Tag Archives: psychology

Round-up: Responses to Exodus Closure

“And away he goes, precious. Gone! Gone! Gone! Smeagol is free!”

Several organizations have responded to last week’s announcement that Florida-based ex-gay/sexual orientation change ministry Exodus International will close.

  • The National Religious Leadership Roundtable includes representatives of Christian affinity and interest groups including the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the Unity Fellowship Church, the Metropolitan Community Churches, and DignityUSA.
  • Cindi Love is the executive director of Soulforce, a non-profit that sponsors nonviolent student Equality Rides to Christian colleges across the country.
  • Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International is a support and advocacy organization that has served current and former Seventh-day Adventists for nearly 40 years. It formed in California in 1976, the same year that Exodus International incorporated in Orlando.

Individuals have shared some powerful responses in the last week as well:

  • Sean Sala is a US veteran who participated in Lisa Ling’s special God and Gays last Thursday.  
  • Shay Kearns is an Old Catholic Church priest who grew up in churches that promoted Exodus International’s change dogma as the solution for non-heterosexuality and “deviant” gender expression.
  • Rachel Held Evans is a Christian writer whose blog community responded to the Exodus announcement by sharing their experiences with Exodus and other ex-gay organizations.
  • Brent Walsh is a minister in Indiana who educates congregations on gender and trans awareness. He describes the deep impacts of Exodus’ residential program Love In Action on his life.
  • Jane Brazell is a member of an online group of ex-gay survivors and is based in Washington state.

On May 28 this year, Exodus International quietly withdrew from the Exodus Global Alliance, a confederation from ex-gay groups (the Florida nonprofit only reported this on June 12). Exodus Global has branches in Asia, the Pacific, Central and South America, and Africa, all regions where anti-LGBT sentiment has particularly violent legal and social consequences for LGBT people and their families. On June 21, the Exodus Global Alliance dissociated itself from Alan Chambers’ apology issued on Exodus International’s behalf, and pledged to continue and promote reparative “ministry” and orientation suppression.

Exodus International may now be defunct, but its legacy continues.


Caring for Our Mother: Sexuality and the Seventh-day Adventist Church II

In Part 1 of this series, I described the Seventh-day Adventist church’s approach to sexuality as a “spell” that dissociates members from themselves, confines them to different-sex relationships or self-suppression, and encourages them to lobby against civil laws for LGBT people in North America and internationally as well. [1] With a handful of doctrinal premises, a few has controlled the many.

But this isn’t the only part of the story that I want to tell. One of John J. McNeill’s contributions to my thinking is the idea that it is psychologically critical for a child to come to terms with his or her parents’ limits—and this acceptance must apply to our religions of origin as well as to our biological families of origin. According to McNeill, our Church Mother also merits our recognition and acceptance; she too reaches the outer bounds of her capacity as we grow; she too fails us and not always out of conscious malice. Her efforts have caused us objective harm, but as we mature, we have opportunities to care for her regardless of what she has said and done. The last few generations of LGBT children have lived out this model vividly: an increasing population of declining parents looks to these far-from-the-tree children for their elder care, and most of us are providing it.

I wrote that the Adventist church administration withdrew from healthful and helpful service to its gay members after its first official meeting with SDA Kinship a few years before I was born. This may have been the worst possible choice for the church and yet it was probably the best outcome for LGBT Adventists. By abandoning the LGBT community during decades that involved deep, significant changes in psychology, medicine, church history, theology, public health, and public law, the church forced LGBT people and the heterosexual Adventists around them to go beyond the church’s borders for fact-based insight, the latest research, thoughtful biblical interpretation, principled exegesis and application, and practical policy and pastoral guidance for homes, schools, and congregations.

I view the church’s treatment of non-hetero sexuality as a more extreme edition of its approach to human sexuality overall. But as McNeill has written, the failures of our church mother can spur us to grow up. Without coming to the outer limits of her capacity, we might never have learned to seek, to engage reality directly and without using her as mediatrix for our unfolding understanding of ourselves or our callings. In growing up, we develop moral sensibilities and ethical agency. And we can choose how to apply what we’ve come to know in our relationships with other people and those institutions that shaped us.

