Friday, March 22, 2013

An Open Letter to a Gay Sister in Christ, from a Progressive Christian Who Accepts You as You Are

Yesterday, the Gospel Coalition reprinted an Open Letter to the Church from a Lesbian (it appeared a few days earlier on Hunter Baker's blog, under the more appealing title, "An Astonishing Message from a Gay Sister in Christ"). Although the letter's author doesn't use these terms, her message is a plea for the Christian community to follow Christ's example of "loving the sinner" even while continuing to "hate the sin." 

There is eloquence in her account of what Christian love looks like, even in the face of what is seen as sinful. And there is insight in her account of how singling out homosexuality as a sin of special significance leads Christians to ignore their own shortcoming. But when it comes to her treatment of those Christians who oppose the traditional condemnation of homosexuality, there is misunderstanding.

And so I offer an open letter of my own.

Dear Sister in Christ,

In your impassioned letter you make it clear that, although you are a lesbian, you do not want the church to waver in its condemnation of those who act on the kinds of romantic and sexual feelings that characterize your sexuality. You seek to be loved as every other sinner in the church should be loved, with a Christ-like embrace, one that recognizes you as a fellow Christian struggling with sinful dispositions just as everyone in the church struggles. You wants your sins to be treated as no more or less grave than the sins of those heterosexuals who share the pews with you.

I appreciate and understand what you are saying. But I do not share this belief that your same-sex attraction is a disposition towards sin. I believe that it can be directed in sinful ways, just as opposite-sex attraction can. But I don't think the term "sin" is fitting when your same-sex attraction is channeled into the context of a loving, faithful marriage--where it serves as part of a life-long commitment to nurture and care for another human being, where it becomes a dimension of a unique crucible for learning how to love and sustain love for another human being over time.

When heterosexuals channel their opposite-sex attraction in this way, we celebrate and encourage it. We lift it up. We offer adult Sunday School classes on how to build the virtues that keep this kind of intimacy healthy through the years. We treat it as something sacred, something to be prayed for, something through which God is at work in the world.

But if a same-sex couple achieves exactly the same kind of relationship--where love and care and fidelity flourish, where lessons in how to love are learned and applied--the conservative church calls it abomination and treats it as something that ought to be torn apart. It treats the equivalent of divorce as a good to be pursued, and the anguished heartache of a broken home as a victory against sin.

I believe this perspective is a grave error.

You do not. In your letter, you offer the following perspective on those who, like me, seek to change the church's traditional stance on homosexuality:

To those of you who would change the church to accept the gay community and its lifestyle: you give us no hope at all. To those of us who know God’s word and will not dilute it to fit our desires, we ask you to read John’s letter to the church in Pergamum. “I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore!” You are willing to compromise the word of God to be politically correct. We are not deceived. If we accept your willingness to compromise, then we must also compromise. We must therefore accept your lying, your adultery, your lust, your idolatry, your addictions, YOUR sins.

In brief, you think my opposition to the church's teaching is about lifting up political correctness above the word of God. You think it is about compromising my principles as a Christian--a prelude to further compromise in a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" permissiveness.

That's not what it's about. My opposition to the traditional teaching isn't about political correctness. It's about my understanding of what the law of love demands. It's not about compromising the word of God. It's about fidelity to the fundamental commandment as laid out by Christ--a fidelity that is in danger, I believe, of being compromised by a confused understanding of the nature of the Bible.

It's about my fear that the church has come to treat the core human testament to Christ as its foundation, rather than Christ Himself.

It's about my fear that Christ's injunction to love has been compromised, over and over again, by the misguided desire to turn the Bible into an unambiguous rule book--as if we could learn more about how to love our neighbors from words on a page than from the spirit of love at work in our neighbors and ourselves, as if turning away from our neighbors to consult chapter and verse is a better way to love that turning where, in the pages of that book, Jesus is pointing: towards our neighbors.

