Reflections on LeFouGate

LeFou - Beauty and the Beast 2017With the release of Beauty and the Beast around the corner and the (completely intentional, as far as I’m concerned) controversy over “LeFouGate,” I have been thinking (again) about the LGBTQ / SSA community and the church. The big question on my mind is one that has been asked many times before: how do we make both compassion and holiness our priorities?

It seems that one the major problems is that the idea of the church and its reality are two very different things. Although we say we are against all sin, what we do stigmatises sexual sin and brushes pride, greed and selfishness under the carpet. We say that the church is a community and that everyone is welcome – in fact we would say we are the best community – but in a small group I attended a gay friend once said the best experience of community that he has had has been outside of the church. I asked him what he meant by “best experience of community” and he explained “where I feel like people care about me and try to understand me.” So yes, once again we can say the church is failing on this front – if you’re reading this and you’re in the LGBTQ / SSA community, sorry for mucking this stuff up for so long!

Two responses that I don’t think are helping us are (1) saying “love the sinner hate the sin” – this response is definitely on the side of “love them with the truth even if it hurts.” Sure, there’s something to be said for this approach but the problem is that it stops far short of knowing “the sinner” and forgets how core of an issue this is with regards to self-identity. I think if we are going to be compassionate, this solution is going to let us down. (2) Reframing sin in terms of brokenness (which I wrote about that a while ago). Although this helps us to be compassionate by using language that is not condemnatory, it also turns us into victims of our own sin rather than wilful agents. This is actually more of a problem to the heterosexual community which seems to have gravitated toward this language because while sounding generous and loving, it excuses and plays down our own sin.

So what’s the solution? Well if you want a solution to a problem that has been plaguing the church for the last few decades and to which few people even gesture at answers, you’ve come to the right place – if you know me, you know that I don’t hesitate to give definitive answers to life’s difficult questions (*sarcasm people). But to suggest something rather than crash landing this post at this point, I will say two things.
Washed and Waiting - Wesley HillFirst, read (and this, by the way, is the only solutiony type thing I’m going to offer). In his Experiment in Criticism Lewis writes

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s probably something you already know – reading the words of people we don’t understand helps us sympathise with them. So I will recommend Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting to anyone who still hasn’t read it. Unfortunately nothing else that I’ve read is springing to mind that I want to recommend so highly (if you have suggestions, put them in the comments!).

Second, to loop back to LeFouGate, watching Beauty and the Beast is not going to help you sympathise. The media’s approach to gender identity is going to be to affirm and to normalise which will make us conservative types recoil all the time (until the normalisation takes effect). We need stories about people who are struggling with their own identity because in their stories we learn sympathy. Imitation Game (about Alan Turing breaking Enigma during WWII) is one example I can think of, a more recent one – though not as good an example – is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the latest in the Harry Potter world) – watch Credence (the adopted son).

Let’s be clear, these movies are normalising identity struggle and I’m confident that their objective is to normalise alternative sexualities but they do also depict the internal struggle that I think Christians all to often fail to appreciate in the people around us – people around us who we are called to love. I think whatever loving means, it’s going to involve some sort of understanding. Whatever you decide to do in response to LeFouGate, let’s remember that Beauty and the Beast is a story in which love transforms the unlovable and our decisions and actions communicate to those around us – what we say and what we do need to correlate.

Rainbows Everywhere

Rainbow flagOf late, everyone on the interwebs has something to say about rainbows. All the major tech companies that run our lives and enable us to communicate have done something and millions of us have have leapt onto the band wagon in our various digital incarnations. I decided pretty quickly that I shouldn’t say anything. “My thoughts are half-formed,” I reasoned, “my mind is too easily swayed,” and what’s more, “how Christianity functions in a post-Christian pluralistic society is too complex to reduce into a blog post, let alone 140 characters.”

But I’ve realised that that’s the wrong response so this is my whole-hearted attempt to speak to an issue that demands the whole of our hearts.

The reality of the rainbow

friendsThe reality is that homosexuality is not something that we can address like global warming or terrorism. It is not impersonal and it is not distant or detached from our day to day lives. Unforutnately it’s also not something that is helped by most of our responses; jokes, trite sayings and fear or anger.

