Wild Goose – James Alison Presents “You can … if you want to …”

James Alison
James Alison

I didn’t know Catholic theologian James Alison.  It was either Casey, or Aim Me and Renee (of the Troubadours of Divine Bliss), who pointed to the “LGBTQ” in the description of his mainstage presentation as we watched Beth Whitney perform Saturday morning at the Wild Goose Festival.  Alison’s presentation title, “You can … if you want to …”as it was listed on the schedule, didn’t give me much to go on.   But I went to his presentation anyway.   I sat in the hot sun, sweating, waving the bugs away, fingers flying on the keyboard,  as I tried to take down everything he shared with the gathered crowd.

The Biggest Surprise

Had I read Alison’s workshop description before I left for North Carolina, I would probably have planned my Wild Goose experience around his presentation!  I would have been sitting in the front row.  Hell, I probably would have been cheerfully stalking him the whole time at the festival.  As it was, his talk was the biggest surprise of the weekend.

Here’s the workshop description that I somehow missed  when I first read the Wild Goose program.

Bravery is not shown in making others look cowardly. Bravery changes the world so that the fears of others no longer matter. So, as we move into a phase in the life of the Church where it is clear that – to the horror and confusion of many – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning people are beloved children of God as we are (not in spite of, but as LGBTQ people), how are we to be magnanimous? James Alison will explore how we can do some of the hard work of showing those who are frightened and need re-assurance, that the movement towards the discovery of the full humanity of LGBTQ people is of the Gospel; is in fact an organic outgrowth of what Christianity is, and always has been, about. If magnanimity is the virtue of winners towards losers, it can be wielded in a superior way. What might be the shape of the magnanimity of those who don’t need to win, but long to help their sisters and brothers be unbound from scandal, given a soft landing, and enabled to enter into a bigger, less frightening world?

Those familiar with my work know that I believe LGBTQ people are in a unique position to model what it looks like to live into the concepts of forgiveness, love, acceptance, and diversity—the same concepts we’ve been asking other people to live into for so long.  In James Alison I met a kindred spirit.  James is traveling all over, talking about what bravery looks like, and asking LGBTQ people to be magnanimous in our dealings with the people who (still) oppose our equality.  Rock on, James!

James Alison is a Roman Catholic priest.  He has a doctorate of theology from the Jesuit Theology Faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  Though born in the UK, he now resides in São Paulo, Brazil.  He travels preaching, giving lectures, and facilitating retreats.  He identifies as gay, and believes that the Catholic Church’s official position about homosexuality is not in alignment with the Gospel.  Here’s an article which explains his position really well, I urge you to read it.

In order to fully understand James’ presentation, one has to understand what he means by the term “scandal,” because he used it frequently in his presentation.  “Scandal” is actually a Catholic theological term, and there’s a lot to it.  But here’s a fairly simple definition, one that should suffice for now, from the Vatican’s Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.”

A summary of James Alison’s Wild Goose Saturday afternoon presentation.

LGBTQ People Finding Themselves in a New Position of Equality

James began by pointing out that we LGBTQ people now find ourselves in a rather odd place.  We are getting used to a series of astounding victories.  In Brazil, where he lives, it happened kind of quietly.  Here in the United States it happened in the courts.  The general trend is now leading to political equality. With that, there comes a series of issues to be faced.  A series of new feelings.

James has noticed on the blogs he reads that there is starting to be a slightly vindictive tone toward those who are seen to be the losers.  He doesn’t really have a problem with this as it applies to the organizations which have opposed us— they can take it as well as they can dish it out—but he’s worried about vindictiveness aimed against the many people who are now genuinely lost, muddled, and concerned about the loss they are undergoing.

Stumbling over a stumbling block

He’s asking himself and the rest of us, to consider how we can, instead, stretch out a hand toward “the scandalized.”  And by the scandalized he means the people who are caught in scandal as defined above, what the Gospel calls a stumbling block.  It’s a place where, regardless of what you do, you’re screwed.

This is what Americans call a Catch 22.

