Several months ago in Las Vegas, Lady Gaga suddenly stopped the iHeartRadio music festival mid-fist-pump to dedicate her next song to a young, dead, homosexual. Twenty thousand fans stood silently as the florid performer slowly took a seat behind her piano and looked to the massive screen floating above the stage. The image of a fourteen-year-old boy appeared. He was Jamey Rodemeyer, a high-schooler from Buffalo, New York who had committed suicide only days before the festival. After posting a personal video to the It Gets Better Project website, Jamey became the victim of intense internet hate speech and bullying, particularly from his classmates. “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” one post said. “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it It would make everyone WAY more happier!” said another. Days later, Jamey hung himself. The tragedy ignited a webstorm, enraging the homosexual community and anti-bullying campaigners, like Gaga. “The past days I’ve spent reflecting, crying, and yelling. I have so much anger. It is hard to feel love when cruelty takes someone’s life. Bullying must become illegal. It is a hate crime,” she posted to Twitter.
The It Gets Better Project was launched in 2009 to address that very issue. LGBT youth don’t have an easy time growing up, often forced to hide their sexuality to avoid being taunted and tormented, even tortured, just for being themselves. The It Gets Better website is primarily a gallery of videos posted by openly gay adults and mentors who want to help the struggling youth. While many LGBT teens can’t imagine a positive future, the members of It Gets Better can. Video after video describe a life of happiness, positivity, and potential, assuring them that they are not alone, that it will get better.
We see these same dynamics in the church. Many gay students feel forced to hide who they are in order to avoid ridicule, rejection, even expulsion. We have peers, classmates and co-workers who also hope that it will get better. But working in churches or in other evangelical ministries, it often doesn’t get better. LGBT individuals serving the Christian machine often end up hiding who they are for a lifetime. This is strange, since the message of Jesus is hope, not fear. God is for truth, not deception.
POEMS / PRODUCTS
If you were an Ephesian, you were from the west coast. The beachside city was once the second largest city in the world, shadowed only by Rome itself. Its liberal leanings made it an electromagnet for artists and actors from every corner of the empire, a metropolis teeming with new media and breakout culture. In the heart of downtown Ephesus stood the mega-temple of Artemis. It was crafted and constructed by the leading architects and engineers of its time, and was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In the years that followed, the cult of Artemis evolved into an exclusive network of premiere international designers and production houses. Their biggest seller? Idols. They made them by the millions, tiny handcrafted figurines immaculately detailed and stunning to hold, each depicting whatever god or goddess a paying client pitched. The Artemis network even had gigantic storehouses of “blank” idols that could be shaped and detailed at moment’s notice. Artwork from Ephesus became a worldwide phenomenon.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, a Jew named Paul explains that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” The word “workmanship” is the Greek word poeima. It means “artwork” or “masterpiece.” It’s where we get the word “poem.” We are God’s poem. Paul was a craftsman himself, he was a company man. He worked in the industry, he knew people. So when Paul says “workmanship,” he is referencing the daily activities of an international artistic community that fuels the Ephesian economy. He is saying “you people of Ephesus, you know how to make artwork out of the gods. But my God is different. My God makes artwork out of people.”
There is another word that Paul uses to describe how we understand and interact with humanity. It is found in chapter 5 of the letter, and it is usually translated “sexual immorality.” It is the word porneio. Porneio was originally an economic term, used to describe something that was about to be taken to market. A porneio was something to be sold. So for Paul, there were two distinct ways of interacting with a fellow human being. There was poeima, treating them like artwork, a poem, a masterpiece. And there was porneio, treating them like an object to be sold. Poems, or products.
I see these two opposing dynamics all around me, all the time. For some, love and sex and intimacy is about what I can get. I have a need, and you fill that need. For others, love and sex is not about what you get, but what you give. Good art evokes, it pulls out of us, we give to it. Poetry requires a response, it’s about what it is rather than what it does. Products, on the other hand, simply do. They exist not for what they are in and of themselves, but for what functions they can perform. It is the difference between getting off and making love. It is the difference between “servicing” someone and becoming one with them. Sex leaves us empty when we feel like we’ve had something taken from us, rather than feeling like we’ve been given to, and have given back.
