When thinking about how to response to the LGBTQ community, Jason Helveston calls Evangelical Christians to remember the humanity at the core of their faith.
Alex Okeowo opened my eyes. It was early 2013. In an article from December of the previous year, the New Yorker columnist reflected through the eyes of Ugandan gay-rights activist Frank Mugisha. For years I was obviously aware of the domestic conversation concerning issues and legislation related to the L.G.B.T. community. The momentum of these surging conversations quickly outgrew state lines, and had then taken root in the halls of the Supreme Court–not to mention the timelines of Facebook. Still through all of this I had failed to see the larger picture. It was a contentious season to be sure, one of spiritual tension as well as personal heartache. Not the least reason being I am an evangelical pastor, forty-five minutes from the epicenter of the national debate. And even in the Silicon Valley the subject of gay rights had found rigidity on multiple fronts. It manifested politically, religiously, and perhaps most powerfully, relationally. But regardless of when or where it came up my chief concern has regretfully remained unfettered.
Historically evangelicals have been set apart by their feverish affirmation of personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, the impetus of evangelism, and the precise content of the gospel–namely that the Son of God, Jesus Christ came to earth, lived a perfect life, died, and rose from the dead. Through this merciful work, God has vanquished the curse of sin, Satan, and death. Thus through simple faith in Jesus and what he has accomplished human beings can experience a renewed harmony with God, within ourselves, in interpersonal relationships, and with the world around us. And so it seems to me that the entry point to evangelic Christianity (or any other subset for that matter) is an acute awareness of personal brokenness in contrast to God’s original flawless design. Therefore faith always begins with humility. It is only within this confession, of one’s own corruption, that human beings are able to acknowledge the necessity and prize of the good news. Salvation comes to those who know, first of all, that they need saving. This is where the anthem of God’s love breaks-in and wakes us up to the reality and possibility that only Jesus affords. John Newton’s summarizes this perfectly in his timeless ballad …
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
This is something done for us. This is something done to us. At the core, evangelical identity is founded, cultivated, and anchored in grace–free and unmerited supernatural favor. We are those who are ever familiar with our previous status; willful rebels, separated from God, his people, and his purposes for us here and now. But we are also those who are constantly aware of our undeserved restoration and redemptions. We have become pardoned and adopted sons and daughters of God.
I don’t know anything about Okeowo’s faith. Nevertheless she reminded me of this. She opened my eyes and doesn’t even know it. Her column explained the current situation in Uganda. According to some estimations Uganda is a Christian nation. Roughly 85% of the population are self-proclaimed followers of Jesus. However within this landscape of converted, Bible-teaching, evangelistic, gospel-touting believers, the true tone of Christianity seems to have all but vacated the premises. A certain bill had been growing momentum within Ugandan parliament. Over the past couple of years it had earned the nickname the “Kill the Gays” bill. Depending on interpretation, if passed, life imprisonment and even the death penalty would be legal recourses for “homosexual activities.” Church leaders in both the U.S. and Uganda have rallied behind this ideology claiming such a mandate would be an exemplary application of Scripture. With eyes sealed shut, so-called pastors and parishioners alike teach, preach, and give financially in order to rid Uganda of homosexuality.
There I sat.
In the pastor’s office.
In the heart of the Bay Area.
Worlds away from Africa I wondered, what is the benefit of embracing truth when humility, grace, and love are lost in the process? In such case, has truth really been embraced? From where I sat evangelicals–and not just in Uganda–seem all too comfortable with these modern causalities of a supposed righteousness. A growing religiously charged ideology supposes quoting Scripture while making a point is all that is required of christianly discourse. This assumption seems beyond reproach and even justifiable, all other issues are secondary.
Have we really forgotten our own stories?
We’re we the broken ones?
Aren’t we the broken ones?
Haven’t we received the free and unmerited affection of God?
And all we’ve got is Scripture memorization?
Today evangelical Christians are in urgent need. We need to open our eyes. But not in order to pass a bill, rather to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. For such a time as this we must recapture the elusive embrace of affection and doctrine to promote a unifying voice that speaks of the virtues of Scripture, seasoned by Jesus-style grace. This is the blueprint of authentic Christian community. Regretfully we’ve seen fit to draft our own plans. We have become spiritually satisfied by the isolating pursuit of personal piety. However just as vital is our propagation of righteousness. And whether it be in the Bay Area or Africa, the way forward is always backward. As forgiven sinners it ought to be our perpetual aim to grow increasingly familiar with and grateful for our stories of redemption; that is our life-altering experience with the free and unmerited embrace of God. The constant reminder of our former wretchedness, lostness, and blindness and subsequent liberation encourages an appropriate posture which I think is no less than captivating.
The very week I got around to reading Okeowo’s article legislations concerning Proposition 8 as well as the Defense of Marriage Act were being presented to the highest court in the United States. Obviously, neither of these previous rulings approached the immediate implications of what was going on in Ugandan parliament. However the exact same opportunity was and is being presented to both American and Ugandan evangelicals. How will we respond? Truth without grace is unacceptable. Love without virtue is incomplete.
That’s what Jesus perfectly revealed to a hateful group of legalist and a particular women in John 8. The pharisaical posse brought a women to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. Referring to a passage from Deuteronomy 22 (Moses’ Law) they informed Jesus she needed to be stoned to death. If you remember the story, Jesus curiously writes in the dirt. Then he responds to their spiritual trap, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Their rocks hit the ground. Everyone left. Grace seemed to reverberate deeply within the crowd’s collective consciousness. But Jesus wasn’t done. He turned to the woman, standing alone, and told her to sin no more.
The law was legit.
But so was grace.
The Supreme Courts has spoken. And most recently the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. So today I think evangelicals will be tempted to respond in one of three ways. One person may be tempted like this group in Jesus’ day to open Scripture to places like 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, or Romans, or even to one of a host of Old Testament passages concerning the image of God and identity. In other words, pick up stones. In contrast another might try to overstretch a popularly held concept of John 3:16, the idea of God’s acceptance or love not demanding deep personal transformation. Or tell people to drop their stones and let the woman go. Either approach will not do. Neither will the third temptation of avoiding the conversation entirely. That’s too easy. Jesus seems to have taken a completely difference course of action in John’s gospel–and not only in chapter 8 but more importantly in chapter 19. The cross is the great intersection of truth and grace. It’s not a place of compromise and coexistence, it is the point of cosmic confrontation. Jesus dies in the place of humanity.
I do not have all the answers. I don’t even understand all the problems. I don’t fully understand the legislation in Uganda or in the United States. And I am not claiming to know perfectly the hearts of supporters and opponents of either. I only know that my eyes have been opened. And all Alex Okeowo did was tell a story.
Photo: Flickr/ Daquella manera