A Faith-Based Response to the John Paulk Incident, with 3 Calls to Action

Crucifying Zacchaeus

The response by the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community to the recent John Paulk incident, in which Exodus board chair John Paulk was discovered sipping drinks in a gay bar, has been venom-filled, entirely un-Christian, and damaging to the cause of GLBT rights in America. We can and must do better if our struggle for GLBT equality is to bear fruit.

For those unfamiliar with the Paulk incident, let’s summarize recent events. John Paulk is chair of the North American board of Exodus International, the largest of a family of evangelical Christian organizations which claim success at converting gay and lesbian people to heterosexual orientation and behavior. On September 19, John Paulk entered Mr. P’s, a hole-in-the-wall gay bar in a well-known gay cruising section of Washington D.C. He spent at least 40 minutes in the bar, during which time he identified himself as “John Clint,” offered to buy a drink for another male bar patron, and reportedly claimed that he was gay. John was recognized by Human Rights Campaign (HRC) staff member Daryl Herschaft, who phoned HRC’s associate director of communications Wayne Besen. Besen rushed over to Mr. P’s with a camera. As Paulk, now outed by Herschaft and Besen, began a frantic attempt to find a rear exit from the bar, Besen appeared on the scene and began snapping photos of Paulk, pursuing him down the street for several blocks after Paulk rushed out the front exit. The entire sequence of events was reported the next morning in all its glory, with photos, by Southern Voice, a gay news web site. The general response of the pro-GLBT community to the incident has been one of sadistic glee, as thousands replay in their minds the fantasy of their arch-nemesis John Paulk trapped like a caged animal, surrounded by a hostile crowd of the very people Exodus claims are morally diseased, and at last driven off like some sort of evangelical demon by Besen and Herschaft, wielding their holy Camera of Truth.

Only in extremely rare cases do we find, in the 21st century, that a series of events involving ethical choice mirrors a Biblical story so precisely as to make the appropriate response entirely clear. The Paulk incident was one of those times. John Paulk is a modern-day Zacchaeus, and we are the hostile crowd which has failed in our responsibility to love.

The story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19:1-10 is well-known to most Christians, but let’s take a moment to look more closely. Zacchaeus is a Jew and a chief tax collector. As a tax collector, he is despised for being an accomplice to the Roman political domination and oppression of the Jews. Zacchaeus has sold out his own people to the dominant political powers and has made himself rich by doing so. If there’s one public speaker Zacchaeus shouldn’t be interested in hearing, it should be Jesus, who spoke a radical message of liberation to the lower classes, stridently opposed the religious orthodox of his own time for their misinterpretation of the Torah as a prescriptive textbook of behavioral mores, and at the end of his ministry would be executed by the Romans for his desecration of the temple in Jerusalem. And yet, as the story from Luke tells us, something called Zacchaeus to see Jesus as he entered Jericho. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get a better view, but to his surprise is singled out by Jesus as he passes by. Rather than condemn Zacchaeus, a reasonable response given his status as an agent of the Roman oppressors and a traitor to his own people, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree and they share a meal together, much to the dismay and open complaints of the crowd. The story has a happy ending: Zacchaeus’ eyes are opened and he publicly repents of his acts of oppression.

The actors and their behavior in the Zacchaeus story closely mirror those in the Paulk incident. Zacchaeus, a Jew who oppressed other Jews, felt called to draw closer to his own people. John Paulk, who is very likely gay or bisexual despite his and Exodus’ continued attempts to deny it, felt drawn to his own. Was Paulk seeking companionship, conversation, friendship, a place to escape the heterosexism that wafts throughout conservative evangelical Christianity like freeway smog? We’ll never know, because he was driven out as a heretic just as surely as Christian fundamentalists cast out anyone who dares to question heterosexual privilege. If we were to replay the story of Zacchaeus with this contemporary ending, it might look like this:

So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus, because he was going to pass that way. But before Jesus passed by, one of the crowd saw him in the tree and recognized him. “Aren’t you Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector?” he asked. “No,” lied Zacchaeus, “you must be mistaking me for someone else.” “Truly it must be you,” said the man, “for I know your face. You’ve made my family and my friends penniless! They lost everything they have because of you.” And he began to stir up the crowd. “Tax collector! Tax collector!” he cried, “Let’s get him!” And a great crowd formed around him.

