13 May 2010

"Evangelicals and Gays: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?"

A few weeks ago, Tim Dalrymple, a thoughtful Kierkegaard scholar who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary -- and, yes, a self-described Christian "evangelical" -- contacted me out of the blue and asked whether I would be willing to join an online discussion on patheos.com, a website dedicated to promoting "balanced views of religion and spirituality," about reimagining the relationship between LGBT people and evangelicals.

I have long been puzzled by the animosity between Christian evangelicals and the LGBT community. As someone who is passionate about scripture and biblical languages -- for example, not only do I own and regularly use hard copies of lexicons such as the unabridged Kittel and the EDNT, but I also love working with Bible software such as Logos and Accordance -- I have felt that there is actually much that evangelicals and LGBT people have in common.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the offer. Would I be "sleeping with the enemy"? What would my fellow queer theologians and ministers think? WWJD (what would Jesus do)? But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was critically important for me to engage Christian evangelicals on their own theological terms, and particularly in a spirit of truth, charity, and generosity.

So, in the spirit of Martin Luther, who inaugurated the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, by nailing 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany, I have posted on the web "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation" for reimagining the relationship between Christian evangelicals and LGBT people.

1. LGBT relationships are grounded in love, which is at the very heart of our understanding of God and the Christian faith. I often wonder if anti-gay evangelicals really understand that LGBT relationships -- whether for a night or for a lifetime -- are really about love and not just sex. I personally have been together with my partner Michael for nearly nineteen years, which has given me a profound understanding of what hesed and agape means, both human and divine. If we Christians profess that God is love, that Jesus has given us a new commandment to love one another, and that the two great commandments have to do with love, why are not LGBT relationships, which are grounded in love, any less holy than non-LGBT relationships?

2. Christian evangelicals often lack compassion toward LGBT people, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for LGBT people to hear the good news of the gospel. I have been amazed how anti-gay evangelicals, who ostensibly profess a gospel of forgiveness and compassion, can be so utterly uncompassionate toward LGBT people as well as other Christians with whom they disagree. I myself have been the recipient of hate mail, vulgar comments, and ad hominem attacks from self-identified Christians, simply for questioning the status quo about same-sex acts. Frankly, I believe a lot of the anger and fear comes from closeted Christians -- that is, those who are struggling with their own same-sex attractions -- who thus end up projecting their own self-hate on to LGBT people. What evangelicals should ask themselves is this: How do you expect LGBT people to hear any good news when all they experience is condemnation and hatred from Christians?

3. Christian evangelicals establish a new works righteousness when they require that LGBT people abstain from same-sex acts in order to be saved. Could someone explain to me why using same-sex acts as a litmus test for Christian discipleship is not the very same works righteousness that Paul condemns throughout his letters? In other words, why are not anti-gay evangelicals just like the legalistic "Judaizers" who Paul critiques in Galatians and elsewhere? I know that the standard explanation is that people who are "truly" saved by grace will be sanctified and thus will not engage in same-sex acts. However, in truth, this just seems to be a lot of fancy rhetoric that ultimately disguises a world-view of salvation by works (that is, salvation by abstaining from same-sex acts). If the Donatist controversy taught us anything, it is that sinful actions do not invalidate the underlying validity of our sacramental status (here, the priesthood of all the baptized).

4. Even the Reformers did not treat all biblical verses as having the same interpretive weight. To me, sola scriptura means that all things necessary for salvation are contained in Scripture, but our Reformation ancestors never intended for all verses of the Bible to carry the exact same interpretive weight as the others. For example, Luther described the Letter of James as an "epistle of straw," and even Calvin recognized that the ceremonial law has been "abrogated" in use. Thus, I do not understand why anti-gay evangelicals are so obsessed with the half-dozen or so passages in scripture that purportedly prohibit same-sex acts (e.g., Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1), when there is so much richness throughout in the Bible that affirms the goodness of the self-giving love -- including deeply loving relationships, both sexual and non-sexual -- that I have seen in a decade of ministering to the LGBT community.

5. True proponents of "family values" would not preach and teach values that drive families apart. Although evangelical Christians often profess that "family values" are at the heart of their Biblical ethics, the fact is that their anti-gay preaching and teaching continues to tear families apart by driving a wedge between Christians and their LGBT children, siblings, parents, and friends. This is especially true with families of color (e.g., African American, Latino/a, and Asian American families) in which the Christian faith is a central aspect of their culture and day-to-day existence. For example, in my own ministries with LGBT Asian Americans who grew up in a Christian household, I have seen an incredible amount of pain within such families that is attributable to the anti-gay evangelical condemnation of LGBT people. If family values are so important, then why can't we take families more seriously by encouraging families with openly-LGBT members to stay together and not break apart?

