The Magic of Shame: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church I

The few can’t control the many by force. —José Barrera

José Barrera defines magic as the ability to change reality by influencing others’ beliefs and consequent behavior. His argument is that magicians are not mere illusionists like those featured in The Prestige; they are people and groups who invoke their authority over others and use it to direct others’ decisions and actions. By impressing audiences to bind themselves to an external authority, a magician’s successfully cast “spell” means that the bound person internalizes the magician’s injunction and carries it out whether the magician is present to reinforce it or not.

Digital illustration: temple in background, black woman in foreground

Credit: “Egypt” by ProcerKhepri

While many Christian denominations oppose “magic” on the basis that sorcery is forbidden by the Bible, there may be no more vivid example of belief-and-behavior influencing, reality-changing magic than evangelical-fundamentalist teachings about sexuality.

Last fall, I found an archival issue of Spectrum Magazine, the journal of the Association of Adventist Forums. That issue, from 1982, included reports on the first annual meeting of Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International and an opinion piece from Colin Cook, a Seventh-day Adventist ex-pastor who at that time was still touring Adventist churches and publications to share his overcoming-homosexuality message and to promote himself as “living proof” that one could be delivered from one’s “homosexuality problem.”

I believe the ideas of a harsh or distant father and a dominant or binding mother are correct… The primary cause [of homosexuality], in my opinion, is the spiritual shame that all mankind experiences as a result of the Fall. —Colin Cook on the origins of homosexuality, Ministry, 1981

Cook was one of two men who launched the gay conversion step ministry Homosexuals Anonymous in 1980. Like the church-promoted ministries that have succeeded it, HA operated on the assumption that homosexuality was an unnatural, immoral corruption of heterosexuality, an “escape from reality” rooted in postlapsarian alienation and sexual shame, and a sinful condition whose impact could be lessened or eliminated via prayer and therapy. On these principles, Cook also ran an SDA-funded orientation change center for gay men in Reading, Pennsylvania, called Quest Learning Center.

Among LGBT Adventists, Cook is infamous not only for securing General Conference funding and support for Homosexuals Anonymous and Quest, but also for orchestrating at least two series of client abuse at his Reading and Colorado centers (1986, 1995). Cook had been removed from ministry in 1974 after having sexual contact with one of his male congregation members. However, while receiving church funds and fielding inquiries from young men through the late 1970s and 1980s, Cook promoted “homosexual healing” as his experience and an achievable outcome for others in publications like the Adventist youth paper Insight (1976, 1978, and 1980), the church’s pastoral journal Ministry (1981), and the evangelical magazine Christianity Today (1989), and in other sponsored forums across the country.

Since 1993, Cook has continued to encourage others to “come out of homosexuality” and “develop heterosexuality” through a new Colorado-based company and online radio broadcaster, Faithquest. His site’s legal disclaimer notes that he is not “licensed as a psychotherapist or psychologist, nor registered as a counselor in the state of Colorado or any other state in the United States or any other country.”

The Seventh-day Adventist church withdrew funding from Cook’s projects around 1986, but has never withdrawn its support for Cook’s “overcoming” dogma. That dogma has recently resurfaced in Adventism, and overcoming-homosexuality tours have resumed in congregations and conferences around the United States, in Uganda and Kenya, Australia, and other receptive sites worldwide.

In a park, two levels of wire fencing restrict general access to rows of seatsReading Spectrum‘s 1982 report, however, was like being sucked through a wormhole into an alternate universe where the Seventh-day Adventist church hierarchy and LGBT church members conversed openly, not merely to build mutual understanding, but to actively address pastoral, spiritual ministry to non-heterosexual church members. On this side of the wormhole, however, no such free exchange exists. The church pastors and other workers who had attended SDA Kinship’s first meeting had reported back to the denomination on what they’d observed and made nine key recommendations for future action.

Thus, before I was even born, a group of pastors, scholars, and one “ex-gay” counselor advised my denomination to “set up a special subcommittee to study thoroughly the whole question of homosexuality and the church” and to recognize SDA Kinship as a ministry to, for, and with Adventists with non-heterosexual orientations. This group also advised the church to take other actions, including developing a comprehensive “balanced and responsible” sexuality curriculum for Adventist church schools. Such a curriculum would help to ensure that K-through-college students would have a fact-based, engaged space in which to grow, learn about themselves, and discern both what God required of them and how they should shape their adult lives in line with that discernment.

