Hope Amidst the Chick-Fil-A Wars

Hope in the DesertIn the desert south of Tucson, Arizona, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, paved roads turn into dirt paths that wind through dried up river beds called “washes.” When I was traveling those borderlands several years ago with a group of Christian peacemakers, our guide assured us that crossing the washes would be a little bumpy, but no problem. The rivulets that wound their way over that dry ground were no challenge to our four-wheel drive vehicle.

But then it started raining.

When it rains in the desert, it pours. In a matter of minutes that late summer evening, I watched tiny rivulets rise into streams that merged into one mighty river. Parched land that had been cracked before was overcome by rushing waters. In a moment, the whole landscape changed. Those of us who had witnessed it stood in awe—then quickly ran for higher ground.

Last week, I shared about the awakening of hope that I see saving Christianity in America, even as the reports continue to come in about the demise of Christendom. Diana Butler Bass, whom I engaged in that piece, likens the conventional liberal/conservative division in American Christianity to two thin streams that “wind alongside each other between the boulders and pebbles of a great river bed, following separate ways.” Since 1945, Bass contends in her People’s History of Christianity, the river has been rising. In the latter half of the 20th century, as the vestiges of Christendom slipped away, many Christians found themselves caught up in a current that defies conventional wisdom.

Just as I did that evening in the desert several years ago, I stand in awe of what’s happening on America’s religious landscape. We live in a fascinating time when there are thousands of stories to tell about how people are crossing traditional borders and forming new movements that join a deeply personal faith with action for social change. Yet, at the same time, the main religion story last week was a fight among Christians about whether we should eat chicken sandwiches. We are living, it seems, in the best of times, even as we endure the worst of times.

The “issue” before us, of course, is not chicken sandwiches but homosexuality–or, more specifically, how faith shapes Christians’ relationships with neighbors who are GLBT, whether they share our faith or not. This is, notably, the most recent in a long series of issues that have fueled the Culture Wars since Roe v. Wade. For many who fear a future without cultural power, this has become a hill to die on. Those who are willing to die (and, I fear, kill) will always make the news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” they say in journalism.

But we have better stories to tell.

I have a friend who almost gave up not only on Christianity, but on life. On precisely the “issue” at the heart of the Chick-fil-A Wars, my friend reached a dead end in the conventional streams of fragmented modern Christianity. Because he was raised by conservative missionaries in Africa, my friend knew something was wrong when he felt himself attracted to other boys. As an undergraduate at an evangelical school, he went through programs and asked for prayer to be delivered from his homosexuality. But nothing worked. He was gay, and he knew that meant he was not welcome in the church that raised him.

Like so many people who are marginalized by the church, my friend found a sense of belonging with others who were like him. He left the church behind and set out to make a life for himself in the gay community. This was comforting for a while. He met gay Christians who were members of affirming churches. But my friend says he couldn’t find anyone who was able to explain to him why his life still felt meaningless. Even when he got what he wanted, something was still missing. With no other options on the horizon, my friend despaired. Outside a bar in the middle of the night, he lay down on a sidewalk and hoped to die.

But he didn’t. Almost by accident, he stumbled into a little Christian community where he met people whose faith seemed different. They were trying to live their whole lives by the Sermon on the Mount. They served alongside the poor and tried to love one another. They worshiped God with enthusiasm, but their worship wasn’t just a service on Sunday morning. It was their life together, day in and day out.

Maybe this was the answer, my friend thought to himself. Maybe this kind of life together, living the way Jesus taught, was what he was made for. He was experiencing a personal awakening of hope, but he was cautious: what would they think about his homosexuality? Asking for a private meeting, he put the question to a leader in the community. The response: “I don’t know what all that will mean for our journey together. But I will say this: you are a gift, and we want to welcome you as one.”

Twenty years later, my friend is a leader in that same little community. He says God and the people there have saved his life. Of course, his is only one life in the context of one small community. His story does not present an “answer” to the debate that will no doubt continue in these confusing times. But his life and the community that surrounds it is a sign of hope, pointing us toward a new kind of Christianity for our time. While so many of us were trying to figure out the right position on an issue, a community of imperfect people had the grace to welcome another imperfect brother as a gift. In doing so, they not only saved his life. They saved their own, becoming a people that shines with the life that is really life.

After a wash floods, they tell me, its banks will often explode with the blooms of flowers. Their vivid colors remain as a reminder that, however dry it may seem, the rain will come again.

