Community is intrinsic to our Christian calling. Christians have never been collections of autonomous individuals, but have always been a people, a network of relationships in an economy of salvation. Members of my tradition, Roman Catholicism, believe that “it has pleased God to make men and women holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather as a people who might acknowledge him in truth and serve him in holiness” (Lumen Gentium, 9). God comes to us in communities, from his liberation of the Israelites, to the gift of Mary and John to one another before the Cross, to Christ’s self-revelation to the women after his Resurrection.
The Love of Christ
At the 2018 Revoice Conference, I shared my experience of community. As the Psalmist says, how good it is for us to dwell together in unity (133:1)! At the height of Christian love is not simply self-gift but the shared life of communion. Christ did not teach that the greatest love is to lay oneself down for another, but, more specifically, to do so “for a friend” (John 15:13). “μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ.” The height of Christian love is a specific self-gift, an agape for a philos, a love for one whom the Greek text might understand as a companion or partner. This relationship perfects the philos of Aristotle and the amicitia of Cicero, both of whom treated the true friend as “another self.”
In this teaching on agape, Christ reveals how the highest love not only involves self-gift but also involves the mutuality of friendship. Man is called to love like God, who himself is a mutual self-offering of three persons. God’s love is fundamentally trinitarian, fundamentally mutual. Certainly, Christians are called to love their enemies, but to declare such love as the height of Christian agape is to suggest that perfected human love is qualitatively unlike God’s own love.
God made us in his image of mutual gift. He seeks and desires us as philoi, as friends, companions, partners. God pursues the Church as the bride of Christ. He seeks mutuality with and within the Church and offers this as man’s ecclesial vocation.
We find community established through a network of friends in the best of Christianity. But Christian community is always easy or nice or done well. Community in a fallen world can also be the thing that cuts you. For same-sex attracted, homosexual, and LGBT Christians, mutuality of self-offering often feels precarious. We feel that Christian mutuality is conditioned upon how we live and speak about ourselves. Will my brothers and sisters accept me if I come out as gay? Will they employ me? Will they help me navigate the struggles of chastity, and celebrate with me when things are going well? Will they accept me as a roommate? Will they accept me with a partner? Will they stay by me as I make mistakes?
For four years after college, I lived in a dynamic home with seven other Christian young adults. We made a community that also included other friends who could enter our place as a second home. These people held my hand and filled me when I was empty. They saw me through my pious stage, my hookup stage, my angry atheist phase, my heartbroken stage(s), and then when I finally became a stable functioning human being. And I did this for them.
I loved that community. I thought, in some way, it would last forever. That was the world I shared at the 2018 Revoice conference. I’m happy to have shared it. After the conference, practical circumstances moved us into new homes, and what was once a shared world under one address passed into the rippling pool of memory.
At the same time, my community as a Catholic has become generally more complicated. I’ve learned that friends and friends-become-family had begun to quietly depart from the events of my life. I started a romantic relationship, and some people stopped showing up for dinner at my table. Some explained. Other invitations went unanswered. I now join the ranks of many gay Christians with conscientious objectors to the language and events of their lives. I still remember with a pang in my chest the first time I learned about one of these departures. They have continued.
Mutuality began to break down. I looked down the path of my life and many of my friendships, and I saw myself attending events and celebrating milestones for many men and women who wouldn’t do the same for me. I looked at the tables of the various occasions of my life, and I saw the empty chairs. To be sure, I have many occupied chairs with familiar faces. But the unanswered invitations had something to say. In these spaces, mutuality had been malformed into a lopsided awkwardness. It’s been hard. I bring this to you as someone passing through pain. I bring this to you as someone who has felt the urge to give up, to abandon my commitments to my faith because of my loss.
I used to hook up and pursued my sexuality as a consumptive means of self-affirmation through self-gratification. At the time, I kept my sexual life secret from my friends. At the time, I lived easily in my Christian community, which saw me externally as a happily committed Catholic.
But I have since worked to move away from that double-life. In the process, I’ve opened up to romantic relationships and found myself in one. And though I’ve remained committed to the historic teachings of the Church and have found much greater integration between my faith and my sexuality, the decision to openly pursue a relationship led those friends to quietly depart from my life, to create walls and conditions and rules of engagement for my world. It’s been frustrating at times. I’ve been angry at times. I’ve thought, “It was easier to be friends with them when I was just secretly hooking up. If they have issues now, when I more honestly live up to the Church’s teachings in a relationship, then maybe I should just go back to that double life!”
