Gays and Lesbians as Dispensers of Grace in a Church of Ungrace

Trained in ungrace

I guess I should count myself lucky. I mean, I live in a country where the rights of gays and lesbians are firmly entrenched within the constitution: South Africa — a testimony to the human struggle against injustice and prejudice. Why is it then that I get a gnawing feeling that I am discriminated against? The extraordinary Grace conveyed in our constitution is certainly not conveyed by the South African church.

When I was eight years old I remember going to the public toilets at a local shopping mall. “Whites Only” read the foreboding sign attached to the door. All the cubicles in the “Whites Only” toilets were busy so I nervously crept down a dark, ominous corridor towards another door. The sign on this door read “Non-whites.” I was eight, and when you’re eight you aren’t really concerned about politics. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. In contrast to the hygienic spotlessness of the “Whites Only” toilet, this bathroom was rundown, unattended and in a state of disarray and disrepair. Still, I bravely conducted my ablutions, despite the squalor. That is really my only significant memory of apartheid. The `non-whites’ were second class citizens. They didn’t have rights. They didn’t deserve rights. They didn’t deserve clean toilets or nice houses in white areas. As you well know, South Africa is now free of legislated apartheid. However, racism continues. A country that has been taught to be so thoroughly racist does not unlearn that racism for years, even decades. According to our new constitution you may not discriminate against another person on the basis of race, creed, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender or age (Most churches don’t actually recognise the `sexual orientation’ bit and, dare I say, the `gender’ bit as well).

I have just completed a degree at a highly esteemed evangelical Bible college. During the course of my studies, I made the life altering decision to quit hating myself on the basis of my homosexual orientation. I came out to myself and to God. I was liberated and felt tremendous joy. I felt that, after years of struggle, I was finally saved by Grace. Yet, upon returning to church I was forced right back into my closet. Divinely inspired discrimination is completely acceptable within most Christian communities. I have come to learn that Christ shows far more Grace than do His followers. Most Christians have decided to use the `love the sinner, hate the sin’ logic when dealing with the issue of homosexuality. This philosophy seems good on paper but it doesn’t really work in real life. I don’t really feel loved by the church. Neither do many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. It seems that many Christians fail to distinguish between sin and sinner.

A few months ago, my pastor (who does not yet know that I’m gay) made a comment about sexual orientation. His sermon was on prayer. He said that the most meaningful prayer that he had ever heard came from the lips of a lesbian who attended one of the churches at which he had served as a young pastor. This led him to make a brief comment, in parenthesis, on sexual orientation. He spoke against Christians who display homophobia and said the church needed to repent of its unfair treatment of homosexuals. Of course, this comment made me rather excited and I wanted to jump up and kiss him (picture the scandal, if you will). But I did no such thing. Rather, I glanced at the shocked expressions that oozed across the faces of the other congregates. They had been so well trained in “ungrace” that the very suggestion that they ought to be more tolerant of gays and lesbians was a scandalous one.

Recently we have been moved by the changing attitudes of certain mainline churches towards gays and lesbians. Slowly the mainstream church is starting to come round. If mainstream denominations don’t have gay-friendly policies, then there is some sort of dialogue to that affect (except, of course, for the more fundamentalist groups). But when the legislature of a church changes, do the hearts of its members change accordingly? When my country enshrined the rights of all race groups in the constitution, the racist heart of South African society was not altered. Will it make any difference if conservative theologians and evangelical leaders decide that perhaps homosexuals are not awful sinners? Will young Christians who are struggling with homosexuality feel embraced by the church? Or will they still end up nervously perusing the gay and lesbian sections of their local bookshops, terrified that a well-meaning church elder will spot them? Will these tormented Christians still feel compelled to choose between God and promiscuity?

I predict that even with a momentous alteration of church policy, nothing much will change, at least not immediately. Don’t get me wrong, a change in policy would certainly be useful. But the real change has to take place in the hearts of Christians. This is the change that we should be praying for. Conservative churches are built on foundations of “ungrace.” In theory, they believe in salvation by Grace. In practice, they do something entirely different. One of my conservative evangelical friends once said to me, “I don’t think that so-called gay Christians are really saved.” Implicit in his ridiculous provocation was the notion that there was something that a gay or lesbian Christian must do in order to be saved (i.e. salvation by works). As if submitting their hearts to God was not enough. Where is the Grace in that? The same Christians who, in true Protestant tradition, cry out, “by Grace alone!” have little or no experience of that Grace.

