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I remember the first time I found you online. It was 1997. Your website had more clip art then. I had spent the summer in DC, working for an anti-gay lobby — one that some regard as a hate group.

You were always there to make us feel better about ourselves. We could publish all the fear-inducing propaganda we wanted. But as long as we didn’t actually put the words “God hates fags” on our materials, we weren’t as bad as you. We could always count on Westboro Baptist Church to make us look kind and loving by comparison.

I thought of you that summer when I wrote my booklet. I even wrote this last bit just to prove we weren’t like you:

When confronted with fallen man’s sexuality, we must always return to the biblical norm. We must always do so out of love for our fellow man.

We wanted many of the same things as you. But where you were motivated by hate, we were driven by love… at least that’s what we told ourselves. You were the speck of dust I conveniently used to ignore the plank in my own eye.

In hindsight, the impact of our rhetoric was perhaps more insidious because we masqueraded as loving. You didn’t bother with pretense. You didn’t feign compassion while suggesting that gays are latent child predators who deserve to be locked up.

The reason it felt so good to despise you was because it kept me from facing the darkness that lurked in my own heart.

A decade later, I saw you again, this time on a BBC documentary. By 2008, I was not the same person who wrote that booklet in 1997. You only made a brief appearance in The Most Hated Family in America, but it was enough to convince me that all that hate was more than just a ploy for attention. “This is somebody who was addicted to rage and anger,” one filmmaker said about you.

Now you’re gone. If I’m honest, I don’t want you in the kingdom of God. I don’t want you to find mercy and forgiveness. I want you to feel the weight of all the hurt you caused.

And that worries me, because it means I don’t want God to be as merciful as he wants to be. I don’t want him to leave the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. Not in this case.

It also means I’m more like you than I care to admit. You always made it clear that you didn’t give a rip whether anyone had a change of heart because of your protests. When someone asked if you ever pray for the salvation of those you condemn, you bellowed, “Of course not!” You were happy to watch souls burn. You were convinced God had already preselected you and a handful of others for salvation. And you despised anyone who hoped God might cast his love a bit wider.

If I cheer for your damnation, then I am no different from you. I won’t make that mistake. Not anymore. I want a merciful God. I want a God who sees no one as beyond rescuing, not even from their own hatred.

So I will pray for your repose, Fred Phelps. I pray that perpetual light shines on you. I don’t know if we get a second chance after death, but if we do, I pray that yours will be to discover a God who is infinitely more loving than you dared to imagine. I still pray you’ll feel the weight of all the hurt you caused, but that you will find forgiveness and mercy for it, too. Because I need that just as much as you do.

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Not that long ago, a friend came out of the closet to me. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew it wasn’t my place to express an opinion on the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships, especially when I wasn’t even sure what I believed about that anymore.

What I did know was that I cared about my friend. I owed it to them — and myself — to reconsider what I had always assumed by default to be true, to make sure I’d thought this through, listened to the other side, considered all possibilities. That’s something I’d never really done before.

In the end, what motivated my decision to reconsider wasn’t some big epiphany. It was a friend.

Courtesy Spencer E Holtaway

Recently, when Facebook announced it was offering 51 additional gender identities for people to choose from, conservative pundits reacted with predictable outrage. But even some of us who aren’t conservative were probably tempted to roll our eyes at the news.

Then a friend on Facebook started using one of the 51 new options. Suddenly it didn’t seem like PC sensitivity run amok. To my friend, it meant safety. Validation. Reassurance they were OK even if they didn’t fit neatly into one of the only two categories previously available to them.

Photo by ChodHound on Flickr

I’m not saying all of this is simple. Figuring out what you should believe isn’t always an easy task. But our first (and perhaps only) response to someone who is gay or who identifies according to a gender category we’ve never even heard of… well, let me suggest that part IS simple.

If our first impulse is anything other than to love, embrace, and accept the other person as they are, then we have missed the boat.  

You might say I’m being overly simplistic. You might argue this kind of acceptance only encourages people down a destructive path.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether loving someone of the same gender or identifying as “non-binary” on Facebook causes actual harm to someone. That’s a debatable assumption at best. The real problem with any other response is that you start to see issues instead of people. You begin treating loved ones as problems to be solved, instead of divine image-bearers who were made to be cherished.

