A group of us from various churches began doing Sunday differently. As an act of worship we met in cafes and other public places, picking up trash, socializing and serving for purposes of being available in the city. We became a magnet for those beyond the reach of social services and, notably, religion. People who do not fit in. People with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. Homeless people. As church movements go, we also attracted an inordinate number of gay people.
The Jesus story is placed in large part among the broad swath of people beyond the arc of the mainstream. Jesus’ setting was the fringe, occupied by lepers, demon possessed, political and social outcasts such as tax collectors, Samaritans and women. In our time and place, who are these people? As the fever pitch intensifies surrounding marriage equality and gay issues, a growing consortium of Christians finds a high calling in affirming gay men and women, precisely because they are persecuted by religious powers.
Compassion is with suffering. There may be no more long-suffering group of Christians than those who are gay. It might be said they suffer in proportion to their religious involvement. Feel the torment of a lifetime of anti-gay doctrine and threats of eternal punishment, the persistent plea by others at “eradicating the sin, ” urging the gay person to be something they are not.
As a heterosexual, I know what it is like to be attracted to someone and to be in love. I am happily married and I could not fathom living without my wife. My worst nightmare would be life without the one I love, chained in isolation for alleged purpose of taming my sin nature. Biblical pronouncements plastered on the wall of my psyche – the case can be made: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor. 7:1). “There are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:12). “They will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
The biblical basis for the treachery against gay people is increasingly ambiguous in the public court. Even if Christians were sufficiently handling the many objections, even if we may concede that homosexuality is wrong in God’s eyes, there may still be a better way to interact in society.
My brother has been with his male partner for thirteen years, exhibiting covenantal love and commitment in a way that shames many of my feeble attempts. They wear wedding rings. His life is happy and well-adjusted particularly when compared with his days before coming out. And yet he lacks much in the present civil and religious environment. All the legal privileges I enjoy go beyond his grasp. Worse is the constant weight of condemnation from churches all around. Christians profess to be compassionate and obedient while using God and the Bible against them.
During the week of the Supreme Court hearings I shared an affirming note on marriage equality with my brother’s partner. His response: “I hope you are preaching love and tolerance.” He caught me. I was among the silent majority. I was comfortable to let the louder voices on each side be heard. The collective Christian view as received in the media is so adamantly opposed to marriage equality that anything less than an affirmative public position is a no vote. I weighed the risks. It was better to say yes – to affirm marriage equality – all things considered. I could not tie up homosexuals with a burden that I would not carry. I could not lock them out. As a small token of my attempt at affirmation, I changed my profile picture to the red and pink equals sign. It was striking how few Christians did so – a message not lost on the gay community – which is why I began writing this post. We are peculiar in our silence. It is not befitting of compassion.
A popular Rick Warren quote was circulated as an antithetical battle cry to the marriage equality picture on Facebook. “You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” But compassion is a slippery concept that belies lip service. The quote’s implication is that we are compassionate even if we don’t agree with marriage equality. But how does anyone know we are compassionate? The litmus test is costly grace or proximity. When Christians walk the second mile with their gay brothers and sisters, non-believers will not be so suspicious. Until then, we are known – rightly or not – as the interest group or voting bloc who locks them out of the very sort of kingdom we proclaim.
What if every Christian had a homosexual on his or her speed dial, among their closest friends, for purpose of loving without agenda, to share the struggles together, to hope and dream and pray? What if a Christian bore the cross of their professed convictions? What if a Christian person, firmly against gay marriage, adopted a gay person as a family member? “Since we do not permit you to enter into a family relationship with the lover of your choosing, since we forbid your own family, we are willing to offer you familial rights as an alternative. We will take you as our own.” Now there’s a Christian principle embodied in love, mercy and shared cost. There’s something that would appeal to the world.
Another alternative, of course, is to affirm their right to the privileges of modern heterosexuals: To fall in love and choose their partner and commit to do life together in sickness and health.
As our group continued to do church out in the public square, a tricky thing happened. We found it difficult to love the very people we sought to assist. With gay people, even the most well-intentioned group of Christians has a hard time getting past go. At every turn there is a spirit of condemnation. We negate our mission by failing to embrace gay people. We judge them. They become scapegoats, and it’s easier pointing the finger at them, even in their innocence, in all their beauty and complexity as human beings, than dealing with our own faults.
Perhaps this is not about gays at all. Perhaps it’s about heterosexuals, about transforming the heart. Here is an opportunity for Christians to embody a most excellent way, to seize a historical moment with compassion. Welcome wholeheartedly another group of long-suffering humans into the fold.
T.C. Porter’s work has appeared in several evangelical, popular media and literary publications. You can follow his writing at tcporter.com.