Umbrage, Gay Rights and Grace

Ben CarsonI’m an odd duck.

I feel like I’m on of the few gay men that isn’t angry.  I’m not angry that same-sex marriage isn’t moving faster.  I’m not mad at the evangelical upbringing I had.  Heck, I’m not mad that it will be very hard to find another call because I’m gay and many churches in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are rural.

Last fall, Tony Jones wrote in a post that he couldn’t understand why Justin Lee, a gay evangelical activist,  isn’t more pissed. He writes:

It seems to me that there’s a place for righteous anger, and I think that the church-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT persons is one of those places. Justin and many other gay friends of mine have been shat upon by the church, in the name of truth and Christ. They’ve experienced an injustice that I never will. It pisses me off, and I think it should piss them off, too.

I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been faced with discrimination, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me as much.  I’m not angry at God or the church because I know that there are places where I am welcomed and I’ve known since 1992 when I basically came out to God that I was loved by God.  I’ve wondered at times if it’s my aspie personality and to some extent I think it is.  I do handle emotions differently than the average bear.

But I think another thing is going on here.  I’m beginning to think that the reason I’m not angry is that as important as being gay is important to my identity, there is another one that has an even greater pull- being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian.  To me, being a follower of Jesus means working for justice, but I also think it means living a graceful life, a life where you love your enemies, especially the ones that might not see eye to eye on me being gay.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being gay and exhibiting grace lately, especially in the wake of the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in Minnesota.  The day the bill passed, I saw a message from a fellow pastor that is on the other side.  He asked that my side not be arrogant in our victory.  I thought he had a point.  As much as I look forward to marrying Daniel legally, I want to offer grace to the other side.   I want to offer grace to my “enemies.”

It’s a temptation for those of us gay and straight who work for justice to not be so nice to the other side.  After all, gay folks have long been oppressed from the pulpit.  We want to “spike the ball” against those we feel have done us harm.

While I think we need to continue the work of gay equality, I worry that both within the walls of the church and in the larger society, those of us who favor gay rights are lashing out against the other side in a way that doesn’t offer grace and ultimately doesn’t offer much justice either.

Political pundit Michael Kinsley wrote an article about what he sees as an attempt to punish people who don’t favor same sex marriage.  He brings up the example of Dr. Ben Carson, the well known neurosurgeon who came out against same-sex marriage. Kinsley thinks we need to cut some slack and not get all worked up on what one conservative said:

Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to. Carson denies hating gay people, while your classic homophobe revels in it. He has apologized publicly “if I offended anyone.” He supports civil unions that would include all or almost all of the legal rights of marriage. In other words, he has views on gay rights somewhat more progressive than those of the average Democratic senator ten years ago. But as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he just won’t give up the word “marriage.” And he has some kind of weird thing going on about fruit.

But none of this matters. All you need to know is that Carson opposes same-sex marriage. Case closed. Carson was supposed to be the graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There was a fuss, and Carson decided to withdraw as speaker. The obviously relieved dean nevertheless criticized Carson for being “hurtful.” His analysis of the situation was that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect.” My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.

Evan Wolfson, head of the group Freedom to Marry, sees Carson as an agent of intolerance that deserved to get disinvited from making a graduation speech at John Hopkins:

Pretty much absent from Kinsley’s piece is any acknowledgment that loving and committed gay couples are still excluded from marriage in 38 states. Or that those couples who do get married are still subject to the “gay exception” created by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which denies these legally married couples Social Security survivorship, access to family leave, health coverage, immigration protections, the ability to sponsor a loved one for a green card, and the chance to pool resources as a family without adverse tax treatment.

That’s the political agenda Ben Carson was signing on to and furthering. When a public figure and political dabbler like Carson takes a stand against gay people’s freedom to marry, he is not just offering his opinion—which is certainly his right. He is not just, say, personally opting to boycott a wedding he doesn’t approve of. He is advocating that the law be used as a weapon, that discrimination be cemented into constitutions, and that an important freedom he himself enjoys be denied to his fellow Americans.


So who’s right here?

Actually, both are.  The trick though is that for Christians, we need to balance our need for justice with a sense of grace.  Wolfson is right that Carson has signed up with a policy that hurts others.  Getting kick off the program for a graduation ceremony is small change compared to the harsh oppression that gays have had to face; being kicked out of families, churches and communities.  But Kinsley is right that we don’t need to go nuclear all the time.  And for Christians we are also called to love our persecutors as much as we are to fight for justice.

As a gay Christian, I am called to work for justice.  I want there to be a day when no gay kid has to live in fear and confusion.  But as a gay Christian, I am called to love the person that I might not agree with.  I am called to show that person some grace.  Loving our enemies is unfair and quite appalling.  And yet, it is the way that Jesus taught us to live in the world.

I few years ago, I shared a story of an encounter I had with an older gentleman who disagreed on the issue of gays.  I wrote back then:

As several denominations struggle with the issue of gay pastors, I am reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago.

I had just graduated from seminary and was doing my CPE at a local nursing home. I was still involved at the church where I was an intern and was asked to serve on the church board. It came to a vote and I was voted in nearly unanimously. I say nearly because one person voted against me. I knew who it was and so did many others. It was an elderly member of the church. He had some idea I was gay and many people assumed that was why he voted against me. After the meeting concluded, he asked me to come with him into another room. He explained that he prayed and studied the scripture on the issue of homosexuality, but his conscience was not swayed in favor. As he said this, he began to cry.

I was and still am touched by this guesture. He did have to speak to me to explain his actions, but he did. He might not approve of who I sleep with, but he did treat me with respect. This wasn’t simply about being right for him, but about being loving.

Yeah, I know that his actions were hurtful. Yes, it would have been nice had he voted in favor. But I could respect his decision even if it was wrong, because he valued me enough to respect me.

I learned about grace in that moment, and it forever changed how I look at the other side.

As Minnesota gears up for legal same sex marriages, it is my hope that my fellow progressive Christians will show grace to those who might not see this as a good thing.  I pray that we can embrace them as much as we embrace LGBT persons.  I pray that we work for justice and exhibit grace.

Because everyone needs a little bit of mercy.  Even Ben Carson.


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