I arrived in Austria close to midnight last night, logged on, and found this extraordinary letter from a reader, written in response to this article of mine about Orthodoxy and homosexuality. Actually, I had seen an earlier version of it last week. I asked him if he would rewrite it to obscure some details to protect his own identity, so I could publish it on this blog. He has done so. I will have a little commentary afterward. The letter begins:

I’m an American Orthodox living in a traditionally Orthodox country for a number of years now, and recently in the Orthodox internet world there have been a lot of comments about Orthodoxy and homophobia and homosexuality, in particular spurred by the recent conference in England in which several well-known Orthodox figures took part. Many Orthodox in America seem shocked at the conference, and in particular at a talk given by Nik Jovčić-Sas about homophobia and violence in traditionally Orthodox countries. The response I have seen to that is greatly saddening, as most people seem more interested in attacking the presenter and his motives than in examining what he has to say.

Living in an Orthodox country, I can affirm that everything he says is true, and worse even! And then it occurred to me, that the extent of homophobia and violence against gays in most traditionally Orthodox countries is something American Orthodox are probably totally unaware of. It’s pretty awful, how much open hatred towards gays and inciting violence towards them is perfectly acceptable, and all this to an extent that I think most Americans in 2019 have trouble picturing it as a reality, and thus they dismiss such accounts as being basically propaganda or isolated incidents being promoted by people who want to change Church teaching.

I, however, don’t aim to change the church’s teachings on homosexuality, and as an American Orthodox living in an Orthodox country and actually working for a Church organization, perhaps what I have to say will be listened to, because the story needs to be heard, regardless of who is telling it.

First of all, it’s important to realize that the “moderate” views common in Orthodox parishes in America and the West about homosexuality — that homosexual behavior is a sin but that such people should be embraced in the Church and helped to live lives of celibacy, and also simply that it is an issue that can be talked about at all without people breaking out into hysteria — is almost unheard of in Orthodox countries. It’s also important to remember that not only is Orthodoxy a small minority religion in America, but also American Orthodox are a small minority within world Orthodoxy, and the life of the Church in America can differ significantly from what MOST Orthodox around the world experience, including on this issue of homosexuality/homophobia.

Thus, in a typical Orthodox country, what you are basically looking at is a large number of people who use the word “fags” to talk about gays and openly talk about how they should be killed, with a pretty small number of people who take the other extreme and just say homosexuality is totally acceptable morally. The latter are a small minority and have no voice in the public sphere or mainstream discourse. Zero. There are very, very few people who would hold that homosexuality is a sinful behavior, but who would not then have a very high level of prejudice and overt hatred towards those who struggle with it. There are very few people who would be okay with going to church with someone who is celibate but inclined towards homosexuality. It is indeed very dangerous to speak about being gay in an Orthodox country. You could be killed or beaten, in a worst case scenario, but even if that doesn’t happen, you almost certainly would be screamed at, have insults hurled at you, and be cast out of your group of friends and family, lose your job, etc. It is not something one can talk about really at all.

Thus, homophobia, hate, and violence are what most Orthodox Christians worldwide who struggle with same sex attractions would be facing, it’s thus absolutely essential to include those experiences in any discussion of Orthodoxy and homosexuality.

I say that because I watched Nik Jovčić-Sas’s talk on youtube, and while yes, he does have an agenda to normalize homosexuality, at the same time, in his talk he really did just try to make people aware of the very real violence against gays in Orthodox societies, and the Church’s lack of response to that. Furthermore, he is open about his “agenda,” and for that I quite respect him. And yet all over the internet, including in your article, I don’t see much response to what he actually said, to addressing the issue of violence and hatred. I see a lot of turning back to the debate of whether or not homosexuality can or should be morally accepted, who is trying to force who to do what, and so on. And that makes me sad, and in a way, proves right those who would say that upholding traditional morals is inherently homophobic, because it seems like people who say homosexuality is a sin do, in fact, hate, or at least, don’t care about, gay people. It is a very real discussion that needs to be had. I would really like to see an article from you or another mainstream American Orthodox on just that, on the reality of violence against gays and homophobia in Orthodox lands.

What really struck me in your article was the line, “Orthodox clergy and laity must hold the line on moral and theological truth, but if they can’t condemn cruelty against gays, who are made in the image of God like every other human being, then they have no moral authority.”

