The title of Anyabwile's article--The Importance of Your Gag Reflex When Discussing Homosexuality and “Gay Marriage”--makes the point clear. The article attempts, unapologetically, to elicit and then direct feelings of revulsion and disgust toward gay persons.
The article focuses on what Anyabwile wishes he would have said, in hindsight, to a group scholars at a think tank who were discussing same-sex marriage. Looking back, Anyabwile felt that he was too polite and intellectual in offering his rebuttal to those at the table advocating for same-sex marriage. Rather than being polite, calm and rational what does Anyabwile think he should have done? This:
"Here’s what I failed to do then and I’m convinced is necessary now: Return the discussion to sexual behavior in all its yuckiest gag-inducing truth."Anyabwile wishes he would have described gay sex in such a way so as to disgust his conversation partners. That he failed to make those listening to him feel disgusted by gay sex is, in retrospect, Anyabwile's great regret. The battle, he admits, can't be won on intellectual, biblical or theological grounds. His only hope is to use the "yuck factor." Truth, as he sees it, isn't enough. Truth, to be effective, has to be "gag-inducing."
And to show he truly means what he's saying, Anyabwile goes on in the article to try to elicit the disgust response with "obscene descriptions" of gay sex. All of which returns back to the lessons Anyabwile learned and his new resolution to elicit the disgust response by describing gay sex to people:
"The next time I’m in a conversation about these matters I hope to move it first principles and illicit [sic] that visceral response..."In short, you can't win this debate with theology, bible or intellect. Your only argument is disgust, revulsion and inducing the gag reflex.
And yet, there will be defenders of Anyabwile, and they will raise two points.
First, should not sin be an object of revulsion? And second, Anyabwile is saying we should be disgusted by gay sex, not gay persons. He's making a distinction, it will be contended, between the sinner and the sin, between persons and their behaviors.
I deal with these sorts of rejoinders in Unclean. I refer interested readers to that more sustained argument. But we can summarize what should be obvious by way of response.
First, sure, if sin is spiritual "filth" it makes sense that emotions like disgust would be triggered by sin. Personally, I don't think it's healthy to use disgust to regulate moral behavior, but let me grant that for the sake of argument to make the point I want to make. Specifically, even if it is true that we should be disgusted by sin Anyabwile isn't trying to elicit disgust in relation to all sins, his own sins being of particular interest. Disgust is being used selectively, to stigmatize specific behaviors and persons. If Anyabwile was spending time trying to get us to gag at his own sins perhaps I'd see this differently. But he's not.
Which brings us to the second point, the suggestion that Anyabwile is making a distinction between persons and behaviors.
A good portion of Unclean discusses how disgust is inherently a dehumanizing emotion. As Martha Nussbaum has observed:
[T]hroughout history certain disgust properties — sliminess, bad smell, stickiness, decay, foulness — have repeatedly and monotonously been associated with, indeed projected onto, people by reference to whom privileged groups seek to define their superior human status.Wherever hate and bigotry exist disgust takes center stage. As any cursory study of history will reveal, disgust properties have always been imputed onto despised groups. More, disgust creates justifications for violence and social scapegoating. From kids being bullied on playgrounds to acts of genocide, disgust justifies exclusion, violence and extermination.
And even if you did convince yourself that Anyabwile is just talking about behaviors, you can't escape the fact, if you agree with Anyabwile, that individuals who are involved in these behaviors--let alone enjoying them--are engaging in degrading activities that mar or seriously call into question the dignity and humanity of the participants. When disgust is involved any purported distinction being made between persons and behavior is purely fictitious, a rhetorical ploy, a verbal obfuscation of the underlying psychology. Your feelings of disgust will contaminate how you feel about persons doing disgusting things.
In short, there isn't any possible defense of Anyabwile. And while I'm sure that he thinks he's doing the right thing, my psychological assessment is that his essay is simply encouraging and teaching people how to hate.
That's a sad conclusion. But I really don't want to end on that depressing note. Rather than ending with a vision of hate I'd like to paint a vision of love.
You know what went through my head when I read Anyabwile's article? Lots of stuff, I must confess, but in the middle of it all this was my thought: Anyabwile is the complete opposite of St. Francis of Assisi.
St. Francis was known for his care of lepers. And what I find so powerful about that is how St. Francis refused to be guided by his disgust response. Listen, if you are a heterosexual Christian I wouldn't be surprised if you found images of gay sex to be a bit disgusting. There is a reason you are heterosexual after all. And that isn't any different to how gay persons feel about straight sex. That's a part of why they are gay.
My point here is that feelings of disgust, even if they do exist, aren't really relevant.
To be sure, some will suggest that leprosy isn't a moral issue, so there's no equivalence in this comparison between Francis and Anyabwile. But that would be missing the point that leprosy in both Jesus's and Francis's day was associated with immorality, sin and wickedness.
So in light of all that, soak in the witness of St. Francis given what you've read from Anyabwile. Francis's transformative encounter with the lepers as recounted in Danial Spoto's biography:
Making his way slowly north from Rome on foot, [Francis] came upon a colony of lepers. Many such communities existed, most of them in isolated rural areas. Lepers were considered legally dead; they had no rights under the law...Having read that, who seems more like Jesus to you?
People with hideous deformities were required to live among themselves, were forbidden to enter towns or cities, and were prevented from making any contact with the rest of society. If they limped along the road or came close to town to beg, they had to cover themselves with their pathetic rags, which did little to stifle the appalling stench emanating from suppurating wounds; they were also required by law to sound a clapper or a bell to warn of their proximity. Everyone kept a distance from lepers, for their condition was considered both highly contagious and a sign of dreadful sinfulness.
...Like everyone else, Francis would never come too near to them; if passerby had a few coins or some bread to spare, they flung the offering from what was considered a safe distance.
But this time the encounter was very different...[Francis] did not flee in horror as before, but instead approached one of the most lame and pathetic of the group. With no money to give and no food to share--for he, too, was now reduced to begging--Francis knelt down and gave what he could: an embrace...Francis would almost certainly have remembered the New Testament accounts in which Jesus healed a leper. "Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him," which must have shocked bystanders as much as the cure itself.
With this single act of charity, Francis was apparently transformed, for when he returned to Umbria he not only resumed his restoration of [the church of] San Domiano but also began to nurse lepers, a task rarely undertaken by anyone. This involved not only begging food on their behalf and feeding them, but carrying them to a nearby brook or stream to wash their sores. "For God's sake, he served all of them with great love. He washed all the filth from them, and even cleaned out the pus of their sores." His care, in other words, meant more than merely not showing revulsion. It meant a willingness to be with them precisely because they were outcast...
The one who shelved his disgust and led others to do the same?
Or the one trying to get you to gag?