An Interview with David Bennett
Last month I posted about David Bennett’s new book, A War of Loves. The book tells the story of David’s journey from being a gay activist to a follower of Jesus committed to celibacy. I found one of the real strengths of David’s book to be that he gives fresh and thought-provoking perspectives on some of the areas of debate among Christians who hold to the historic Christian sexual ethic. David has kindly agreed to answer some questions and share a bit more on some of these points.
AB: A War of Loves is built around the story of how you met Jesus. Could you give us a quick summary of how that happened?
DB: I met Jesus in a pub in the gay quarter of central Sydney. A young filmmaker offered me prayer and asked me, after I had spoken about why as a gay man Christianity was clearly not for me, ‘Have you experienced the love of God?’ – no Christian had ever asked me that question. As a postmodern, experience attracted me. I accepted the prayer with an agnostic logic: ‘If you don’t know about whether there’s a God you have to be open to prayer.’ She prayed for me in such a loving way, and suddenly, I felt this tingling sensation on the top of my head; the Holy Spirit came on me with power. Jesus came into my life in that moment, but I won’t spoil what more is in the book!
AB: You spent three years after first responding to Jesus wrestling with how your sexuality and faith go together and living with an affirming or Side A view. Now that you have come to a non-affirming/Side B perspective, how do you think those from a non-affirming position should relate to those from an affirming position?
DB: Initially when I became Side B, I was filled with so much anger and bitterness toward Side A Christians. I felt betrayed by them, in that they didn’t relay the truth of God’s Word to me, which was a cruel thing to do. They were working to take away the rights of people like me and to marginalise our voice so that they could just feel like they would never have to be reminded of God’s truth again. My experience when I committed to celibacy was that it was easier for them just to delete and block people like me from their world or ignore me in person. I was shocked at how bigoted side A people could be (of course this is not exclusive!) I think we are all blind to our own ignorance towards others, and Side B folk must be careful not to let their sense of betrayal or frustration or even the rejection of their precious obedience to Christ sway them from loving Side A people in truth.
Of course, I now believe Side A to be deeply flawed, but it took me three years to realise God’s truth out of grace and love. There are so many Side B people who have the same ethic but have no love. That just hurts people. Recently I’ve made Side A friends again and have slowly begun to trust and witness to them after almost seven years of deep frustration and hurt at not being told the truth. I’ll leave the rest to the book!
AB: At one point you say that the way that Christians have often handled sexuality has had the effect of ‘inoculating people against the gospel’. What do you mean by this and how can the church move on in this?
DB: I think the graceless response of Christians to gay people and the way Christians have often used the gay community as a scapegoat for their own inner moral failings have been truly inoculating. Many Christians have also failed, because of a latent dualism in our ethical thinking that isn’t biblical, to recognise the virtue in many gay relationships and unions, whilst holding to the theological truth of scripture that same-sex activity is sinful and not God’s will for human sexuality. We are sex-act obsessed and often don’t see the heart of a person, which God sees, and their full humanity, which is both broken and beautiful.
Same-sex desire is a complex entanglement of the very good aspect of a human being made for intimacy, love, connection, and closeness, and the effects of the fall on our bodies and hearts, both involuntary and voluntary. I never chose to be same-sex attracted, but because of Adam, original humanity, I have a body that is directed toward a goal that isn’t God’s original intention. Instead of being met with compassion and celebration for my obedience, I am often met with an inoculating theorisation about why things are this way. We need to stop theorising and start loving and living truth in a way that meets the real needs and personal realities of LGBTQI people and beyond.
AB: You see importance in understanding yourself as being part of the gay community – in distinction to the gay scene. What do you mean by this and why is it important to you?
DB: The gay community is as diverse as gay people are, and it’s important to me that I can say ‘Hey, I’m one of you – I get what it’s like to have a body like that which desires those things and what it’s like being in spaces that don’t get you.’ For me, the word gay simply refers to one’s orientation (not one’s sexual ethic), and thus the gay community is that group of people who have a shared experience of a particular kind of human embodiment in which they can relate.
The gay community has a mainstream, liberal element that is strong and pronounced, but that doesn’t represent all gay or same-sex attracted people. The gay scene can often be quite a broken space, where I find the same idolatries I often find in the ‘Christian’ community, only people are often more real about them. However, because of my faith and chosen path of following Jesus, I feel on the fringe of the gay community a lot of the time and not really welcome in the ‘gay’ scene.
AB: You also feel it’s important that you are able to refer to yourself as a ‘celibate gay Christian’. Others have pushed back against the use of the term ‘gay’ among Christians attracted to those of the same sex, questioning whether sexuality should be a part of identity. Why do you feel it is an appropriate and helpful term to use?
