On Love and the Yuck Factor

I don't know Thabiti Anyabwile. Nor have I ever read anything written by The Gospel Coalition. But many friends and readers sent me a recent article written by Anyabwile as the article is extraordinarily illustrative of the dehumanizing dynamics discussed in my book Unclean.

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.

Words fail.

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...

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...
Having read that, who seems more like Jesus to you?

The one who shelved his disgust and led others to do the same?

Or the one trying to get you to gag?

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95 thoughts on “On Love and the Yuck Factor”

  1. "And even if you did convince yourself that Anyabwile is just talking about behaviors, you can't escape the fact 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"

    This is a great explanation of why "hate the sin, love the sinner" as commonly applied to homosexual practice is a misnomer. The invocation of disgust implies that the subject of that disgust is socially or morally impaired as an individual, and thus sub-human (or sub-cultural) in some respect.

  2. Thanks for this. I find the example of Francis so compelling, and would add that his adoration of the Eucharist was deeply connected to his practice of caring for lepers. The end of Unclean does an amazing job exploring the profound psychology of this connection.

    I'd add that it is helpful for me to point out obvious and irrefutable examples of sexual complexity in people. For example, Caster Semenya: the highly successful female-identified athlete who has internal testes. Gender psychology and identity are remarkably complicated, leaving some room for ambiguity. But it is completely unambiguous that people like Caster Semenya exist and are entitled to fair treatment. Personally, I love that the example of Caster calls into question the whole notion of sports as a meritocracy. Everybody knows that unless you have certain body types, you can't ever hope to compete at the top level in certain sports. And yet, even more rare body types make those with merely super-rare body types angry at the unfairness of it all.

    I would push back, gently, on what I think amounts to infrahumanization and psychological determinism in this post. In particular, I think this statement is seriously flawed: "When disgust is involved any purported distinction being made between persons and behavior is purely fictitious, a rhetorical ploy..." I don't know Anyabwile so I can't speak to that in his case, but I certainly know people who genuinely view homosexual behavior as innately harmful to the people engaged in it, and disgusting, but who are inspired by models like Francis to move toward that disgust in love. I doubt that Francis was never disgusted by the state of lepers. The story of Francis, here, is about the power of God to overcome these disgust responses, not by claiming that something isn't disgusting, but by conditioning us to overcome disgust in love. If acknowledging disgust is always seen as a mere rhetorical ploy, I think it makes honest discussions impossible, and it fails to prepare us for the difficult and counter-intuitive psychology of real Christian life. The disgust response is profoundly relevant: the Christian response is to overcome it through love, on the model of the Eucharist, not to censure it away as politically incorrect.

    The moral question that gets obscured about all of this is, I think, still essential to focus on. Is homosexual activity morally okay, or isn't it? I think the real rub comes from trying to examine two positions that both seem morally defensible to me: an authentically caring response to people who you believe are engaged in innately harmful and evil behavior, or an authentically caring response rooted in the notion that people are being wrongly persecuted and stigmatized for engaging in harmless and perfectly moral behavior. I think it should be fairly obvious to any honest observer that these two responses, each difficult in its own way, can proceed from genuinely different underlying moral assessments of the situation. I know and deeply love people who approach this issue from both of these perspectives. Personally, I think gender is obviously and objectively complicated. I'd start any conversation on that issue by discussing Caster Semenya. Does anyone think that she is an unnatural abomination? Because I sure don't. I think she is an amazing athlete who, like so many athletes, got lucky and unlucky in the genetic lottery.

  3. Wonderful post. When I saw the article yesterday I groaned. For me, Anyabwile behaved no different than Howard Stern on his old radio show. It felt crude and manipulative lacking any depth you would expect from a scholar. I am not sure how anyone could support this article. It will be interesting to see how the church at large responds to this.

  4. I'd also suggest that heterosexual sex can be made to sound every bit as disgusting. And yet, love transforms the disgusting into the divine.

  5. I think if you read the whole post you see how I do talk about how disgust isn't always eliminated but overcome by love:

    "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."

  6. Yes, it's that sub- that makes disgust so toxic. As I describe in Unclean anger is a fairly egalitarian emotion. Disgust, by contrast, is hierarchical and diminishes the humanity of the other.

  7. Given your discussion of purity metaphors in "Unclean", it is interesting (but not surprising) that the blog is entitled "Pure Church".

