Homophobia, Hell, and How I Decided to Become an Ally

The following post is from Jason Bilbrey, our Director of Pastoral Care at The Marin Foundation.

“I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.” These are the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, known for his role in ending racial segregation in South Africa (known as Apartheid), just a few weeks ago at the launch of a UN-backed campaign to promote gay rights throughout Africa. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven,” he continued. “No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

Tutu’s sentiment strikes a chord with me, and presumably others like me who, for lack of a better term, call themselves allies. We are those who know LGBT folks and, perhaps despite our former, traditionalist sensibilities, we love them–their partners, their gender expressions–everything about them, really. The idea of a God or a heaven unwelcoming of these friends and family members? No thanks.

Of course, I doubt Archbishop Tutu actually believes in a God like that. And neither do I. But, at the risk of reading too deeply into his statements, I think behind his satire is a subtle acknowledgement of the moral complexity that this issue raises for Christian allies.

On the one hand, there is the very real possibility that the conservative-traditional interpretation of the Bible is correct and that God really does condemn all forms of same-sex relationships. That’s what we all grew up hearing. That’s what the church has taught, historically. The idea that God might be homophobic (or having a broader attitude of opposition with which this inflammatory term is often conflated) has to be taken seriously. On the other hand, homophobia in any form seems like such a foreign and ridiculous attitude to hold toward my LGBT friends, those who are just as wonderfully creative and responsible and emotive and dysfunctional and vulnerable as me or any other straight person I know. So my experience of the LGBT community seems to undermine the message of those traditionalist values. Gay people are not dangerous. Gay marriage is not a threat. Gay parents are every bit as capable as their straight counterparts. I’ve come to believe all this, quite strongly, during the last few years of my direct engagement with the LGBT community.

These twin realities–the legitimacy of the Conservative community’s argument from Scripture, and the legitimacy of the LGBT community’s argument from experience–creates, for me, a very real ethical perplexity. Do I support my LGBT friends, or not? There was a moment, and I couldn’t tell you when exactly it was, when my guilt at the desire to put my affinity for the gay community into action was outweighed by my guilt at the thought of inaction. So I became an ally. I voted. I spoke up. I welcomed opportunities to officiate gay weddings. It wasn’t that I lost my faith, nor that I found some other way of relieving my conflicted conscious. No, I just decided that I couldn’t let this lack of resolution keep me from feeling, well…resolute.

Archbishop Tutu reminds me of another great Christian figure who took decisive action in the face of moral ambiguity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How did he do it? He ignored his conscience.

In his book, unceremoniously titled, Ethics, Bonhoeffer describes the conscience as “the call of human existence for unity with itself, voiced from a deep wellspring beyond one’s own will and reason.” In other words, it’s an instinct to be true to one’s own sense of integrity. So behind the inclinations of our conscience is the desire for self-preservation, inner peace and freedom from guilt.

This is not a good thing.

Rather than trying to do good or be right, Bonhoeffer argues that we should lead a life in answer to the life of Jesus. He calls this “responsibility.” This is not a petty distinction. Bonhoeffer carries out his arguments to a dramatic conclusion: Following Jesus does not promise a life free of guilt. “Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty…place their personal innocence above their responsibility for other human beings,” he writes. Taking responsible action means following the example of Christ, who was not afraid to break the law to honor those who were oppressed, who put the needs of others before himself, who willingly sacrificed his guiltlessness for our sake.

What guilt was Bonhoeffer himself willing to incur for the sake of others? That of killing Hitler. Literally. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian living under Nazi regime, but he was also committed to nonviolence, and understood Jesus teaching to specifically prohibit the kind of action which he and others knew would be necessary to bring an end to the wholesale slaughter of the Jewish people.

We see in Bonhoeffer’s writings a man who takes the seemingly antithetical commands of Scripture–to love one’s enemy and one’s neighbor, to act peacefully and also protectively–very seriously. And he is willing to let both commands sit together in contradiction, without trying to pit one against the other in false resolution. Bonhoeffer accepted that both action and inaction likely entangled him in guilt.

