As the old hymn says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Jesus made clear that the way the world will know we follow Him is by the consideration we show each other. This is why constructive dialogue between Christians is so important. We’ve had precious little of it lately, but perhaps, as the Religious Right continues to decline in power, we may see more. The powerful never seem to be able to empathize with the powerless.
Sometimes people have to hear their own rhetoric echoed back to them before they can truly understand the effect it has, or what they’re really saying. This should never be done in any childish, “I’m rubber and you’re glue” sense. But the Gospels present a very reciprocal point of view on how people ought to deal with each other: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While Christians are encouraged to move past “an eye for an eye” thinking, there is indeed a biblical basis for considering how what we do affects others by imagining how we’d feel if it were done to us.
Most anti-gay Christians treat LGBT people in a way they would never want to be treated themselves. Common sense shows this quite clearly. The majority say they don’t hate us, and even claim that they love us (“hate the sin, but love the sinner”). But their actions and words toward us seldom show anything any reasonable person could interpret as love.
Christian doctrine is like the tip of a mountainous iceberg. Most of the truth is submerged, and we can scarcely fathom its mass and depth. All we have, to tell us it’s there, is that very tiny tip sticking out of the water. I have come to conclude that the mistake conservative Christians make is that they think that little tip is all there is, wrongly believing that they see it all – or even that it is all knowable.
But that tip definitely tells us something. Traditional doctrines developed to show us the way to the whole truth – a totality we cannot see and probably couldn’t grasp if we did. Unless God does not love us, of course God expects something of us. Failure to meet that expectation – thereby breaking God’s heart – is sin. Because sin exists entirely in relationship, no one can know what sin is unless they know what it feels like to be sinned against.
This is why I believe it’s important for progressive Christians to be careful what we jettison. We often behave as if the Right-Wingers have “cooties” we don’t want to catch. So we go as far out of our way as possible to avoid everything they stand for. It’s good that we don’t want to make the mistakes they make. But we’d do well to remember that even a broken clock is right twice a day.
Because it is so often abused by the Religious Right, the doctrine of sin seems especially suspicious to us. We don’t like to talk about sin, because conservatives never shut up about it. But simply because something is abused, that in no way logically warrants the conclusion that it doesn’t exist. Sin is painfully real, and the merest glance at the nightly news makes this too obvious to deny. We ignore it at our own peril.
If it is a sin to treat others as we would not wish to be treated, ourselves, then progressive Christians – of all people – absolutely must stand up and declare this. Any obligation we may feel to drop all mention of sin, out of politeness, is tragically misguided. It may seem to make us look “nicer” to non-believers, but what it really does is render us incapable of defending ourselves, and other vulnerable and marginalized people, from Right-Wing attacks.
The claim, from anti-gay Christians, is that they are acting “out of love” in telling us we’re sinning. The first thing we must examine, as maturely and objectively as we can, is whether there is any validity to this claim. If you believe someone is in error, particularly if that error may harm them or others, then for the protection of those who may be hurt, it is our duty to warn the “sinner.” Most of us have come to believe that God created LGBT human beings the way we are, and that when we express our love in responsible and mutually-nurturing ways, there’s nothing sinful about it. Therefore, with those who would mindlessly lob the “sinner” charge at us, we have concluded that we must agree to disagree.
Some of the things anti-gay Christians say to us are indeed hateful, and some are not. The key, it seems to me, in determining whether their words are loving or hateful can be found in the answer to one question: how would they receive similar “loving” words of admonition if those were directed at them? Those who cannot “take” what they “dish out,” obviously, have no right to claim they’re speaking to us out of love, nor should they be afforded any credibility when they do so. As “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and all Christians are exhorted to admonish one another when they sin, surely our adversaries ought to be better sports about it when we remind them that for every finger they point at us, there are three pointing right back at them.
There is nothing in the Bible that says that some sinners aren’t really so bad, and therefore can run around pointing out others’ perceived faults all they want to, while others are so much worse that they – and they alone – ought to just shut up. Again, there is no point in getting petty about this. But we all ought to at least get together and decide whether it’s really okay for us to warn one another about sin or whether it isn’t. If it’s okay – or even desirable – for some to do this, then it’s okay for all of us to take this role when we deem it necessary. If it’s a horribly rude thing for anyone to do, then it is okay for nobody to do it.