  8. To echo the other commentors, thank you, Richard. You've provided a logical and sane response that demonstrates to us how love ought actually to be. The article by Anyabwile was one of the most uncharitable and unloving things I've seen from what could be called a "mainstream" Christian. I would imagine the fallout for TGC from this will be huge from in and outside of the church. Or perhaps they're wanting to move closer to the Westboro position.

    I recently placed membership at a CoC again, and I'm glad the sense I get from the congregation and leaders is more compassionate and caring as to not support an article like Anyabwile's; very different from my former CoC congregation.

  9. So good...thank you for responding. Also...I love the Merton quote on your banner.
    Thank you for writing - your voice is needed.

  10. Aren't you assuming that Anyabwile could have done otherwise? He couldn't have. His actions, words, etc. were purely determined by the laws of physics acting on his brain and body chemistry. Whether I read this post, how I react to it, how I felt before it, how I feel after it, whether I will gag at homosexuality in the future, all of that is determined (or probablilistically determined) by non-rational forces. Rationality is an illusion. Whatever libertarian free will is, without it, all of this moral grandstanding is pure nonsense. Of course, probably so is this comment and hopefully I'm wrong but I don't know.

  11. Knew you could be counted on. The instant any of us who have read Unclean saw Anyabwile's post we could not help but make the connection. I have relied on your work in making my reply as well: http://twofriarsandafool.com/2013/08/the-connection-between-my-conscience-and-my-disgust/

  12. Isn't disgust a learned behaviour? Being a sexual minority hanging out in evangelical streams all my life is where I believe I learned my own self-disgust. It wasn't until my evangelicalism was de-constructed (but not my faith in Jesus) that I came to (learned to?) love myself ... and others who are like me. Interestingly, I found community, love, and acceptance among the non-religious around me at work....

  13. Yes, disgust is learned in early childhood as we are taught to identify what is and what isn't safe to put in our mouths. It is a survival mechanism which gets transferred to moral reasoning and so we mistakenly reject/expel people the way we would dangerous or poisonous food.

  14. Thanks, Richard. You make a compelling and compassionate case.

    I have one remaining reservation, however, and I wonder if you would address it. This reservation is to ask whether you would eschew "disgust" as a form of moral reasoning when you deal with behaviors that you are sure are sins. The things I'm sure that you're sure are sinful might include racism, torture, sexual subjugation, and the wartime targeting of innocents.

    Now, here's my question: If you were involved in a discussion with someone who was trying to excuse any or all of these behaviors, would you limit yourself to "theology, the bible, or intellect"? Or would you ask that the discussion involve actual details about actual recorded behavior in order to engage a visceral moral sensibility? And would it be O.K. for you to do so, even if these were not sins that you yourself had ever engaged in?

    It might help me (and maybe your other readers) if you clarified the distinction here.

  15. To a degree your probably right about disgust being learned, although some disgust reactions have strong biological roots (rotten flesh, for example)

    Just recall how children express a kind of "disgust"(feigned or otherwise) at the notion of boy/girl kissing for example.

  16. I can't help but think of that leper monologue you performed back at Preston Rd. The base, gut reaction that you portrayed at being touched illustrated the other side of the experience of St. Francis. I appreciate the parallels... I often find it difficult to 'shelve my disgust' - there is much in our society that provokes it - and your reminder is timely. Thanks!

  17. From Dan Heck: "Is homosexual activity morally okay, or isn't it? I think the real rub comes from trying to examine two positions that both seem morally defensible to me, but that proceed from different answers to this question: (1) an authentically caring response to people who you believe are engaged in innately harmful and evil behavior, or (2) an authentically caring response rooted in the notion that people are being wrongly persecuted and stigmatized for engaging in harmless and perfectly moral behavior."

    I'm a long time reader and first time commenter on this blog. Just wondering, Richard, if you could tell us which position you hold, or lean towards more, and why? For the sake of transparency, I lean more towards position #1. Well, let's just say I hold to position #1. I have been looking for a good progressive Christian defense of homosexuality for a while now and have yet to find one. It often seems--and forgive me if this is unfair or untrue--that progressive Christians skirt around the fundamental issue raised by Dan above by raising arguments about the manner in which conservatives/fundamentalists interact with the gay community rather than the underlying arguments for or against homosexual behavior/identity. It just seems like that's where the majority of the air time is dedicated. I'd love to see a good theological, philosophical, scriptural debate on this. One that avoids the extremes--in my view--of trying to incite disgust (as we see in the GC article), or saying whatever sexual behavior or orientation our culture is championing at the moment is good.

