Ten lessons learned in writing this series on LGBT issues.
My series on LGBT issues and the Church is now over. A version of these essays, together with prefatory material and introductory comments by Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Matthew Vines, is now out from Read the Spirit books under the title Changing Our Mind. I am deeply grateful to the staff of Baptist News Global for their cooperation in allowing these essays to be published in book form, and so quickly.
I undertook these reflections as a good-faith effort, in response to the suffering of LGBT Christians and my own calling as a Christian ethicist, to end “avoidism” on this issue by myself and in my religious world. For years, everyone has been waiting for someone else to take on the challenge. (“You first. No, after you.”) Finally, I took the plunge.
I have heard from scores of people around the nation and the world who have thanked me for making this attempt. Most touching have been the many messages from LGBT Christians, their friends, their parents and their ministers, thanking me for standing with them and their loved ones, and for providing ways into this issue that they find helpful.
I have also heard, of course, from a handful of Christians who have most definitely not thanked me. So now it’s your turn. I am confident that Baptist News Global will be happy to give you a chance to articulate an alternative perspective.
In this brief concluding column, I want to reflect on what I have learned in writing this series. Then I will take two weeks off for travel and speaking, and resume my column every other Monday, talking about whatever comes to mind. (Next column: an analysis of Gone Girl, both the book and the movie.) And soon I will be too busy making a fuss over our first grandchild to want to talk about anything other than that.
Here goes. Preparing this series, I have learned that:
1) Even though much progress can be made toward humane treatment of LGBT people without doing any new biblical work (see columns 1-7), addressing the most widely cited biblical texts on the traditionalist side still matters. Conversation about the LGBT issue is stymied by those who dismiss the significance of these texts as well as those who think there is nothing new to learn about them.
2) You really have to do your homework to work through those texts. This involves Hebrew and Greek work, consulting a range of biblical commentaries, reading in the most important works focusing on sexuality in the ancient world, and doing your own prayerful reflection. It’s a big job. There’s always more to do.
3) I think the best scholarly work on the background issues and interpretation of what the Bible says on sexuality is the five-part series by William Loader, an emeritus New Testament professor in Perth, Australia. If you must start with one book, go with his New Testament on Sexuality, which begins by summarizing key findings of his own previous works. The best single recent book both on the biblical material and the hermeneutical issues facing the church today is James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality. The best memoir coming out of the conservative evangelical subculture is Justin Lee’s book, Torn.
4) Dealing seriously with the LGBT issue requires (a) biblical work as specified above, and (b) willingness to make the move from exegesis to hermeneutics, understood as interpretation of the biblical text in service to the Church today, then (c) Christian ethical consideration of this scriptural work, other major biblical texts and themes, and relevant extra-biblical sources of insight for thinking about this issue, which includes (d) attentiveness to the real struggling, suffering human beings whose lives and well-being are at stake in these moral deliberations. And then, of course (e), all moral discernment requires the mysterious and unverifiable guidance of the Holy Spirit.
5) Some are unwilling to acknowledge seriously steps (b) through (e). If they have worked out their exegesis on the six big passages, they have their answer to what the Church should do today. They do not attend seriously to suffering human beings. They do not acknowledge a pastoral task other than to report exegetical results. Often they scorn those who attempt to integrate real human suffering, and pastoral concern, into their response to the LGBT issue. They call it emotionalizing the issue. I think paying attention to neighbors bleeding by the side of the road is exactly what the love Jesus commanded looks like (Lk. 10:25-37).
Further, I have learned that:
6) Most Baptist News Global readers have demonstrated a laudable readiness to participate in the kind of conversation I have been attempting, however inadequately, to inspire in these columns. I am hopeful that more and more churches will move ahead with this discussion, properly resourced. Clearly there is no unanimity among readers or churches, but a community able to deal respectfully and lovingly with lack of unanimity is not a bad place to start.
7) Other readers, sadly, have not demonstrated such readiness. Some have reacted with outrage. Clearly this particular issue evokes emotions far exceeding that of other issues in our context at this moment.
8) There is a tragic dimension to this issue. It is tragic when Christians doing what they are trained to do — study Scripture faithfully, in service to Christ, trying to discern God’s will — badly hurt the very people they are trying to assist. It will be very good when this tragedy is brought to an end.
9) Our children are watching us old-timers wrestle with this issue. If we can’t figure it out, and in a way that doesn’t hurt their friends, they will just conclude that Christianity is of little relevance to their lives. After all, there is an easy way to resolve “the LGBT issue” — leave those churches (and families, and schools, and friends) where it is an issue, and go somewhere where it is not an issue. For some, especially millennials (as is well-documented), that has meant leaving God, Church, family, school and Bible altogether. That’s quite a price to pay.
10) It hurts to write about this subject. It offends people. It costs you sleep. It costs you friends. It gains you enemies. I keep thinking of the word “solidarity,” which in social ethics usually means leaving one’s own privileged position to identify with, enter into community with, and work alongside those fighting for dignity and for acceptance. An almost inevitable consequence of solidarity is that one gains the unpleasant but instructive experience of sharing in the indignities and rejections of the oppressed group.
The once-very-privileged Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison to his once-very-privileged friends, saying:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”