|Michelangelo's fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican|
Nathan Frank has written a provocative piece that was published in Monday’s online Slate.com magazine entitled ‘Should You Respect Gay People If You Find Homosexuality Immoral?’ Frank takes aim at the many Christians who consider homosexuality to be an ‘abomination’ and yet claim to love individual gay people, otherwise known as the ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ position. Frank skewers Roman Catholic (seeming) doublespeak in particular, where the current pope can say ‘Who am I to judge?’ of Roman Catholic priests who are also gay, while at the same time official Roman Catholic doctrine views homosexuals as ‘intrinsically disordered.’
Frank acknowledges that the cultural zeitgeist tends to suspend all moral judgment whatsoever (unless, of course, someone is ‘hurt’), and that from the standpoint of contemporary mores passing judgment on someone else, particularly someone’s sexual morality, is so 1950s. But, he argues, this is not what today’s social conservatives are doing. Accusing them of ‘having their cake and eating it, too,’ Frank argues that these conservative and (for the most part) Christian politicians, leaders and commentators are being completely two-faced on the issue, showing a smiling, accepting face towards homosexual people on the one hand while showing a morally judgmental face towards homosexual behavior when among their own constituency. Frank asks this question of those who think they can oppose homosexuality without hating homosexuals: ‘Why should you respect someone who’s constantly doing something you think is just plain wrong, something you may despise as intrinsically evil? Why on earth wouldn’t you judge people who routinely engage in activity you deem “intrinsically disordered,” sinful, or immoral?’
The rest of Frank’s article is worth reading, as he articulates the anti-social-conservative-Christian perspective more clearly than most I’ve seen who write on this topic. Given the amount of hostile and sometimes inchoate gay rhetoric towards mainstream conservative American Christianity, it is helpful to find someone who articulates a moral complaint against what has for so long been the position of the American Christian majority on the issue. And what he gets right, and what should make all of us who profess Christian faith very uncomfortable, is our complete and utter hypocrisy when it comes to the current attempts by many to accommodate a social acceptance of the homosexual with a moral condemnation of his or her practices. In doing so, Frank also unwittingly highlights our illogical and unbiblical stand towards sin and sinners in general, something I would like to pursue a little more deeply here.
It turns out that we Christians have a fundamentally disordered understanding of ‘sin,’ much more cultural than biblical, which propels us to a necessary condemnation of people as ‘sinners,’ demanding a consequential reckoning and punishment, if not now, certainly in the hereafter, if God be just. The root of this is a cultural, historical and theological bias towards a legal understanding of the problem faced by fallen human beings and of the saving solution provided by God in the New Testament.
This legal orientation of our theology of salvation is our inheritance as Western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant (although Eastern Christians are in no way immune to such a legal orientation). We Westerners take our cue from Augustine’s brilliant and flawed exposition of Christian faith. Subsequent generations of Western Christians came to see that our (humanity’s) problem is that we have broken God’s laws and deserve the punishment such law-breaking demands. The ‘Gospel’ is that Jesus takes the punishment we deserve upon himself and sets us free from our just sentence by forgiving us of our sins and releasing us from the legal consequences. All subsequent attempts to communicate the ‘Gospel’ involve attempts to help ‘sinners’ understand that they have broken God’s law and stand under God’s condemnation.
|Sinner in the Dock. From an artist's rendering of a defendant in a UK trial in May 2012.|
In our zeal to ‘hold the fort’ against the perceived moral decay of our so-called ‘Christian’ country, many Christians have been zealous in their condemnation of what to them is the obvious immorality of our contemporary society. Thundering against moral laxity in general, homosexuality was a very easy target because it was seen as an aggregate sin, one that, on some readings of Romans 1, marked just how far one could get from God’s best, normally identified as heterosexual marriage and the right-with-God-and-the-world blessings that resulted. Fear of homosexuality (and thus of homosexuals) was a natural byproduct of Western Christianity’s ambiguous at best attitude towards sex in general and complete discomfort over practices considered not ‘normal,’ however ‘normal’ was defined. The level of discomfort with sexuality and sexual practices can be seen by the number of prohibitions issued against such things. Given that sex became the object of such negative attention from Christian authorities, the impression was given that sexual misconduct, variously defined, was about the worst thing one could do; maybe not as bad as murder, but not far behind. And given that homosexuality was often presented as the worst of a bad bunch of sexual sins, the resulting cultural aversion towards homosexuality and homosexuals among Christians is at least understandable.
