“Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people.” – The Painted Veil (2006)
“Sometimes it’s not about reconnecting with another person, but being willing to exist on the same planet together.” -Dialogue Participant
Can’t we just move beyond this? Prior to the Supreme Court Decision on gay marriage, someone wrote, “I want the states to recognize gay marriage. It makes me so angry every time we have to have a conversation because it’s ridiculous.” Another person said, “I don’t think we should even be having this conversation – it’s just a private affair.”
Since the Supreme Court Decision, that kind of sentiment has arguably increased – with a contingent of Americans (across the political spectrum) ready to have this conversation over. Our friend and colleague John Backman writes, “In dialogue after dialogue, controversy after controversy, I’ve heard people all over the spectrum of politics and faith lose their cool and just want it done” – quoting someone during the gay marriage debate in the Episcopal Church: “We’ve been talking about this for weeks,” he shouted. “It’s not hard, people, yet we keep dancing around the issue. I’m sick of it. We need to vote now and move on.”
The weariness is clearly something people across the spectrum of views are feeling. Backman continues, “Exhaustion is widespread. Many LGBTQIA people would be glad never to meet another conservative Christian, and vice versa. Sometimes the pain of these dialogues overwhelms us, and we have to take a break: from the issue, from the people on the other side, or both. Maybe, for a while, we put the dialogue on hiatus to regain our balance, or we spend time with allies to refresh our souls. Depending on the depth and intensity of the hurt, for a while can mean days, or it can mean years.”
Being able to somehow just ‘put this behind us and not talk about it anymore’ is attractive – and no wonder! Speaking of those feeling this way, Backman adds, “Some of them hope that, if they can close the door on the issue, the people on the other side will go away. This, I think, is what many people mean by moving on: they want to slam the door on further dialogue. They want to send the other side away forever.”
It would be easier this way, wouldn’t it? Just to banish those who disagree to Siberia or South Dakota, maybe? Why would we want to keep the conversation going, for heaven sake?
Makes no sense. It’s a serious question: Why would anyone want to actually keep talking? That sounds crazy (to some) for a couple of reasons:
It makes sense, then, that some would conclude further dialogue may simply not be effective – or even ethical! One man wrote Jacob to say, “Here’s the thing to remember about dialogue & deliberation: not everything is meant to be kissing buddies with everyone.” Another said, “There are many legitimate debates that we as a race must have as we continue to build our sophisticated cultures and institutions, but gay rights need not be one of them. It is not debatable whether gays and lesbians should have the same rights as everyone else – it is a self-evident truth.”
From this perspective, once again, we all need to simply get beyond these questions – rather than spend more fruitless, needless time on them.
But what if we can’t? What if that’s literally impossible?
Can’t go over it, can’t go around it…gotta go through it. To our view, it’s not only naive to think we can simply ‘move beyond’ the questions – it’s ignoring the reality of the situation. Given current positions, convictions and tension, indeed, there is arguably no way around it…
Not only is the conflict not going away, by many estimates, it may only get worse.
If that’s true, then what is our responsibility? Just learn to fight each other better, or do something else?
We’re advocating another way forward not because we hold an abstract belief in its possibility…but because we’ve experienced it ourselves!
We’re not talking about being overly nice or not stepping on each other’s toes. This is not weak-sauce kumbaya hand-holding. Indeed, there is War happening here. None of the above should be read as pretending we can dialogue and everything can be okay…
More than just a fight to the death? As Arthur often reminds people, on an ultimate level, peace is not likely possible given the irreconcilable differences. As he puts it, “There is no room for peaceful co-existence here. Whether they know it or not, gay-affirming people have declared war on the church (Catholic or Mormon, as well as on those Protestant churches–both liberal and conservative – which are still trying to defend ‘Biblical Authority’).”
Arthur goes on to point out how gay-affirming people have felt for years a similar declaration of war from the church. For instance, in a conversation where I shared with him my conviction that “we can know something from God,” Arthur told me what a “deep threat” particular beliefs like this were to him, with “our sense of ‘rightness’ in the cosmic order of things (as a gay community) at stake” adding “our sense of truly ‘belonging’ to the universe and to society is at stake; our sense of safety from violence and persecution and discrimination is at stake.”
Arthur subsequently went on to emphasize the fight as impossible to avoid: “Yes, it can be a war ‘fought’ with charity and respect. But it is a war to the death, nevertheless, at least at the ‘meme’ level. Gay-affirming theology and traditional Mormon theology (and the superhuman authority it claims to represent) are irreconcilable, and they cannot both be correct. One of these memes must win, and the other must lose.” He continues, “People have set their hopes on memes which are, I would argue, in fact and quite inevitably, in a battle-to-the-death.”
Ultimately, in other words one or the other must go – either conservative religion or liberal-progressive views on sexuality. Both cannot survive in the long-game. That’s what Arthur means by a “fight to the death”…one side or the other will win in the end.
