I am catching a glint of light in this woman’s eyes every few minutes or so. I know that glint. It comes from the reflection on an artificial lens after cataract surgery, a telltale sign that she is at least in her sixties. Her face is withered, but very much alive, its deep creases standing in sharp contrast to her buoyant, almost girlish demeanor. Her partner winks at her from across the aisle of this shuttle bus, as she continues explaining to me why they have chosen to wait until their home state of Ohio allows them to legally wed- to finally allow themselves what every other girl has dreamt of since preschool. She and her partner have been a couple for thirty-two years. My mind cannot truly hold this figure. There is nothing I have done voluntarily for this long. Since Ronald Reagan was starting his second term, these two women have loved one another. There is a lump in my throat as I contemplate this, looking from face to vulnerable face filling the shuttle bus around me. It is packed with different versions of the same thing: brave women, holding the hand of someone they have loved for a very long time. Their graying hair and furrowed faces contradictIng their unsinkable dispositions.
I have just done something that a younger version of me would have been completely appalled by: leading a prayer at my gay aunt’s wedding reception. The me of twenty years ago, although I love my aunt Maridy so dearly, would have chosen to stay home. I would have hoped to vaguely make a statement about my views on homosexuality, or at least to somewhat spare myself some hand in what I felt to be culpability for one of the worst imaginable of sins. In sharp contrast, the me-of-today is sorely disappointed that I was not straight-out defrocked for officiating this wedding, spitting in the face of Christian convention as my ship went down in flames, screaming above the cacophony how very much I love my dear aunt. Because, if ever there was an eight-hundred pound gorilla in this room, it is this. The Church is bleeding out, losing members in epic proportions, because we cannot seem to rectify the concept of loving unconditionally with what we are supposed to do with this one, single issue.
I wasn’t defrocked, or I haven’t yet been. I truly was ready to lose my license as a pastor from The Alliance for Renewal Churches of Mansfield, Ohio, over this. Not that I have anything against them, or that they are even considering taking away my license. It’s just that I have changed. I became a Christian at age thirteen, and like most teenage boys of that era, I was legitimately homophobic. The worst thing I could have possibly imagined at the time was to have been considered gay. It was part of being a teenager before Glee even existed. It was commonplace for boys to call someone a fag when taunting them. Christianity, or the brand of it that I lived with then, only served to calcify my fear. I bought into the idea that Republicanism was synonymous with the Church, and wholeheartedly believed that I was doing the right thing by choosing to “love the sinner, yet hate the sin”, even if I was using it to cover my own fear towards something I felt to be a Biblical abomination. I truly believed that if our country were to allow homosexuality to be practiced openly, we would actually be punished by God.
The thing is, this is the general position that the American Evangelical Church has taken. The spectrum of feelings over this one issue spans the gambit between quietly muttering “love the sinner, hate the sin” to shouting that “God hates fags”. If we are to be honest, it is almost all a cover-up for nothing more than outright cowardice. And this is what has eaten at me all of these years: how can Jesus Christ, friend of prostitutes and thieves, healer of the leprous, hope of the entire world, be this giant, punishing, monster that the Church keeps wishing Him to be? It does not even begin to make sense.
As time passed, my personal views toward homosexuality began to relax. All boys have a deep fear that either they are gay, or will somehow be turned gay. I think that as we age, as we grow in wisdom, this diminishes. Either one discovers that he is indeed homosexual, or he realizes that he truly is not, and the concept of “being turned gay” begins to lose its power. As I realized that I fell into the latter category, I began see just how unChristlike my stance had been. I began to see how unloving and rooted in fearfulness that my thoughts and actions were, and I was ashamed. I wrote lyrics for both bands I was in at the time, Brave Saint Saturn and Five Iron Frenzy, attempting to convince people to accept my new stance- to love people, no matter what the sin, and that homophobia was just as wrong in God’s eyes as homosexuality. I truly was pushing the envelope for what our record company, and the Evangelical Church in general, would allow. Even in those bands, who were both pioneers for what could and could not be addressed in the Bible Belt, this was shocking.
However, even now, as I type this, I am ashamed. My stomach sinks each time I remember the words to the song Fahrenheit by Five Iron Frenzy.
Flash Gordon soundtrack,
I was in second grade.
My first real record, yeah,
worn down it played and played.
Young and blind, my double mind.
When the world was black and white,
watch me turn my back tonight,
on Freddie Mercury,
I was in eighth grade,
I said he was a queer,
I thought he had it coming,
he died of AIDs that year.
Like Christ's death meant nothing to me.
When the world was black and white,
watch me turn my back tonight,
on Freddie Mercury, Mr. Fahrenheit.
When my veins choked thick with spite,
blind man's bluff burns in hindsight,
for Freddie Mercury,
Predisposed to bigotry,
the regular run-of-the-mill American story.
The stench of greasepaint on our faces,
pass the mask to our next of kin,
instead of wiser idioms,
like "love the sinner, hate the sin".
At the time, I felt that I was doing the most honorable thing that I could, calling the Church to the carpet on being homophobic. I thought that I could do so by pointing the finger at myself with my own homophobia towards one of my heroes, Freddie Mercury. What bothers me is how arrogant and condemning I still was about homosexuality.
I have since learned that what I believed to be gospel, is not. As my views softened towards homosexuality, they also did towards homosexuals. My favorite aunt, as you know, had come out of the closet. A cousin here, a friend there- and each conviction my mind had constructed, once again had to evolve. Instead of talking about loving unconditionally, I had to manifest it. This was real. As I traded my caustic dispensationalist theology for the much broader and more loving worldview of the Presbyterians, the fear of God punishing the United States -like it was some new version of a long dead, Old Testament Israel- seemed more and more absurd. I reasoned that homosexuality, in reality, was a victimless sin. No one actually gets hurt, despite whatever corrupt version of anti-gay propaganda you have been exposed to. I can tell you as a medical professional that straight couples are admitted to the emergency room far more often than gay ones, for whatever sexual practice they may be employing.
