Note: This is part of a series on Christianity and Homosexuality. See the introduction here.
This question — Have we loved the gay community? — is, to my mind, the first and most important question we must ask when it comes to the thicket of entangled issues and controversies found in the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality. We worship as God incarnate a person who taught us to look first to the plank in our own eyes before we look to the motes in the eyes of others. Our concern with sin is always firstly and fundamentally with our own sin. The Apostle Paul called himself the chief of sinners. This was no pose. To speak of the chief of sinners is always, Christianly speaking, always to speak in the first person.
This does not mean that I cannot speak of others’ sins. Sometimes we must uphold the truth when it is under assault. It’s important to be able to say that Anthony Weiner’s treatment of women was sinful; that a priest or pastor or teacher’s abuse of children is sinful; that a businessperson’s deceit is sinful; and, yes, that certain sexual behaviors are sinful. But it means that I cannot speak of the sins of others until I have spoken first of my own, until I am profoundly humbled by the width, depth and breadth of my own sin. And it means that I can never cast stones, because I am not without sin. I can only speak as one sinner to another, not casting judgment, for it is not mine to judge, but confessing my own sin, conveying the truth of scripture, and looking hopefully to our redemption from sin together.
And evangelicals have abundant reason for confession when it comes to the matter of homosexuality. One of my students at Harvard could not go home over the holidays because his Christian parents had cut him from their lives when he told them he was gay. A fellow student when I was an undergrad wept in my dorm room at how hatefully her Tennessee church had treated her after she came out. Some have suffered verbal and physical abuse, some are told that “God Hates F**s,” and the list goes on. There are many gays I love and respect and am grateful to have in my life. Ask any of them, ask just about any gay person, and they can give you a list of the times when they’ve been mistreated and maligned by Christians. Granted, not everything that is called hateful actually is hateful. But sometimes Christians have been hateful toward gays, and if you think the church has nothing to do with this, then I think you’re fooling yourself. We have a collective responsibility for the culture around the issue. Do you really think the church has done everything it could to oppose anti-homosexual bigotry within its ranks, and everything it should to demonstrate the love of Christ toward gays?
I’ve posted this once before, but consider this story from the 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. They gather in the cold foyer 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 Ashbury Street every day before work, and others bring their families on weekends. They represent 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? Scientists are still struggling to understand how HIV spreads. “Jesus went among the diseased,” 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 they’re sinners? “I am a sinner. We are all sinners. That’s not what matters right now. What matters is that these men are suffering and dying and need care. They need to hear that God loves them and offers them grace.” 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. “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 great. But regardless, we’re called to love our neighbors and care for the sick.”
When was this story written? Never. But I wish it had been. How different would our relationship be with the gay community if we had been the first to serve them in the midst of the AIDS crisis? Some evangelicals — even in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International — actively served the people (many of them gay) who were dying in the AIDS wards. But they were the exceptions. By and large, Christians sat on their hands. AIDS, they said, is God’s punishment for druggies and gays. I know because I once said the same thing, when I was a kid, and the Christians around me nodded their heads. I heard it frequently.
The church has been one of the most beautiful and redemptive things in my life. I am not one of those writers who’s made a career of selling scorn for conservative Christianity. But I do think we have to confess here. I know I do. Have we always stood against those who speak hatefully of gays? Have we also stood up for gays when they are harassed or abused? Have we explained ourselves with compassion and humility? Have we fully supported those who wrestle with same-sex attraction and wish to live in faithfulness?
We should love all people with the love of Christ, should we not? Yet the love of Christ is an extravagant, overflowing, shockingly forgiving, and radically self-sacrificial love. While the love of Christ does not call evil things good or sinful things pure, it always seeks to heal and reconcile and redeem. I just don’t think we’ve demonstrated that kind of love toward gays.
To be sure, evangelicals have not always deserved the accusation of bigotry. Neither evangelicals nor gays are blameless in this relationship. Yet we are Christians, defined by a God-man who died for those who condemned him. We should always be the first to put aside our grievances and seek reconciliation. Until we’ve laid down our lives for our gay brothers and sisters, until we’ve fashioned relationships of love and respect, until we’ve 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. Even our loving words will not be heard as love unless we’ve demonstrated our love first.
Next up: “Why ‘Is Homosexuality a Choice?’ Is Not the Right Question” — but I’ll finish with this. God did not require me to overcome my sins before he loved me. Shouldn’t I have the same grace with others?