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How (parts of) the Church Will Change on Homosexuality

I was invited to be part of a panel on LGBT human rights recently. I shared a four-zone schema for understanding religious responses to the reality that something like 3-6% of human beings turn out to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.

1. Promote violence against and stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
2. Oppose violence but uphold stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
3. Oppose violence and seek to reduce stigmatization of LGBT people in the name of God and religion.
4. Oppose violence and replace stigmatization with equality and dignity in the name of God and religion.

I was remembering in recent days something a little less clinical and a little more personal. For many years I was an Evangelical pastor firmly in Zone 3 on the question of LGBT identity and equality. I didn't know that some members of my immediate family were gay. I hadn't taken any kind of public stand (either way) on the issue. I recall some barely-articulated thoughts and feelings from that time. I'm not proud of these memories, but I hope other pastors and Christian leaders might be helped if I try to articulate them roughly in their order of appearance:

1. It's fine if gay people want equal rights in the secular world, but why do they have to disturb the church? Why can't gay people just be satisfied with being "out" and accepted in society? Why can't they just be satisfied with civil unions? Why do they keep pushing? Don't they know how hard this is for religious communities? Can't they be more patient? Ministry is hard enough without having to deal with this on top of everything else.

2. Oh no. This issue isn't going away. My congregation is going to have to deal with it. Let's see … if we stay the same, we'll lose maybe 4% of our people who are fired up about this issue. If we change, we'll lose maybe 40% of the people…. Maybe someday, but we can't change yet. The cost is too high.

3. The way I've been thinking about this (see #1 and #2) sounds a lot like the way the previous generation dealt - or failed to deal - with race and desegregation. Isn't that why Dr. King wrote "Why We Can't Wait" in 1964? Am I like a segregationist in 1964? In my seemingly daring compromises - "accepting but not affirming," members but not leaders, civil unions not marriages - am I simply creating Jim Crow laws for LGBT people? If discrimination is wrong, and if it's been going on for millennia, and if 3+% of the population is suffering, why wouldn't I be willing to take some risks and take some heat? Instead of asking, "Why can't gay people be more patient?" - I should be asking, "Why can't church leaders like me be more courageous?"

4. I've changed my view. I now support LGBT equality. But if I go public with that change, my colleagues will simply think I've capitulated to "the world" or "the culture." They'll accuse me of compromise, liberalism, and all that. I'll be completely written off by the people of my heritage. I wonder how long I can stay incognito and quietly work for change from the inside?

5. Oh well. It was bound to happen. I've been "outed" as someone whose view has changed. Now I'll have to deal with the consequences. But thank God, my conscience hasn't felt this clean and clear for a long time! Why did it take me so long?

My guess is that thousands of Catholic and Evangelical priests and pastors are thinking thoughts like these. Sadly, self-interest and institutional ego can easily trump humane compassion for LGBT people and their families. Perhaps these words from Dr. King will help stir the conscience of my fellow Christians who share the same background and world view in which I was raised …

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky…when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you…when…your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’…when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

I'm not trying to say that the struggle for gay equality is exactly the same as the struggle for civil rights or that all who experience discrimination experience the same degree of pain. It's never wise to compare the suffering of one group to another.

But I am saying there is a common struggle within priests and pastors to acknowledge reality and respond appropriately when they and their congregations are on the wrong side of justice … whether regarding women's equality, gay equality, equality for Palestinians, the atrocities of colonialism, latent racism and white privilege, silence over environmental destruction, carelessness about the poor and systemic economic injustice, and a host of other issues. It's not easy to adjudicate wisely between concerns for personal or professional comfort, the needs of others, institutional survival and health, and justice … whichever side of this issue one is on.