Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Homophobic Horror in Chechnya: An Open Letter to Vice President Pence

Dear Vice President Pence,

I haven't written you before, but recent reports of crimes against humanity in Chechnya motivate me to do so. I reach out to you as a fellow Christian, knowing that as Christians we are called to live out an ethic of love.

My concern centers around the purported detention and abuse of gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya. According to a recent BBC report, "Gay men are fleeing brutal persecution in Chechnya, where police are holding more than 100 people and torturing some of them in an anti-gay crackdown, Russian activists say." While Chechen officials deny the reports, the US State Department has found them credible enough to issue an official statement on the matter:
We are increasingly concerned about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detention of at least 100 men on the basis of their sexual orientation. Some reports indicate many of those arrested have been tortured, in some cases leading to death. We categorically condemn the persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation or any other basis.
We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons. We urge Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these, reports and hold any perpetrators responsible.
I commend the State Department for issuing this statement. Amidst everything that is happening in the world today, including the horrors in Syria, it may seem as if that statement is a sufficient American response. But I think there are reasons why you should speak out on this issue. One reason is that the voice of the Vice President carries more international weight than a State Department statement, and does more to convey the seriousness with which the United States views the matter. And this is the sort of issue that the United States and other countries should view very seriously indeed.

But there is a deeper reason. A more personal one.

It is no secret that you embrace the conservative Christian teaching that homosexual acts are always sinful (even when expressed in the context of lifelong monogamous fidelity and love). It is also no secret that I disagree with this traditional view--in fact, I have a book coming out in which I develop a Christian case, rooted in the love ethic, for embracing same-sex marriage. But Christians who hold to the traditional view, as you do, insist that there is no conflict between endorsing this stance and living out the love ethic with respect to their gay and lesbian neighbors. When it comes to same-sex intimacy, their position is summed up in the slogan, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that slogan captures your own position on the matter. In my experience, however, most gays and lesbians experience this slogan as at best insincere, and at worst an abuse of the language of love to cover unloving policies and practices. Too often, when LGBT persons cry out against Christian practices they experience as unloving, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is thrown back at them as nothing but an all-purpose way to shut them up.

But there are Christians who use this slogan sincerely. They mean by it something like the following: "Even though I think that homosexual acts are morally wrong, I am committed to showing Christian love towards my gay and lesbian neighbors. I will strive to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles."

Whether this commitment can be successfully carried out while continuing to condemn every intimate expression of their sexuality is a matter I take up in my book--but let me set that aside for now. The point I want to make is this: current events in Chechnya provide you with a unique opportunity to model what it looks like for a Christian who thinks homosexuality is a sin to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles. It is a chance to show that "love the sinner" is not just a slogan to hide behind but a real human calling.

In other words, the situation in Chechnya offers you a distinctive opportunity in Christian leadership:  a chance to show what it looks like to be as committed to loving your gay and lesbian neighbors as you are to condemning their love.

Whatever we think about the morality of homosexuality, we should all agree on the moral egregiousness of a government targeting its gay population for systemic violence. Certainly all Christians who embrace Jesus' love ethic should agree. What is happening in Chechnya is an offense against the ethic of love. All Christians, whatever our views on the ethics of homosexuality, can and should stand together to repudiate the systemic marginalization and abuse of a class of people.

During Holy Week we remember the most central Christian model of what it means to love our neighbors. In the passion story we learn that Christ-like love is prepared to sacrifice even unto death for the neighbor's sake, even if the ones for whom we die are the ones nailing us to a cross. Speaking out against the abuse of our gay and lesbian neighbors in Chechnya is, by comparison, a small gesture of love.

But even token gestures matter. When the Vice President makes such a gesture, it has important symbolic resonance. And were you, Mr. Vice President, to make this gesture, your public commitments and stature among conservative Christians in America would transform your action into a model for something important.

If you are serious about loving your LGBT neighbors and not just about condemning them, this is a unique opportunity to show that love, and to invite others to do likewise. It is a chance to lead in an area where so many public Christian politicians lag; a chance to offer a public example of what it looks like to stand in loving solidarity with the LGBT victims of abuse, and thereby model for both conservative Christians and your LGBT neighbors what it looks like to actually love those who, within conservative Christian circles, often feel the most unloved of all.

Eric Reitan

1 comment:

  1. I share your passion to give the LGBT community a place of refuge. As a heterosexual, I experienced the torment of a Christian friend, who as a gay, imbibed the dreadful message he was an object of God's wrath. Evangelical theology needlessly drove him away from God. Looking forward to your book.