If you yourself are not going with us, do not send us on from here. For is not the fact of your going with us the sign that I and this people have grace in your eyes, so that we, that is, I and your people, are separate from all other people on the face of the earth? (Moses to the LORD, Exodus 33.15-16, Basic English Bible)
Those of us who are out of the closet are likely to be familiar with the paradox of being a GLBT Christian: we never really fit in with either the GLBT or the Christian communities, and in turn, both communities are wary of our presence among them. Like the Greek converts in the book of Acts, we find ourselves caught between the church and the world, our actions upsetting the former and our beliefs offending the latter. Luke’s examination of the tensions arising in the church upon the conversion of the Greeks is a great resource in helping us understand the resistance we encounter from both our Christian and our GLBT friends.
Yet the community of Greek Christians is not the only model we can find for ourselves in the Bible. As I’ve thought about the issue of gay marriage over the past few months, I’ve found myself returning regularly to the book of Exodus and especially to the struggles that occurred between God and Moses as the Hebrews moved from Egypt towards the Promised Land. So I want to use Moses’ conversations with God as launching and landing areas from which to delineate some of the ways in which our participation in the civil rights movement will differ from that of our non-Christian colleagues. And by non-Christian, I simply mean those who do not confess themselves part of the Christian community, either because they are not interested in religion or because they are of a different religion; nothing pejorative is meant by my use of the term.
The first thing to consider is that as Christians, we know we cannot truly win this battle without God’s help. On one level, it’s as simple as the opening line of Psalm 127 (NASB): “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” But the house metaphor deserves a closer look. For while I firmly believe that a thoughtful, prayerful reading of the Bible should bring about the most progressive, most inclusive changes possible within a society, the psalmist does not suggest to us that the house is already built and all we have to do is show up. Rather, God is still building it, and we must work alongside.
Thinking back to the struggles of the Hebrews under the weight of Egyptian slavery and to Moses’ efforts to win Pharaoh’s heart, we might be reminded of the generations of African Americans and their allies who suffered unbelievable hardships while they fought to bring slavery to an end, to be recognized as citizens, to end segregation, and to achieve full equality in our society (a battle far from over). God, it seems, was content to work on that house one room at a time. As GLBT Christians, we must keep this in mind, seeking discernment regarding God’s action in the present, focusing our attention on the rooms God is currently building, and leaving the rest for future generations to build.
This will no doubt upset some of our GLBT colleagues, who won’t understand why we limit our efforts. But our battle as GLBT Christians is not simply for civil equality. For we are also battling for recognition by the church. As happened to the Greek Christians in Acts, it seems that in spite of our individual callings by God to be his children and his ministers of peace and justice to the world, the church does not always want to recognize us by our fruit but prefers to reject us out of hand as modern-day Gentiles. And while this may not be a big concern to non-Christian gay rights advocates, it is of crucial concern to the unity of the church.
Here it is instructive to take a lesson from Moses. In Exodus 33, following the incident of the golden calf, God decides that he will no longer accompany the Hebrews into the Promised Land (Exodus 33:3 and 33:5). But Moses refuses to accept God’s decision, and argues with him about it:
If you yourself are not going with us, do not send us on from here. For is not the fact of your going with us the sign that I and this people have grace in your eyes, so that we, that is, I and your people, are separate from all other people on the face of the earth?
For Moses, it is not enough that his people be free from slavery and established in a land of their own; it is as important to him (perhaps even more so) that God be identified throughout the world with his people. This is also the problem the church faced in Acts, and it was only the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Greeks that convinced the church that God had in fact initiated the salvation of the Gentiles. It is also where our community is now: Although we can join the fight for civil rights, if God is not leading us forward as his people, then no one will know that we belong to him, and we will appear to be just another civil rights group. Might Moses be right that if that is the case, it would best for us not to continue forward?
This problem is important because it highlights a second difference between us and many non-Christian gay rights activists. On the secular level, the fight for equality is built on the Constitution of the United States. It is a legal and political issue, the realm of legislatures and of judges. And it is a battle for the hearts and minds of the public, who cannot always be counted on to do the right thing in terms of public policy (hence the need for the judges and the legislatures). For these purposes, the Constitution is a wonderful ally.