Green things grow.

Green things grow.

It is now 2013. SDA Kinship will host its 34th international meeting this year. I am 30. And the Seventh-day Adventist church is still a full two years away from reporting on “alternative sexuality practices”—a remit that, at best, represents a gross misapprehension of the science of orientation and gender and frames human variation in terms of misbehavior. The committee conducting that study was announced at the 2010 General Conference session and is due to produce its report in the next two years. Without any information on this committee’s membership beyond its chairman, and with its only preliminary contribution a doubling down on the church’s 1996 statements, I can’t vouch for the value of its outcomes or its relevance to my generation or the younger people who follow us and wish to remain a part of the church. [2]

Would my denomination ever dare to call Blackness an “alternative ethnicity”? I’d hope not. Yet some of its most vocal speakers and authors over the years have framed European and White American worship styles and music customs as the norm from which other cultures vary at their spiritual peril: ethnocentrism is an old art. Even if current membership trends continue and South American, African, and Asian divisions move to the center of the institutional wheel, their centering after years of marginalization will still fall far short of “unity in diversity” or any other model of organic collective flourishing. Imbalanced relationships among constituents undermine the grounded, healthy development of any group deemed an aberration rather than a variation. The church’s heterosexism has long produced these outcomes.

Cartoon of animals—monkeys, elephants, and others—being tested on their ability to climb a tree.

It doesn’t matter to me which of us get to live at the center of the wheel if some of us are relegated to the outer ring. I don’t believe the Incarnational Kingdom of God is about inner and outer rings, and, unlike the orientation change ministries I described in Part I, I don’t hold a theology of sexuality based on separation from our Creator and Source, regard a hetero orientation as the inverse of others, or represent LGBT people as “heterosexual people with a homosexual struggle.” That is not what they are.

Yet I believe it’s important for the General Conference’s committee to complete its work and report on sexual and gender minorities 35 years after ministers first recommended the study.

Even if

  • the church has preemptively described orientations other than heterosexuality as “a manifestation of the disturbance and brokenness in human inclinations and relations caused by the entrance of sin into the world;”
  • a number of church members and LGBT people have already plugged out of this conversation because it does not reflect the realities of gender, intersexuality, or orientation;
  • the committee intends to represent heterosexuals as normative and all others as deviant;
  • by 2015 we’ll still have no rounded theology of relationship, creativity, commitment, or celibacy, and still lack a model for organizational and spiritual vocations that evaluate members based on gifts rather than gender or marital status; and
  • no LGBT Adventist has been invited to join the General Conference’s committee in studying the Bible, Adventist tradition, or current knowledge about the LGBT community

—it is still important that the church administration continue its process.

The next generation of Adventists deserves the best its denomination can offer, not as the end of conversation but as the start of it. The church’s contributions in the next few years will influence the climate in which youth grow and adults endeavor to shepherd them: even as our societies change, the church’s statements, retractions, explanations, and pronouncements will continue to matter.

Unwillingness to discuss openly is devastating: silence and shadows never saved a soul. So the 2015 study is important for the health of my church and its members. I have wondered whether it’s even more important that pastors, teachers, counselors, parents, and friends continue their personal learning and dialogue, though they’ve explored their questions so far with very limited support and in some cases active resistance. As Protestants, we have no Magisterium, and we also share with the various Catholic and Orthodox traditions a reverence for discernment and conscience. Neither discernment nor conscience is based on stubbornly abdicating continuous learning.

So, whatever the church’s judgments in 2 years, everyone in the wider Adventist community has opportunities to co-learn today. Some church members and former members are returning to this common learning table thanks to their relationships with LGBT people and to the documentary Seventh-Gay Adventists (SGA), which has screened in small groups since February 2012.

