A 21-year old college student is brutally beaten by two men, and left hanging on a Wyoming fencepost. His eventual death is labeled a hate crime, since the young man was gay. His attackers say they only meant to rob him, as if somehow, that excuse makes it okay to beat a gay man to death.
Churches and pastors around the country are facing disfellowship or disciplinary action for allowing gays and lesbians to worship with them while “condoning” their behavior or for performing same sex holy unions.
In Georgia, the state Baptist Convention recently voted on a proposal that churches should not knowingly take any action to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior. Churches may welcome homosexuals, but condemn the way they live their lives.
Religious right organizations spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns designed to convince not just gays and lesbians, but the public at large, that if they have enough faith, and the right therapy, gays and lesbians can change their orientation. Those who say they can’t change are misguided, and those who say they won’t change are just willful and avoiding the will of God in their lives.
The message that emerges is clear. There is no place in the kingdom of God for gays and lesbians. Gay Christian is an oxymoron. Those who say they are gay and Christian are avoiding the clear teaching of the church, the authority of the scripture, and the will of God for their lives personally. A choice appears to face the gay believer: surrender either their spirituality, or their orientation.
It’s a false dichotomy. The gay believer need not sacrifice either their sexuality or their spirituality, despite what the church, or its members, may say to the contrary. Even in the face of political and social persecution, excommunication from the church, physical and mental abuse, up to and including death, the gay Christian must persevere. The most powerful word ever used by Jesus was “whosoever” and that means gay believers have a place in the ultimate plan of God. Despite all the despair and seeming hopelessness faced by gay Christians, we still have a right to hope, that ultimately, we too, will be part of the kingdom of God.
What We Hope
“And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in thee.” — Psalms 39:7
Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:4-6 that, “there is one body and one Spirit.” Likewise there is “one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” What is that one hope that we are all called to by God, whether gay or straight? Paul answers that question in Romans 5:2. Our hope is “sharing the glory of God.”
To ultimately share in the glory of God, gays and lesbians must work in the present for acceptance by the church and society at large. That is our hope in this world, that we may worship in spirit and it truth from the pew, and live in truth and equality within the world at large.
The church is an enormous source of despair for gays and lesbians. Many have given up hope that the church will ever open its doors and welcome them as full members, without asking them to give up their sexuality. Despite the bitter disappointments gay and lesbian believers have faced at the hands of the church, we must cling to that ultimate hope of reconciliation within the body of Christ. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. likens this continued hope to someone who knocks “on the door of the church at midnight.” The church has been a source of much sorrow for gays and lesbians, but we continue to knock because we “know the bread of life is there.”
The gay believer understands what Karl Barth meant when he wrote in Fiat Iustitia that the church’s duty is “to bid people hope, and thus to mediate to them the promise that they need.” Barth further insists the church must “confess solidarity at every point with these people” and “show ourselves to be their companions and friends without worrying about their garb or mask, and we make their cause our own.”
Instead, the church too often looks at the garb or the mask, and insists in a change of clothing or a removal of the mask before the doors will open. Barth counsels churches to remain open to all because “those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, that those who, however mistakenly or strangely or impotently, ask after and seek the right and dignity of humanity, have God on their side and will be satisfied, we cannot separate this from them not matter what name they bear or what kind of people they are.”
In the case of gay Christians, the church turns a deaf ear to Barth’s words. They are not interested in welcoming the gay believer, nor in giving them the right and dignity of humanity. They feel the gay believer is mistaken, strange and not truly seeking righteousness. Instead, they seek to separate the humanity from the gay believer, telling them they must abandon a large part of their identity to share in the ultimate hope of glory with God.
This is also the case in society at large. Often, gay people are separated from their humanity permanently, as in the case of Matthew Shepard and other gays and lesbians killed solely because of their sexual orientation. They are often separated from their humanity when they are told they are “broken” and need to be “fixed” or “healed” of their homosexuality. They are often separated from their humanity when they are told their sexual orientation bars them from certain jobs, or from serving in the military, or from adopting or parenting children. Bigotry and hatred of homosexuals remains socially acceptable despite long strides by gay and lesbian activists. However, eschatology can give hope to gays and lesbians, even those jaded by the setbacks that come with progress. James Evans reminds us that “eschatology prevents momentary failures from becoming permanent defeats.” Even when we grow weary of fighting for our right to merely live and breath we find strength in God to continue on, knowing ultimately our goal will be achieved. We are promised in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 that, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down; but not destroyed.” It is eschatology, Evans says, that “provides a vision of hope that saves the oppressed from being overwhelmed by historical disillusionment.”
It is not here on earth where our ultimate hope of reconciliation to God will be borne out. Here our goals and achievements can only be penultimate. That must not prevent us from trying to bring about a true sense of justice and peace for gay and lesbian people in the here and now. However, we must view our defeats in the light of Christ and his plan of ultimate justice and peace. Gays and lesbians may never see true equality and justice here on earth. But, we are promised equality in the eyes of God, for as Paul assures us in Galatians 3:28, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is this hope of ultimate equality in Christ that gives us the courage to act as if that promise has already been fulfilled in the present moment.