Well, I’m done viewing others as problems that need to be fixed.

AFP, Isaac Kasamani

If you want to know where treating people as problems gets you, just look at Uganda.

The president of Uganda just signed a bill to solve the “problem” of homosexuality in his country. The law makes homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment in some cases. It requires citizens to denounce anyone they suspect of being gay.

One Ugandan newspaper wasted no time complying with that last provision, publishing a list of “200 top homos.” The last time a paper did this in Uganda, the names and addresses were run under the headline “Hang Them.” A gay rights campaigner was bludgeoned to death.

Defending the Bill, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, described gays as “beasts of the forest.” To him, homosexuality is a disease to be cured. Lokodo has even suggested that heterosexual child rape is preferable to consensual sex between two male adults.

That’s where you end up when you start viewing members of the LGBT community — or anyone else, for that matter — as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

—//—

I used to look down on those who started questioning longstanding beliefs, all because they knew someone who was gay. I used to think the strength of your convictions was measured by your willingness to hold them no matter what the fallout, no matter how much hurt they caused.

Then I remembered that “love does no harm to a neighbor.” I remembered that the FIRST thing we should see in someone else is the divine imprint, the image of God staring back at us.

Whatever your beliefs may be, if you don’t start here, then there’s no way to get it right.

Maybe caring about a friend is one of the best reasons you could have to reevaluate your convictions.

[Photo credits: Spencer E Holtaway, ChodHound on Flickr, Isaac Kasamani/AFP]

lz granderson tweet

So there was a forum in Grand Rapids last night on being gay and Christian.

Keep in mind this is a city where you can barely throw a stick without hitting a church. Or a Christian publisher.

With just two nights to go, only a dozen or so people had registered. But last night, Wealthy Street Theatre was packed.

wealthy streetThe presentations were good. Some were really good. And sure, some parts could have been better. (Twenty minutes probably isn’t enough to meaningfully address all six “clobber texts” in the Bible.)

But what mattered more than the presentations were the people who made them.

A respected psychologist.

The son of a famous pastor.

A card-carrying member of the Christian Reformed Church.

A woman who described herself as representing the black Southern Pentecostal lesbian community.

All of them gay. All of them Christian. All of them saying, “Yes, it can be both.”

And people showed up. Most were ready to listen, judging by their demeanor during the presentations and the Q&A that followed.

Sure, 500 people is a tiny fraction of the local population. Heck, it’s a tiny fraction of the local Christian population. (This is Grand Rapids, remember.)

But it’s a start.

I suspect that most Christians have never truly examined their convictions on this issue. Most of us have inherited our beliefs and assumptions without ever really questioning them. Most of us have taken someone else’s word for it that there’s only one way to interpret the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality — assuming it addresses the subject at all. (Side note: when someone tells you there’s only one way to interpret a 2,000 year-old text, be suspicious.)

But I think all that is starting to change, as the safe, sanitized worlds we’ve built for ourselves begin to collapse…

As “LGBT” ceases to be a distant concept for most of us…

As people we know and love — sons, daughters, uncles, parents, friends — come out of the closet.

We owe them more than an unexamined theology of condemnation.

We owe it to them to not just cling to our inherited beliefs and assumptions by default.

We owe it to them to “test everything” — including our own convictions, prejudices, and assumptions.

We owe it to them to hold on to what is good.

All I can say is, I saw a lot that was good in Wealthy Street Theater last night.

About Leviticus 18…

5 March 2012 — 7 Comments

Leviticus may be foreign territory for most Christians, but we’ve all heard Leviticus 18:22 (and its sister passage, Leviticus 20:13). This is one of a handful of “clobber texts” used to argue that homosexuality is unacceptable.

For many, Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual activity in the Bible. But hang on a minute. Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t just sit there by itself. It has a context that shapes its meaning, as I was reminded while reading the whole book recently.

Many of us have assumed there’s only one way to interpret this text. But what if we’re wrong?

I can think of three options for interpreting/applying Leviticus 18:22 today.

Option #1: The conduct described in Leviticus 18 is universally prohibited because it violates the “natural order” of things.

