Friday, August 21, 2009

Editorial: A Number of Positions on Homosexuality

Well. No one has ever asked the question of me, thank goodness. And I've tried, personally, to avoid addressing the matter at all, because my curiosity centers much more around the affairs of God than the affairs of church polity. But the buzz about the current Lutheran conference, including the insinuation of some that God sent an F0 tornado down upon the very building the conference is held in (really? F0? Is that all the smiting our God goes in for anymore?) - these events, as well as long brewing in the Episcopal and Methodist churches, have prompted a lot of thinking on my part.

And now, God help us, I finally need to vent.

To wit: when considering the nature of sin and questions of sinfulness, I try always to keep in mind the principle of self-first. That is, to ponder the plank in my own eye before elaborating overmuch on the faults of others - the same principle Dostoevsky captured marvelously in the Brothers Karamazov: "make yourself responsible for all the sins of men...the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all."

So: While I do, in fact, against the general trend of American Anglican thought, still view homosexual intercourse to be sinful, my first and largest thought is that it simply is a sin toward which I am not prone. It is not much of my affair. I have plenty of others, so many that my first impulse is, rightly or not, not toward judgment. I don't have it in me to condemn. I don't have the ground to stand on, or the heart to do it. It's simply the way I am.

And to the largest degree possible, I believe it is the way which Christians ought to be. If anyone sins, to some very real degree it is our fault and our responsibility, because the line between we and they is anything but solid.

I only believe what I do about homosexuality because, having wrangled with the pertinent scriptures, I cannot see my way clear of their implications. I am not impressed by the counter-interpretations, and cannot imagine that the biblical writers were only thinking of particular homosexual behavioral instances.

The variety and contextuality of the passages are the very things that convince me that homosexual relations are sins in the eyes of God, Old and New Testament alike. Until new evidence comes to light, I do not see how a clear-eyed and pragmatic reading of Scripture can come to any other conclusion, though I understand that many believe differently.

But what I also do not see is where Scripture proclaims what precisely we ought to do about it. Clearly, after Christ we are going to stone no one. Which is not to say that sin now goes unpunished and everyone runs around doing what they want without consequence, but it is to say that the drift of Scripture places judgment less and less into human hands and more and more into the hands of God alone. In fact, it might be said that that was the very mission of Christ: our salvation is our judgment, and both of these are entirely in the hands of Our Lord.

Now of course, every community must engage in gatekeeping, and the church is no exception. Paul rightly urges the early churches to spurn those who threaten the community itself. They must be turned out. But I've heard no one say that homosexuals just by their presence in worship or in the pulpit threaten the integrity of the body of Christ.

But you can go to church with homosexuals. They don't do anything differently than anyone else. They sing the same songs, say the same prayers, preach the same sermons, serve the same Eucharist. If they gossip and backbite and slander, I'm sure they do so not because they're homosexual, but simply because they want to belong. There is nothing noteworthy about them, except, of course, that they are made in the image of God, for which everyone is at least worth mentioning.

You see, no one ever actually deals with homosexuals, anymore than anyone meets with the African American race, or the Universal Hispanic Alliance. One only ever really meets individuals. Those are the people with which you have to deal. You can ignore politics to whatever degree you are able, but you have to deal with Mary and Martin and Joe and Kate - whatever their characters, whatever their affiliations. We are all individuals always meeting, or failing to meet, other individuals. When my Methodist mentor heard about the ordination of Gene Robinson, the gay bishop recently ordained in New Hampshire, and wondered what I thought, I could only say "I hope he's a good bishop."

I believe that is precisely on the level at which Christ would have made the determination, and perhaps part of the reason Jesus never addressed the topic himself. To some degree, it's a nonsensical question. Homosexuals aren't, so far as I know, part of an institution that hypocritically judges people the way the Pharisees were, or part of an idolatrous and self-congratulatory nation that heaps wealth upon itself at the expense of widows, aliens and orphans the way Israel did. And if "they" are, their sexual behavior likely has nothing to do with it. If there's any issue unlikely to be a good basis of sorting and condemning human beings, it's sexuality, which manifests itself in people so individually, so interiorally, and so varyingly over the course of a lifetime.