    Lastly, just wanted to say thanks for doing this blog, Richard. As an evangelical universalist, I have benefitted greatly from your writings as well as your tone. I appreciate the compassion and love you exude for the hurting and marginalized as well as your strong defense for the greater hope! I hope this question does not offend. I was just hoping for more clarity from you on Dan's two positions he put forth.

  18. Disgust is natural, but learned - like walking and talking. Consider how infants and toddlers have to be told "not to put that in their mouth!" In early stages of development we do not experience disgust. We learn through experimentation, observation and instruction what things should disgust us.

  19. I appreciate your perspective and couldn't agree more. Another difference that I think is worth point out on the "hate the sin not the sinner" discussion is Anyabwile advocates a physical disgust reaction when you see or hear homosexual acts discussed rather than a moral disgust reaction that the action is opposite to what God desires. Which, as you point out, should be the reaction at some level to all sin. To suppress the physical reaction is what Jesus, and later St. Francis, showed over and over again. Whether it was a leper, a woman caught in adultery, a woman bleeding, a dead body, etc. Jesus' culture and religious laws "taught" him to be physically disgusted around those things but he constantly showed that true love suppresses those reactions and interacts with each individual in a counter-cultural way. That is what we have been called to do and I appreciate that reminder. Thanks.

  20. It seems that the desire to use disgust as a moral barometer is simply an indication of a lack of empathy. It boggles my mind how any person with a modicum of empathy would be able to condemn gay sex on basis of his or her own gag reflex while simply not noticing that gay people have just the opposite reaction. Staggeringly myopic. I might find the notion of eating raw fish utterly disgusting, but when I see the popularity of sushi restaurants everywhere I go, I only need a tiny bit of empathy to make me realize that my gag reflex might differ from the gag reflex of others.

  21. I'm new to the blog and, so far, I'm encouraged by your perspectives. I've been despairing over the current brand of religious fundamentalism I'm seeing in the church. Thanks for daring to enlighten, inform, and open our minds to ways of thinking not often heard from our pulpits.

  22. I have friends who are in deeply committed, loving relationships. Some of them are
    gay. I have friends who exhibit "less than modest" (that's a term I'd
    use with my ten year old!) sexual behavior. All of them are straight. And honestly, thinking about the sexual behavior of any of my friends pretty much disgusts me.

    Seeing people eating at McDonald's often disgusts me. Seeing people smoking nearly often disgusts me. And in both cases, it's worse to see women eating at McDonalds or Smoking. These are all my biases and I recognize they are rooted in my shortcomings, namely, my lack of compassion and mercy.

    So for me, there is an additional fundamental problem with "love the sinner/hate the sin," which is the old: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?

    Nonetheless, despite my sinful nature, and my lack of compassion and mercy . . .I still love the sinner . . . and by "sinner," i mean me.

  23. Good response, Richard.

    I think Anyabwile's tack is very similar to the animus behind preaching that must bring a person to conviction in order to show them the need to "get saved" - preaching that describes how much God hates sinners and is obliged to punish, and urges people to get a ticket to "heaven" by "making a decision for Christ." The opprobrium is directed at one's self, also not healthy or loving.


  24. Great post, Dr. Beck. Someone similarly posted something, like to share it.


  25. I 'm happy that we have shared intentions :)

    I think this part of the post sits a bit uneasily beside the other parts, and I always read the post a couple of times before commenting. I think there is a real difference (maybe even a contradiction of sorts) between saying "people who invoke disgust are always engaged in a rhetorical ploy, even when they claim to distinguish between loving person and hating the behavior" and "people should refuse to be guided by their disgust responses." The first seems to suggest that our disgust responses are overpowering and irresistable, and the second seems to suggest that they can be overcome and resisted. I don't mean to read you ungenerously, especially in such an informal forum :) I actually like that the informality shows some of the seams and disjoints between your points. I point at the seams because I find them interesting and illuminating, not because I want to play gotcha.

  26. An excellent article, thank you. I must admit that I'm raising an Episcopalian eyebrow about the fact that you're Church of Christ- your grace filled post challenged my stereotype of CoC members as proof-texting legalists. In addition, as a former resident of the DFW metroplex, I'm afraid that I've stereotyped professors and students at Abilene Christian U as clueless hicks. I must say you don't seem like one of those either. So thank you for challenging those preconceptions.

