The following post is from Brent Bailey, a Master of Divinity student at Abilene Christian University. Brent will be interning with us again at The Marin Foundation this summer and you can find his blog at oddmanout.net.
We’re quickly reaching a point of critical mass in our culture in which stories related to sexual minorities are nearly ubiquitous in the media. As more states and nations legalize same-sex marriage, more public figures (even NBA players!) come out, and more prominent pastors make helpful and less-than-helpful statements about homosexuality, we’re gradually acquiring a common language that enables us to communicate and connect with one another about these significant questions. Unfortunately, as the volume of the conversation grows, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to demonstrate the love of Christ in the midst of the public dialogue.
One of the dichotomies I’ve picked up in seminary is two different ways you can read the Bible. The first is to interrogate the Bible. This involves using any of a number of lenses and styles of criticism in order to analyze what Paul actually meant, or whether the gospel of Luke borrowed parts of the gospel of Mark, or how many different ways you can translate “logos,” or what Jesus thinks about women, or whether David and Jonathan were more than friends. (You can pay big dollars at Bible college to learn to do this.) The second is to invite the Bible to interrogate you. This involves an act of faith in God’s ability to speak through an ancient book into your present circumstances. It feels intensely risky and personal and is wholly unpredictable, and it’s often gut-wrenching or breathtaking.
I recently let John 8:2-11 interrogate me. That’s the story of the woman caught in adultery, of course, and it’s a story that’s as scorned among scholars as it is lauded among laypeople. As a gay Christian who’s lodged himself into ongoing talks about homosexuality, it wasn’t hard for me to predict where I’d locate myself in the narrative: Maybe I’d identify with the woman herself, wounded as collateral damage in a culture war that often feels more concerned with arguing about laws than it is about empathizing with humans. Or maybe I’d place myself in Jesus’ shoes, growing frustrated with people who want to narrow down big narratives about faith and identity into simple Yes/No questions, and I’d brazenly refuse to play that game. Unfortunately for me during this particular reading, I wasn’t interrogating the Bible. I was letting it interrogate me, and I was thus rather surprised to find myself standing in line with the Pharisees holding stones.
Because, you see, as I’ve invested more time and energy into actively engaging our culture’s discussion around homosexuality, I’ve found myself more prone to gather stones of criticism and disapproval for those with whom I disagree. I’m finding it easier to exploit other people as case studies, or evidence, or arguments rather than to honor them as children of God, because it sure helps my position if I can support it with case studies, or evidence, or arguments. In my moments of burnout, I’m more likely to resort to asking the Yes/No questions that make it simple for me to classify whether someone’s for or against me.
Maybe what’s most shocking about the John 8 story is how little anyone actually says. After Jesus levels the crowd with his shrewd suggestion—that the guiltless ones should be the first to punish the most visibly guilty one—the other Pharisees and I have nothing to say, because even we can see how far we’ve missed the mark. Gradually, they start to walk away, and in one of the story’s most dazzling details, it’s the older folks who leave first. (We might not feel surprised they’re quickest to acknowledge their own faults.) Eventually, I’m the only chump left standing in the row with a rock in my hand, and I’d rather like to slam my Bible shut so I don’t have to feel so anxious waiting all alone in the dusty silence.
Here’s what I’m supposed to do now: I’m supposed to turn and walk away. Jesus isn’t waiting for a biblical argument, a poignant confession, or even a tearful apology from me. I merely need to walk away and wordlessly acknowledge my own wickedness alongside the other Pharisees. But here’s why I don’t: I’ve learned that it’s awful strategy to admit my fault if I’m hoping for any kind of victory in our culture war. Those who demonstrate humility or even awareness of their own flaws lose face and come across as wishy-washy and impotent. Those willing to concede the deficiencies of their position might as well raise a white flag. In the John 8 story, walking away means letting Jesus get the last word in an argument that didn’t go nearly as well as I had planned it to go.
People, the good news is that we can do this differently. It involves listening and gentleness and compassion, and it never, ever results in a woman standing exposed in the courts with her accusers thirsting for blood. We don’t win or lose, because Jesus already broke the game and initiated a kingdom in which the blessed ones are the poor in spirit, the meek, and the peacemakers. We taste the tender goodness inherent in God’s moral imperatives, and that means we neither dismiss them nor hurl them at others as a means of diverting attention away from ourselves.
