Excellent question. “What if you’re wrong?” is always an excellent question and I’m grateful to my inquisitors and critics for making sure I never forget it.
Even if I don’t always enjoy the tone of their full expression of this question, I thank them for the helpful reminder that I always might be wrong.
That’s the constructive aspect of this challenge, which comes up every time I discuss this topic of LGBT people and the church or make an argument — despite those clobber verses — against the intrinsic immorality of sexual minorities.
In it’s full form, that challenge looks something like this (I’m paraphrasing here, using more lower case and standard spelling, but this is the gist of it):
Oh yeah, Mr. Smarty-pants Liberal, did it ever occur to you that you might be wrong? And if you’re wrong, then you’re also leading others astray. You might be preventing others from finding their way to repentance. You might be damning yourself to Hell and dragging others down with you. Didja ever consider that? Huh, did ya?
First, let me agree that, yes, it is always entirely possible that I am wrong.
I do not think I’m wrong, obviously. My study, reason, prayer, conversation, debate and conscience all lead me to believe I’m right.
And, like most people, whenever I begin to think I’m not likely right, I take the expedient step of changing my mind until I once again am more confident that I am. I’ve changed my mind many times on many different matters. That experience confirms something I knew to be true already — I am fallible and incapable of either perfect knowledge or perfect reasoning.
That is the human condition. We can have greater or lesser degrees of confidence, but never certainty. The problem of human fallibility is inescapable. That is grounds for humility and thus for vigilant caution.
We Christians have a principle for accommodating such humble uncertainty: When in doubt (i.e., always), err on the side of love. When love seems in conflict with some rule or precept — she’s hemorrhaging and unclean, he’s an uncircumcised centurion, she’s a Syro-Phoenician dog — love wins.
But fallibility isn’t really the issue behind this question, “What if you’re wrong?” That question isn’t meant to remind me of human fallibility or of the imperative for humility, it’s meant to warn me to consider consequences.
They are asking me to reconsider my argument not on the basis of evidence or reason, but by weighing the potential risks against the perceived rewards. And that’s a bit odd.
Risk-reward analysis is a prudent and useful tool for many things, but not for ethics. If you’re contemplating whether or not to accept an invitation to go skydiving, then by all means contemplate the consequences, weigh the potential risks against the potential rewards, and then make your decision. But if you’re contemplating whether or not to do the right thing — whether or not to love — then such considerations really ought not to be part of the equation.
When this sort of calculation takes over ethical decision-making, I’m not sure it even counts any longer as ethics. It’s more like profit-seeking. That’s the dismal effect of the reward-and-punishment framework that has supplanted love as the defining crux of ethics for many Christians. When seeking reward and avoiding punishment shapes our decisions, then love is always displaced and diminished.
This is yet one more reason that Huckleberry Finn ripping up his letter and turning around his raft is, for me, a canonical text. Unless and until one can say, with Huck, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” then one will remain incapable of love.
When my inquisitors seek to remind me of the consequences of “what if you’re wrong?” they have a very specific set of consequences in mind. What they really mean, in other words, is not so much “what if you’re wrong?” but “what if we are right?”
So it’s not really a question as much as a statement — another reiteration of their claims in the hope that they might somehow become more persuasive by brute repetition. And along with that statement comes a kind of a threat: “Woe unto them that call evil good.” (Isaiah wasn’t talking about homosexuality there, but was condemning those who “join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you.” But the prophet’s phrase and his denunciation in the same passage of “you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight” are an apt summary of my inquisitors’ criticism of my argument here.)
I appreciate the severity and the gravity of what they’re suggesting, but I have a hard time following how this is supposed to play out. I’m trying to imagine the scenario of my standing before the throne of God on the day of judgment and hearing God say: “Depart from me, for thy mercy and love exceeded mine own, and thou has accorded too much dignity to these, my children.” Or would it just be, “Depart from me, for I was gay and you did not condemn me and demand I repent”?
I mean, I’ve read that scene, so I know what comes after “depart from me” in that story, but that doesn’t help me imagine the script here.
I’m also not frightfully concerned with the supposed spiritual danger to which I’m allegedly exposing LGBT people. I understand the argument — that I should be demanding repentance instead of offering affirmation, that my love must be more conditional. But let’s face it, if things work the way my anti-gay critics say they do, then those folks are already cosmically screwed and nothing I say or do will really change that. I suppose, if this crypto-Pelagian scheme is correct, that if we really crank up the misery in this world, then there’s a slight chance that a marginal few people might be coerced into the life of self-loathing celibacy that could save their eternal souls. I get the strategy there. But for the vast majority, that can’t and won’t change the unchangeable fact that they’re apparently predestined to God’s special Hell for Queers.
And, well, if that’s what inevitably awaits them in the next life, then the least I can do is try to reduce their misery a bit in this one. It seems kinder to extend to them here the grace that God will ultimately rescind and thus to allow them at least a measure of happiness in this world.
Well, not real happiness, of course. Real happiness is something gay people can never experience until they repent of being gay. So no matter how genuine they may claim their happiness to be and no matter how genuine such happiness may appear, we must defer to anti-gay Christians, who clearly have superior knowledge when it comes to evaluating the legitimacy of others’ happiness.
Sarcasm aside, I simply cannot accept that my critics are right because I cannot accept what their claims assert and assume about the character of God. My response is essentially that of Lloyd Bentsen: I know Jesus. I pray to Jesus. Jesus is a savior of mine. And this person you describe, sir, is no Jesus.
Ah, but what if I’m wrong? What if they’re right and I’m wrong and this is what Jesus is really like — fearsome, wrathful, strict, full of graceless truth?
Well, in that case, all I can do is quote again those sacred words: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”
As long as I’m in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.