By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
My mind and heart have changed on the LGBT issue. I am not the only one by any means–the trickle is becoming a flood. I could point you to a stack of thoughtful books as evidence. But such changes of mind and heart disturb those who do not understand or accept them. I think it would now be appropriate to offer a bit more personal backstory.
My dissertation and first publications were about the Holocaust. I had read little in Christian sexual ethics when I first began lecturing about the subject in Ethics intro courses. To the extent that I had a view it was shaped by my parents, my own ardently heterosexual self, my early Baptist experiences as a teenager, my culture shock in dealing with the quite “out” gay culture at Union Seminary in New York, and the conservative views of my early mentor Ron Sider, who is “progressive” on many issues but not this one.
The fact that I hardly knew a soul who was not heterosexual before I came to Mercer University in 2007 certainly played a role in the near total ignorance I brought to the subject. My soft Christian heart rejected those who said hateful things about gay people. I knew that was wrong. But I assumed the normative issues were clear, mainly from the creation design theme I discussed in earlier columns. So that was what I said in those few pages in Kingdom Ethics, and in class, while working on other issues.
I have lived in Atlanta and gone to church in Decatur for just over seven years. But in that time my life has become enriched by an entirely unexpected influx of LGBT Christians, and ex-Christians, into my world.
The first major development had nothing to do with Atlanta at all. My beloved baby sister Katey, a single mother and a Christian, who had been periodically hospitalized with depression and anxiety, including one suicide attempt, came out as a lesbian in 2008. Her testimony is that her depression was largely caused by her inability to even acknowledge her sexuality, let alone integrate it with her faith—and this was largely caused by the Christian teaching she had received first in Catholic and then evangelical churches.
As Presbyterian scholar Mark Achtemeier has written, the fact that traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it is surely very relevant information for the LGBT debate. It is certainly shattering news when it comes home to your own family. (Some think this shouldn’t matter at all to Christian moral reasoning. Another fork in the road, and a very basic one.)
The goads to my conscience began accelerating. I got a letter around 2009 from a former student telling me of his own struggle with same-sex attraction while in college and how my teaching on this particular issue had contributed to his suffering. He had since come out as gay.
I joined a church that without any policy decision on the issue began attracting an influx of gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families. These sisters and brothers became a part of the fabric of our church community.
Some of them made their way into the Sunday School class that I teach each week. For the first time I was in real life Christian community with gay Christians. I remember my shock at seeing a strong collection of Rick Warren books in the home of one of these men at a class social. “So gay and lesbian Christians also read Rick Warren.” These Christians were not liberals. These were Bible Belt evangelicals. And they were also ineradicably gay and lesbian. News flash. Categories upended. Learning happening.
Friendships began to develop. In Christian community I was experiencing what happens when people begin to know and love each other. Conversations over breakfast. Prayers for one another. Mutual support. Mutual need. Constant learning from the lives of each other.
I do not speak for my congregation but certainly can say that my heart has changed due in part to what I believe God has been doing among us.
My opinion writing began reflecting some of these experiences and changing perspectives. I began to read more on the subject. Gay and lesbian Christians, and allies, and others, began seeking me out for conversation.
Mitchell Gold, of Gold and Williams furniture stores, looked me up. He is Jewish and gay. He told me about his then-forthcoming collection of stories by gay people who had grown up in conservative religious households. He told me how his particular deal with God was that God would change Mitchell’s sexual orientation by his 21st birthday or Mitchell would kill himself on that birthday. He made it through the day, and eventually committed to improving the lot of kids like himself. Then he challenged me by name in the conclusion of that book—Crisis—to stop being a bystander when it came to the suffering of gay and lesbian people. He cited my own work Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust against me. That stung. But it was part of the process.
I was teaching at a seminary that is not a flag-waving school but that has a small number of LGBT students among its diverse constituency. I learned from them, both their strengths and their hurts. I was struck by the brilliance and confidence of our own Cody Sanders, now at Brite Divinity School. I became sadly aware of the many lost gifts belonging to excluded LGBT Christians.
One day out of the blue I heard from Jane Clementi, the mother of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who threw himself off a bridge in New York after being outed and videod by his roommate. Her story, and her son’s story, affected me deeply. She founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation to help others in her situation. I finally got to meet Jane a few weeks ago. As one whose very identity was formed by being loved and accepted unconditionally by my dear mother, I want that for every child.