  27. An excellent article, thank you. I must admit that I'm raising an Episcopalian eyebrow about the fact that you're Church of Christ- your grace filled post challenged my stereotype of CoC members as proof-texting legalists. In addition, as a former resident of the DFW metroplex, I'm afraid that I've stereotyped professors and students at Abilene Christian U as clueless hicks. I must say you don't seem like one of those either. So thank you for challenging those preconceptions.

  28. I see that tension, even potential contradiction. I think, to attempt a clarification, in the former case we're discussing a situation where we are being asked to approach the stimulus through the filter of disgust. In the latter we are only incidentally disgusted.

    Using the examples of Anyabwile and St. Francis, Anyabwile wants us to take the incidental and make it primary. And I'd argue that when you do that, when disgust is the primary emotion, love is psychologically compromised. In the case of St. Francis disgust might have been primary for him (it seems to have been) but was pushed to the side to make love primary and disgust a peripheral/incidental issue. In both cases, the reciprocal nature of disgust and love are illustrated. Both can't be primary. One or the other is going to be the leading edge.

  29. Thanks. I've written about the arguments I find most persuasive here: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/09/sexuality-and-christian-body-part-1.html and summarized in the second response here: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2012/02/same-sex-marriage-in-image-of-god.html

  30. Richard, though I am getting on late I just want to say in regard to your post, "Courageous, brilliant, and gleaming with the compassion of Christ".

  31. Eric, I see a time when many CoC congregations become accepting of Gay individuals, and couples. But it will not come through a grand announcement of a college lectureship or "brotherhood" paper; they, will simply start attending. Gays and Lesbians who are deeply spiritual and desire a church home will walk in, take their seat, and with a humble, yet confident demeanor, announce, "We are here to worship, whether some of you want us or not". And the shock for some of the leaders will be who they see walk up to them with out stretched hand saying "Welcome". Dreaming? Maybe. But I still see it.

  32. Many straight people have the same sexual practices as gay people do, both men and women. The disgust is about far more than the mechanics of intimate behavior.

  33. I'm sure if you saw him in his overalls you'd have the second stereotype confirmed.

  34. I get what you're saying in point 4, but I still feel that it's problematic. What about straight married couples who choose never to have children? Are they still embodying all the symbolism and meaning that opposite sex union is supposed to carry? Like your example of a couple whose entire sexual relationship is carried out through foot fetish, this straight married childless-by-choice couple will never actually commit an act that brings a child into the world. Is the act of having two DIFFERING sexual organs enough by itself to still carry that symbolic meaning? I feel like this whole line of thought is very vague, and brings up a lot of questions that we don't have enough scriptural evidence to truly answer.

  35. Richard, I really appreciated your engagement with this topic. I was troubled by Anyabwile's post, and you express a lot of reasons behind the concern that many are feeling.

    That being said, I'd like to pick your brain on one point that I, personally, am struggling to understand in my own life. You said: "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."

    Which, to a large extent, I agree with! My question then becomes: what does this mean for me, as a Christian, when I have feelings of disgust over sin? Because sin, by its nature, is always being committed by a person. Is there no type of sin we should ever feel disgusted by, because we risk dehumanizing the perpetrator? That, to me, seems unrealistic. There are a great many things that I recoil at (mass genocide, for instance) that I believe need to be called out as very wrong...and I believe we should see those things and harmful, awful, and damaging to the people who are committing them. But then, if I admit that, coudln't someone turn around and say "Well then we can/should recognize homosexuality as harmful, awful, and damaging to the people who are committing it."

    Not necessarily trying to argue for either side of the is-it-or-isn't-it-sin, but I'm just curious about your thoughts on how disgust over sin applies to other, less "debatable" sins.

  36. Actually the debate is won already through theology, logic and intelligence. Homosexual behavior is a sin and damages people.

  37. It must be very nice for all the heterosexual commenters to have "are gay people and what they do in bed inherently icky and gross" be an intellectual problem to mull over when you feel like it. Some of us have to live on the other side of attitudes like Anyabwile's, and deal with the danger posed by the disgust he wants to encourage. I doubt the men who threaten to rape and murder me or the children who hurl slurs at me in the street care very much if it's me or the things my girlfriend and I may do in the privacy of our bedroom that they are supposed to find disgusting- the end result is pretty much the same

  38. No it doesn't. I have a close friend who is a lesbian. Neither she nor I are in any way damaged by this. She is a wonderful, happy young woman who eats tofu and turkey burgers, displays her childhood dolls proudly as a reminder of her youth, and keeps mementos of her deceased parents. She plays with dogs, marvels at a well-written book, and sees joy and beauty in life. I have known few people who were as vibrantly ALIVE as she is, and I can only hope that she will find joy in love, just as I have.

