There’s a dear older man called Matthew* who is a part of my church community – he’s an incredibly skilled electrical engineer and has had a few high powered jobs in his lifetime – he’s had a few serious heart surgeries – he rambles now. He’s random and hard to stop once he’s started, and folk don’t want to get caught talking to him for too long. He lives with his sister, they’ve a very close relationship, she mothers him to an extent. We’re not sure if he ever has been in any kind of meaningful relationship, on the surface he appears a stereotype. Old fashioned, traditional, Christian, sheltered, doddery, cut off from the real world. But in actual fact, he’s part of a family who have consistently been involved in social justice issues, his parents faith and activism have deeply influenced him. I’d say Matthew would be appalled at the discrimination and oppression wielded at the hands of the church towards people who are gay. Because Jesus set the example long before Steve Chalke and Rob Bell did and ever since Matthew learnt about Jesus he’s been looking for ways to love people and turn the world on its head.
My point is, standing up for minorities and challenging conservatism are not new things, they are not symptoms of the postmodern age, contrary to what contemporary conservatism will try and tell you. People have been articulating and doing radical social justice and civil rights for a very long time and the mainstream evangelical churches betray how conformed to this world they have become when they start to shudder and shake under the pressure of maintaining an oppressive theology.
In fact, this piece is a little bit about cringing at people’s fandom of aforementioned US & UK Christian leaders. Because it’s 2014 and they are late. They are seriously late in coming to the table, in coming out in support of people who are gay, and realising that marriage is bigger and more mysterious and wonderful than gender. We shouldn’t be looking to them for permission or validation, they’re behind the curve. We’ve a cloud of amazing witnesses who have led the way for a long time when it come to how we should treat people in our society. To name but a few: Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Tony Benn, Carter Heyward, James Nelson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, James Allison, Lisa Isherwood, Dorothy Day, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Emmeline Pankhurst, Mary Wollestonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir…
I’m appalled and ashamed and embarrassed that the entire Christian church isn’t standing alongside people who are gay and blocking the blows the world gives them. They should have been there a hundred years ago. Because Jesus would be there, in fact he already is, and the church is a hollow, sick and dying shell because it is not crouching down in the dust and learning the gospel from the people who are persecuted. And they are persecuted. They are not free, they are not flourishing, they are living with shame, fear, anxiety, depression and invisibility and so we too are also not free, nor flourishing. But the wonder of oppression and abuse is that it can and may still reveal love, grace, humility, justice and mutuality in profound ways. Despite oppression and discrimination God and Jesus are there to be revealed.
I think I’m probably at the older end of the generation that doesn’t see sexual orientation as anything other than a part of your identity and experience of relating to and in the world. And I’m at the older end of the generation considers faith and learning from the Christian tradition about discipleship and responsibility in terms of how we conduct our relationships, use our own and others bodies and build and discover the upside-down kingdom in the world around us, but there are not theological and/or ‘biblical’ prerequisites to who those relationships are with.
I think that I started rejecting any kind of ‘sin’ theology about sexual orientation when I started to reject ‘sin’ theology about women and then more broadly gender and then about sexuality and sex – as a young adult. Because robust considering of scripture occurs for people like me who question what regulations about sex and gender we’ve been handed down and I’m not boiling it down to anything as simplistic as a ‘Jesus lens’. My conclusions are thoughtful, intelligent and as compelling as the next person of faith, a brother or sister of mine who is seeking, just like me.
I’m appalled at the hierarchy that is created from the different conclusions that people draw theologically. Rather than viewing the church as a spectrum or a continuum of people’s journeys there is an ‘in or out’ approach, a dismissing of people’s learning or considerations, a labelling or boxing in of people’s positions. Something to keep the church and faith community busy instead of challenging violence around the world, economic corruption and acute poverty.
So Rob Bell & Steve Chalke are late, but disappointingly will now carry some kind of celebrity power to open up conversations that the mother of the gay son couldn’t, or the homophobically abused child couldn’t. There’s something wrong in the world, but particularly the church when a celebrity’s opinion is more compelling than suffering. We know about the suffering, and if we don’t it’s not hard to find the stories of it. This has to be our calling – to look after the vulnerable, the weak and marginalised – but more than that, to discover God and learn from them in the process – our humanity and divinity will be transformed in the process.
For further reading on this topic:
A shameful day for Christians – Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill By Pádraig Ó Tuama (More writing here)
Walking the second mile – By Rachel Held Evans
On Our Watch – By Harriet Long