Friday, August 10, 2012

Why I Advocate For Gays & Lesbians: A Heterosexual Christian Perspective

The intensity of the feelings about homosexuality among many North American and British Christians is odd, particularly since these same people are seemingly apathetic about such issues as material and social justice, the environment and racism. This situation is even more perplexing when we realize that these latter issues are not so much matters of conflicting interpretations as of disobedience, of a sinful unwillingness to perform Scripture when it is clear that it will cost us some of our material comforts and closely guarded prejudices.
Biblical scholars Stephen Fowl and L. Gregory Jones

Let’s start with the Bible. There are 7 Bible verses that condemn “homosexuality,” which I wedge between quotation marks here because the documents that make up what came to be known as the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament” for Christians) & New Testament were written in Hebrew and Greek and neither language has one clear-cut word that translates “homosexuality” in English. The current brand (and there are many) of “homosexuality” that churches and political parties are debating all over North America did not exist in the ancient world.

The contemporary concept of what opponents call “The Gay Lifestyle” is really about two men (or two women) who want to join in a covenant of love, service and fidelity recognized by the state they live in (and sometimes a faith community they are a part of). This kind of relationship-bound-by-promise is unique and makes society a strong, secure & stable place to live. Some might argue that this is actually not what the “The Gay Lifestyle” is really about. They claim that it’s actually more of a movement. An “agenda.” They say, “It’s actually about indoctrinating our children and confusing them and giving them license to be sexually promiscuous.” That’s not really “the gay agenda,” though. That's a perfect description for sexualized corporate advertising, internet porn and college fraternities. That’s right: a mostly “heterosexual agenda.”

But back to the Bible. In the ancient world, “homosexuality” meant (1) a wealthy man who hired a pre-pubescent boy to be his sex slave and protégé or (2) the humiliating act of anal rape performed by victorious soldiers after a village was conquered in war or (3) an act of “worship” with same-sex prostitutes during services at a pagan temple. The main point is that ancient folk did not have a concept of “sexual orientation,” something we are born with or develop very early in life. They were weirded out by something that most people could not understand (90-95% are born with a heterosexual orientation).

And on top of that, the Israelites were a small community trying to survive in a land of rivals: population growth through marriage and child-bearing was vital (thus we read: “be fruitful and multiply”). The Apostle Paul uses an argument from nature in Romans 1 to prove that lesbian sex is immoral. But Paul did not understand the concept of orientation and “homosexuality” was always represented by what he’d always read in the Hebrew Bible: something the pagans do to worship their supposed gods. It was violent, power-mongering and dehumanizing.

For folks who believe the Bible is an easy-to-read, error-free truth manual and that Paul couldn’t possibly be ignorant about the modern concept of “sexual orientation,” how do we explain the concept of slavery in the Bible? We all know now that it is wrong to “own” another human being, right? Yet slavery is nowhere condemned in the Bible! But slavery in the ancient world was actually quite different than the form of chattel slavery that tore more than 20 million men, women and children off the African continent (and away from their families) to work in horrific conditions on plantations and factories thousands of miles from their place of birth.

Slavery in the ancient world was a way to serve time (and save money) to pay off a debt and then regain freedom . Yet, for more than two centuries in the United States, white plantation owners would read the story of Paul sending the slave Onesimus back to Philemon as a word from the Lord for all would-be run-away-slaves on their plantations. But Onesimus’ situation wasn’t anything like Frederick Douglass’. In precisely the same biblical interpretive analogy, anal rape, pederastry (see Jerry Sandusky) and prostitution isn’t even in the ballpark with the concept of Adam and Steve getting married.

The debate over gay marriage within Christian circles does not boil down to what one knows about homosexuality, but largely, who one knows. And, as it turns out, most conservative Christians aren’t in relationships with too many out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians. Many gays and lesbians have been driven away from relationships with Christians because of their “love the sinner, hate the sin” and “I love you, but I don’t approve of your lifestyle” comments. The Evangelical Christian bubble is not safe for gays and lesbians to share their story. Many have abandoned the church altogether because faith communities refuse to acknowledge or consider that it might be both natural and nurturing for someone to have deep sexual and romantic feelings towards members of their same sex.

