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Marriage and our Gay Neighbors: The Way Forward

Sunday, July 5, 2015

It was after a funeral service and my wife and I were on our way to my parents' grave site.  We dropped into a small grocery to see if they had flowers we could bring.  The clerk who helped me - if I were to judge his affect and speaking - was probably a gay man.

I have always been uncomfortable with homosexuality.  I believe in what I call the "heterosexual complement of nature."  For me, this really isn't a point to make in argument; it is descriptive of nature.  At the risk of sounding crude, you cannot look at the anatomy of the man and the anatomy of the woman, and then claim not to know what goes where. Even if we reason that humans evolved by way of strictly natural processes, that design is still right in front of us.

What I wish my gay gay neighbor understood about me - and my fellow Christians who share my relatively conservative outlook - is that we do not believe this because some old man with a flowing white beard in a temple on a mountain somewhere scribbled it on an ancient scroll.  Indeed, the heterosexual complement of nature isn't really something that is taught to us.  It is something that was obvious in nature before there was anything at all to believe and teach.

But if I want my gay neighbor to entertain my perspective, it is only right than I entertain his.  I'll try to do that a little here, and I also want to challenge the dominant socially conservative perspective as well.  But let me conclude my little story about looking for flowers. I simply wanted that moment with the gay cashier to be something he would look at as a positive moment in his day - not one bogged down by cultural controversy. The more this issue is in the news, the more uncomfortable I become with how my fellow Christians respond.  I think it is almost to the point where our response is more discomfiting than homosexuality itself (because we really ought to know better).

The Context of the Biblical View

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to Christians in Rome there was a well-settled culture which surrounded the pagan temples of the Roman Empire.  As part of pagan "worship" just about every imaginable form of sexual activity accompanied every imaginable form of intoxication.  When the New Testament speaks against drunkenness, for example, it is this drunken carousing that is most in mind.

The first part of St. Paul's letter to Rome is where we find the most strident rhetoric against homosexuality.  But today's gay community has pointed out that it is no longer associated with the kind of pagan temple cults of biblical times, and in many cases not even with the intoxicated carousing seen in those ancient temples. It is a valid point and one worth considering.  But it does not really change the underlying reasoning.

In his letter, St. Paul could easily have argued from his Hebrew Bible.  But he doesn't.  He appeals to nature and makes a claim that applies to everyone (Jews and Gentiles, heterosexuals and homosexuals): The nature of things is right in front of us such that we cannot say we do not know what is natural.  That he has the larger context of pagan ritual in mind is clear in how he refers to how 'images' replaced God as the object of worship.

If we start with the idea that we are created in the 'image of God' and that (from the Ten Commandments) we are not to make carved 'images' for worship, we might note that the same word is used in both cases for 'image'.  It leads me to a simple conclusion: An 'idol' is anything we set up that prevents us from seeing the image of God where He has created it to be seen - in each other.

This means we are called to present the image of God in the world around us.  Paul's reasoning, it seems, is that this is done in part by upholding the order of His creation - and this includes the heterosexual complement of nature. In this sense Paul is not teaching us anything new as much as he is appealing to what nature has already taught us.  And so the biblical perspective is less an argument against homosexuality as something we have been taught, and more an appeal to that which was obvious in nature before there was anything to believe and teach.

The Universality of the Biblical View

But we - and I mean socially conservative Christians like myself - are equally without excuse and every bit as much under St. Paul's diagnosis of the human condition.  At least if I were to gauge these things by the 'Christian' response to the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage - we need to be reminded of these things.

We are nothing if not 'experts in the law'.  The points I make above are essentially points of what philosophers call 'Natural Law'.  We are not the first to seek out a hope in our expertise in the law.  We are not the first to be blinded to a more important imperative as we return constantly to our arguments.

St. Luke tells us of an 'expert in the law' who rose to 'test' Jesus.  He asked him what he had to do to gain eternal life.  To be a bit cheeky with the paraphrase, Jesus' response was: "You're the lawyer, you tell me!"  And the lawyer was ready with his brief: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."

And the lawyer was right: "Do this and you will live," Jesus responded.

But - and this is the second time Luke opens a window into this lawyer's intentions and motives - he felt the need to justify himself, so he asked Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"

The parable of the Good Samaritan we all know well is what follows.  What is fascinating is how in the parable we see the outward, compassionate intentions and motives of the Samaritan in contrast with how Luke portrays the inward, self-justifying intentions and motives of the 'expert in the law'.

Half of me wishes to disavow any offense that might be taken to the following questions - but half of me also is simply willing to own it: Why, again, are we arguing about homosexuality and gay marriage?

Why are we arguing a point obvious in nature?  Why are we trying to establish a 'truth' by way of rhetoric that has for all time been established by way of an observation of nature?

Are we trying to 'test' the bona fides of other Christians?  Or are we trying to justify our bona fides in our own eyes?  Are we, like the expert in the law, looking to being right as the source of our hope?

The parable teaches us nothing if not that being right is not always the most important thing. The lawyer was right, but his being right was decidedly not up to the hope he was seeking.

The Perspective of the Biblical View

The perspective of the Samaritan is the perspective commended to us with a simple command: Go and do likewise.  And that perspective was not one built around self-justifying arguments.  It was built around an outward-motivated compassion for others.  Or to put it another way, it was a redemptive perspective.

This does not mean we do not judge between right and wrong.  The Bible is clear on homosexuality because it follows from what is obvious in nature.  What it does mean is that as our engagement in civil society becomes more and more uncomfortable to our moral sensibilities, it only becomes more and more important that we seek out ways to invite our gay neighbors into meaningful belonging, that in being the image of God before them - and seeing that image in them - we might proclaim something worth believing.

The SCOTUS decision should be showing us that making a good argument and being a good neighbor are going to clash more and more frequently.  It only makes it more and more important that we decide which one wins when we have to choose: We need to be a good neighbor before we make a good argument.

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