An interesting essay for evangelicals

Date: Thu Jan 16 2003 - 22:33:32 EST

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    From: John or Carol Burgeson <>

    I am post this with the permission of the author. Yes, it is about the
    "gay" issue again. It does not try to argue for a particular point of
    view, however, but rather it discusses civil (and uncivil) ways to
    conduct a discussion on what, to many, is a discomforting issue.

    I commend it. It is written by an Englishman, so please allow for some
    possibly unfamiliar phrasing and references.

    John Burgeson

    How to avoid the charge of homophobia

    Evangelical Christians who are opposed to homosexual behaviour sometimes
    complain that they find it impossible to express their moral objections
    on this score without being accused of homophobia. To some extent the
    complaint is probably justified. However, in many cases I suspect that
    the charge of prejudice is one these Christians bring upon themselves,
    either by the content of their opinions or the style in which they are
    voiced. Let me offer, therefore, a few pieces of advice to any such
    would-be moraliser.

    Be sensitive Even if you are addressing the annual conference of
    Reform or writing an article for the Church of England Newspaper, your
    words will be heard further afield, not just by people who support your
    opinions but by
    gay Christians who are included in your attack. Homosexuals have been
    victims of persecution for centuries. In particular, most gay Christians
    have experienced discrimination of one kind or another from within the
    Church. You are addressing, then, a community that has become habituated
    to abuse and contempt. It is not surprising if they tend to assume that
    all those who speak hostile words against homosexuality share the
    prejudice to which they have grown accustomed.

    This misunderstanding is all the more likely because many evangelical
    Christians wish to interpret "homosexual" as a chosen lifestyle rather
    than an innate identity. Gays themselves find it hard to believe that
    anyone still clings to this culturally anachronistic perspective,
    especially since it is so utterly incompatible with their own experience
    of the homosexual condition. As a result, their interpretation of
    anti-gay polemic is often complicated by an element of argument at
    cross-purposes. The two sides do not share the same presuppositions, and
    so inevitably end up accusing one another of being obtuse.

    If you really want to avoid this, you must remember that all
    communication consists not in what is said, but in what is heard. Try
    putting yourself in the shoes of a gay Christian and reflect on how they
    are likely to understand your words. Similar efforts have to be made
    these days in commenting on many other sensitive areas. The police must
    watch their language when they challenge afro-carribean youths in
    Brixton. Businessmen have had to learn to speak with extra caution when
    dealing with female staff. Some preachers have made efforts in the
    direction of inclusive language. The vocabulary we choose, the jokes we
    crack, the stereotypes we endorse - verbal carelessness of many kinds can
    betray the presence of prejudice buried so deep in our vocabulary we do
    not even recognise its offensive potential.

    Of course, it is easy to disparage the appeal for more sensitivity in
    this area as mere "political correctness". And, up to a point, such
    impatience is understandable. Activists within racial minorities and
    militant feminists
    have sometimes exploited the emotive overtones in words like "racist" or
    "sexist" in order to foster a culture of suspicion within their
    respective communities. No doubt pro-gay campaigners have sometimes
    unjustly smeared
    their opponents as homophobes in a similar way. However, a little
    pre-emptive tact is all that it takes to forestall such unjust
    criticisms, if you really do wish to avoid them.

    Be rational Prejudice, by definition, is irrational. It feeds
    on superstitious taboos, distorted caricatures and just plain ignorance.
    All these factors contribute to homophobia. Most gay Christians find it
    impossible to understand the reason for the Church's traditional
    negativism towards the kind of relationships for which their hearts
    yearn. They put it in the same category of embarrassing ecclesiastical
    gaffes as witch-trials,
    anti-semitism and the crusades. To them the current anti-gay movement
    among evangelicals seems as ludicrously out-of-date as the flat-earth
    society. It must reflect prejudice, they say, because it is so utterly
    irrational. The way to avoid this charge is to make sure your opinions
    are rigorously argued.

    For instance, gays are often damned with the adjective "unnatural". They,
    not unreasonably reply "unnatural for whom?" The potential for same-sex
    covenant love to exceed heterosexual marriage in its capacity to generate
    personal devotion and self-sacrifice is clearly attested in story of
    David and Jonathan. Was their friendship "unnatural"? The Church replies
    that by "unnatural" it does not mean homophile affection as such, but the
    acts to which such affection may lead. But again gays are perplexed
    because there is nothing they do in the pursuit of sexual fulfillment
    which cannot be found among heterosexuals. If the Church's real argument
    is with oral and anal intercourse, why is it only gays who are being
    targeted? And why are the many co-habiting gays who, for reasons of their
    own, abstain from penetrative sex not exempted from the Church's

    Again, homosexuals are often told their behaviour is "unbiblical" - to
    which they reply "unbiblical according to whom?" That there are biblical
    texts that have been traditionally understood to mean that all
    expressions of
    homosexuality are wrong is undeniable. But tradition has proven a
    notoriously dangerous guide throughout church history. Responsible
    biblical interpreters recognise that reason has an indispensable role to
    play in distinguishing valid tradition from hallowed mistakes. No doubt
    in areas of abstruse doctrine like the Trinity it may be sometimes
    defensible to take refuge in "mystery". Truths of revelation may
    sometimes appear counter-intuitive. However, that kind of concession to
    irrationality is not sustainable in the area of ethics. Moral imperatives
    are only cogent if they
    are perceived to make sense.