The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church are caught in a Catch 22.  The official doctrine says the homosexual orientation is not bad in itself, but the homosexual act is intrinsically evil and objectively disordered as a condition.  The doctrine of the church is telling Catholic priests to say, “I love gay people,” but these gay people are not allowed to act upon their natural feelings..  It’s the same ridiculousness of “love the sinner hate the sin.”  It’s a logical fallacy.  In order to maintain that the homosexual act is intrinsically evil, the condition itself must also be categorized as intrinsically disordered. But if the condition is okay, then it only makes sense that the acts that result from the condition would also be regarded as okay.

Most of the people in the Catholic Church realize that being gay is what Alison calls a “regularly occurring nonpathological minority variant of the human condition.”  But they can’t say this. Because they are also of the opinion that the scripture is clear that the act is evil.

It’s a tough spot to be in.  It’s a struggle of conscience.  What was a formerly unquestioned understanding is now being called into question.

So how do we help let the scandalized off the scandal?  How do we get these people unstuck?  Because clearly they are stuck in a very difficult position.


Forgiveness is the way.  The only way human beings can be loosed from a scandal, a Catch 22, is to let go and ask for the Lord’s forgiveness.

Alison then described a scene from a Harry Potter book.  One of Harry’s friends is caught in a tree-like trap.  The more he struggles the tighter the tree’s limbs hold him.  Finally Harry figures it out, and tells his friend to stop struggling.  Which is very hard to do.  But he does it, and he then slips right out.  Only by letting go is he able to be loosed.

Scandal is like that.  The more you struggle against it the more you are trapped by it.  Forgiveness is the way to stop struggling.

How is Victory to be Understood?

Next James talked about victory.  What does it look like to win?  Culturally, we are used to a victory story where someone is a victor and someone is the loser.  But in our faith, the only victory in Christianity was one that looked like a loss!  

“Our Lord occupies the space of someone who is not interested in winning,”  James stated.  If we act like winners we are not following the example set by Jesus.  When we act like winners, and treat others like losers, we only reinforce the winner/loser paradigm.

If we are in a place where we see ourselves as victors and those who opposed our equality as losers, there can be no reconciliation.

The really delicate task we (LGBTQ people and their allies) are now faced with is to ask how we inhabit the “Lord’s victory.”  How do we bear it up without making it toxic for others.  How do we reach out a hand to those who are scandalized so that they too can be reconciled?  This is the task.

How do we show and enable people to see that this cultural move— the move by which it’s become clear that LGBTQ people are beloved children of God— is a straightforward organic movement of the Gospel?  “It’s only in Christianity that we will understand the Christianity of this.”

But how will we be able to show the organic Christianity of this? Debating is out.  That’s a sure way to get locked into scandal.  LGBTQ people and our supporters use words to proclaim the factual truth of our position, those who oppose us us words to proclaim the truth of their position.  Everyone digs in their heels, continually searching for arguments and scenarios to reinforce their positions, and nothing ever gets resolved.

How will it be possible for us to open doors so that we can say, “You can move here if you want to.  It’s within your dignity as a Christian.  You can see this is an open space where before it looked like an obstacle.”

We must open a space so we can show people, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (Psalm 118.22)

Radical Change Takes Time

In Acts 10:45-50, radical change is presented as if it were a really quick thing.  The Holy Spirit falls upon the Gentiles and they come forward to be baptized.  Peter says, “Who are we to hold back the Gospel?”  And he baptizes the Gentiles.  In this telling, the fact of the Gentiles’ conversion and reception of the Holy Spirit occurred, and the narrative immediately caught up with it.  But this is not how these things really happen.  In reality, the facts happen and the narrative struggles to catch up with it.  The notion that difficult situations involving a disrespected minority are resolved very quickly and easily is not true.

What really happens is that “our Lord goes before us.”  And then we struggle with trying to get the narrative caught up to where “the Lord” has already led.

