This is Part 1 of what will be a three-part series on homosexuality and the way in which evangelicals have related themselves to homosexuals. I wanted to begin with stories, with confession, and with a profession of love and respect.
Part I. Stories of Love and Sin
Consider the following story from the early 1980s:
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – They begin to arrive before sunset, shuffling in out of the dark streets of the Haight-Ashbury district and into the half-lit ward, because they know that is when their friends awaken to another day of unrelenting pain. Still wearing their coats in the cold foyer, they gather in a circle to pray. “Let our hands be your hands,” pastor Allen whispers, “let our words be your words. Help us to love our friends and bring life and joy into this place.”
They are members of the Castro Community Church. Some visit the AIDS ward on Asbbury Street every day before work, and others bring their families on weekends. They are representative of a nationwide movement of evangelical Christians who believe that they are called by God to love the men and women dying in the AIDS wards in the same way that Jesus, they say, loved the sick and the ostracized in ancient Palestine.
Pastor Allen is there every day. Is he not afraid, I ask him, of becoming infected, as scientists are still scrambling to understand the means of transmission? “Jesus went among the diseased, did he not?” he answers. “Our church building is just around the corner. These are our neighbors, our friends.”
What about the fact, I say, that many of these men are gay? Does he not believe that they are sinners? “I am a sinner. We are all sinners. How could that possibly matter? The point is that these men are suffering and dying and need care. They need to hear that God loves them.” We are sitting in an empty waiting room, and pastor Allen has been visiting patients for two hours. When I ask whether this is all just a proselytization strategy, he shakes his head. “Definitely not. No. This is about doing the right thing. This is about answering the call of God to love our neighbors and lay down our lives for our brothers. If some come to know the love of Jesus through our actions, then all the better. There’s nothing insidious in that. Regardless, we’re called to love our savior in the least of these.”
When was this story written? It was not. I wish that it had been. How different would our relationship with gays would have been if we had first shown our love in acts of profound, self-sacrificial compassion? How different would it be now if we—even those who still believe homosexual acts are against the will of God—were the first to serve homosexuals when they are in need, the first to defend them when they are attacked, and if we first made certain they were welcomed and cared for in authentic relationships before we entertained the thought of addressing the rightness or wrongness of their lifestyle.
Instead, many Christians in the 1980s said, in some form or another, the same thing that I said at a family reunion when I was a child: AIDS is God’s punishment on druggies and homosexuals. I was a cocky kid from Northern California, raised in the church, and my uncle from Los Angeles, who liked to talk to crystals, sat across from me at the lunch table and brought up the plight of those dying in the AIDS wards. I thought I was speaking the sharp-edged truth, that the commandments of God run in parallel with hard-wired laws of causes and consequences. Defy the natural order, and the natural order will defy you. Uncle Aquarius thought I was breathing hatred.
It was not hatred. It was something else, no less sinful. It was arrogance. Spiritual pride. I do not want to admit this, but reconciliation begins with confession, and confession begins with honesty. As a child, I thought myself better than gays, less sinful, less deserving of judgment or hardship. I concede that there are some precincts within American Christendom where gays are hated. Mine was not one of them. The Christian community in which I was raised was a deeply loving community, one of the least hateful communities I can imagine. In fact, I must say that this is generally true, in spite of caricatures to the contrary: evangelicals are not a hateful bunch.
What I absorbed from my faith community, instead, was a sense of superiority in the eyes of God, a sense that their sins were worse than ours. We, who are existentially committed to the belief that the grace of God is given without regard for what people deserve, seemed to believe that we were more deserving of God’s grace than gays were.
It was not without reason. The argument ran thus: of course we are sinners too, but we do not flout the authority of God by calling “good” what God has called “evil,” and we do not persist defiantly in our sins without the slightest effort to reform ourselves. To do these things is always and already to demonstrate that one has not fully yielded oneself to God, that Jesus is not truly Lord in the life of the gay who claims to be Christian. To the gay Christian, the message would be this: “If you were truly following Christ, if the Holy Spirit of God were truly within you, then you would accept the witness of the Word and the Spirit that homosexual acts transgress the will of God, and you would repent and seek to transform your life. Only those who give their lives fully to God are saved, and you have not fully given yourself to God if you have not given your sexual desires to Him and sought their redemption.”
