A Christian question
February 6th, 2012
For many Americans the question of marriage equality circles around what they see as ideal or moral or approved by their Christian faith. It is a question of “what does God want them to do?” And being convinced that homosexuality is a sin, they need go no further to justify their discrimination.
But that approach misses the general theme of Jesus and the early Christian writers. The gospels and epistles don’t discuss what the Roman law should be. The early church didn’t establish agenda to oppress the worship of Diana or to seek dominion over the mountains of entertainment and government. Even their condemnation of unacceptable behavior didn’t extend beyond refusing to fellowship with the offender.
Although one would be hard pressed to see it in the culture or the dogma, Christianity was never supposed to be focused on the flaws of others, real or imagined, or to shape society in a godly manner. Rather it was designed as a personal faith directed inward and evidenced by how it changes the individual, not what he could demand of his neighbor.
The real question that Christians are scripturally directed to ask, the one that would be familiar to the founders of the faith, is “what does God want me to do?” And it is this question that Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) asked herself.
“I have very strong Christian beliefs, and personally I have always said when I accepted the Lord, I became more tolerant of others. I stopped judging people and try to live by the Golden Rule. This is part of my decision. I do not believe it is my role to judge others, regardless of my personal beliefs. It’s not always easy to do that. For me personally, I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman. That is what I believe, to this day.
“But this issue isn’t about just what I believe. It’s about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I. It’s about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed.
I am certain that Sen. Haugen will be soundly condemned by those who will claim that she “went against her faith and her religion.” But her considerations go to the heart of what Christianity was intended to be and, sadly, so seldom is.
Single Father Laughing removes the asterisk
November 21st, 2011
One of my great frustration is with Christian people who read Scripture and establish values and build character with an asterisk and footnotes. They truly believe that they are to love everyone* and that they are to abhor discrimination and bigotry towards anyone* and to work for a more just world for all*. Because, after all the Bible says to love your neighbor* as yourself.
* – except gay people
But if you’re gay then there are all sorts of “sanctioning immorality” and “putting a seal of approval on sin” and “not standing up for righteousness” issues that really must be considered, you know. So, well, it’s different.
Dan Pierce, who blogs as Single Father Laughing, isn’t buying it. And I’ll let his commentary I’m Christian, unless you’re gay speak for itself.
And then he followed up with the responses he received in Powerful Responses to ‘I’m Christian, unless you’re gay.’
Dammit, Dan, I told myself I wouldn’t cry.
The irony of opposing HPV vaccination
September 15th, 2011
As we discussed earlier today, some conservative Christians find Rick Perry, a Southern Baptist politician, an unacceptable choice for president because he supported the vaccination of young Texas women to prevent their possible future infection with the human papillomavirus. Firmly believing that the wages of sin is death – and should damn well stay that way – they oppose any efforts to inoculate for a virus that is spread primarily through sexual behavior.
I believe that much of this opposition is based in a fear that their literalist faith might be losing relevancy. Should a moral code no longer provide an observable service – such as protection from disease and unhappiness – then it becomes an arbitrary set of rules imposed by a capricious deity at his whim. So it is important to them that HPV – and it’s correlation with cancer – remain associated with sinners.
You can sense the desperation in this comment on the American Family Association’s website from Sally in Pennsylvania:
Sorry… Christian or not, I cannot support any candidate who signed an executive order to mandate a series of painful vaccinations for 12 year old girls – FOR AN STD that’s preventable by BEHAVIOR! On top of that, there was no provision to allow parents to opt their child out until enough pressure was put on him and he gave in. That’s a pretty clear indication as to where he stands on the issue of parental authority versus state control on the raising of children. No thanks.
But what Sally hasn’t realized is that she may her way; HPV may well remain associated with a group.
Should sufficient numbers of people refuse vaccination, the virus will continue to have a distinct pool in which to replicate and a strong correlation will become detectable. Soon, should Sally’s thinking prevail, HPV and the correlating cervical cancer rates will come to be associated with conservative Christianity.
Conservative churches welcome homosexuals
August 18th, 2011
Tony Perkins, lead anti-gay activist at Family Research Council tweeted the following
And he’s right.
As long as you are a “homosexual” – as Tony and fellow believers define the term – the church doors are open wide. To them, a homosexual is someone who engages in sex with persons of the same sex, and has nothing whatsoever to do with attractions, instincts, love, or family. If you show up looking to be delivered from a sinful homosexual lifestyle then you are not only welcomed but celebrated.
Church members will joyously go online to leave comments on the Militant Homosexual Activist Blogsites reporting that the saving grace of Jesus healed a broken and wounded soul right that very morning. Of course, they don’t actually want to associate with that person, “do you know what he’s done? And he’s so very, well, flamboyant still”, but nevertheless they are happy to report deliverance.
Yes indeed, homosexuals are welcome.
Ah, but as for conservative churches welcoming gay people? The folks that do not believe that their orientation – that immutable, natural, and powerful force – is inherently evil? Those folk?
Yeah, not so much.
