The recent closing of Exodus International, a Christian ministry dedicated to helping people overcome same-sex attraction; and the apology to the gay community from the organization’s president, Alan Chambers, have spawned a rousing theological discourse in defense and/or condemnation of this organization’s evolution.
A (gay) friend of mine and I navigated this minefield over 10 years ago in the spring of 2001 at the invitation of two students (one gay, one Christian) from Tufts University. My friend and fellow journalist Dave Cullen and I stood at the center of a fierce debate that, a year earlier, found Tufts University embroiled in a controversy that captured national attention.
The Tufts Christian Fellowship (TCF, affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) had withheld a leadership appointment from a long-standing member who had been tracked along those lines. Prior to the appointment process, however, she came out as a lesbian. TCF in turn passed her over. She filed a suit to the student judiciary claiming discrimination based upon sexual orientation and TCF was stripped of their school-sponsored status. The Tufts Transgendered Lesbian Gay & Bisexual Collective (TTLGBC) (now referred to as LGBT) and TCF thus assumed hostile opposing positions on this campus, which Dave and I were invited to redress. Dave and I knew each other through our mutual coverage of the Columbine shooting (1999). As a result we became fast, albeit unconventional, friends.
At Tufts we outlined how our friendship developed despite the animosity our respective communities possessed one toward another. The evening eventually won a campus award for being the “Best Co-Sponsored Activity” of that year.
We focused our discussion upon two sides of the same coin: how Christians have failed the gay community (my part) and how the gay community has failed Christians (Dave’s part).
How Christians Have Failed the Gay Community
I prefaced my part of the discussion with a brief digression about Paul’s “sin list.”
“Paul mentions many kinds of behavior he calls ‘sin.’ Some sins are really bad, like murder, adultery, idolatry, heartlessness, ruthlessness. Others are more innocuous, like greed, drunkenness, slander, gossip, arrogance, envy, gluttony. Paul includes homosexuality among these ‘sins.’
In Paul’s mind the ‘really bad’ sins and the ‘innocuous’ sins carry the same result—alienation from God, which, is the classic definition of sin. Evangelicals have failed the gay community because our community has tended to isolate homosexuality as a more virulent form of human rebellion than, say, gossip or gluttony –or materialism. Christians assumed an embattled defensive position and put homosexuality in a category all its own when it comes to sin, while whitewashing other pathologies running rampant in our community. This has made us look like hypocrites, which we are, and it has hurt the gay community.”
I apologized for that.
The second way in which evangelicals have failed the gay community, I said, has been in a general tendency to neglect seeking opportunities to engage people who are gay. To cover Columbine, Dave is to be admired for his resolve to go to evangelical churches and Bible studies and get to know people at the center of the story, despite his feeling they would judge him. That is more than I, for example, had done in his community, and I apologized for that as well. (I concede that in the years since our forum this trend is changing, as it should.)
To introduce the third and final point, I told a story about a situation I faced with someone I did not like: “If the truth were told, I might have said that I actually hated this person, but no good Christian ever says that.”
“These kinds of feelings are vexing for Christians because we can’t get away from the words of our Lord: ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Loving your enemies is not human. It goes against every basic human instinct we possess.
But I’ve come to see, that is exactly the point. If most Christians were honest and had the chance, we’d probably like to pull Jesus aside and say, ‘What were you thinking when you said that?’ I imagine he would answer this way: ‘Well, I was thinking that by loving your enemies you are exhibiting the qualities of God, who loves you. By exhibiting the qualities of God you are allowing him to make you someone you’re not inclined to be, nor ever could be, apart from his taking you there. Loving your enemies is God in you, taking you beyond human inclination. Do you want to go there? It is hard. You will have to give up some inclinations. But I’ll take you there.’”
“We Christians are called to love,” I said in conclusion. “But I’m afraid we have done that badly when it comes to the gay community. For Christians, mere ‘tolerance’ is not an option. We are not called to ‘tolerate.’ We are called to love.”
Dave said to me once, “We don’t want to be ‘tolerated.’ Who wants to live in this world feeling like you’re being tolerated?” If tolerance is all we’re hoping for between our communities then we’re settling for less than what God meant us to be for one another as fellow humans.