Several, actually. (credit: zazzle.com)

On the surface, this view has a lot going for it. It’s the traditional view. It’s how most Christians through time have understood Leviticus 18. (It’s also how I read this text for most of my life.)

We can all agree (I hope) that at least most of the behaviors described in Leviticus 18 are unhealthy. There are 17 “do not’s” in this chapter, including the one about a man sleeping with another man. Twelve of the 17 “do not’s” deal with incest. One involves sex with animals (18:23).

But Leviticus 18 isn’t always clear-cut. What, for example, do you do with the command about “sexual relations during [a woman’s] monthly period” (18:19)? Leviticus forbids that too. Most Christians I know don’t think we’re obligated to keep this law today. And it certainly isn’t something we’d put in the same category as, say, an old man molesting his grandchild (18:10).

Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage provides a good example of the typical evangelical approach to passages like Leviticus 18:19. Driscoll argues there’s a difference between Leviticus’ ceremonial laws (which deal with “the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and so forth”) and its moral laws. The latter are repeated in the New Testament and are still binding; the former applied only to Israel and are no longer in force. Driscoll puts the prohibition against sleeping with a menstruating woman into the “ceremonial law” category and says it’s “no longer binding on us.” But he considers everything else in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition against a man sleeping with another man, as moral (and therefore binding) law.

And that’s the problem with Driscoll’s approach. He makes a special exception for one verse in Leviticus 18 (the one most likely to affect him, conveniently enough) while insisting the others still apply. He acts as if Leviticus needs our help sorting its laws into meaningful categories. He and most evangelicals treat Leviticus as if it were a random assortment of laws, given without rhyme or reason — a jumble of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws listed in no particular order.

This approach ignores the inherent literary structure of Leviticus and imposes artificial categories on its content. So we miss what should be painfully obvious: Leviticus 18 is a single unit of content. Its beginning and end are clearly indicated. The laws here are grouped together for a reason. (More on that later.) In other words, Leviticus makes no distinction between sex during a woman’s period and the other activities prohibited in chapter 18.

All of them are described as “detestable practices” or abominations (Hebrew, toh-ey-vah), which Israel is to avoid at all costs. Leviticus 20 goes even further, calling for any man who sleeps with his wife during her monthly period to be “cut off from their people.” (The term translated “cut off” can also mean annihilate, kill, or amputate. In other words, more than just a slap on the wrist.)

But this is where Leviticus gets confusing (even more so than usual). Because just a few chapters earlier, sex during a woman’s period is characterized as a minor infraction, resulting in a man being ritually unclean for a week.

So which is it? Cut off from the community entirely? Or briefly excluded from ceremonial worship? Make up your mind, Leviticus!

The point is, almost all of us are selective about which regulations in Leviticus 18 we view as universally binding. Unfortunately, the categories we use to distinguish between “binding” and “non-binding” don’t take into consideration the content and structure of the book itself.

For the sake of consistency (if nothing else), we should either accept all the prohibitions in this chapter or concede that option #1 isn’t as persuasive as it first seemed.

Option #2: Leviticus 18 is addressing the issue of sexual conduct within the context of worship.

To start, let’s look at the larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts of Leviticus 18.

First, the larger context. Leviticus 18 is part of a book whose name means “pertaining to the Levites,” i.e. the Israelite priestly clan. Leviticus was Israel’s liturgical playbook. It dealt primarily with matters pertaining to worship: sacrifices, ritual cleanness, holiness, and the practice of redeeming property. Its chief purpose was to help Israel distinguish between what was holy and what was common as it related to worship, so they could avoid “defiling [God’s] dwelling place.”

Now zoom in a little closer. Leviticus 18 is surrounded by prohibitions concerning idolatry. Chapter 17 includes laws against sacrificing animals outside the tabernacle and against eating blood — both of which were pagan practices. Chapter 19 also addresses a number of pagan practices, including making idols, divination, and ritual self-mutilation.

So the larger context of Leviticus 18 suggests it has something to do with worship. The surrounding context narrows the focus to idolatry. Both are indications that Leviticus 18 might not be making a broad statement about human sexuality.