It begins, I think, when we acknowledge our guilt in the midst of crises that have long ago escalated past grace and mercy, when we lay down our stones and walk away. It continues when we move from acknowledging our general guilt to naming more specific areas of imperfection, verbalizing those flashes of self-awareness to the people in our lives. (An aside for other bloggers: This is a good time in the process for us to ask ourselves the tough questions. Am I too concerned with page views and Likes? Do I aim to write something viral or something true and helpful? Do I present a version of myself that’s radically different from who I actually am?) It reaches its apex when we become the kind of people who invite such vulnerability and candor from others, even from our opponents, because it doesn’t even occur to them that they’d need to pretend around us.
One need not look far to find stones ripe for the throwing. One need not look much farther to find potential targets for those stones. What’s increasingly rare in our culture—and what the simple, piercing suggestion of Jesus calls us to—is walking away when we find ourselves poised to strike.
Really good article.
I just shared it with this teaser:
So many voices raised! Someone says, “Jesus
said, ‘Go and sin no more'” as the ultimate proof that IT really is a
sin. Another replies, “But Jesus also said, ‘Neither do I condemn you'”
as a shining example that we dare not set ourselves up
as judge & jury over other people. Few voices seem to remember
that Jesus also said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
If our memories were better about that, maybe our voices would be
softer, kinder, more thoughtful…
This article reminds me that
since I am not one of the sinless, then probably I should walk away
more often – at least more often than I throw stones.
Amazing perspective! What a wise young man. I read once
“Reflection is looking in so you can look out with a broader, bigger,
and more accurate perspective.” (Mick Ukleja & Robert Lorber) I’m looking forward to hearing more from Brent Bailey.v=)
There will never be peace between Gay(community, christian, whatever) and the SSA (community, Christian, whatever). This article is naïve. This idea of “if we can generate enough warm loving feelings with Bible excerpts the culture war can be eclipsed but Jesus agrees with both arguments” is at best naïve, worst confusing. As long as governments back the legalize/don’t legalize gay marriage, outlaw therapy for others seeking alternatives, whatever…polarization is now the conversation. Both sides are guilty and both are destined to perpetuate it. Why? Because when you have governments (and churches?) that back the opposing view point (either side) choices and rights are pushed into. As this argument well knows, no one wants their rights hijacked, right? You have less to fear Brent Bailey, the President (cultural country?) is cheering you on. The Church is your next frontier. Those who disagree with you know that. But please, no SSA (read: unwanted same sex attracted) man or woman will trust your biblical views. Nor you them. Make peace with this fact. Your energy will better used by serving your beliefs and not-so-quiet gay christian activism with out couching it in some passive veneer. I hate the name calling/accusations/whatever too. But please, my brother, grow up. This is an oil and water argument. There will be no peace. May we both chose respectful love in how we disagree.
J – I couldn’t disagree with you more. I genuinely believe everything Brent wrote in this post is dead on, and it is this attitude of engagement that he outlines is the reason why The Marin Foundation has been able to do so much good and bring so much reconciliation in such a variety of areas.
I do believe what you are saying is right, in that both sides are guilty. But forcing everyone to believe the same, as you suggested, is not the answer. That is called a dictatorship–not a pluralistic country we live in today.
We’re not convincing anyone to believe like us, as you seem to be doing with others and your views. We are trying to convince people to understand that regardless of what they believe, it’s more important what they do with what they believe.
There will be peace. It’s too bad you don’t have enough courage and vision to see it happen.
I should have been more clear. I totally agree with what Brent is saying around the attitude of engagement. That I agree. What I’m pointing to is the impossible chasm of getting pro-gay Christian men/women and SSA men/women to be genuinely FOR each other. By definition of “For” I mean coming behind each other and say “I bless and believe in your specific journey around how your sexuality plays itself as a Jesus follower. In fact I actively support you in it”. It’s not enough to just tip my hat and say “well, we have our differences let just not say bad things to each other” Actions of both sides are actively, publicly doing the opposite. That will not change. Ever. What we can do is do as Brent suggests. Act with as as much love and respect as possible. I can get behind that. I have to be honest and say my ego LOVED the idea of being powerful enough to “force” others to believe differently. I am not, most definitely, that kind of powerful. That’s good for all us 🙂 You called my view one of dictatorship. You don’t consider that language polarizing? Really? You only make my point.
