have taken to heart the damage that the culture war has done to our Christian witness in this country. Movements like the emerging church, the "red letter Christians," and the popularity of pacifist politics show that young evangelicals are seeking to make a break from the past and strike out in new, even controversial, directions. I even see this generation of Christians making a concerted effort not to come off as hostile toward gays and lesbians, nuancing their opinions about homosexuality and steering clear of anything that smacks of homophobia.

The problem I hear about now, especially from young gays who attend evangelical churches or Christian colleges, is not that fellow Christians are hostile toward them, but rather they treat their homosexuality with silence. Complete deathly silence. No one says a word. One reader told me, "I came out to my brother a year ago but he hasn't mentioned it to me since. It's almost like I never came out to him at all."

I wonder if many straight Christians are so afraid of saying the wrong thing they've become utterly paralyzed. Silence is certainly better than screaming "pervert!" at somebody and calling up his pastor to get him excommunicated. But when a gay friend or family member comes out to you, he or she is signaling that they want the silence to be broken. They want the door of conversation to be open from now on. It doesn't have to be a daily topic of discussion, but it should lead to something, and you need to keep in mind that anyone who comes out to you is purposely making him- or herself vulnerable to whatever your response might be. That takes guts. Giving no response at all, ever, is a terrible way to react.

Possibly the best response you can give, if it's an honest one, is: "This doesn't change anything about our friendship as far as I'm concerned," or, "I love you just the same." If you can't say anything quite that positive, you should say something that's both honest and decent: "This has really thrown me for a loop. Is it alright if I get back to you after I've collected my thoughts?" And then make sure you get back to them. If someone was brave enough to come out to you, you should at least try to be brave enough to follow up as promised.

So what is a "safe" way to advance the discussion? Here are some suggestions:

* When did you first realize you were gay? (I just want to listen and understand where you're coming from.)

* Have you told anyone else besides me? (I'd like to know if I should keep this under wraps, or if you want to be open only with certain people, or if you want to be completely open with everyone.)

* Do you plan to tell your family/friends? How have your family/friends reacted? (I'd like to lend my moral support in case anyone's been a jerk to you.)

* How has going to church been for you lately? (I'm wondering if you still feel safe and comfortable there.)

* How can I pray for you? (I'm open to seeing what God will do in your life, even if it doesn't end up fitting into my "box.")