(hat tip: Joe My God)
The champions of the bullies
July 14th, 2011
In recent years bullying of gay children and those perceived to be gay has caught the attention of the nation. While this is not a new phenomenon, the rise of “new media” has allowed for stories that individually may have received little notice – or may have been intentionally misconstrued – to be seen as a pattern and an ongoing problem. And as the list of names of children tormented to the point of suicide grew, so too did a collective awareness that our culture has a serious problem with bullying.
Secular concern has been consistent and compassionate. Individuals, celebrities, corporations, and the President of the United States have all sought to give kids a message of hope that they should hold on because it gets better.
But the response to this problem from people of faith has been mixed. Some, mostly in Jewish and mainline Christian denominations, have condemned the bullying and expressed acceptance, love, and support for the gay and presumed gay victims. Others have agreed that bullying is not a good thing, but have dismissed its seriousness and resisted anti-bullying programs as being homosexual propaganda.
But generally there has been agreement that slurs are not appropriate behavior for Christian youth.
Yet there are those among conservative evangelical Christianity who don’t just downplay slurs and expressions of contempt but engage in such behaviors themselves. One such person is Daniel Beckworth, youth pastor at Union Grove Baptist Church in Opelika, Alabama and regional representative of Youth for Christ.
David Rattigan, at Ex-Gay Watch, chronicles an email exchange between himself and Beckworth which was initiated by a slur that Beckworth left on the site. When David reached out to Beckworth to remind him of the consequences of bullying kids who are “different”, he was met with a particularly telling rebuttal:
Maybe you should speak to the young boys who wish they had someone to help them be manly. You dont need to reply. You have no chance of convincing me that we need to pamper young boys.
David does not see Beckworth as an isolated instance. Rather he traces his views to rhetoric and example from Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle’s mega-church Mars Hill Church. Driscoll too, it appears, practices a religion that values contempt over compassion and arrogance over kindness.
But while Driscoll engages in a pattern of insult followed by pseudo-apology, his example gives cover to those like Beckworth who find virtue in abusing the weak. Go read the entire story at Ex-Gay Watch and keep it in mind for the next time that some conservative Christian tells you, “It isn’t us, it isn’t kids from our churches that are doing the bullying!”
In coming commentaries I’ll be discussing some things I’ve observed about a growing tension in a conservative denomination as well as how some recent correspondence illustrates the peculiar logic and self-deception required to justify cruelty.
Which One Is The Parody?
March 16th, 2011
Please select one, but don’t click on any links until after you choose:
Japan had built tsunami walls along their coasts but this tsunami was bigger than that. No matter what you say, they either weren’t blessed with protection or they were cursed with an earthquake. …God did say, Christ did say that earthquakes would increase in the last days and that’s what we’re seeing.
…[T]his island, Hokkaido, looks like the head of a dragon with the body being the rest of Japan. The people of Asia have worshipped the dragon for 5,000 years. If one looks at the place where the earthquake took place, it looks like the soft underbelly of most vulnerable part of the dragon. Let’s pray that the deep idolatry and the worship of hundreds of idols under the guise of Shintoism, Buddhism, and allegiances to being “sons of the dragon” will be broken and thousands will turn to the Lord. My interpretation of this is that while God did not want people to perish, He is going to use this to “pierce” the darkness surrounding the Japanese people if we will cry out to God for them in the midst of this crisis.
There will be a shaking coming to Japan that will bring them to their knees. This shaking will change the industry of the nation. Japan has been built upon a fault line linked with a deep wounding from the past. This shaking will occur before the apostolic team that I am sending to Japan arrives. When they arrive, I will begin the healing of the fault line and release a new anointing for industries. I am sending you to the people group of that area and they will be humbled in the midst of their pride. Do not fear. I am causing the mountain to be brought down and the valleys to be brought up. I will create a leveling effect in Japan.
Peter Gomes: a powerful voice for gay Christians passes
March 1st, 2011
As minister of Memorial Church of Harvard University since 1970, Peter Gomes held a pulpit of prestige. An international preacher, Gomes was highly respected and his influence ranged from discussing theology with the Queen Mum to offering prayers and sermons at the inaugurals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Every Harvard alumnus for the past 40 years has started and ended their education with his advice.
But for me, Gomes will be remembered as the author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, a book which allowed me to look at some of my presumptions and question my own interaction with faith. The premise of this work, which really isn’t all that surprising, is that few Christians have much working knowledge of the Bible, know how to read it, or feel confident to understand what it says. Instead they opt for a deification of the image of the Bible rather than attempting to apply the truths found in its contents.
And it was demystifying the Bible and shaking up Christianity’s comfortable assumptions that consumed the past few decades of his life. Although a life-long Republican of the Massachusetts variety (until a recent registration change to support Deval Patrick), he viewed Jesus as a social revolutionary whose gospel would not be much welcomed in today’s established Christianity and deplored the way in which Scriptural literalism could be text proofed to support just about any social injustice.