Jonathan’s new book, The Awakening of Hope, releases this month. You can join the conversation about it at the Patheos Book Club.

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  • Scott Adams

    I rarely comment in writing on these kinds of pieces, but you’ve done such thoughtful and compassionate work here, I thought I would. The reason the two “streams” will never meet (if I am following your analogy accurately) is because by definition, to be a Christian, you have to believe certain things, and NOT believe other things. And, those beliefs are found in one book, the Bible. I certainly agree with you that regardless of our convictions, we do not need to treat each other poorly or with hatred. However, those who affirm the practice of homosexuality contribute just as much to the harshness by continuing to accuse Christians of “hatred” when we are simply standing, with much love and compassion, on what we believe to be an absolute truth from Scripture. To put it another way, if we could successfully extract the “feelings” around this issue (which, by the way, I think we are getting close to doing), we will find that what we are not having a meaningful debate because we disagree dramatically on the definitions of words themselves. There is no way (apparently) for a pro-homosexual person to believe that someone who condemns the practice of homosexuality , but NOT the person, is acting completely out of a profound love – the same love held out to us by our Creator. So…as warm as your piece sounds, there are very serious reasons the two streams will not meet.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for this, Scott. I don’t mean to suggest that the community that welcomed this particular friend of mine hasn’t had a long discernment together regarding how gay and straight people should live faithfully in our bodies if we trust Scripture as our guide. They have. It just occurred to me as I watched the news last week that I wish theirs was the story in the news, not the Chick-Fil-A protest. Because wherever you end up on the “issue” (and there are Christians I respect deeply on both sides), what matters, it seems to me, is whether there are communities where people see the love of Jesus and come asking, Is there a place in this movement for someone like me?

      • Tammy

        Thank you!

    • Kimberly Knight


      I must protest at your assertion because you are speaking as if there is only one way to be a Christian and as if millions of Christians do not believe differently than the narrow set of assumptions you have lifted up. There are in fact millions of followers of Jesus’ Way that do NOT hold that homosexuality is in and of itself a sin. Please do not presume that your version of Christianity is the only/right/truest form of Christianity. We all see through a glass darkly my friend – all of us.

      Your lesbian sister in Christ,

  • Matthew

    Wow … this is a very difficult one for me. I mean I know I have my personal opinion about the topic, but I am also intimately aware that there are other Christians who do not share my viewpoint. Nevertheless, watching this “culture war” take place from a region where the issue in question has pretty much been settled made me cringe a bit. I consider myself to be an evangelical — albeit a progressive one — and I cannot deal with how some in my circles treat those who are GLBT or otherwise. Even if one is of the opinion that the behavior, lifestyle, etc. is not part of God´s design and is in fact sinful, does such an opinion give the bearer the right to demonize these fellow humans? My wife and I discussed this topic at length last week. I have to admit we left the conversation with more questions than answers I think. For example — if homosexuality is morally wrong and contrary to God´s design, how does one differentiate then between that moral problem and one like adultery, stealing, murder, etc.? We don´t imprison or stone Christians who commit adultery, but there are some in the west who suggest those in the GLBT community should be imprisoned (I believe there is a country in Africa that actually does imprison these folks — and its leaders are mostly Christian I think). How does one reconcile that one? I want to be as dedicated to the biblical witness as possible, but I also think that those in the GLBT community should be left alone to choose the lifestyle they want to have. My hope is that more people post a comment on this thread so that the conversation continues.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks, Matthew, for encouraging sincere and honest dialog about this. It’s happening in so few places. I would be honored to see it happen here. (and I’ll be glad to join in as much as time allows).

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    Thank you for this story. I am not one to be picky in my friends and associates and have enjoyed the friendships of people of all faiths and no faith and everything in between through the years. Some of the best people I have known have been atheists or agnostic, in fact. But I have noticed that every so often I run into someone unusual who really does seem to “shine like stars in the heavens” and every time I do run into someone like that they have been a Christian. Which gives me hope in many ways.

    I agree that we live in interesting times and the church will not look the same in another decade or two as it does now. I think we’re on the edge of a renewal that will sweep away the accumulated baggage and division that is weighing the church down. It will be interesting, but at times I am sure painful to watch.