I mean, it strikes me that the central question here isn't one of sexuality at all, but one of Docetism. The unspoken question I hear is whether or not we're going to let homosexuals sit in our pews, stand in our wedding chapels, preach from our pulpits, and chair our ecumenical conferences, or whatever it is that bishops do.

Thankfully, the question of church participation has been answered for two thousand years, at least since Augustine. Sinners get to preach. Wretches get to serve the Eucharist. Righteousness is not a condition for participation in the body of Christ, though it is of course something of the purpose.

Whether or not one's sins are publicly visible is only a distracting point. I hear that the number of male pastors, preachers, and priests who habitually view images of naked women over the internet is very much ungodly. Should they remain? Maybe, maybe not. I believe the least we would grant them were their proclivities known is a trial by character, an assessment of an entire person and their work. Were their habits to remain secret, I believe the very least we would offer them would be a lone accounting with their God.

I think we should extend the same two deals to closeted and open homosexuals. I believe it is their right as human beings and creations of our God. I cannot understand how straight people of any stripe could deploy one sin and condemn whole swaths of society because their sins happen to be somewhat more public. Does a homosexual make a worse priest than an embezzler, or an adulterer? Than anyone else equally qualified?

After all, the problem, from a Christian perspective, with the Scarlet Letter was not that she got one, but that everyone didn't. We don't get to treat people differently because we happen to know what their sins are, while ours remain more private.

The issue of repentance is equally distracting. We all know from celebrities, politicians, and athletes the value of public contrition, which is virtually nill. True repentance is ceasing the behavior. We are all unrepentant sinners. If we weren't, we would live in a very different world. Our confessions are as flawed and human and limited and imperfect and sin-stained as the rest of us - and nonetheless by grace we are welcomed into the body and bride of Christ, because Jesus himself welcomes us.

God loves a penitent heart, but are we ourselves not to love every heart?

It is true that, were I to hear a sermon preaching the rightness of homosexual congress, I would view that teaching as in error. But, notwithstanding that I can't imagine any such thing in the church I currently attend, it would only be about the three thousandth sermon preached in America eschewing biblical principles for the idiosyncratic follies of any particular moment. Preachers and bishops are often wrong. But they are never wrong for being who they are, but only what they say and do. Their bare presence is not a political or religious utterance until we or they make it one. Clerics are not statements. They are people, human individuals.

The idea that we cannot countenance any such is the most unbiblical teaching I might imagine. We don't get to deny anyone anything we claim for ourselves; this is the essence of the Golden Rule. If this is marriage, then it is marriage, flawed and sinful as it might be. If this is Eucharist, this is Eucharist, however compromised and imperfect the breaking of the bread. If this is positions of church authority, then it is positions of church authority, even for the sinners in our midst.

We always hear that the laws of this nation are based on a Judeo-Christian ethic, a thought which continually strikes me odd, as the Christian ethic is an entirely non-litigious one, and the lawerly scribes and Pharisees were precisely those that Christ condemned. It was the equation of law and morality that Christ overturned, because the law always fails to address the particularities of the human heart and must condemn people without considering God's own greater judgments, because it cannot know them. So, the ponderings of conferences aside, I think we might at least have a run at eschewing legalized morality within our church.

So what do I propose? I guess I would like to introduce not so much a specific policy as a series of guidelines that I wish Christians would adopt.

First, deal with your own particular sins; when considering others, be slow to judge, swift to forgive, and quicker still to love.

Second, treat in individuals rather than political bodies; love the image of God in each person, because that is the only way you're ever going to see it.

Third, accept the universality of sin and show no preference for private over public unrighteousness; many are invited, but few are chosen. The inviting must come first, and it must be authentic.

And fourth: unless specifically acting to counteract an existing policy, establish no writ concerning homosexuals or their practices one way or the other. Even the Golden Rule isn't good legislation, and polity cannot possibly address the issue of conscience, and might lead to us being similarly judged by God himself.

And no one wants that.