In 1991 Gomes came out as gay, (NY Times)
Then, in 1991, he appeared before an angry crowd of students, faculty members and administrators protesting homophobic articles in a conservative campus magazine whose distribution had led to a spate of harassment and slurs against gay men and lesbians on campus. Mr. Gomes, putting his reputation and career on the line, announced that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”
When the cheers faded, there were expressions of surprise from the Establishment, and a few calls for his resignation, which were ignored. The announcement changed little in Mr. Gomes’s private life; he had never married and said he was celibate by choice. But it was a turning point for him professionally.
“I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told The Washington Post months later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”
Gomes was not hesitant to tie the ‘religious objection to homosexuality’ as preached in American Christianity to the actual mistreatment of homosexual persons as experienced in America. (The Good Book)
Although most contemporary Christians who have moral reservations about homosexuality, and who find affirmation for those reservations in the Bible, do not resort to physical violence and intimidation, they nevertheless contribute to the maintenance of a cultural environment in which less scrupulous opponents of homosexuality are given the sanction of the Bible to feed their prejudice and, in certain cases, cultural “permission” to act with violence upon those prejudices.
As an American Baptist preacher from a very young age, Gomes took the Bible seriously. He took his religion seriously. And it was through his faith, not in spite of it, that he spoke out for tolerance, for understanding, for inclusion, for treating your neighbor like yourself even when you really truly don’t want to, and for adhering to a meaningful thoughtful Christianity rather than a superstitious set of rites, rules and prejudices.
The religious community and the gay community have both lost a guiding light and a powerful advocate.
More Christians see need to speak out against bullying
November 3rd, 2010
From Connecticut’s MinuteManNewsService:
Two vigils held in Fairfield in the last week have sought to shine light, literally and figuratively, on the tragedy of gay teens who have taken their own lives after being bullied.
One vigil was to be held at Fairfield University Wednesday night after our press time and the other was held in front of First Church Congregational at the corner of Old Post Road and Beach Road last Friday night.
Jennifer Habetz, Youth Minister of First Church, said, “We are morally obligated, in the face of suicide after suicide to work to change the world in which our young people are growing up. And we must do so loudly and visibly, so they know that they are not alone.”
Habetz runs a ministry at First Church which seeks to provide a space for kids of all faiths to counteract the messages which say “they are less than acceptable in the eyes of God.”
At Fairfield University, their Jesuit heritage called on them to support troubled kids and to give comfort a higher priority than condemnation.
The head of Campus Ministry Reverend Michael Doody, S. J. said, “We don’t beat up or demonize people we disagree with. Everyone is entitled to their dignity.”
“The sin against that young man (Tyler Clementi at Rutgers) is far more grievous than anything he could have thought of committing,” said Doody, who pointed out that the Church also says that drinking too much is a sin.
“The Vigil is being held to raise the consciousness of the University Community,” said the priest, adding, “We’re all God’s people. God doesn’t discriminate in His loving.”
Shhhhhh. Don’t tell the Pope.
Phoenix Clergy protest anti-gay declaration
October 15th, 2010
I believe that the ideals behind our quest for rights are appealing. We want equality, we want to be included, we want to make family, we want to be responsible citizens. In fact, I think that a decent society would be naturally inclined to positively address our concerns.
But there’s the God thing. Our culture has been convinced to a great extent that gay rights run counter to what “the church says” and, well, there are a lot of decent people who defer to religion when they are uncertain.
But what is seldom understood is that in America there is no one religious position on homosexuality. While the media pits “gay activists” against “people of faith” for more dramatic ratings, the truth is that a good many people of faith, congregations, regions, and even denominations loudly and proudly support gay people and their full inclusion into society.
But it is not just the media’s fault. It is, to an extent, our fault as well; we have been too compliant in allowing our enemies to set up the religion v. homosexuality dichotomy. And blame also rests on our religious allies who have allowed the discussion of religion in our country to be dominated by right-wing extremists. Those who are more religiously liberal have been embarrassed to sound as though they were claiming to be “real Christians” and were hesitant to denounce the beliefs of others, even those who espouse views that are exclusionary and homophobic.
But that may be changing. More and more I see men and women of the cloth publicly standing up and declaring anti-gay attitudes to be immoral and contrary to God. One such example is No Longer Silent – Clergy for Justice.
The liberal clergy group, known as No Longer Silent – Clergy for Justice, plans to place several hundred people along the sidewalk outside the basilica to challenge what they consider hateful rhetoric. They will protext while people leave an 8 a.m. Mass kicking off the Manhattan Declaration events.
“When religious authorities in the name of God tell people they are less than whole, few things are more destructive,” said the Rev. David Ragan, a leader of the group who works at Beatitudes Campus.
The Rev. Jeff Proctor-Murphy of Asbury United Methodist Church in Phoenix said the group hoped to help people understand “there is an alternative way to be Christian and to understand scripture, to love people even when we don’t understand them.”
I wish them tremendous success and much visibility. And I hope that many more religious leaders will be emboldened to stand up for all of God’s children and oppose the voices of condemnation and contempt. As anti-gay ideology ceases to be the religious position and becomes just a religious position in the mind of the public, then they will feel freer to choose decency, equality and love.
