The Christian Call to Love Gays

Sometime last week, one of my friends reposted something on Facebook that said something along the lines of this: Morality is doing what is right regardless of what you are told; religion is doing what you are told regardless of what is right. When I read it, it really rubbed me the wrong way — as a religious person who tries to do what is right and is working to influence others to do the same, it felt like a complete rejection of my life’s work.

But the more I thought about this, the more I realized that I should have been angry about something else. My friend reposted that because that had been his experience with most religious people, and, having spent my entire life around religious people, I know there are groups — large groups — of religious people who live by that statement. It pains me to say that there are probably more Christians who take that motto to heart than atheists. We would never phrase it that way, of course. We have much more tactful ways of stating it.

I made this connection on Sunday afternoon, right after church, when my wife and I struck up a conversation with a young couple sitting a row ahead of us. It was a pair of young, good-looking men who had been dating for a while. Thankfully, a gay couple isn’t completely out of the ordinary at our church, and we were able to chat as equal partners in our church. But we got to talking about the past. One of the men had grown up in small-town Kansas where his sexuality ostracized him from his church family — the family he had grown up with. He was a bit bitter about it (and rightly so); but he was in a much better spot now in our church which was far more welcoming.

The conversation really resonated with me — not only because it’s extremely similar to stories I’ve heard dozens of times from other gay and lesbian Christians, but also because I’ve been on the other end of that situation. I go to a more progressive Methodist church now, but I spent years in a Southern Baptist church in the deep South. The immorality of gayness was a very hot topic there, discussed frequently and usually very heatedly; but the general consensus was that it was wrong to be gay.

Most of you probably have a picture in your head of the judgmental Christian sitting atop an ivory tower, doling out judgments to those who struggle with things that they will never have to deal with. And, in some cases, that was true. There were those people who looked down their nose at the hardship and strife that come along with being gay in America.

However (and this is very important), many people were not like that. Many of the people I knew in that church were some of the most loving and caring people I had ever met. Many of these people did not hate gay people, and would welcome a gay person into their home just as readily as anyone else.

As you can imagine, this caused a lot of inner turmoil in these people, who were compelled to love everybody, but found their religious beliefs at odds with that compulsion. Most of them were very open about this and admitted that it was with a very heavy heart that they stood against gay rights and gay acceptance — sometimes even wishing that the belief system they so closely clung to did not mention homosexuality at all, but accepting it nonetheless.

What the Bible actually says about homosexuality is a much bigger topic that is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this article. The important thing here is that there are many people who believe that gayness runs contrary to God’s will and stand against it solely for that reason. It’s a very sad thing to witness: someone who was taught to love everyone by a religion, who was also taught to reject something that others can’t change about themselves by that same religion. The sad part is seeing hands that were meant to love tied and bound in certain circumstances. And it’s a sad story I saw time and time again in churches.

The story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37, which was also the sermon topic of the aforementioned church service) is one of the most well-known Christian stories in the world, known amongst Christians and many other groups. I think it actually addresses this point very well. If you don’t have a Bible handy, here it is:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

This story is so familiar to most of us that it’s actually lost a lot of its original meaning. First of all, in all of the sermons I’ve heard on this passage, I’ve never heard anyone go back to the man’s original question: Who is my neighbor? The story seems to indicate that a neighbor — someone you should love as yourself, as a God-given duty — is anyone you have the capacity to help. Even when it’s dangerous to do so. Even when they’ve done nothing to deserve it. Especially when they’re in their most desperate moment.

But more important is what the other two passers-by in the story do. We have a priest and a Levite, both of whom are pretty high-ranking religious figures of their time. These are people who have been set aside from birth to follow God’s laws to a T. They were probably not uncaring people — but God’s law came first in all circumstances. And these people would have known that touching a dead body or a body with oozing sores would make them ceremonially unclean. It went against God’s will. God gave very specific instructions on what was acceptable within a healthy society, and it was the job of these religious leaders to avoid things that God said would make them unclean. In a story that’s all too familiar to me now, their hands, which were meant for loving, were tied and bound by the laws they lived by.