It's about the fact that the first act of love is attention. It's about the fact that we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves so long as we plug up our ears with Bible verses and so do not hear our neighbors' cries. It's about a deep suspicion of the notion that God--the divine person of God--is most fully present to us today in the pages of a book rather than in the persons all around us (a notion that is promulgated even though the book itself testifies to the idea that God's fundamental revelation came in a person--the person of Christ).

In short, it's about the conviction that on the matter of homosexuality, we have stopped loving our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves because, as soon as we do, we will be forced to question the comforting certainty offered by a controversial but popular human doctrine about the nature of the Bible and its relation to God's will.

But if I say that this is about obedience to the law of love--a law that I refuse to compromise at the altar of a human theory about the Bible--I suspect you will balk. After all, your entire letter is about love. It's about loving fellow sinners. It's about mutual embrace and support of one another even as we acknowledge each others' sinfulness. Your message is, in part, that loving our neighbors is compatible with acknowledging their sins as sins. In fact, love requires doing so.

I agree. But just because it's possible to love your neighbors while condemning those parts of their lives that really are sinful, it doesn't follow that you can treat just anything as a sin while continuing to love your neighbors as you should.

Sometimes, treating something as a sin leads to actions that are unloving. Imagine, if you will, a father who has decided that all childhood play is sinful, and so acts accordingly. Can he love his children properly while in the grip of this belief?

In fact, I think this is a good way of testing the theory that something is a sin. If treating something as a sin leads you to stand against things that are doing real damage to your neighbors (lying, adultery, lust, idolatry, addictions), thereby helping your neighbors to rise out of destructive patterns and into ones that are healing and community-building, then your theory that something is a sin has proven correct. But if treating it as a sin leads you to do things that consistently damage the lives of your neighbors (or yourself) with no discernible redeeming benefits, then what you've labeled a sin isn't a sin after all.

Suppose that Joe (a white man) and Kay (a black woman) fall in love. Suppose they marry and build a life together around principles of faithfulness and commitment and mutual care. And suppose I not only quietly harbor the belief that interracial relationships are sinful, but behave accordingly. I act on my convictions. To act on those convictions is to seek to end what I see as sinful. It would involve seeking to end their marriage.

Is such a commitment to ending the loving marriage of Joe and Kay consistent with loving Joe and Kay as they ought to be loved? I might have loving motives that have been twisted in the wrong direction by my racist beliefs--but that just goes to show that there is a different level at which I have failed to love Joe and Kay. Because real, sustained, loving attention to Joe and Kay will challenge those racist beliefs quite decisively, unless I care more about holding onto my racism than I do about Joe and Kay. If my first allegiance is to my racist ideology, then I cannot love Joe and Kay as they ought to be loved.

If my first allegiance is to a particular theory about the Bible, then I might not be able to love those who are damaged when literal authority is conferred upon isolated texts without attention to the holistic message of the Scriptures and their ethical trajectory.

And yes, I worry that when you treat your own sexuality as a sinful disposition to be overcome, you have put yourself on a path that will bear poisoned fruit. You have to choose your own path, of course, follow your own understanding of what is best. But I fear for you.

Not every gay or lesbian person is deeply damaged by a life of constant rejection of their own sexuality. But in the case of those who are not so damaged, I think it is in spite of their self-rejection. The kind of love and support that you ask for in your letter is one of the forces that can cover over many sins, helping to lift people up despite the forces that might otherwise drag them down. In a community where the categorical rejection of homosexuality is pressed despite the harms it does, the kind of love you seek is utterly essential to mitigate the harms. I hope you get it.

But I've known too many gays and lesbians who have struggled for years with their own sexuality--treating it as essentially sinful, as admitting of no healthy and holy expression--only to be driven by that struggle to the point of self-destructive despair.

It is because of them that I have come to the conclusion that categorically condemning homosexuality is a sin, a violation of the law of love. It is because of them, not because of political correctness, that I stand firmly where I do, insisting that the church must change, and living in the hope that, with Christ's presence and guiding love, it will.

Your (Straight) Brother in Christ