Tatchell applauded at UK Christian festival
August 30th, 2010
Peter Tatchell has been an untiring and unflinching advocate for international gay rights. His willingness to be arrested, harassed, and beaten has given him the credibility to command attention. And Tatchell has a character trait that sets leaders apart: the ability to find commonality where others might only see enmity.
Tatchell, who has long since abandoned his Christianity, may seem like an odd choice to speak at Greenbelt, one of Britain’s largest Christian festivals. But finding “more in common than divides us”, he went to harness the power of faith to do good in the world.
Tatchell was harshly critical of Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, whom he accused of colluding with the persecution of GLBT people by the Anglican Church in Africa and of “conservative evangelical groups from the USA” who went to Uganda to argue that the country’s biggest problem is “not poverty, not corruption, not human rights abuses, not rigged elections” but homosexuality.”
But he also found Christians to praise and to hold up as an example. (Ekklesia)
He was keen to make a distinction between Christians who oppose homosexuality and those who encourage persecution. “It’s one thing to say that homosexuality is wrong, and people are entitled to that belief,” he said, “What they’re not entitled to do is to say that the law of the land should discriminate”.
But Tatchell was quick to praise Christians who have stood up against such attitudes. He singled out South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ugandan Bishop Christoper Senjyonjo, who has “paid a very, very heavy price” and been denied his pension.
He also spoke passionately of LGBT African Christians, including Davis Mac-Iyalla and Jide Macauley, who have risked their lives by being open about their sexuality.
“For all of those, gay and straight, who do take a stand, I salute you, I thank you,” he concluded.
Tatchell received a standing ovation.
Anne Rice: “I Quit Being A Christian”
July 29th, 2010
Anne Rice, the New Orleans novelist who single-handedly made vampires cool again, was raised as a Roman Catholic. But like most cultural Catholics, the church wasn’t something that she took seriously. That changed in 2004 following surgery for a life-threatening intestinal blockage, when she announced that she would henceforth “write only for the Lord.” She embraced her Catholic roots and published her next novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which was intended to be the start of a series chronicling the life of Jesus. Her next novel, Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, came out in 2008.
Her views will not please all of the devout. Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, “sex-obsessed” church leaders, and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.
“Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country.”
But Rice was ultimately unable to reconcile her belief in Christ on the one hand, with the actions of fellow Christians and how those actions have stained the Christian “brand” on the other. She appears to have hinted at this with this post on her facebook page which appeared on Tuesday:
Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When does a word (Christian)become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?
She answered her question yesterday morning, when she posted this to her facebook page:
For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten …years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.
She then followed that a couple minutes later with this:
As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.
She followed those posts with two more quotations from the Book of Matthew posted on her facebook page as part of an ongoing set of discussions. So it appears that she hasn’t quit Jesus, just his followers on earth.
NOM in St. Paul: a disturbing perversion of Christianity
July 28th, 2010
The National Organization for Marriage presented its usual speakers in St. Cloud, Minnesota today. But it also presented someone who made the most peculiar and disturbing speech we’ve yet observed on their tour.
First, let me say that it is appropriate that religious moral teaching – along with other codes of ethics – deal with appropriate sexuality. Violation, abuse of trust, maturity, fidelity and even abstinence are all issues about which people of faith may and should determine ideals and personal goals.
It is not peculiar or inappropriate for Christianity – or any other belief system – to establish rules of self-comportment which preclude using others sexually and which encourage abstinence before commitment and fidelity afterword. But lately I’ve seen faith leaders who go far beyond ethical sexuality and who have gone so far as to spiritualize and even deify heterosexuality.
Father Mike Becker, from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told supporters today that from a spiritual perspective, “Marital intimacy is a prayer,” relaying the account of a woman who told him that she believed there were angels in the room rejoicing when her child was conceived.
That is, to me, shocking coming from a Christian minister.
The idea of “intimacy” as an offering to a deity is not a new one. Fertility cults, wherein deities are honored by sacred acts of f*cking, were at one time a dominant religious experience on the planet. Sexuality is a powerful force and linked as it is with procreation and rebirth and the cycles of the seasons, it was almost inevitable that it would become a focal point of worship.
But not for Christians. The Protestant
long Judeo-Christian heritage is one of rejection of “sacred sex.” Indeed, most scholars agree that the Levitical sexual restrictions exist in a part due to the sex worship of neighboring Canaanites. And New Testament Christians set themselves apart from the collection of Roman deities with their temple prostitutes.
To say that “marital intimacy is a prayer” is not only heretical, but a very disturbing perversion of Christianity, as I know it to be. And to conjure up images of invisible demi-gods hovering about watching you have sex is not only exhibitionistic, but hearkens back to Samhain fires and Astarte temples. While these may have an appropriate place in the religious lore of others, they are certainly not a part of Protestant Christianity.
I am troubled that many of those who oppose civil equality for gay people do so not limit themselves to matters of sexual ethics. Rather, for a while some have been demonstrating an obsession with sex that borders on the deification of heterosexuality. But this is by far the most extreme that I’ve seen.