“Is there any other way out of this tree?” cried Zacchaeus. And he searched the upper branches seeking a way to the rooftops, but there was none. And so, shaking, he leapt to the edge of the crowd and fled. But some from the crowd chased after him, and others jeered. He fled from that place and wept bitterly, for he had come to see Jesus but had been driven out. And from that time Zacchaeus cursed his fellow Jews, and whenever he taxed them he taxed them twice as much, and whenever he put them into debtors prison he put them there for twice as long, and whenever he had them whipped for refusing to

pay he gave them twice as many lashes. This unhappy ending to the Zacchaeus story accurately demonstrates the damage done by the Paulk incident. The actions taken by members of the GLBT community in response to John Paulk’s presence in Mr. P’s were a mistake for a minimum of four reasons:

1. The incident unnecessarily reinforces the Christian Right’s persecution complex.

In the fundamentalist worldview, the world is full of demonic forces always seeking to tyrannize and assault the born-again. Unnecessary, unloving persecution of the pawns of the Christian Right simply solidifies this worldview and increases their determination to engage in political counterpersecution. There are certainly plenty of times when our opposition to the Right’s anti-egalitarian political goals will inevitably increase their already intense social paranoia. However, the Paulk incident was not one of these times. Imagine the long-term good which could have resulted if Paulk, instead of being driven from the bar after being recognized, had been welcomed with open arms as a returning prodigal son. Such a response would have demonstrated a stark contrast: while the Christian Right is quick to cast people out, the GLBT community is quick to widen the circle and let people in.

2. The incident provides a fund-raising opportunity for the Christian Right.

The ink is likely already drying on the latest Focus on the Family fund-raising memo: “Exodus North America leader attacked by homosexual activists!” The Right will always find ways to spin news events to its own fund-raising favor, but in the case of the Paulk incident they don’t even have to embellish any of the facts.

3. Any social change movement grounded in hatred of enemies will fail in the long run.

If we hate our enemies, our response will be to try to crush or destroy them rather than redeem them. History suggests that the result of this “war against persons” approach to social change either causes the enemy to return in force after a period of dormancy, or so corrupts the victors that the old system of oppression is simply replaced by a new one. We can easily see the former pattern in the 20th-century history of fundamentalism. After the public humiliation of Presbyterian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan by ACLU attorney Clarence Darrow at the Scopes trial in 1925, fundamentalism didn’t disappear but rather turned angrily inward, building up its own networks of Bible colleges, publishing houses, and radio and television broadcasting outlets until its forceful re-entry into secular politics in 1979.

The alternate failure scenario, in which the victors in a struggle have so corrupted themselves by adopting the mentality and tactics of the opponent that they become what they hate, has been repeated throughout history. Former “Advocate” political journalists Christopher Bull and John Gallagher warn of precisely this possibility in “Perfect Enemies”, their historical overview of 30 years of struggle between gay political advocacy and cultural conservatism. “Even should one side emerge victorious,” the authors note, “its integrity will have been so

besmirched by its behavior that its triumph will be hollow. There’s no honor in winning a culture war but losing the hearts and minds of a nation.”

4. The incident turns a potential gain into a loss, spitting in the face of the Holy Spirit.

Whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not, God is always at work in our own hearts, and in the hearts of our oppressors, to end institutionalized social evil. God is working in my heart to end heterosexism. God is working in James Dobson’s heart to end heterosexism. God is working in John Paulk’s heart to end heterosexism. How many months, how many years might the Spirit have been laboring within the heart of John Paulk, playing off of his repressed sexuality, his need to be fully human, his hope for community, whatever it was that led him to Mr. P’s that night? The opportunities God gives us often don’t appear in a continuous stream; rather they may appear only in brief flashes, for us to grasp and make concrete, or for us to ignore and see dissipate as rapidly as they appeared. The Paulk incident represents a missed opportunity to demonstrate compassion. God tossed us the ball, but rather than catch the ball, rather than simply ignore the ball, we pulled out our shotguns and blasted the ball into a thousand pieces. Our response will inevitably have long-lasting negative repercussions.

