Jesus reminded us that it is easy to love those who are near to us, but asked, “What reward do you have?”
One of the toughest challenges lesbians and gays make for the Religious Right is that Scripture witness to the great gettin’ up morning, where they will be judged not by how much better they are than lesbians and gays, whom they sincerely view as the least among them, but by how much they loved lesbians and gays.
Lest we get all giddy ecstatic over that prospect, we must also remember that on that same morning we will be judged by how much we love the most hostile enemies we might ever face.
And the world will not know that either group is Christian until the world sees us loving one another.
Loving someone does not mean that we expect to convert them. We know that lesson full well when others put our conversion to their point of view as a condition for their loving us; but the same goes for us: we are called by Christ to love unconditionally.
Loving those on the Religious Right is not really as difficult as it may first seem. Many of them readily command my respect. For starters, we liberals would do well to emulate the commitment many on the Religious Right have to evangelism and mission. We might also study scripture with the zeal many on the Religious Right bring to that undertaking.
Loving someone does not mean that we have to change the subject from those issues which divide us, as if our being in community can occur only on neutral turf. Members of the Religious Right are fully within the bounds of Christian community to call us to repentance and to faithfulness. We on the other hand, have a spiritual obligation to do the repenting: only we know our own hearts; only we know wherein we have sinned.
I grew up as a member of the Religious Right, and I learned well to loath myself for the involuntary desires that racked my body and mind. I prayed fervently to be delivered from the “body of this death,” to be radically changed. God answered that prayer, but in a way that I least expected. Instead of making me into a heterosexual, God gave me radical new life, wholeness, as a Gay male person..
When I explained this new birth to a friend on the Religious Right, he said that it would have been better if I “had continued to pray and fight these feelings than to give into them.”
“Peyre,” I replied, “lust-control is not the function of my marriage. I did not ‘give in’ to any feelings. Sex is an integral but otherwise minor part of any healthy, full relationship.”
Instead, I became a new person, transformed spiritually, in ways that all who knew me before and after witnessed and marveled about.
Those on the Religious Right often put an overlay on our experience based on stereotypes, but Peyre’s overlay does not correspond with what I experienced, my encounter with Christ, the Living God..
Stuck with his mistaken notion of my experience, he suggested motive, and confessed it to be common to all human beings: “We want to live pain free and without struggle.”
I replied: “Do you seriously think that living as an openly gay man in an interracial relationship, the first 9 of the 24 years in Georgia, has been a life ‘pain free and without struggle?'”
I am not a masochist. I do not seek out gratuitous difficulty. Yet in response to my spiritual conversion I was willing to give up the privileged life of the closet which I had enjoyed as a white male Southerner. I willingly took on all the stigma that a small town could heap upon me, rejoicing and exceedingly glad, knowing for the first time, who I am and Whose I am.
As one Southerner to another, I gently responded: “I don’t expect you to understand what it is to be an out gay man, but I am surprised that for a moment you would scold me for taking on the identity so that I could be without struggle. Re-think.”
We are all called to do much re-thinking. It is essential to the meaning of repent.
A true member of the Religious Right, my friend persisted in asking me to struggle against my sins, stressing for himself: “I struggle against my sins constantly as do most humans who are not in a coma.”
“I do too, Peyre,” I replied. So do most gay and lesbian Christians that I know. It is very important that we not glibly dismiss how important true repentance is in our own lives. But most of us are not struggling over sexual sins. The sins that I experience in my relationship bear almost no resemblance to the sins which those on the Right imagine: when I fail in the relationship, it is not because I don’t love my husband, but because I do not love him enough, namely as much as I love myself. My sins are not from a list of bizarre behaviors; they’re the nitty gritty old-fashioned type, all the more egregious for being so: pride, selfishness, unkindness, greed, gluttony…
True to his best convictions, my friend insisted: “It is a delusion which says that this life is so important that we must live it without struggle or pain – for that we are willing to sacrifice eternity? Not me!! I would rather spend 70 – 80 (God willing) years in struggle, but save my immortal soul, than have relative peace and lose it.”
“I am right there with you in that struggle, Peyre, vigilantly trying to avoid sin in my life, fervently repenting when I find that I have failed.”
The earliest Christians felt circumcision to be a required mark of holiness. They also followed kosher diet as an act of holiness and spiritual cleanliness. They guarded these principles fiercely. Peter was one of the most vocal until he had a vision while napping on the rooftop.
“Take the unclean things away” he said in the same disgust which many heterosexuals feel when they see even the simplest demonstration of same-sex affection, a hug or a kiss on the cheek. “Call not unclean any thing that I have made,” God called out to Peter.
Jesus had kept kosher. Peter might well have said, ‘When the word dwelt among us, he did not break kosher. This dream I had is of the devil and is tempting me into unclean pleasures. The Bible says to avoid such things. Nothing in scripture would allow me to change this law! For thousands of years we have kept this law!”
Other Christians were surely pressing those interpretations, as we can see at the accounts of the Council of Jerusalem.
Many of us, and not just lesbians and gays only, have heard God say of lesbians and gays, “Call not unclean any one whom I have made.” That startled me when I first heard it, too. I had been taught the opposite. It startled me even more when I began to experience spiritual renewal and vitality, a new life outside my narrow self-interest, as part and parcel of my union with my spouse, a life centered in the needs of thousands whom the church had completely neglected and had often despised.
I perceive that God has not yet said to those on the Religious Right: “Call not unclean anyone whom I have made.” He had not said it to everyone else when Peter had his vision either. Probably some of the earliest Christians died feeling that Peter and Paul had made a horrible mistake in yielding to the pressures of the world and letting Gentiles join the church while still eating their filthy pork and remaining uncut.
With all due respect, most on the Right are talking about thousands of people whom you do not even know, and need to acknowledge that the chances of their being wrong are great — at least as great as the chances of the early Jews being wrong about the spiritual potential of the uncircumcised pig-eaters. I challenged my friend Peyre to spend some time in the lesbian and gay community in South Carolina, some nonjudgmental time, time spent just serving and observing:
“Find the most broken persons you can find and become their friend — not their judge, not their critic, but their friend. Nurture their talents. Forgetting what you do not like about them (God can take care of that in God’s own time), love them into life. Leave your hetero Respectability outside the door, and move among them as Christ moved among the Samaritans, the publicans, the drinkers, the prostitutes. Had He gone around telling them how wrong they were, they would not have continued to invite Him to dinner. He dealt first with their thirst! Don’t worry too much about your neighbors’ sins; most of my neighbors know their sins far better than I could, or want to. Most of my neighbors don’t know, however, how very much God loves them and has already taken care of their sins. They might start to believe God’s love if I can begin to love them as much as God does, just as they are.”
I have no idea what theological conclusions you will reach after a few weeks of such ministry, but I do know this: your discourse will change. You will change. And so will the lesbians and gays whom you love.
The same goes for us. Find the most broken, homophobic person you can find. That won’t be hard. Then love them to become the best homophobe they can be.
A prolific author and lifelong campaigner for the acceptance and inclusion of LGBT people by Christians and in the mainline church, Louie Clay founded IntegrityUSA, a gay-acceptance group within the Episcopal Church, while teaching at Fort Valley State University in 1974. He married Ernest Clay in 1974 and then again in 2013, when marriage equality had become the law of the land. Known as Louie Crew for most of his life, he took his partner’s surname in his later years.