How Gays Have Failed the Christian Community
Dave introduced his portion of the discussion about how the gay community has failed Christians by recalling a Bible study meeting he had attended while researching the Columbine shooting. The people in the group started to talk about how they felt discriminated and Dave wanted to laugh out loud. He was thinking: You people control the Republican party! Your party has run the White House for most of the last thirty years! You guys get veto power over most of our Presidents. You’re running the country, not us! He thought, They’re putting me on.
“I had no idea they felt alienated and ostracized the way gay people do,” he said. He wrote an article about Columbine for Salon titled “I Smell the Presence of Satan” (May 15, 1999) and was surprised when evangelicals gave him “supportive reviews.”
“I got a lot of e-mails from people thanking me for being open-minded and for not slamming them. That’s when I started realizing these people aren’t making this up. I came to see they’re in the same position that we are.”
He then highlighted three areas among the cultural elite (his term) who have “written off” evangelical Christians.
First, he felt it first hand in the book publishing industry, specifically among New York houses, when he broached them about doing a joint book project with me about relationships between gays and evangelicals. “I pitched this collaboration idea and, well, pick your cliché. They weren’t interested. My editor, a major person in publishing, was basically saying, ‘These Christian people are wackos. Why do we want support this or give them a platform?’ I was taken aback,” he said.
Second, the entertainment industry, too, views Christians as “easy targets” and wields a special hammer, he said. “The artistic community feels like gays have been victimized and that the Christian community has bullied them. There is some basis for it, but we ruthlessly ridicule Christians beyond anything they deserve.”
Dave’s third and final point addressed a tactic he said he “felt ashamed of.” That is, he said, “we take your clowns and pretend they represent who you are.” He mentioned specifically Fred Phelps, the fringe extremist who pickets funerals of gay people and others, carrying with signs like, ‘You’re going to hell’ and ‘God Hates Fags.’ “We know most evangelicals condemn that,” said Dave. “Still, it’s the fringe people our community uses against you. It’s unfair and we do it constantly. We know we can get away with it.”
In the course of all this Dave asked me, ‘Where do you evangelicals draw the line between loving someone who is, by your place of authority, living a life that contradicts God’s law?’” I had read something said by Chai Feldblum, a professor of law and the director of the Federal Legislation Clinic at Georgetown Law Center, who has worked for disability and lesbian/ gay rights. Commenting on what she felt was the disingenuous nature of former-President Clinton’s “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military, she said: “A rabbi said to me, ‘I get it. You can be gay, but you always have to have a headache.’” To those who are gay, she said, “this seems like a really poor way of living one’s life.”
Reflecting upon Dave’s terminology, “Where do you evangelicals draw the line,” I came to understand that a line does indeed need to be drawn, but evangelicals aren’t the ones to draw it. The line is drawn in a place where evangelicals and gays– where Dave and I– stand on the same side of it.
When Jesus invited us to follow him, he warned that if we walk with him we will have to give things up. Our human dispositions are strong and our inclinations, fierce. That is why following him to a place beyond human inclination is called faith. We don’t always see or feel the immediate pay-off. Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testament law in such a way as to make harder on everybody, and especially church people. It wasn’t enough not to kill your brother or sister; you couldn’t entertain angry thoughts about them and remain consistent with God’s perfect plan for his people. What can any of us do?
I concluded my words at Tufts that night: “Dave Cullen as a gay man doesn’t want ‘tolerance’ from me, and I, as an evangelical woman don’t want ‘tolerance’ from him. He wants my friendship, which I freely give, and I want his friendship and am blessed and enlarged in knowing him. That doesn’t come from tolerance. Dave and I have grown in friendship because we see each other as fellow pilgrims groping along the same road, both on the same side of the drawn line, both of us with headaches.”
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Wendy Murray holds a MATS in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and served as an editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today for ten years. Go here to see a conversation she sponsored for CT with Dave Cullen and Bill Oudemolen, then pastor of Foothills Bible Church outside Littleton, CO. See Wendy’s CT cover story on the Columbine Shooting.