But the Constitution is not necessarily the grounds from which our community fights for equality. As Christians, we fight for equality because of God’s character and God’s word (that is, Jesus). We fight for equality because we believe God is fair and inclusive and because we are called to be like him. We fight because God has revealed to us, through Jesus and through the scriptures, that this is the type of community he wants us to establish as a testimony to his great love for the world. We fight because God has laid this burden on our hearts and has called us to this great work. For us, the Constitution is not the foundation of our battle, but only the means by which we call this country to follow the Law of Love. Our commitment is to the divine, and not the human, word.
As such, it is not enough that we strive for the same purposes that God desires. We must also be very careful to proceed in a manner worthy of the Living God. It is not enough to do what God has commanded us; we must also do it in a way that is acceptable to God. Even if God is in favor of gay marriage, we must be very careful how we go about achieving it: we must not simply adopt the political strategies that work in the secular world. What seems best from a political, moral, or ethical point of view is often not so from God’s perspective. The biblical histories are filled with examples of how God’s ways really are different from humanity’s (the story of Jehu in 2 Kings is instructive regarding this danger). We must then expect that at some point, there will be tension between us and the secular civil rights community over the question of method, and we must remain firm in following the paths of the Lord.
Our commitment to the divine word also brings about a third difference between us and our colleagues. For while they can point to the Constitution or to ideals of universal equality and justice as the starting point for their work, we must wait (as has been pointed out) to discern God’s movement in the world before we begin. But as we all know, sometimes God is frustratingly silent. And since we are working not just for civil equality, but for acceptance by the Church, God’s silence gives our opponents reason to say that God is not, in fact, with us. Sometimes, as the world’s accusations mount against us, God’s apparent silence makes it hard even for us to discern whether he is in fact leading us.
As I look around our community, I often grow worried: I see how hard it is for us to find other Christians to date. I see how hard it is for us to establish healthy relationships. I see how we are rejected by our churches and by our gay friends. I see how we still struggle with unhealthy or even dangerous behaviors. In many ways, it often appears to me that God has shown us no special favor as a sign of his presence among us: we’re just like every other community in the world, straight and gay. Too often, I understand why the rest of the church, and even many in the GLBT community, are not receptive to our claims that we too are God’s children. Too often, I want to accuse God as Moses did after God threatened to wipe out the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness:
Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. (Exodus 32:12 NASB)
Why does God let so many in the church believe that he is not with his GLBT children? Why does God allow his name to be dishonored by the seeming absence of signs and wonders in our midst? Why has God called us as GLBT believers (that is, not as ex-gays or chaste-gays, but as pro-gays) if he is not going to establish and bless us in same-gender relationships? And, most importantly for our community, if God is not showing us special favor in the eyes of the world, how are we to know that he really is leading us in this movement?
Unless God builds the house, we who build work in vain. And if we aren’t seeing signs and wonders, if we’re falling victim to the same problems that plague the non-Christian GLBT community, how are we to discern God’s activity among us? I’m afraid the biblical answer may be more frightening than satisfying. I see God’s answer to this question in his first interaction with Moses, in Exodus 3. After God commissions Moses to bring the Hebrews out of slavery into freedom, Moses responds with the question:
Who am I to go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11, Basic English Bible).
And God responds:
Truly I will be with you; and this will be the sign to you that I have sent you: when you have taken the children of Israel out of Egypt, you will give worship to God on this mountain.
Note when Moses will have his sign: not until after he has brought the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moses gets to perform lots of miracles. But the Egyptian magicians can imitate them all. Even the Passover and the crossing of the Red Sea are not the signs Moses is told to expect. Rather, the sign he is given is the completed rescue of his people. God commands that Moses walk in faith, that he not rest certain of God’s call until it has come to pass. We see this as well in the stories of Moses and Elijah seeing God: they can only see him after he passes by. That is, we can only see God after he has passed by.
Perhaps, as with the miracles of Moses’ plagues and as with the step-by-step progress of the African-American community, each small victory can be a sign for us to continue the struggle, to continue hoping in God’s promise to use us to bring justice and peace into the world, without being the sign of ultimate certainty. Perhaps, for whatever reason, it is not in our best interests that God swoop in and rescue us from the difficulties that the rest of the GLBT world faces. Perhaps we, as Christians, are to be to the GLBT community what the tribe of Levi was to the Hebrews: a group set aside to minister to the needs of the community, while still a part of that community and prone to all the difficulties it encounters. Perhaps that is another biblical model we can adopt for ourselves.
Do I believe God is with us? Whole-heartedly. What is the sign by which we can know he has sent us? It hasn’t happened yet. But it will — thanks be to God!
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.