Friday, May 23, 2014

A Better Conversation about Homosexuality (Part 6): Not about Individual Worth

When Christians start talking about homosexuality, most LBGT people feel that their personal identity is under attack.
Photo Credit: Axel.Foley
This is unfortunately understandable, but fortunately not true.

     It's understandable for several reasons.
     First of all, some Christians mistakenly paint homosexual practice as a super-sin.  They give the impression in more ways than one that homosexual sex is worse than heterosexual adultery, or almost any other kind of sin under the sun.
     Second, many Christians and other conservatives have developed somewhat of a conspiracy theory called "the gay agenda."  The idea is that there is an organized plot to liberalize America, to destroy "family values", to disenfranchise Christians, and otherwise to bring general moral corruption.  Somehow a great majority of the focus in this perceived cultural battle has focused in on homosexuality in general and gay marriage in particular.
     Third, as I said in a previous post, many LBGT people feel that their sexual orientation is part of their core identity as a person.  Therefore, when anyone says anything negative about that sexual orientation, the LBGT person naturally feels deeply threatened.  The message they hear - based on conversations with my gay friends - is something most Christians never meant to say: "Who you are as a person is fundamentally bad or sinful or evil." 
     Lastly, it seems that many Christians have drawn a line in the theological and ethical sand on the issues relating to gay marriage. 
Many Christians feel that we in the church have already compromised too much with the surrounding culture and that if we make any changes to the traditional stance on homosexuality, then we will have failed as the Church, and they will have failed as individual Christians.  Furthermore, I suspect that many Christians have so much emotion wrapped up into this debate because they feel it could be the last straw which collapses their modernistic worldview and brings their understanding of the Bible and the world crashing down around them.  It's very common to hear statements along these lines, "If this goes, then what's next?"  It seems that many Christians feel like their personal identity as Christians is somehow tied up in this homosexuality question. 

     So, it's understandable why gay folks feel personally threatened when straight Christians start debating homosexuality.  The good news is that, within the proper parameters, this debate does not pose a personal threat to anyone's identity or worth.

To explain this, I'll rebut the arguments above, one by one.

1. Sin is sin.  Regardless of their position on gay marriage, most thinking Christians will agree (even if reluctantly) that all types of sins make us equally guilty in God's eyes.  There is some justification in the Bible for thinking of some sins as being more grievous than others (murder compared to not taking proper precautions for a dangerous animal for example).  However, the final result is that all sin makes us guilty before God.  We are all sinners in need of grace.  We are all emotionally and spiritually broken and in need of healing.
Homosexual sin is not worse than heterosexual sin.  And sexual sin is not worse than any other sin.  (Yes, sexual sin is "against the body," but I think that has to do with personal consequences not theological gravity.)
Therefore, no matter what we believe about gay marriage, we Christians need to stop portraying homosexual sin as a supremely damning sin.  We would do well to remember how frequently we err in terms of gluttony, greed, and judgmentalism.  Furthermore, as Christians, we have a responsibility to stand up against such inaccurate and ungracious language.  Go ahead and call people out when they misspeak about homosexuality.

2. There is no gay conspiracy.  If you believe there actually is a "gay agenda" and a few powerful people pulling levers behind the political curtain to undermine the foundation of America, then I probably can't convince you otherwise.  I don't believe that nonsense for a second.  However, I hope we can agree that the debate that Christians are having is not driven by any sort of conspiracy.  This is simply Christians with varying perspectives having open and honest discussions about how to best understand the Bible and follow Jesus in our times. 