Now look at the immediate context. Notice how chapter 18 begins:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” ’

Next, notice how Leviticus 18 ends:

‘ “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” ’

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 are introduced with a warning for Israel not to imitate its former neighbors (the Egyptians) or its new ones (the Canaanites). The behaviors listed here are called toh-ey-vah in Hebrew (“detestable things” or “abominations”), a term used to describe that which is prohibited in worship. To do as Egypt and Canaan did was to become taw-may — that is, “defiled” or “ritually unclean.” In other words, unfit for worship. 

The larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts all indicate that Leviticus 18 is addressing matters of worship. In other words, the prohibitions are dealing with various forms of ritual sex.

Ritual sex was common among many ancient religious traditions. Temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes (which explains why Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was able to pass herself off as a “shrine prostitute” in Genesis).

If there’s any doubt Leviticus 18 is addressing religious practice, notice how it brings up another form of idolatry, child sacrifice, smack in the middle of all these sexual prohibitions:

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a Canaanite deity], for you must not profane the name of your God.

The message of Leviticus 18 is that pagan practices like ritual sex and child sacrifice have no place in Israelite worship. The Egyptians and Canaanites may have done these things when they worshipped their gods, but this was not how Yahweh was to be worshiped.

Option #3: Leviticus 18 is dealing with predatory sexual behavior.

Another view (not incompatible with option #2) is that Leviticus 18 forbids predatory sexual activity.

Like most of Leviticus, the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are addressed to adult males. And for good reason. In the ancient Near Eastern family hierarchy, adult males always outranked females. Women were inferior, second-class. They were property. Even in the Old Testament law, women were valued less than their male counterparts, literally. For the purpose of making a sacred vow, for example, Leviticus set the value of men and women as follows:

  • Men (20-60 years old): 50 shekels of silver
  • Women (20-60 years old): 30 shekels of silver

(Remember what I wrote about Leviticus not being an easy book to like?)

Most of the prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are incestuous in nature. But there’s another common thread connecting them all: each prohibited act involves an imbalance of power.

Sex in the ancient Near East was often a way of asserting dominance over someone else. That’s what was going on in the story of Sodom. That’s what was going on when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine; he was presumptuously asserting his power over the rest of the family as the firstborn son.

Predatory behavior is also in view in Leviticus’ prohibition against male homosexual activity (female homosexual activity is never mentioned in the Old Testament):

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

The phrase “as one does with a woman” is key. It emphasizes the passive, weaker role played by one of the two men. Which is exactly what you’d have if, as suggested by option #2, Leviticus 18:22 is describing an act of ritual sex in which one of the two members is a temple prostitute (and most likely a slave). In this case, the act becomes very predatory indeed. It was about one man brutally asserting his dominance over another, reducing him to the much lower status (in that culture) of a woman.

Every single act prohibited in Leviticus 18, whatever else it may be, can be understood as predatory — one person wrongly asserting their dominance over another.

One advantage of this view is that it helps explain Leviticus 18 in light of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the very next chapter. Jesus, like many Jews of his day, insisted that this was one of the two greatest commands in all of Scripture (the other being “love the Lord your God”).

Every other command — all 611 of them — had to be interpreted in light of these two. Everything else was subordinate to “love God” and “love your neighbor.”

When understood as prohibitions against predatory sexual behavior, the commands in Leviticus 18 make perfect sense as an application of “love your neighbor.” In other words, do not prey on the vulnerable or the weak. Do not take advantage of your neighbor, sexually or otherwise.

These are the three ways I can think of to interpret Leviticus 18. What options do you see for understanding this text?

If Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against ritual, predatory sex, then what it doesn’t address is a committed, equal relationship between two males or two females. It seems that Leviticus 18:22 can only be used as arsenal in the debate over homosexuality when it’s pulled out of its cultural, literary, and religious context.

Of course, much is made of the fact that Leviticus calls a man “lying with another man” a “defiling” and “detestable” act. But take note of what else was considered “defiling,” “detestable,” or the antithesis of “holy,” according to Leviticus:

  • Eating “unclean” animals, including pork, rabbit, and shellfish
  • Eating raw or rare meat
  • Cross-breeding animals
  • Wearing mixed fabrics
  • Cutting the hair at the sides of your head
  • Clipping the edges off your beard
  • Anyone with a skin disease
  • Anyone who was disfigured in any way — the blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs, eunuchs, etc. — and thus prohibited from serving God

Today, we don’t exclude people with physical impairments from serving in the church. We don’t call someone “unholy” for trimming their sideburns. Most of us don’t see anything defiling or detestable about eating pork or ordering our steak medium rare. We wouldn’t ostracize someone with eczema or write them off as “defiled.”

