The Bible, bigotry, and same sex attraction

At a conference for High School journalists, Dan Savage gave a talk that was supposed to be about anti-bullying. Instead it was anti-Christian. As he began to talk about the “bullish*t” of what can be found in the Bible, many Christian students stood up and walked out on him—a move he later called “pansy-assed.” Here’s the video. It’s about three minutes, but be forewarned there is some swearing going on in it (not suitable if kids are nearby.)

The video has gone viral since being posted three days ago, the vast majority of people giving it a “like.” The comments below the video are horrifically anti-gay and only go to further the disgusting stereotype that Savage is bashing in his speech.

My first reaction to this video was shock. I couldn’t believe that someone could speak like that in such a public forum. If a speaker in a similar forum talked about how Jesus died for all of our sins he or she would have been rushed off the stage. But I quickly got over that. St. Peter wrote, “Don’t be surprised that a trial is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) Christians should expect to be persecuted.

My next reaction was sympathy. There was a part of me that felt bad for him. Here is a man who has been abused by people claiming to be Christian. He references being insulted and being physically beat up while others have died over this. And for him the source of blame is the Bible.

He suggests that we should overlook the prohibitions in the Bible regarding same sex activity just as we overlook things like stoning women who are adulterers. I teach a course on Scripture at Franciscan and I’ll be honest: it’s hard to read things like that in Scripture. Interestingly enough, the reason we find it hard to read is because we’ve been transformed by Christ who we also learn about in the Bible. For there are many cultures (who don’t read the Bible) who would still agree with those kind of behaviors.

If the law of God seems barbaric in the Old Testament, we have to remember that it was because 3,500 years ago humanity was barbaric, at least by our Western civilization standards of the 21st century. When you hear of the genocides that still occur today you can argue that not much has changed in some places in the world.

God slowly revealed Himself to the Israelites so that through them the world might learn what it truly means to live and love through the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. We don’t stone women anymore for adultery—”Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is one of the most famous lines of Jesus (John 8). In fact, we don’t believe in capital punishment at all (unless keeping the prisoner alive is a danger to society—an argument that makes more sense when prisoners were kept in tents and clay houses than billion dollar penitentiaries.)

Savage mentions that, “the Bible is a radically pro-slavery document.” I believe this accusation to be purposefully ignorant. Yes, St. Paul wrote of the respect and duty that slaves should have for their masters and masters for their slaves. But while the term “slave” is used in broad terms in both the Old and New Testament, it is NEVER used in the way it was experienced in America (capturing people from their native land, selling them off for profit, denying rights, justifying abuse, etc.) The Jewish people experienced that kind of slavery at the hand of the Egyptians and a strong part of their Law was to not do that to anyone else.

In the Jewish custom, a slave was more like an indentured servant who could only sell themselves, not be sold by someone else. And after six years they’d have to be released unless they begged their master to be a servant for life (Exodus 21:5) and even then only the judges could decide if that could happen.

But I understand Savage’s deeper point. In the time of slavery in America, some slave owners used the Bible to justify their actions. They were wrong to do so. In our current time, there are many America who bully and discriminate against people with same sex attractions and use the Bible to justify their actions. Guess what? They are wrong to do so, too.

Christianity has much to atone for in the way we have treated people with homosexual attractions. If only we were as shocked at the way the media portrays sinful heterosexual activity! It’s too easy to be shocked and disgusted at the sins we aren’t tempted to commit because we have no sympathy for the offender (whereas we are naturally kinder to people who struggle with our same issues.) Jesus didn’t say, “Love one another… except for the gays.” We are all commanded by Christ to love as He loved us and to treat each other with the dignity that comes from being made in the image and likeness of God. It seems clear to me that Dan Savage has never experienced that love from people who claim to know Christ but instead has experienced the opposite. And that’s why I feel such sorrow when I hear him speak.

However, just because people get the Bible wrong doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. Savage (and others) think the Bible and Christianity is the problem. If that were true then cultures not formed on the Bible should be tolerant and accepting of homosexual behavior… but that is not always the case. In a 2007 Pew Survey that asked if homosexuality should be accepted in society, Latin America, Western Europe, and Central Europe found about half agreeing with that idea. But Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, huge portions of Asia and all of Africa strongly disagreed. It’s hard to suggest that the Bible has influenced predijuce in China and India. (See the study here, page 35.)

And though I feel some sympathy for the man that doesn’t mean I sympathize at all with his position. He’s wrong and I think it was horrible that he used that opportunity with high school teenagers to bash the Bible. He would have been way more effective sharing with those teenagers the pain of being judged and condemned by by people with religious beliefs than attacking Christianity. He was “fighting back” to a group of kids who hadn’t done him any harm. It was immature and inappropriate.

I was proud of the students who walked out on him. It wasn’t “pansy-assed.” It was just the opposite. In Savage’s attempt to teach teens about not discriminating against homosexuals, he became the bully.

The world won’t see it that way. His anti-Christian rhetoric will be justified by “righteous anger” that blames all people of faith for any unjust act done against a person with same sex attraction. More and more in society today, people think to be Christian is to be a bigot. They think that we who believe that sex was made for a man and woman in marriage should hang our head in shame and stay home on voting day to atone for our sins.

Sadly, many Christians are doing just that. These issues are driving many away from the Church. It reminds me of something the artist formerly known as Ratzinger wrote in 1970 (from his book Faith and the Future, this quote taken from here) :

“The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.

She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…

The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 

Smaller but stronger. A Church who’s strength is built not on the amount of her followers but the depth of her love for God and neighbor.

So how should we treat those who speak against us? With love. How should we behave towards those with same sex attractions? Love. What should we do to those who support and provide abortions? Love. How should we treat our enemies? Love.

But—and forgive me for using a phrase that Savage employed—not a “pansy-ass” love that says that everything is fine no matter what you do. A love that is rooted in truth. A love that is rooted in mercy. A love that is rooted in Jesus Christ.

Our love of God and neighbor means we can’t silent on these issues, no matter what persecution we will face, no matter what people may think of us when we do. And when we speak we must do so “with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than from doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:16-17)

Don’t expect to be understood. Don’t be surprised at the trial. And don’t lose hope for this culture. “Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:8)