I’ve recently seen opinions expressed on this matter, and I thought that I should say something about it. Not because I’m some vigilante, but because I think it’s important for people of the Church to pay attention to how we treat gay people; it is the defining issue of our Church today. I am a straight black male, so I don’t have any “legitimate reason” for being heavily invested in this issue.
Whenever you talk about things like this, people will ask if you’re gay, or if you have a family member that is, or something that will help them pinpoint why you care so much, but I think that it’s important to have people that care for the only reason that matters – because it’s the right thing to do.
History shows us that social change really takes place when people who can do without it stand up for it anyway. In his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. said,
Our white brothers and sisters are here today because they have realized that their destiny is intertwined with our destiny.
Whites marching on Washington with blacks, men standing up for the rights of women, and Civil Rights Leaders pushing forward for rights that they would never see come to fruition – these are examples of people that helped not because they had to, not because they needed it, but because it was right. So that’s why I’m doing this.
My school, Andrews University, is a Seventh-day Adventist school, which means that it fits into a nice subset of Protestantism. We’re defined mostly by our deep respect for the Sabbath (Saturday), our holy day, and our insistence on the imminent return of Jesus Christ. We’re not crazy people; we eat haystacks, go for hikes on the weekend, and occasionally attend prayer meeting with our best friends during the week to recharge. It’s a wonderful community, like a family, but like every family, we have our touchy spots. And the biggest one that we have is homosexuality.
This is largely a formal response to a blog written by Tawanna Persaud concerning the LGBT forum that my school held a couple of weeks ago. But in a broader sense, this is a formal response to the many conversations that I’ve heard and had since, concerning the LGBT community and how the Church is to interact with it. Like many issues in our Church, so much wisdom can be gained from looking back at how Jesus really lived, and the kinds of things that were really important to Him. So here it is – the true, present day value of the gospel, and the life that Jesus lived.
Living like Jesus
One of the most common desires within our church is to live life as Jesus did. You hear that all the time. If you’re a 90s kid like me, you might remember hearing WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” I’d like to apply this kind of philosophy to the LGBT community in today’s culture by talking about the way that Jesus really lived. I really want to emphasize as we proceed that we are talking about real, true to life, flesh and blood people here. Even though I may use words like ‘philosophy’ and ‘issue’ from time to time, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that what we’re talking about is not a ‘what’, but a ‘who’. In that spirit, we can proceed.
Persaud’s major objection to the forum was that Andrews University held it and they did not once during it re-assert the Church’s well-known position on homosexuality. In her blog, Persaud says, “Always reiterate, as sensibly as possible, that it [homosexuality] is wrong.” In response, I’d like to take a look at the life that Jesus lived, and I want to start at how Jesus felt about rules.
The first thing you have to realize about Jesus is that He’s way cooler than the stuff that you’ve heard about Him. As pastor Rob Bell would put it, “The good news is better than that.” There are a lot of ways that this is true, but the first is that He’s nowhere near as picky as you might have been told. He’s not picky as it concerns people – there are not many qualifications for His Salvation Army. You don’t have to be the best, the cleverest, or the strongest to roll with Jesus. He’s also not terribly picky with rules, and thank God for that.
Jesus was always ready to show the people of His day that rules were subservient to love. This didn’t mean that Jesus was amoral, and it didn’t mean that He had no respect for rules or traditions, but when the rubber met the road, Jesus was a man who was “moved with compassion”, rules be damned. (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14; Mark 1:41) We can see this in multiple instances. If your sheep fell in a ditch on the Sabbath, Jesus would say, “Get it out.” (Matthew 12:11) Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath because He was much more concerned with the healing the man needed than when that healing took place. (John 9) In defending His disciples’ disregard for laws of cleanliness, He responded to the Pharisees and Sadducees saying, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (Matthew 15:11)
Jesus is very concerned with the way that we treat one another, and what we say about each other. When we treat people like issues, when someone has a lifestyle instead of a life, or when we insinuate that their lifestyle is one pockmarked by debauchery and lecherous behavior simply because we don’t understand it, I believe that our words matter to Jesus, and I have a feeling that He might have some strong words for the way that we denigrate what some may call abominable “behavior”.