Why We Can Hope
“…behold the kingdom of God is within you.” — Luke 17:21
Dr. King reminds us that “God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace.” We encounter those outstretched arms of God in many places, including the scripture, within the tradition of the church, our own reasoning and most importantly in our own experiences.
The gospel writers show us God’s two outstretched arms include all believers. There are two such examples in the book of Acts. Acts 8:26-40 recounts the story of Philip who met a eunich along the road to Gaza. In those days, eunichs were not allowed to be members of the church and were relegated to the outside of the temple with the women while worship took place. Philip did not see the eunich as an outcast, but rather as someone who was on a spiritual quest. He joined the eunich on his journey and told him the good news of Jesus. When the pair reached some water the enuich asked “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip saw nothing to prevent this societial outcast from being baptized into the faith.
Gay and lesbian Christians have a brother in this eunich. We, too, seek a spiritual home, the embrace of God’s two outstretched arms. Like the eunich, Philip gives us the good news: nothing prevents us from being baptized as followers of Jesus.
The book of Acts also tells the story of a dream that appeared to Peter. In Acts 10:9-16, God shows Peter the four corners of the earth and all “kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” He instructs Peter to kill and eat whatever he pleases. Peter protests, telling God “I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” God tells Peter very clearly, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”
Based on this vision, Peter began to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, a group of social outcasts. The vision, Peter says, made him realize “that I should not call anyone common or unclean.” [Acts 10:28] Further, Peter states “I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears hime and does what is right is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34-35]
This is good news for gay believers. God shows no partiality. Those who oppose us as members of the kingdom of God have no more of a lock on God’s affection that we do. To God we are all the same, we are all God’s children, and none of us are common or unclean.
Peter and Philip’s actions set precedent in the tradition of the church. By these simple acts of acceptance and reconciliation they set the Christian church up as a place where everyone, saint and sinner alike, can come and worship in “spirit and in truth.” Often the church becomes myopic, wanting to pick and choose who will receive the bread of life. We must remember it is Christ who saves us and not the church. The church has been slow to respond to outcasts of its day. But, with persistence by outcast believers, our “knock at the door at midnight” is opening doors, and the church is once again discovering its role as giver of the bread of life to anyone who asks.
The opening of those doors affirms that our hope of ultimate acceptance in God’s kingdom is real. It is reasonable to believe that once those first steps are taken to open the church to the gay and lesbian Christian, there is no going back. Our hope is in motion. As Paul Tillich wrote in his sermon “The Right to Hope,” a genuine hope is one that “has already some presence. In some way, the hoped for is at the same time here and not here.” As gay and lesbian Christians, we see this in our present moment. Acceptance by some churches is already a reality. It is already present. However, the struggle for general acceptance within the church is not a reality. We must continue our work for justice in this area realizing our hope for acceptance in the church in the present moment is penultimate. Again, let us remember Christ is our salvation, not the church. Ultimately, our hope of reconciliation and final acceptance lies in this simple realization.
While scripture, tradition and reason are all sources of hope for us, perhaps the most important source of our hope is in our own experiences. While the world is telling gay and lesbian Christians that they are an oxymoron, we are seeing the work of God in our lives everyday. Through our daily walk with God, and through the blessings we see in our lives from God, we know that we, too, are God’s children.
Specific stories of God at work in the lives of gays and lesbians are probably the best weapon we have to fight the oppression and rejection of the mainstream church. By talking about how God has affected our lives, gay and lesbian believers refute the idea that we are a forsaken people, a group of perverts with reprobate minds that God will ultimately spit out. Our stories become a source of corporate hope. By living faithfully we show the world at large that God works in, and through, even the gay and lesbian believer.
Our stories are also a source of personal hope. It is through our stories that we ourselves come to realize that the kingdom of God is within us. By acknowledging the work of God through our own lives, we come to know that we are not a broken or degenerate people. Instead, we learn we are part of God’s kingdom. Our persecution by society forces us to learn, on a deeply spiritual level, what it means to walk with God. That search for answers results in powerful stories of a journey with God. When we share those stories we renew our own hope, as well as the hope of others who may have given up their relationship with God in the face of rejection by the church, friends, family and society at large.
How To Keep Hope Alive
“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is within you “ — 1 Peter 3:15
The hope of gay and lesbian Christians is under attack almost every day. Consider what many mainstream Christians say about homosexuality and the concept of gay and lesbian Christians:
- “Involvement in homosexuality can kill you. It can kill you emotionally, it can kill you physically, and it can certainly kill you spiritually.” Gary Bauer
- …the acceptance of homosexuality is the last step in the decline of Gentile civilization.” — Pat Robertson, of the Christian Broadcasting Network
- “God hates homosexuality” – Jerry Falwell
- “It is [a sin]….You should try to show them a way to deal with that problem, just like alcohol…or sex addiction…or kleptomaniacs.” – Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott
It is statements, like these, that dash the hopes of gay and lesbian Christians. We are told repeatedly by the leaders of the church and our nation that we are hated by God and are somehow less than human. The only way we can be acceptable to God is by turning from our “sin” and changing our sexual orientation. Unless we “repent” we have no hope of being part of God’s final plan of salvation.
