The first time anyone came out to me, I was a junior in college. Up until that point, I didn’t have any close friends who I knew were queer (the word I’ll be using most to talk about folks who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, or trans (LGBTQ)), and like many of my Christian peers, I had already succumbed to the dangerous act of forming opinions without any actual experiences to back them up. So when my friend came out to me, my theology proved rather useless. I may have known what I was supposed to believe in that moment, but I didn’t know what to do or say; no one had ever told me that a listening ear and a big warm hug could mean the world in such situations.
As a straight person, I will never be able to fathom the weight of such an act. How sacred it is when we remove our masks. I loved my friend before they came out to me and I love them now several years after the fact. That love does not change nor does it necessitate change. Love does not love for a desired outcome; it does not love with agenda. Love just loves. I hope I am never convinced otherwise.
And a month after my first coming out conversation, another friend came out to me. I don’t know why there was a sudden spike in the number of coming out conversations in my life (did I change my hairstyle?), but I started to wonder if God was trying to show me something of himself. Soon, I was convinced that love without understanding was a tree without roots. I could not claim to love my queer friends with any kind of integrity if I did not work to first understand queer identity, for to talk about homosexuality as an abstract idea was easy; to be about queer people, to join them, listen to them, submit to them, and to accept their anger and apologize for it in word and deed—well, that took some courage.
The Love I see exhibited by Jesus is a love that joins. In response to his love, I joined a queer organization on campus at Cal. There, I heard story after painful story about people who had been hurt by the church, and I learned to sit with them in that pain without trying to justify it or separate myself from those who, for better or worse, also claimed the name “Christian.” Most people there welcomed me and I became friends with a lot of awesome folks. Others, once they found out I was a Christian, weren’t as thrilled. And I don’t blame them; if I were gay, I probably wouldn’t trust Christians either. It turns out that building bridges between the queer and Christian communities isn’t really about building at all; it’s about deconstructing assumptions and experiences, about apologizing and undoing a lot of ugliness and hurt.
This past week, there has been a firestorm of opinion regarding Richard Stearns, President of World Vision, and his decision and subsequent undecision to employ people in same-sex relationships. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that Stearns would allow same-sex relationships citing “Christian unity” and “not caving to some kind of pressure” and then reverse his decision two days later. Either the Holy Spirit changed its mind or Christians are some of the biggest bullies in the world. Tell me, what is the greater “disaster”? That World Vision is allowing gay and lesbian employees or that the Assemblies of God denomination encouraged its members to withdraw all their donations from World Vision? I agree—cutting off financial support for over 2000 children in the third world is probably the most Christ-like way to prove a point. Rachel Held Evans writes in a very insightful piece:
Stearns said that some people, satisfied with the reversal, have called World Vision headquarters to ask, “Can I have my child back?” as though needy children are expendable bargaining chips in the culture war against gay and lesbian people.
Maybe other folks have already removed the planks from their eyes. Maybe their conscience is clear enough for them to systematically oppress queer people, but I am enraged at the Christian community’s response to these events. When these things happen, I am ashamed to call myself a Christian. (Perhaps Evangelical Christian would be more precise, but we nonetheless claim the same name, “Christian.” It seems like every day I am finding new reasons to resent American Evangelicalism.)
This is my honest assessment: We, the Church, have failed. We are nearly incapable of the love Jesus spoke of and we look nothing like the God we follow. We are self-centered, exclusive, ignorant, arrogant, and concerned more with being correct than being compassionate. We have failed. Our failure is not a result of *almost* allowing gay people to participate in the Kingdom; our failure is our inability to love anyone who is different than us (that is, both queer people and other Christians). So today I lament and grieve not for Stearns’ decisions, but for a church in civil war, a complete vortex of humility, a fearful people unable to have any semblance of constructive dialogue.
A gay person in World Vision will not corrupt World Vision nor will it harm the witness of the Church in the world; we’re already doing a hell of a job at that. World Vision is doing good work for children globally and regardless of their employment practices, I believe in the fruit of their work. Likewise, a gay person on a church’s staff will not bring the wrath of God upon that church. Trust me. I have been an unrepentant sinner in Christian organizations too. I did not invite God’s judgment upon Intervarsity or First Chinese Baptist Church (at least I hope I didn’t) for my unrepentant pride, lust, or greed. The reality is that there are queer people in all of our churches and fellowships—surprise! You probably just don’t know about them. They are hiding, afraid, ashamed, suicidal, depressed, and they have spent years hearing their pastors and friends convince them that they are rebellious sinners, incapable of being loved by the God who made them.
The Jesus I know is not like this. The Jesus I know sought out folks like this. He made sure that everyone knew that they were invited to the Party, especially those whose invitations were ripped up by the spiritual elite (Luke 14:13). If you cannot fathom heaven with gay people in it, then you have already missed the whole point of why the Party was thrown in the first place. The truth is, we were all invited from the get go. There are just some of us who are too proud to rsvp when we see that the “sinners” we have separated ourselves from are on the guest list too.