DB: It’s hard when you are falsely represented as not gay enough for the gays and not Christian enough for the Christians; you are thankful that your Father in Heaven sees you as whole in Christ and not reduced by cultural misunderstandings.
I only use the word ‘gay’ in reference to a fallen sexual orientation. (All of our sexual orientations are broken since the Fall FYI!) I think there is a lot of fear regarding the word ‘gay’ in the Christian world – however Christian faith has always renewed and critiqued and utilised the language of its surrounding culture to preach and access the culture. Paul was the great master of this (i.e. his rhetorical strategies and preaching and his Roman citizenship). I am following his example.
The word gay is defined across all of its uses, which are varied and complex like any identity-laden word, as referring to one’s sexual orientation. In this sense, I don’t see it very differently to ‘same-sex attracted’, but it avoids the baggage that term has for many (it risks sounding pathological or pejorative). Our identities as Christians are not self-erasing but self-transforming. We have to boast in our weakness in forming our identities whilst setting our minds on heavenly things.
That is the tension in which every ‘celibate’ (heavenly), ‘gay’ (earthly reality of the Fall) Christian lives. You don’t have to identify as a married heterosexual Christian because you wear a ring, and most people assume you’re that. As a smaller group, we need language to be real and transparent and to witness to Jesus. I boast in the weakness that has now been redeemed in celibacy as I wait for the day, with the groanings of faith in this body, for its resurrection. Anything less is to betray the careful tension of the ‘now but not yet’ way in which truly Christian identity is to be formed, whilst pointing to a greater reality in Christ where we will, at last, be free of earth-bound, fallen-body bound identities like ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.
As I say in the book, my only worry about the word gay is the added associations it has in our culture which are not actually integral to its meaning. Being gay is simply about sexual orientation; it’s entirely separate to the sexual ethic one chooses to adopt. I want to assert that in the secular world. There’s another way to be gay in Christ that doesn’t have to involve the liberal ethic that everyone assumes of gay people. Celibate gay Christians need acceptance, not just in the Christian world, but in the secular world too – our witness needs to be heard. It’s an evangelistic imperative that causes me to use the word gay. In Christ, I chose celibacy in obedience to God’s teaching. Other gay people have chosen otherwise. It doesn’t make me less Christian, but actually magnifies my Christian witness when I say ‘I’m a celibate gay Christian’ – boasting of the grace that wrought such obedience in my weakness. One’s difference of embodiment becomes a site for the glorification of God. The great truth I’ve learnt is that God does not love us and use us in spite of our fallen or broken vestiges but precisely because of, and through them. He gets all the glory!
AB: One of the challenges you lay down for the church is that we must break the ‘culture of silence’, replacing it with a culture of ‘repentant honesty’. Can you explain this to us and give us some practical ideas of how we can do this?
DB: When we have an issue or divisive point as the Church that disunifies us, the best way to solve it is to really search ourselves for our own idols that may be generating the problem. The call of repentance in Christ is constant and every day, not just one-off. There are ways we can have ‘right beliefs’ in the wrong way. Arguably, Jesus confronted a society that had a lot of the right beliefs but believed them in the wrong way; they were not defined by the love of God. Repentant honesty protects us from double standards that harm our LGBTQI or SSA brothers and sisters in Christ.
AB: At one point in your journey you realised the importance of combining love for God with a right fear of God. How do you feel these two should work together?
DB: These are absolutely vital. Fear of the Lord protects our idol/sin-prone hearts from worshipping a fantasy of our own construction, and the love of God keeps our hearts soft and malleable to his grace and instruction. We can’t offer our bodies up as living sacrifices until we know both these realities – and as I say our love won’t be real.
Dr Ashley Null, an expert on the thinking of Archbishop Cranmer, the great reformer, has said, ‘According to Cranmer’s anthropology, what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies. The mind doesn’t direct the will. The mind is actually captive to what the will wants, and the will itself, in turn, is captive to what the heart wants.’ Until the fear of the Lord removes the idolatry of broken desires, we will forever justify ethical feelings that are contrary to God’s true nature and will.
I couldn’t submit to scripture and God’s heart for human sexuality until I knew the love of God in the fear of the Lord, which transformed my ethical knowing to let go of what I desired and willed and receive the mind of the Spirit that takes us deeper into revelation, Word and the thoughts of God, instead of the flesh which brings separation from the reality of the true and living God. Once I repented (allowed my mind to be renewed by Holy Spirit), I could be celibate from the right place, avoiding ‘bad celibacy’ or false asceticism that is not Christ-centred and grace-driven but sinfully self-justifying.
AB: What are the key lessons you are hoping Christians will learn from your story?
DB: Whatever the Holy Spirit teaches. Let everything else be forgotten!
For more information on A War of Loves take a look at the book’s website: awarofloves.com