So what’s the shape of the narrative that explains how LGBTQ equality is of the Gospel? In a Catholic setting, it’s fairly easy.  James joked, “As you know, Catholics don’t know shit about the Bible!” Catholics don’t read the Bible fundamentally.  Catholics will deal with LGBTQ equality at the level of fact.

For Catholics the question of what’s true or not is independent of religion.  It’s something that is resolved by studies.  Studying homosexuality has only become possible quite recently, since it hasn’t been that long that researchers have been able to identify the people who are gay.  So now that they can be identified, they can be studied.  Facts can be found.  These facts are objectively true, independent of any of the church hierarchy.  The last time the Pope tried to decide what was true, independent of the facts, was all about Galileo.  Didn’t work out that well in the long run.  So the Catholic Church will accept that something is either true or not true.  At this stage, there is no evidence that being gay is pathological, current discoveries all point to the fact that being gay is a regularly occurring minority variant of the human condition.  In the Catholic Church it’s not a question of ideology; it’s a question of fact.  And in time the church will face up to the fact.  The Church will say, “We are not here to be right or wrong, but we are here to look at what’s true.”

Why Is LGBTQ Equality Particularly Difficult for Protestant Fundamentalists?

Radical depravity as a doctrine doesn’t exist in Catholicism, but it does exist in American Protestantism.  Radical depravity is a mainly Calvinist theological doctrine that says the nature of human beings is totally and fundamentally corrupt as a result of the Fall.  Th doctrine of radical depravity makes the question more difficult for American Protestant fundamentalists.

So in this case the question becomes how do we enable people to move beyond scandal in a world where they have been taught not to learn (because of the doctrine of radical depravity)?  For a fundamentalist, any attempt to take one out of one’s current method of thinking is an act of the enemy, an act of evil.

James asked the crowd, “How are we going to help people out of that scandal?  How are we going to show that we don’t have to win?  How are we going to stretch out hands out gently to people caught in that particular catch 22?”

James admits he hasn’t got any ideas really, but he has noticed a few clues.

LGBTQ people need to occupy the place we now find ourselves in without making it look like victory.

James mentioned the painting “The Surrender of Breda” by Diego Velazquez, as an example of what magnanimous victory looks like. The expression on the winners face is warm, the expression on the losers face is not fearful.  The focus is on the magnanimity of the victor, but it also shows the magnanimity of the vanquished.  The real magnanimity is when the one who is losing is doing so with equanimity.  That’s the place of grace, and that’s our job to help that happen.

Often the thing that gets in the way is that people are approval junkies. What will other people think of them if they begin questioning or seeing this matter in a different way? People need to seek approval from our Lord, not from other people.  We need to work on discovering how to stand loose from our need for approval, and show others what it looks like.

“We need to see the pain of the scandalized other, and the pain of the closeted cardinal.” The pain of both is real.

How do we step out of the need for approval?  We know there is just pain, and anguish, and shame.  And no one wants to hold that tenderly.  We just want the anesthesia of approval. We need to let go of the need for the anesthesia of approval, but the longing for approval should not be lost.  That’s the longing for approval from “our Heavenly Father.”  That’s what glory is, the reverse of shame.

At this point James Alison asked the audience for input.  How do we help the “scandalized other” in fundamentalist Protestantism?  It’s a tough question, one that no one in the Wild Goose audience that day seemed to be able to answer.  But I think James Alison has helped us to start thinking about this problem the right way, by asking the right questions.

Index and links to content about the 2013 Wild Goose Festival.


Lē Isaac Weaver
Lē Weaver identifies as a non-binary writer, musician, and feminist spiritual seeker. Their work draws attention to: the ongoing trauma experienced by women and LGBTQIA people in this “Christian” society; Christ/Sophia’s desire that each of us move deeper into our own practice of non-violence; and the desperate need to move away from an androcentric conception of God.


  1. I’m glad you appreciated it, Steve! He’s doing very important work. I have to say that Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s rockin’ editing made this a much better piece. She pointed out several ways to make the concepts clearer. So here’s a shout-out to our fearless Website Content Manager.


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