And that’s what’s so amazing about this story. We have a Biblical story, from the son of God himself, stating that following the rules so closely that you allow suffering people to continue to suffer goes against God’s will. According to this parable, to follow the rules so closely that you ignore a chance to help someone in need is precisely to have failed in the Christian mission.

One of the big things that drew me to the Methodist church was the founder’s stance on morality. John Wesley had three basic rules he lived by, and he based the Methodist movement on them. They are:

  1. First, do no harm.
  2. Then, do all the good you can.
  3. Finally, stay in love with God.

The most interesting thing to me is the order and wording on the first two — the admission that an act of good is also capable of doing harm, and that the priority should be in not harming others. This seems to be what the story of the good Samaritan is all about. The overly-pious religious leaders in Jesus’ time are a perfect example of taking the rules that God set out for the good of mankind and carrying them to such an extreme that they’re harmful to others. So in one passage, we have two Biblical precedents for this phenomenon.

Gay people have been ostracized in America pretty much since the beginning, and by many different groups. I’m not going to claim that religious people are solely responsible for that, because it’s simply not true; but there’s a lot more we could be doing to help them. I think many of us religious people see gay people as neighbors. I think the need for love is much more dire than that. We need to see them as the man who was attacked by robbers and left on the side of the road, in need of much more than a neighborly chat.

Gay people are significantly more likely to be targeted for violence than heterosexual people. The three largest groups at risk for homicide are transgender women, African Americans, and gay men, with that last group topping the list. In fact, as far as actual hate crimes go, LGBT people are twice as likely to be attacked than African Americans. They also typically face more severe violence than the rest of the population. It’s no coincidence that, as of writing this in the summer of 2016, the worst mass shooting our country has ever seen took place in a gay club.

The general populace usually doesn’t think about gay people in this way, instead seeing the very public displays at pride festivals and the flamboyant caricatures in popular media. This account from the aftermath of a pride festival may change your mind:

“The worst part of Pride each year is riding the subway late at night and seeing the gay guys, mostly the ones riding by themselves, slowly take off their rainbow stickers and beads and what-not in preparation for their walk alone in their neighborhood, doing their best to prevent the off-chance of being jumped. I saw one guy with a flag in his bag turn it upside down so it wouldn’t poke out.”

Sexual orientation is not a protected group with the federal government. If an employer doesn’t want to hire a woman, or doesn’t think a black person can do the job, or doesn’t want any muslims working for them, that’s illegal. If an employer does the same thing to a gay person, the federal government finds nothing wrong with that. Some state governments are stepping up and passing state-level legislature to protect gay people, but this is nowhere near the protection offered other groups.

I knew a gay man who worked at a grocery store I frequent. I usually converse with the people working the checkout lines, so I got to know him a bit. One day, when checking out my groceries, the man accidentally touched my hand. He immediately reeled back and apologized profusely, but the look in his eyes wasn’t just embarrassment — it was fear. The man knew that all it would take is one outburst or complaint from me to his supervisor to end his job there. That’s the reality of being gay and working many jobs in America.

And even without violence and outright discrimination, life in America is still disproportionately hard on gays. Everything from snide comments to alienation from families is still common in America, and gay people have to be very careful who they trust.

As I said, I don’t think religious people are responsible for all of this hate; but I believe we should be a much larger part of stopping it. Christianity is a religion that was largely founded on helping the people to whom life had dealt an unfair hand, who felt (and were sometimes told) that they didn’t have an equal standing with God. Gay people are a highly marginalized group that need as many people fighting for them as possible, and Christians should be leading that charge. If you’ve been on the outside, feeling as though your hands were bound by a few passages of scripture, please remember the story of the good Samaritan who wasn’t afraid to break religious law to help someone in need. We should never be so bound to the rules that we allow wide-scale suffering to continue — especially when there are people who so desperately need our help.

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