The gap between “us” and “them” is steadily widening as modernity and post-modernity do not simply call out for reasoned conclusions, but they want conclusions that center on “me.” We are each our own world. And theology is suffering today from the spite for dusty thoughts that do not bother being shaped by progress, but rather by what is true.
What is true? It’s today’s four-letter word – an expletive that derails tolerance and liberty and every pursuit toward happiness. Certainly, at times that’s what happens because truth hangs out with the likes of Jesus, and his grace and patience make him a vulnerable to misguided interpretation. Often systems of greed and debauchery use him to satisfy their definitions and elevate personal preferences into a level of dogma. Often Jesus is commodified into three take-home points to help you live a more fulfilled life. Others suggest a blanket retreat from the world that creates a subculture that does not allow honest interaction with those outside; instead all relationships are manipulated to create ripe moments for conversion.
How do we identify what is true and step outside what we might craft as truth in our own making?
First, we know some things, but we don’t know everything. Truth needs to find a marriage with mystery and humility. The question above is impossible at times; it is at times a veil that we see through dimly. The reason modernity can never rest at home in the heart of the church is because the church stands on hints and prophecies, whereas science roots itself in only what is rational. For example, the church talks of a virgin bearing forth God; science deduces the impossibilities of that claim and asks religion to stand in fair distance away in own defined corner.
Second, personal preference should be overthrown by historical reflection (Hebrews calls this the great cloud of witnesses), by scriptural devotion, by prayer, and by a community of believers here and now. When our opinions fall shallow and God’s word strikes deep, then we are likely on a path to find out what is true.
Third, God is sincerely interested in people, who are more than the sum of their ideals and not less than members and participants in his creation. Every person has a soul enveloped inside skin and bones; every person is intrinsically valuable to God.
Fourth, God is supremely about love and he teaches us to have the same virtue. This is not to say that God is not a judge that calls out the righteous from the unrighteous, the sheep from the goats.
Why find out the truth? What’s the point? This is the one that bites us back quickly, and asks, “Who set you up to judge? Did you plot out the skies or do you have any hand in the sun’s daily course?”
What is our motivation to find out truthful answers about cultural dilemmas? Are we comfortable if absolutes are not nailed down? Does success occur when knowledge is collected in an effort to prod us to hatred and anger? We know that most often anger is not the response we should follow, since Jesus loved often and only acted out his anger once.
Are we seeking to identify a group of people as the “other” so we can rail insults at them and hurl blame at them as the cause for unexplained catastrophes?
Why we should seek out truth circles back to how we identify it.
Scripture says that truth will set us free. It comes from God and is not in a batch of learning that humanity can whip up. This is evident in Jesus’ Gospel refrain, “I tell you the truth,” “I tell you the truth.”
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. (John 18:36-38)
Truth is part of the Gospel. It is not an accessory that can be taken off and applied at will. No doubt that history has displayed some sordid characters who present ideas that are not in keeping with the trajectory we see in Scripture and church doctrine… so if we look closely, this hunt for truth is not always the most clearly scoped out.
Today, cherry picking truth and adding it to theories that help us maintain gluttonous lifestyles is almost normalized in the West and particularly in the United States.
I have thought recently about truth and how it may or may not apply to the homosexual person. Let’s make that more specific – a homosexual person who lives in a monogamous relationship and espouses that his/her faith does not motivate any kind change regarding sexual preference. In our society, it is one of the premier cases of “us” and “them.”
One of the objectives at Matthew’s House is to open up honest discussion.
Scott Jones is pastor of Oklahoma City’s Cathedral of Hope, a church I visited several years ago just after Scott had come out about his homosexuality and visiting the church in view of a call. Cathedral of Hope is a church that began in Dallas in 1970. Under the mission to change the perception of Christianity as an inclusive faith rather than exclusive religion, the church has grown both on its main Dallas campus and now in its new Oklahoma City location.
I recently asked Scott a few questions.
MHP: Explain a little about Cathedral of Hope, its denominational or creedal stances.
Scott Jones: The Cathedral of Hope recently joined the United Church of Christ. We were attracted to it because of its long history of progressive stands on peace and justice issues and the great diversity of the church.
MHP: Several months ago, you were arrested with several other peaceful demonstrators at Oklahoma Baptist University, your alma mater. What happened and what's your assessment as to why it happened?
