Same Sex Unions: A Faithful Response
Why would a Christian denomination vote to formally embrace same sex unions?
That’s the question behind Ross Douthat’s article “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” The article is partly a response to the decision of the Episcopalian church to include in its liturgy a ceremony for same-sex unions and part diatribe against “liberal” Christianity. Douthat’s rather simplistic accusation against the Episcopal Church is often levied against other mainline denominations. He claims that liberal, mainline denominations are “flexible to the point of indifference to dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.” Douthat is very cynical about the reason liberal Christians move in this direction. For him, this move to embrace same sex unions has nothing to do with an attempt to be faithful followers of Christ, but everything to do with an attempt to attract younger congregants. Douthat quips, “Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.”
What Douthat misses in his accusation is precisely that those who embrace same sex unions are attempting to be faithful followers of Christ. I know because I’m one of them. We read the Bible. We know our Christian history. We have sound doctrine. And it’s because we are rooted in those places that we feel called to embrace those who find themselves excluded.
For example, let’s take a look at Original Sin. This doctrine is based, in part, on the human tendency to form our identity against an “other.” In other words, once we eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we know who is “good” and who is “bad.” And, of course, “I” am always the good guy, which means (sorry about this!) “you” are the bad guy. I take it that Original Sin is universal. In some way we all grasp for a sense of goodness, which means we grasp against someone else. For some reason, humans don’t like to share “goodness” so we compete for it. We make religious and political rules that distinguish “us good guys” from “those bad guys.” We feel the need to exclude “them” from our community, thinking that they hold some special power that will contaminate us. We start making distinctions between “clean” and “unclean.” Indeed, that distinction is made in scripture, but scripture also critiques that distinction.
One of my favorite passages in the bible that critiques that distinction is Peter’s vision in Acts chapter 10. The vision challenged Peter’s religious tendency to distinguish between clean and unclean. Here’s the passage:
Peter went up to the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
Peter basically says, “BUT WAIT!!! Leviticus says those things are unclean!!” And that’s an understandable response. Peter was religiously good and devout. He was trying to follow the rules. But Peter’s goodness and devotion to the rules were his problem. He used those rules to claim a sense of goodness over and against others. But God led him in another direction.
Now, a simplistic, literal reading of this passage would claim that this is simply about diet. But Peter had far from a simplistic, literal understanding of his vision. He knew it wasn’t so much about food, but about human relationships. No longer could Peter make a distinction between himself as “good” or “clean” and an “other” as “bad” or “unclean.” Within a few verses, Peter does the unthinkable: He baptizes Gentiles – which went against the religious laws. Peter made the bold claim to his fellow Jews, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (For more on Peter’s vision in Acts 10, see James Alison’s video here on The Forgiving Victim website.)
Why did Peter baptize Gentiles? Because for God no one is unclean. This is what Jesus does in our world. He challenges our social constructions of identifying ourselves as “good” against those people whom we label “bad.” There is no good and bad for God. There is no clean and unclean. There is only us. We are in this together. If I may paraphrase another early Christian, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, there is no longer homosexual or heterosexual; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Douthat ends his article by stating that liberal Christianity needs to recover “a religious reason for its own existence” and that “the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism” and that they should consider “what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Here’s what we offer and defend in embracing same sex unions: We offer the Gospel. We offer the Gospel that moves us away from the Original Sin that forms an identity by creating a distinction between “us” good people and “those” bad people. We offer the Gospel that says you “should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
So, here’s the challenge for us inclusive “liberals”: How do we include those with whom we disagree? How can we respond to Douthat in a way that doesn’t make him out to be the bad guy? I’ll admit that when I first read his article I felt some self-righteous anger that made me into the good guy and him into the bad guy. That’s a dangerous place to be. It’s Original Sin tempting me to claim a sense of my own goodness against Douthat. What’s the solution? I’d like to hear your thoughts about that. But I think the first step is to admit that our fellow Christians are not making tough decisions on liturgy based on an attempt to appeal to a certain demographic. We’re better Christians when we give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we are all basing these decisions on an attempt to be faithful followers of Christ. With that realization, we may not agree, but we have a better chance of moving forward in gracious disagreement.