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30 September 2004

Shall the gay inherit the church?

The Revealer had a lovely piece a few days ago about gays and the church.

For those of us in the country’s secular minority, it seems intuitive that serious Christians and serious gays do not mix.

But that is simply not so: Christianity itself is changing as
homosexuality gains an ever more unapologetic place in our culture.
This is true even if some Christian denominations are not changing
outright so much as struggling to articulate a fair position on
homosexuality, and it is true even if some other denominations are
resisting a fair position (because even resistance betrays tension).
Since the 1960s, Christians have held meetings and issued proclamations
about their official views on homosexuality, and many have shifted
those views. This didn’t suddenly happen because of Will & Grace or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy;
it happened slowly, in large part because of gay Christians in the 60s
who were not ashamed to admit their dual citizenship. And they still
exist, these religious puzzles wrapped in homosexual enigmas. They
exist in large numbers, insisting on their right to love Jesus and love
people of their own sex. We should pay attention to these
cross-cultural emissaries because, as two recent sociological studies
point out, the conflict over homosexuality within churches (and within
believers) is one of the most compelling, and telling, back rooms of
the debate.

The piece then goes on to discuss two new entries into the
sociology of religion, specifically dealing with how gays have been
received into particular congregations (participant observer
ethnography).  The writer of the piece singles out one of the
books for higher praise, because she thinks it points toward more

But she points out — in several statements — the crux of the matter for Christians.

People who might ordinarily regard each other as nothing
but bigots or buggers are forced to see each other as human beings
because, ultimately, they have to face each other every Sunday morning.

And, oh, the pretzels these humans twist themselves into! It turns out
that nothing threatens to undermine a millennia-old religion so much as
its own adherents giving voice to what they believe and why….

As Moon points out, the in-church debate over homosexuality is so
explosive because it threatens to undermine the illusion of unity that
each congregation requires to continue worshipping together. Not only
do members’ opinions differ, even when they basically agree, their
creative views on sexual morality reveal how imaginative, and
artifice-laced, the very phenomenon of faith is.
After spending nearly two years in two separate congregations, one
liberal, the other more conservative, Moon discovered that anti-gay
Christians felt they had a common foe — not your garden-variety pansy,
but politics….

The political exhaustion of such remarks is not unique to anti-gay
Christians; what’s unique to them is the perception that, for instance,
the church’s old struggle with civil rights is fundamentally different
from its current struggle with homosexuality. Indeed, Moon finds many
Christians who debate the niceties between embracing minorities and
endorsing homosexuality: Social justice is okay for ex-slaves, but gay
men and lesbians are trounced by six disputed passages in the Bible….

Moon argues that politics — that is, power struggles in their most
basic form — exist inside each congregation. To get to Jesus, you have
to go through the disciples, and even they were not free of schemers….

And, what’s more, only one force can remind Christians of their social-justice heritage — other Christians….

After all, when Moon makes crucial observations about pro-gay
Christians — they should stop endorsing homosexual suffering as a
reason for Christian tolerance, and stop air-brushing the physical
reality of sex between any permutation of genders, but rather answer
the “It’s not moral!” charge very directly with “It is moral!” — she
is offering useful information to ordinary people. If Christians are to
redress the injustice in their own faith, they need to recognize that
faith may be spiritual, but church is a social institution. Moon’s
research shows that many Christians are cultivating the cynicism with
which they view “merely human” (i.e., political) dialogue and change….

Many Christians believe that there exists some form of separation
between the spiritual and the material, between the church and the
society, between religion and politics, between the City of God and the
City of Man.  Which is a strange thought to hold in one’s mind
these days, as the supposition of a separated religious and social
sphere grows less and less.  (This is an observation, rather than
a judgment.)

Augustine wouldn’t agree.  The Reformers wouldn’t agree. 
Christ wouldn’t agree.  Central to the basic teachings of the
Christian religion is that God is present in all times and spaces in
the universe.  You can’t go anywhere without God, you can’t
separate God out from some activities, you can’t limit God.

But, as been said a number of times in this space and many others, the
Christian teachings at the heart of the religion prove radically
revolutionary and upsetting to all that we hold as ordered in the
social realm.

The Gospel passage this last Sunday was the story of “the rich man, poor Lazurus, and Father Abraham.”  Here it is in full.

“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the
latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor
man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep.
he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table.
His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
“Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap
of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in
torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in
his lap.He
called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his
finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’
Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good
things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s
consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these
matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from
us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to
“The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’
“Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’
know, Father Abraham,’ he said, “but they’re not listening. If someone
came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’
replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not
going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'”

There’s a radical social upheaving going on
here.  Lazarus did not DO anything to merit getting the good after
he died.  The rich man may have been quite moral, even if
rich.  Each man’s moral status appears of no consequence to his
eventual fate.  Those who have already have their reward, and
those who don’t will see their lives turn around.  The poor, the
despised, the unjustly treated, the rejected — all these, the Gospel
seems to say, will be relieved.

And it’s something of this trend picked out in the two books that the
Revealer examines.  Gays hold the despised, tolerated, rejected
position in today’s rich-world church.  I think that the injustice
with which the Western-world parts of Christianity treat gays,
lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people demonstrates us not living up to
our own Gospel.  It’s a hard Gospel to live up to, and if we did
our wholel live would be turned over.

But we’re all pretty rich.  And if the story says anything, it
tells us that all of us — gays and all unjustly treated here — have a
lot to think about with regard to the poor all over the place. 

Politics is not the enemy, social justice is not the enemy, gays or
conservatives are not the enemy.  We ourselves are our own enemy.

As the Revealer points out, the only people who can remind Christians
of their obligations are the other Christians.  It’s precisely the
fact that they’ve all got to meet on Sunday mornings and that they’ve
all got to deal with the politics of that social institution that is
the contemporary church that offers the chance to work and change each
other.  Sure not all Christians do a very good job of following
Christ.  But one hopes there is enough yeast in the Christian
dough to work its way through and raise them up.

Posted in Rayleejun on 30 September 2004 at 7:34 pm by Nate