I want to make my theology crystal clear here to avoid any misunderstandings. Western hyper-individualism often leads us to demonize persons for what are actually non-human evils. There is great evil at work within Exodus International, but John Paulk isn’t an evil person. John Paulk is a child of God created good by a loving Creator, he is fallen from goodness into deception, and he can be redeemed by the God of Truth who works in us and through us all, just as all of us are simultaneously good, fallen, and redeemable. Exodus isn’t staffed by evil people; rather, heterosexism and patriarchy are the evils, and Exodus is a physical manifestation of these evils. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” [Eph. 6:12] Speaking from within a first-century Palestinian worldview, in this passage the author of Ephesians is trying to put into words the concept of systemic or ideological evil. In twentieth-century language, Dr. Martin Luther King said the same in a speech at Berkeley in 1957: “The nonviolent resister seeks to attack the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.” Our struggle is not against John Paulk, our struggle is against heterosexism and therefore is for John Paulk and for his redemption.

Recovering a clearer understanding of the nature of evil can tell us what to do with our anger. My thesis in this essay isn’t “don’t be angry,” rather it is that we must learn how to direct our anger constructively, at real evil, rather than misdirect it destructively at human beings loved by God. Jesus spent quite a lot of his time being angry at evil. He was executed for resisting evil. There is no sin in being angry at the wretched state of our society in its treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. But when that anger makes us mockingly “out” a supporter of the status quo who appears to be having second thoughts, when we chase him down the street with cameras so that we can crow with triumph in the next day’s news, we misdirect our righteous anger and create a worsening spiral of bitterness and hatred.

How can we more effectively channel our thirst for justice? I offer the following three Calls as ways for us to take a step forward.


I call on the GLBT-affirming organizations affiliated with America’s churches to collectively establish, fund, and support a national project whose primary mandate is to provide emergency and long-term counseling to evangelical Christians who are attempting to escape or recover from ex-gay programs and homophobic theology.

This project should establish a suicide prevention hotline staffed by trained counselors who understand America’s evangelical subculture and worldview. It should set up a pastoral referral network to direct victims of ex-gay programs to clergy who have an understanding of the tremendous pain faced by gay and lesbian youth raised in a conservative evangelical environment. It should fashion itself explicitly as a faith-based, “Bible-believing” service rather than as a clinical psychiatric counseling service, because conservative evangelicals tend to be deeply suspicious of secular psychology and secular academia in general. It should advertise the availability of its hotline and its counseling and referral services in evangelical publications, as well as through direct leaflet distribution at ex-gay conferences such as FOF’s “Love Won Out” tours. The project should gather and keep statistics on suicides and suicide attempts by GLBT evangelical youth, and on the number of inquiries it receives from GLBT people seeking assistance. It should survey the pastors in its referral network, while still maintaining confidentiality, to follow up on the progress of those referred, and it should publish aggregate statistics in a yearly report as a means of documenting the harm of ex-gay programs.

Today one can find general-purpose suicide hotlines in major cities, but there is no national organization, no program, no toll-free number aimed at the highly specific counseling and pastoral needs of the GLBT person who has been reared in a conservative Christian environment. The time is ripe for this type of project. The pro-GLBT groups of dozens of denominations have recently shown their ability to work and worship together at the WOW2000 conference in Illinois this past summer. The anecdotes in the press, on ex-ex-gay web sites, and from pastors around the country describing the damage of “conversion therapy” programs are accumulating, pointing to a need for a targeted program. A rough estimate based on the demographics of America’s religious landscape suggests that there are at least 400,000 gay and lesbian young adults between ages 18-30 who have been raised in a Christian fundamentalist environment. Some of them will lead happy, productive, healthy lives. A statistically high proportion of them will not. Some will want to seek counseling; others, not knowing of any alternative which lets them keep their faith without rejecting their sexuality, will take their own lives.

