It’s 3:30am, and my mind has been writing this post all night; I won’t be able to sleep again until I get it out, so here goes.
I watched Milk last night, a fantastic true story about a man named Harvey Milk who became the first openly gay elected official in American history. This didn’t happen until the late 1970’s, and shortly after achieving his political post and making great headway in protecting the civil rights of homosexuals, he was murdered by a fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, along with their mayor. Their murderer was a political opponent of Milk’s, as they voted against each other’s bills, but that doesn’t appear to be the reason he killed them. The official defence (called “the twinkie defence”) was that the man had been eating a lot of junk food, and that this altered his mental state; clearly this is bogus (my wife pointed out that if this was an accepted defence, why didn’t we crack down on junk food?), but he was convicted only of manslaughter and given the lightest possible sentence. The film suggests that the murderer was himself a closeted and repressed homosexual, implying that his repression caused him to do it; he killed himself two years after getting out of prison. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harvey Milk’s murder was that it didn’t come as a result of his many death threats, but from a coworker who snapped: Milk had expected assassination because of his human rights activism (how very Jesusy of him), but not like this.
Milk’s real political opponents were not just City Supervisors who voted against him in council; there was at that time a movement toward civil rights for homosexuals that was met by a counter-movement of Christian activists who, citing the Bible and God (usually rather vaguely), appealed and overturned many legal protections for homosexuals. A central plot point of the film was Proposition 6, which would have systematically fired any openly gay teachers in the California school system, as well as anyone who supported them. The supposed reason for this was that gay school teachers were “recruiting” children, and teaching them to be gay. I sincerely hope that the arguments were more nuanced than the film portrays them to be, because looking back 35 years later, they’re insultingly illogical and far-fetched.
The biblical arguments portrayed in the film are also fairly shallow, usually limited to “it may not be illegal, but it’s against the law of God” or some variation on a blanket appeal to God or the Bible. The film obviously doesn’t focus on biblical exegesis, but even back then the arguments were more nuanced and thorough than that. Sadly, probably not by much: even today there are some that insist on a certain style of interpretation of scripture that allows them to point to a verse – way out of context – as incontrovertible proof that God hates someone. I’m thinking, of course, of the Westboro Baptist Church, known internationally for their bigotry and terrible reversal of the spirit of scripture.
Now, there are certainly some verses that seem to be a quite straightforward condemnation of homosexual sexuality, particularly in the Old Testament but even a few in the New Testament, but these texts are not the open-and-shut case that they are often claimed to be, and thoughtful and respectful Christians ought to at least hear out the interpreters who argue that they do not apply to homosexuality as we know it today (I find this book to be a good conversation starter in this regard). We also owe it to ourselves, as well as to homosexuals, to think through the matter thoroughly even if in the end we come to quite conservative conclusions (I find this book to be a good example of a thorough approach with a conservative conclusion).
But regardless of where we stand on the issue of whether or not homosexuality itself, or even gay sex, is sinful, we still cannot use that as a reason to deny homosexuals any sort of rights. In fact, I will argue that we cannot in good conscience treat homosexuals any differently than anyone else, even within the Church, and that to do so would be profoundly un-Christian of us. Here are my reasons:
We can’t take the grace of God seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Christians live in a tension: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us; we are now saints; we still sin; we’re still saved. There is an expectation that we will no longer sin, but there is also an acknowledgement that we still do. Arguments against including homosexuals in the Church a) tend to assume that simply being gay is a sin (and is a lifestyle choice rather than something that cannot be chosen or changed), and then b) single it out as a sin that is somehow outside of God’s grace.
The argument for this is usually based on the notion of “cheap grace”: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming ageand who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:4-6). The idea here is that if Christians continue to sin, they’ve abused God’s grace and will therefore lose it. This might have some traction if homosexuality were strictly a choice, but even if it were only a temptation that some people have (rather than a set sexuality, as most homosexuals today understand it to be), I don’t think this verse would apply (as by that standard, we’d all fall into this camp). Generally, arguments against cheap grace tend to be arguments for no grace – and given the fact that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, I find that hard to swallow.
There are plenty of other verses to support the notion of God’s grace being unconditional, but since it’s a fairly central point of the Christian faith, I’ll leave it here for now.
We can’t take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.
1. Treating homosexuals differently as a group goes against the unifying nature of the Church. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse points to the three major dividing and classifying factors of first-century life, the three things that made it possible to have an “us vs. them” mentality. There was, of course, still the dichotomy of “saints vs. sinners,” but saints are saints by grace through faith, and if we’re going to kick sinners out of the church then there wouldn’t be anyone left in it. There’s also the dichotomy of “Christians vs. the World,” which is how we tend to treat homosexuals based simply on the fact that we don’t welcome them to church. This is something that we cannot do if we take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously.