SJ: Actually, I was not arrested. I agonized about the decision not to be arrested afterward, wondering whether I should have. I ultimately, after much reflection, came to support my decision made in the moment not to be arrested.
Your question is the question I think. I don’t think I can give a simple, straightforward answer to it. OBU would say they arrested the Equality Riders because OBU had made it clear prior to their visit that any presence on campus would lead to arrest. I believe OBU made that decision because they felt the Equality Ride was not operating in good faith and OBU wanted to send a signal. “We didn’t want the Equality Ride coming back every year.”
The Equality Ride would say they took actions to get arrested in order to draw attention to OBU’s discrimination against LGBT students. Other colleges had welcomed the Equality Ride on campus and entered into dialogue, which OBU was unwilling to do. Therefore, the Equality Ride followed the practices of non-violent direct action and took symbolic steps of civil disobedience that drew attention to OBU’s discriminatory practices.
My answer is that OBU participates in a structure of sin of which it is merely a part and that includes the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and all its churches, the Shawnee community, and Christian Fundamentalism overall. As with structures of sin, the individual people are often good people, but the institutional evil overcomes individual intention causing people to take actions that otherwise they would not. So an otherwise fair and compassionate OBU administrator can order the arrest of a group of young people attempting to go to worship in the university’s chapel. To me the only thing that explains that is sin. Sin must be confronted with the cross, in this case that was the willingness of the Equality Riders to offer their bodies for arrest.
In an attempt to provide space for healing and reconciliation, I offered a prayer vigil and communion. But only one person, my boyfriend, participated in the prayer vigil (the Equality Riders were prevented by police and OBU security) and no one took communion. That the practices of the church were ineffective in fulfilling their purpose in this situation was further evidence that what was being faced was sin.
MHP: Why do you think most Christian churches see homosexuality as a problem? This is a bit of a leading question. Let me explain my thoughts. I know that proof-texting homosexuality is problematic when one is hunting for a definitive answer. For example, Jesus never brings it to light and Paul only lightly talks about it in the beginning of Romans and perhaps in I Corinthians. Eden does seem to suggest God's ordination of things as does the repeat in the New with the church as bride and Christ as bridegroom reflected in the female and male roles. Church history seems to point a particular way although that's sometimes tangled. So, I wanted your thoughts on these matters as a philosopher, a minister, a gay man.
SJ: Well, this could be a very lengthy and complex answer. Since you invite me to answer as philosopher as well as minister and gay man, I’m going to give my most complex answer to this question.
There seems to be a common practice of humans to define themselves and those like themselves as “one” and those unlike themselves as “other.” Simone de Beauvoir and others have analyzed this human trait. Once we define a group as “other,” we then, usually, treat them differently than we do those we define as “one.” Examples include racism, sexism, classism, etc.
The contemporary, aggressive (sometimes violent), and outspoken prejudice against LGBT people by conservative Christians is an interesting cultural phenomenon. We know that it is culturally conditioned because there are and have been human cultures that do not have this bias. We also know that Christian history has been multi-vocal on this issue.
There seem to be a number of factors conspiring together in recent decades.
One is that the LGBT community has itself become more outspoken, demanding full civil and human rights. It is a complicated and not fully understood history how LGBT identity issues have changed because of cultural factors over the last two centuries. Whatever the process, the result was an actual LGBT community that seems to be a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Though throughout history people have lived openly in same-sex relationships or transgressing gender boundaries, the formation of a community advocating for human and civil rights seems to be relatively recent. The movement really began in the late 19th century and suffered setbacks in England with the Wilde trial and in Germany with the election of the Nazis. Throughout the twentieth century these communities grew and became more visible throughout the United States, often isolating in “gay ghettos” and cosmopolitan cities. This community has progressively become more visible and as it has there has been a twofold reaction – greater acceptance by some and greater (and more violent) opposition by others.
Another factor is the series of dramatic cultural changes of the last two centuries and the backlash toward those. Racial categories and gender categories have undergone dramatic changes. Marriage has become a relationship based upon free choice and love where both partners are generally considered equal. Divorce is widespread. Victorian views of sex have given way to greater openness about sex and increased promiscuity. There is less respect for traditional authorities. And there is greater religious pluralism. I think some people are very uncomfortable with all or most of those cultural changes and so far the easiest bias to continue to hold and talk about in public discourse is the prejudice against LGBT people.