What if our reading of Leviticus is too selective? What if Leviticus has nothing to offer when it comes to the contemporary debate over sexual identity?

This is what I think was missing from Cornerstone’s response to the recent Soulforce visit.

Hospitality.

Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was in Turkey a couple years ago, we visited places that few Americans have heard of, much less traveled to. Towns where poverty is the norm, Islam is the only religion, and women wear head coverings and ankle-length dresses.

How did the people in these towns reacted when they met a large group of Westerners who, by their standards, were ridiculously wealthy, immodestly dressed, and hopelessly apostate?

Hostility? Suspicion? Ambivalence?

One woman we met began cutting sprigs of rosemary from the bushes in front of her house, giving them to each of us. A 12-year-old boy scoured his family’s already-harvested vineyard till he found a cluster of grapes (one of the few missed by the harvesters) to offer us.

A woman who had not yet harvested her grapes ran to her vineyard and came back with enough for all 50 of us—she handed us about a fifth of her total harvest that day. Another family saw us hiking up the mountain on the outskirts of town. When we returned, they met us with fruit and freshly baked bread.

We were strangers. Outsiders. Infidels, even. Yet they treated us like one of their own—and better. Why? Because that’s what you do in a hospitality culture. If anyone—even your enemy—arrives on your doorstep, you welcome them into your home. They have come under your protection, and you’re responsible for whatever happens to them while they’re under your roof.

This is the culture of hospitality we encounter in the Bible. It was simply taken for granted that when a stranger came to town, regardless of who they were or where they came from, you made sure they were taken care of. Towns that didn’t? Well, they had a history of getting burnt to a crisp.

The true measure of our love for Christ is not how we treat our friends, but how we treat those we normally think of as our enemies. Let’s all stop thinking of them as enemies and start seeing them first as human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

The other day I got a letter from Cornerstone University, informing me that a pro-gay religious group called Soulforce was planning a campus visit and explaining how the school planned to respond.

Cards on the table… I graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary (which is part of Cornerstone) five years ago. I happen to share their belief that human sexuality is a gift from God, meant to be expressed between a man and woman in a monogamous, covenant relationship.

I also believe the second greatest command in all of scripture is to “love your neighbor” (which Jesus said is like the greatest command, to love God)—and that our “neighbor,” as defined by Jesus, is the very person we are most likely to fear, hate, resent, etc. After all, that’s how Jesus’ audience viewed the Samaritan, the hero of Jesus’ most famous parable.

So what should an evangelical university do when the gay community pays a visit?

In the letter, Cornerstone described Soulforce as a group “whose purpose is to undermine and destroy the biblical values we affirm.” Cornerstone noted that decision to say no to Soulforce’s visit was based on a distinction between “how we may respond to a person… versus how we may respond to an organization.”

When two Soulforce members showed up anyway (after giving the university advance notice), they were arrested for trespassing. According to Cornerstone’s president, Soulforce is “not really interested in dialogue; they want media visuals. They want to be seen being arrested. They like being portrayed as victims.”

The incident raises three questions for me:

1) Do we have the right to attribute motive to those we disagree with? It’s one thing to say that someone’s beliefs and behaviors contradict our understanding of the Bible. But when we accuse someone of deliberately undermining biblical values, have we crossed a line? Have we begun to judge hearts and minds? Isn’t that God’s prerogative alone? Are we violating Jesus’ command to “judge not, lest [we] be judged”?

2) Is it possible to separate our response to an organization from our response to a person? Can we give the cold shoulder to a group like Soulforce and still love—I mean really love, not just tolerate—those who belong to Soulforce?

3) Is it fair to say that Soulforce is more interested in theatrics than dialogue? Perhaps they are, but then how do we explain the apparently healthy dialogue that has taken place at schools like Seattle Pacific (not far from where I live) and Calvin College (just down the street from Cornerstone)? These schools that found a way to welcome Soulforce without necessarily compromising their evangelical convictions.