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Friday, February 03, 2012

Can pro-gay and anti-gay Christians work together against gay bullying?

By Ben DeVan

In light of several high profile cases of gay related bullying, this essay may disgruntle almost everyone who reads it.

First, it may anger bullies who want sympathizers or "boys will be boys / girls will be girls" dismissers of bullying among religious believers who see homosexuality as against God's intent, having harmful physical / mental health risks, and symptomizing "societal decay."

Second, it may irk anti-homosexuality religious believers, a number of who may inwardly -- even to their own horror -- sympathize with bullies, even if they would never engage in bullying themselves, or who view bullying as collateral damage in a societal struggle of sexual virtue vs. vice.

Third, it may upset pro-homosexuality religious and/or gay activists who, like some of their conservative counterparts, see concessions or cooperation across these particular lines as unacceptable appeasement, betrayal, or compromise in a zero sum game where anything less than worldwide celebration (or condemnation), and not mere tolerance or acceptance of homosexuality, is complicity with evil or holding hands with haters.

To my gay activist and pro-homosexuality religious friends: don't too quickly dismiss potential allies from the other side. When mostly Christian and Muslim affiliated Uganda began considering harsh sanctions against various homosexual acts, some of the most vocal American opponents were public figures and organizations associated with "anti-gay" politics: Charles Colson, Rick Warren, and Exodus International, to name just a few.

Rick and Kay Warren are also active in the worldwide battle against AIDS, a disease often associated with homosexuality and causing massive suffering to its homosexual and heterosexual victims. In his 1988 20 Hot Potatoes Christians are Afraid to Touch, progressive Evangelical Tony Campolo shared that Evangelicals as early as the 1980s organized benefit concerts with thousands in attendance donating proceeds to fight AIDS. Likewise, one of my (once self-described) fundamentalist friends raises awareness of gay human rights issues in Iran. He says, “I don’t think homosexuality is good, but I don’t believe in beheading or imprisoning gays for homosexual acts. We should protect people persecuted for any reason, including their sexuality.” Finally, a college administrator friend who is also a Southern Baptist received a report about a faculty member who told a student that s/he "hate(s) homosexuals." My friend responded swiftly and professionally. I cannot give details, but the situation resolved in a conciliatory manner that would please readers of multiple political persuasions.

I can already imagine the comments section bristling with objections that anti-homosexuality religious believers, simply by holding or expressing beliefs that homosexuality is harmful or wrong, disregard or contribute to a milieu that allows for, even encourages bullying of gays. Point taken. I can see this as sometimes but not always true, in that opposing homosexuality can translate into irritation, which can conceive hatred, which may give birth to violence or discrimination against homosexuals. To be fair, there is sometimes violence and discrimination against people who oppose homosexuality or admit to anything less than an enthusiastic endorsement of it. But pretending that political and religious agreement are essential to civility or to standing against bullying denies human capacity for nuance.

St. Augustine may have originated the phrase, "love the sinner, hate the sin," as the most notorious variation of this mindset, advising, "love for persons and a hatred for their vices." This is echoed, Yale University's Miroslav Volf believes, by the Qur'an Surah Al Imran 3:30 which talks about a person's soul as distinct or wishing to be made distant from some of its actions. The United Methodist Church refuses to approve homosexual practice, but at the same time, it holds up gays as people of "sacred worth" beloved by God, and opposes many forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Whether one sees homosexuality as a vice, virtue, or as value-neutral, these examples allow for at least the possibility of nuance from an anti-homosexuality perspective.

I don't know Tony Campolo's most recent position on homosexuality, but when I attended a Baptist Student Union (BSU) conference at the University of Georgia a number of years ago, Campolo responded to those who called him "soft" on homosexuality, "I am not soft on homosexuality, but I am very soft on homosexuals!" The response from the audience of several thousand mostly baptist college students? Thunderous applause.

To objectors who say that one cannot love or stand common cause with another person without endorsing all or a perceived core of that person's feelings, beliefs, opinions, actions, sexual preference / orientation, or self-identity, I reply that most people, including readers of this essay, do so on a regular basis at least sometimes at work, in family, and in friendships. Can any reader not think of instances where they disagreed (even strongly) with another person's acts, mindset, even core self-identity, yet still interacted civilly, loved dearly, or demonstrated active care for that colleague, brother, sister, mother, father, friend?

To my anti-homosexuality, as well as my pro-homosexuality, friends: In my recent essay, Tea with Hezbollah, I mentioned Jesus' "Parable of the Good Samaritan" as a partial paradigm for relations between Christians and Muslims. Might it also apply to religious believers relating with gays, particularly gays who are the victims of bullying?

Samaritans for Jesus' Jewish audience were not just ethnically distinct, they represented corrupt religion and bad theology (cf. Luke 9 and 17; John 4 and 8). The Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes, "the person Jesus commended was neither the religious leader nor the lay associate, but a hated foreigner. Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, both physically and spiritually. Samaritans and Jews practiced open hostility, but Jesus asserted that love knows no … boundaries." That the "heretical" Samaritan gets doctrine wrong but ethics right makes his role as hero all the more shocking to Jesus' hearers.

To anti-homosexuality religious believers: Let's grant for the sake of argument that you discern the "right doctrine" about homosexuality. I wonder whether pro-homosexuality religious and gay activists are not sometimes better at fulfilling Jesus' ethic in standing up for homosexuals? Given the choice, do you think "right doctrine" or "right action" is more pleasing to Jesus? Do you "love the sinner" as much or more than you "hate the sin?"

When I share the Good Samaritan with students, I ask who Jesus would designate the wounded victim, Priest, Levite, and Samaritan if he were speaking to early 21st-century audiences. Might Jesus say, "An Evangelical pastor and a Biblical (or Qur'anic) inerrancy professor passed by the bullied homosexual, but a lesbian activist took pity." Or alternately, would Jesus say, "a lesbian activist and a gay senator passed by, but a Wahhabi Muslim or fundamentalist Christian took pity on the victim?"

Whether we are gay, straight, conservative, liberal, nonreligious or religious, we are human beings who can learn from the best of our exemplars in opposing bullying in any form, including bullying against gays. If we cannot agree on other things, even on the neutrality, goodness, or dysfunctional nature of homosexuality; I say with John Wesley (who himself quoted Jehu in 2 Kings 2:15), let's stand together against bullying, "If your heart is as my heart, then take my hand." Will you also take each others' hands?

Benjamin B. DeVan has taught religion, philosophy, and African American literature at North Carolina Central University, Peace College, and a January term mini-course at MIT titled, "Religion: Bringing the World Together, or Tearing the World Apart?" He completed his MA in Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary, his MDiv at Duke University, a ThM at Harvard in World Religions with a thesis on evangelical Christians and Islam, and is now a doctoral candidate at a historic British university writing a dissertation on the New Atheism.

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