The news this fall has been full of tragic stories about young people who were bullied and driven to suicide because they were, or were perceived to be, gay. Many of you have probably heard of sex columnist Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, in which GLBT adults and allies offer video messages of hope to gay teens. Both celebrities and regular people have contributed hundreds of powerful testimonies in just a few weeks.
I was shocked and moved to learn that “Project Runway” star Tim Gunn had contemplated suicide as a teenager. Tim is the epitome of confident, classic style. On a show where judges often aggrandize themselves by mocking the contestants, he always seems genuinely caring toward the young fashion designers, knowing just how to blend support and critique. Now we know where some of that compassion comes from.
Meanwhile, at Religion Dispatches, progressive Christian theologian Eric Reitan contends that anti-gay religious teachings contributed to the despair and isolation of these young victims. Reitan, a straight ally, says these believers are missing the Bible’s most important message, the law of love:
…Jesus said that we should distinguish true and false teachings by their fruits. And the teaching that homosexuality is a sin—that, in the words of the Southern Baptist Convention, even the desire for homosexual sex is “always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent, and perverted”—this is a teaching that time and again has born poisonous fruits. The shattered promise of Zach Harrington’s life is just one more example in a painful litany.
In the face of that litany defenders of the traditional Christian view dismiss reformers as sell-outs to secular culture. They thump the Bible and quote Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:24-27 as if that settled the matter. Of course, that would settle the matter if one blindly accepted the idea that every passage in the Bible, in its most straightforward reading, represents the inerrant word of a perfectly loving God.
But if we accept this idea, either we’ll need to ignore the lessons drawn from sensitive and empathetic attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, or we’ll need to refrain from practicing such attention at all. After all, when we do attend to gays and lesbians (as love for them calls us to do), it becomes hard to escape the judgment that the supposedly biblical condemnation of homosexuality has been carving a path of destruction through their lives for generations.
And so, if you accept the conservative view about the Bible’s content and its relation to God, either you’ll need to stifle the lessons of compassion and empathy, or you’ll need to refuse to listen with compassion and empathy in the first place.
But can you really have the right theory about a book if the book teaches you to love your neighbors as yourselves, but your theory about it demands that you stifle the character traits most intimately associated with love? If your theory about the Bible leads you to ignore or refuse to hear the suffering cries of your gay and lesbian neighbors, wouldn’t that be a reason to rethink your theory? Put more forcefully, how many gays and lesbians, crushed by the weight of anti-gay teachings, have to kill themselves before we decide that, just maybe, our theory about the Bible isn’t the best fit with the idea that God is love—and hence isn’t the best fit with the content of the Bible itself?
Any theory of the Bible that requires me to ignore my neighbors in favor of teasing out the correct meaning of Romans 1:24-27 seems to do an injustice to the Bible’s heart. If there’s a core message to the Christian Scriptures, it’s that Jesus—a person, not a book—is the fundamental revelation of God. It’s Jesus that John’s Gospel calls the “Word of God,” not the Bible. And in the Gospels, not only does Jesus say nothing about homosexuality, but He is recorded as saying that He comes to us in the form of the neighbor in need—“even the least of these” (Matthew 25:37-40).
Lastly, the Massachusetts chapter of the GLBT activist group Join the Impact hosted a candlelight vigil for the suicide victims earlier this month. Audio recordings from the rally at the State House are now available on their website.