The conflicted conscious, whether in the paralysis of inaction or the liability of action, means that those facing a moral dilemma will necessarily feel a lack of inner peace. “From now on,” writes the German, pacifist bombmaker from jail, “I can only find unity with myself by surrendering my ego to God and others.”

I think those are wise words for this Evangelical, gay-rights advocate today. As a Christian, my responsibility is not to be guiltless but to follow Christ’s example and thrust myself upon his grace with every decision I make. And if I risk incurring hell in my solidarity with the LGBT community, at least I’ll be in good company. Maybe I’ll even be cellmates with Desmond Tutu.

Much love.


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  • MyrtleMartha

    A courageous statement. Thank you for posting it.

    You say, “These twin realities–the legitimacy of the Conservative community’s argument from Scripture, and the legitimacy of the LGBT community’s argument from experience–” I’m sure you know that there are many of us Christians who do not believe that the Conservative community’s argument from Scripture is legitimate.

    After the fall, God clearly identified the future attempt of men to rule over women as a punishment/result coming from sin, not a part of God’s original plan at all. From that came the cultural beliefs of women’s inferiority and the treatment of women as property. To have sex with a man “as with a woman” was to insult the supposedly natural superiority of the male. Leviticus, of course, says nothing of two women having sex. What did their woman-to-woman activities matter? They were, though, strictly enjoined not to mate with animals, which were even lower than themselves. There was a widespread attitude that a woman existed largely to be “used” by a man for sex and childbearing, thus Paul’s deep distress that some women left their “natural use” by men and that some men had ceased their “natural use” of women to satisfy sexual desire.

    As Jesus never criticized same-sex relationships and did not inquire into the relationship between the Centurion and his servant/lover, as the few Bible verses that do criticize (or might – some of the original language is very ambiguous) grew out of a cultural belief that reinforces the after-fall conditions rather than God’s original plan, as God has said that it is “not good” for a human being to be forced to be alone/celibate, therefore many of us believe that God approves same-sex monogamous relationships and that the Bible reflects that as part of its moral imperative for love and integrity/wholeness.

    One thing I think we might all be able to agree on is this: Absolutely nowhere does the Bible suggest that when Christians, after prayer and Scripture reading, disagree, one group should enlist the aid of the government to force the other group into compliance. This means we must all, even those entirely convinced that same-sex sex is sinful, support legal same-sex marriage so that we may all be legally free to act as we believe God would have us do. We can trust that God will eventually let each of us know which of our personal beliefs and acts He was pleased with.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi, MyrtleMartha. Thanks for your comments! I appreciate your perspective. I definitely don’t want to come across as “the Bible vs. LGBTs” because, you’re right, there are some excellent arguments from pro-gay scholars, who come to some very different conclusions in their own critical engagement with the text. The debate surrounding the Bible’s teaching on same-sex intercourse and how it might apply to the kind of same-sex relationships we see today makes for a fascinating study…and one that’s totally beyond the scope of this blog post.

      I wrote that line about the conservative community’s argument from Scripture being “legitimate” not to say that I agree with it necessarily, but that it cannot my easily dismissed, in my opinion. I’ve read some conservative commentators and scholars who are in fact exegetically irresponsible and obviously biased (same goes for some pro-gay scholars, by the way). But I’ve read other conservatives who are very thoughtful and respectful (both of the text and the LGBT community). Again, it’s not so much that I agree with them, but I recognize the “legitimacy” of their arguments. Personally, I think there’s a lot of room for interpretation–and disagreement–on what the Bible says.

      I totally understand if you’re at a different place on this, and I think that’s fine. I’m not here to make you appreciate, in some way, the conservative point of view. I only bring it up to show the nature of the moral ambiguity that this issue raises for me personally…and how I’ve chosen to push past it. Hope that makes sense.

      Again, thanks for you comment.