I was asked by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship staffer Rick Bennett to help him organize a conversation about these issues for our particular fellowship of churches. I went in unsettled with my older views but not settled on new ones. After a very careful planning process we hosted an event at First Baptist in Decatur, Georgia in spring 2012. There something beautiful happened. In a non-coercive and worshipful context we listened to each other. I learned about how many very dear, deeply-hurt-by-the-church-but-still-committed-to-Jesus gay Christians there actually are. They had come from all over the country to be at this event. In worship and conversation with these brothers and sisters, I found myself deeply affected as I encountered sisters and brothers who loved Jesus so much that they would not give up on churches that continually hurt them. I also met some ex-churched but not ex-Christian folks who were warily watching to see if the straight Christian types could make church safe for them someday.
I wrote a book manuscript last year. It argued from scripture that the love of God for all people in Jesus Christ, our human equality in need and gratitude for God’s salvation, and the fundamental equality of all forgiven sinners in Christian community, at least required clarity about God’s love and welcome for gay and lesbian Christians in the church. Then and there, in loving community together, we could wrestle with the exegetical-biblical-ethical questions I have touched on in earlier essays.
I exposited the following passages in that book: John 3:16-17 (“for God so loved the world”), Mark 10:17-18 (“no one is good but God alone”), Luke 18:9-14 (“A parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”), Romans 3:21-26 (justification by grace through faith for all who believe), Galatians 3:26-28 (neither Jew nor Greek but one in Christ), Romans 12:9-18 (“love one another with mutual affection”), Romans 14:1-4 (“Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?”), Romans 12:3-8 (“don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought”) John 9:1-5 (“he was born blind that God’s works might be revealed in him”), and several of the texts already discussed here. That manuscript was not quite ready for publication; but it helped prepare me for the work I have done in this one. It certainly showed me that a different way of “connecting the biblical dots” was quite possible.
My agents pushed me to be more personal in writing that book for what is called a “trade” audience. In the third draft I realized that my own experience of having been bullied as a young adolescent was profoundly important at the deepest heart level on this issue. I was bullied because I was emotionally sensitive and the sharks on the school bus figured it out. I was bullied because I had terrible skin and that made me an easy target. Many days I wept bitterly at my sense of impotent powerlessness at the hands of my bullies. I realized how much I hated bullying in all its forms. I then connected my own suffering for a condition I could not control to the suffering of others for conditions they cannot control. Bullied LGBT children and adolescents moved near the center of my moral vision on this issue.
It became clear to me that however complex the exegetical and theological issues are, existentially and humanly I needed to wrestle with these questions in the community of the bullied rather than the community of the bullies. Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenseless. I can certainly understand and respect the best version of the traditionalist position. But I cannot understand heartless and loveless Christianity.
I realized that other than a few pages in Kingdom Ethics and Getting Marriage Right, the major themes of my writing and teaching career actually all pointed to a posture of solidarity with rejected, marginalized gay Christians. Righteous Gentiles was about those who stood with Jews under Nazi bullying and murder. Kingdom Ethics taught about a kingdom of justice, inclusive community, healing, deliverance, and love that Jesus lived and died for. My work on evangelicals and politics, such as Future of Faith in American Politics, argued for a constructive justice agenda and not a destructive culture wars agenda. And my Sacredness of Human Life talked about God’s immeasurable love and valuing of every human being without exception.
My biblical dot-connecting changed in the way I have slowly outlined in this book. Biblical paradigm + transformative encounters with real human beings led to a new biblical paradigm, or at least a belief that a new biblical paradigm was plausible—and I knew where my true Christian community for exploring that paradigm was to be found.
I hope I have most of the time resisted the temptation to attack those who have not made this paradigm leap with me. I acknowledge it is a major leap and that many just won’t get there, at least not in my lifetime, as happens with all paradigm leaps. I do not judge Christ’s servants for their efforts to honor Christ. I would hope to be spared their judgment in the same way. Only God is judge. Romans 14-15, which discuss this theme, has become really important to me. I urge you to read these chapters closely.
I also hope to be spared the judgment of those, especially gay and lesbian people themselves, who are rightly way more than tired of being placed under the theological microscope. It seemed necessary to me to do this in service to that part of the Christian community that might be aided by this kind of reflection. But I will not do it again…and probably in fifty years people will marvel that essays such as these were ever really needed.
In large part due to what God has taught me through several dozen LGBT Christian friends, my face turns in a new direction. Henceforth my concern related to this issue will mainly be to seek to stand in solidarity with those who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. Together we will address whatever issues remain.
I end by apologizing to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue. Where I have the chance to amend my written work I will do so. I ask for your forgiveness. I apologize that it has taken me so long to get here. I look forward to continuing the journey together in your company, if you will have me. Meanwhile, I will join you in working for the Church to be a safe place for you, your loved ones, and everyone else to follow Jesus.