Saint Petersburg, Russia - 1 March 2010
Faith. Hope. What kind of love?
I hardly remember my baptism. “Tomorrow after school we’ll get baptized at the cathedral.” The meaning of it all was not really explained to a boy, perhaps because no one was quite clear about it. “God is Love.” End of story. I am Russian Orthodox Christian.
I will never forget my first love. Talk about being born again, as if I just learned to breathe, as if all the secrets of alchemy were revealed. “Let’s go someplace together after school.” It was him. What a story. I am gay.
Thousands of people daily find themselves at a crossroads of their faith and sexual orientation. What’s next? As the saying goes, that’s where it gets really interesting.
In the Soviet Union religion was considered a distracting remnant of the past and the religious were oft discriminated. Homosexuality was a criminal offense. No wonder such a socio-political system did not last beyond a couple generations. For millennia people long to experience love and discover the meaning of life. For many, both these desires are sacred and intertwined. Thus, attempts at public governance of such deeply intimate aspects of an individual life are misguided and doomed to fail. Today in Russia, theoretically, we are free to love and believe as is destined to each person. However, the classic “not what?!” continues to loom large.
While speaking about religion, this post will focus on the Abrahamic monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) with special attention on Christianity due to its far-reaching influence in Russia. In Europe and throughout much of the English speaking world, different Christian denominations have long taken the question of reconciling homosexuality seriously. On one hand there are the “God Hates Fags” signs of the scandalous Fred Phelps church which have become international caricatures of perverted piety. On the other, recent ordinations of gay and lesbian clergy in Sweden, USA and other countries. “Same-sex love is a sin!” Why? The theologians are far from unanimous. The debate spills from the seats of church power into the seminaries and off the pulpits into the living rooms. Yet it somehow manages to bypass Russian Orthodoxy for now.
Partly the problem is that Russian idea of Christian faith is rather passive. Archbishop of Moscow and All Russia himself lamented in a recent TV appearance that despite up to 80% of Russians self-identifying as Russian Orthodox believers, the churches remain empty. Majority of believers are likely interested in the more mystical Orthodox elements: interventions of miracle icons, personal patronage of namesake saints, healing powers of holy water and so on. Average insight into the Bible is limited to the knowledge of the deadly sins list and compassion for the redemptive suffering of Christ. Who cares for the theological odds and ends? Such a state of affairs is troubling. Blind, uninformed faith gives way to fundamentalism, nationalism and other social ills. Love threatens nothing and no one. However, out of ignorance and in the name of some dogma many people propagate unthinkable evil against humanity including crimes against gay, lesbian and transgender people. Makes one want to scream the proverbial “for they know not what they do” and then educate and forgive them.
Scripture rarely mentions same-sex sexual activity. It appears briefly in Leviticus holiness code, story of Sodom, some writings of Paul. Upon further study, all of these instances either condemn the context (rape, prostitution, forms of worship) and not the acts themselves or have altogether nothing to do with gays and lesbians. Moreover, such concepts as sexual orientation, psychology, human rights were not part of the ancient worldview. Let’s not forget that both the Old and the New Testaments were written on the flat Earth! Biblical times are a period of mutiny, slavery, polygamy, multiple warring religions and merely nascent scientific understanding of anything. However, no need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the wisdom of generations as simply irrelevant. Quite the opposite. We should engage the topic with curiosity, enthusiasm and determination. Faith can play a crucial role in the life of individuals and their communities.
Let’s take a look at the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah episode from the Old Testament. It is often mistakenly used as proof of God’s judgment against homosexuality. Two angels disguised as travelers find refuge in Lot’s home. A crowd of townsmen demands Lot releases the visitors so that they may “know” them. Lot offers up his two virginal daughters instead, but the men persist. Angels blind everyone and destroy the city saving only Lot’s family. Traditional yet wrong moral of this story is that the proclivity of Sodomites towards well, sodomy, doomed them to ruin. However, scholarship proves that rich antagonistic cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned for greed and laziness among a host of other ills. Prophet Ezekiel and apostle Matthew speak of this later on in Scripture. This is a story about gang rape, inhospitality, and pride. It has nothing to do with homosexuality. By the way, I want to believe that modern church would condemn Lot’s actions towards his daughters, too.
Right now the process of reconciliation is underway in the post-Soviet countries. First affirming regional conference devoted exclusively to homosexuality and Christianity took place in Moscow last fall. An organization Nuntiare et Recreare is an expert on this topic in Russia. Founded in 2000, their website www.nuntiare.org is the most comprehensive online resource in the Russian language on matters of sexuality, gender identity and faith. All are welcome to learn something useful there. So, go on, read up, talk amongst yourselves and share the link!
Personally, I believe that love is what makes us human and thus it is an eternal force. Our limited insight into creation through a dominant religious thought is always limited and changes over time, sometimes drastically. Same-sex love existed in all historical circumstances, among all peoples. It is celebrated in art, literature, architecture. Homosexuality has been an integral part of society’s intimate life before the dawn of monotheism and will continue to play its role through its plausible decline. Homosexuality and scientology! There is a hot topic for the twenty second century?!
With much trepidation, I want to share a poem. Written in 1998 (in Russian), it manifests my adolescent battle to reconcile the desires of the spirit and the flesh, so to say. This is its virtual debut so do not judge (too harshly) lest y’all be judged!
Half the world – at my feet.
If we are not worthy, then who?
This is not my cross. This is my strength.
Between you and me – eternity.
This aspiration sustains my activism and creativity. Mahatma Gandhi famously said that his spiritual goal is not to undermine someone’s religion, but to make them a better follower thereof since the unifying idea of most faiths is the mandate to treat self and others equally and all creation with dignity. My own experience working with conservative Christian communities in the United States supports the principle. When the fog of prejudice and misinformation is lifted, most heterosexual believers are capable of recognizing and accepting gay, lesbian and transgender people as their spiritual equals. I encourage all to invest time and effort into learning about different religions. A positive LGBT presence is part of the spiritual legacy of most historic faith traditions. Such education will enable our community to not only foster understanding with others, but to also heal our psycho-emotional wounds of homophobia and transphobia.
We should always speak of love, sex and faith openly, seriously, everywhere. I hope that Side-by-Side film festival and its corresponding side projects will continue to provide a unique forum for these much needed discussions. I sincerely wish Russian LGBT community to find its rightful place in the religious life of the country and may those amongst us seeking an affirming spiritual compass find one. In words of Madonna (but of course!), I’m not religious but it makes me want to pray…
Amen. Inshallah. Bashert. Namaste.
Alexey recently relocated to Rostov-on-Don and can be reached at alexey.timbul [at] gmail.com
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