    By the way, I am a woman. I am engaged to a man. We are both interested in doing things other than sticking Tab A into Slot B once in a while. Please tell me what it is about a man's anus that makes it less "clean" to stick your penis into than a woman's, or what about a woman's fingers that are less "wholesome" than a man's for using on a woman's genitals. There is not a single "homosexual" act that cannot be engaged in by a heterosexual couple as well, and to pretend that certain acts are taboo just because they are practiced by couples with a different vagina-to-penis ratio than most is itself disgusting and damaging.

    People are DYING because of the disgust directed at LGBT people. Youth all over the country are kicked out of their homes or driven to suicidebecause people tell them that the way they want to connect to their future spouses is disgusting. That's not love. Disgust never is love.

  39. Indeed. I don't view pedophilia as wrong because it's "icky;" I view pedophilia as wrong because it hurts children.

    Conversely, I find peppers of all kinds to be absolutely disgusting and refuse to eat them--but that doesn't make any of the 90-something% of humanity that likes to eat peppers evil.

  40. I read Thabiti Anyabwile post and all I felt was confusion, anger and even hate (I guess). I knew he was talking about something very difficult and complex, but with many misunderstandings and prejudices. No one know better the feelings of disgust related to homosexuality than conservative evangelical and catholic gay kids, they feel them themselves in puberty! It's a long road to recover someone's dignity in that situation.

    Now I read your post and when I was getting to the end (St. Francis part) I couldn't help crying (a lot). Thank you for being reasonable and transmitting the gospel of Jesus at the same time!

    ps. I'm gay.

  41. For the study of the intersection of faith and sexuality ... Peter Fitch, professor at St. Stephen's University and pastor of the St. Croix Vineyard, NB, Canada, shares his personal journey of struggle with the "Gay and Christian" issue, and how he came to conclusions of inclusiveness while still maintaining the integrity of Scripture. I highly recommend this for anyone who has "this" on their heart.

    PS: Peter read Dr. Beck's Unclean at my suggestion (and before I even knew he was writing on the topic) ... It really helped solidify some things for him surrounding radical hospitality and embracing "the other." :)

  42. Thanks for the gracious nature of your reply. It's obvious that you've thought a lot about this--to be honest, probably much more than I have.

    I do agree that the nature of heterosexual union, and its ability to produce children, is a biological force that shapes the vast majority of our human interactions and is spoken of in scripture as carrying a symbolic meaning about creation. Where I part ways with Anyabwile, though, is in assuming that therefore, homosexual relationships must somehow be a net negative to that system. I believe it's possible for heterosexual relationships to carry great meaning; I don't think, though, that you can logically infer from this that homosexual relationships must therefore be wrong. The scripture verses that talk of heterosexual union carrying great meaning don't go on to address the implications of other kinds of unions, and the verses that speak directly about homosexuality don't necessarily bring up the symbolic nature of heterosexual sex and what it means. My point is, I don't think the Bible gives us a lot of direct evidence that homosexual relationships are capable of threatening the symbolic meaning of heterosexual relationships.

    I suppose someone might argue that, even if homosexual unions are morally neutral and not a threat, that they still shouldn't be called by the title *marriage* because marriage necessarily implies the type of heterosexual union that society is largely based on. That is a whole other conversation that would be interesting to explore. But, it seems that Anyabwile is definitely singling homosexual union out as a sinful threat to a "proper" understanding of what sex is for.

  43. I'm very, very sorry you feel this way, and very sorry that the hateful experiences you have had to live with make it hard for you to see these distinctions. I think the language of disgust as used here is, essentially, something that hurts people like you--I'm sorry for anyone who has used it.

    That said, I wonder if you notice the lack of differentiation in your own sense of accusation--anybody who feels certain things or holds certain values, is essentially the same to you, whether they are caring and nonviolent or threatening and violent. Is this helpful?

  44. There is nothing caring and nonviolent about calling someone disgusting- and before you say it, calling the way in which I express love and devotion to the woman I hope to spend my life with disgusting isn't much different. Straight Christians love to tell me how much they "care" in trying to restrict my legal rights and stop me having a family and keep me away from community and from God. I'll believe you are caring and nonviolent when you start behaving like you think I'm a human being whose opinions and life experiences actually matter, not just an (icky) intellectual problem. Nonviolence is not just the practice of not actively and personally trying to harm someone.