My offer offer to Brent was not that he should stop being who he is. My invitation to Brent is, “brother, go full bore into who you feel you’re supposed to be. You’re gay, you love Jesus, whatever” The naivety was thinking that an SSA man/woman would have any reason to believe that he is “For” them by how I defined it above. Because both sides, I think, would agree they want someone who believes IN the crux of the crux of they way the choose/live and be who they are in Christ. That’s where rubber hits the road for any of us, I think. That brother, IS the culture war and even the best bridge builder, and you are in there somewhere, will never bridge that, ever. For that is the very heart of the divide. And in that crux/difference/chasm, whatever, there will be no peace. Accepting that will give peace. For one will have to lose. Both are making sure their view isn’t the one going down, as in most wars.
Lastly, I only wish that I had the experience of having this in person. I don’t think of you as my enemy. I don’t trust you, but that’s not the same. I have no doubt, there are plenty of areas in my life where I do not enough courage and vision. That I agree with you %100. But let me be clear, if there’s ever been an area that I *do* have courage and vision it’s in this topic. It’s just not your brand of vision & courage. And that my brother, we will and must part ways.
Thanks for your response.
Edited: Never mind. Figured out my own question.
Hey, J, I’ll confess I do often feel incredibly overwhelmed with the state of the current conversations surrounding homosexuality. Like you said, it often feels like it consists of a clash of worldviews that don’t and can’t share middle ground because what they’re aiming for appears completely contradictory—it feels like a zero sum game. I think what I’m most interested in is changing that game to explore whether everyone involved might be able to get what it is they’re really after, even if that means reconsidering their original goals and desires. (I’m thinking of the story about two kids fighting over an orange and deciding to cut it in half, not realizing that one wants the fruit and the other wants the peel.)
To be honest, I think the reason I do disagree with what you said about how that gap is irreparable is simply because of how I’ve seen connections made and relationships healed. I’m thinking here mostly on a small scale, like a one-on-one relationship scale—that’s where I’ve witnessed the most dramatic shifts that filter up into big policy/organizational shifts. (I’m pretty sure that scale is where the most damage can occur, too—I’m less concerned with what The Church thinks about me than I am concerned with how my Christian neighbor treats me; I care less about what The Gay Rights Movement thinks about me than I care about my last interaction with a gay activist.) I’d totally agree that, in our present cultural climate, there are some groups that are clashing at some very fundamental levels; I think where I’d disagree with you—and maybe I’m not disagreeing at all—is my belief that there’s valuable work (maybe the MOST valuable work) to be done in helping people learn to drop their stones and approach these conversations with empathy and sensitivity. Maybe you’re right to call it “naive,” but I really do believe those small relationships are what ultimately lead to the kind of large-scale reconciliation/relationship I’d like to see.
You said “I’m most interested in is changing that game to explore whether everyone involved might be able to get what it is they’re really after, even if that means reconsidering their original goals and desires.” Can you say more about that? I’m not sure I know what you mean. How do both sides of the aisle both get what they want with out the other being disadvantaged? The 2 opposing views I speak of is the gay affirmative person and the
unwanted same-sex person. Yes, there are more parties/views but these 2 are the heart of the matter for these are the ones who are directly impacted by any large and small shifts in regards to policy (church/government).
You said “I’ve seen connections made and relationships healed…like a one-on-one relationship scale” I’m not sure I’m clear on the relationships/connections definition you’re speaking of. Can you give me some examples as it pertains to the 2 fundamental opposing views? I’m not challenging the possibility. I’m open to hear about the healing you’ve seen/experienced re: those parties.
In terms of the “filter-up” impact, if you have some
examples, I’m open. I’ve yet to see any policy/organizational change where both fundamental opposing views simultaneously benefited from that shift. Again, not challenging, just want to know what you’re talking about.
You spoke of reconciliation/relationship. That looks different to everyone. What does it look like to you where both benefit? Not trying to catch you on anything. I have no reference for the gay christian and the unwanted same-sex attracted person being reconciled to another. If it’s happened I’d like to know what it looks like. I have no imagination for it.
Again I want to say I agree with you on the on the mutual respect approach, no doubt. I just have no idea how those 2 different specific views would ever partner together. One is going East, the other West. Both believe their direction is the “True North”.
Thanks for your response.
To answer your first question: I believe this kind of shift may be a long time coming, but the kind of shift I’m interested in is seeking those ways in which each group can get to the bottom of what it is they’re really after in order to find solutions that honor the desires of each group. So, for example, many who oppose legalizing same-sex marriage express concerns that its legalization will make it more difficult for churches to continue condemning same-sex relationships. In that case, it sounds like they’re less concerned with same-sex couples marrying and more concerned with their freedom to espouse a different view. In that case, if the group opposing same-sex marriage could receive some kind of assurance or guarantee they’d be free to continue believing/practicing as they desire, they might be less opposed to gay couples marrying. I think we’re seeing other areas in which greater understanding of the other side’s position allows each group to really define what’s at stake for them in the conflict.
