Is Homosexuality the Great Moral Calamity of Our Day?

John Piper laments the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, his article filling my Facebook newsfeed with “likes.” He says this legal approval of homosexuality is a calamity of historical proportions regarding a sin unique in its evil. It is unique because it is the one sin that is celebrated in society today rather than denounced like other sins such as theft and adultery (further details here).

As a young man I was deeply blessed by John Piper’s book “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist” which proclaimed God’s commitment to our happiness. He has had a positive spiritual impact on many lives, so my disagreement here is not personal, and I’m not even challenging his position on the sinfulness of homosexuality. Let us concede that point for the sake of this discussion because I have a different and in my mind a bigger concern. To put sucinctly: truth wrongly balanced can be as harmful as untruth.

SAILING THROUGH LIFE WITH A BOATLOAD OF TRUTH

TRYING TO SAIL WHEN TRUTH IS OFF CENTER

If I spend all my effort building a bunker for my children against the potential of world collapse so that I don’t have time or money to invest in smoke alarms and brake repairs, health insurance and college savings, I may ruin my family. It is true that the world could fall into chaos–the problem isn’t that fact, but that emphasis. My suggestion is that we not only find truth in Scripture to follow, but we also find the balance set in Scripture. If we don’t take that into account, consciously grounding ourselves in the priorities of God as given in his Word, we are very likely to be caught in backwaters of irrelevance–not only to society but to God–pulled there by our emotions, history, misperceptions, culture and the like. And yes, the cultural influence can come from the right or the left (our current American polarization), and it can pull us to acquiesce or push us to react.

I believe we could save ourselves from a great deal of spiritual, relational, and political turmoil and harm by focusing on Biblical priorities. Identifying those priorities is bigger than a one-post discussion, but I think we could all agree that two key elements are the amount of time devoted to it in the pages of Scripture and the focus given to it by God’s full and final revelation in his son Jesus.

Let me begin by saying that if the Bible condemns something even once, that is sufficient for me to call it a sin. [after consideration I modified this in my next post] I am not even debating here the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin, but only how great a concern it is in the Bible. In a list of sins, how high does it rank in ‘badness’? We first notice that it does not make an appearance in the ‘big ten’ commandments. If we search the Scriptures for everything it says condemning some form of homosexuality (including rape), we find a total of 20 verses (Gen. 19:1-13; Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9, Jude1:7, 1 Tim 1:10). In the two places where it falls in a list of sins, homosexuality is not underscored in anyway, but is listed alongside sins such as lying, stealing and coveting. None of these verses come from the gospels because Jesus himself had nothing to say about homosexuality.  So how high a priority is it for God?

In contrast to this, if we pick a topic which seems central to Scripture, such as poverty and wealth, there are hundreds and hundreds of passages all through Scripture. If you know the gospels well, just take a moment to think of all that Jesus himself taught on the corrupting power of wealth. It was a major focus of his ministry–in the beatitudes, the Cleansing of the Temple, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich young ruler, the final judgment (“as much as you did it to the least of these”), and on and on.

This contrast between a major and peripheral focus of Scripture to me is remarkable and telling, and it makes me wonder how Piper can come to the conclusion that homosexuality is the one sin that we celebrate in this society, and the sin that will destroy us. Our admiration, celebration, and emulation of the rich in our society is far deeper, more pervasive and unquestioned even by the church (in a remarkably bipartisan way). In fact, the cultural value of greed is so deeply ingrained and validated that it has become the cornerstone of our economic system, and far from fearing it, we champion it. And unlike homosexuality, this desire is not restricted to three percent of the population.

I think our fear of homosexuality is partly driven by the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah and it’s destruction. But I’m not sure the major message of that story is the evil of homosexuality. I think if Lot’s visitors had been women, and all the men of the city stormed his house to gang rape them, God would have still been fairly outraged. Sodom became a byword for great evil, but that evil was wide and deep, not reducible to one sin. Even Ezekiel in comparing Israel’s sins to Sodom had this to say, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor or needy” (16:49). If this is Sodomy, I agree that it is a very serious sin.

5 Questions About Loving Gays

I see that discussions about homosexuality continue loudly across the public stage, so I have decided to write a series about it after all.

We humans are remarkably skilled in interpreting Scripture to conform to our personal and cultural viewpoint.  “Faith” is reworked to mean optimism.  The Biblical word “modesty” is redefined from “don’t show off” to the American “don’t show skin.”  The virtue of meakness has almost become a vice in our thinking.

Our understanding of love has suffered a similar fate.  In my generation, good parents disciplined naughty children with paddles and belts while explaining, “I’m doing this because I love you!”  Sometimes they said this with gritted teeth, and their barely suppressed anger signaled that something more than love was at work here.  A particularly insightful boy might have thought, “You’re spanking me because you love the vase I broke, not because you love me.  You want to make sure I don’t break anything else you love.”  But few kids have that kind of insight, and so they grow up associating “love” with… anger (and/or with permissiveness or fear or smothering or control depending on their family, but you get the picture).

Montoya

Given our confusing social and personal history with the idea of love as well as our knack for self-justification, maybe we should stop and consider if what we say about gays is truly loving.  Let me propose some questions to ask yourself before you launch your words into the public sphere.