6. If the uncircumcised and unclean Gentiles could be accepted just as they were through the work of the Holy Spirit, then so can LGBT people. A main theme (if not the main theme) of the Book of Acts and Pauline letters such as Galatians and Romans is the evangelization of the Gentiles in the early Church and the amazing breadth of God's love for all people. I think that anti-gay evangelicals often forget that many early Christians were scandalized by the fact that uncircumcised people and those who did not follow the Levitical dietary laws could be Christians. In fact, we modern-day Christians often forget that we are the heirs to Peter's and Paul's outreach to the Gentiles through the work of the Holy Spirit. So why are not LGBT people simply a new kind of Gentiles? Why can't we treat same-sex acts in the same way that Peter and Paul treated circumcision and the dietary laws? Perhaps it is time for a new Council of Jerusalem, which was the apostolic council held around 50 C.E. and described in Acts 15, that concluded that neither circumcision nor adherence to the dietary laws was necessary for Gentiles to be saved.

7. True repentance only occurs as a result of understanding how deeply we are loved, yet Christian evangelicals often fail to show that kind of love to LGBT people. As Christians, we know that we cannot understand the depth of our sinfulness -- that is, the degree to which we turn away from God and neighbor -- until we realize how much we are loved in the first place. Only in knowing that we are loved by God, through revelation and/or reason, are we able to experience true repentance or metanoia. It seems to me that there is plenty for all of us to repent for beyond same-sex acts. In fact, by treating same-sex acts as a litmus test for Christian faithfulness, anti-gay Christians inadvertently place a stumbling block before LGBT people by failing to show them the unconditional love that leads to true metanoia.

8. Focusing on the "sinfulness" of same-sex acts obscures the true meaning of original sin. To me, the heavy emphasis on the sinfulness of same-sex acts actually cheapens the doctrine of original sin and the fallenness of all people. In other words, it seems to me that anti-gay evangelicals fall into the exact same trap that Paul sets up for the Jewish Christians in Romans 1. Anti-gay evangelicals are so busy condemning LGBT people that, just like the Jewish Christians to whom Paul is speaking, they fail to see that all are fallen, which is the point of Romans 2 -- and the primary point of Paul's theology of salvation by grace. I believe that focusing less on the sinfulness of same-sex acts and more on the universality of original sin would actually honor the doctrine of sin as understood by Augustine, Calvin, and others in the reformed tradition.

9. In this case, hating the "sin" is hating the sinner. I have written elsewhere about the fallacy of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" with respect to LGBT people. For most of us, being LGBT is such an important part of our identities -- especially given how we experience God's love most strongly through LGBT people and relationships -- that to condemn our sexuality is the same as condemning the individual. Imagine being straight in a gay world but never being able to admit that you are sexually active or that you desire and/or have an opposite-sex spouse, straight children, and other straight friends. Would you experience that world as merely hating the sin or hating the person? I suspect most people would experience the latter.

9.5. Christian evangelicals and LGBT people actually have more in common than either side would care to admit. Last, but not least, I conclude with a thesis that is somewhat less scriptural and theological, but more sociological in nature. As someone who "lives" in both the LGBT world and the Christian world, I believe that both communities actually have a lot more in common that either side would care to admit. In both worlds, there is often a tight-knit sense of fellowship, community, shared experiences and mission, and shared texts and cultures. There is also a sense of being marginalized and persecuted within a larger society. Indeed, both groups often experience difficulty in terms of talking about or "coming out" about one's deepest beliefs and loves openly in many day-to-day situations. It seems to me that a more thoughtful dialogue between these two groups might uncover many of these similarities and help each group better empathize with the other.

In sum, my hope is that these 9.5 theses for a new Reformation might be a useful start in terms of encouraging a deeper and more authentic dialogue between non-LGBT Christian evangelicals and LGBT Christians. As I mentioned above, it is my hope that such dialogue might lead toward a "turning of the mind" by evangelicals about their historically negative views of LGBT people. Similarly, such a dialogue might help LGBT people to reassess our attitudes toward evangelicals, as well as to practice forgiveness of those who may have trespassed against us. I personally would welcome the opportunity to be part of such a dialogue.

The above devotion is excerpted from the Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng's online pieces:
* "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation," Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/95-Theses-for-a-New-Reformation.html (April 26, 2010).
* "Evangelicals and Gays: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?," Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-patrick-s-cheng-phd/evangelicals-and-gays-why_b_559612.html (May 5, 2010).
Copyright (c) 2010 by Patrick S. Cheng. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng will be joining the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School in July 2010 and is ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church. For his website, please see http://www.patrickcheng.net .

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