UPDATE: More from Courage Campaign:
We also met with Father Michael Becker, a Catholic priest whose main argument against homosexuality was centered around the practice of anal and oral sex. According to Father Becker, anal and oral sex lack dignity because they abuse their partners as instrumentalities of pleasure for non-procreative potential.
He said it, not me.
Hawaii civil unions battle illustrates real motivation of gay foes
June 14th, 2010
Republican Governor Linda Lingle will decide within the next week whether to veto the civil unions bill passed by the Hawaii legislature. As part of her process, she has met with both supporters and opponents of the bill and an AP article gives a little insight into what they said.
Lingle is Jewish and, as such, is probably not much swayed by appeals to Christian orthodoxy. But the activism and approach by the two rabbis most influential with the Governor does reflect on what is behind most anti-gay activism.
Krasnjansky, who heads the Orthodox community group Chabad of Hawaii, said the Torah teaches that homosexuality, and by extension same-sex marriage, “is not something that should be condoned or should be legalized,” he said.
But Schaktman, who leads the Reform Temple Emanu-El, insists Judaism teaches that all people regardless of sexual orientation are and should be treated as “children of God,” and thus should not face discrimination.
“Civil unions are a legal arrangement,” he said. “Therefore, anyone who uses religion to oppose civil unions is purely using religion to further homophobia.”
Lingle is Jewish, but has rarely — if ever — publicly discussed her faith in considering an issue. Lingle’s office did not respond to phone or e-mail questions about her religious affiliation.
The debate between Krasnjansky and Schaktman mirrors that of Hawaii’s Christians. Catholic, evangelical and conservative pastors have waged a months-long effort to prod the Legislature and now Lingle to block the measure, HB 444. Mainline Protestant and more liberal preachers have worked to get the bill signed.
But I think the matter is bigger than just discrimination towards the gay and lesbian children of God. It’s a battle over the establishment of religion.
There is a concerted attempt on the part of State Churchists (of various faiths) to legislate their doctrine and thus claim the mantle of “real Christians” and “real Jews”. And, sadly, I don’t think that the more liberal religious adherents have yet realized what is at risk.
Telling your story can make a difference
May 11th, 2010
Sometimes we see news stories about courageous people – quite often heterosexual – who advocate for decency and equality in the very heart of conservative anti-gay theology, policy, and society. We know that such endeavors are not born of themselves, but we can fail to recognize that someone – usually someone unacknowledged – took a step that made it happen.
Novelist Jonathan Odell tells Commonweal Magazine (a lay Catholic journal of opinion) about an invitation to be the token sacrificial pro-gay speaker at an ultra-conservative college.
Last year I got a call from an administrator at a Midwestern seminary with a reputation for its “take no prisoners” conservative theology. He had permission to conduct a series of seminars on hot-button issues like abortion, stem-cell research, and gay marriage. His plan was to bring in a succession of speakers, one to take the pro side of an issue, followed by a second to present the opposing view.
I took a deep breath. I knew what was coming next. “We want you to take the pro side on homosexuality,” he said.
His story is an interesting example of what can happen if we lay down our presumptions, our hesitation, and our fear and just tell our story. Nothing can reach the heart of others than just being ourselves. And perhaps we will plant seeds that will grow into change.
Read Jonathan’s story here.
(hat tip to Matt for bringing this to my attention)
The Great Conundrum
May 3rd, 2010
Every so often there is an issue which challenges the core beliefs of Christianity. Sides are taken, scripture is quoted, accusations fly, indignant self-righteousness justifies positions, feet get dug in, and denominations schism. And in the past few hundred years, these battles have played out in the legislatures and courts of our nation as each side tried to force their neighbor to live according to their dictates of faith.
We have debated the right of women to own property, fought (literally) over slavery, marched about suffrage, banned liquor, allowed liquor, and argued over whether creationism should be taught in classrooms, all while both sides claim that God and the Bible clearly and unequivocally supported their cause. Even still today there are Christian Churches in which women cannot preach, evolution is denounced, and a glance demonstrates that segregation is still alive.
And church fights are not new; In fact, divisions and disagreements are as old as the faith. Even the Apostles didn’t agree among themselves and schismed over matters of firm conviction.
In the 15th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles a drama unfolds about whether non-Jewish converts should be circumcised. Part of the church leadership – including Jesus’ brother – saw this as a clear commandment in Scripture, the one evidence of a covenant with God: It’s right there! In the Scriptures! There is no way around it!
Others argued that this was easy for them to say, they were circumcised as babies. But this church was growing among Greeks and other non-Jews, and adult male Greeks were not so quick to want to adopt a faith system that required them to lop off part of their penis. And how could it possibly be right and fair that a message that sought to break the ‘sin and punishment’ paradigm and replace it with a relationship hold so strongly to rules that discriminated against some?
So in one of the defining moments that conceptualized Christianity as a unique religion rather than a Jewish sect, pragmatism won. A series of revelations found that dietary laws, traditions of worship, and even the one true sign of the covenant between God and Man were secondary to the spiritual message that the Jesus followers wanted to spread.