  45. That's fine. I'm sorry for your experiences. If you don't see a difference between using an insulting word (on the one hand), and threatening to rape or murder (on the other)--between legal restrictions and bullying--then that's the way you feel about it. I see how you feel that straight Christians are trying to keep you away from community and from God. I'm sorry.

  46. If being socially or morally impaired as an individual makes us "sub-human", than we are all "sub-human". If, on the other hand, we are image bearers of God who have seriously marred God's image, as the Scriptures teach, then we are morally responsible creatures with dignity as well as guilt. I don't believe in "hate the sin, love the sinner" either. It's always false, or at least a half truth, because, you're right, sinners are always implicated in their sins – that is, we identify with our sin. I do the evil things I do and I am the corrupt person I am – no one else. It is better to say that God hates the sinner and loves the sinner (at the same time, but not in the same sense). God hates the sinner out of justice in respect to the sinner's transgression, and loves the sinner in respect to his own compassion and mercy, not desiring that any should die.

  47. Yes, thanks. This blog helps me find great books :) I think that really digging into the moral theology helps everyone see more fundamental theological issues that need to be addressed. Both the common liberal responses (inclusion! don't judge! it is natural!) and the common conservative responses (it is obviously sinful! it isn't natural! it is gross!) fail to do the issue justice or help us reason morally and theologically. I think that direct and honest engagement with the moral question helps deepen everyone's faith and mutual respect, and is an important part of being an ally to everyone who faces the threat of infrahumanization from self-righteous sloganeering.

  48. Thanks for the response. In assessing Anyabwile's behavior, I would say that his effort to make disgust primary (while also refusing to acknowledge a need to respond to any of the good arguments from the other side) is disgusting and morally unacceptable. Still, I love him, even as I hate his sin. Seems fair enough :)

  49. "Guest",
    I greatly appreciate your ability to cogently and winsomely articulate your understanding relative to this complex subject.
    Based on your presentation of concepts, vocabulary and spelling I'm led to believe that you MAY be either Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic (either of which I would consider good) and that you do not live in the United States (also another positive).

  50. Whit,
    I was raised CofC and remained in that tradition until age 44. In my experience Dr. Beck is not the norm,and If he had represented the norm, then perhaps I would still identify with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.
    However, as with any ecclesiological tradition, there do exist the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. And then there are those who simply persist in the saintly exercise of loving the least.

  51. Thanks, Tom.

    You're half correct. I am English, but a convinced Protestant. My theological affinities are with the magisterial Reformed tradition and I am a member of an Anglican church.

  52. I was trying to find the words to say exactly what you just did. Now I don't have to, you put it beautifully.

  53. Guest, I wasn't sure if I was reading "English" or well educated Canadian English.
    I don't mind being halfast as to your theological affinities. I know that good Theology comes from the same Source--no matter the tradition. Isn't Anglicanism somewhat RC "lite"? ;o)
    Without using the explicit term, you speak of "ordered human-ness" especially as regards sexuality, and, you understand marriage in a truly sacramental sense.
    I have thought for a good while that the only reason same sex marriage is an issue in the US is because the government has taken on the prerogatives of the Church in defining what is and isn't marriage. If "marriage" was defined, supported, and mediated by Religious Institutions only then perhaps this would be only a legal issue; Civil Unions could be treated as a legal contract something like Incorporation papers.
    Jesus followers should most obviously realize the theological underpinning of marriage, that being a Faith Covenant that in a Sacramental way reflects the Trinitarian Relationship and the Church as the betrothed of Christ. Why would we expect those who do not have this understanding to live their lives aligned to this transcendent Reality?

  54. I think that the Stone-Campbell movement had many excellent ideas, and I respect them a great deal. They were the first to realize that Holy Communion was the central act of Christian worship since the days of the Apostles, and ought to be shared by the whole congregation every Sunday. However, I tend to think of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as the most authentic representatives of the Stone-Campbell movement.

  55. Guest, I also want to thank you for your presentation here. You've also greatly helped me bring greater depth in answering some questions I've pondered about the Levitical law on this subject versus the rather dulled down perspective the culture tends to take today. This, in my opinion, is going to be a huge learning curve for so many people in our parishes. BTW, I'm also Anglican (Anglican Church in North America - not Episcopalian)...and a parish priest here in the United States.

  56. I really don't understand why, when someone shares an extremely difficult experience - and explicitly points out how they do not have the luxury of intellectual distance - someone else calls them out on some point, as if it were merely an argument, as if it were spoken from a distance. Second time tonight I've seen this happen; I just do not get it.

