It was around this time that I first heard the phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin." For a while, that seemed like a good idea to me. I could latch on to that mantra, not question the beliefs I'd been taught, and rest easy at night knowing that I'd solved the problem. After all, I had plenty of other people in my life who were sinning in different ways... and I still loved them. And I didn't "call them out" on their chosen sin. (Nor would I want them calling me out on mine.)
But there was something nagging at me... something that didn't seem quite right. Hating the sin felt an awful lot like hating the sinner. And I wasn't entirely sure that being gay was a sin. I felt like it wasn't. But I'd been taught that it was.
I know a lot of Christians who find it easy to take feelings out of theology, but I have always felt - yes felt - a connection to God that could only be achieved by paying close attention to my feelings and intuitions. Some might argue that I'm just listening to my own wishes or desires, but I don't think I'm alone in knowing that some things feel right and some things feel wrong. Although I knew in my head that it was "wrong" to be gay, I felt in my heart that... well... people are people... love is love... and God would not create a person in such a way that would condemn them just because they existed. I didn't feel like it was right to condemn a person for something they had no choice about.
So began my struggle with "Gay vs. Christian." I went through a period of questioning whether a person could choose to be gay. I have no doubt that a person can choose to pretend to be gay, but I quickly dismissed the thought that my friends would choose to be gay. Why? Because I knew it was tortuous for them to admit to something that - in our little corner of the world - is an unforgivable sin. Why would they put themselves through that? If you're not really gay, you wouldn't put yourself through the judgment that would surely come your way for admitting it. People have been disowned, abandoned by their family, friends, etc. Who would do that by choice?
Over the years, I quietly changed my mind about the rightness or wrongness of being gay. By quietly, I mean I never talked about it. My belief was that being gay was not a sin. I went through a time of thinking that a person can be gay, just not act on it. At some point, though, I realized that I was passing judgment about something that I had no idea about. Although I have spent my life as a celibate single woman, I knew that many people have a deep desire for a life-long romantic relationship. How could I say that a person shouldn't have that because they are gay? As my friend from college began to settle into a home with his partner and children, I realized that this attitude, too, had changed in me.
You might be asking yourself: why does it matter what Melissia thinks about being gay? She's not gay, so it doesn't matter what she thinks. Have you ever heard the phrase, "If you're not with me, you're against me"? I felt like I needed to choose. One choice would pit me against one of my favorite people in the world - someone I knew and loved; the other would pit me against the Christian establishment that was such a huge part of my life. To me, it mattered.
Fast-forward to today. Today, I finished reading a book called Torn. It was written by Justin Lee, who grew up in a Southern Baptist world where being gay was wrong. The problem was... Justin was a faithful follower of Christ, and he was gay. The book shares his personal experience of discovering his own sexuality, coming out in a world filled with people who thought he (as a gay person) shouldn't exist. The message he kept getting was: "Don't be gay." Yeah. Like it's that easy. I connected with Justin's experience, except that instead of being the gay person struggling with the situation, I was the friend watching from the outside.
Justin gave words to what I've been experiencing for years... the process of questioning and evolving. He addresses audiences on all sides of this debate with compassion. He calls for understanding and dialogue apart from condemnation. One of the most rewarding parts of the book for me was the point in his story where Justin began dissecting scripture to determine exactly what it says about homosexuality. This is something I'd been pondering for years. Quite frankly, I'd gotten to the point where I would rather not believe in the Bible if that required believing in the sort of hatred toward gays that I'd seen from people in the church.
But what Justin found in his studies was this (and this is my paraphrase): the only thing wrong with gay sexuality is the same thing that's wrong with hetero-sexuality (if there is such a word).... that is, abuse. In scripture, the only examples of condemnation toward homosexual acts are directed at people who were abusing others (and, by the way, turned out to be abusing everyone regardless of their gender). The few mentions of homosexuality in the Bible had been taken out of context and used to support condemning people.
Many Christians would like to reduce belief to the letter of the law - take the laws in scripture (the ones they like) and make them our laws. It would be easier if we had a list of rights and wrongs, black and white... we could just follow the rules and everything would be okay. Unfortunately, that's not the faith we claim. What we claim is a faith whose greatest commandment is to love God and love others. Love. It's a feeling. It's a way you treat people. Love is the fulfillment of the law. If you love people, you don't need rules to tell you what's right and wrong. Love dictates.
Justin encourages people to share their stories, and so I've shared mine here... but Justin explains his experience much better than I do, so I recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in this subject (whether you are gay or straight, Christian or not). In fact, I think the conclusions that Justin draws about showing grace, educating people and participating in dialogues would be helpful to most of us when dealing with any type of disagreement - religious or otherwise.
I know now that I have many friends who are gay. Some are in committed relationships, others are not. Some have continued to embrace their faith, others have been discouraged and fallen away. Now take those sentences and remove the word "gay." I have many friends. Some are in committed relationships, others are not, etc. My take-away from this book and from my experiences with people is this: we create the things that divide us. We choose to make insurmountable barriers between ourselves and others. Whatever the issue, we choose how we respond to it. Is it with grace and love? Or condemnation and judgment? It's our choice.
We have allowed people to become issues. We have removed the humanity from relationships and turned instead to a list of do's and don'ts. We have taken our opinions and made them into debates used to divide and polarize. What I would love to see is a day when we can see people as they are... dearly loved and treasured creations... regardless of how we personally feel about who God created them to be. What right have we to judge God's perfect creation?
I could go on about this... but just read the book. Or if you don't read the book, just love people. That's a great start.
PS Through all of this, I have learned that we are much more willing to see the person behind an issue if we at least know someone who is affected. Whatever the issue, if you are vocal about it and feel strongly about it... I encourage you to get to know someone who is personally affected by your position. Take any issue - whether it's political or religious or whatever. If it's important enough to debate, it's important enough to take a personal interest in someone who is affected by the outcome.