Poster for Seventh-Gay Adventists (2012)The movie does not pretend to see or tell all; it is situated in particulars and as such it has limitations (I’ve  discussed my thoughts with the director personally so am not writing out of turn). SGA‘s focus on couples, gay and lesbian individuals, and the lives of people resident in North America means that the Adventist community has yet to hear from unmarried, bisexual, intersex, or transgender people, and we’ve not heard the range of experiences that LGBTI Adventists have outside the United States or Canada, sometimes supported by their ministers and sometimes publicly demonized by them.

Despite these limits, SGA doesn’t seek to end the conversation: it is an extremely charitable contribution to a relationship that needs more charity, and it has resonated with people from all sides of the table. I know the filmmakers hope that others will tell their own stories just as Jill and Sherri, Marcos and Obed, and David and Colin told theirs. The isolation of the status quo isn’t good enough for any of us, and our church, our “Mother,” will benefit from learning with us.

“Homosexual people eagerly wanting to live the Christian faith, could they do it in their specificity, not in isolation or [outside the law], but also in the shared wealth of the ecclesial community? Would it not be desirable that these brothers and sisters in Christ are respected and accepted as people with an infinite value in God’s eyes?

… No one can be forced into belief and response.” —Ethics Committee of the Franco-Belgian Union of Seventh-day Adventists, March 2013

In the third and final part of this series, I will share how this context has shaped my life and relationship with the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

[1] Sample lobbying in North America: VermontCanada, California [AB 1976 & Proposition 8], Maryland, and Washington state; sample international SDA lobbying: the Netherlands, KenyaUganda, and England. Additional links were shared in Part 1 of this series.

[2] Shortly after this article was first published on June 5, I received a copy of the committee’s appointed membership. The 50-member group is dominated by General Conference and world division church administrators, and includes only 1 woman.

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.

From Beatrice Bruteau’s The Psychic Grid.

Why the tenor of your inner world matters and why you might sometimes be your greatest nemesis:

Viktor Frankl stresses the importance of having a strong value system and a convincing worldview in one’s own interior that is life-supporting, that does not encourage weakness. We must avoid the danger of giving up. If we give in to cultural pressures and admit to weakness and helplessness, we will internalize the destructive self-images being projected upon us. In the case of socially oppressed groups, as Mary Daly points out, we will then carry the oppressor within ourselves…

The conviction of a powerlessness that is “natural,” therefore unalterable and inescapable, leaves us defenseless before the power-wielding forces of social institutions and the darker, more hidden powers of our own consciousness.

Why new habits don’t always stick and why conversions—even positive ones—are often traumatic:

There is a heavy emotional investment in our supposedly pure theoretical constructs—the images in which we perceive the world and the attitudes by which we respond to what we perceive.

Images and attitudes are emotionally based entities, not dispassionate at all, and it is they which form the warp and woof of our epistemological frame of reference. Reality for us is what is consistent with this shared (sympathetic) primitive emotional disposition of our consciousness in the midst of the interacting universe. We cannot possibly abandon it without the most extreme anxiety. Our view of the world and our whole personality and action pattern stand or fall together, being commonly rooted in our fundamentally emotional perception of being.

Charles Dugigg on the Power of Habit

Charles Dugigg on the Power of Habit

Making sustainable life changes is about studying yourself, not just what other people say is good for you, or what other people believe you should do.

Study yourself, your drives, your customs, your triggers, and your personal reward system. (Your personal reward system is about what makes your brain light up. Consider that these won’t all be positive things. Many of us have brains that light up on spreading guilt, shame, and pity as much as they light up from pleasure, chocolate, service, and sex).

This is just a 3 minute teaser, but it boils down to CRR: Cue, Routine, Reward. Master that cycle and you will be able to change just about anything.

Within any country, the disagreement isn’t over harm and fairness… We debate over what’s fair, but everybody agrees that harm and fairness matter. Moral arguments within cultures are especially about in-group [loyalty to groups, families, and nation], authority, and purity. — Jonathan Haidt