But as I reflect upon this, I realize that these thoughts come from a place where I let my life be conditioned by the expectations of others. While recognizing the limitations of an isolated moral heroism, I must remind myself that my Christian commitments and the relationship between my faith and my sexuality aren’t just about those people. They’re about me and my relationship with Christ and the Church. They’re about what I believe. I don’t pursue chastity because those people like it. I pursue it because I believe, because I want to love in the light of my faith and the freedom of the Church at her best. Chastity isn’t primarily about their acceptance. It’s about my gift of self. It’s not about their hospitality. It’s about where I find and give mine.
I might be tempted to go back in search of that old community, the easy place I had in the Catholic community while I lived a double life. Many things in my life would be easier if I gave up my relationship and went back to the secret life of hooking up. But I won’t go back to that place. Not for them, and not for anyone else.
I can’t go back. That community wouldn’t be real. In a community, persons enter in as they are. They seek greater self-disclosure and integration. They seek greater mutuality. True community does not demand you go into hiding. Such a world would would be a false image of community marked by conformity rather any real belonging. I won’t conjure up the toxic fragmentations of that old world just to get people to show up for dinner. We were made for a self-offering that involves a whole self, rather than just pieces that others find familiar and easily digestible.
I don’t write this to try to shame those Christians who choose to disengage from the lives of their gay brothers and sisters. That would be futile, because I don’t think there’s anything I can say to change them. God knows I’ve tried. This isn’t for them. Today, I’m saying this to exhort my LGBT brothers and sisters to carry on.
The Places We Create
Community need not always be the thing that those people provide for us. Community can also begin with us. It be an outgrowth of the indwelling of Christ’s hospitality within us. When we allow ourselves to be a whole self, we have more self to give. One piece of advice I received from a wise and balanced friend: continue to invite those people into your life, even if they may decide not to come, and one day things may change.
Mary Karr says that a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one member. I think this includes the Christian family here on earth. Like any family, we Christians often go around breeding our insecurities, anxieties, and fears into one another. We often hinder one another’s growth. We hurt one another, and we perpetuate awkwardness at the Thanksgiving table.
But that’s often just what family is. The move from friends to family means that, despite it all, you still issue invitations, and you still show up at their table. As the saying goes, before you can be your brother’s keeper, you must be your brother’s brother. We are brothers and sisters, even if we really dislike or hurt or maim one another.
Sometimes we might need boundaries, and sometimes we’ll need to call people out for injustice and falsehoods. But regardless, if we can’t work things out today, we should be willing to take a year and then try again to be a family at Christmas. And then, if it doesn’t work out, we wait a year and try again. It means that we don’t just say our divisions happen because Brother X isn’t really a Christian. It means we are family, and we have division, and we grieve that. We in the church were baptized to be reconciled to God and to one another. And our divisions are the cause and symptom of a broken ecclesiology.
I think we can do better than “love the sinner, hate the sin.” But that’s not a bad place to start. Racist homophobic Sister Y is still our sister, and we hate the fact that she can’t accept our multiracial non-straight ways of living, and we sincerely hope against all hope that we can one day come to embrace each other fully. Because, despite the hurt and the anger and the frustration, I still love those people. I think they’re funny and smart and witty and charming and fun, and I pray we will change.
But you and I need to move forward. This life is hard, but you and I must choose to be our best selves, even if those selves will not always be accepted. I’m a firm believer that if you create spaces that are true and good and beautiful, others will want to dwell there. You must be patient and steadfast, and you must issue invitations. And perhaps one day we all will be together.
In the meantime, I encourage my LGBT brothers and sisters to both find and create spaces where we can dwell together, where we can learn from one another, where we can anticipate a world where we will be treated as full members of our communities. It is when we find ourselves most isolated that we must let the love of Christ become inflamed within our souls. And then we must lavish this love upon the Church like costly oil.
One space created by and for LGB Christians (though certainly welcoming to non-LGB persons and non-Christians) is the Revoice Conference. It’ll be happening June 5-8, 2019 in St. Louis. If you’re interested, you can find more information here. The deadline to save $50 on registration is today!
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.