A third factor is that the religious and political right seems to have intentionally chosen opposition to LGBT equality as a rallying cry. Historians and political and religious commentators have written about how the leaders of the Right chose, in the 1970’s, to make this an issue because it was easy for fundraising and to rally people. I feel that this choice was made at precisely the moment when it was realized that race baiting was becoming unacceptable.
Finally, I think the major factor has to do with gender categories and stereotypes. The “traditional” views of male and female were that a male is superior in intellect, physical strength, political and economic power, and the female is the opposite of each of those. Over the last two centuries, those categories have been assaulted on a number of fronts. But the LGBT community is perceived to be the extreme transgressors. Gay men are evidence that “maleness” is much broader than the traditional view. Lesbians are evidence that “femaleness” is much broader than the traditional view. And transgender people are evidence that the gender binary itself is a myth. Those with bias against LGBT people are insecure about their own identity and transfer that insecurity into prejudice.
MHP: Why is this issue so divisive on the political level, i.e. the marriage act, but so indifferent when it relates to befriending and loving people for people?
SJ: Because anytime you know someone personally, it is more difficult to view them as “other.”
From the political view I think people are voting to support their own special-ness. If LGBT people can do all the same things, work in all the same places, live safely and comfortably in all the same places, and raise their families in the same way, then those who are biased against LGBT people lose one aspect of how they view themselves to be special.
MHP: That does bring up the genetic question. I don't think the studies are conclusive, but what are your thoughts and what is your experience?
SJ: The overwhelming evidence (as even Al Mohler acknowledges) is for a genetic trait. However, it is only interesting as an intellectual issue but irrelevant when the issue is whether you treat someone with compassion and support their human and civil rights. A white supremacist knows that black people are born that way, a sexist man knows that women are born that way, etc.
MHP: Jesus said nothing about the homosexual lifestyle and it is not directly called out in many instances elsewhere in the Scripture. There are debates about its prevalence in history and whether it was ever accepted inside portions of orthodox Christianity. But there are clear pronouncements.
The Catholic Catechism
Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstance can they be approved.
The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. [They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.] This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection. (2357-59).
The Orthodox Church
The position of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality has been expressed by synodical canons and Patristic pronouncements beginning with the very first centuries of Orthodox ecclesiastical life.
Thus, the Orthodox Church condemns unreservedly all expressions of personal sexual experience which prove contrary to the definite and unalterable function ascribed to sex by God's ordinance and expressed in man's experience as a law of nature.
Thus the function of the sexual organs of a man and a woman and their bio-chemical generating forces in glands and glandular secretions are ordained by nature to serve one particular purpose, the procreation of the human kind.
However, the human sexual apparatus appears to have been designed not only as the medium by which the necessary physical contact for the purpose of sex is affected, but as the generator as well and the center of a highly complex system of feelings which all together are known by the name eros, love between husband and wife.
Therefore, any and all uses of the human sex organs for purposes other than those ordained by creation, runs contrary to the nature of things as decreed by God and produces the following wrongs…
The statement concludes: “In full confidentiality, the Orthodox Church cares and provides pastorally for homosexuals in the belief that no sinner who has failed himself and God should be allowed to deteriorate morally and spiritually.”
Pair these with a denomination like the United Church of Christ which has clearly shifted its statements from a 1969 simple Christian call for compassion to a 1985 request for open church employment, and then a 1991 resolution of affirmation of the LGBT lifestyles and ministries. (For more visit www.ucc.org/lgbt/justice/statements.html.)
The Orthodox and Catholic systems share a history that leads back to the early centuries of Christianity. The statements above are contemporary and follow a pattern of reflection by the Church, both East and West. And while the Church’s condemnation is clear, their compassion is spelled out with similarly clear directives.
We believe God knows the end, and those he will call “righteous” and “unrighteous.” I am not sure what this apocalyptic vision means for church polity and discipline here and now. I don’t believe the safeguarding of sinful priests is appropriate, nor do I think the way evangelical churches and organizations cast out LGBT people (and anyone else that is different) is a Gospel response. However, I’m not convinced that ordained leadership should be open to lifestyle choices that are not clearly spelled out in Scripture and supported through the ages in Church councils and statements. Yes, church history occasionally sordid and Scripture is vulnerable to contemporary interpretations, but the Church is God’s bride and the body tasked with relating heaven to earth.
I don’t know where that leaves us exactly or where truth has wiggled in or quickly exited out the back door. I do know that we are called to love without harboring hatred. And that is the truth.
Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.