      • Notquite Archimedes

        I don’t think one can be respectful of Biblical literalism and the LGBT community. The two are in conflict.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          Hi Notquite Archimedes. Sure, the two are in conflict. I certainly acknowledge that conflict (within both the culture and myself) in my post. But we can disagree without being disrespectful, right?

          I’ll use the example of war and pacifism, just because I touched on it a bit in my post. I’m a pacifist. I feel strongly about not using violence, just as Bonhoeffer did. I’m not sure if I agree with what he did. I know I disagree with those who advocate for just war. But does that mean I can’t respect these individuals, or even the logic that buttresses their beliefs?

          I feel strongly about advocating for gay rights. But I read the same Bible as everyone else. I hear the arguments for a conservative-traditional interpretation of Scripture on the issue of homosexuality (which is different from biblical literalism) and most of the time I think, ok, I don’t agree, but I see how you came to that conclusion.

      • Benz981

        As one examines the overall “arc of history” [to use a popular term] I find it fascinating how, as time and societal evolution propels forward, viewpoints once considered legitimate end up in the “dust bin” [to use another popular term] with nearly everybody looking back and wondering how people could be so misguided, mistaken… so wrong. It is absolutely evident to me that this will happen to the biblically “legitimate” viewpoint regarding stigmatization, discrimination, and hostility toward LGBTQ people; it is only a matter of time.

        My view on this is more absolute. In the same manner that I find nothing legitimate about once very “legitimate” arguments used to spiritually and culturally abuse people (i.e. racial minorities, women, murder of non-believers or different believers), I personally preempt history here and find nothing legitimate at all about the conservative viewpoint (as the above examples would have also been considered “conservative” at the time). And as much as I try, I have a distaste for any effort to support those ideas as credible and/or worthy of consideration. To me, it is the equivalent of saddling up next to a bully/abuser and talking about “what’s right” about their motivations and actions.

        I admit that I am, as a gay man, quite biased in my perspective. And Jason, you are more patient than I am. For as you see the individuals holding fast to condemnatory viewpoints toward my beautiful LGBTQ brothers and sisters as people deserving of equal time…. I see them as brethren of the demons I fought fiercely against, who tortured my conscience and my spirit, and whom I prevailed against. I take delight in every cultural, societal, popular, and legal advance forward for my brothers and sisters…. and take equal delight in the exasperation, disillusion, defeat felt by those holding the “legitimate” conservative viewpoint that is destined for the “dust bin of history.” I guess my foray into these feelings is a reverse-parallel of yours… because I believe strongly against taking pleasure in the hardship or anguish of others.

        As you concluded your piece, so shall I say this: If I risk hell because of the animus I feel toward the “legitimate” conservative viewpoint, my joy in its progressively terminal direction, and the pride I feel when the pure light of Love erases more and more of the darkness cast by those that harbor it… my demons… then so be it. I’ll be in good company, too.

        God bless,

        Ben L.

        • Jason Bilbrey

          Hi Benz981, and thanks for your contribution to what I think is a pretty awesome discussion happening here. I appreciate your argument.

          You said I’m a patient person. Here’s what I have NO patience for: I have no patience for pastors everywhere who preach that sexual minorities are broken people who need God’s healing. I have no patience for those who claim that gay marriage is somehow a threat to straight marriage. I have no patience for bullies and bigots. I don’t give a “pass” to any action that stigmatizes the LGBT community, nor do I see a possibility that any such action is biblically justifiable. I denounce these things unequivocally.

          Here’s what I DO have patience for: those who understand the heteronormativity throughout the Bible as well as the biological uniqueness of the male-female relationship (in it’s capacity for reproduction) to be indicative of God’s complementation design of the genders. Listen, it’s painful for me to even write the previous sentence, because I don’t agree with that argument, but, again, I see where it comes from. And I’ll stick by my original term: it’s a “legitimate” argument.