  • Matthew

    Thanks Jonathan. Just another thought …
    How much and how often should Christians in policy making positions attempt to legislate morality? If they performed such a legislative move consistently, wouldn´t we as a society (and as a church) be going backwards rather than forward? I mean we look at what happens in conservative Muslim nations and are in shock. We shake our heads and pump our fists at the idea Sharia law — but isn´t that the direction the church is going in when it attempts to manage the personal affairs of another human being who is free and is living in a free society? I will say openly that I have some conservative viewpoints about morality and lifestyle, but at the same time I am wary of attempting to place that “cross” on the backs of those who are simply not like me.

    • http://www.jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Matthew: you’re right. At issue are not only questions of biblical ethics but also–and more pointedly, I think, in the public fight–questions of Christian social engagement. Those who argue that God’s Word is for everyone–that “we will judge the nations”–are technically right, of course, but dead wrong in spirit, I suspect. We are witnessing a decline in Christendom’s institutions because Christians have so often misused power in public. The opportunity, it seems to me, is to learn anew what it means to trust the Holy Spirit’s power. “We know no violence,” Oscar Romero said, “except the violence of love.” May we grow in that knowledge as we pursue the well-being of our places.

  • http://www.voicesempower.com Alice Linahan

    This is a great conversation/debate on this very subject~
    Sullivan and Douthat debate Bad Religion:

  • Matthew

    As I think of this issue more and more, a thought came to mind:
    The government does legislate morality in certain cases. For example, it is illegal to murder. It is illegal to marry someone under a certain age, etc. Most (if not all) people would say these are good government safeguards and would be in favor of the government managing these aspects of morality. Why is it any different than with homosexuality? Just a question … not trying to be argumentative.

    • Kimberly Knight

      Please, please, please do not compare homosexuality or same-sex marriage to murder or pedophilia. Those are acts that destroy human life where as gay and lesbian couples of consenting age can live in life-giving, grace filled relationships that honor human life.

      • Matthew


        Thanks Kimberly. You make a good point. I am trying to work through this sticky issue — that´s all. Diagloue really helps me through this process. I think I was merely wondering how — if we can in fact define homosexuality as morally wrong in God´s eyes — how does that moral transgression differ from others if in fact all sins are equal in God´s economy (at least from a Protestant perspective)? If homosexuality is not found to be morally wrong in God´s eyes, then I suppose your explanation holds water.

  • Matthew

    Sorry for this interruption, but I wasn´t certain where I should post this question. Can one edit post, replies, etc. after they are posted on this blog? Thanks. Please feel free to delete this post after the fact.

  • Florence V Davis

    I seriously question, as an old woman of faith, how we can judge anyone or anything as morally wrong in God’s eyes. I don’t believe that we, mere mortal people, can or should try to define God’s will or plan or God’s idea of morality for that matter. The God I have come to know is a God of infinite creativity and a God of unconditional love who calls me to follow the Way that Jesus demonstrated in his earthly ministry. Jesus consistently broke the standard religious rules of Judaism in his day; he ate and drank with sinners and Jews who worked for the Roman government as tax collectors; he talked at length with women, even some outside of his faith, he healed the sick on the Sabbath. The writers of the four gospels in the canon reported nothing that Jesus said about homosexuality, one way or the other. But they reported many times when Jesus showed compassion and love for the least of society.
    I cannot believe that he would object to two people, same sex or opposite sex, declaring before God their love for each other and their commitment to live together as people devoted to the Way that he taught. I have friends and acquaintances who are gay and who are living that way, some raising children, others beyond that age. But almost all that I know strive to love God and to love their neighbors. For me that defines what it means to be a Christian.

  • http://facebook bob

    Bob Clark
    I am a straight Christian progressive Democrat who fights for equal rights of minorities. The following comment is a reply to an interesting dicussion among progressive Christians on the issue. “Who is going to find homosexuality is
    morally wrong? Only God of course. I question the premise that “…all sins are equal in God’s economy.”.. That is fun to discuss but there is no anwer. Please let me start a new path of this subject in that I think homosexuality is genetic. What if there is conclusive scientific evidence that this marker exists? Then, being gay is natural. The reason I believe it is natural is because being gay is not a choice. If it were a choice, when and why
    did you decide to be straight?

    19 hours ago · Like.

    • Matthew

      How can a discerning mind know? I mean there are those groups and organizations that say it is not natural, but rather chosen and that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that suggests otherwise.
      To Florence I would just ask what is the Bible for then if we are not use it to discern what is morally right and what is morally wrong — among other things of course.

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