The doctor's office is supposed to be a place free of judgment. You should be able to tell your doctor if you drink too much, smoke, are promiscuous or, in my case, gay. This week I visited my physician and as I was being led to the back noticed a giant painting hanging in the hallway of Jesus. Suddenly I felt like I had to keep my sexuality a secret from my own doctor (I'm a new patient). Now, when I think of Jesus I don't think of a man who looks down on me and frowns at me for being gay, but I feel like people or businesses who have a painting of him hanging up do. Perhaps I'm not being fair to these people, but I don't know how to undo the damage so many of them have done. Any advice?
- The Patient
I sure recognize the experience that you had at the doctor’s office. While I am hopelessly straight (full disclosure: FKB endorses both show tunes and screenings of “Funny Girl”) and while I have at least a couple pictures of Jesus in my home, I still often have a big “yuck” moment when I encounter folks who are broadcasting their Christianity. It doesn’t matter whether it is a guy wearing a T-shirt which advertises that he is saved, a bumper sticker which tells us that the driver is doing whatever it is that she does for Christ, or a huge Jesus hanging out a doctor’s office; when I encounter these symbols of religiosity I notice myself bracing for impact. That’s because of experience. I have encountered so many folks who insist on serving up these symbols with generous helpings of shame, self-satisfaction, and accusation.
It totally sucks that the image of Jesus, a guy who spent his life sharing meals and stories with people who lived on the margins — a guy who was murdered for saying that we should love one another and actually living accordingly — is so often employed as the hood ornament for scapegoating and for tribalism. But, after some 1,700 years during which large parts of the Christian movement comprised their integrity by accepting positions of power and of privilege, that’s the context which we have inherited. So, what do you do?
Email your doctor and say what you said to me: you expressed yourself articulately and reasonably in your letter. It is entirely fair to name your concerns about religious imagery in a doctor’s office. And it’s entirely fair to ask if it that imagery stands as a clue to the kind of advice that your doctor gives to her patients. How does she respond to requests for contraception? Is she able to understand an STI simply as a disease to be treated or is it an invitation to moralize? How does she address ambiguous ethical questions about the end of life?
I would change only one thing in your letter before you hit “send” — see if you can find some different examples of things which you might safely share with a physician. While I agree that you should be able to tell a doctor that you drink to excess, smoke, or are promiscuous without fear of being shamed, I also think that a good doctor will encourage you to find strategies for getting sober, quitting smoking, or being sexually active in a way that is safe and responsible. By contrast, being gay is just who you are — it’s not something that belongs in a category with things that you can or that you should change.
A reasonable doctor is going to welcome your questions. (You may well find that, in a city like Spokane, in which so much of the medical field is owned and operated by religious institutions, the picture of Jesus just came with the office.) By contrast, if your doc becomes defensive or dissembles in response to your email, then you will have learned everything that you need to know: this isn’t the doctor for you.
Do you have a question about ethical decision making, living a faithful life or theology? Leave a comment below or send your question for Rev. Elfert to firstname.lastname@example.org.