          To me there’s a huge difference between belief and the manifestation of that belief–that is, what you think and how you act. So when you say “the biblically ‘legitimate’ viewpoint regarding stigmatization, discrimination, and hostility toward LGBTQ people,” you lose me a bit. I’m cautious about conflating belief with action. I’m sure we could debate for a long time about whether just holding to conservative beliefs contributes to the stigmatization of sexual minorities. (By the way, for anyone who’s interested, I wrote another post about two months back touching on some of these issues called “What Conscious Evangelicals Want You to Know.”)

          But there’s another reason why I want to be patient with those who hold to conservative beliefs on this issue: I used to be one. When my wife came out to me as bisexual a few years ago, I had a very homophobic reaction. Instead of listening to her, I relied on those conservative beliefs and a horrible set of stereotypes. I cast shame on her, because I couldn’t handle my own baggage. We would have gotten a divorce, almost certainly, if she had not been patient with me and respectful of the emotions I was going through.

          I know that last example is a foray into another thing entirely, but I’m increasingly aware, in my conversations with people as the Director of Pastoral Care here at the Marin Foundation, that the need for patience is felt most deeply not on the political or societal level, but at the personal level. This is where people change. Among families and friends, and over great lengths of time. It’s easier to give up on people when you don’t have to see them at Thanksgiving (or everyday). People do change. And those moments, when, as you said, “the pure light of Love erases more and more of the darkness” are indeed something to feel proud of. Especially when the demons are not expelled with Conservatives, but within them.

          Much Love

          • Benz981

            Thank you for your thoughtful response, Jason. I am thankful that you perform the function that you do with people that are challenged with new ways of thinking.

            In my opinion, beliefs are choices. You chose to believe what you believe…. until you chose to believe it no more. Just as your beliefs in the past reflected homophobia, so too did mine. As someone who internally knew they were gay and was so uncomfortable with my darkest secret, I chose to be a classic case of a gay self-loathing homophobe. I participated in condemning gays, used anti-gay slanders and slurs, etc… and my demons delighted not only in my self-hatred, but their own hatred of who I was. I believed the things they whispered to me… through the voices and actions of conservatives, and what I saw in society around me in a larger sense. And then, slowly but surely, with acceptance and support from the people I was brave enough to come out to… I began to NOT BELIEVE that stuff anymore. I made the choice… I chose not to believe it.

            I see that, increasingly, some conservatives are making the choice to believe different things with the help of people like you. That “God’s complementary design of the genders etc. etc. blah blah” bull**** is nothing more than a choice to believe that. I can pull a bunch of contradicting facts, considerations that counter that position, alternative scenarios in biology, etc. to completely cast doubt upon that nonsense. In the end, all they have to do is chose not to listen, or chose to hold fast to their viewpoint. Again, I am thankful for your patience with people who chose the narrowness of their conservative positions (for however long they do). Perhaps what I wish for them is, in some way, a projection of the shame I feel from my past… a reflection for what I feel somebody should have done to me, and what I deserved to have done: To **SLAP** me with hard truth, **SLAP** me with evidence of how toxic my poison was, to **SLAP** me with the observation that I was NOT modeling Christ… and then, once slapped down, be told in no uncertain terms “… and your ‘beliefs’ are wrong. You’re Wrong. Wrong. WRONG! You’re just DEAD WRONG!! … Now go, and make a different CHOICE.”

            Thank goodness that I am not in your position 🙂 My catharsis and release comes not from direct work with people… but from the victories won that not only give me a sense of atonement for the sins of my past, but also marginalize, illegitimate, and defeat those who remind me of my past self. As I said earlier, I delight in their exasperation and disillusionment. Shame on me… now and then.

            Ben L.

            P.S.- If you feel this is getting too lengthy and you want to contact me personally, just let me know.

            • Jason Bilbrey

              Hey Ben, I really appreciate your thoughts and the level of introspection that you’re willing to bring to the discussion. I’m not sure I have anything to add to what you’ve written, but I’d love to stay in contact with you, whether it’s here in the comments on future posts or over email (my email address is jason [at] themarinfoundation.org, just fyi). Or maybe your in/near Chicago? I like coffee 🙂

              Much Love!