And while we’re talking about rules, I’d like to speak directly to someone that I know is reading this. I want to speak to the kind of person who is a devout Christian, who is well-acquainted with their Bible, has a deep love for the Church in their heart, and is thoroughly able to engage with the world and the culture they live in. But they have a dilemma.
I feel for this person, because right now, they are having one of the most intense psychological struggles of their lives. When they read their Bible, they read very unequivocally phrased verses like Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” They have LGBT friends and family members, and they’re trying desperately to balance their belief in the divinely inspired Word of God with the real people they see in front of them every single day.
To that person, I say that I can’t tell them how to live their life, but I can tell them what Jesus did. Jesus always chose people. He chose them over theory. He chose them over customs. He chose them over doctrines. Because one thing that Jesus seemed to have a firm grasp on was this: If we can see that our doctrines, or even certain Biblical passages, are hurting people, then either the doctrine must be challenged, or our execution of it must be.
Any unwillingness to reassess beliefs in light of context or current culture is either a lack of critical judgment or moral empathy, and both are unacceptable. This doesn’t promote a sense of moral relativism, and it doesn’t support a “Do whatever you want under grace” kind of mentality; it supports the idea of present truth – the idea that there may be more truth to be found tomorrow than we know today, and more importantly, that we may find along the way that we must relinquish previously held beliefs. If we refuse to do this, we risk becoming exactly like the religious rulers of Jesus’s day that He had so much to say about.
Jesus had many a strong word for the religious people of His day, and one thing that consistently surprises me through my conversations with varying types of Christians is the large disconnect between the past and the present. When reading passages about the disciples misunderstanding Jesus, people will ridicule them for their misunderstandings. After seeing passages about how the Pharisees and Sadducees continually miss the point of Jesus’s teachings, people will mock them and say that they had no idea what Jesus was really about, with the insinuation that we do.
What this view fails to take into account is that if we apply Biblical truths to our present, everyday lives, we have to realize that we are the people that Jesus is calling hypocrites, and that the harsh words that he had for the religious people of His day apply to us, the religious people of our day. The metaphors of dirty cups or of whitewashed sepulchers, which are clean on the outside but rotting within, are not made by accident. Jesus consistently makes it clear that those of us who dare call ourselves church people, those of us who have “the truth”, and those of us with a fervent desire to act on The Great Commission had better be well aware that we are held to a different standard. Being a ‘peculiar people’ has costs (1 Peter 2:9), and we should know what they are before we assume any role of leadership in the name of God.
The way I see it, in our church culture, we have shifted from a position based on loving to a position based on believing. I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, we seem to have accepted the idea that it was better to hold on to a belief or a conviction than to relinquish it, for any reason. Belief is so emphasized in our churches that love sometimes feels, at least to me, like an afterthought. We talk about how there will be a day where people will challenge our beliefs and make us worship as they do, and we talk about standing firm for your beliefs in the waves of a culture with no respect for tradition or doctrine. Unfortunately, many of us can bear in mind that in the future, we will be challenged and threatened by men for what we believe, but fail to remember that in the end, we will be judged by God Himself for the way that we have loved. In Persaud’s blog, she says,
“It is also our Christian duty to be definite and clear and precise on what we stand for.”
However, this idea of standing firm is not always something associated with people that are on the right course. Actually, some of the people that we know as villains in the Bible, or at the very best, misguided, were people that ‘stood firm’ in their beliefs, even to the detriment of others. It’s always a question worth asking whether you are more like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, standing up for what is right in the midst of bad examples; or like the Pharaoh of Egypt, with his heart hardened against God. One is truly standing for God, and the other is too concerned with being right to submit.
Jesus showed that He was very cool with people not always ‘having it right’. The disciples not washing their hands, or even the Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-13), who would not have even believed in the same God as the Jews, did not trouble Jesus in the least. In fact, He makes it clear that being right is not a big deal at all to Him, but how we treat each other means everything. Being right is something that the scribes and Pharisees knew how to do super well, and Jesus knew it. He says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
He also says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (Matthew 23:13) These passages show what Jesus has to say about us, that we are neglecting the things that really matter, the people that really matter, and that we’re making it so very difficult for many to enter His magnificent kingdom.