I think Jesus realised this in his dealings with the Pharisees. They had all the right rules and laws, but when it came down to the crunch their hearts lacked love and Grace. In reality, they were guilty of breaking all the laws that they had tried to obey so meticulously. Without love the laws were meaningless, without a change of heart the rules were nonsensical and hollow. The moment we confine God to our restricting laws and dogmas and the moment we under-emphasise God’s Grace then God becomes small. He ceases to be God.

How then do we change the heart of “ungrace” which pulsates within our churches? Do we fight back and demand a change of heart? Perhaps that would be something akin to heterosexual Christians demanding the change of a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual one (the only difference is that a change of heart is possible!). I would suggest that the only way to change the heart is by fighting back with love. Phillip Yancey, in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? talks of the Christian’s `arsenal of Grace’ (incidentally, a whole chapter in this book is devoted to Yancey’s friendship with Mel White and a look at the failure of evangelicals to minister to gays and lesbians). The command to love without condition is the most important divine imperative. The only way we can reach the heart is with the heart itself.

Mother Teresa is perhaps the best example of this. This frail old woman did more to change the hearts of Christians and non-Christians than any political lobby or social activist. My father had the opportunity of working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1993. With much determination, she worked with diseased and dying leprosy and AIDS patients. Regardless of their creed, misfortune or particular misdeed, she wiped their sores and cleaned up their excrement. Many were drawn to Christ by her compassion. In contrast, there were several fundamentalist missionaries wandering about the streets of Calcutta. When they saw a destitute and diseased person they gave him a tract and told him he needed to repent or go to hell. Their non-compassionate approach yielded no results. In fact the Indian government was so enraged by the activities of these missionaries, that it is now next to impossible to get a visa to go to India as a missionary. Her approach, on the other hand, brought presidents to their knees as she marched up to them and asked them what they were doing for the poor and as they watched her live a life of self-sacrifice.

As members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, we are a special people. We have been chosen by God to compassionately condemn the “ungrace” displayed by the body of Christ. The love that we display is condemnation enough. The last 2000 years of Christian history have seen the church condemn minority groups and then later welcome them into the fold. Very often, the road to social acceptance has been pioneered by only a few. When others turned to violence and inflammatory rhetoric, these few laid their hearts and souls bare. We are perhaps the last group of people that are waiting for ecclesiastical acceptance. As Mel White has noted on his Soulforce website:

“Unfortunately, our religious adversaries are not being changed by our current approach to activism. One day marches, rallies or demonstrations do not convince them they are wrong. In fact, too often our public actions convince them they are right.”

In a church that has forgotten the primacy of Grace- the very essence of the gospel- we are called to be dispensers of God’s Grace. For the Christian, there is no higher calling. Christ’s command to love supersedes all others. A people who have been trained in legalistic “ungrace” can only learn how to be graceful by receiving Grace. Religious dogmatism can only be countered by love.

In conclusion, I want to suggest to you that we, as gays and lesbians, have a special understanding of God’s Grace. The church, the one place where we hoped to find acceptance has scarred many of us. Our families have hurt a lot of us. When we encounter God and His Grace, we are overwhelmed by it. I remember being so overwhelmed with God’s Grace toward me as a gay man that I didn’t understand why His church didn’t display that same Grace. Perhaps the reason for that is that many church members have never really felt the need to experience God’s Grace in its fullness. Many of the Christians who condemn us from their bully pulpits live smug, relatively trouble-free lives. As Brennan Manning, in the Ragamuffin Gospel, so poignantly puts it, “It remains a startling story to those who never understand, that the men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their imperfect existence.” As gay men and women, we do have an imperfect existence. Not because we are imperfect in terms of our sexuality, but rather because an imperfect existence has been forced upon us by the external forces of “ungrace.” But we have all the more Grace because of these unfair, forced imperfections. That means we possess more Grace with which to combat those who are schooled in “ungrace.” Let us pray then, that this Grace increases all the more.