Who Would Jesus Bully?
By Karen Swallow Prior
July 12, 2011
“You’re not alone.”
“Life can be amazing. But you have to tough this period of it out. And you have to live.”
“However bad it is now, it gets better. And it can get great.”
“There’s art to be made, and songs to be sung, so hold on.”
“It gets better.”
These are lines from a one-and-a-half-minute video at the center of the It Gets Better Project. This multimedia campaign features an array of celebrity contributors including President Obama, Anne Hathaway, Collin Farrell, Suze Orman, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Jonas, all sharing a pro-life message geared toward young people.
The Church should be thrilled—but it isn’t.
Perhaps I should explain that by “pro-life,” I mean “anti-suicide.” And by “young people,” I mean “homosexual young people.” That just might explain the Church’s less-than-enthusiastic response.
The It Gets Better Project was launched last fall by syndicated columnist Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, in response to a spate of suicides by gay teens who had been victimized by school bullying. According to a recent study, homosexual youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts. Particularly in the middle and high school years, gay young people are driven to such despair, sometimes by their own inner demons, but too often by harassment that goes far, far beyond mere teasing or name-calling. Since last September, the It Gets Better Project has grown to include a website, more than 10,000 user-created videos (viewed more than 35 million times on YouTube), and now (just released in March) the It Gets Better Project book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living.
The message of the campaign is two-fold: First, being gay is OK; second, life for the gay teen victimized by school bullies will someday get better.
The responses from Christians to the project and its more recent, wider exposure through network television commercials have been mixed: Some Christian leaders support the campaign, other Christians oppose it, and many have taken a more nuanced position that opposes bullying of any kind while maintaining a strong stance against homosexual behavior.
I don’t find any of these reactions satisfying.
And perhaps that’s just the problem: they are all reactions. I mean, what if such a project—an anti-bullying, anti-suicide, pro-hope project—had been initiated by the Church?
Instead the loudest message coming from the Church on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity are more along the lines of Mark Driscoll’s explosive Facebook status posted last week (and has now, apparently, been deleted), mocking “effeminate” church worship leaders. The term “bully” is now widely being applied to the well-known minister.
There’s a sad irony here.
A Christian young man I know struggles valiantly against homosexual desires and wants more than anything else not to have them. He is trying to develop relationships with women because he hopes someday to marry one and have a family, even though he knows his homosexuality will always be a part of him. Discouraged recently by how others perceive him, he asked me if I thought he could ever succeed in a heterosexual marriage, given the contrary assumptions and expectations of everyone around him who see him as effeminate. He believes, in fact, that part of the reason he identified as homosexual from a young age is that people viewed him based on how he inadequately he measured up against cultural norms of masculinity and femininity. He thinks that if people are just going to assume he’s gay because he’s effeminate, then it will be that much harder not to give in to his homosexual desires. I cannot disagree with him.
Even though I can—and do—disagree with Dan Savage’s recent attack on heterosexual monogamy as the gold standard of sexual behavior (despite the fact that too many of us fall far short of that ideal), I can—and do—support any campaign that fights death and gives hope.
Because people near and dear to me are homosexual. And people near and dear to me have committed suicide. And I want them to know—wish they had known—that it—life—can, truly, get better.
Furthermore, if we value human life, particularly as those of us who describe ourselves as pro-life say we do, then surely we want to protect the lives of these vulnerable young people from harm, whether at their own hands or at the hands of bullies.
Besides, the idea that life gets better needs to be shared with all kinds of teens, not just the sexually confused ones. High school is hellish for many, if not most, young people, for various reasons. When I was the principal of a small Christian high school—too small to have more than just a single college-prep track, even though not all of our students were headed for college—I had countless conversations in my office with students struggling to make it through. “High school is a round hole,” I would reassure them, “and it is filled with square pegs, rectangular pegs, oval ones and irregular ones. High school is not the real world. When you leave and go into the real world, you will find that out, somewhere, there is a place for pegs of every shape, including yours.” These conversations had nothing to do with homosexual behavior usually (although, sometimes, they did). The point is that it’s not just gay teens who need to hear the “it gets better” message. Sometimes we all do.
So “it gets better” is a message I can fully support for all young people. Concerns about the project’s affirmation of homosexuality can be tempered by the fact that words of encouragement, not condemnation, are necessary in life-or-death situations. My own Baptist pastor agrees. “If you have a jumper on a ledge, you try to talk him down, calming his fears. That is not the time to lecture him on his lifestyle,” he argues. Besides, it’s a lot easier to share the Gospel with a live kid than a dead one.
One of the lines in the video is this: “There are a ton of us out here in this world who love you without even knowing you.” That’s powerful.
But what’s even more powerful is that there is a God out there who does know each of us—even better than we know ourselves—and loves us anyway. That’s the hope the Church should be offering these hurting young people. And shame on us for leaving it up to others to offer any hope less than the hope that only Christ can bring.
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University.