As we each consider the sins that most plague us, there is no doubt that shame and remorse are evoked. When that sin is attached to our identity, “adulterer,” “liar,” “gossip” these feelings are even more pronounced. I cannot imagine a way to read the Bible and argue that homosexual practice is okay with God but let’s be fair; the Bible doesn’t justify any of the sins resident in my heart. I am the biggest sinner I know and I’m ashamed to say it.

The truth of the rainbow

I have nowhere to hide my sin and homosexuality is no different. Before God, the US Supreme Court can send a delegation of their finest lawyers and every tongue will hang in silence. So politics will not protect us from the judgement of God. That’s something a lot of Christians seem to think we should remember at this point but let’s not forget that legalism, theological acumen and erudition and, yes, even “being loving” won’t protect us from God either.

noahs ark people drowningThere is a story about a rainbow and a promise in the Bible that is preceded by the most violently destructive event the world has ever known. The flood was God’s response to a sinful world. It was his response to people who lived in rebellion against him. The truth behind the rainbow at the end of that story is that God judges sin whether he’s given you the ten commandments or your conscience or two thousand years of Christian witness. We answer to him and he doesn’t take sin lightly.

The promise of the rainbow

In spite of human sin, after the flood God points to the rainbow and promises never again to flood the world. In other words, from this point on there will be no interim judgement: we await only God’s final judgement.

To my homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ I say, let’s fight the good fight together: I’ll encourage you to fight your desires that are in rebellion against the rule of God and I pray that you will do the same for me.

To those who practice homosexuality, I say what I say to the Athenians in ancient Greece, to the South Africans in 21st century Pietermaritzburg and to everyone in between:

God now commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

I don’t know what I would do if I ran the world. However, I do know that homosexual practice is sinful and I do know that, along with all those who take advantage of laws allowing gay marriage, I will stand before a holy God in shame. The rainbows I keep seeing remind me that God is patient but certainly not that he will tolerate our rebellion.

Thoughts on Sodom, the Same-Sex Marriage Debate, & Kingdom Theology

Gay marriageFrom time to time my church runs a type of ‘think tank,’ lead by a member of staff. We discuss culture, ethics and the Christian worldview, along with our approach to the secular world. A few weeks back we considered the same-sex marriage debate. I do realise that this is much more than a topical debate for many and because of its sensitive (as well as volatile) nature I encourage generous reading. I have written previously on the topic of homosexuality, here, but I am always hesitant to because of the milieu of warring factions and wounded people. So by way of preface, let me say that this post is an attempt to answer whether Christians should impose a Christian sexual ethic on our governments or culture, those outside the auspices of the church and Christ’s lordship.

As many discussions on homosexuality often tend to go, someone reached back into the Old Testament and brought up – ‘brought out’? – Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). ‘These events clearly show that homosexual relations signify the near death and utter derailment of society; Sodom and Gomorrah had to be wiped out. And the unruly time of Judges ends up at this same dire situation: homosexuals run rampant, indicating that society is all but lost (Judges 19).’ But is that really what these passages are about? Do these two instances pinpoint homosexuality as the terminus of a godless society? A terminus which we should attempt to spare our society from? To put it crudely, quoting Kim Fabricius, both incidents are “about gang-bangs”. If one turns up Ezekiel 16:49-50 these debauched events are brought into clearer light. As Andrew Marin says, “[they] are described as overfed, unconcerned, nonjustice-minded people who tried to potentially and literally rape their guests”. These passages are not directly addressing the issue of homosexuality. Though, I do believe they model people who did not know Yahweh or had wandered far into idolatry.

Sodom & GomorrahTheir idolatry had carried them into unrighteousness, godless orgies, and passionate inhospitality, a fair description of culture through history. Idolatry, the worshiping of other gods – along with or apart from Yahweh – was the root cause not only of their immorality but also their judgment. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 11 thunder loudly against those who would use these stories to argue that we should save our society from sin by imposing regulative Scriptural ethics. To quote our Lord, “It will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (11:24), ‘you’ being those who did not repent at the preaching of the kingdom of God (11:20), the heralding of Jesus the Messiah (11:2). Where does this leave us? To exaggerate the implication of our desire to impose Christian ethics on our secular society: we should lobby against religious freedom. Surely our biggest concern should align with Jesus’. In which case let us not go halfway in merely enforcing biblical sexual ethics; let us demand allegiance to Christ our Lord and remove the space for idolatrous beliefs and religions.

