The 4 points in the previous post are perhaps better described as misguided than simply awful, although the effect they have on the hearer may well be detrimental no matter how well meant the comment. But the top 4 on the list in this post are genuinely awful and have done a lot of damage, particularly to gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the church who have trusted what those in positions of authority have to say.
So here we go: the top 4 most awful things that Christians say about gay people. For those who have expressed incredulity about whether people still say these things in the 21st century, let me assure you they do say them and they do believe them.
#4 “But the Bible clearly says…”
Whenever I hear someone talking about any issue and coming out with the phrase “But the Bible clearly says…” I wonder whether they’ve actually read the same book that I have. There is hardly anything that the Bible says clearly. It’s a collection of writings emerging from various authors, editors and communities over hundreds of years. It contains myth, poetry, letters, aphorisms and history written from a particular community’s perspective. The writing is often ambiguous, at times contradictory and sometimes down right obscene. For one particularly bloodthirsty example see 1 Samuel 15v3 where God commands King Saul to kill every infant and nursing child of Amalek. This isn’t to say that I don’t believe the Bible is Holy Scripture, I do, but as Karl Barth is claimed to have said: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally”.
It would be nice to be able to claim that the only thing the Bible does say clearly is that “God is love” but try telling that to the children of Amalek, I suspect they’d disagree.
So when someone comes out with the well worn phrase “The Bible clearly condemns same sex relationships” they have plucked out the small handful of verses in Scripture that mention same sex activity and used them to conclude that every loving, mutually life-giving relationship between two men or two women is abhorrent to God.
There are plenty of writers who have dealt in depth with why the few verses in scripture that appear to condemn sexual activity between people of the same gender are not quite as clear cut as they may appear. I’d simply like to explain why I think this is such an awful phrase.
It is certainly awful to hear such an unambiguously anti-gay message preached that claims the authority of the Bible behind it, without at least giving alternative views from the many Christians who would have a more inclusive perspective on scripture. In fact, that was my experience coming into the Church as a teenager, knowing nothing about Christianity or the Bible and being told by people I loved and respected that this was clearly what the Bible said. It was only when I went to theological college that I began to discover there are other perspectives on scripture.
However, it seems to me that the most awful consequences of this phrase are for the people who utter it. Jesus reserved some of his harshest words and actions for those whose religion lacked grace. When his disciples are chastised by religious leaders for picking some grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry he effectively says to the leaders, “You don’t get it do you, God’s not bothered about nit-picking over rules. God wants us to live with an attitude of grace not condemnation.” (Matthew 12 v1-8).
So, when we read scripture, the way to do it if we’re seeking to follow Christ is to read it through a lens of grace and mercy. I have come across plenty of people who encounter couples in loving same sex relationships and would love to be able to believe that God is present with them and would bless that relationship but because of the way they have been taught to view the Bible they are trapped by restrictive views of scripture and unable to respond positively to love when they encounter it.
This seems to be the position taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who seems a decent guy and a wise appointment by the Anglican Church in my view. In conversation with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Welby said that he has come across same sex relationships “of stunning quality” and yet he still feels constrained and unable to offer blessings and wholehearted acceptance of those relationships from the Church.
So: “the Bible clearly says that same sex relationships are wrong” it’s not too awful to hear if you don’t read the Bible in that framework, but it is awful for the person who believes it because their vision of the expansiveness of the love of God is too small, boxed in by one narrow interpretation of a few verses of scripture.
#3 This isn’t homophobic…
One of the basic rules of thumb for life is that if we have to qualify one of our statements with “I’m not racist but…” or “This isn’t homophobic…” or any variations on this theme then we need to think very carefully about the wisdom of what we’re about to say.
Recently I was excluded from contributing to an event that I was due to be a part of and the opening remark from the organisers just before they uninvited me was “You’ll probably think this is homophobic but it isn’t…”. And whether it was or wasn’t is beside the point, it was for me to conclude whether this was homophobic or whether there was another more legitimate reason for excluding me.
This crops up a lot in the discussions around equal marriage with people insisting that just because they oppose the blessing of same sex relationships it doesn’t mean that they hate gay people. I have some sympathy for this. Some people genuinely want the best for gay people but, as we have seen above, feel constrained by scripture and hence feel unable to support same sex relationships.
Fair enough, they may not be homophobic but they do need to take responsibility for the detrimental effect that their stance has on gay people and own the fact that their point of view supports inequality and is far from an inclusive world view. In addition, these same arguments from scripture are used in some parts of the world where the consequences for gay people are far worse than being denied the right to get married. I’m not for a moment suggesting that most people who believe scripture is against same sex relationships also condone violence against gay people. Nevertheless, anti-gay rhetoric seeps out of churches into the wider community where it has been used to justify serious, at times violent, oppression and persecution of gay people.
Now, from the tragic to the ridiculous; sometimes a discussion about homophobia becomes farcical: “I’m not homophobic because I’m not scared of gay people and that’s what the word means” (sadly I’m not joking – I’ve heard this said by otherwise intelligent and responsible people).
Leaving aside any discussion about whether or not a deep seated hatred of gay people has its roots in fear, it’s obvious that the etymology of a word doesn’t limit its contemporary usage; no one complains about the word ‘starfish’ because the creature is technically an echinoderm rather than a fish. This blustering is invariably a smokescreen to distract from getting to the uncomfortable heart of the matter in a conversation.