We need to start with that. Just that. Then, those of us who have concluded that it is responsible for Christians to warn others of sin can go on to make sure that when we do warn others, we are speaking out of love. How do we do this? By humbly asking ourselves when we would mind hearing such admonitions from others and when we wouldn’t.
Those of us – gay or straight – who are too thin-skinned to ever endure such a warning from others ought never to warn anyone else of their sin. Our own thin skin disqualifies us. Those of us who have been so deeply damaged by the sin-talk of others probably have good reason not to want to go around talking about sin – our own, or anybody else’s. If the very subject is too hurtful for us to discuss (and this is a decision each of us, alone, must make), then we are probably wise to avoid it.
The answer we give ourselves will vary from one individual to another. We must, first of all, be respectful enough of others’ pain to understand that in some cases, their skin is thin for a reason. Even many who may go on to valiantly engage the Right Wing in dialogue about what is, or is not, sin may need years of healing before they are ready to tackle such a challenge. But by all means, it is a challenge that must be met by as many of us as possible.
In reality, all sins are crimes against love. Those who obsess over who couples with whom, or about who sticks which body part where, simply fail to understand this. What is at stake is the very future of our faith – perhaps of all faith. What is at stake is the future of humanity’s relationship with God. This is why we must not shrink from dialogue with other Christians on the subjects most important to our ability to relate to each other and to God – chief among these being the subject of sin.
The reaction of our adversaries has increasingly come to be the same evasion of debate to which many of us have resorted in the past. They have done this to a degree so extreme it seems a grotesque caricature. “You’re mean,” they screech at us now, every time we take them to task for how they treat us.
“Mean, mean, mean!” screams Sarah Palin, and Carrie Prejean, and just about everyone else called to account for how they have treated us. “Mean, mean, mean!” They think we’re nothing but big crybabies, and they’ve decided to out-scream us. As there are many more of them than there are of us, if the discourse (or what passes for it) goes on in this direction, they will scream us down.
Running away and clamping our hands over our ears has not worked, that much is clear. It leads those not convinced on the issue of LGBT inclusion to believe that we have no case – that we’re afraid we really are sinners of an especially horrible sort, and that that’s why we feel we must avoid the subject of sin. The majority of humanity still waits to be convinced, one way or another. We can never convince them unless we stand our ground.
Must we stand and fight? We may need to do something far more challenging than that. We may need to stand and love. And the best way to stand up for love is to model it. I’m convinced that some Right-Wing Christians don’t even know what that looks like.
Conservative, legalistic Christians are teaching their children that God is offended by love. That is nothing short of child abuse. It is certainly faith-abuse, as well. It puts the love of God on trial, as surely as it was put on trial by those who put Jesus Himself on trial, condemned Him to death and executed Him. If these people win, then Christ Himself loses.
It is irrelevant whether Right-Wingers acknowledge us as “real” Christians. It’s an act of supreme charity for anyone else to take them seriously as Christians. People can call themselves anything they want. Again, I’m not advocating “I’m-rubber-you’re-glue,” but our adversaries depend upon – presume upon – a whole host of premises that absolutely no one else is bound to accept and few do. They cannot insist upon putting anyone’s Christianity on trial without, first and foremost, subjecting their own faith to the same trial.
“You’re not a real Christian, n’yah,” is a childish charge that ought to be taken off the table. If we were to debate that with them, they might not like how that debate would come out. Most adults manage to be polite enough to concede that others should be assumed to be whatever they say they are. We should be charitable enough to refuse to subject our faith to a debate their own could not likely withstand. If they insist on debating it, they’re going to lose, and we must be charitable enough to tell them so.
Sin is serious business. To be self-serving, or callously rude, in the discussion of what breaks God’s heart is blasphemy. Anyone who speaks to us in such a way has already sinned in so doing. We need do no more than smile at them as we shake the dust from our feet. Before God, their own words will convict them.
You may need to strengthen your own understanding of God’s love for you. Whosoever has a lot of resources to which it can direct you on that score. Most notably, I would recommend Candace Chellew’s book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. It is very readable, knowledgeable and encouraging to LBGT Christians and offers Gospel-based strategies for dealing with challenges from anti-gay believers. Several other books, also recommended by this magazine, would also be helpful in toughening your outer armor and inner resolve.