I reasoned that if I just loved the world no matter what their sexual orientation, God could fix the rest. I posted my new feelings on Facebook a few years back, and in true Facebook fashion, offended about half of the people I know. Some for being too liberal, and some for not being liberal enough. There is nothing like the internet to help you figure out who your real friends are. In this case, I found a new and deeper friendship with people I felt I hardly knew before. In the midst of the barrage of mounting “likes” and denunciations, my friend Nate Sjorgren, the drummer of the band The Insyderz, had gently steered the conversation away from the argument it was becoming. He pointed me to a few articles that once again, changed my entire stance on this subject.
These articles painted a picture that showed the Church’s posture towards homosexuality had mostly been formed out of centuries of fear and political control. These articles held that the actual Biblical wording in what turns out to be only six to eight verses which have historically been used to condemn homosexuality, is either too cryptic to take a definite stance on, or have been interpreted incorrectly. You can read one of them here.
It wasn’t the super-liberal “we just take parts of the Bible that make us feel good” theology that I had expected. These articles started with the same position I was being pulled into with my own theology. That is to say- hey, is this really how Jesus would feel about this? And, where then, if Christ loved us so much as to be murdered for our sins, is our unconditional and all-loving response to the sins of others? It was mind-blowing. I had always assumed that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, the thing that turned the wrath of God upon them, was homosexuality. In looking deeper, I discovered it was being inhospitable to the messengers of God, that was the straw to break the camel’s back. What if the true meaning of this story from Genesis was to say that a crossroads of early human civilization was being overrun with disease and corruption, and after refusing help, a loving God quickly and judiciously separated their bodies from their souls? Yeah, they died. It is a tragic story. But this passage is definitely not about homosexuality, and the Bible is definitely not a book about how to remain young and healthy into your old age. If there is one take-home message, it is that God cares about our souls, while treating our bodies like the expendable shells they are. And yes, Sodomy seems to have been misnamed.
It all began slowly falling into place. Levitical warnings against a man “lying” with another man (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), could not be cherry picked from an entire canon of laws, which also cautioned against eating pork (Leviticus 11:7-8), eating fat (Leviticus 3:17), trimming one’s sideburns, and not coming into contact with a menstruating woman. Both arguments held little water against Saint Paul’s convictions in the book of Romans that called us all out as sinners, and that the entirety of God’s wrath had been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as well as any Biblical cleanliness or moral laws.
The clencher for me was just to look at the original Greek that Paul had used in those few verses left to my Biblical argument against homosexuality. He keeps using one word- arsenokoites- which in 1946 , we began translating as homosexual, instead of one of its historical translations of either: male prostitute, shrine prostitute, pederast, or rapist. With the advent of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, something had changed within the church. It seemed to snowball after that with emergence of television and the ability of Evangelical Protestantism to reach mainstream America, the agreement of that movement to institutionalize a commonplace societal practice of homophobia, and then to join the Republican Party for political muscle to proliferate its dispensationalist agenda. The odd thing is that most Biblical scholars believe that arsenokoites is a word that the Apostle Paul probably made up. If not Paul, then one of his contemporaries. The point is that this word specifically refers to someone exploiting someone else through sex.
In its original context, Paul was speaking to two cultures that actually had no words for homosexuals. Homosexuality was never seen as a thing to the Greeks or Romans, but rather where everyone fell on a scale. To the Romans the worst possible thing you could be was someone who performed oral sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, on another person. Homosexual acts fell in various places within this spectrum, along with heterosexual acts. There was no condemnation in these societies for any of it, just varying degrees of what was considered vulgar to speak of, and what was not. Most men and women in these cultures had engaged in sexual acts with both sexes, and it was seen as completely normal. So what Paul was speaking about, in all of his vast knowledge of the Old Testament, could have been any number of things that the word arsenokoites has been translated into: shrine prostitution, pederasty, or rape. Even at a stretch, this cannot actually be specifically about homosexuality. If we make that stretch, and we believe that it is- it is listed with 4 other things, and I believe each of us are guilty of at least 2.
That is what changed me. At the very least, I had to decide that I have no idea what the Bible was saying about homosexuality. I knew that because I have never struggled over the question of being gay or not, it had no bearing upon me. That and the fact that Jesus Christ never even brought the subject up. Never. I believe we have all been charged with one thing, and one thing only: to love one another. Since we have been freed from our sin by the love of Christ, whatever that sin may be, what are we going to do with that love? Not, who is good enough to be loved, or how good we all can or cannot be, but how much do we believe that we were all unlovable, and that Love with a capital “L” has saved us?
1st Corinthians 13 has been read aloud at almost every wedding I have ever been to. The part that haunts me is the “when I was young I spake as a child...”. Young me thought this was about wisdom. Forty-one-year-old me can only gasp in senseless awe, at the unconquerable and unceasing love that God has shown me. I cannot possibly do anything with that but love others. Especially my Aunt Maridy. Isn’t it time to stop worrying about something that is so unclear, and focus on what is? That we are to love the Lord our God with the entirety of our hearts, and then to love others as much as we love ourselves? I’m tired of fighting against something I cannot specifically say is wrong. What I am positive of, is that I was saved by a Lord who lived His life defending the ostracized and the outcasts, and died so that none of us could be counted as sinners again. The answer to all of this is so very simple:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
- 1st Corinthians 13: 4-13