But Christians are called to keep their hope alive at all costs. Dr. King called this developing a “tough mind.”
“There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindeness. A nation or civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
Gays and lesbians have been permitted the “luxury of softmindedness” by the church. When we face rejection by the church, we often shrug our shoulders, surrender our spirituality and become bitter. We are not toughminded enough to defend our hope and “break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths and downright ignorance” we face from the likes of Bauer, Robertson, Falwell and Senator Lott. Instead, we harden our hearts to these people, and to the ultimate salvation offered by God.
Dr. King warns us that with the tough mind there must also be a tender heart. The marks of a tender heart include being able to truly love, to have genuine compassion, even for people who hate us, and to always see people as people and not a means to an end. However, that tough mind cannot lead us to heartlessness. We cannot use our tough mind to incite violence against those who oppose us.
In 1 Peter 3:15 we are told to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is within you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Defending our hope is imperative as gay and lesbian believers. We are called to account for our hope constantly. However, we must be careful to do it with gentleness and reverence.
What is our best defense? How do gay and lesbian Christians defend the hope within? First, we must agree with those on the religious right on one point: we are sinners. Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that “Luther rightly insisted that the unwillingness of the sinner to be regarded as a sinner was the final form of sin.” So, yes, gay and lesbian Christians are sinners, but so are those on the religious right. We are all on equal footing with God.
Jesus gives us a lesson on defending hope in John 21:20-22. Peter asks Jesus who will betray him, and what will happen to that man. Jesus tells him, “If it is my will that he remain with me until I come again, what is that to you? Follow me.” This is our answer to those who give gay Christians dire warnings about how God will deal with our “sin.” “What is that to you?” My sin is between me and God. No one else can condemn me to hell. No one else can dole out punishment for whatever infractions have been committed. It is not the church’s role to be judge and jury. It is the church’s role to deliver the bread of life to God’s children, all of God’s children, to “bid people hope” and “confess solidarity at every point.”
In our desire to know how God will punish the sinner, we forget Jesus’ final instruction: “Follow me.” It is in the following of Jesus that we find our hope. When we follow Jesus we need no other justification. Jesus speaks harshly to the Pharisees in Luke 16:15, telling them, “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” God knows the hearts of gay and lesbian believers. God’s spirit lives in those hearts. There is no need to justify ourselves to anyone. God is our defense. God’s blessings in the lives of gay and lesbian believers are evidence of God’s grace and justification.
Even with this assurance of hope, we experience great fear. We fear for our lives, our homes our jobs, as well as our spiritual health. They all come under fire from society and from within the church. Our anxiety is real, but so is our hope. It is our hope that gives us courage to act, even in the face of fear and death. Tillich reminds us in Courage to Be that, “courage does not remove anxiety … but … takes the anxiety of nonbeing into itself. Courage is self-affirmation ‘in spite of,’ namely in spite of nonbeing. … Anxiety turns us toward courage, because the other alternative is despair.”
For too long, gay and lesbian Christians have chosen the alternative of despair. Instead of having courage that comes from a genuine hope, we have become cowards, hiding in addictions, self-loathing and reparative therapies meant to “cure” us. When our hope comes under attack, we fold. Instead of fighting for our hope, we leave the church. Instead of fighting for our hope, we leave our families. Instead of fighting for our hope, we withdraw from society. Instead of fighting for our hope, we turn from God in pursuit of physical pleasures and other practices that deepen our despair.
We must have courage. King wrote that courage lets us “go forward in spite of obstacles and frightening situations … breeds self-affirmation” and gives us a zest for living even when our life situation is zestless. We must have the courage to hope, even in the face of pain and suffering. We must remain vigilant and actively defend our hope from attack. In 1 Peter 3: 13-15 we are told: “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? But even if you do suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.”
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope …” — Ephesians 4:4
A gay Christian’s hope is a genuine hope, built on the solid theological ground of scripture, tradition, reason and more than anything else, experience. The gay Christian has been forced to struggle with the angels, to wrestle with God and discover for themselves what it means to be Christian. The church has fought the gay believer at every turn, determined to block the gates of heaven. If the gay believer is not ultimately part of God’s fold, then neither shall the gay believer’s detractor enter into heaven either, for we are all part of “one body, one Spirit” and ultimately “one hope.”
It may not be obvious that there is “one body and one Spirit” and certainly not “one hope.” Our differences with those who oppose the very idea of a gay Christian run deep. Each side believes they are right, and that their view is blessed by God. However, there is indeed one hope, one body and one Spirit, no matter how it manifests itself here in the present moment. The one hope is “sharing in the glory of God.” That one hope comes to us despite our theological differences, despite our differing views on sin, and despite the acrimony with which we may attack one another for our “wrong” beliefs. We all seek to share the glory of God. That is a genuine hope, no matter what our other differences.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.