The best initial structure for this type of project would likely be as one program under the umbrella of an existing non-profit pro-GLBT Christian organization such as Evangelicals Concerned. Regardless of the official organizational umbrella, this is a project to which every GLBT-affirming faith group should be able to lend its support and its co-sponsorship in name. Rough budget estimates suggest that the seed funds required for the first year of operation would be about $150,000 for a full-time staff of three including office space, literature printing costs, and overhead. I will commit $5,000 of my own funds to the formation of this project if the remainder can be raised and a suitable host non-profit steps forward to take the lead. If you feel similarly called to financially support this counseling and documentation project, give me a call and let’s talk. The need is clear. The time is now. All we need is the will to make it happen.


This call is to John Paulk. John, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see this essay, since your email is presumably filtered by others before it reaches you, and it’s always possible that FOF is now monitoring your phone calls. Whether you read this or not, I repudiate the treatment given to you and the hostility shown to you by the GLBT community in the past two weeks. We failed in our mandate to show compassion and love.

Something led you to Mr. P’s on the night of September 19. I don’t know what that something was, but perhaps it’s a Something that has larger plans for you than being Chair of Exodus International. We both know that there’s something wrong with the world. You know because you were driven out of the one place where you thought you’d have some anonymity, and I know because my best friend from college took his own life last month, three months after he came out as gay. My call to you is that you seek to discern what the Holy Spirit is asking you to do. As we read in the book of Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” How you discern the calling of the Spirit is between you and God. But if you ever decide that you’re denying part of who you are, or that God is calling you to something more, or that you’re looking for a way out, or if you just want to tell me how wrong I am, feel free to call. I’m not a counselor and I’m a lousy Bible scholar, but I won’t call you names, I’ll do everything I can to love you, I won’t claim that homosexuality is unChristian, and I won’t tell a soul that you phoned. You can reach me at my home number, listed in the bio at the end of this essay. In Gandhian nonviolence jargon this is known as “engaging in voluntary redemptive suffering”, because I’m now going to be flooded with phone calls from angry GLBT activists who hate me because I refuse to hate you, and flooded with phone calls from angry Exodus supporters because I assert that Exodus is an institution devoted to the perpetuation of oppression. I can’t say what the Spirit is calling you to do, but apparently the Spirit is calling me to receive a lot of phone calls.


This call is to everyone involved in the GLBT rights movement, both civil and ecclesial. If you are unable or unwilling to find love for your enemies, I call you to get out of the movement. Hatred of people who are caught up in an evil ideology does more harm than good. A movement based on hatred of human enemies can’t hope to convert its enemies and can’t succeed at building a community of love.

Loving your enemy doesn’t mean liking your enemy. Loving your enemy means standing before your enemy and looking your enemy in the eye and saying to your enemy “You are a child of God and God loves you, but you mistakenly serve an evil ideology which causes misery and death. As someone who loves you, I call you to die to your heterosexism, to die to your homophobia. I call you to redemption.” Loving our enemy means looking for ways to facilitate our enemy’s redemption and not looking for opportunities to cause our enemy pain.

Modern cynicism scoffs at the idea of redemption as naive, preferring to believe that there are some people who are so far lost that they can’t possibly change. Martin Luther King Jr. wholly disagreed:

“We must never forget that there is something within human nature that can respond to goodness, that man is not totally depraved; to put it in theological terms, the image of God is never totally gone. And so the individuals who believe in this movement… somehow believe that even the worst segregationist can become an integrationist. Now sometimes it is hard to believe that this is what this movement says, and it believes it firmly, that there is something within human nature that can be changed.”

Can those working in the GLBT rights movement change society and change the Church for the better? If we hope to change society, we must change the hearts and minds of our opposition. Yet before we can change the hearts and minds of our opposition, we must first change the hearts and minds of ourselves. If we don’t, we will be blind to the opportunities for redemption that God sends our way. In our anger at injustice, we will continue to crucify Zacchaeus.