Last week I posted some of my email dialogue with my evangelical friend “Denise” about gay rights, the Bible, and how we choose our bedrock principles for discerning God’s will on such controversial issues. Her letter culminated in the following invitation to self-examination:
“…Speaking just for myself here, I have had to say to Jesus: ‘If it turns out those aspects of Calvinism which so trouble me are right, and that faithfulness to You means I have to accept their views, then I have to choose You.’…Might it be that one reason you don’t any longer want to read books/arguments contradicting your position is that deep down you wonder if you ever might be faced with that choice, and definitely don’t want to ‘go there’?…I just wonder which would come first, were it to come to that? Jesus, or your position on the gay issue?”
Denise and I are close friends, and our dialogues always take place in a spirit of love and humility, with respect for each other’s boundaries and for the limits of human knowledge of the divine. My next remarks, then, are not intended to apply to her.
I’m troubled by the power imbalance that can occur in debates between gay-affirming and traditionalist Christians when the latter make the rhetorical move of questioning their dialogue partner’s level of submission to God, Jesus, or the Bible. Suddenly the ground of argument has shifted from our intellectual disagreement to a personal defense of my core faith. This is not a conversation that anyone should be forced to have when friendship and trust have not already been established between the speakers.
Even where a personal context exists, an individual’s relationship with God belongs to the realm of sacred mystery where words fail. We should hesitate to speak of it or demand that others do so, lest we violate its intimacy or, by dragging it into conceptual space, make it too rigidly specific and idolatrous. It should not be put on display to prove a point. And if that point remains unproven, will not that core faith also be shaken? Would traditionalists rather see me agree that Christ is not my Lord, than remain a Christian who happens to support GLBT equality? Sometimes it seems that they would.
In reflecting on Jesus’ life and death, I had the thought that God’s life among us took this particular form to establish once and for all that we should not worship any power other than love. Love is the only power that God retained when he was born as a homeless, illegitimate, peasant baby, and died as a criminal whom the secular and religious authorities conspired to execute.
Therefore, when Christians invoke power-based concepts (God’s sovereignty, Biblical authority) to limit actions that compassion would otherwise recommend, one could say they are reverting to a worldly misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
Here is what I wrote to Denise:
I can’t imagine Jesus would ask me to take a position that seems incredibly cruel and factually unsupported (to the very best of my cognitive abilities) as proof of my obedience to him, because then the concept of “Jesus” would be emptied of all content except inscrutable absolute power.
Certainly I can, as an intellectual exercise, entertain the possibility that God-in-Jesus could turn out to desire child sacrifice (to use an extreme example that nobody is arguing for, although one could say that Christian parents who cast out their gay children are enacting a present-day version of this story). Kierkegaard considered this very scenario in his commentary on the binding of Isaac, and if I remember my college philosophy class correctly, he came down on the side of the “teleological suspension of the ethical”—namely that God could command us to do something that seems totally evil and pointless according to our best judgment as human beings, but we should do it anyhow.
The problem with this position is that it takes away the main reason I believe Jesus is Lord—as opposed to Kali the Destroyer, Satan, Mother Nature, etc.—which is that Jesus is supremely loving, compassionate, nonviolent, humble, a defender of the radical equality of all people, and someone who privileges just outcomes over rule-following. I am a Christian because I want to believe God looks like Jesus, and because I am a better person when I try to look like him too.
It’s possible that the God who runs the universe is so alien to our ideas of kindness and goodness that we should just shut up and do whatever He says. But there is no workable way to implement this. There’s no unmediated, uninterpreted access to God’s will. When we suspend our own evidence-based judgment and suppress our compassionate instincts, we are only handing over our soul to some other human being who is all too happy to tell us “what God wants”.
When I take a stand on gay rights, I don’t see myself as relying on my personal feelings and “subjective ideological preferences” against Scripture and tradition. I’m speaking out of the collective experiences of all the gay people who have struggled, often at the price of their lives, to love God and their neighbors while honestly living the way God made them.
One could be more justified in saying that certain non-affirming Christians are privileging their personal preferences (about gender roles and human sexuality) over the evidence of science and psychology, not to mention the testimonies of their silenced gay brothers and sisters. We seem like isolated heretics and random individualists only because there are many more who are afraid to bear witness. Religious, familial, and civil discrimination collude in preventing gay and gay-affirming Christians from connecting with one another to create a new spiritual community and a new interpretive tradition.
It seems to me that on the issues that preoccupy us both—salvation for non-Christians in your case, or the permissibility of homosexual relationships in my case—we ourselves are personally not at risk. You are a Christian, and I am straight. Our anxiety springs from the yearning to have all others enjoy the same blessings that we have received. Based on the movement of the entire Biblical narrative toward an ever-widening membership in “God’s chosen”, it also seems to me that this motivation is greatly to be trusted, as a reason to choose one Biblical interpretation over another.
The two issues seem similar to me in another way. If God loves everyone and desires their well-being, whatever God commands must ultimately turn out to be for the benefit of every person. Eternal damnation, with no possibility of repentance and forgiveness, might be good news for some abstraction like “God’s sovereignty”, but it can’t possibly be of any benefit to the souls thus punished. Similarly, overwhelming evidence suggests that the results of suppressing a person’s sexual orientation are deeply traumatic for that person, which is why anti-gay rhetoric usually focuses on the benefits to “us” (society, the church, etc.) from getting rid of “them”. One simply can’t make the case that the closeted person himself is better off, spiritually, than one whose body and soul are integrated.
I honor the humility and sincerity of your struggle with obedience to Scripture. But to me it looks like a struggle between a natural inclination toward compassion, and a fear that this compassion is impermissible. That way of life doesn’t attract me.
Finally, to return to where you began, I absolutely agree with you that faith in the Person of Jesus requires some doctrinal container to shape it. That’s actually why this whole opposition between obedience and inclusiveness makes no sense to me. I follow Jesus because he stands for some very specific values, inclusiveness being among them. I don’t think he intended it to be very mysterious, either. In all the actions he took to manifest God’s nature working through him, he appealed not only to law and Scripture, but to logic, the poetic imagination, and the evidence of people’s senses. God’s idea of good and bad is different from ours, sure. But in every example where Jesus makes this point, he’s revealing God’s love for outcasts, never shooting down as “disobedient to Scripture” a person who crosses social and religious identity boundaries in the name of love.
That is why, even if I turn out to be mistaken on the gay issue when I stand before the throne of judgment, in the meantime I’d rather err on the side of inclusion.