  • CM Goodrich

    Thank you for sharing some straight-forward thinking and comparing it to a well-respected Christian. I am daily more appreciative of individuals who are willing to be vulnerable to a LOST world, and risk the tension of living in a Christian community, while seeking to mentor populations in the world.
    Jason, you rock. Jesus brought love into the world, and His love was without condition. Thank you for setting judgement aside, and for being real!

  • Arc77

    Thank you for sharing this Jason, God bless you. My particular situation finds me surrounded by deeply conservative & homophobic Brothers & Sisters, all I know is that every fiber of my being, and this includes my prayer life (which has grown much deeper & meaningful as I try my best to live a Christ-like life) is screaming at me that God is not homophobic, and as much as I have heard that (in church of course) homosexuality is a sin which leads to hell…. well I just know I put too much prayer, thought and genuine searching for Gods will on this subject to believe that being gay will condemn a soul to eternal torment (hell). The thought of that literally breaks my heart, BECAUSE I know God doesnt work that way.. I look to scripture & God for my answers, keeping worldly influences out of the equation as best I can. I know God speaks to us through messengers, but we have to double and triple check, through prayer & scripture reading, what we are taught by these messengers. Sorry to ramble, I’ve already over-spoken. I just feel so passionate about this, I had to say something, but know that nothing I say here is meant in a negative way about what you wrote. Your words got me thinking and FEELING and I appreciate your article here very much. You even helped me make a few more steps on my journey for truth & Gods will today.

    God Bless.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Arc77, I appreciate your thoughts. I agree. I think that God is love. I have pretty firm convictions about that.

      What I want to say with this article is that I’m trying my best to stay true to those convictions while still taking the conservative viewpoint seriously. I’m with you. I want to double- and triple-check every message I hear in my conversation around this issue. But I don’t want to be paralyzed by all those voices. At the end of the day, I look to the example of Jesus who modeled the kind of inclusivity, love and critical engagement that I’m after.

      Anyway, thanks again for your comment.

      (And, by the way, you and anyone else can reach me at jason [at] themarinfoundation.org with other questions, or just to chat.)

      • Arc77

        Ah, thanks for nailing down what you were getting to in this message Jason, I always wish to understand the authors intent so as to get everything out of the message, which is a wonderful message by the way again. I will add your e-mail to my addy book, and may just shoot you a message sometime with some questions I have, thank you VERY much for being available to discuss with others like that. I happen to be one of those people who is searching for my place in reaching out to the LGBT community, I have a strong and growing desire to get involved. At this point I am pouring prayer into things and listening for Gods direction. I really want to make a difference somehow, to help heal some hurt and heart break on both sides of the spectrum here. (rambling again,lol) Goodnight.

  • R Vogel

    Beautifully expressed and a true breath of fresh air from an unexpected corner.

  • Rev. M. Vernon Hunt

    This just might be the first time I’ve ready anything from anyone connected to The Marin Foundation that actually had something substantial and worthwhile to say. I’m very nearly impressed. Good for you.

  • chrisnu

    “On the one hand, there is the very real possibility that the conservative-traditional interpretation of the Bible is correct and that God really does condemn all forms of same-sex relationships.”

    This is a non sequitur in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t hold to what I’m going to call a forensic view of the Bible. Just because the Bible makes a statement about history, the nature of God, and the human condition, doesn’t mean it comports directly with reality, except for those who hold such a view of it, by faith. (For the sake of this discussion, let’s disregard that this is functionally impossible, since the Bible contains multiple contradictory viewpoints about each of these things.)

    I agree that, even when acknowledging the historical context and literary nuances of the biblical text, the “Conservative community’s argument from Scripture” against same-sex sexual activity is justified. However, biblical condemnation or endorsement of a particular activity does not necessarily connote God’s condemnation or endorsement of said activity, except for those who attempt to read the Bible forensically. Even they will make exceptions, when it fits their moral sensibilities. Otherwise, the slave trade would not have been abolished.