When I speak of one-on-one relationships, I’m talking about specific cases I’ve seen in my life in which individuals with seemingly opposed worldviews (i.e., a gay-affirming individual and someone who rejects their own same-sex attractions) have learned to live together peacefully. They may never get to a point of fully celebrating and condoning each other’s approaches to life, but I’m persuaded that’s not necessary for genuine, meaningful relationship, and I’ve seen it work in a number of relationships. (Andrew’s written tons about how faithfulness and loyalty are much more important—and much rarer—than mere affirmation and support, and that’s what I have in mind.)
In terms of change filtering up, I’m thinking about organizations that have shifted away from polarized rhetoric toward more empathetic/conciliatory approaches. So, for example, consider the massive changes that have occurred in Exodus over the last few years. They’ve received criticisms from people across the spectrum; many say they’ve gone too far, and many say they’ve not gone nearly far enough. Nevertheless, I think the changes at Exodus demonstrate at least one step toward reconciliation with largely affirming organizations—namely by listening to criticisms (specifically related to ex-gay therapy) and responding accordingly. Obviously, Exodus is ministering to a certain demographic of people, and there are plenty of people they aren’t reaching; but that stands out in my mind as a large organization willing to make changes based on increased understanding of humans and what they need.
For your last question: As above, I define “reconciliation” as something like “the ability to live peacefully in mutual understanding and empathy.” It sounds like your definition may be different here than mine, but because it seems like our culture’s going to be undecided about homosexuality for a long time still, I think aiming to be good neighbors is a worthwhile goal for now. Even as their worldviews may be opposed, I think neighbors can learn to change their goals in light of the other person’s desire. In your example, the unwanted SSA individual may spend less time campaigning against same-sex marriage, whereas the gay Christian may work to improve empathy and support for the variety of ways in which SSA Christians will interpret their sexual identity and seek to live it out in holiness.
Thanks for some good discussion—this is important stuff for me to be thinking through as I continue seeking ways to live peaceably with my neighbors. I appreciate you engaging the post.
The Catholic Church opposes birth control and divorce and yet manages to live in a society that allows birth control and divorce. Jehovah’s Witnesses opposes birthday celebrations and holidays and yet manage to live in a society that celebrates birthday celebrations and holidays.
Marriage equality has been around in portions of the USA for nearly a decade. It’s been around in my state for four years. Churches still preach against us and our families. It all works out. They haven’t lost anything, but gay and lesbian families have gained the ability to legalize our marriages. It’s all good.
Interesting examples. I just can’t shake the imagination of both playing nice but hold inside, the desire to see each other fail in the public forum. I just doesn’t seem authentic. That doesn’t mean wishing failures over the individual personhood (i.e. to be a good friend, show respect, love, empathy, etc) But as it pertains directly to the public domain, that’s where the failure is wished. The macro level (read: culture war) proves this. The smaller civility won’t touch that sting or or the hurt of it. But I get it, I get it. Your main point is empathy regardless. The goal is civility. To you, the micro level shows possibility. I hear you.
Perhaps neighbors can learn to change their goals in light of the other person’s desire. Maybe the SSA person could support total gay marriage rights equaling that of their straight counterparts with out ever having to redefine the word “marriage”. Maybe the SSA Christian will improve in empathy and support for the variety of ways in which Gay Christians interpret their sexual identity and seek to live out in holiness. Maybe.
You have been gracious in this exchange. Thank you. I’ve been following the Marin posts for about a year. I think I get it, not totally, but enough. I’m unfollowing the Marin Foundation as of today, I’ve seen enough, but this conversation has been insightful. You’ve been apart of that.
Good luck Brent.
Why are we still using “Pharisee” as a pejorative term?
Hey, Justin, I’m really curious about your question here—it sounds like you’re getting at something important. Maybe you could say a bit more about what you’re asking?
“It reaches its apex when we become the kind of people who invite such vulnerability and candor from others, even from our opponents, because it doesn’t even occur to them that they’d need to pretend around us.”
Brother, out of all of the descriptions of following Jesus that I have ever read, that is one of my new favorites. Keep it up!