Call me what you want, a universalist, a relativist… Am I compromising Scripture to fit my own personal perception of the world? I’m not too arrogant to admit that this just might be the case. But if that’s the case, then I believe Jesus compromised Scripture in order to love people too. Because the people he loved—the bleeding woman (Lev 15:9; Luke 8:43), lepers (Lev 13:8; Matt 8:3), prostitutes (Lev 19:29; Luke 7:39), and adulterers (Lev 20:10; John 8:4)—were condemned by Scripture too. And Jesus was chastised by religious leaders for his unbiblical associations with these folks. So did Jesus compromise Scriptural integrity by loving these people? Was he affirming the paralytic lifestyle? Did he support the adulterous agenda? Or was that not the point at all? Maybe those questions never even crossed the mind of a Messiah too busy loving people to throw them into simplistic categories. And look, even if Jesus labeled these people as “sinners” according to Levitical Law, it didn’t stop him from loving them, touching them, joining them, eating with them, or fighting for their dignity, respect, and social restoration. Perhaps to Jesus, loving sinners was not a compromise of Scripture, but rather the fulcrum on which it all balanced. So while the religious elite were stuck on “sinner,” Jesus was chillin where he always seems to be chillin—with folks on the margins, those who, thanks to religious folks insistent upon using Scripture to create margins in the first place, forgot that they were made in the image of a perfect God who doesn’t make mistakes. We’ve seen what happens to those who stand for radical, biblical inclusion, be it Jesus or the homie Stearns: they get crucified. Often by their own, often by those who have profited from exclusion.
“You want to know what’s really Biblical?” Jesus asks. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. That’s all the Biblical you need to know.” (Luke 22:37-40)
The reality is, it doesn’t really matter what you believe about queer people, whether they’re “sinners” or not. Love them anyway. Join them anyway. Listen to them anyway. Fight for them anyway. Do you believe homosexuality is a sin? Love queer people anyway. Join them anyway. Listen to them anyway. Fight for them anyway. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you believe or feel about queer people. It matters whether you love them as yourself. And love is an action; love still loves often in spite of belief. In fact, that is a very courageous type of love. It might not change the recipient of that love, but it just might change you.
To all of my friends who identify as LGBTQ:
I am so, so sorry. I am sorry for the ways we as the church have hurt you, shamed you, and pushed you away. I am sorry for my continued ignorance, prejudice, and homophobia. I am sorry for my fear. I cannot erase scars or undo the hurt that has been done, but I commit to fighting for and with you. To do such is in line with the Jesus I know, the Jesus who loved all of us: queer, straight, male, female, and everything in between. I don’t blame you if you have run away from a church that has left deep wounds, but I pray that you would not run from the God who looks nothing like his followers, whose love is real and powerful enough to redeem even the most painful of circumstances.
To all of my friends who identify as Christian:
I love you and I lament for us all. Can we admit that we are sinners too? Can we entertain the idea that perhaps the vitriolic rhetoric surrounding the “gay debate” is more political than it is biblical? Are we capable of the revolutionary act of saying “I’m sorry”? Can we stop using words like “homosexual lifestyle” and “gay agenda”? For we too were enemies of God; we do not deserve any place in his Kingdom and yet he has hammered every last one of our sins on Calvary’s cross—we know this. But it is not only your sins or my sins he has nailed on the cross; he has conquered Sin Itself. He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14), cursed the fig leaves we have hidden behind in our shame (Mark 11:12), and he is ushering in his Shalom restoration. And yet we continue to build imaginary walls to keep others, just as sinful as we are, out of His embrace. Perhaps the implications of God’s love are too great and terrible for us to bear. This is the Gospel, the Good News of God’s vulgar grace:
It is Jesus who saves us, not we ourselves. He dies for us while we are still sinners, not after we have managed to get our act under control. He is lifted up to draw all unto himself, not just those who are willing to break their appointments with the compromises of their lives. His reconciliation of all things in heaven and earth is a fact, conditional upon nothing but his own free choice – on nothing but his totally one-sided act of dropping dead on the cross… Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable. – Robert Farrar Capon
We, as the Church, have failed. It is we who are in need of greatest repentance. We are no more noble, no more righteous than the folks we continue to call rebellious sinners. We are all rebellious sinners. We are all in need of a Savior who still knows our names despite all the shit we have done in his. This is the Gospel I will give my life for. This is the Good News for which we are all desperate, the story of a God who continues to call us home, the One whose love we are insistent on watering down because it is too disgustingly inclusive for our liking. He is throwing a Party for Younger Brothers and Older Brothers alike (Luke 11:15-32). There will be dancing, 90’s R&B, and a gigantic banquet with pho and an open bar, all paid in full. Everyone is invited. Everyone.
And if you feel your stomach sinking at the sight of sinners on the guest list, then I’m sorry. This might not be the Party for you. But the invitations have already been sent out. The seats have already been assigned. CEOs will sit next to homeless people, conservative Evangelicals will sit next to queer folks, and lions will lay with lambs (Isaiah 11:6). If we’re incapable of loving our enemies now, then how miserable it will be to do it for eternity. Guess what? The party is and has always been for everyone. This is the Kingdom of God. It is the most frightening and beautiful thing we could imagine.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.