If that’s true, then what is to be done? Just keep fighting? Building bunkers…better weapons? That will no doubt continue – and maybe even should continue?
But is that all? Or is there something even more needed?
A fair fight. At the most basic level, perhaps we can insist on a fair fight. Rather than portraying the other side in a way unrecognizable to them, this means insisting on a conversation where our differences are spoken of accurately and without exaggeration….
Arthur continues: “This may be a time not for ‘making peace,’ but for the clarification of positions, for the highlighting of the chasms that divide us, and for the taking of (well-informed) sides. My only real concern is that people may take their sides without being fully informed, and with only distorted ideas about what ‘the other side’ really stands for. Our goal then, is not to bring agreement, or harmony, or peace (at least not directly) but, rather, clarity…and a certain kind of mutual respect that can, in fact, arise as the result of clarity.”
“I therefore agree with [Mormon leader] Elder Christofferson: it is not kind to be unclear.
Arthur continues, “The war is unavoidable. It is already here. Blurry lines just encourage people on both sides to unwittingly stumble into enemy territory. There are real, irreconcilable enemies here on the memetic level; and, to the degree that people identify with those memes–memes which will not and cannot ‘back down’–there are real, irreconcilable enemies on the personal level as well.”
In a long-term view, as Arthur put it glibly, “There just ain’t enough room for the both of us: gays and Biblical / institutional authority!”
“When the lines are blurry,” he then emphasized, problems and more pain arise. “Better, I say, to draw the lines clearly (even as we examine and talk about those lines). Draw the lines – and fight. With charity and respect–and through dialogue–yes. But fight.”
He continues, “The death of one or more memes is absolutely certain–and necessary. And thus the death of certain kinds of hope and faith is also absolutely certain–and necessary. “It is not a question of choosing peace over war, or general well-being over general unhappiness. The war is here, it is happening, and it is inevitable. There can be no peaceful co-existence on the memetic level, and any attempt to arrange some kind of peaceful co-existence at that level will only lead to other kinds of hope and faith being destroyed. People will only be led astray by holding out the vain hope of peaceful co-existence at the level of memes.”
If Arthur’s right, then what’s the point of all this? If (ultimate) peaceful co-existence may not ever be found across this divide, then what are we trying to do?
From Arthur’s perspective, there is something even more important than winning or losing. It is truth itself.
Truth at all cost. Why want anyone want to encounter a point of view that calls into question your own? For those who see sexual orientation as fundamental to who they are, for instance, opening yourself to that view is immensely threatening. And for those who see marriage between man and a woman as central to God’s plan, any conversation where that is openly challenged feels dangerous.
Our answer on why: to give your own convictions a test. Without that, how will you ever know if your own view can stand in the light of day?
And if you’re not even sure what you know or believe, this is also for you!
More from Arthur: “Better, then, in my opinion, to aim for the truth, as clearly and strongly and transparently as possible, and let the…collateral damage–the broken hearts, the lost faiths, the lost lives–occur on a road that at least promises a deeper, cleaner, more definitive kind of peace-after-war, rather than half measures and compromises and blurry lines that are, I think, almost certain to prolong suffering in the form of a kind of ‘cold’ (and confusing) culture war that never ends.”
Arthur concludes: “May the truth win out. And may as few hearts be broken, as few faiths be shattered, and as few lives be lost along the way as possible. And may I be corrected if I have overstepped bounds, spoken with unnecessary harshness, or failed to see a way forward that is both gentle and truly–in the long run–kind.”
You may agree or disagree with Arthur’s thoughts – but regardless, you will most likely appreciate how much they are worth hearing. They remind us that the purpose of thoughtful, healthy conversation is not simply to ‘get along’ or ‘be nice’ or ‘have peace’…especially on issues where real lives are in the balance and there is likely no ultimate peace between positions to be found.
In these instances (and this is not the only one), perhaps we need be more explicit about (greater) truth and (deeper) clarity as explicit aims of this kind of conversation and space. Both aims are arguably best served when we seek to understand each other – with damage potentially obscuring both as well.
In order to get to that truth and clarity, we may well need to sit in some very uncomfortable conversations – the kind where we feel the tension slice through us. Arthur’s words are a reminder that even those conversations are worth it – and a warning against what he calls the “tyranny of civility,” which is a kind of oppressive “respectfulness at all cost – so that there can be no actual challenging of things and an insistence on ‘equal validity’ of all points.”
Seeing each other truthfully. For those uncomfortable with the idea of Big T truth, perhaps we can agree on at least seeing the truth about each other. As the Jewish-Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas once said, “Truth comes through the face of the Other.”
If we’re willing, we can thus go beyond merely insisting on a “fair fight” to actually insist on seeing each other as generously as possible – aka seeing ‘the truth’ in each other’s faces.