None of these things happened. In fact, church workers were later discouraged from interacting with SDA Kinship and, in the 1990s, the denomination sued Kinship in California courts for using the name that still identifies the majority of Kinship’s members and allows new members to find it. Whereas the church workers who had participated in the Kinship meeting advised the church to draw near to its non-heterosexual members, the church instead withdrew.

Over the next two decades, Adventist unions and church officials actively lobbied voting members and civil governments to block or undermine legal rights and protections for LGBT people, including in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New England, California, Florida, Scotland, England and Wales, Uganda, Maryland with the support of NOM, and Australia with the support of the Australian Christian Lobby. Public health research is now showing a correlation between legal restrictions on LGBT rights and increased anxiety, mood disorders, alcohol-related disorders, and stress-triggered conditions like hypertension and depression for the LGBT people in that climate. The church’s lobbying pattern continues nevertheless.

How could one calculate how many people have been influenced to define and approach LGBT people as immoral representations of sin and satanic deviance thanks to the teaching and practice of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination? I don’t know, but I’ve come to realize that church-driven shame about sexuality cannot be maintained without the active or unconscious effort of ordinary people.

Blue cloudless sky in background; tall stony cliff-face in the foreground“The church” follows no one through life; it’s in no one’s wedding party, dinner table, prayer house, or bedroom. But we are in all of those places, and to keep the dogma alive on the church’s behalf we must first dissociate from ourselves. The process of being the church’s proxy in our most intimate spaces splits us as we learn about and experience our own sexuality. Any resultant shame only dissipates as we re-integrate and no longer cede room to soul division: if we don’t cooperate with the “less than” spell, we cannot be shamed into compliance with flawed definitions and inappropriate limits. The church’s spells invoke powerful magic over millions of current and former members, and those able to breach those spells pay in years to do so.

In Part 2 of this 3-part series, I will discuss the implications of this history, notable exceptions to it, and where I see the church today.


4 thoughts on “The Magic of Shame: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church I

  1. Carolyn Parsons

    “I’ve come to realize that church-driven shame about sexuality cannot be maintained without the active or unconscious effort of ordinary people.”

    This begs the questions: is there any way to be a self-accepting LGBT person involved in the Seventh-day Adventist Church without experiencing cognitive dissonance or self-shame? Does it necessarily follow that an LGBT supportive ally in the church is also supportive of the shaming system?

    1. mackenzian Post author

      Carolyn: Thanks for reading and exploring this with me.

      It may be that some degree of cognitive dissonance is a necessary part of learning new things and being in free relationship with others. What keeps me open when I encounter difference is that my cognitive dissonance doesn’t usually stop me continuing with the relationship. But on occasion I have used my dissonance as a reason to dissociate within myself or from other people. In my relationships with others, I routinely experience some degree of dissonance because the other party and I bring different worlds to our common space and we don’t always parallel each other. To me that’s not problematic. How we respond to that can be problematic.

      I don’t think that the kind of shame we’re looking at in this post is a necessary part of relationship, though. Shame of this type, on this scale, doesn’t arise in a relationship of peers; it arises in a relationship of attempted control, and it’s harmful to the individuals affected and to the system itself.

      Your second question about being complicit in a shaming system: I think yes, we are complicit. I accept complicity with all the groups and relationships I’m part of. If I were to vote, I wouldn’t expect the election winner to always pursue policies that I agree with. I’d select the person I felt a good match with, but I’d also understand that my taxes would support the administration whatever it did with my approval or despite my disapproval. The nuclear option would be to quit voting entirely, to stop paying taxes, and to resign my residence and move to another country where the first administration had no obvious authority. (No guarantees, though; my former country could always invade my new one!)

      At the level of voluntary associations like churches, I see a similar pattern: individuals benefit from the group, are affected by the group, and accrue some responsibility for what the group does in their name. If something is different between citizenship and group membership (beyond state force) it’s that group membership gives an individual more direct influence potential, whether that’s at local level with other members or via some leadership post.

      One of the reasons I maintain my voluntary associations is that all of them are sites where I find I can still do some good. When the time comes that I can’t see an option to do good, I leave. I know several allies in the Adventist context who wrestle with when to leave, when to stay, who to work with, and why. And I know it’s not an easy decision to make.

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