Another thing that Jesus was very interested in, arguably more than anything else, was the constant widening of the circle of inclusion for God’s family. He was always complicating people’s notions of “who’s in” and “who’s out” with his tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, Roman centurions, thieves, lepers, invalids, children, and dirty, uneducated disciples. What makes us believe that Jesus is not still constantly pushing us so that we can realize a love without limits? What makes us think that Jesus has stopped trying to constantly push more people into our circle, His circle? His lessons are still relevant as He continually expands the definition of people that we deem acceptable, just to let us know that we are all His children.
The last objection that I want to take care of is in this quote from Persaud’s blog: “It is a disservice against God’s character that we always highlight his mercy and not his justice.”
This one is simple, because my God did not ask me to emphasize either of those things. He asked me to emphasize His love. Jesus said: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:34-40) This also gets rid of the ever-present “Love the sinner; hate the sin” mantra, because Jesus is asking us to love God and to love one another, and says that that encapsulates perfectly everything that is our responsibility to do.
I went to the LGBT forum. I sat for an hour and a half, listening to stories of how LGBT people have been discriminated against, by the Church and by the world. I heard how they’ve been treated by their families, and in some cases, how they’ve tried to commit suicide because of what someone told them they were – an abomination. In some cases, this belief was internalized, meaning that an individual that was made in Imago Dei, the image of God, actually came to believe that they were an abomination, or some aberrant piece of God’s design. Some spent years wishing that they could change who they were, and tried to as well. If you were sitting in the same forum as I was, if you were exposed to the same people I was, and you were not “moved with compassion”, and what you took from that was disappointment that the Church did not reinforce their position on the LGBT community, then you need much more help than any of the people that I listened to.
My Christ did not die so that I could overlook pain and suffering in His name.
Given all that I know about the life that Jesus lived and the life that He came to give to us “more abundantly” (John 10:10), I can’t think that He would treat people the way that I’ve seen the LGBT community treated, as a whole, by our church. And when I say “the way that LGBT people are treated by our church”, I should explain myself. I was the News Editor at my school for the past year, and shortly prior to the LGBT forum, we ran an issue dedicated to the LGBT – Church conversation, pictured above. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that there are things that did not make it into that issue. Furthermore, there were two anonymous LGBT contributors, contrary to our usual “no anonymous sources” policy on the newspaper. Personally, I think that this says something about the way that LGBT people are treated by our religious institutions, but even if it doesn’t, it is a glaring statement about how these people think that others feel about them. How they think we feel about them. If at an Adventist university, surrounded by people professing to manifest the love of Christ in their everyday lives, LGBT people don’t always feel safe or comfortable identifying themselves, we are doing something wrong.
I can’t see myself getting to heaven and Jesus commending me for sticking to my guns when there were people that needed my help. I can’t imagine Him praising me for my tight grip on doctrine while turning away the spiritually starving that are beating a path to my door. And if He did, if that’s really the kind of God that is waiting for me wherever we go when we die, then He and I are going to have an awkward conversation when I get there. The God that I believe in tells me that I should love, truly love people, and that I don’t need a shred of exegetical proof to. He tells me that everyone is wonderfully and fearfully made, and that I can’t use Him to mask my prejudice or lack of desire to love who He told me to love.
I am not now, nor have I ever been able to speak for Jesus, but if you want to live like Him, you have to follow what He said. And He said that the law, which contains both His mercy and His justice, and the prophets hang on those two commandments. Jesus cares about mercy and He cares about justice, but what He cares about above everything is you. And if we followed that example, if the thing foremost in our minds was our brothers and sisters; if we treated every person as a treasure instead of as an issue or a problem; in short, if we could see every person as God sees them – as an individual of infinite value – this world would be a much kinder, more accepting, and loving place. And if we are to be followers of Jesus, ambassadors of Christ, we must remember that we are the people charged with the responsibility to make it so.
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