    In that connection, Jesus himself countered the complexity of scribal
    casuistry with his assurance that the whole of our moral duty could be
    summed up in two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour.
    experience of gay Christians, however, is that committed homophile
    relationships breach neither of these prime directives. They reason that
    the biblical texts which appear to condemn homosexuality must, therefore,
    reflect certain kinds of homosexual activity in the ancient world which
    did contravene the twin laws of love. This could be either because they
    were exploitative/abusive (contra the love of neighbour) or associated
    with idolatry (contra the love of God). This interpretation of the texts
    seems to them perfectly reasonable. Those who wish to insist that
    homosexuality is "unbiblical" must demonstrate, therefore, what it is
    about same-sex relationships that make them wrong. Posturing that does
    not get beyond "the Bible says so" smacks of the crudest form of
    fundamentalist obscurantism.

    Most important of all, if you are determined to insist that homosexuality
    should be treated as a sin, you must provide some rational evidence of
    the harm it does. All we are told in this connection is that it damages
    family". Gay Christians simply do not understand the logic of this
    charge. Is the implication that thousands of young people would choose
    homosexuality as an alternative to heterosexual marriage if the Church
    rescinded its ban? The idea is patently ridiculous. What then is it about
    homosexuality that is so dangerous that it must be eliminated from the
    Church at all costs? If you do not want to be considered a homophobic
    bigot you must at least make an effort to explain this rationally.

    Be consistent Prejudice is invariably discriminatory. It is
    selects a certain group of people as the object of its loathing and
    ignores others. It seems to the gay community that in targeting them
    evangelical Christians are displaying precisely this kind of selectivity.
    They observe that a strong case can be made, both from tradition and
    scripture, against usury, abortion and divorce. But evangelicals do not
    seem to be mounting public campaigns to have bankers, gynaecologists and
    divorcees excommunicated or excluded from public ministry. On the
    contrary, a sweet reasonableness permits such individuals to continue in
    fellowship. Why are gays singled out for the evangelical anathema?

    Two answers are usually given to this:

    The first is that homosexuality is a peculiarly serious crime. But, once
    again, we must know why? More serious than the cruel burden of debt
    inflicted on the poorest nations of the world? More serious than the
    dismembering of unborn children? More serious than a direct challenge to
    the word of Christ himself about the inviolability of the marriage bond?

    The second answer is that the pro-homosexual lobby has been so brazen in
    its flaunting of "gay rights" that evangelicals have been forced to take
    counter-measures. Gays might have been allowed to stay in the closet, we
    are assured, but they have insisted on public recognition and awoken the
    sleeping dragon of moral outrage as a result.

    But there is long history of Christian minorities campaigning for their
    "rights". Protestants and Catholics both did so in the sixteenth century.
    Anabaptists and quakers did so in the seventeenth century. Slaves did so
    in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Women did so in the twentieth
    century. In each case, the authority of the Bible and of tradition were
    invoked and political power was deployed in order to prevent change. Yet
    everybody recognises that these minorities had a just cause and should in
    no way have yielded to the institutionalised intimidation that sought to
    silence their protests. Is it not reasonable to believe that homosexuals
    may be the latest in this catalogue of groups who have had to fight
    prejudice to secure toleration? Since evangelicals have historically on
    many occasions been numbered among those persecuted minorities
    themselves, would it not be more consistent if they defended the "rights"
    of gays rather than complaining about those brave individuals who have
    "come out" in order to secure justice for their community?

    Be humble It is always easier to identify arrogance in others than in
    oneself. No doubt the strident assertions of some pro-gay activists lack
    meekness, or even courtesy. Raised voices and immoderate words are all
    too often symptoms of chronically inflated egos, and both the gay and
    anti-gay lobbies certainly have their share of these.

    However, there is more dangerous form of arrogance than simple
    bigheadedness. Prejudice is particularly menacing when it is coupled to
    an arrogant assertion of absolute certainty. Karl Popper in his seminal
    The Open Society demonstrated how small the gap is between "I am sure I'm
    right" and "Therefore, I must be obeyed". It was the absolute certainty
    of fascism and communism that made them capable of genocide. It was the
    absolute certainty of Muslim fundamentalism that led to the carnage of
    September 11th. Christians too have been guilty of frightful acts of
    tyranny and atrocity in the past. In fact, any creed that purports to
    have access to
    "Truth" can be subverted in this way.

    Of course, the response of post-modernism has been to deny all claims to
    absolute certainty by radically relativising the meaning of "Truth". But
    evangelicals refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater in that way;
    and rightly so in my view. It is perfectly possible to witness to the
    infallibility of Scripture without surrendering to authoritarianism, and
    it is absolutely crucial at this juncture in the cultural history of the
    West that we demonstrate that possibility to the watching world. Failure
    to do so will result in evangelicalism being stigmatised along with the
    Taliban; and again, rightly so.

    The only sense in which homosexuality can rightly be said to be a
    "defining issue" for the Church today is that it crucially tests the
    ability of Christians to eschew fundamentalist fanaticism and to hold the
    divine Word of truth in humility.

    Homophobic bigotry - or just conscientious objection?

    To sum up then, if you would avoid the charge of homophobia you must

       the sensitivity that chooses tactful words;
       the rationality that offers arguments rather than assertions;
       the consistency that expresses equal indignation about other social
       and, perhaps most important of all, the humility to admit that you
    might be wrong.

    You may complain that pro-gay speakers and writers do not show such
    consideration to you. Instead your sincere moral convictions have been
    denounced as homophobic bigotry. I acknowledge that this could be true.
    But, however unfair the misrepresentation of your views, the situation is
    not symmetric. Christian gays are not trying to eject you from the Church
    or from ministry, you are trying to eject them.

    In law a verdict of "Not Guilty" requires only the establishment of
    "reasonable doubt". Even if you feel the case against gays has been
    proved, there are other members of the jury who are less convinced. No
    one wishes to
    shut you up, but what you say and how you say it makes a huge difference.

    Roy Clements

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