Such is the attitude with which I was raised. I have since come to believe that Christians can, in good faith, come to believe that the Bible does not condemn loving and faithful homosexual relationships. Much though I wish I did, for all of the gays in my life whom I love and respect, I do not find such arguments convincing. Yet I know people who are committed to God and committed to the authority of scripture who sincerely do. I have also come to believe that our capacities for self-deception are vast, and it is almost certainly true that I call some things “good” which God calls “evil,” and some things “evil” which God calls “good.”
Even at my worst, however, I never felt hatred toward gays, much less fear of homosexuality.
If it had been hatred, it would not have dissolved so instantly the moment I began to develop friendships with gays. What dissolved in the face of these friendships were not my theological convictions, but my inherited, unspoken sense that gays belonged to some special category of sinner, and that a gay person who was acting upon his same-sex desires was cut off from fellowship with God until he overcame his sin.
As I have written elsewhere, we have much to confess. I have much to confess. I confess to sinful attitudes against gays in my youth. I confess to standing silently by as my co-religionists and as other friends unlovingly mocked homosexuals. And I confess what I believe with all my heart: that I am more sinful than the lot. Most importantly, I confess the confession of my life: that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of radical grace and forgiveness. If he did not require me to overcome my sins before he accepted me, then what right do I have to require it of another?
* * * * *
Shortly after I came to Stanford, I went to China on a missions trip; one of the other students on the team was a former alcoholic who worked with addicts to drugs and alcohol. Many of those addicts, he said, have the impression that they must overcome their sinful addictions before they can come back to God. Yet are we not told (in Romans 5:8) that we were saved while we were still sinners? Would it not be wiser, this friend suggested, to encourage our friends back into an honest and intimate relationship with God, so that God Himself could convict and guide and strengthen them to overcome their addictions?
I still find that argument compelling, and I was reminded of it when a Christian classmate, who had “come out” her sophomore year, came to visit me in my senior year. We had not spoken for years, and she entered warily, unsure how I would regard her. Slowly she told her story and unburdened herself of the grief she had felt ever since her parents, from an evangelical church in the South, had effectively disowned her.
I listened sympathetically, and encouraged her that the most important thing, in my eyes, was whether she had continued to seek God. Her response was not what I had expected. She began to weep. For a few moments, she could not speak, as her emotions were rushing up from her heart and tightening her throat. She said, once she had regained her voice, that none of her Christian friends, ever since her coming out, had asked her about her relationship with God. The members of her home church had explicitly told her that she would be cut off from God, incommunicado, until she repented and forsook homosexuality. The truth, she said, was that she had kept seeking God, but that she was so lonely in her faith that she could barely stand it. In fact, she felt that coming out was a blessing for her faith, because at least now she was being honest with God about who she was.
Some of my more conservative friends will object to this. Yet I believe with all my heart what I told her then: that she was not cut off from God, and the most important thing in her life was to continue to seek God with all of her strength. Let her speak honestly with God and listen openly as God speaks honestly with her.
Well intentioned though it may (often) be, telling a person that she is cut off from God because of her sins is counter-productive and theologically unsound. If we believe that God does not will homosexual relationships, then we should be urging gays more constantly and more fully into their relationships with God, so that they will be able to hear God’s voice and draw upon His guidance and strength.
Have evangelicals been unfairly maligned? Have many of us been accused undeservedly of backwardness and bigotry? Have we been unjustly lumped together with the worst extremists like Westboro Baptist Church? Yes, absolutely. Neither gays nor evangelicals have been blameless in this troubled relationship. Yet we are Christians; we are supposed to specialize in confession and forgiveness. We should always be the first to put aside our own grievances, humble ourselves and seek reconciliation. Always.
Before going any further, then, before discussing the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality, and making all the terminological and philosophical distinctions that are necessary to work our way through these thorny issues, it is important to begin here, with confession and with declarations of love. While there is nothing necessarily hateful in maintaining the traditional Christian standpoint regarding homosexuality and marriage, we have failed to imitate Christ in befriending the ostracized, serving the scorned, and standing with the persecuted. Until we have laid down our lives for our gay brothers and sisters, until we have fashioned authentic relationships of love and respect, until we have communicated the extravagant love of God not only through our words but also through our deeds, even words spoken in love and concern will be heard as hatred and condemnation.
I confess that I have not been as loving as I should. And I profess that God loves all men, gay or straight. I profess, too, that I feel a deep and sincere love and respect for many friends who are gay and lesbian. That is where I wish to begin. More soon.