“No, I wouldn’t.”
The lady who had asked me the question looked appalled, like I had just belched in her face. She and her friend had shown up in our yard to share their faith. It was not the answer she was expecting. Nor, in fact, was I. I had planned on simply giving my usual “I’m not interested in a theological conversation” answer (which isn’t technically true—I’m almost always interested in having a theological conversation, one which involves me asking my questions, too).
I think her statement reflects one of the biggest problems I have with many theological and political perspectives—they assume that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Now, I don’t think we’re marching happily toward utopia, and I don’t put my faith in human progress. But I don’t know many people who would trade living in 2015 for living in 1915. Cancer, polio, or heart disease? Sorry. Women’s suffrage? Out of luck. Jim Crow and segregation? Here to stay. Child labor? It’s a free market, baby. War? The world’s three most deadly decades are still in front of us.
So, no, I don’t agree that the world is getting worse. We have some formidable challenges in front of us: economic inequality, systemic racism, gun violence, and climate change, just to name a few. An extinction-level event due to climate change may be unfolding in front of us. But if you offer me a time machine to pick any decade from the past in which to live, would I choose any time but now?
Her question inspired me to pick up and reread some of Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. I still think God’s invitation to join God in a salvation project for the world is the most exciting Good News that Christians can spread. In the resurrected Christ, the future is radically open, and the horizon between God’s impending kingdom and our present is always shrinking. It’s not something we build with our own effort, but we anticipate and participate in what God is already doing. The Kingdom is among y’all, says Jesus. It’s like a portal to the dimension of love and justice, and it’s leaking into this world and contaminating it with grace.
Don’t apologize for apologizing—these are suggestions, not commandments:
Don’t apologize for being wobbly if you haven’t been on a bike in a long time.
Don’t apologize for not being practiced at a skill.
Don’t apologize for speaking up.
Don’t apologize for not knowing something.
Don’t apologize for knowing something. For God’s sake, don’t apologize for being smart.
As Julia Child said, don’t apologize for anything you cook.
Don’t apologize for being overdressed or underdressed.
Don’t apologize for liking things that other people consider uncultured, frivolous, elitist, or passé.
Don’t apologize for refusing to accept other people’s projected insecurities.
Apologize for doing harm. Apologize for being thoughtless or careless if it hurts someone or hurts the planet. In those cases, repent and sin no more.
But do not apologize for being human. God revels in watching you grow and learn, in taking tiny steps of courage. God delights in your gloriously, messily awesome self.
According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, clergy are not allowed to conduct same sex weddings or bless same sex unions. Since I am not allowed to publicly pray for blessing, I wrote this lament many months ago. I offer it here, because I know some of my UMC clergy colleagues are going to be asked to officiate. Perhaps they will choose to officiate and risk retribution, or perhaps they will make referrals. Or perhaps they will find other creative ways to resist injustice:
God of covenant love, host of the wedding banquet, I bring you my lament that I am forbidden to bless this union. I lament that church rules dictate that I must be like one without a wedding garment. I lament that, as in Jesus’ story about the guests who refused to attend the wedding banuet, many have cut themselves off from witnessing the joy of this moment. We pray for all those whose disapproval hurts only themselves.
Yet, Lord, I also rejoice. When Balaam was hired to curse the Hebrew people, he could not; for how can one curse those whom God has blessed? It is not we clergy who bless, but you! And I’m grateful that our Methodist movement has been a movement of laypeople from the beginning, and when the church doors were closed to John Wesley, he preached from his father’s grave. Your blessings cannot be contained by legislation, or buildings, or authority figures, and we praise you because in the relationship of NAME and NAME, we see the fruits of your Spirit already growing: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We see your Spirit at work, and like Peter when he met Cornelius, we understand that we should call no one profane or unclean, but that everyone who does what is right is acceptable to you.
I am grateful, O God, for your grace that cannot be contained, that precedes our asking for it, frees us from sin and death, and continues to grow and perfect us in love. This couple, joined in covenant love, united in mission of love and service, is a testimony to your ongoing activity to work through your church, and when necessary, around it, to bring blessing and salvation to a world that desperately needs it.