1) Do I assume love because I am promoting truth?

I think it is a common belief that telling someone the truth to pull them back onto the right path is by definition a loving act.  Aside from the dangerous habit of assuming our own virtue, I see two problems inherent to this view.  The first is a question of motivation.  Love is not the only or even the most common reason to correct others.  I can correct them for pride, for control, for fear, for anger, etc., but without love it has the positive affect of banging cymbals (I Cor. 13:1).  The second is a question of manner.  The way I communicate can also be unloving, even unconsciously.  Truths spoken unsympathetically can drive others from the light more quickly than lies.  “Speaking the truth” is not at all the same as “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

2) Am I receptive rather than defensive and dismissive toward those who say my words are unloving?

When faced with someone who disagrees with us, we are tempted to fault them: they are stupid, uninformed, or biased.  Patience and humility call us to listen carefully to those who disagree with us, but this is so much more important when we are judging someone’s character rather than their argument.  When I discuss a moral defect in you that I don’t have, it places you in a vulnerable position and me in a position of power.  It is incumbent on me to be sensitive, gentle, humble, and empathetic, even if you react defensively (Gal. 6:1).  If you tell me my words are hurtful and unloving, then I need to hear that, exam my heart and my words, and redouble my efforts to communicate compassion.  I need to try hard to understand why you feel as you do.  It is only in the context of unconditional love that others can feel safe enough to consider their own deep-seated issues.

3) If I substitute the synonym “affectionate” for “loving” does it still ring true as a descriptor of my words?

Do I want to avoid someone who is gay or want to be with them?  Do I feel warm towards them or wary?  Would I welcome them as a friend, find pleasure in celebrating their birthday, enjoy their input in my life?  Although love does not always give us positive feelings, if it never or seldom warms our hearts, I wonder if it is really love.  We might assume we love others if we “want what is best for them,” but wanting the best for others can come from other motivations than love: you may want your child to get good grades in school for unconsciously selfish reasons (for bragging rights, fear of failure as a parent, etc.).  Some synonyms for loving in Scripture are “tender hearted, compassionate, and sympathetic.”

4) Do I publicly distance myself from the views of those whose words are harsh and judgmental?

If it is common for some from my “camp” to publicly promote my position with unkindness, and I do not publicly disagree with their attitude, all their hurtful baggage is loaded onto my words.  The statements of group members, when left uncorrected, reflect on the group as a whole and color all subsequent words from members.  It sets a precedent, and if I do not distance myself from those ungracious words, then I am likely to be seen in the same light.  We might feel that “at least they spoke the truth,” but are they not undermining an even greater truth by the spirit of their words: namely the very character of the God they claim to represent.  Often how we say something has greater impact than what we say (Prov.15:1).

5) Would I speak the same way if I were talking personally to a gay friend?

On the internet (where most of us small fry have our only public interaction), our conversations may seem objective and impersonal, but we don’t really know who is reading our links, likes, posts, and comments and how very intensely personal they may be receiving our words.  Do they hear in our words sympathy and understanding for their struggles and acceptance for them as people passionately loved by God?  How would you address someone across the dinner table who was sharing vulnerably about their journey with you?  Even when faced with anger and aggression, we are called not to double down on condemnation, but to speak always with grace (Col. 4:6).  Defensiveness does not indicate the strength of one’s position, but its vulnerability.

There is so much heat generated by this subject, and heat detracts from the light.  May we always be known more for what we support (love of others) than what we are against (Jn. 13:35).

Reacting to World Vision: It’s Not As Simple As You Think

World Vision announced that they will begin employing married gays.  The attacks were immediate and condemning from conservative evangelicals, and the response to these attacks from the progressive side of Christianity was equally reactionary.  But the issues involved in this controversy are far from simple and straightforward, even if you have an unshakeable conviction about the morality of gay marriage.

We so easily go off-track in our discussions, shunting our challenger to the sidelines on pretexts that spring more from emotional reaction than gracious consideration.  We attack their motives, disparage their rationale, question their character, and otherwise dismiss their view without engaging in a genuine, gracious, and open way.

I’d like to just list some of the many issues that are at play:

1) What is “ministry”? (e.g. when is cooking ministry and when is it just activity)

2) What are legitimate ministry and/or social work models?

3) What values are fundamental in (different) ministries and how should various values be scaled?

4) How does morality intersect with ministry? (e.g. what behavior calls for disciplinary action or limits the scope of one’s involvement)

5) How does theology intersect with ministry?

6) How does one determine what ministry to support (at various levels)?

7) How broad should be a ministry’s inclusiveness in regard to various levels of involvement from “supporters”?

8) How should differences of view in the above mentioned areas be dealt with (among constituents, employees, leadership, clients, etc.)

I expect there are many more issues, but these are simply the ones that come to mind as I sit here thinking about the complexity.  Complexity does not mean we should punt on a discussion as though the interaction is impossible, but it does mean we should be careful in what we say and how we say it, how we listen, how easily and quickly and dogmatically we come to our conclusions.