As an active participant in the Evangelical Christian sub-culture for two decades (+), I understand the sincere concern that conservative Christians have for the degradation of our society. Everything is changing...fast. But the overwhelming focus (time, energy, resources) that Evangelicals & conservative Catholics place on the gay and lesbian community is not warranted based on the actual epicenter of societal degradation (again, think about the awkwardly overlooked "heterosexual agenda" of internet porn and college fraternities).

My proposal for North American Christians is a rather modest one. If you are compelled (as I obviously am) that same-sex orientation is not condemned by the biblical Script and that God has more than enough room for Adam & Steve (as both individuals and as a married couples), then we are called to advocate for LGBTQ rights in both the church and civil society. It is a civil rights issue and the LGBTQ community is a marginalized and oppressed people who desperately need our time, energy, resources and presence. On top of that, God longs for them to be whole-heartedly embraced to participate in the healing of the world. Gays and lesbians have unique gifts to bring to the ongoing creation of a whole New World.

If, on the other hand, you are compelled that same-sex orientation is, in fact, condemned by the biblical Script, then I simply ask you to acknowledge that there is a legitimate, biblical case to be made for full gay inclusion in both church and society. You do not need to agree with me, but I’m calling you to accept that the Body of Christ has been and is currently divided on many very important issues. Just think about the issue of war and the use of violence and participation in the military for the Christian. For the first 300 years of Christianity, virtually every single Christian in the Roman Empire refused to participate in any form of violence or war. Or how about the use of interest by banks and financial institutions? Can Christians make profit off the debt of others? For the first 1000 years+ Christians did not believe this was biblical. Or how about the slavery debate or the role of the church in the gruesome colonial project or the current debate over the role of women in church and society? I could go on and on.

I am, however, perplexed by two particular reactions from some Christians to the debate on homosexuality. Some Christians committed to the status quo say (almost verbatim) “I’m just tired of this issue. Why can’t we just put it to rest? We’ve got other more important things to deal with.” This is precisely the time to have a conversation with a real gay Christian. They’ll tell you exactly why this issue is so important and why we can’t put it to rest until long-overdue justice is served.

The second reaction is from Christians who say something to the effect “I don’t care if they get married. Sure, let them have their rights!” This seemingly tolerant and accepting stance functions “on the fence” because it actually does nothing to advocate for gays and lesbians. It is a “neutral” stance in a debate that transcends neutrality (as all justice issues are). As Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

With this said, I propose that Christian communities currently enmeshed in this debate acknowledge the challenge that biblical interpretation has always presented the Church. Let’s do what the original disciples did in Acts 15 when they were confronted with the first real test of the Christian movement: what to do with uncircumcised, non-kosher Gentile believers of “the Way.” Their decision was reportedly unanimous, but the process is what matters for our current “situation.” These Christians (as reported in Acts 15) had an open mic night and had the space and time to report on what the Spirit of God was doing in the life of Gentiles. And, sure enough, they proclaimed that God was, in fact, working within and through Gentiles without them being converted to Judaism (circumcision and dietary regulations were key identity markers that these Gentiles had not undergone). This was scandalous and overturned centuries of what the Christians now call the Old Testament story.

After these Christians acknowledged the role of the Spirit in the lives of Gentiles, they prayed together and read Scripture together and made a decision together. This is what Christians do when they disagree. They listen and pray and read.

Sure enough, I have been a witness to the role of the Spirit of God in the lives of Christians who have been gifted with homosexual orientation and practice it just like the rest of us heteros. They bear the fruit of the Spirit in ways that rival heterosexual Christians. But, in both church and society, they’ve been forced to bear an unnecessary cross for too long. They’ve been bullied, projected upon, oppressed, left out, demonized and mythologized. Sounds like Jesus to me. And, like Jesus, they are rising again. This is great news. Will you consider participating in it?

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