Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Speechless in New England” first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone.
Speechless in New England
Karl Stephan on Breakfasting with Cultural Antagonists
One morning, at a bed-and-breakfast in New England, my wife and I met a well-dressed woman from the West Coast. This woman—I will call her Mrs. B.—proved to be an engaging and intelligent conversationalist. An Episcopalian and a Democrat, she was no fan of President Bush. She feared that conservative and fundamentalist Christians—she used both modifiers—were a serious threat to freedom. She was convinced that the President is issuing little-known executive orders to further restrict Americans’ freedoms beyond what has been done already through such well-publicized measures as the Patriot Act. His ultimate goal, she said, is to take the country back to 1950, or even earlier if possible.
One of her daughters is a lesbian rabbi, who with her lover has adopted two boys (or perhaps given birth to them—she was not clear on that point). They had to go through the legal process of adopting the boys and carefully chose the only judge of those available who typically granted such applications to lesbian couples. Mrs. B. feared that even this relative freedom would soon be swept away in the tidal wave of repression that will come about during the sovereignty of the Republicans, who are in turn controlled by conservative Christians.
Mrs. B. had an interesting view of the relationship between Episcopalianism and Christianity. “I love my faith,” she said, but because of what conservative Christians have been doing, she no longer publicly identifies herself as a Christian. She will still admit to being an Episcopalian, however.
Fighting Mrs. B.
I am by nature a somewhat inoffensive soul. Fights and arguments distress me, and if I can see any way to allow people to get along without arguing, I will, as long as I do not have to lie outright. After hearing Mrs. B. say all this, I therefore refrained from stating my frank opinion about lesbians being rabbis and having children. But I can imagine what might have happened if I had tried to explain my position.
Suppose I had steeled myself to say, “You know, Mrs. B., historic Christianity condemns homosexual behavior as a disordered misuse of sexuality. A society that puts children in the care of lesbians is adding scandal to the sin.”
Given Mrs. B.’s strong feelings about the matter, she might not have let me get any farther than the first sentence. At the very least, she would have immediately classified me as one of those conservative Christians who have been conspiring for the last three decades to take over the country. She might have jumped up and stomped out of the room, leaving the table and the B&B too. The B&B owners had been the soul of hospitality, so for this reason alone I was reluctant to say anything that would have spoiled the cordial atmosphere of our breakfasts together.
But if what I believe is true, Mrs. B. believes something that is false. Her lesbian rabbi daughter is not only living a sinful life, but is also teaching others to do so by both example and precept, if lesbianism ever comes up in discussions with the members of her synagogue (and you can be sure that it does). On the other hand, considering Mrs. B.’s point of view, it is hard to conceive of an argument against homosexuality that she would even listen to, much less believe.
There are some women for whom their children’s behavior is above criticism. Mrs. B. did not impress me as one of them. Her personality seemed forceful, yet balanced. I believe she was fully capable of criticizing or correcting her daughter’s behavior, but she did not believe lesbianism something to be corrected. After all, she has grandchildren living with the lesbian daughter as well as with her more conventional daughters.
If she took the position that lesbianism is sinful and to be avoided, she would be endorsing a policy that, if embodied in law, would either deny her daughter the right to raise children altogether, require her daughter to repress or change her sexual inclinations, or force her daughter to lie about her lesbianism to qualify for adoption. Mrs. B. would not have found any of these options acceptable.
Some will say that in remaining silent about this issue, I missed an opportunity to witness to the truth. As Christians, we often hold positions that, if verbalized, would cause dissension, disagreement, or fights among people we know as colleagues, acquaintances, or friends. Sometimes the wisest and most Christ-like thing to say is nothing at all.
Some consider the word “diplomat” to be a synonym for “highly paid liar,” but even Christ at times paid attention to what might be viewed as diplomacy. When he and Peter were asked to pay the temple tax, he confided to Peter that as the Son of God he had no need to pay the tax; but for the sake of not offending the collectors, he told Peter to catch a fish, and he would find the shekel tax in its mouth (see Matt. 17:24–27). Was Jesus ashamed of being the Christ? No, but for reasons best known only to himself, he chose not to make an issue of it, and instead performed his only recorded miracle involving money.
We are told to hate the sin and yet love the sinner. We are all sinners in one way or another. Mrs. B. loves her daughter the sinner, but if Mrs. B. hates the sin at all, she doesn’t hate it enough to object to her lesbian daughter being a mother and a rabbi. We are also told to love our enemies. If Mrs. B. knew my position on homosexuality, she would probably classify me as one of those conspiratorial conservative Christians—in other words, an enemy.
Is she therefore my enemy too? I do not regard her as such. We managed to sit together for three breakfasts without ever raising our voices in anger—but only because I concealed my true beliefs about matters she discussed.
The conversation ended when Mrs. B. apologized for talking too long, and excused herself from the table. Someone once said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. In this trial, if trial is what it was, I remained silent instead of speaking out for what I believe in. I do not view Mrs. B. as wholly evil, or even as one who necessarily holds consciously evil intentions. She is in the grip of a delusion that is reinforced by much of what our culture teaches about homosexuality.
But so far, her lesbian daughter is raising two sons and teaching her synagogue that nothing is wrong with her style of life. The sons may or may not grow up to believe their mothers were right about homosexuality, but chances are that they will. Children have a strong tendency, probably built into them by God, to believe that whatever their parents do is right and even intelligent. Not only do the consequences of this sin endanger the souls of the lesbian couple, but they also set a bad example for numbers of other people, including the sons and the members of the daughter’s synagogue.
The only alternative to my silence would have been for me to say what I really believe to be the truth about the matter. But our relativist society so closely associates intellectual positions with the individuals who hold them that most people assume that disagreement with one’s beliefs is the same as an attack on that person. Even if I had somehow overcome this obstacle, and Mrs. B. had been able to distinguish between a discussion and a personal attack on her and her daughter, she still would have dismissed me as another unthinking, cruel, conspiratorial conservative Christian: the type of person whose ideas are not worthy of serious consideration.
In several of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the Lion says that “no one is ever told what might have happened.” If this is true, not even God will tell me what would have followed if I had spoken up. I now know what happens if I don’t. Perhaps next time this matter comes up in conversation, I’ll have the courage—or foolhardiness—to find out what happens if I do.
Karl Stephan is an associate professor in the Department of Technology at Texas State University-San Marcos in San Marcos, Texas.
“Speechless in New England” first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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