Very often ministry is about what we fail to do rather than what we actually accomplish. I was asked a couple of weeks ago to attend the City Council meeting in Norman where they planned on discussing and voting on a proclamation recognizing October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month in the city. I was asked to come and support the LGBT community in Norman as an ally, knowing that the opposition would be there in full force. I was asked specifically to be an ally from the religious community, one who had served in Norman for several years, since that’s what most of the opposition would be coming from as well.
I know that I represent a small segment of the Christian community who believes very strongly that the message of Jesus is for all people and that being Gay is neither a sin nor an “aberration of nature” as so many of my more literal brothers and sisters put it. But I thought that the political position that I would be in – coming down from “the City” to give my opinion on Norman politics – would be detrimental to the effort. I knew that there would be a couple of fellow clergy willing to take a stand and I hoped that would be sufficient. So I said no.
Politically we “won” that night…the city council voted 7-1 in favor of the proclamation. But spiritually we lost…and I lost. I lost because I wasn’t clear on who I would be speaking to when I went down there. I thought that I would be speaking to the city council and they might not appreciate the “interference” from a person who is not really a member of that community. Who I really should have been thinking about where the number of Zach Harringtons in that room on that night.
A week after attending a Norman City Council meeting where a heated debate played out in public, 19-year-old Zach Harrington took his own life at his family’s home in Norman. Zach’s death follows a horrific trend of young LGBT people taking their own lives as a direct reaction to a sense of hopelessness that they might ever be accepted unless they fundamentally change, which is impossible, or stay closeted, which is spiritually and emotionally devastating. Zach’s family tells of terrible experiences growing up in Norman, including leaving school early to complete his diploma in what one could imagine was a less abrasive atmosphere.
Apparently Zach didn’t find that less abrasive atmosphere and perhaps the final straw was that night at the City Council meeting. There’s no way to know. But there is a way to know about the toxicity of our language, about the effect of our words and about the power of rhetoric. As a friend of mine has said many times, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words can absolutely destroy me.” As a long time advocate for the LGBT community, I have moved past a need to “convert” people to my way of thinking on that subject. This is perhaps more easy for me to do since I am an ally and not as subject to the “daily grind” of being queer in Oklahoma. But I know that the road to convince my more literal brothers and sisters that the Bible is contextual and full of many linguistic and translation problems and that what we think of as homosexuality is NOT what Paul was thinking of is a long road indeed. I won’t stop in my efforts but there is another track I’d like to explore.
Can we as Christians, regardless of how we feel about the issue of homosexuality, at least agree that creating an atmosphere in which people think that it is OK to maim, abuse or kill another person or themselves is wrong? Can we at least agree that although we may not concur on any given issue, the way in which we talk to one another is a direct reflection of our love – the central component of a Christian life? Can we at least agree to listen to Jesus when he says that the primary directive of us as followers is to “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence…and love others as well as you love yourself”? (Matthew 22:37-40 The Message translation)
Recently Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International -an organization completely on the other side of this issue from me -commented on the reports of bullying and the subsequent suicides. He said, “All the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbors as they’d like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not…”
Exodus International typically sponsors an event called the Day of Truth, an annual event that has been pushed by influential conservative Christian groups as a way to counter to the annual Day of Silence, an event promoted by gay rights advocates to highlight threats against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. It typically involves pretty harsh treatment of the LGBT community and language very similar to what Zach heard that night in the City Council chambers. Mr. Chambers recently announced that Exodus will not be involved this year. He said that Exodus International has not changed its position on homosexuality but has reevaluated how best to communicate its message.
Perhaps we all ought to consider how best to communicate our message. Because regardless of how we feel about any issue, our words mean something. The recent suicides are related and can be directly connected to the rhetoric of “anti-gay” groups, the sermons heard from countless pulpits throughout the country and even in the Eddie Long scandal or the diatribes of Sally Kern. Words matter. They matter when you cast aside human beings in order to stand against sin, something Jesus never did, and they also matter when you fail to stand up for those who are weakest in our society…something I failed to do two weeks ago. See I wasn’t supposed to go to speak to the City Council…I was supposed to be another voice for Zach to hear…another voice saying, you are a child of God, you are loved, and things will get better. Honestly, if I preached nothing else I think that would be fine.
The Body of Christ is called to be light to the world. We are failing miserably at that. Instead of hope and love, the great majority of people see judgment and fear from the church. Instead of a welcoming spirit we are becoming known as a home for condemnation. We the Gentiles have simply labeled new people Gentiles and go on repeating the process that Jesus condemned with every opportunity he got. Any theology that suggests that God accepts some and rejects others conflicts with the ministry of Jesus Christ.
In the story of Jesus’ ministry attributed to Luke, Jesus announces his ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because God has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Luke 4:18 &19 (NRSV)
Regardless of how you feel about the LGBT issue, or about Muslims or about socialism or a black President or any of the other polarizing issues with which we beat one another over our heads, we must have a guiding directive as followers of Jesus Christ. And it seems to me that we should perhaps read those stories again with an eye towards Jesus’ treatment of anyone considered outside the circle. And then maybe read another section of Paul – yes, we all know about Romans 1 – but how about reading a little further…all the way to Romans 14:
“Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list
or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made
or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.”
Romans 14:4 (The Message Translation)
I don’t want to fail at this again, though I’m certain I will. There is too much at stake, for theology is a nice thing…wonderful way to work through a cup of coffee, but this is life. And our theology, our “God-talk”, means more than just what we do on Sunday for an hour, more than just what motivates us…it is a force in the world. It is light, but also fire. And we need to handle it with a lot more care than we have been lately.