Generations of American Christians thus lived with the false sense of security that, having avoided what was presented in countless sermons and books as the moral sewer, they were living a God-pleasing life. The resulting hypocrisy, seen most clearly where the utterly materialistic ‘American way’ is equated as God’s way (and on display most profanely as the so-called ‘health and prosperity gospel’), has left vast swaths of American Christianity devoid of any moral authority whatsoever in the contemporary culture. And though any number of smaller hypocrisies, such as a broken marriage rate that mirrors the wider secular culture, the petty power plays that deface relationships between Christians with positions of responsibility or authority, the inability of Christians to forgive each other despite the loud claims that they have been forgiven by Christ, as well as mega-‘churches’ that serve mostly as platforms for raising vast amount of money to pay for ever-expanding facilities that serve as testimonies of just how much God is blessing them, as well as for the self-aggrandizement of the leader and his/her media brand. We are seen by those who are not Christians or who, disgusted, have left the church, as being just as self-consumed as the rest of our society, but with a sickening veneer of pseudo-spirituality applied to assuage our consciences.
We conservative Christians can get away with this because our ‘Gospel’ says that all we need to do is ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.’ ‘I believe,’ I say, and so therefore I must be saved! Our own morality is no longer relevant, and those with tender consciences about the gap between their behavior and their Christian profession are discouraged from going there lest they become guilty of attempting to further their salvation ‘by works.’ In the meantime, we need new victims for our spiritual ponzi scheme, and so we continue to preach against ‘sin’ and have ‘altar calls’ so that poor convicted ‘sinners’ can come forward, acknowledge that they are God-forsaken reprobates, accept Jesus as the only way to be find forgiveness and thus be ‘saved’. Why this dysfunctional parody of New Testament Christianity is allowed to continue I have no idea. But it certainly has painted Evangelical Christians in particular into a rather ugly corner.
As we have seen, the core of this dysfunctional Christianity is a long-standing misunderstanding of Christianity’s relationship with the law. We Christians think we are supposed to ‘keep God’s law.’ This is why, in many of our churches, as well as in many of our public buildings (or at least until the US courts began ordering their removal), there was posted the ‘Ten Commandments.’ The ‘Ten Commandments’ were/are supposedly the bedrock of Christian morality, and we are under an obligation to keep them. The two great problems with this are that, first, despite such hue and cry, no Christians have ever kept the Ten Commandments because no Christian keeps the 7th commandment with regards to the Sabbath. Even so-called ‘Sabbatarian’ Christians modify the commandment to suit their circumstances. Secondly, these commandments were not given to Christians for us to keep, they were given to the people of Israel as the heart of their Covenant with God at Mount Sinai. It is a covenant that even the Jews themselves could never keep, resulting in them receiving not the blessings promised for keeping the covenant, but rather the terrible curses for breaking it.
Christians are not required to keep Old Testament law, not because some of the laws are obsolete, but rather the whole body of OT law is part of the Sinai covenant between God and Israel. The New Testament bears witness to a New Covenant between God and all people, Israel included along with all the Gentiles (that would be us). The ‘law’ we Christians are commanded to follow by Jesus is the law of love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength and with all your soul; and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the essence of Christianity – a life characterized by self-sacrificial love. At some point, someone threw a switch and the train left the track that’s described by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, and we’ve rolled on for a very long time in another direction until we’ve arrived at where we are today, a version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to what Jesus and the Apostles were talking about that first century.
The subsequent legal orientation of Christianity begins to explain all sorts of total aberrations, like ‘Christendom’, of the Byzantine empire, or the Crusades, of the idea of ‘Christian’ kingdoms or nations, not to mention the vast amount of legal pronouncements that flow from Rome or from the headquarters of any Christian denomination or parachurch organization. Or to put it another way, Christians have too often not been satisfied with just ‘the Gospel’. When Christians have achieved political power, again and again this has resulted in the codification of all those things that constitute ‘breaking God’s law,’ taking those things which Christians supposedly are not to do and enforcing the prohibition of them on the entire population. In this way was a ‘Christian society’ created, a ‘Christendom’ established. Never mind that hypocrisy has always characterized Christians when in power. Sexual sins (again following Augustine) have always been highlighted as really wrong (except when the people in charge are committing them). But other sins which the Bible seems to think are even worse, such as pride, gossip, lying, intrigue, hatred, gluttony, factionalism, schism, and corruption are often ignored.
Frank has unwittingly exposed these tensions within Western Christianity. In order for the (legal) Christian gospel to work, there must be condemnation, there must be acknowledgment that God’s law has been broken and that forgiveness and repentance are in order. And this will be measured subsequently by our ability to keep God’s law and avoid slipping back into condemnation. And we can become increasingly pleasing to God if we enforce these rules on ourselves and on an increasingly wider circle of people around us.
The tactic employed by Frank and many others in the Gay Rights movement has been to attack the codification of Christian morality in the civil laws as being unjust and obsolete. They have rightly demonstrated that these laws have denied them their own civil rights by giving preferential treatment for one moral system over any others. Moreover they have demonstrated that that moral system is obsolete and no longer relevant to today’s society. To enforce ‘Christian’ morals over American society would be to favor and thus establish Christianity, or even a particular and narrow understanding of Christianity, over all others. They have argued correctly, in my opinion, that this is unconstitutional.