When someone protests too much that they’re not being homophobic I do wonder whether sometimes a bit more self awareness is called for and that underlying their principled stance is simply a gut feeling that the thought of two men* having sex is a bit icky. And whilst I would hesitate even to call this homophobia it is, at the very least, disingenuous to construct an elaborate theology to back up your own prior prejudice.
* I do mean ‘men’ rather than ‘men and women’ here. As local radio presenter and self proclaimed ‘homo-sceptic’ Alan Partridge once said: “it’s different with lesbians isn’t it, it’s more light-hearted”
#2 “Same sex relationships fall short of God’s best”
I don’t hear this a lot, but it crops up now and then, were it more prevalent then it would have made the top spot. Nevertheless the ideas behind the phrase often underlie contributions to the conversation in the church. It’s implicit in Justin Welby’s reluctance to bless same sex partnerships mentioned above. And a recent Church of England report advised that same sex relationships are “forms of human relationships which fall short of marriage in the form God has given us.”
In other words: “You gays think you’ve got such great relationships, and yes we can see that aspects of them are really good, but bless you, you don’t realise that it’s not as good as the relationships that we straight people have”.
Please don’t patronise us like that.
In my experience and self understanding, that I came to after a very long journey of prayer, meditation and deep pain (not just for me but for a number of people) my identity as a gay man is a gift from God. It may not always be an easy gift to receive, due mainly to attitudes from the church, but it’s certainly no mistake on God’s part. So for me to fully be the person God has made me to be that means celebrating the gay identity that goes to the core of my being. This doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be in a relationship with another man, but it does mean embracing the fact that when I am living fully as the gay man God made me to be I am not in some way deficient or falling short of the straight ideal.
And that’s the unpleasant idea underlying this phrase, if same sex relationships fall short of the best that God has in store then gay people are somehow less than human because they can never achieve the ideal life that God has ordained.
Now finally, the phrase at number one makes it there for its ubiquity and sheer awfulness…
#1 “Love the sinner and hate the sin”
Closely allied with this phrase is the concept of the “practising homosexual”, which is an equally awful phrase that arises again and again and the same misguided idea underlies them both: That in terms of our sexual identity it is possible to separate out the being and the doing. In all kinds of areas the dualistic idea that being and doing can be pulled apart is unhelpful and, at times destructive but we’ll focus here on the area in hand.
When someone uses the phrase “practising homosexual” I want to ask them in a manner of faux naïveté what exactly it is that they mean. When is it that I start practising? Is it enjoying musical theatre? (I don’t by the way) Is it when I start to think about an attractive guy? Or when I give someone a lingering look across the room? When we hold hands, or kiss, or get naked together, or what? All of these actions have a sexual component to them; apart from, perhaps, the musical theatre.
I suspect what they actually mean by “practising” is “anal sex” but what an individual who uses this phrase classes as two women ‘practising homosexuality’ I’m not sure. Maybe by ‘practising homosexuality’ they mean anything to do with touching genitals but then that’s a terribly impoverished view of what sex actually is because a mere brushing of fingertips together can be deeply erotically charged.
Delving into this tangle serves to demonstrate what a ridiculous phrase “practising homosexual” really is. I don’t practise being gay I just am gay, right to the core of my being. Being gay affects how I relate to every person because it is a deep aspect of who I am and I relate to the people around me in the way that I do because of who I am. This isn’t to do with sex; it’s about identity and our most fundamental sense of self.
The rhetoric of “practising homosexual” presupposes that there is a deep sense of self and then, separate from that, is all the stuff that we do. Human beings just aren’t made like that.
It’s because of the inseparability of our being and doing that “love the sinner, hate the sin” is such an awful phrase; and we hear it all the time. As I’ve talked to other gay people in the church about this list it’s the phrase that comes up the most often. I wonder whether it eases the conscience of those who hold to an anti-gay theology. They can attack same sex marriage or preach on about how the Bible condemns gay relationships but it’s OK because it’s only the activity they hate; they really love the people who they’re beating over the head with their narrow view of scripture. It doesn’t work like that I’m afraid.
Whatever your view on same sex relationships, if you have found yourself uttering any of the 8 phrases on this list, or variations on them, then my intention isn’t to make you feel guilty. If we wanted to live our lives in such a way that our words were never misinterpreted or ever hurt anyone then we would never say anything. And whilst maintaining silence may sometimes be the wisest contribution we can offer into a situation, if we are going to live in community then we need to communicate. So, rather than trying to argue people into silence all I’m doing here is reflecting back into the conversation what it can sometimes feel like as a gay person to hear these phrases.
By all means come back to me and let me know if my words here seem hurtful to you, or you disagree with me. That’s the path to honest conversation; it’s how we grow together and move on rather than turning our backs on each other and not speaking. There is deeper mutual understanding if we can listen back to how our words have been heard.
If this list gives the impression that my experience of the church has been incredibly negative then I assure you that really isn’t the case. Whilst I know some gay Christians continue to have very painful experiences in the Church, and hearing those stories was one of the things that prompted me to write these posts, the Methodist Church for me has been an overwhelmingly supportive and affirming place to be. In my next post I will explore why I stick with the Church and offer some thoughts as to how we might be able to enter into fruitful dialogue, not only in this area but over any differing views that appear to divide us.