In the United States, the issue of same sex marriage has been a cause célèbre for some time, and, increasingly, a social reality across an increasing number of states. For conservative Christians across the ecumenical spectrum, this trend is perceived as part of a wider national slide into perversion, providing perhaps the most conclusive evidence that our country has lost its moral and Christian bearings. Many of these same Christians see such a slide as setting us up as a nation for God’s judgment. And if one throws issues such as abortion into the pot, it makes for a potent mix fueling some of the most heated rhetoric I’ve heard during my not so brief life in Christian ministry. The Westboro Baptist Church crowd may be perceived by their fellow Christians as being way out on the fringe, using deplorable tactics to get their message out there, but they have been a rich gift to the majority of Americans who do not share their theology or their perspective on morality and who find them, their message, and by extension, their Christianity to be appalling.
We Christians who are on the inside of all the theological debates that characterize our small worlds too often don’t realize that the rest of the world could care less about our fine theological distinctions. The rest of the ‘world’ is likely to put us in the same camp as the Westboro gang under the label of ‘Christian’. Unfair as that may seem, I think the rest of us Christians need to realize that we have been backfooted by the rapidity of the social transformation that is occurring around us. The rest of the culture has moved on with respect to this issue. They don’t see anything fundamentally ‘wrong’ with same-sex sex or with same-sex relationships or with same-sex marriage for that matter. In the meantime our (Christian) insistence on policing the culture, on giving or withholding approval on all manner of moral perspectives or practices – all of these reflexive stances on the part of Christian communities reflect assumptions that come, not from the Bible, but from being a part of cultures that understood themselves as being ‘Christian.’ For centuries in the West and the East, it was understood that the magistrate’s job was to enforce Christian morality and to enforce Christian belief in the community. The rhetoric that ours is a ‘Christian’ country is a survival of this notion of ‘Christendom’ which imposed a Christian culture on society and enforced it with the full weight of the law.
The great problem for conservative Christians is that ours is not a Christian country. To make that argument is to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the constitution, and the wrong side of theology and the Bible, for that matter. The Holy Roman empire in the West and the Byzantine empire in the East notwithstanding, only Old Testament Israel can lay claim to being God’s people, as they are the only nation that God ever made a covenant with. The New Testament construes God’s dealings differently, not with A nation, but with individuals from all nations. God has not made a covenant with the United States, or Kenya, or even Canada! Jesus is not concerned with establishing earthly kingdoms, but with communities that will reflect the priorities of his mission. Jesus is not concerned with a legal agenda, but with a relational agenda. At some point the train left the track, and we still haven’t figured out how to put it back on.
Western Christian strategy with respect to gay marriage has essentially been to revert to Christendom mode. We condemn the malefactors and attempt to use the legal system to impose our perspective on the rest of the culture in this matter. We have the best of motives – we are trying to protect ‘us’ and our children from ‘them’. Publicly we are all ‘Love the sinner but hate the sin’, but privately our own loathing and fear make this rather difficult. Moreover, our fine distinction between love and hate is once again lost outside our tightly construed theological systems. ‘Hating the sin’ means ‘hating the sinner’ to those people who are ‘sinners’ according to our definitions. To be frank, our protest against gay marriage has had entirely the opposite effect to what was intended. We have been exposed as bullies, as obscurantists, as philistines and as ungenerous and unkind. And who wants to be associated with a crowd of people like that?
The majority of Americans are not conservative Christians. Stop and let this sink in. They do not start with our assumptions about God or the Bible or sin or salvation. These are the people that have been offended and ‘lost’ to a ‘Christian’ perspective on sex, marriage and homosexuality. This has already happened. The battle for hearts and minds on this issue was lost some time ago. Christianity, in its conservative avatar, has been effectively sidelined as having any kind of relevant voice in the matter. Yes there are still states that have not legalized gay marriage, and there are still places in our country where conservatives are in the majority and where conservative views can still be imposed a la the Western Christendom model. But it is only a matter of time before Americans will not put up with having a religious minority impose their ideas and morality on everybody else. This way of doing Christianity has always been bad news, and it is surprising that it has survived so long in a country that enshrines the separation of church and state.
Jesus, the apostles and the earlier Christians never envisioned Christianity as a means of social control. They were never in the position even to contemplate such a use of the gospel, much less be in a position of power to make it a reality. Christianity began as a minority religion, and experienced persecution off and on at the hands of hostile host cultures. It’s in this context that Jesus’ call to follow him (including picking up one’s cross and denying oneself) resonated, it’s in this context that Jesus call to love God and love one’s neighbor was given, it’s in this context that we were called to be a city on the hill, a light to the nations. Christians were noted because they loved one another. Their communities were just that – communities; not the sort of corporate worship palaces that are held out as ‘successful churches’ today. Christians in the early centuries were not in any position to pass judgment on the sexual habits or drinking habits or child-rearing habits or abortion habits or idolatry habits of the wider culture for the simple reason that this was a fast ticket to martyrdom. But Christians made a difference in their host culture by reaching out as Christians to rescue exposed babies, to take care of the widows and the orphans, to set examples in their own families of what Christ-touched relationships could be. These things, more than anything else Christians did, got the attention of the people in the wider culture and proved immensely attractive, so much so that the percentages of Christians in the cultures where they lived kept increasing decade after decade, even with the threat and reality of vicious persecution.
In many respects, our world today is more similar to the world of the first three Christian centuries than at any other time in Christian history. We Christians are a minority. The wider culture is increasingly hostile to Christian belief and values. The problem is, we are missing the incredible opportunity that has been presented to us. We are so busy complaining (with increasing shrillness) against the media and against gays and against gay marriage and against abortion and whatever pet social cancer one can think of, that we have been blind to the fact that our context has changed around us. What ‘worked’ fifty years ago (in terms of imposing our values on the world around us) no longer works today. Instead, alien values are increasingly being imposed on us, and we don’t like it.
Same-sex marriage is a fact. Or it will be throughout the land sooner or later. If we keep framing the argument in terms of ‘culture wars’ or battles lost and won, we will have missed the opportunity of our times. Our task is not to keep gay marriage from happening, but to love same-sex couples, and individuals who are themselves same-sex in orientation. Our job is not to march against abortion, but to roll up our sleeves and help those women who find themselves in situations where abortion is a real option. And if we are going to make a big deal about marriage, then we had better make sure our own house is in order. I say this realizing that our own house is in utter disarray when it comes to marriage in particular and relationships in general in our communities. We Christians have no ground on which to condemn anyone else and their view of marriage when more than 50% of our own end in divorce. The statistics expose us conservative Christians as the hypocrites we are, on this issue at least. Is it any wonder that few in the wider culture take us seriously?
We live in a messy world full of people who are making choices that we don’t agree with, and whose choices often have unintended consequences that affect us and our families. This is our reality. It is time, past time for the church to come together, not to launch crusades against the moral depredations of the wider society, but for us to become the church, the community of God’s people, the counter-culture where we live the values we proclaim, where we experience and share the love of Christ.
The wider culture in general and the gay culture in particular is offended by and completely rejects the ministries of condemnation that seem to emanate from Christians and churches and Christian organizations. It is my opinion that when we Christians demonstrate that we can love each other, and that we can reach beyond ourselves and care for people whose values and perspectives are different than ours, then we may begin to reclaim the attention if not respect of the wider communities around us. We have to realize that our grasp of the love of Christ and our ability to express that love to each other is our most powerful weapon. We have something that the people around us are desperately seeking. How tragic that too often they are not finding it from us.