    When someone shares something like this, the thing to do is listen, reflect, let their experience soak in and inform your own. Full stop, that's the only appropriate response, as far as I can see. Ask questions, maybe. But critique? No, no.

    This kind of extremely personal story grounds the conversation in the real, lived world. Let it do that. That's what it's there to do. Save the critique for those who are engaging in the conversation in an academic capacity.

  57. Thanks for the thoughtful comments and discussion. I share your conviction that the popular categories and arguments used by both sides of this debate are completely inadequate. Two questions, about your original comment and then this one:

    1) On what basis do you claim that the human race is sexually dimorphic? I can see this is probably an okay statistical generalization, but hermaphrodites clearly exist and have been acknowledged to exist since ancient times. When we talk about how profound symbolic systems map ontically, I think this matters a great deal, even if it is relatively rare.

    2) I also agree that marriage should largely be seen as a matter of social good, and as an institution whose telos centrally involves the creation of families and child-rearing. If consistent, careful, longitudinal research were to find that lesbian couples actually raise more stable well-adjusted children, and that children raised in this way almost never experience sexual abuse, unlike children raised in male-female households, would this affect your assessment of lesbian marriage for the purposes of adoption?

  58. Richard, please note there is much of value at the Gospel Coalition - I can specifically recommend Scotty Smith and Tullian Tchividjian. I was saddened by this particular post and greatly encouraged by your article.

  59. Wow. I had no idea this would look like calling someone out, or critique, or responding from intellectual distance. Wow. I'm really sorry.

    The real lived world I know is a world where I hurt for Kate's hurt, and also hurt for real people I know who use "disgust" language (found in the tradition and in Scripture) and have no idea that they are making Kate afraid of being harmed. I, fortunately, have learned enough not to join them. But I still know them and love them.

    If all I accomplish by reflecting on this experience is to make you and her feel even more hurt, then you're right, silence is appropriate. I'm sorry. I would love to simply delete my initial response if it is possible at all to view it as a "critique" or a "calling out."

  60. With regard to the affect of same-sex friendships, can recommend a poignant essay by my friend, Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College?:


  61. Sin damages the people involved and everyone around them and the Kingdom of God. Just because you don't perceive it to be damage doesn't change the truth of the damage. Part of the damage is that's e no longer see sinful behavior as sin as it so damages us that we lose perspective. That's what it means to be controlled by our sinful desires.

  62. Thanks. It does not change thirsty that homosexual behavior is sinful however and that sin damages people.

  63. I get it, sin equals metaphysical damage, that's the definition of sin.

    That's the circular part. By saying sin is "damage" you aren't adding new information to the conversation Just restating a belief.

  64. Someone responded that it was not damaging so yes I was restating a belief. So what?

  65. I believe they were referring to empirical damage, which shifts the frame away from metaphysical beliefs (X is a sin) toward the social sciences (e.g., people who engage in X are less happy).

  66. Well certainly many things make people "happy." Money, power, prestige, sexual satisfaction, etc... but we all know the point of life from a Christian perspective is not about "happiness."

  67. I get that, but you're back to making a circular argument.

    Here's all I'm saying, if by "damage" all you mean is "sin" then it advisable to stick to the word "sin." Because when you shift to the word "damage" you 1) make it look like you are responding to others when you are not, and 2) you are tempting interlocutors into discussing social science research when that's not what you are talking about.

    To be clear, you're entitled to your view on this. I'm not trying to argue you out of that. I'm just trying to clean up the channels of communication. When you mean "sin" you mean "metaphysical damage" (i.e., something spiritual, like a right relation with God, has been damaged). You don't mean damage in any physical or psychological way that social scientists can examine and prove one way or the other.

    Or do you? Because then we turn to the data and leave the realm of religious discourse behind.

  68. I do mean both. The metaphysical doesn't stay in the metaphysical. It affects the physical, the emotional, the relational as well as the spiritual. They are all interconnected.

  69. I think what Richard is saying is that you are making an empirical claim with no empirical evidence. If you were simply saying that sin = metaphysical damage, that would simply be unfalsifiable. But you are adding that sin also equals physical damage in terms of emotional, relational, and physical health. If that's true, it would be empirically verifiable. I happen to believe it is true that sin always is physically harmful. But instead of responding to a person's personal example of how something you purport to be a sin has not caused physical damage, you have simply reiterated your claim, and adding that the damage is actually unrecognizable (you therefore assert that your claim is actually unverifiable, which makes your argument circular), which begs the question, if the physical damage is unrecognizable, does it matter as a consequence?