3. Our sexuality is not our identity.  OK, that's easy for me to say as a straight married guy.
     On the other hand, I also understand that many LBGT people have walked a long and difficult journey in understanding, identifying, "coming out," and even defending their sexual orientation to friends, family, and coworkers who did not understand and in many cases either rejected them or tried to change them or both.  Hence, the LBGT label feels like a hard-earned badge of honor for many.  It feels like a core part of their identity.
     However, let me offer a little push back for perspective here.  Our sexuality (whether gay or straight) is not nearly as important as our current culture makes it out to be.  My value as a person does not increase in proportion to the number of sexual partners I have, nor in relation to the size of my parts, nor the adventurous sexual scenarios I concoct, nor the number of mind-blowing orgasms I cause (contra all the magazine covers that stalk the grocery checkout aisles).  If I never have sex again for the rest of my life, I will still be me.
     Sexual orientation is an element of our personality.  Sexual practices are an expression of our character.  However, our identity and worth are a separate and independent reality.
     For Christians, we affirm that our identity and self-worth can only come from one reliable source: God's limitless love.  The fabulous news is that God is head-over-heals in love with every single person on earth, no matter their sexual orientation, skin color, nationality, career, intelligence, morality, thickness, or thinness.  Whatever we do or do not do with our genitalia, cannot change the fact that we are all children loved by God.  That is our fundamental identity.  Nothing can change that.  We can reject our identity as people loved by God, but that is still fundamentally who we are (according to Christian belief).
     For nonChristians, I hope we can agree that each human being is immensely valuable simply because of their existence in the human family.  You were you before you had a clear sexual orientation, and you will continue to be who you are in your heart despite how you see yourself on the spectrum of human sexuality.  You are the only you there will ever be, and our mutual human need for you is not related to your sexual orientation.
     Also, here's another important point that came out in the rather wild comment frenzy connected with these posts on facebook, this debate is not about Christians telling nonChristians what to do, how to live, or how to think.  This debate is about Christians trying to figure out what is acceptable behavior for Christians who are committed both to Jesus and to the Bible. 
     My friend Donnie explained this well:
We're trying to argue it from a Christian perspective, as people committed to scripture. With that said, different Christians have different interpretations on the passages related to same-sex sexuality. Christians can try to discuss among themselves the right ways to be faithful to scripture, but they have no right telling non-Christians how to act or what to do. The Apostle Paul told the church to not worry about judging those outside the church, but to only worry about the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). Christian leaders ... have the responsibility to call other Christians into agreement with scripture. We don't however, have any right to tell others people who are not trying to follow Christian scriptures how they are to live. As you said, we are not God and there is no biblical precedent for spending our life "judging, panicking, controlling, and hating." Unfortunately, WAY too many of us do and it really, really makes Jesus look bad.
     So remember, this debate is a Christian debate about what is the best ethical stance for Christians.  Although the issues surrounding civil law are clearly related, that is a separate debate.  It is entirely possible for Christians to decide one thing for the Church and to support a different thing for civil law.  Hopefully, that helps to lighten the pressure some.

4. This is not about compromise.  Yes, we are in the midst of a great cultural earthquake in which many things are changing.  Within my own lifetime, my moderately conservative denomination has abandoned the following official or unofficial prohibitions: gold jewelry (including wedding rings), no pants for women, makeup, movies, playing cards, dancing, bowling alleys, circuses, pool halls, and mixed bathing (boys and girls swimming in the same pool at the same time).  We are also on the cusp of giving up a stance of total abstinence on alcohol.  It makes sense that many older folks feel that we are cruising fast down the slope to "worldliness."
     However, that's not what this discussion is about.  Most people who are questioning the Church's traditional stance on gay marriage are not advocating ethical compromise.  In their minds, the debate is actually about faithfulness to the total picture of the Bible within our own context.  For the pro-affirming folks, this debate is not primarily about how the Church be more acceptable to non-Christians but about how the Church can be more like Christ.  To read a full-length explanation of this position, check out Rachel Held Evans' excellent post.
     So, my dear Christian brothers and sisters, if this whole discussion about homosexuality freaks you out and scares the bejeebus out of you, take a deep breath and remember that God is faithful, the Church endures, and Jesus will prevail.  No matter how this conversation plays out, your personal identity is not at stake.  The gates of Hell will not prevail against God's Church - no matter which side you interpret as being more hellish in this debate.

We all need to slow down, take a step to the side, and remember that our ego, identity, and worth are not up for debate in this conversation or in any other.

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