I see a lot of myself in Jonathan Merritt, and I see a lot of 2012 in his USA Today piece “An evangelical’s plea: ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin.’” So let’s talk about it.
Merritt is a 26-year-old Southern Baptist who works on environmental issues. It’s clear from the very outset of his piece that he is frustrated by the reputation evangelicals have gotten through our opposition, at least on the conservative side, to homosexual conduct in general and same-sex marriage in particular. He begins:
One of the mantras of evangelicalism over the past quarter-century regarding gay men and lesbians has been “hate the sin, love the sinner.” If, however, you Google the public statements made by evangelicals regarding our gay neighbors, you’ll uncover a virtual how-to manual on hating sin and little if anything about loving sinners. To wit:
• In 1993, fundamentalist televangelist D. James Kennedy reacted to the notion of gay men and lesbians in the military with a letter asking, “Honestly, would you want your son, daughter, or grandchild sharing a shower, foxhole, or blood with a homosexual?”
• In 1994, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network Pat Robertson declared that for him, “(Homosexuality) is sodomy. It is repugnant.”
• In 2001, the late Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, blamed lesbians and gay men for 9/11.
• In 2002, Ten Commandments crusader and Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore called homosexuality an “abhorrent, immoral, detestable crime against nature” that should be punishable by law.
As an unashamed Southern Baptist and graduate of Falwell’s Liberty University, I have seen this disparity up close. Evangelical opposition to anything even remotely concerning “the homosexual agenda” has often been vitriolic and unbalanced by a message of love for our gay neighbors. Thus, it is understandable that people have incredibly negative perceptions of Christians.
Normally, I’ll support any piece of writing that contains something as archaic as “to wit.” And while EFM is many things, it is distinctly not the Roy Moore fan club. But alas, Merritt begins to go off the rails even here. I don’t disagree with him that the handful of descriptions he has cited are not the way I would choose to describe gays. But I have to quibble with the idea that “Googl[ing] the public statements made by evangelicals regarding our gay neighbors” is an appropriate way to assess whether we have been speaking the truth in love. One of the lessons I have learned through being part of EFM since 2005 is that only certain kinds of statements make it into the media (or Google). One’s years of calm, patient, loving statements do not; they are not seen as news. But if one slips, or blows it, or says something that reinforce a media stereotype — that’s news.
I would cite as an example Dr. James Dobson. If you assess his career based on the foot-in-mouth moments you’ll find in the mainstream press and Google, you might not have a kind impression. (I for one didn’t, for some years, based on what I knew of him when I was an unbeliever.) But that’s a lousy way to do it. The media is uninterested in Dr. Dobson’s long years of caring for families — the millions of words he has written and said answering the question, “How, then, shall we live?” They only care when he says something about politics, especially about gays, and most of all something he’d prefer to take back. He is just one example, but the principle applies more broadly. The Washington Post doesn’t write about my church’s lay-counseling ministry, or our deacons’ outreach to the poor, or the workshop we sponsored on sexual brokenness — the implication of which was that we are the broken ones. But if my pastor made a slip of the tongue about gays in a public speech, you bet it’d be in the paper.
The world’s perceptions are important, don’t get me wrong, but they are not enough for us to assess whether we are in the right. And I know Merritt does not mean that Google is the true judge of the heart, but still, speaking as one who has suffered from the same temptation, I think there is a real issue here of putting too much stock in media-produced perceptions. One can be concerned about evangelicals’ attitudes and statements vis-a-vis homosexuality (as I am) without making an unfair judgment based on some leaders’ media-induced notoriety.
This picture was painted in painful Technicolor in the best-selling book UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. The book by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons was based on a study from The Barna Group, which found that 91% of non-Christians ages 16-29 describe present-day Christians as “anti-homosexual.”
The same study found that 80% also describe Christians as “confusing.” Perhaps this is because many recognize the difference between the life of Jesus Christ and the lives of those who claim to follow him. Most people know Jesus was amazingly compassionate toward marginalized sinners. Prostitutes, drunks and, worst of all, tax collectors they were some of Jesus’ closest friends. And while the religious aristocracy of Jesus’ day was finding new ways to express sin-hate, Jesus was busy loving every sinner he could find.
Again, I think Merritt is overstating the case. In point of fact, I read UnChristian and found it highly convicting. But maybe non-Christians think Christianity is confusing because it is confusing to an outsider. I mean, think about it: We believe an eternal God was…born. We believe an almighty God who can do whatever he wants…died. We are largely a bunch of Gentiles but we say we are the true church of the God of…Israel. One can be concerned about evangelicals’ attitudes and statements vis-a-vis homosexuality (as I am) without blaming them for everything.
The contrast between 21st century Christianity and the Jesus of the Bible is stark. This Jesus the compassionate, loving, “friend of sinners” is difficult to reconcile with an often disconnected, insular, us-vs.-them Christianity.
