BATTLE OF THE CENTURY
A few years ago, a call came into the Christian ministry where I worked.
The woman on the other end of the phone was in tears. Every so often, she would gain her composure, get a few more sentences out, and then dissolve into sobs once more.
I encouraged her to take her time in explaining the situation.
Her name was Cindy. She was the mother of a fifteen-year-old son. He was her only child, her pride and joy. He was, she explained to me, a good kid. The best kid. Kind, loyal, honest. A good student. Active in the church youth group. A committed Christian. She and her husband couldn't have been prouder.
And then the unthinkable had happened.
Late one night, their precious son had confessed to them that he had realized he was gay.
In the two weeks since, the loving parents had been through a wide range of emotions, wondering what they'd done wrong and what to do next. They'd read and reread the relevant Bible passages, scoured the internet for information, and had numerous conversations with their son, hoping for some sign that he wasn't gay after all. Much to their chagrin, he kept insisting that he was.
More than anything else, Cindy was afraid for her son. She was afraid for his soul and for his future. She had thought about what this would mean for his prospects of having a family, and she had thought about the dangers of AIDS and hate crimes. But of all the things on her mind, there was one she kept coming back to over and over in our conversation.
Most of all, it seemed, she was afraid of their church.
The family had long been members of a rural, conservative evangelical church. "It's a wonderful church," she assured me. "They're wonderful people. But this — if they found out about this, they would never treat him the same way again. I know it."
It was the threat of this Christian rejection following him for the rest of his life that shook her up the most. She knew that America was filled with many churches like theirs and many Christians like the ones she knew. This was the world her son would soon be venturing out into, and for the first time, she found that troubling.
Whatever mistakes her son might make in life, Cindy was sure God would have mercy on him. The church, she feared, might not.
A 2007 study by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, asked 16- to 29-year-olds to choose words and phrases to describe present-day Christianity. Among the many choices available to them were positive terms like "offers hope" and "has good values" along with negative terms like "judgmental" and "hypocritical."
Out of all of it — good and bad — the most popular choice was "antihomosexual." Not only did 91 percent of the non-Christians describe the church this way, but 80 percent of churchgoers did as well.
In the book unChristian, Barna Group researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons describe the results of their three-year study of young Americans' views of the church:
In our research, the perception that Christians are "against" gays and lesbians...has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the "big one," the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity's reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility toward gays — not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals — has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.
Growing up in a conservative Christian home, I knew that we disapproved of homosexuality in general, but I never thought we had "disdain for gay individuals." Now, however, I'm convinced that Kinnaman and Lyons are right: The church's "antihomosexual" reputation isn't just a reputation for opposing gay sex or gay marriage; it's a reputation for hostility to gay people. And that leaves Christian moms like Cindy afraid of their own churches.
This is disturbing news for all of us in the Christian community. Jesus wasn't known for his disdain for people; he was known for his unconditional love for everyone, especially outcasts and sinners. One of the charges Jesus' opponents had against him was that he was "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." Surely the faith he founded should never be known for looking down on anyone. After all, isn't the whole message of the gospel that all of us are sinners and fall short of God's glory and that that's why Jesus had to die for us and why we so need grace?
In one of Jesus' parables, a king forgives a servant's massive debt. The servant then goes out to find a fellow servant who owes him a much smaller sum and demands that he pay immediately or be thrown in prison. When the king finds out, he is angry and has the first servant thrown in prison instead. Jesus' message is clear: We've been shown so much grace from God that we must be gracious to others.
In another parable, Jesus tells of two people who go to the temple to pray. One, a devoutly religious man, prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." The other prays only, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It is the second man, the sinful and ostracized tax collector, who goes home justified before God. Why, then, do so many people think Christians sound more like the first guy?
Part of the issue is that sexual morality is a big deal to Christians, and the majority of Christians believe that sex between two men or two women is immoral. This view by itself creates a certain amount of conflict with the gay community. But that's not the whole story. Whatever views they might hold on homosexuality, I don't know any Christians who want that to be the primary thing the church is known for. If it is, that suggests that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong.
Yet that's exactly what we're seeing. Throughout American society, and especially among young people, there is growing discomfort with what is widely perceived as a nasty culture war between gays and Christians, with Christians having fired the first shot.
Images of this war are easy to find. Two days after the horrifying 9/11 terrorist attacks, influential preacher Jerry Falwell blamed gays in part for what he viewed as a sign of God's wrath on America, saying, "I point the finger in their face and say, you helped this happen."
"Well, I totally concur," televangelist Pat Robertson responded. Both men later said they regretted the exchange.