This is precisely the problem for so many gays in the Church, especially in Orthodox lands. The Church really has lost its moral authority for so many people for so many reasons, and what do we do about that? Please let me explain with some of my own personal experiences:

There are a few bishops in the local Church of the country I live in, for example, that speak very hatefully about gays very publicly, it is sometimes even considered over the top by local standards! I have heard bishops here actually say in public that gays are committing a sin worse than murder, blame the collapse of the economy and the nation after the fall of communism in the 1990s and all of the troubles that ensued (a very painful issue for everyone) on the supposed presence of gays in the country and that the collapse was God’s punishment for allowing “those people” in our country, and call for all gays to either be exterminated or driven out of the country. It sometimes, to me, as an outsider, sounds like a parody of itself, almost “What gay activists would like the Church to be saying so they can prove the Church is homophobic”, and yet, it isn’t a parody, and it’s all very real.

Additionally, it’s important to mention the fact that it’s really not uncommon when priests or church figures speak about homosexuality, they refer to gays interchangeably as “fags.” So, if that isn’t openly preaching homophobia and hate, then I really don’t know what is. To be sure, this isn’t what you would hear in an average Sunday in an Orthodox parish here, mostly you won’t hear anything about homosexuality at all, but when you do, it’s invariably the kind of thing I just mentioned.

And so then when certain prominent hierarchs in the Church take such a virulent homophobic stance, I don’t see how the Church can claim to distance itself from anti-gay violence in any credible sense. They are not just silent about violence against gays, they are pretty openly inciting it in some pretty prominent cases! What else are we to understand it to mean when we are told sodomy is worse than murder, and all of the woes of our country are caused by God cursing us because those fags are here, and we need to get rid of them? How is that not a call for violence against gays?

It also daily comes as a shock to me, as an American in an Orthodox country, how much people do feel the need to talk about gays and how awful they are. It’s almost like you would think there is a gay pride parade marching down their street every single day, but that’s far from the case, of course. There are very few, if any, pro-gay voices that are heard in the public sphere here; it just doesn’t really exist. And yet, everyone feels the need to talk about how gays are awful, the worst sinners ever, why being gay is worse than killing someone, worse than being a pedophile (or conflating pedophilia and homosexuality), how even demons are disgusted with homosexuality, how God does not hear the prayers of gays, how committing homosexual acts makes God incapable of “looking upon a nation,” etc.

And you will hear this just…every day…in casual conversation.

It was also the first time in my life that I heard anyone openly say “I hate gays.” And so that was just…a huge shock. Or another time, I think my third or fourth week here after arriving, I saw a huge mural on a wall and it said in the local language “We will exterminate the gays”. I asked my (local) friend about it, and he very quietly said, “Oh, some people get confused and think we should kill the gays because the Church is against it,” and then he went on to add, “But we should stop talking about this now, or someone could get confused and think we are one of them and hurt us.” It was unreal. And yet, seeing graffiti/murals like that is actually pretty common.

There is also how homosexuality is dealt with in the Church with priests and monks and others who work for the Church. You just don’t talk about it. Ever. In confession, yes, but even then it’s sort of, whispered and short and still not really discussed, and mostly my sense in talking about it with others is that the confessor will refer to it all in euphemisms and not actually address it and just move the conversation along to something else as quickly as possible.

This is where what you said about your homosexual friend confiding in you for support in living a chaste life (combined with some comments further down on the page) got me thinking, in light of my experiences as an Orthodox Christian in America and then here, in an Orthodox land. In America, within the church community, we could talk about those struggles with church friends, it was okay, and I think that was a good thing.

I never felt in any church community I was involved in in America that anyone was coming on to me. We were on the one hand more open about those struggles as friends in Christ, which people here would find scandalous, but on the other hand, I can’t say that in my case anything “bad” ever happened in the context of the Church in America with regard to homosexuality. The honesty about such tendencies created a safer environment, I think. It’s when we repress things and pretend they don’t exist that they become problems.

It’s the same with how society as a whole has dealt with homosexuality: In America if you want to be gay, you can just go out and do that, you won’t lose your job or be physically attacked, and in 2019, you probably won’t lose any friends or family members. Society gives you that freedom. In most Orthodox countries, that isn’t the case at all, and yet, gay people still exist, but how? Many hide in monasteries, or as priests in parishes, they find a “cover.”.

I think partly that is why I’ve encountered the situations I have within monasteries and in my work in the Church here, which I didn’t ever feel was even a remote possibility in America. In America, it is more clear who is who, in that regard.