Many Christians today live in opposition to the teachings of our Lord. They use harsh language when speaking to, or more commonly, about their gay neighbors. Sadly, this doesn’t just emanate from the “God Hates Fags” crazies, but from everyday Christians in everyday churches. Evangelicals often speak of lesbians and gay men as if they have some sort of medical disease that we experts have diagnosed and can easily cure with a simple, biblical prescription.
The most robust description of love in all of Scripture comes from 1 Corinthians 13, which says, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.” If Christians’ language were marked by these characteristics humility, kindness and grace it would ease tensions and open up avenues for dialogue. It is time for evangelical Christians to reform our rhetoric.
This means doing away with cliches such as the infamous “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Self-gratifying monologues are neither helpful nor loving. These slogans make good bumper stickers, but they’re lousy conversation starters. We must begin talking with our gay and lesbian neighbors in meaningful ways.
Sorry to say, but this is where I really start to have a problem with this piece. It is an extremely serious thing to pronounce, “Many Christians today live in opposition to the teachings of our Lord.” But citing a few inflammatory quotes at the beginning and then denouncing the “Adam and Steve” line doesn’t prove the point — and other than avoiding that remark, we don’t get any real guidance from Merritt on how to “begin talking with our gay and lesbian neighbors in meaningful ways.”
And to re-emphasize, I don’t disagree that evangelicals — starting with yours truly — have a ton of work to do in this regard. But if I may be so bold, it takes a particular blend of youth and brashness to assert only now, in the wake of one’s own declaration, should all of evangelical Christianity “begin” to do something. In fact, I bet Merritt doesn’t even believe this statement. If pressed, I’m sure he would confess that some (maybe even many) evangelicals out there are having the kind of conversations he wants to see. But speaking as one who is prone to the same kind of thing, these are the kind of stretches one makes when one is 26, fond of offering advice, and levying a criticism of one’s own people in a venue friendly to such critiques. This is one reason I am so thankful for EFM’s own David French, who has done more than he probably knows to teach me that gleefully piling on the Religious Right is just as much a sin as self-righteously tossing vitriol at homosexuals.
Just one more bit, because I need to get ready for work:
And it doesn’t end with dialogue. Let us not forget that love is not only a noun, but also a verb. Love is an action. Our assertions that we love our neighbors must be accompanied by visible expressions of that love. Therefore, we need to begin looking for ways to affirm, rather than undermine, our claims to love our gay neighbors.
As Christians, we clearly won’t be able to support any and everything. For example, our biblical convictions prohibit a redefinition of marriage. Yet, there are other areas where we may be able to offer support. We should support protecting our gay and lesbian neighbors from discrimination in the workplace and cleaning up the legal cobwebs that govern hospital visitation rights and inheritance for same-sex couples.
Scripture says the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law, gives life. A spirit of love in public policy is one that all Christians can support.
Unfortunately, some evangelical groups, such as the Family Research Council and Vision America, oppose even minor concessions, claiming we should not “normalize” homosexuality in our culture. But, these groups seemingly fail to realize that our role as Christians is not to delegitimize the existence of those who do not share our beliefs. Our job is to mirror Christ by loving people in spite of our differences and advocating for our culture’s disenfranchised groups. Only then can we effectively share with them the reasons that we believe our beliefs are most compelling.
We don’t have to compromise our convictions to do this. As Christians, we remain committed to the truth. Failing to speak the truth is both disingenuous and the antithesis of love.
I haven’t studied the particular public policy question Merritt raises here extensively — and I hope David, who surely has, will weigh in — but I’m inclined to agree with him. But once again, I think his rhetoric goes too far. It’s fine to disagree with FRC, as I often do. But it seems to me he is a bit dismissive of the concern that “we should not ‘normalize’ homosexuality in our culture,” and that he steps over the line by linking that to “delegitimiz[ing] the existence of those who do not share our beliefs.” I’m not totally clear on what he’s trying to do here, but to assert that saying homosexuality is not the “normal” orientation of human beings consitutes “delegitimizing the existence” of homosexuals is to concede perhaps the most central ground in the battle over biblical teaching on sexuality. As those who live in a fallen world, we certainly have to have compassion — in our words, actions, and even thoughts — toward those who are enmeshed in sexual brokenness. That means all kinds, not just homosexuality. Indeed, we have to admit that “they” really means “us” — Christians are not exempt from these trials and sins. But one of the very ways we should be compassionate is never to say such behavior is morally okay — whether it’s homosexual conduct, heterosexual adultery, or just plain old unbridled lust. After all, there is no compassion in telling a sick man he is really well, and I’m concerned that Merritt’s statement here treads a bit too close to doing so.
There’s more of Merritt’s piece left to discuss, but there is not more of my time this morning. I’ll try to return to it later, and I suspect one or both Frenches will weigh in, too. But needless to say, those of us who care about social issues — and evangelicals’ engagement in the culture more generally — need to grapple with arguments like his.