2. There is plenty of biblical precedent for including outsiders and sinners in the Church. The most obvious example is the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church, which wasn’t unprecedented (Israel had long included foreigners) but was nevertheless completely revolutionary in its time. What’s amazing is how easily it happened: Gentiles began worshipping God, and God accepted them, as evidenced through his giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 10-11). The issue was eventually brought up at a council because it was so controversial, but given that God had quite apparently accepted them, the council agreed to as well (Acts 15). The implications of this went well beyond racial barriers, however, because Jews were set apart by their practices as much as their bloodlines; accepting Gentiles into the Church meant effectively throwing out current and traditional notions of religious ethics! They left Gentile Christians with much simpler rules: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Note that even these commandments are moderated by the following phrase; because God accepted them before even these requirements were set, the council didn’t have much in the way of theological backing for these ethical commandments, and as such they have the moral force of guidelines for good living. Now, even if we were to take these commandments as being God-given, and include homosexuality under “sexual immorality,” all it would take is for one openly gay Christian to exhibit evidence of the Holy Spirit, and thus acceptance by God, to set a similar precedent for the inclusion of homosexuals within the Church on the same basis as the acceptance of Gentiles. Examples are not all that difficult to find. It’s difficult to take God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church seriously if we systematically exclude any other people group.
3. Even those passages in Paul that treat sexual sin very seriously (assuming again that homosexuality is sexual immorality) assume that people who practice sexual sin are within the Church: Paul wasn’t writing to churches to condemn those outside the Church, but to encourage and correct those within it. At the very least, this means that homosexuality (even if it is a sin) should be treated just like any other sin, not singled out.
We can’t take the ethical demands of the Gospel seriously and still discriminate against…anyone.
I don’t want to say that any point of theology isn’t important, but unless you are gay the status of homosexuality as sin is of no practical importance to you. According to Jesus, we’re supposed to treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Or as it was paraphrased in The Message: “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”
Jesus showed the radical nature of this not only in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (e.g., Matthew 25, which implies quite frankly that salvation is based entirely on how we treat other people rather than on sinlessness or having correct beliefs), but also in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
New International Version (NIV)
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (from Bible Gateway)
We’ve all heard this passage a thousand times, so I’ll try to be brief. The actions of the Samaritan were radical because:
1. The Jew that had been waylaid was technically an enemy of the Samaritan. These are two people groups with a long history of bad blood and battles, not to mention fundamental religious differences. For a Jew to eat a meal with a Samaritan would have probably been enough to make him “unclean,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling was mutual. This is (sadly) somewhat analogous to the relationship between the gay rights movement and some branches of conservative Christianity in the US. The Gospel demands that we go out of our way and spend our money to help those we hate the most.
2. I already mentioned that sharing a meal with a Samaritan would have probably made a Jew “unclean,” and that I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion was reciprocated (I’m no expert on Samaritan religious practices, but I believe it was quite similar to Judaism on many fronts). But more than that, for the Priest and the Levite in the story it would have made them “unclean” to touch a dead body, or probably even to get the poor guy’s blood on them. Being “clean” was a symbol of being guiltless, and so to deliberately do something that would make them unclean was the same thing as taking guilt on themselves – becoming guilty for the sake of someone else. The Gospel demands that we not only spend our time and money on others, but that we even be willing to take on guilt for their sake. This is the type of thinking that got Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed, but he did it because following Jesus Christ demands it.
But how does this relate to the inclusion and rights of homosexuals in the Church today?
I believe that a large reason that many churches today do not accept homosexuals as Christians is because we are afraid of condoning sin. Most of us know a few homosexuals, and have no problem with them as people (this was one of Harvey Milk’s strategies: get as many gay people to come out of the closet as possible so that the average person would realize that they already know some gay people, and that they’re nothing to be afraid of). Most of us have no problem with other people’s sins, so long as they don’t affect us (one argument presented in the film is still common today: “What other people do in their bedrooms is none of my business, as long as I don’t have to do it in mine”), and we tend to recognize that we need to be in a relationship of accountability with someone before pointing out their sin to them can be effective (contra the strategy of the Westboro Baptist Church, who say that they love “fags” more than anyone else because they’re willing to tell them the truth about their behaviour and eternal destination). Most moderate Christians also recognize that allowing for some kind of gay marriage or partnership would be the compassionate thing to do – because enforced celibacy doesn’t tend to lead to healthy people, gay or straight (see: Catholic Priest sex scandals).
But most moderate churches still haven’t done anything about this issue. I’ve been sitting on the fence for a long time, because I haven’t been able to square the texts against homosexuality (I tend to think that the more conservative exegesis fits the texts better) with the compassion and ethic of Christ: law and grace have been at war in me regarding this issue (I don’t mean to imply a dichotomy between the two, but on this issue it has seemed that way to me). Now I realize that I need to be willing to be guilty before God for the sake of others, so that even if homosexuality is inherently sinful, and if this sin is somehow outside of God’s grace, and if as a Christian leader it is my duty to denounce this sin and eject homosexuals from my congregation, the Gospel demands that I be willing to go against all of that for the sake of loving my neighbour. (If you follow the Westboro or Mark Driscoll track and say that it’s more loving to show “tough love,” I respect your position, but do not find it helpful).
So there it is. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve figured out the texts, because I haven’t. In regard to what I have to do as a follower of Jesus Christ, they’re not super important. Even if it were explicitly sinful to allow openly gay people into the Church, to exclude them would (in my mind) go against the teachings and spirit of Jesus Christ, dishonour the grace of God, twist the inclusive nature of the Church, and altogether fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel.
I welcome your thoughts on this!