Accusations of wrongdoing and condemnation usually come from people uncertain of God’s love, even for themselves. Their concept of God is that of a bully who attaches rigid and cruel conditions on “His” favors, who can’t accept the human beings “He” has made and who demands we change to conform to legalistic demands. Their God is frightened by love, so they are, too. But the God of Jesus Christ isn’t frightened by anything.
The God Who made us to be loving beings, in “His” image, is offended not by love of any kind, but by hate. Love is never offended by love, but hate is. To say that God is offended by love is to say that God hates us. But to gaze into the calm and enduringly-loving face of Jesus is to know that God never hates, even in the face of hate. From the very Cross itself, Jesus forgave those who were murdering Him, asking God to forgive them because they did not realize what they were doing.
If our own adversaries realized what they were doing, I am convinced that most of them wouldn’t do it. If we stand firm in our own knowledge of God’s love, we can help a fair number of them to recognize that “His” love can be trusted to an extent they’ve never been able to trust it before.
There is a quiet dignity, a steadiness of soul, that comes from knowing that God loves us, and that this love is indeed unconditional. It was the dignity that allowed Jesus to stand unflinchingly before all who persecuted and tormented Him.
Jesus managed to be gentle and firm, loving and tough, at the same time. He knew His rights, knew who He was, and didn’t lower Himself before the base charges of anyone. Not even when slapped, spat upon and condemned to death. We need not do so, either.
Jesus kept His dignity, His self-respect, no matter who was cruel to Him. Being gentle, meek and mild need not mean being a doormat; He Himself very clearly didn’t think so. Remember that God loves you, no matter who is railing against you. Refuse to hate yourself. Let them make fools of themselves, and remember that no matter what they do, they can’t make a fool of you if you refuse to let them.
When you behave with dignity, your demeanor has the capability of elevating everyone involved in the discussion. There’s no reason for our adversaries to rage at us like a troop of monkeys. That is, unless they’re afraid God’s love is flawed – that it’s fickle, or unreliable, or inadequate. If that’s exactly what they do believe (and a great many of them do), then our best response is to refuse to buy into their assumptions. We can calmly trust in God’s love – for us and for them – even when they can’t, or won’t.
Kindness and gentleness do not need to mean weakness. Weakness is based on fear, and as Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” We can stand strong against our adversaries. But we must remain grounded in God’s love, and we must always keep our conversations rooted in our understanding of that perfect love.
In order to converse with others about anything, though, we must be able to speak their language. Sin is a very big part of the vernacular of anti-gay Christians, and in a relational faith, based upon personal relationship with God, this is certainly appropriate. If we cannot talk with them at all about sin, we forego a crucial element in the common language of the Christian faith. We must present our own understanding of sin, and make it intelligible to others. God loves all of those “He” has made – including us, and including them.
It is meaningless to talk about sin without talking about God. Often, in anti-gay Christians’ rhetoric about sin, God seems strangely absent. They speak of sin as if it exists as an entity in itself, apart from any relation to God – or even as if it must somehow be stronger than God. But God is infinitely more powerful than sin. Sin breaks God’s heart, but the great proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel is that God has won the victory, in love, over sin.
Jesus knew God loved Him. There was nothing His adversaries could throw at Him that would change that. His serene confidence in God’s love, even unto death, is what we remember. No one reads what happened, in the gospels, and thinks, “What a fool they made of Jesus.” What everyone remembers from this story is what fools His self-appointed enemies made of themselves.
“Truly,” said the centurion as Jesus hung on the Cross, “this Man is the Son of God.” Who won that argument? I don’t think there was any real contest.
My point is not that we should be crucified, of course, but that, like Jesus, we need fear nothing our enemies say or do to us. Like Jesus, we can trust God even when the darkness falls at midday. We can trust God’s love for us all our lives – and even unto death.
“Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” That is our psalm, and at our darkest moments we can claim it.
Our journey to full inclusion in the Church will be yet another crowning triumph of God’s love. It will be our victory – and God’s, too.
A self-described “Libertarian Episcopalian lesbian,” freelance writer and the author of Good Clowns, a young adult novel published in 2018, Lori Heine published a blog called “Born on 9-11” and was a frequent contributor to the website Liberty Unbound. A native of Phoenix, Ariz., she graduated from Grand Canyon University in 1988 and spent much of her life in the insurance industry before turning full-time to writing as a freelancer, blogger and author.