Then there's perhaps the most visible symbol of the Gays-vs.- Christians culture war: the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group famous for picketing events like gay pride marches and funerals of gay-bashing victims, carrying signs that read "God hates fags" along with various Bible verses.
On the other side of the fence, the perception that Christians are decidedly anti-gay has left many gay people more hostile to Christianity than ever. In 2010, popular gay columnist Dan Savage — himself the child of Christian parents — lashed out at the Christians he viewed as responsible for a rash of gay teen suicides:
The dehumanizing bigotries that fall from lips of "faithful Christians," and the lies that spew forth from the pulpit of the churches "faithful Christians" drag their kids to on Sundays, give your straight children a license to verbally abuse, humiliate and condemn the gay children they encounter at school. And many of your straight children — having listened to mom and dad talk about how gay marriage is a threat to the family and how gay sex makes their magic sky friend Jesus cry himself to sleep — feel justified in physically attacking the gay and lesbian children they encounter in their schools. ...
Oh, and those same dehumanizing bigotries that fill your straight children with hate? They fill your gay children with suicidal despair. And you have the nerve to ask me to be more careful with my words.
The truth is far more complex than these images suggest. Teen suicide devastates us all. The Westboro protesters are few in number, and many Christians rightly denounced Falwell's remarks as in- appropriate. But these illustrations still resonate in our culture as extreme examples of a conflict that shows up on a smaller scale in a thousand different ways, from the pulpit to the ballot box. There is undeniable tension in our country between the gay community and the Christian community, and, increasingly, it feels like a full-scale fight to the death.
Ladies and gentlemen! Get your tickets now for the Battle of the Century! Gays vs. Christians! Who will control the future of our culture?
As people pick sides in this epic Gays-vs.-Christians match, each camp has an unflattering image of the other to promote. To those who sympathize with the gays, Christians are ignorant, homophobic bigots, trying to force their outdated religious views down every- one else's throats. To their opponents in the Christian community, the gays are "homosexual activists," seeking to undermine the family and the moral fabric of our society, all in the name of their selfish, perverse, and unhealthy sexual lifestyles.
And with the battle lines drawn, the fight is on.
Political groups on each side frantically raise funds to battle over issues like same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, each using scare tactics to warn their supporters that if they don't raise enough money and the other side wins, their rights will be taken away and the country will go down the tubes. They battle over court decisions, media messages, and school curricula, agonizing over each shift in public opinion. According to both sides, this is a life-or- death situation; the outcome of these battles will determine the safety of our youth and the future of our country.
The political issues being fought over are real, and some of them are very important. But in the midst of the polarized and often vicious political fight between the gays and the Christians, a lot of real people are getting caught in the crossfire.
Take Cindy, that Christian mom with a gay son. The anti-gay messages she had heard in her church — not just about sexual behavior, but about gay people — had left her feeling too afraid even to talk to her pastor about her son's revelation. She was afraid her son would be condemned rather than loved. It was the first time in her life that she felt she couldn't count on her church for something, and that realization was crushing.
I'm sure her pastor never intended to come across that way. Whatever he may have said from the pulpit, and whatever attitudes toward homosexuality might exist in the congregation, surely no one intended them to be directed at Cindy and her son. Regardless of the intent, though, she was convinced that her church was now an unsafe place for her son and, by extension, for her whole family.
Cindy is not alone. As you read these words, Christian parents all across the country are wrestling with the discovery that their children are gay, torn between their unconditional love for their children and their deep desire to follow God at all costs. If the things their churches tell them about gay people don't match what they know from their own children, who are they supposed to believe?
It's not just parents. The church pews are filled with Christians wrestling with these questions in many different ways. Perhaps a friend, a relative, a co-worker, or even a spouse has come out to them, and they don't know how to respond. Some are struggling with their own sexuality. Some self-identify as gay. Some think the church has gotten this whole thing wrong, while others believe the problem is focusing too much on one sin and emphasizing it above all else. Whatever the case, as more people come out as gay, that leaves more Christians who know them with questions about how to truly be loving in a culture that views Christianity as anti-gay.
Sadly, today's churches are all too often unprepared to help people with these sensitive and complex situations. In their zeal to take a strong moral stand on sexuality, they have said and done things that only alienate the people who most need their support.
Meanwhile, as Christians question the hard-line approach they've seen so many churches take, many are rejecting the church's traditional approach to sexuality, leading to splits within denominations and congregations. Even there, the fights can quickly become polarized and harsh.
Americans on both sides are becoming increasingly frustrated with the tone of the debate, and many are calling for more loving ways of handling the differences of belief.
In an opinion piece for USA Today, evangelical author Jonathan Merritt writes, "Now is the time for those who bear the name of Jesus Christ to stop merely talking about love and start showing love to our gay and lesbian neighbors. It must be concrete and tangible. It must move beyond cheap rhetoric."