Thank you, Almighty God, that though I cannot pray a blessing for them, you have seen fit to bless us with them. Your generosity astounds us. Amen.
- Admitting you have a problem may be the hardest step.
- Admitting you can’t fix it individually, on your own, is the next hardest step.
- Addicts often promise to change, and then don’t. Many won’t until they hit rock bottom.
- Everybody is afraid of “making a fearless moral inventory,” but when they do, it’s actually quite liberating. As a culture, most white folks still haven’t done this.
- Making amends or reparations is even scarier and more complicated, but necessary to move forward.
- Addicts have a hard time listening to folks who aren’t addicts. It’s hard for anyone else to call out their BS.
- Wallowing in guilt and shame is actually counterproductive. Addicts use self-pity as an excuse to stay stuck.
- White supremacy, like addiction, is a social disease. It may not be your fault, but it’s still your responsibility.
- There are vested interests in maintaining addiction for power and profit. Some people want you to relapse.
- White supremacy, like addiction, thrives in toxic family and social systems.
- The folks who have been abused cannot be obligated to stay in those toxic relationships with addicts. Forgiveness does not mean going back to business as usual.
Like any metaphor, it’s imperfect. In our panel discussion last night, I said psychoanalyzing white culture is not what this is about, since that puts whiteness at the center of the story. But because it’s so hard for white folks to hear about their disease without getting defensive, we need multiple ways of talking about it.
Ultimately, I believe, the goal should be to dismantle the very concept of race. But until we do the 12 steps, talking about its social construction with racists is like giving whiskey to an alcoholic.
God is concerned about the material conditions for human flourishing.
“Material conditions” means the stuff out of which life is made. That means tangible stuff: money, bodies (health), food, water, and physical touch. This is why so much of the Bible is about poverty and economic inequality, why there’s manna in the wilderness, why Jesus heals peoples’ bodies, and why incarnational theology is so important.
It’s also why Ezekiel’s God is so angry with the way the rich despoil the planet and ruin it for the poor.
God is also concerned with the social conditions for human flourishing.
“Social conditions” means the stuff out of which our life together is made. Relationships, politics, power, justice, and communication. This is why so much of the Bible deals with jealousy, anger, and forgiveness; with shared, decentralized leadership; with moral double-standards and hypocrisy.
I think it’s important to state these things, because there is a toxic Christian meme that regularly makes the rounds that asserts that God cares more about your holiness than your happiness.
I understand what people are trying to say when they assert these things: that our culture is self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But the Bible never contrasts holiness with happiness. True happiness, biblical authors assert, comes from meditating on and understanding Torah—not just the literal words of it, but the deeper truths to which they point. The Hebrew Torah was like the Greek Logos. It was Wisdom, the principles by which God created the world, and when human beings sought them out, they would find “true happiness.”
In this, the biblical authors agreed with Greek philosophers like Epicurus, Epictetus, and Aristotle. Happiness is more than pleasure-seeking: it is found in virtue and understanding. You can’t buy it, and excess wealth is dangerous—but it’s hard to be happy in poverty.
Jesus echoes his Jewish tradition and comments on Greek philosophy as well when he says this stuff:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. (Matthew 5:3-11, CEB)
You would think that these assertions would be uncontroversial: God cares about the material and social conditions for human flourishing. God is concerned with human happiness. But there is a political aspect to these statements as well.
God is not concerned about the poor because God wants them to be holy; God wants them to be happy—which has political implications. God wants oppressed and marginalized people—the “thin sheep” in Ezekiel’s story—to be happy, to have fresh water and good pasture, not dirty water and ruined pasture.
A God who cares about human happiness is a dangerous God. God is dangerous to those who relativize the happiness of other human beings.
This God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who cares about human happiness and not merely holiness, IS controversial. Holiness is the means, not the end. We do not pursue happiness in order to be holy, but holiness in order to be happy. Holiness which does not lead to greater human flourishing is not holy. It is infernal.