Thus, in the Church here, no one talks about homosexuality, and yet, I would say such acts are far more present, sadly. I’ve had priests come on to me quite a few times, once I had to actually physically kick an archimandrite [abbot] to get him to stop making advances at me when we were on a church business trip together. In another case, I was outright sexually assaulted by a hieromonk [priest-monk] in a monastery that I was visiting for reasons related to my work. It’s so taboo and something that you just so cannot speak of, that all that provides a cover and a “safe place” for a lot of bad things to happen. You can do whatever, because everyone is too ashamed of what you are doing to even deal with it, as that would require talking about it.

It’s all totally counterintuitive. And in fact, the monastery where I was sexually assaulted by a hieromonk was actually the residence of one of the bishops I mentioned earlier on who is so over-the-top homophobic in public. And then at home, he protects monks and priests who are sexually active, and when I say protecting, I mean, he will squash people who find out about what is going on. He knows full well what they do, and instead of stopping the sexual activity from going on, he stops people from talking about it by threatening them and slandering them.

This is what happened to me several years ago when, after the assault, I went to tell the abbot what happened (the bishop not being present at the time). What followed was an all night interrogation of ME as if I were a criminal. This was early on in my time in “the old Country,” and so I wasn’t aware of how homophobic people were or how such a thing would be dealt with. Thus, among their many questions was asking if, otherwise, I had ever been attracted to men. I stupidly believed that I could be honest to priests and that they would help and not hurt. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case.

Based on that, they decided nothing bad could have happened, as it would mean I must have wanted the hieromonk to do that, and the abbot also said to me “We know perfectly well what Fr X does, this is far from the first time he does this, and it’s none of your business!” I would have thought that by him doing what he did to me it became my business!

In any case, I should also note that this abbot is now actually a bishop, that the bishop of that diocese at the time then quickly caused me to lose my job and also lose my residence permit for the country for several months (in addition to the homophobia, most Orthodox countries are also quite corrupt). I did encounter him not long after and he pulled me aside to scream at me that I am worse than a murderer, that God cannot hear my prayers, and that I had defiled a holy place. The hieromonk who sexually assaulted me served liturgy the following day as though nothing had happened, and is still there as far as I know.

The Church’s overwhelming silence would seem to serve both people who would like to change the Church’s teachings, and those who are truly full of hate and prejudice. They both interpret the same silence as they would like.

You also commented on the statement “In my opinion, our hierarchs have been making matters worse by their silence, as they merely succeed in giving everyone the impression that the Church has nothing to say in its own defense.” I would like to invite you to consider that statement in context of what you say later on, “And I’m betting there are people who would genuinely be open to the church’s teaching, if they ever heard it proclaimed.” That is precisely it, I think.

What you speak of as being the Church’s teaching, of the fact that homosexual acts are sinful, but that we should not hate gay people…I agree with you that it is Church teaching in the sense that that is what one would find in the Fathers and in true Orthodox Christian believers…but it isn’t so true in a functional sense. Living in an Orthodox country, it is rare to encounter viewpoints like yours or mine. It’s pretty much always either: overt homophobia and hatred (most common if the topic actually is raised), complete and utter silence (most common from Church figures), or just an open acceptance of homosexual behavior (least common, and I’ve never heard it openly stated by any church figure here). I think the closest I have come to to encountering a compassionate upholding of traditional Orthodox moral teaching here are priests who will hear about a homosexual’s struggle in confession, affirm that it is wrong but that it is a struggle they must engage in, and then sort of just…“Ok I heard that, I told you what to do, I accept you, but let’s never speak of this again ever.” And that’s about as close as it gets to finding “support.”

All that to say: In practice, in real, lived Church life, these are truly fair questions: What does the Church have to say to gays? How does the Church help gays in their lives in Christ? How does it help people to struggle against their passions? How does it bring the message of the Gospel and hope to those lost in sin? And the lived reality is more often than not…pretty awful.

It is something the Church is not handling well at all, and I have seen so much done TO homosexuals in the name of Orthodoxy that, I feel we need to talk about that side of things more in the Church, and especially in decidedly “traditional” circles. If you don’t want people denying Church teaching, if you don’t want people using the violence and abuse as an excuse to abandon Church teaching, then we need to see traditional voices speaking out against violence, against hate, and doing so much more forcefully. The Orthodox Church has a lot of housecleaning to do, I thik. The issue with homosexuality is a symptom of a bigger problem in both the laity and the hierarchy.

This may all come as a shock to Orthodox in the West, but the reality is that these kinds of things ARE the reality for most Orthodox Christians in the world. Being called vulgar names, being assaulted, fearing for one’s life, fearing for one’s job, fearing that your friends would not be your friends if “they knew”, and so we must ask ourselves: How is that Orthodox? And if it isn’t Orthodox, and yet that is the overwhelming experience in Orthodox societies, then why doesn’t the Church do more to correct it? Why doesn’t the Church speak out? Why doesn’t the Church do more to spread its actual teachings amongst the faithful?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but at least starting a discussion is a place to start.