(I’ll be writing more on this)

Duck Dynasty’s Offense

A high school friend posted this to his Facebook page:

Image

and a flash flood of reactions flowed.  For those who don’t know the big media controversy, it started with the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, Phil Robertson giving an interview at GQ here… the high degree of irony in this man being interviewed by this magazine

Image has been totally lost in the ensuing controversy regarding Phil’s comments on homosexuality, race, and non-Christian religions.

The response was quick and strong against Phil from the left-leaning half of the country, and A&E, the host station for the duck hunter’s program, was worried enough to put Phil on indefinite leave from the program.  “Indefinite” no doubt means “until this controversy blows over,” since money is always the bottom line, and Duck Dynasty is a cash cow for A&E (excuse the mixed metaphor).  The reaction on the other side was equally swift in coming to Phil’s defense (as my first photo shows).  A former classmate on my friend’s Facebook string asked me to weigh in, so I thought I’d give my reflections here.

First off, let’s set aside the whole 1st amendment issue raised by conservative politicians everywhere.  The constitution speaks to government control of speech, and this present case has nothing to do with the government.  There are always social consequences to our words, and when we choose to use our freedom to speak publicly, it is our own responsibility to consider how our hearers will respond.  The less we know our audience, the more vulnerable we are to their reactions.

Second, only those completely out of touch with the conservative side of America would be shocked by Phil’s comments.  If anything, they are much milder than what I have heard from others in that stream of society… and I expect much milder than what Phil says when he is with his own group.  A&E producers have  no doubt edited out a good chunk of Robertson family dialogue to sanitize it for a wider audience.  Or perhaps the issue is not shock so much as reactive anger, an outrage that is shared in equal measure by the right in responding to this critique from progressives (see Sarah Palin’s daughter’s post here).

I don’t sense that Phil spoke with malice, but that doesn’t get him off the hook according to an insightful New York Times op-ed piece, “Robertson’s interview reads as a commentary almost without malice, imbued with a matter-of-fact, this-is-just-the-way-I-see-it kind of Southern folksiness. To me, that is part of the problem. You don’t have to operate with a malicious spirit to do tremendous harm. Insensitivity and ignorance are sufficient. In fact, intolerance that is disarming is the most dangerous kind. It can masquerade as morality.”

I know “intolerance” is a conservative flash-point as a word often used to censure conservative beliefs, denying them the right to judge an act as immoral (in this case homosexual acts).  However, the word can also refer not to beliefs but to how one treats or talks to (or about) someone else, and when it is used in this sense, it is really a synonym for “judgmentalism,” an attitude of condemnation rather than care.  The strongest societal reaction to conservative views on homosexuality seems to be not against beliefs, but attitudes.  Contrary moral beliefs can be stated with love, humility, and respect, with true personal sensitivity, connection and understanding.  Take Pope Francis and Papa Robertson who both believe that same-gender sex is a sin.  The LGBT magazine The Advocate declared the Pope their person of the year while most LGBT groups strongly criticized Phil.  I have been amazed at the degree to which many self-identified homosexuals welcome conservatives who believe them immoral as long as they treat them with respect as persons.

Of course, it can be argued that Robertson meant no disrespect, just as he meant no malice.  But to speak casually or lightly or off-handedly into a place of deep, long-term, pervasive pain is disrespectful, unthoughtful, and unkind even though unintentional. Here is one Christian’s response: “Specifically with issues that have caused such heartache and damage already like gay marriage and racial inequity, we should refuse to contribute to someone’s pain by speaking about them abstractedly, distantly, as if they aren’t real human beings whose lives bear actual repercussions of our casual public conversations. The sterile public sphere outside of the protective confines of relationships is not a safe place for such weighty discussions, and we should not add to the pile of condescending, degrading comments about real human people. These precious, fragile conversations belong among people who love one another, who’ve earned the right to be heard, who can look each other in the eye and listen with grace and humility.”

Even those who are defending Robertson admit that his words were crude and poorly stated, even his own family!  Still I have heard no public apology from Phil.  No doubt the family is feeling defensive in the face of this huge backlash, and it is true that in our polarized society we tend to shoot the enemy instead of engaging them in any sort of fruitful way.  As one openly homosexual author wrote in Time about this blowup: “Why is our go-to political strategy for beating our opponents to silence them? Why do we dismiss, rather than engage them? One of the biggest pop-culture icons of today just took center stage to “educate” us about sexuality. I see this as an opportunity to further the discussion….”  He gives credence to the right’s cry: “Freedom of Speech!”

But the problem as usual is what we do with our freedom.  If we speak in ways that hurt others, there is not going to be respectful dialogue and greater mutual understanding in response.    Speech can be blocked not only from the point of origin, but at the point of destination. “Freedom of speech” in a soundproof chamber is meaningless, and yet when we antagonize our audience, they stop listening.  Such freedom is not only sterile, but damaging, creating mutual disrespect and disregard, distrust and offense.

Al Mohler President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said on a CNN broadcast, “What is causing the offense is classic Christianity.”  But let’s be careful not to confuse the “offense of the cross” with offensiveness, which is kind of its opposite: a refusal to identify with outcasts as with Christ himself in his crucifixion.