1. Tying up heavy burdens for others. This is from Matthew 23:4, part of Jesus’ chapter-long polemical rant against the religious leaders: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The language of burden and yoke was a common metaphor for how religious leaders interpreted scripture. A “heavy burden” was a burdensome interpretation. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus contrasted himself with legalistic religious leaders. For their part, they accused Jesus of misreading the Bible or of “abolishing the law” (Matthew 5:17)—exactly the same arguments made against LGBTQ persons and their allies.
Anti-gay Christianity claims that “acting on” gay or lesbian attraction is a sin, and that they should abstain from sexual pleasure or intimacy with another human being for their entire lives. This is a “heavy burden” that most straight Christians do not shoulder themselves, but one which anti-gay Christians lay upon the shoulders of others. While celibacy may be a lifestyle choice, requiring it of others is certainly putting a burden on their shoulders.
Though they have accepted the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity may be something we’re born with, some of my colleagues describe LGBTQ identity as a genetic disorder, a product of our fallen world, like alcoholism or genetic obesity. The difference between being LGBTQ and being an alcoholic is empirical: “treatment” for addiction or obesity leads to lower mortality, depression, suicide, and other risk factors. But “treatment” to “cure” being LGBTQ leads to more depressions, suicide, and other risk factors. This burden isn’t heavy—it is crushing, even fatal.
(See also Acts 15:10: “Now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”)
Matthew 23 also contains at least two more relevant scriptures, including:
2. Locking people out of the kingdom of God. Jesus continues to rail against religious leaders, saying: “For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matthew 23:13). There are a lot of ways to interpret what it means to “lock someone out of the kingdom,” but telling people they are abominations has got to be high on the list. Taken with the “heavy burden” line a few verses earlier, it seems overly strict interpretations of scripture may be what Jesus is talking about here. People want to enter and participate in the kingdom, but they are made to feel unwelcome.
3. Proselytizing hateful attitudes. “For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Franklin Graham is probably the highest-profile Christian leader connected with promoting anti-gay legislation in other countries (like Russia and Uganda), but he shares the spotlight with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and pastor Scott Lively. I am reluctant to imitate the rhetoric of anti-gay activists who gleefully declare that LGBTQ persons and their allies are hell-bound. But in the context of Jesus’ angry speech in Matthew 23, I suspect drafting laws that impose the death penalty or jail time on gay people, using the Gospel of Christ as a pretext, is the devil’s own work. How much homophobia is native and how much is imported by Christian missionaries could be debatable—but “crossing sea and land” to make new hate-filled converts is certainly part of the anti-gay agenda.
All of these three themes are applicable to anti-gay attitudes themselves. Religious exculsivism and hypocrisy are something all of the prophets rail against:
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6)
“…if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)
and Paul affirms:
“…as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Romans 2:24).
All of these scriptures highlight the theme that religious leaders, in their pursuit of religious zealotry (often supported by the Bible), alienated people from God.
We’ll return to Matthew and the table-turning rhetoric Jesus uses against religious leaders in a bit. But first, let’s flip WAY back to the beginning of the Bible, where God talks about:
4. The importance of companionship. “It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone,” says God in Genesis 2:18. This scripture, by the way, could be seen as a direct contradiction of Paul’s (or his reader’s) statement in 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” While Paul thinks that celibacy is preferable (7:7), he acknowledges that all of us “have a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.”
While anti-gay Christians often say that God made “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Steve,” the next event in the creation story isn’t the creation of woman, but the creation of animals (Genesis 2:19-20). It’s only after this long process that God takes Adam’s bone (possibly the baculum, or penis bone) and forms a woman.
This fanciful and humorous creation myth was most likely intended to be descriptive: why, unlike other animals, do human males lack a baculum? Why, unlike other animals, do we have sex for pleasure any time, instead of only when females are in estrus? Why do we long to be united with another? Why do snakes walk on their bellies? Why, unlike other animals, do women have pain in childbirth? The story is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not say this is the only way to be sexual. In fact, our ability to have sex any time—and in a variety of creative ways—sets us apart from the animals. The authors seem to have recognized this basic fact.