I really can’t think the reader enough for this letter. All of this comes as a real shock to me, as an American Orthodox Christian. When readers of this blog ask me why I don’t blog more often on life in the Orthodox Church, I explain to them that American Orthodoxy is tiny, and it is difficult to get news from the rest of the Orthodox world. This is a good example of what I’m talking about. Again, I’m grateful to this American reader who is Orthodox, and who is living and working in that world, for reaching out to me.

You all know where I stand on issues of Christianity and sexuality, both homo- and hetero-. I fully affirm the teaching of Scripture and tradition, without any ifs, ands, or buts. In many American churches — Orthodox and otherwise — the greater pastoral problem is that pastors, lay leaders, and parents are too afraid to proclaim, explain, and defend that teaching at all! And so, they leave people — especially young people — to be catechized by the culture.

This reader tells us that the reality is very, very different in Orthodox countries, such as the one where he lives and works (and I should tell you that I know the reader’s identity, and where he is living; I am not sharing it to protect him). I am a bit ashamed that I didn’t know about this terrible reality for gays and lesbians, and I am scandalized that this is how the Church deals with the issue there. I shouldn’t say “the issue”; I should say these flesh and blood people, who are beloved children of God.

To be clear, I am grateful that the Orthodox Church in those countries defends Church teaching, especially in the face of attacks coming from the West. That is better than the silence of Church leaders, Orthodox and otherwise, in the West. I want to make sure I am heard about that.

However, my God, what a cruel burden these churchmen, and lay Orthodox Christians, lay up on the backs of gay and lesbian Orthodox in those countries! It is hard enough to face going through life without sexual intimacy, as all unmarried Christians must (and gays cannot marry in the eyes of the Church). The Church — meaning the institution, and the assembly of believers — should help those men and women carry that weight, and invite them to help everyone else carry the weight of their own crosses. When I think about the gay Christian friends I have — Orthodox and not — who are committed to a life of faithful chastity, and I consider how they would be treated in certain Orthodox countries, it infuriates me. To be clear, when I think that the Church is responsible for treating any gay person, chaste or not, like this — well, it is a scandal. It really is.

If it takes a scandalous gay Orthodox Christian like Nik Jovcic-Sas to tell the Orthodox world this scandalous truth, and to encourage Christians like the author of this letter to tell this horrible truth, well, God bless Nik Jovcic-Sas (and may God lead him to repentance).

May God lead the Orthodox Church to repentance. I hope to see the Orthodox clerics and lay leaders who deny the truth of Scripture and tradition on the question of homosexuality turn from their errors. I hope to see the Orthodox clerics and lay leaders who are sunk in cowardly silence on the question turn from their errors. But I also fervently hope and pray that the Orthodox leaders who preach violence and contempt for gays and lesbians, and who offer these struggling souls stones hurled at their heads, not the bread of life, will repent before God for the evil that they do. If gay and lesbian Orthodox Christians cannot hear a word of mercy and love from the Church, and a defense of their dignity as human beings, even as the Church calls them to lives of purity and integrity, then of what use is the Church? Especially those hypocritical gay bishops, archimandrites, and hieromonks hiding behind the façade of the cassock. As Jesus said to his Apostles of the towns that would not receive them, “Truly, I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment.”

In other correspondence, the writer of this letter said that the intense hatred of gays in the country where he lives now explains why so many gay men go to the monasteries to hide. Having grown up in an America that had changed greatly on the subject of homosexuality, the reader never saw gay men hiding in monasteries (or in the Catholic priesthood). He told me that it has been a real education for him about what the closet does to people, and to the Church. Though the reader does believe that the Orthodox Church teaches truth about homosexuality, he also is grateful that it is possible to be openly gay in America and not have to fear for your life and your safety.

I do too. I have always said that we are fortunate to be done with the closet. We can see from the hideous experience of the Catholic Church of our time what happens when gay men hide out in religious orders or the priesthood (the latter being less of a problem and a possibility in Orthodoxy; married clergy is the norm there). What this reader above tells about what he has seen among bishops, priests, and monks in his country was common in the US Catholic Church — and for the same reason. The began by hiding in the clerical life, behind the public assumption that clerics are chaste, and ended by hiding their aberrant and abusive sexual behavior.