Sexual immorality, then, is an unhealthy view of sex that treats the other person as a product. This happens in any relationship, heterosexual or homosexual. I’ve seen it happen in marriages of forty years, I’ve seen it happen in middle school. But poeima can also happen in any relationship. Heterosexual, or homosexual. Christians often roll homosexuality into the New Testament term “sexual immorality,” but porneio has nothing to do with sexual orientation. It is about how sex is experienced and used. Is it an object to be obtained, or a masterpiece to be enjoyed? Is it the “naked and felt no shame” of Genesis 2, or the “fig leaves” of Genesis 3? Is it honesty or deception?
Now, at this point, someone will mention Leviticus 18, and probably Sodom and Gomorrah. Regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, the poster city for sexual deviancy, God’s judgment is for gang rape, not homosexuality. Rape is porneio. Regarding the Levitical code, we find that 18:6 and 20:13 both clearly condemn homosexuality. Leviticus is a holiness code written 3,000 years ago and partially borrowed from the Code of Hamurrabi. It also includes prohibitions against round haircuts, tattoos, working on the Sabbath, wearing garments of mixed fabrics, getting your fortune told, and even playing with the skin of a pig (there goes football). As evangelicals, we often don’t observe clear commandments from Jesus himself, such as helping the poor or abstaining from divorce, and we certainly don’t observe Torah. If “the Bible says so” isn’t good enough for these other issues, why this one?
If you’re a fruit fly, throwing one wing in the air like you just don’t care and dancing like a maniac will get you laid. In 2010, researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford demonstrated that by modifying the DSX gene in fruit flies, they could flip them from heterosexual to homosexual, and back again, like a light switch. Males will point their wing and circle other males, not females. According to the research, gender and sexual preference are genetic, at least in fruit flies.
Mice are a different story. They are mammals, and used in medical studies because their bodies react much like ours do. Last year, researchers from Korea’s Advanced Institute of Science and Technology managed to alter the sexual behavior of female mice by removing a single gene, called FucM (yes I know). They observed that female mice deprived of the FucM gene refused advances from male mice and instead tried to mate with female mice. Slight hormonal differences in the womb produced lesbian mice.
I mention this because evangelical Christians love to tell people what not to do, and often use the Bible to support their master list of don’ts. But the prohibitive commandments in the Bible have to do with behavior. They are about what we do, or don’t do. “Don’t steal, don’t murder.” These are behaviors. But homosexuality is not about what you do. It’s about who you are. It’s about identity, not behavior. Like a poem, not a product. It is less about the functions or acts that are performed, but who you are in and of yourself. The tired nature/nurture discussion regarding homosexuality has ended, while sexual preference may be a choice for some, for many it is not. This is different than a genetic disposition toward alcoholism. Alcoholism is a disease that drives destructive behavior. It is a disposition toward a certain type of addiction. Humans can be addicted to anything, including sex, heterosexual or homosexual. But addiction is about what a person can get out of something, the hit or buzz received, classic porneio. Some homosexuals are addicted to sex, promiscuity, and sexual immorality. But so are heterosexuals. And so are Christian heterosexuals.
In the church, we are still stuck on lists of don’ts. The ethos is “don’t practice homosexuality, or there will be consequences.” But for LGBT students, “it’s not ok to do that” becomes “it’s not ok to be who you are.” And that, is a claim against God’s workmanship.
As Christians, we want and need clear sexual standards. We need guidance and wisdom to form a poeima view of love and sex and intimacy. But to say to a homosexual, “we’re sorry, you will never get to experience a healthy, vibrant relationship full of love and sex and intimacy” is to rob them of poeima. And that is exactly the mentality the It Gets Better Project is fighting against, the sort of thinking that eventually can grow into something so ugly and sharp that it kills people like Jamey Rodemeyer.
As one body, may we love well, especially those whom religion usually rejects. May we be full of hope, not fear, when discussing these deeply personal, and sometimes painful, issues. May we be for truth, not deception, for poeima, not porneio. May we have faith that it will get better.