    You seem to be saying that your experiences with LGBT folk contradict the “Conservative community’s argument from Scripture.” GOOD.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Chrisnu, I see your point. I suppose I’m assuming that anyone who holds to a conservative-traditional interpretation of the Bible also believes it to be the inspired and authoritative word of God which does, in fact, comport directly with reality. But I know that several non-believers might also have the same conservative-traditional interpretation of the Bible as a historical document, but not as a holy book.

      But overall, I definitely agree (and lament) that we Christians do a horrible and uneven job deciding which Biblcal commands and teachings were meant only for the original audience, and which speak to a universal truth meant for us today.

      And, yes, I mean that my experience with LGBT folks seems to undermine the conservative community’s arguments, which often invoke Scripture.

  • MumbleMumble

    I have a seemingly unrelated question. How do you feel about atheists going to hell?
    The reason I ask is because you said that you don’t believe in a God that wouldn’t accept homosexuals. The reason you give is based on your experiences with the LGBT community, and finding them to be good, normal people who aren’t deserving of eternal damnation simply for being gay. But that really shouldn’t be a factor, should it? I mean, God condemns many people to hell who are good, normal people, right? For example, there are many good atheists, but the Bible is very clear about where they are all headed.
    I guess my next question is, why do you think that simply being good is a valid reason for gays and lesbians to be accepted by God?
    Thank you.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi MumbleMumble,

      Thanks for your question. Here’s what I believe: I believe that our eternal fate is not determined by how good we are, nor whether we ascribe to the correct set of theological doctrines, nor whether we are born into a certain sexual orientation or identity. God extends his grace to whomever he chooses. He’s in control.

      I’m not too keen on diving into the topic of hell (which could be a whole series of blog posts unto itself). But this is what I was saying in my post: I don’t believe in a God who wouldn’t accept “homosexuals” purely on the basis of their homosexuality.

  • Rockon

    So, to Marin, supporting the homosexual activist movement is like killing Hitler. That makes most Christians and pro-family groups, like FRC, Hitler. So does that make Floyd Corkins, the guy who almost succeeded in murdering the folks in the FRC building with the plan of smearing Chik-Fil-A sandwiches on their dead bodies, the Bonhoeffer of our day?

  • Michael Ejercito

    God condemns buggery period.

    No exceptions.

  • Jesop Ash

    with the Bonhoeffer reference on killing Hitler you lost me a bit.

    “Even in the context of pacifism self defense remains the triumph of Reason over cowering as a victim” < excerpt from my ethics paper, The Power of applied Reason and Truth.

    I think we can both agree that Bonhoeffer is a genuine hero of the faith for having the courage to stand up to absolute evil. Here is the hard part to swallow: as a genuine Christian Dietrich had to still love Hitler even as he opposed him. That is exactly what every faithful Christian standing up to this political movement lives with every day. As such to see you using his example to justify doing exactly the opposite of what Bonhoeffer did is unconscionable. Your argument is based on guilt not Reason, on sympathy not Scripture. And yes, Jesus plainly commands us to be compassionate with them even as we say no. Homosexuality is not a lifestyle, it is a deathstyle which behooves us to warn away those we love.

    "He who loves death hates life" Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon

    Desmond Tutu is hardly the most faithful Christian reference to use as a personal hero, He is just as racist as the racism that he is supposedly credited with reducing. Just ask him what he thinks of Caucasians and Jews and you will see what I mean.

    • Jason Bilbrey

      Hi Jesop,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m not trying to co-opt Bonhoeffer as someone who would support my position on gay rights. Frankly, I think it’s pointless to assume what he would say about homosexuality and the LGBT experience, because (as far as I know) he didn’t address these issues. The only reason I bring him up is because I personally was inspired by his theological reasoning in forming my own convictions. In other words, I’m talking about this particular ethic of rejecting the temptation to pursue blamelessness–an ethic that stands on it’s own ground–not some hypothetical question as to whether Bonhoeffer would be pro- or anti-gay.

      Also, Rockon, this should go without saying, but I’m not comparing conservatives to Nazis. There is no grand metaphor here.