Somehow, the Orthodox Church has to learn to walk a courageous and countercultural narrow path, neither demonizing gays and lesbians nor valorizing them as powerful voices in the Protestant and Catholic churches are doing. We are fortunate not to have any Orthodox clerics in America who excoriate gays and lesbians as some in other Orthodox countries do, per this reader’s letter; at least I don’t know of any who do. But we definitely do not need any Orthodox versions of the Jesuit James Martin, who advocates for total acceptance of LGBTs. Nor do we need what we have now, which is a hierarchy in which bishops seem to think that if they’ve all put their names to carefully worded official statements of policy reaffirming Orthodox teaching, they’ve done all that can be expected of them to offer pastoral guidance to the American church.

A truly Orthodox response would infuriate both those who despise gays and lesbians, and those who despise what Scripture says about homosexuality. But what else is there for us to do? We who are orthodox in our Orthodoxy cannot expect gays and lesbians, and their straight allies, to take us seriously if all we show to them is hatred. That is the lesson from this reader’s letter, it seems to me. Nobody will listen to us if we can’t honestly demonstrate that we love them, and bear them no hatred.

But we also can’t expect faithful Orthodox Christians of all kinds to take the Church’s teachings seriously if our bishops and priests and lay leaders won’t talk about them, won’t explain them, won’t defend them, and demonstrate by their silence in the face of these strident attacks by the post-Christian culture (even within the Church!) that these teachings are not important.

UPDATE: Reader Dave G. writes:

Well, this is certainly an eye opener. I don’t doubt that homosexuals in other parts of the world can be treated brutally. But here’s what I’ve learned from our Orthodox church and its people. One, the world has watched the march of ‘gay rights’ in the West and noticed there is no middle ground. If homosexuals were once treated brutally, the objective of the LGBTQ rights movement seems to be to repay in kind. Two, as for being treated brutally in other parts of the world, that is likely true. It’s not as if abuse of homosexuals is some bizarre thing that only happened a couple times in New York.

The extent of it, however, is something I don’t know. I recently saw a news special in our local news media about the continuing struggle of the LGBTQ community for rights here in central Ohio. What struggle? My wife and I both worked for mega-billion dollar corporations here that fully support everything the LGTBQ community advocates, warns employee from speaking out against anything LGTBQ at the workplace or on social media, and mandates acceptance from its employees for the companies’ own support of the LGTBQ community. That’s just us. It’s like that around the region, as college campuses, schools, libraries all advocate fully for gay rights, while warning students, employees and others what will happen if they’re not in line. When my sons were in public school, they had an assembly where bullying and disagreeing with the gay rights groups in the school were conflated, and the students warned accordingly.

So that makes you wonder when you hear such things. I get why other countries are pushing back against gay rights since in the West, at least, there appears to be no happy medium. On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me that homosexuality is more rampant in the Orthodox Church than we imagine. Our own Orthodox priest recently lamented that a growing number of Orthodox teens are quite fine with gays and lesbians doing whatever. Likewise, for the last few centuries, the churches in general have typically followed more and more of what the world teaches, and modified both doctrine and behavior accordingly. So who knows? How we find that medium is beyond me. I think part of the problem is that when we try to accommodate, we end up accepting at least some of the premises of the world regarding sexuality, and then find ourselves painted into a corner. Once we concede the Church was wrong about something as plain and touchable as human nature, who can put any stock in what it has to say about invisible Gods and spirits and eternities? Perhaps other countries don’t know how to improve treatment of homosexuals without ending up in that corner.

This resonates with me. I have absolutely no trust at all that progressives will tolerate Christians who refuse, however peacefully and passively, to embrace and affirm homosexuality and transgenderism. I completely understand why Orthodox countries (and Catholic countries in parts of what was once called “Eastern Europe”) are pushing aback against this aggressive cultural imperialism from the West. I hope they succeed! But I cannot understand how a Christian can endorse this kind of cruelty, much less practice it. I don’t understand how a Christian can be indifferent to it.

One reason why it is so hard for Christians and social conservatives here to take these reports as seriously as they should be taken is because we are propagandized constantly to believe that even holding opinions that LGBTs and their allies scorn is HATE, and is DANGEROUS. When you are told that your very existence is a symbol of hatred, and when you see people like you losing their jobs because LGBTs have designated them as haters, it is hard to see persecution going on in other countries.

Why is it that neither militant anti-gays, such as those in Orthodox countries spoken of by the anonymous reader, and militant pro-gays, such as those who control all the cultural and corporate high ground in the West — why is it that both sides imagine that they cannot exist without demonizing the other, and driving them out of society?

Or maybe I am the naive one here…

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