Almost always, seeing truthfully involves some kind of affection. In Arthur’s words, “Let’s just say that I want to be like those Allied and Axis troops who decided to play soccer together instead of killing each other that one famous Christmas eve so many years ago. Let’s hold to affection and respect, even if we sometimes wear different uniforms. As to whether we will ultimately have to aim our memetic guns at each other, and pull the triggers, I do not know. I can only say that I do not want to.”
That affection and generosity is implicit in this proposal.
With greater support for a more thoughtful dialogue about key issues, we believe both the religious conservative and LGBT communities are capable of joining together in exploring and seeking greater understanding on these questions with sincerity and respect. In doing so, more than simply “tolerating” each other, perhaps we might all find openings to move beyond the relentless, wearying battles to persuade and convince, and increasingly reach what Tinder calls “the attentive society” – a more mindful place “in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree,” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness” to talk openly with each other in pursuit of ever-greater understanding.
Productive co-existence. You know that neighbor who totally bugs you, but you figure out how to live together? Or how about that spouse or partner or husband or wife who drives you bonkers – but you’ve decided to accept and love?
That’s what needs to happen in this conversation: coming to a place of actual acceptance that someone is going to disagree with us…even forever. And we’ll still love them. As summarized nicely by Kent Frogley, a leader of Utah’s gay pride center, “The Mormons and the gays are not exactly like wine and cheese when paired together. They will continue to view the world differently. We, as gay people, celebrate marriage equality; they say marriage should be limited to one man and one woman. They think religious liberty is under attack; we don’t. They go to a church-wide conference twice a year; we go to the Pride festival. We all like wedding cake.”
In the book, End of Discussion, Mary Katharine and Guy Benson (both same-sex marriage supporters) argue for a “paradigm of authentic coexistence on these questions, in which gay marriage supporters and opponents agree to something of a ‘live and let live’ truce.”
They elaborate: “Supporters of traditional marriage would respect the consequences of the Court’s ruling, even in intense disagreement, while gay marriage advocates would enjoy these new rights, without seeking to exact vengeance on opponents. Practically speaking, this would entail broad protections for religious institutions, and more limited carve-outs for small businesses within the wedding industry. Committed activists on this issue seem to find this outcome unsatisfactory, unfortunately, which is why Americans should brace for a protracted and ugly struggle moving forward. Defenders of religious liberty will face powerful corporate, media and political forces as these battles unfold.”
They conclude, “The ultimate outcome of this contest of ideas will not be determined in some courtroom or even a legislative hall. Rather, it will ultimately be determined in the minds and hearts of the citizens.”
With hearts and minds at stake, we believe it’s worth giving real dialogue a try.
Are you ready? One person insisted, “Most people don’t want to sit and have a real conversation with their political opposite…They just don’t!”
Could that be true? That even though (most of us) are worried about political tensions, for different reasons (most of us) don’t feel able or willing or interested in doing anything about it?
We’re not convinced. While it’s true that conversations with ‘the other side’ can be challenging, it’s also true that more and more people are discovering sweet pay-offs from just a little investment of curiosity and openness in this social experiment. Jacob recently wrote an invitation to the gay and Mormon communities entitled, “Something you can do TODAY to promote more Gay/Mormon affection and understanding” – where people were invited to consider doing a simple Living Room Conversation together.
Hundreds of people took him up on it…just kidding. Just a few!
Why again? No wonder people didn’t try it en masse. It sounds like a lot of work…remind us again why we’d care to have these conversations?
The practice of dialogue itself has a unique power to begin shifting dynamics between us (similar to what the practice of mindfulness meditation does within us). Most people who let themselves sit in dialogue with ‘those people’ (whoever that is), come away with a better understanding of how and why someone else might feel or see or experience things differently (without being the devil incarnate!)
Going back to the core question: Are you open to the possibility of a group of people who are (pretty much) loving and thoughtful folks – but who happen to believe different things than you do about identity, sexuality, the body, attraction, choice, change, acceptance, love, justice, equality, rights, laws, religion, God, eternity, family, marriage and even the ultimate well-being of children? In other words, are you open to the possibility that someone could disagree with you on any (or all of these) and not be stupid or hateful or evil or wanting to hurt gay people or silence religious people?
Depending on the answers to these many questions, of course, people may arrive at very different conclusions about how to work with same-sex attraction and how to relate to questions of faith.
One take-away is that there are fundamentally different perspectives at play – without an awareness of which, this conversation becomes quickly toxic. Even one whiff of an alternative viewpoint can suddenly open up a little more space to breathe together.
One individual, Bob Reese, described these kinds of dialogues as a source of “infinite hope.”
 Ultimately, of course, many dialogue participants find these conversations leading to a much enhanced and significantly deeper sense of safety – especially as the fear and anxiety and anger dissipate profoundly (and especially as new affection arises for the very people that once seemed to be mortal threats).
 A meme is defined as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” Synonyms include “idea, concept, buzzword, trend.” For a more elaborate discussion, see here.
 Dionne & Cromartie, 2006, p. 8.