Twelve years ago I proudly marched in my first Gay Pride parade. Yes, I was afraid! A lifetime of being vilified within American culture and condemned as “inherently disordered” by the church I love and served would not easily loosen its harsh grip.
A few short months before that Sunday in June 2002 I had been the pastor of the Church of St. Luke – an iconic institution a block down Summit Avenue from the Governor’s Mansion. I had been a priest for thirteen years and a Jesuit for twenty-three. The stark contrast between preaching and presiding at Sunday liturgy and now marching in the Pride parade down Hennepin Avenue could not have been more acute.
I have come to believe what I only intuitively knew twelve years ago – the turmoil and debates in Christian churches are not ultimately about my sexual orientation or even sexuality in general. Our biggest fight is really about our understanding of Scripture and its use in exercising authority and maintaining order in our communities.
If it were really about sexual orientation and behaviors there would be more than enough “inherent disorder” among heterosexuals to keep the defenders of moral rectitude busy! As Luke Timothy Johnson – distinguished professor of New Testament at Emory University and father of four – incisively points out, a relatively small set of same-sex behaviors gets singled out for moral condemnation while a vast pandemic of sexual disorder goes ignored.
It’s a moral duplicity as old as the human race! The LGBT minority offers a convenient scapegoat onto which the cultural majority easily projects its own moral failings. Righteous indignation often compensates for the human state of powerlessness. Long ago I learned to be especially wary of any who would sit in moral judgment – what is so out of control in their own lives that they feel the need to control mine or the lives of others? From my way of reading the Gospels, this resonates with what Jesus preached. And for that, he was scapegoated by those who claimed seats of authority.
As Luke Timothy Johnson convincingly asserts is an essay cited below, a moral obligation confronts those of us who experience God at work among all persons and in all covenanted and life-enhancing forms of sexual love. Believe me, those who are gay understand fully that the authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial to us.
At the same time, we must honestly ask when has Christianity ever been lived in precise accord with the Scriptures? Forget about reconciling war with Jesus’ Scriptural teachings of nonviolence, I am regularly exasperated with Catholic bishops who wantonly ignore its own Just War tradition while giving tacit approbation to whatever military action our government chooses to deploy.
Scripture and tradition are conveniently and regularly set aside by bishops no less those of us who populate the pews every weekend. What about divorce? Even under another name such as “annulment”, Jesus explicitly prohibits it! And where would we be if Christians ever faithfully observed the exhortation in Leviticus to put adulterers to death? Must wives be submissive to their husbands to have a good Christian marriage?
Yes, something sacred is at stake. The authority of Scripture and of the church’s tradition is scarcely trivial. As Professor Johnson demands, our responsibility is to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.
Again relying heavily on Johnson’s compelling insights, our situation vis-à-vis the authority of Scripture is not unlike that of abolitionists in nineteenth-century America. All abolitionists could point to was Galatians 3:28 and the Letter of Philemon, while slave owners had the rest of the Old and New Testaments which gave every indication that slaveholding was legitimate and necessary. Scripture explicitly sanctions slavery as a God-ordained social arrangement, one to which neither Moses nor Jesus nor Paul raised any fundamental objection.
So how is it that now, in the early twenty-first century, the authority of the scriptural texts on slavery and the arguments made on their basis appear to all of us, without exception, as completely beside the point and deeply wrong? The answer is that over time the human experience of slavery and its horror came home to the popular conscience.
Eventually, though begrudgingly, we came to recognize that every human being is created in God’s own image. Once that experience of their full humanity and the evil of their bondage reached a stage of critical consciousness, this nation and our churches could neither turn back to the practice of slavery nor ever read the Bible in the same way again.
Those of us who call for full recognition of gay and lesbian persons within the Christian communion find ourselves in a position similar to that of the early abolitionists. We are fully aware of the weight of scriptural evidence pointing away from our position.
To justify our resolve, we invoke the basic Pauline principle that the Spirit gives life but the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6). And if the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.
Paul struggled mightily! Ultimately he recognized he could not force the God of Jesus Christ into the framework of his community’s previous understanding of what it means to be a people in covenant relationship with God. Instead, he called others to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture with new eyes and a transformed heart. We too journey to Damascus and are at times startled to recognize Christ in those we previously rejected if not persecuted.
Quite simply, we would not revere the New Testament as sacred if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own stories and experiences more than the prescriptions contained in their sacred texts —writings we, as did they, cherish as holy and inspired by God.
It is extraordinarily important, as well, that we who assert convictions based on the graced experience of our lives not just accept “cheap” or “easy” grace – as if whatever feels good is morally acceptable. What grounds our Scriptural defense is our own lived experience of those profound stories of bondage and freedom, longing and love, shared by thousands of persons over many centuries and across many cultures, that help define us as human.
Our obligation, therefore, is to name what constitutes virtue and vice in sexual behavior. A good start would be applying the same criteria on both sides. If porneia among heterosexuals includes promiscuity, violence and exploitation, then the church must condemn similar forms of homosexual activity. Similarly, if holiness among heterosexuals includes fidelity, chastity, modesty, and fruitfulness, we should celebrate and praise the same virtues whenever and wherever present in same-sex love.
The creative, redemptive work of our living God never ceases. The Spirit blows as and where she will. As people and as the People of God, we continue to be shaped as imagio Dei every day of our lives in ways that can surprise and even shock us. This fact cuts to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.
In this perennial struggle to come to the fullness of faith, brave witnesses like Paul refused to force their experience of the Risen One into the “old wineskins” of any dogmatic or literal understanding of Scripture. Instead, they followed the invitation to give witness to Christ alive among them. In the light of that experience, they began to reread and reinterpret all of their Scripture as prophecy that reveals God in ways they had not perceived before—and could not have perceived before.
In short, we would not have the New Testament as Scripture if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own bodies more than the precedents provided by their most cherished writings—writings we also, by the way, consider holy and inspired by God.
Jesus reserves his harshest judgment for the Pharisees’ willful narrowing of God’s initiative and intentions. They obstinately clung to their own sense of righteousness rather than acknowledging God’s prerogative and propensity to work in ways their moral categories could not contain. In this we see that human history truly does reveal salvation history!
Yes, much has changed in the last twelve years. Much more needs to change – and this by God’s design and initiative. This Sunday morning I don’t know if I will be at the parade or at church. It will come down to how the Spirit moves me! My hunch is I will be in the pew at Christ the King Catholic Church.
In any case, let’s all celebrate where we’ve been, where we’ve come and where we’re headed — with parades and in our churches. Happy Pride!
This reflection is largely an edit and synopsis of Luke Timothy Johnson’s superb essay, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture and Experience” that first appeared in the June 11, 2007 issue of Commonweal magazine. In writing, I made the judgment that extensive citations and quotations would be distracting. Nevertheless, I must express my esteem for and indebtedness to Professor Johnson. I enthusiastically encourage you to read his more extensive and compelling essay [here].