  70. I never said it is unrecognizable. Are we always aware of the damage we cause by our actions? No. That does not mean that its not recognized by other people.

    And yes it matters. Damage is damage and will always reveal itself at some point.

  71. You are saying "there is harm" without offering evidence and against a lot of social science evidence which says there is nothing intrinsically harmful about homosexuality. To which you reply "it is sin and sin always does harm even if we don't see it - but we will eventually!"

    There isn't any point going round in circles with you on this. I agree with you that harm is the defining criteria for sin, and since virtuous same-sex relationships abound I reject your assertion that it is sinful.

  72. Virtuous SS relationships do not exist. Sorry. There is no way they can since homosexual behavior is a sin and against Gods created order.

    There are many scientists who still consider it a disorder and rightly so.

  73. One of the things I keep seeing is that some people think we should feel disgusted at all sin. I think this is true, except in the context of sin most of my "disgust" (like with pedophilia) is OUTRAGE, not gag reflex. But most of my outrage at sin is directed towards sexual abuse of children or adults, exploitation and oppression of any kind, immoral activities of big banks, wage injustice, income inequality, murder, abortion, war, torture and all other things that hurt the weak. I feel outrage at the man who cheats on his long suffering wife because I think that he wounds her and any children he might have. I struggle to understand how any straight person rationalizes a similar type of outrage at two women in a relationship, even if those two women are in fact pleasuring each other sexually.

  74. Oh look, you've ruled it out a priori and simply denies the mass of evidence to the contrary. There's a surprise. I'm done here.

  75. In Unclean I talk about how anger is much more healthy than disgust, communally and interpersonally. For example, the most toxic emotion in marital conflict, the one that predicts subsequent divorce, is disgust rather than anger. And I think we can all see why that might be. We can be angry at our spouses without that being inherently dehumanizing. But feeling disgusted and revolted by our spouse? Their touch and bodies? That's a clear sign that intimacy has evaporated and that our spouse is becoming alien and Other.

    So I agree, moral outrage is necessary and should be driven by anger rather than disgust. Which isn't to say that disgust never exists, just that we shouldn't be promoting it and using it as the primary prisim in approaching a group of people as Anyabwile suggests. He's entitled to his outrage, I get that, but I worry about his use of disgust.

  76. The sex is the least disgusting part of it. The complete violation of Gods created order and the pollution of a holy relationship between God, man and woman is far, far worse.

  77. Yeah and I definitely think the word disgust can often be synonymous with outrage- like if I say what's going on in Syria "disgusts" me , but that's not really what he's talking about. he's talking about revulsion, as you said.

  78. The important question I think you've missed in others' comments is: "What exactly is the damage?"

    Greed for wealth, for example, deprives others of material things needed for their survival. Hateful words engender self-hate in those the words are directed toward. Forcing authority over others means that others become oppressed.

    What damage is done by two people of the same sex committing themselves to each other in the same way a heterosexual pair would in marriage? Or just by a person being exclusively attracted to members of their own sex while being repulsed by the sexual aspect of the opposite sex?

  79. "I would love to simply delete my initial response if it is possible at all to view it as a "critique" or a "calling out."

    You learned from it. That's enough. *hug* <3

  80. "We genuinely desire to speak the truth in love"

    Yes, love tells the truth, but when your truth degrades people, it’s not loving.
    When your truth reduces relationships to sex acts, it’s not loving.
    When your truth makes people want to hurt and kill themselves, it’s not loving.
    When your truth makes people want to hurt and kill those of us who are LGBT, it's not loving.
    When your truth makes the gospel something that is only available to people who believe like you, it’s not loving.
    When your truth pushes people away from Jesus instead of toward him, it’s not loving.

    And if your truth isn’t loving, is it really truth?

  81. I am not a Christian and therefore have no dog in the fight as I read here the various agonies of Christians parsing their book. I am astonished, however, that there has been no mention of American history. However valuable this beautifully written critique of Anyabwile may be theologically or morally, it seems to me that this horrible preacher can be shut down simply by evoking the history of lynching. The stupefying absurdity of a black man marshalling disgust and revulsion as his allies in an argument leaves him standing shoulder to shoulder with the Klan, cheering lustily as more strange fruit is hoisted upwards. Today's homosexual was yesterday's predatory African American male. Mr. Anyabwile keeps very strange company indeed..

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