If it is not good that we should be alone (unless it’s by our choice, as both Paul and Jesus indicate), then it is not good to forbid LGBTQ persons intimacy with a partner or “helper” that suits them.
5. The irrelevance of reproduction. God’s covenant with the ancient Israelites was about two things: land, and offspring to inherit it. But Isaiah claimed that God had a bigger picture in mind. He comforted those prisoners of war in Babylon who had been castrated by their captors:
…do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)
Again, a common argument by anti-gay Christians against LGBTQ persons is that reproduction and natural law proves God’s intentions for heterosexual pair bonding: Gay couples can’t have babies! But lots of people get married who cannot reproduce: old people and infertile couples, for example. Isaiah upends this argument completely. Reproduction is not necessary to participate in God’s covenant with Abraham. Even eunuchs have a place in the coming Kingdom.
Speaking of eunuchs…
6. Some people are born different. Jesus recognized that people are not always born according to a strict gender binary:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)
What do we do with people who are born intersex, or without clear gender? Their parents may choose to raise them as male or female, but with whom should they be “allowed” to be intimate? I have never, ever heard a decent explanation for this from anti-gay Christians. And once we open that door, we have to consider the possibility that people may be born with one set of equipment and chromosomes, but a different gender identity.
Jesus also seems to indicate in this passage that celibacy is a lifestyle choice—and not one that is appropriate for everybody. Paul corroborates this idea in 1 Corinthians 7:7, when he says not everyone has the same gifts.
This passage fits nicely with something Paul says as well…
7. Gender is no longer relevant in the new Kingdom. Paul tries to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to live together in harmony and put aside distinctions like who is circumcised or not. But he throws open the door to erasing all kinds of social distinctions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) (see also Colossians 3:11). If we were to write his words for today’s world, we might say, “There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer black, brown, or white, there is no longer male, female, trans, or genderqueer, there is no longer gay, queer, or straight; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
8. God’s impartiality. Multiple authors affirm that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, James 2:9, Mark 12:14). I wrote a book about this. The gist is that this phrase was a well known slogan to the early church. If the early church hadn’t decided to accept “abominable” uncircumcised, pork-eating Gentiles, most of us wouldn’t be here. Christianity would have remained a tiny Jewish cult instead of a world-wide movement.
This slogan plays a key role in Romans 1 & 2. Since Romans 1 is often used as a “clobber passage” against homosexuality, it’s important to remember this turning point, where Paul springs the trap on his readers: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself (Romans 2:1). His religious listeners should not assume they are better than the pagan Romans, he says, because God shows no partiality. If people who use Romans 1 to condemn gay and lesbian persons actually read to the end of the chapter, they would be brought up short by Paul’s clever rhetorical trap. If you agree that the Roman emperors (like Caligula, who was stabbed in the genitals by his male concubine—“receiving in his own body the due penalty for his errors”) are without excuse for their sexual deviance, then you, too, are without excuse. Paul’s goal is to use his readers’ prejudice against Roman pagans to indict themselves. If someone is prejudiced against gay folks, the rhetorical trap works just the same.
The phrase “God shows no partiality” was obviously well-known to ancient writers, since it shows up in the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. It’s used to erase distinctions between religious and non-religious, between Jews and Gentiles, between leaders of the church and followers, and between rich and poor. It’s not much of a stretch to use it to erase distinctions between gay and straight, transgender and cisgender.
9. Luke’s gay apocalypse. There is a detailed description of this interpretation here. The first time I read this interpretation of Luke 17:34-35, I thought reading gay and lesbian sex into it was pretty wacky: “In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left.” But now I find it impossible to read the passage without seeing the possibility that Jesus is saying homosexuality is irrelevant to salvation. The fact that the passage begins with a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah may reinforce this reading—if Genesis 19 is really about homosexuality.