And that first division was simply the precursor of those that have come up since. It is what I call the Great Conundrum: what do we do when that which is accepted as doctrine based on Scripture begins to appear to be unfair and immoral?
The conflict arises out of a handful of premises and goes to the very heart of knowing the nature of God and practicing faith.
Premise 1: God is good.
This understanding of the Deity as being primarily a being of good that loves, guides, and wants the best for his children is not as universal and timeless as we may think. Ancient cultures often feared their deities and made sacrifices of the most heart-wrenching sort to appease their anger and appeal for leniency and a bountiful harvest.
But while God as an angry old man in the sky is still a part of the faith (think Fred Phelps’ “God Hates Fags” signs), Christianity has, over the ages, come to see the Divine as being beneficent. Rules that appear taxing are for our own good, sacrifices are minimal and ceremonial, and tithes and gifts are necessary for the body of believers to worship in comfort.
And one of the core truths that Christianity has adopted is that God is fair. Unlike an Olympian who has all too human emotions, the Christian God will not tempt you beyond what you can stand and if you are on tough times or experience grief He offers comfort to match your sorrow. And if you look back in the sand along the rough patches of the path and see only one set of footprints, it isn’t because God left but rather that was where He carried you.
And whatever else may be believed about Him, Christians agree that God is not simply cruel and heartless, tormenting humans for His own merriment or providing rules and restrictions without purpose or for our own good.
Premise 2: The Bible is the Word of God
The Southern Baptist Convention says it this way:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
Other denominations use other language, but all – from the most liberal to the most conservative – place importance on the collected wisdom of the Bible and believe it to reveal or inform about God’s nature, plan, intent, and design for mankind.
Premise 3: The Scripture is revealed in doctrine
This one is a bit trickier, but basically it boils down to “the way I interpret scripture is the proper way to interpret scripture”. And it is, of course, the great differentiation between branches of the faith, denominations, or even congregations.
Most of these interpretations do not rise to the level of doctrine, and even fewer to creed. But those that seem to be shared by all Christians (or by all Christians who “matter” because your religious community considers them “real Christians”) tend to become so integrated into the faith as to appear essential.
And when something comes along that challenges this essential shared belief, then there is conflict. And the more “evident” it is that the doctrine is “clear” in Scripture, then challenges to long-held presumptions begin to appear to be an attack on God himself.
THE GREAT CONUNDRUM
And that is why the question about where homosexuality fits into the church, the community, and society has become today’s Great Conundrum. Modern understanding of sexual orientation has led to this paradox:
For millenia, church teaching has been that God is good and applying his rules leads to happiness. God has said that homosexuality is forbidden and abomination to him. This is evident in Scripture and it is abundantly clear that homosexuality is not to be tolerated. Those who are homosexual are vile and willful sinners who choose to defy God.
However, we currently know the homosexuality is a naturally occurring attribute of a person. One’s attractions are not selected and are based in part on genetics. Other contributors may include other biological or perhaps even social factors, but conscious choice is seldom involved at all and no manner of effort seems effective in changing homosexuality into heterosexuality.
Therefore, God has – through genetics and other factors under the control of his divine hand – created a group of humans which he condemns for being the way He created them. He rejects and punishes them (and endorses the human punishment of them) for the sin of existing, a sin over which they had no free will.
This is not conceivable to modern Christians. This is contrary to how they view the nature of God. And so, Christians are faced with the following options: Either
- The writers of the Scripture got it wrong, or
- Your understanding of Scripture is incorrect, or
- Modern understanding about homosexuality is wrong, or
- God is a bully.
This is not at all easy for Christians to address, especially conservative Christians. Those who ask them to change their doctrine about homosexuality are asking them to agree that either the Scripture has no authority, the Bible doesn’t mean what it says so clearly, or God’s a jerk. None of these seem like tolerable options.
So thoughtful Christians seek a way out of this paradox; they try and find a reconciliation. And basically, the responses I see fall into the following categories:
Response 1: Liberal interpretation of Scripture
Some Christian traditions have an easier time with conundra. They see the Bible as a living organism, divinely guided but not set in stone. The see the Holy Spirit as continuing to reveal truth and that Biblical Principles trump specific scriptures.
As the United Church of Christ puts it: “God is still speaking”.
To a more liberal Christian, the commandment to do justice and show mercy is the heart of God and the core principle of Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself. Anything that conflicts with those principles is seen as entering the writing through the prejudice of the writers or relevant only in the context written.
These are the same denominations who found it easier to work around “slaves obey your masters” and “wives, submit to your husbands”. They find less conflict between God’s creation of all that is and the seven day timeline that is laid out in Genesis.
Specifically, in relation to homosexuality, they see Biblical condemnations to not relate to relationships but instead to be about prostitution, abuse of power, and pagan worship. It is wantonness and a lack of respect for God’s gift of sexuality that displeases Him, not the gender of the person with whom you mate.