David VanDrunen's bookBut there is another question, which in my opinion bears significantly on this discussion: the two-kingdoms debate. Having recently read a few titles from N.T. Wright and David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms I realised that the conversation about Christianity and culture shares massive points of contact with the same-sex marriage debate. I appreciate that those belonging to both positions possess a more nuanced theology than those summarised from Wright and VanDrunen and outlined (below). But for the sake of the larger question at hand I will favour reductionism.

Wright – a major proponent of the redemptive transformation of culture, or the one-kingdom approach – argues that Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom and that the kingdom project is continued by Christians bearing witness to Jesus’ lordship and holding authorities accountable to it (p223, Simply Jesus). While we do not oppose everything that the government does we must critique, denounce, and speak up where need be (p224). That is how Jesus exercises his sovereignty today and makes his kingdom a reality.

On the other hand we have the two-kingdoms approach, which distinguishes between the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants, the common and redemptive kingdoms. Within this view it is held that we do not impose Scripture’s authority onto the common kingdom for the church must tend to its God-given business in announcing God’s salvation (p31, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms). Despite VanDrunen’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, in his discussion on politics (p194-203), politics belong undeniably within the realm of the common kingdom (p194). This must mean that in matters of ethics and the authority of Scripture we cannot justify imposing Christian morality and norms. Misty Irons helpfully reminds us that Christ’s lordship is the very reason we can submit to the government, Christian or not. She strongly challenges the devotion of our energies into legislating the Bible. She is, I think, much more consistent in praxis with her two-kingdoms theology than VanDrunen is with his.

Andrew Marin's bookSo what is our place in the debate? Before anything else we need to figure out whether we hold to the redemptive view of culture or belong to the redemptive kingdom. And to potentially disregard the question entirely, having recently read Andrew Marin’s book, Love is an Orientation, I am convinced our primary role in the world is not legislation. Nor is it retreat. It is gospel proclamation. Andrew Marin says, “The way forward with the GLBT community is not a debate on the Bible’s statements about same-sex sexual behavior but a discussion of how to have an intimate…relationship with the Father and Judge.” If we wish to speak out then we should take the line Justin Welby recently did, and many others have: ask what is best for society at large. Will a redefinition of marriage undermine families as the base communities and cornerstone of society, a normative place for child rearing, and the idea of marriage as a covenant? That is a question for another blog post.

The Jokes We Tell

Yann MartelA friend recently returned my copy of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil. Though it has been almost 2 years since I read it, holding the book in my hands resurrected much of the intense emotion I experienced when reading it. Parts of the book are harrowing, others horrendous, yet the brilliance of the writing makes it almost impossible to put down. I must admit that I will need to reread it in order to elucidate Martel’s finer points for myself. Yet the raw and wrenching reaction is, I think, more towards the author’s intention.

After the story has ended Martel provides us with what he calls ‘Games for Gustav’. While giving us a clearer window into actual situations in which many Jews would have found themselves, positing impossible but necessary decisions, these short and somewhat macabre ‘games’ draw out real heartache and sympathy in the reader. I want to quote just one of them, and trust that you will get hold of the book, and allow yourself to be confronted by the ‘games’,

Games for Gustav: number ten

Afterwards, when it’s all over, you overhear a joke.

At the punch line the listeners gasp, bringing their hands to their mouths, and then they roar with laughter.

The joke is about your suffering and your loss.

What is your reaction?

Martel is, if you did not know, writing about the holocaust. Without detracting from his purpose or denying that there are things I have said about the issue which I deeply regret and need to repent of; I want to highlight one place where I believe this sort of hurt is felt today, and is perpetrated by many Christians. It is in the jokes we tell about homosexuals.

One of my closest friends and most encouraging brothers in Christ is gay. As we have walked alongside each other – for more blessed years than I can care to count – he has taught me very much and given me a small window into the struggles that someone who is a Christian and homosexual experiences. Our wonderful friendship often involves him trying to explain the “burden of discomfort, shame, fear, hurt and ostracism” (to use his own words), and me failing to grasp the weight of that burden.

In a brilliant sermon I listened to a while ago, Matthew Jenson speaks about the experience of homosexual desires being ‘excruciating and confusing, desires that heckle and haunt people.’ Our careless words and ‘harmless’ jokes may be gutting someone unknowingly. That person may even be amongst your own group of friends, rather than a person ‘overhearing a joke’. I wonder if you have considered that.