This interpretation does interesting things to our arguments about the Bible and LGBTQ issues. In our modern debate, anti-gay Christians claim that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality. The counter-argument is that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about xenophobia and violence toward strangers. The inhabitants of the towns threaten visitors with rape. So, the counter-argument goes, this is a story about violence and exploitation, not a story about consensual sex between people of the same gender.
But because Luke’s apocalypse references Sodom and Gomorrah and two men in one bed, then I think it’s reasonable to claim that if one is about homosexuality, then so is the other—and if one isn’t then neither is the other.
The other common New Testament debate is about what Paul meant by the word “arsenokoites” from 1 Corinthians, 6:9. It’s often translated as “male prostitutes” or “homosexuals” or even “Sodomites,” but it is really a compound Greek word formed by the word “man” and “bed.” Anti-gay Christians claim that the word is clearly Paul’s reference to homosexuality. The counter argument is that it could be about any kind of sexual abuse or exploitation. The anti-gay response is that no, really, man-bedders has got to be a reference to the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, “lying with a man.”
But Luke’s gay apocalypse also turns this argument on its head. If “man-bedders” is “clearly” Paul’s reference to homosexuality, then Jesus’ similar language about two men in a bed must also be about homosexuality. This is one of those interpretive situations where you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Either Paul isn’t talking about gay sex and Jesus isn’t either, or they both are. Either the story of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t about gay sex, and Luke’s gay apocalypse isn’t either, or they both are. Either way, Jesus trumps both Genesis and Paul.
And speaking of Jesus, let’s end with…
10. Jesus loves weddings. In one parable Jesus tells, the folks who refuse to attend the wedding and who refuse to celebrate are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14). We don’t really know why they refuse to celebrate; maybe the king’s son is gay?
While the parable is often read as an allegory or an indictment of “the Jews,” A.J. Levine points out that these kinds of readings are not always faithful to Jesus’ Jewish context. The fact is, we know people who refuse to attend weddings, or who only attend because there’s an open bar. We know people who shout and wave signs to protest marriages. What the king (or the nameless host in Luke 14:15-24) decides to do is go out and bring in random people off the street, whether they were originally invited or not.
Anti-gay preachers and protesters at gay weddings are an object lesson for this parable. They are a concrete reminder that no situation, not even heaven itself, is so joyous that someone can’t find a reason to bitch and moan. Is it really so hard to imagine people refusing to attend or celebrate a wedding, when we see it happen in front of our own faces?
I do not pretend that my presentation of these scriptures is a thorough or unbiased exegesis. I’ve found that anti-gay Christians who use clobber passages from the Bible are quick to point out proof-texting and eisegesis when others do it. This is both a case of pointing out the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, and of being able to dish it out but not take it.
But because anti-gay rhetoric has dominated public dialogue about religion and sexuality for the last forty years, I think it’s important for Christians who favor LGBTQ inclusion to reframe the discussion. It’s also important because people who wield the Bible as a weapon need to know what it feels like to be told you are on the wrong side of the wrath of God. The Word of God is indeed a two-edged sword, and it cuts both ways. People who use it as such had better be skilled enough that they don’t cut off important parts of themselves.
The fact is that most people are not persuaded by nuanced academic readings of the Bible. Persuasion happens because of relentless repetition in countless sermons, bumper-sticker slogans plastered across T-shirts and cars, and conventional wisdom passed along among friends. For this reason, I think it’s important that LGBTQ Christians and their allies learn these biblical themes, and spread them far and wide.
Here they are again, in digestible form:
- Don’t tie up heavy burdens for others that you don’t have to bear (Matthew 23:4)
- Don’t lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)
- Don’t cross sea and land to convert people to your hellish religion (Matthew 23:15)
- It is not good for humans to be alone (Genesis 2:18)
- I will give you an inheritance better than sons or daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5)
- There are eunuchs who have been so from birth (Matthew 19:12)
- There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
- God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11)
- In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left (Luke 17:34-35)
- Those who refuse to celebrate weddings are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14)