If only it were that simple. Unfortunately, without communication or understanding between the camps, proposals that one side views as compassionate and loving are not necessarily perceived as such by the other side.
Merritt's own well-intentioned words are no exception. A few days after his article, USA Today ran responses under the headline, "Behind message of 'love,' an anti-gay agenda."
"Merritt's message of being nice to gay people...is just a way for the religious right to soften their image and to make bigotry accept- able," wrote one critic, noting that Merritt believes gay relationships to be sinful. Meanwhile, Southern Baptist bloggers took Merritt to task for the opposite reason, arguing that he was failing to take a strong enough stand against sin.
Not everyone agrees that it's time for more compassion on this issue. But even among those who do, there's no widespread agreement on what that ought to look like.
Some Christians suggest offering ministries to "heal sexual brokenness" as a compassionate alternative to anti-gay rhetoric in the church. The gay community balks at this idea, calling it offensive and ineffective. Some in the gay community seek to bridge the gap through pro-gay religious leaders and reinterpretations of Scripture; this, however, does not fly with many Christians. Members of both communities have suggested a live-and-let-live approach, but this has largely proved unsatisfactory on both sides.
If we can't compromise, then, what's the answer? Will one side have to wipe the other side out? There are some on both sides who seem to think this is the case. As long as such culture-war attitudes prevail, people will continue to be hurt.
Some have managed to stay insulated from the conflict by surrounding themselves only with those who agree with them, and they're often surprised to learn what a big issue this continues to be for others. "Haven't we settled this question already?" they ask. "How do those people still not 'get it'"
Several years ago, I was discussing this topic with a not-too- religious acquaintance from California. "I don't think it's really much of an issue anymore, is it?" he said. "It certainly isn't here. Out here, we just live and let live. Gay people, straight people — no one cares who you're sleeping with." He was completely dumb- founded a year later, when Proposition 8 passed, banning same-sex marriage in California. In spite of the state's reputation as a liberal, gay-friendly locale, clearly many Californians don't see things the way he does.
It works the other way, too. I've met a number of pastors and families over the years who had always thought this "gay" thing was confined to some other group of people — nothing to do with good Christians like them — until someone they loved came out, often the last person they ever would have expected. A study by the research firm Christian Community found gay-identified teens in virtually every congregation they surveyed, even those with the most negative things to say about homosexuality. Not surprisingly, the kids had often not told any adults at the church about their sexuality.
America is still far more polarized on this than many of us realize, and the United States is only one of the many countries dealing with this conflict on the world stage. The Church of Sweden — the largest Christian denomination in that country — made headlines in 2009 for voting to begin performing same-sex wedding ceremonies, a decision other Swedish denominations opposed. That same year, Christian leaders in Uganda backed a bill to execute gay people, a move sparking international outrage and criticisms that worldwide Christian groups were slow to condemn the bill and may even have been unwittingly instrumental in its formation. In 2011, the son of a family I know in Northern Ireland came out as gay — and was promptly disowned by his Christian parents, who now refuse to have any contact with him. His own mother won't even talk to him.
These issues are varied and complex. Underlying all of them, however, is the essential question of how we Christians, having traditionally condemned homosexuality, should respond to a world that is increasingly accepting of it. Some say that the growing acceptance of homosexuality is further evidence of our world's fallen nature, and that we Christians must hold fast to God's truth in the face of the winds of change. Others say that we Christians have made a terrible mistake in unequivocally condemning homosexuality, and that a more complete understanding of human sexuality and the Bible's cultural context should move us to repent and reevaluate our stance. Either way, if we answer this question incorrectly, will we have committed one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the church?
Families and congregations alike are torn over these issues. But if we continue to disagree, is there really any hope of ending the culture war? Is there a more compassionate approach? What would that look like, in practical terms?
Such questions matter to people like Cindy. They matter to the gay people whose lives this is all about. And they ought to matter just as much to all of us who call ourselves Christians and claim to represent Jesus.
Today's young people have gay friends whom they love. If they view the church as an unsafe place for them, a place more focused on politics than on people, we just might be raising the most anti- Christian generation America has ever seen, a generation that believes they have to choose between being loving and being Christian.
Over the last fifteen years, God has taken me on an incredible, often painful, but ultimately inspiring journey through precisely these questions. I could tell you what I think, but when it comes to this debate, opinions are a dime a dozen.
Instead, I'd like to share with you what I've experienced and how it radically altered my approach to an issue I thought I knew everything about.
And it all started with the kid in high school who called me "GodBoy."
From Torn by Justin Lee. Copyright 2012 by Justin Lee. Excerpted by permission of Jericho Books.