Response 2: Rethinking Scriptural interpretation
Some literalists have delved into Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic to try and determine if the way in which English translations treat certain passages accurately reflect the original intent. Some confirm original thinking, some change dramatically based on their study.
As our readers know, the condemnations included in the writings attributed to Paul are unique. He selected, or perhaps created, terms that were not known to be otherwise used at the time of his writing. There are reasons to believe that these terms may refer to gay men and women, but scholars on either side who claim absolute certainty are probably putting their personal beliefs above their scholarly ethics.
And then there are other factors which suggest that Jesus and his earliest disciples may have bucked tradition – or as much as could be accepted at that time – in addressing eunuchs (a term for all sexual minorities) in ministry. Some note that the first Christian convert was an Ethiopian eunuch and see in this a message that Levitical condemnations are no longer applicable, especially of those who, like Phillip’s Ethiopian eunuch, are judged on terms of sex and sexuality.
Response 2a: Remaining in Conflict
Some people really struggle with this issue.
They believe gay people when they tell them that orientation is intrinsic and that to deny them a relationship would be cruel. But they also have studied scripture and cannot see that this is acceptable to God. But yet they believe in a God that is loving and fair.
So there they sit. Unresolved, conflicted and confused.
These are the people who “leave it to God” but find that they return to the subject and continued study and pray. Their basic decency is set against their long-held and deeply felt beliefs. This is perhaps the most heart-wrenching group of all, and the one’s who have my sympathy the most.
But I do see this response to be a transition for most. And usually a transition of incremental steps towards acceptance.
I find that many who respond in this manner do change their political and social responses. While they may continue to hold onto hidebound orthodoxy on the matter of sinfulness, they come to adopt a social position that gradually accepts the humanity and eventually the spirituality of gay people.
Response 3: Denying evidence
Christians have a long tradition of valuing personal testimony over scientific evidence.
In a religion in which “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, those who believe the impossible are considered to be more in line with TRUTH than those who look for rational explanation. When miracles are an evidence of God, then the less empirical something is, the more holy it can seem.
This is reinforced in recent years by a Christian movement and way of thinking that has seeped into many conservative Christian communities to one extent or another; the “name it and claim it” movement encouraged the believer to step out in faith, to act on God’s promises, to see yourself in a place you have not yet reached and believe that God would make it true. Although the teaching has been denounced by some Christians, much of the underlying notion that if one sees things too closely to reality then one is denying God’s power is still alive.
And indeed, some branches of Christianity have come to see science as suspect. Scientific evidence threatens the notion that the Earth was created in six days 6,000 years ago. Scientific scholars are skeptical of seeing God’s judgment in storms, preferring to blame atmospheric conditions.
And when some Christians are presented with evidence that contradicts what they want to believe, they can be quite creative in reinterpreting the facts in a way that allows their presumptions to remain. This is called “having a Christian Worldview.” You start with the conclusion that God is good and holy and that the Bible is both true and beneficent, and anything which contradicts this is false.
So if God plans on punishing gay people with eternal torment, obviously they deserve it. And, as sin must have a component of free will, then gay people must be choosing to engage in sin and homosexuality must be primarily a choice.
You see this thinking frequently illustrated by claims that “there is no gay gene” and “change is possible”. In recent years, virtually every preacher who waved the Bible at legislators and demanded that they treat gay people differently from straight people has “met people who used to be homosexual but have left that lifestyle.” Ex-gays are trotted out to testify before denominational bodies to convince the faithful that Pastor Joe should be dismissed because if he really believed God, he would be straight now and married, just like all the ex-gays they see on the 700 Club.
It matters little that the most thorough study conducted by evangelical Christians who were seeking confirmation for religious ex-gay therapy demonstrated that gay people cannot be turned into straight people. This, and other evidence, is ignored because facts are irrelevant to TRUTH.
And it matters little that studies about twins, x-chromosome inactivation in mothers, spacial navigating, hair whorls, handedness, Rh Factor, birth order and a host of other issues all lead one to conclude that biology plays a role in the sexual orientation of at least some gay men. Many conservatives resolve the conflict by simply asserting that “no one is born gay” and – equally importantly – no one must stay gay.
Response 3a: Obfuscating by changing language
One subset of response 3 is to try and change the ideas about sexuality by changing or limiting the language.
The first step is to reject the notion that each person has a sexual orientation. Because only heterosexuality is ordained by God, then that is all that exists. Any sexual attractions that are inconsistent with heterosexuality are temptations, or trials, or other difficulties. So instead of orientation, some will talk only of behavior.
However, acts alone do not justify the opposition to homosexuality. Most conservatives are as offended by the gay person who is single and not having sex as they are by the happily married gay couple with a healthy and active sex life.
So they have decided that identifying as gay is sin; recognizing and acknowledging a fact about the direction of ones attractions is completely unacceptable. And to try and condemn identity, they play a redefinition game with the word “behavior”.