This has all been disorienting to many Christians who thought they were living in a ‘Christian country’ and who hold that the Bible is ‘literally true’ and that it is the ‘Word of God’. Attacking the validity of God’s commandments seems to upend the whole apple cart. For if any of God’s commandments are shown to be false, then by implication, the whole foundation of Christian truth is shown to be unsafe.
The great problem with this stance is the assumption that this particular interpretation is God’s truth. The legal assumptions and interpretations of Christianity and its Gospel are indeed being shown to be misleading, even untenable, but that does not mean that Christianity is therefore proven untrue. It does mean that some rather severe unintended consequences of our legal orientation are coming back to haunt us, and at a challenging time for Christians in America.
To the point at hand, the grounds for Christians condemning homosexuality and (by extension, per Frank) homosexuals, have been pulled out from under us. But not for the reasons Frank argues. It turns out that Homosexuals have not broken ‘God’s law’. Having to keep some moral law is not the homosexuals’ problem, nor is it ours. There is no ‘law’ for us non-Jewish Gentiles to break. We are like the pagan Abraham, who lived before the Sinai Covenant. To apply Jewish law to Abraham results in the same miscarriage of theology that applying the law to us does, at least that seems to be what the Apostle Paul intimates in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. Therefore, we ‘Christians’ are in no position to look down on Gays or any other class of ‘sinners’ for having broken God’s moral law. That is not their problem, nor is it ours. Instead our problem is actually worse, as is theirs.
Sin is not breaking God’s law. Sin is choosing not to love. Sin is essentially a relational issue, not a legal one. What makes each of us created in the image of God is that God has created us with the capacity to love, to love God, to love our neighbor, to love our environment. We become icons of God when we choose to love. The image of God that is us is defaced when we choose to do otherwise. We are born into a world that is wracked by the consequences of all the choices by the men and women around us not to love, as well as flashes of unimaginable beauty when love is expressed. We too often selfishly follow those around us and the inclinations of our own heart in choosing to live for ourselves rather than for the other in love. We thus reap the self-chosen corruption of our lives, our communities, our environment, our world. This corruption leads inexorably to separation from those around us, and finally to the ultimate separation which is death and Hades. All of us participate in this disaster. All of us have been hurt by others. All of us have done our share of hurting.
Failure to understand this results in judgmentalism, of looking down on the other as being a worse sinner than me. If I can find one person who is more evil than me, then I can feel better about myself. But once again, this is the fruit of a legalistic understanding of morality. I can always find some thieving pervert who has broken more commandments than I have. But when we measure ourselves against the standard of what love actually is, the man Jesus of Nazareth, who then can stand? I fall short of the mark, far short. And so do you. And who am I to point out that I’m just a little higher on the scale of fallenness than you? To do so reveals that I have not understood my predicament, or yours, or indeed all of ours. Gay people then are no different from me. All of us are doing the best we can, having been born into a world overwhelmed by the consequences of our and everyone else’s rebellion against God, our and everyone else’s choices not to love. In that sense, all of us are disordered. All of us are acting out of our poverty. The goal should not be to change gay people to be like straight people, or to change alcoholics to be like the sober. Rather the solution is for all of us to be reconciled with God and with those around us, and to become more and more like the One in whose image we were created.
We do this in the Church. With the help of the Sacraments which Christ gave us to this very end. In the context of the new Community where we begin to learn anew how to choose to love, and how to help each other as we suffer through the consequences of all those choices not to love roiling around and within us. Without God’s help this would be impossible, as we are all very, very sick; in fact, sick unto death. But the good news is not only to we find forgiveness and a new life in Christ, but he is restoring his image in us and will save us from our death.
This is not, perhaps, the easy answer that Frank was driving towards, an answer that sees homosexuals being freed from the yoke of hypocritical Christian judgmentalism and allowed to live the life they choose in the way they see fit, which would be their understanding of freedom. His critique of the hypocrisy of many Christians is painfully correct. But ironically' neither he, nor the Christians under his scrutiny, have understood the core of Christianity. I would agree with Frank that the world would be a much better place if that version of Christianity were to just go away. But it also tells me that those Christians who have eschewed the legalism of so much Western (and even Eastern) Christianity are still not living in such a way as to make an impact on their world that changes much of anything. So there’s no room for judgmentalism, or triumphalism on anybody’s part. Instead, this should summon us again to recognize our true humanity, our true need, our continuous participation in choices not to love, and ask instead for the mercy and help to change. That Christ might be recognized in our midst. Only then might we begin to see something that approximates what the New Testament refers to as ‘salvation.’
|Icon of the Resurrection of Christ and the Raising of Adam and Eve|