The night settles in as we drive across the Florida Georgia line. The blue horizon fades to black, pale stars blink awake, and rows of pines trees rise up to replace buildings on either side of the road. I watch out the window as the occasional illuminated billboard passes by, holding my husbands hand and shuffling through podcasts to sync up to the radio.
We land on the story of a Christian man, a pastor, who recently came out to his family and friends as gay. It a beautiful story which I will not do justice to as I attempt to recap it here. You can listen to it on the Liturgists podcast.
Basically, this man lived a life of celibacy for 40 years, because that is what he believed faithful obedience to the scriptures looked like for him. As a young person, he buried feelings of same-sex attraction beneath prayers to be made straight, self help books and focus on the family hotlines. As he grew, he lived a life of genuine faith and love for God and others. He served the body of Christ, studying the scriptures in seminary, earning his doctorate degree and teaching as an ordained pastor. Listening to him, you can tell how thoughtfully he considers everything he does, how wise he is, and how humbly he walks with his God.
Despite his commitment to living the way many evangelical Christians would advise gay men to live- celibate, seeking to change- he ends up hospitalized by stress and battling suicidal despair. He reaches a point where he has to be honest with himself and with others to save his life.
His subsequent journey to reconcile his gay identity with his faith is so moving. He proceeds with emotional and mental integrity, prayer, humility, and honesty about who he is. He describes the ongoing process of trusting and resting in these words: “God loves you. You have people who love you. You are going to be O.K.”
All the while, he maintains a high view of scripture, leaning on biblical truths and their authority in his life.
But wait, how is that possible, some Christians might ask? The scripture is clear about homosexuality. If you believe in the bible, you have to reject homosexuals/homosexuality. That’s the end of the conversation, right?
“The Bible has been “clear” before, after all,” Rachel Held Evans points out in her blog, “in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of Antisemitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.”
Christians have gotten it wrong before- horribly wrong. They’ve rejected science or reason or even their own conscience because they thought the bible told them to. There’s always the chance, maybe even the likely chance, that we’re still getting a lot of our interpretations wrong today. This issue is not as “black and white” as a lot of people would like to think: There are good arguments from authors like Matthew Vines who say that the scripture does not say what so many people think it says about homosexual relationships. There are nuances and gray areas in scripture, and there is a uniqueness to every individual soul which should be honored and dignified when thinking these issues through.
In our limited understanding of complex issues, it is my prayer that the Evangelical Church would err on the side of graciousness rather than judgement; inclusion rather than exclusion, and empathy rather than condemnation.
My heart is broken over the casualties that lie in the wake of American Christianity’s political and social wars. Entire groups of people-who are made in the image of God, who are deeply beloved, who are valuable and beautiful and worthy, have received the message loud and clear from the church: you are not welcome here. You are not loved as you are. There is not room for you at the table. Today, that is especially true of the LGBT community. As much as Christians claim to “hate the sin, love the sinner,” unadulterated hatred and exclusion has been the defining experience of gay people in relationship to the church.
Christians who don’t affirm same-sex relationships ought to weigh the relative cost of thinking they’re “right” with the cost of excluding people from the family of God. Your words and your actions have the power to do that. Even if they’re said from behind a keyboard. Even if you defend them with a bible verse.
I see that stuff you post on your Facebook wall. I hear you discussing the HB2 Law on the radio. I hear the easy, dismissive, confident assertions about LGBT people dripping with insinuation of pedophilia and perversion. I struggle with when to remain silent and when to open my mouth.
So many Christians mistake what their role should be in the lives of others. Instead of unconditional love and “judging not lest ye be judged,” they take it upon themselves to be the moral police for all society. They make spotting people’s “sins” a sport; they consider their public disapproval a virtue. Instead of empathizing with, listening to, and honoring the struggles of others, they distance themselves from people’s suffering by making it into a metaphor; a debatable topic with which they can agree or disagree without consequence.
They fail to realize, or perhaps just refuse to acknowledge, that behind every “issue,” every political debate, every hot button topic, there is a real man, woman, or child who is experiencing the day to day realities that issue represents. Racial injustice. Debates over immigrants. LGBT rights. Gun violence. Even if you’re not directly effected by them, someone is. Someone is agonizing over it. It’s someones entire life.
I imagine the long line of human beings stretching back into our history who have been dehumanized and silenced in the name of a God who loves them. I’m haunted, because that tradition lives on today, and it is so damn antithetical to everything I know and everything I love about Jesus Christ.
Once, a group of religious leaders were prepared to stone a woman to death for her sexual sins, and Jesus stood in their way. He defended her, even though we can safely assume that this woman was guilty of the adultery she was accused of. Yet it was not her who Jesus reprimanded, but those who sought to condemn her for her sins. It was important to him that the religious elite knew it was not their job to judge others lest they be judged by the same standard themselves. And since none of them were perfect, none had the right to cast a stone.
Their only job was to love and serve this person: it was up to Jesus to deal with whatever sins she struggled with.
We are defined by how well we love the most vulnerable, not how loudly we disagree with them. Jesus said that the way you treat marginalized people in society is how you are treating him. Whether you dismiss or embrace a person is in fact your response to Christ himself.I hope that we can remember that; that we would learn to see Jesus in the faces of people who are stigmatized, judged, and mistreated by the Church.
The kingdom of God was meant for these people you accuse- these scandalous, these strange, these terrifying, these beautiful souls. There is room at the table. That is the good news Jesus came to proclaim.