Look, for example, at the language for credentialing of ministers in the Evangelical Free Church in America:
While tragically, as a result of the fall, believers might experience sexual attraction to those of the same sex, Christ’s followers will not affirm this as part of God’s plan for their lives nor build their identities around such attractions. Therefore, persons will not view themselves, or refer to themselves as homosexuals, but rather define their identity as new creatures in Christ. One may (and indeed, honesty may demand that they must) acknowledge the reality of same-sex attraction, but must ground their identity in Christ, not in their sexual attractions. Thus, any person who embraces a homosexual identity, even if celibate, acts in rebellion against God’s created order of male and female, demonstrating that they have not fully repented from homosexual lust and behavior.
See the logic? If you call yourself gay then you are rebelling. Thus it is your behavior that is condemned, not your orientation (which doesn’t exist). In this way of thinking, those who identify as gay are, by so identifying, making themselves worthy of eternal damnation. And this has the added benefit of automatically discounting any testimony of gay Christians, even celibate ones; they are “unrepentant” and not to be trusted.
And they feel no remorse for their attitude. They are justified in their viciousness by “having great sympathy for those who struggle with unwanted same-sex attractions.” But no sympathy for you, you aren’t struggling.
Response 3b: Making excuses for God
Some are not happy with the difficulties of reconciling a just God with a judgmental God, so they make up excuses.
Gay people are deserving of judgment because they hate God. Or because they are a threat to the family. Or are promiscuous or militant or seduce children.
God is not condemning them for being gay, you see, but for being evil. Therefore they spend great amounts of time documenting and tracking and convincing themselves of every negative thing they can find about gay people.
Gay people “die 20 years earlier” and that’s why God condemns them. Or they get AIDS and see there, that proves it.
These are the winners of the LaBarbera Awards, the folks who run campaigns to “fight the homosexual agenda”, the Christian journalists who edit and editorialize so as to keep their stories subject to their dogma.
These are the folks who spend their life trying to convince you (and themselves) that they are not bigoted. You can recognize them by their stock phrase, “I don’t hate homosexuals.”
Response 4: Stepping away from the conundrum
It is my impression that the largest group of Christians when confronted with this conundrum just can’t deal with it. This is a tough contradiction and requires a response that is not easy to come by. So they walk away from it.
I see this response as taking one of a few different methods.
Response 4a: Abandoning decency and compassion
Some when confronted with the possibility that God is a cruel and petty dictator will just accept this as His prerogative. If there is a conflict between God’s laws and God’s mercy, they couldn’t care less; it’s not their problem. So they just choose to not see the conflict as a conflict at all.
This thinking is reminiscent of the bumper stickers in the 70’s which said, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. Or, more recently, “God Hates Fags.”
It may seem like this is a large group because they are the ones that say outrageous things and get attention. You see them making comments to every on-line news story. They write letters to the editor denouncing “homosexual activists”. Unlike the excuse makers, they really don’t care whether God is fair to you or not so it’s no conundrum to them.
Fortunately, this is not really that big of a group. Most Christians don’t have a complete and total lack of compassion when it comes to their faith. Most do care if their neighbors appear to be condemned in Scripture unfairly. But unfortunately, those who really don’t give a damn about gay folk are very very vocal.
Response 4b: Abandoning faith
Some people reach a conundrum of faith, look at the paradox, and realize, “ya know, I don’t believe any of this crap.”
For many gay Christians, the challenge between what they have been taught to believe and what they know to be true has resulted in the wholesale dismissal of religion altogether. The evangelical zeal of some biblical literalists has converted many gay folk… to atheism or agnosticism.
Not only do they toss out doctrine, dogma, and tradition, they find that they don’t really believe in God at all, or at least not in a religious way. And if there are no gods at all, why spend time worrying about whether or not they are fair?
Response 4c: Waiting to see
I think that this is the response most often taken by Christians who are confronted with the Great Conundrum.
They don’t read Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. They are not scholars. They have not experienced divine revelation. So they’ll technically trust their pastor for the moment while waiting for the “religious authorities” to figure it all out.
This is often seen in people who attend church regularly, enjoy their spiritual life, but also like their gay friends. They avoid discussions about “sin” and “hell” because they don’t really know what they believe. Their preacher says that gay folk are sinners, but these folk are not get too caught up in that and they’ll just leave that all up to gay folk to work out with God.
That may seem like a cop out. It may feel like this person really needs to decide between their religious beliefs and their friends and get over it already.
But taking a time out for more observation is not unreasonable. Provided, of course, that it does not turn into blind obedience of tradition and dogma masked by ignorance and guided by a lack of concern.
Those who have no faith or who may have already dealt with this issue can sometimes be impatient.
C’mon. Look at the evidence. Let go of your bigotry!
But we should not be impatient. This is not an easy process for people of faith. And quite often they don’t really know who to believe.
But in our frustration at the snails pace that change can sometimes take, let’s console ourselves with this thought: Having fought through a difficult decision, having questioned their core beliefs, those who come to find that God has an abundant welcome which includes gay men and women are not likely to be fickle with their affections. They fought for this resolution and they will not give it up easily.
All we can do is try and live our lives with dignity, decency, and self-worth, to spread the truth about sexuality as it is further developed, and to be consistently compassionate to those who are caught in a conundrum.