After this past month’s historic ruling by the Supreme Court, I’ve hesitated to write anything. Not because I don’t have convictions, but because I don’t want my words used as a weapon, sparking more inflammatory shouting between groups that are growing further and further apart.
I’d like, if my words can do anything, for them to serve as a kind of medicine for people who are confused and anxious. I’d like for them to serve to heal those who have been, or are being injured by the subsequent, widening social divide (a divide that I think we are going to continue to see grow).
And if that resonates with you, than please read on, I think I have some good news for you.
The Suffering of Shame
Three months ago, at the Q conference Dr. Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College (who was recently at the center of a discrimination controversy between LGBT rights and a Christian college) gave a talk where he brought up the famous ASCH social conformity experiment.
You’ve heard of this experiment before. It’s where a test student is brought into a class and shown a picture of 3 separate lines all with differing lengths.
The teacher then asks the question “Which one of these lines is longest?” And each member of the class verbally responds with their answer. The catch is that everyone in the class has been coached to give the wrong answer, and the real experiment has nothing to do with a person’s ability to measure lines. It has everything to do with a persons ability to not conform to what everyone else around them is doing.
And the answer was shocking. About 75% of the test subjects wrote down that the answers that were obviously wrong but conveniently popular.
Now we don’t need a social experiment to tell us that, it’s something that we all experience everyday. We all have a strong need to conform, to be liked, and to be like the people we like. But while this is a very strong pull on the human heart, conformity has never been a Christian virtue. In fact, from the beginning it was assumed that Jesus followers would be a different kind of people than the rest of the world.
But that involves some level of discomfort. In fact, I would argue that what most of my Christian friends are calling persecution these days is not persecution (In light of the very real persecution that our Middle-Eastern brothers and sisters are facing at the hands of ISIS, using that word shows a lack of global awareness).
We’re not struggling with persecution, we’re struggling with popularity, and the loss of privilege…a very real struggle to be sure, but not quite persecution. And that’s a struggle that the LGBT community is already very familiar with.
For hundreds of years, to be gay, closeted or not, was to live a life of great shame, either internally or externally. I certainly have plenty of gay friends stories that come to mind as I write these words, I’ve sat and cried with them and I’ll bet some of you reading this have too.
I’ve found that people who have known suffering often are very empathetic, compassionate people. In my experience with gay friends, that’s certainly been the case. It will be easy over the next few weeks and months for us to focus in on the louder, more shrill voices of cable television or articles designed for clickbait.
But there are better stories than those, and today I’d like to highlight one.
The very next presenter at the Q conference was the popular blogger and prominent LGBT activist Andrew Sullivan. And he said some of the most wonderful things to a room full of Jesus followers. I found him deeply empathetic and articulate as he responded to Michael’s talk:
“I found what Michael had to say very moving., and the spirit that he offered it in more moving still. And the personal hurt that he clearly experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really pains me to think that people would stigmatize, demonize, and attack people for the sincerity of their religious faith, whatever that religion would be. And I think that the Gordon College thing was a clear step beyond anything we’ve seen before. There is an element of intolerance…I think the experience of feeling out of sync with the culture, and being demonized by it is a terrible feeling to have.”
Watch the video and notice how gracious and compassionate Sullivan is. And then listen with just as much of an open heart as you can to his next statement.
A Church for the World, Not a Worldly Church
“I would just ask in return, that people understand that for centuries gay people were thrown out of their own families, their own churches, put in jail, hanged in this country, executed around the world. That the gay people went through an unbelievable trauma in the 80’s and 90’s in which 300,000 people died. Which is 5x the number of people who died in the Vietnam war during the same period of time…and where were you all?…The experience that many people here (at the conference) are now having was the core and total experience that gay people in many Christian societies experienced forever. We were jailed, we had hormones inflicted upon us…the number of young people killing themselves (within Evangelical communities) is real.
Now I’m accountable to a tradition, and to a people who believe that the greatest joy a human being can have is found in discovering the pleasure of God.
On our better days the reasons conservative Christians have drawn a line in the sand here is because we believed the pleasure of God is worth giving up everything else for, and we, perhaps mistakenly, have tried setting up a society that reflected (and at it’s worst imposed) that.
I come from a tradition that follows a celibate man who I happen to believe was the happiest man who ever walked the face of the earth. But not everyone comes from that tradition, and so those outside of it are now asking for, and receiving, the very things I would probably ask for were I in their shoes.
They’ve done the work of changing the culture by creating culture. Something not to be dismissed. The LGBT community has entered into and worked hard in every arena of society…from entertainment, politics, education, religion and literature.
They’ve exerted an inordinate amount of influence in a incredibly short amount of time and that’s something that any group of people who is interested in shaping the world should learn from.
Being counter-cultural is the call of Jesus for His Church. Hearing from my friends across the world Christianity is doing better than ever, it’s just not taking the form of Christendom anymore. There’s a vibrancy that happens to the church when Christianity is not assumed in the host culture.
As the British Christian Mark Woods pointed out recently in Christianity Today:
The immediate consequence of this ruling, then, is an invitation to do some theology. One of the painful things for observers of the evangelical scene on both sides of the Atlantic has been the reluctance of ‘pro-marriage’ (= anti-gay marriage) campaigners to distinguish their idea of the Church from their idea of the state, as though the two were coterminous…Evangelicals (and others) have got themselves into a knot because they think the state is trying to define Christian marriage. It isn’t; it can’t, and it never could. But the long history of Christendom has allowed Christians to think that the two are the same. Most Americans have always been keen on the separation of Church and state; well, now’s the chance to find out whether you mean it.
I agree wholeheartedly. The Church is a kind of way of being in the world that is different than the world. At our best we are a church for the world and not a worldly church.
At our best we try and build bridges between injured people and help represent Jesus in the most accurate way, and to do that we’ve got to remember to love the person right in front of us. To do that we have to apologize for some stuff we shouldn’t have done, we have to search our hearts for bigotry that the Bible never supports in order to correctly articulate what it does.
At our best we realize that God gave us these stories/doctrines/ideas not for harm but for health and healing. At our best we remember that truth is not designed to injure, and we suffer along with and bear the burdens of brothers and sisters whose discipleship calls for greater sacrifice.
May God forgive us when we forget that. And thanks Andrew Sullivan for forgiving us too.