There is no understating the devastating nature of the tragedy last week in Uganda.  David Kato, a leading gay rights activist, was brutally murdered.  It is an unconscionable, horrendous event, the sort of tragedy that is not easily fit into the weightless transience of blog posts.

To be honest, I’ve already said more than I want to say.  I’d prefer to mourn the loss of another human and then fall into silence.  I really would.  If you look back through Mere-O’s archives, since the Virginia Tech tragedy–where I learned my lesson–I have said almost nothing about the various tragedies that have since befallen America.  When a quake ruined Haiti last January, I wrote exactly one blog post exhorting people to pray and pointing them to a list of resources to give money.

I hate the endless spectacle of words that follows tragedies and how incommensurate they are to the reality of the situation.  While I am a wholehearted believer in the power of the internet to effect social transformation, I am an even more ardent believer in the power of prayer.  And when confronted by tragedies, I have attempted to make the latter my refuge, rather than the former.

Back in October, Dan Savage made national news by pointing out that “Gay kids are dying” to someone who expressed regret and sadness at the stories of gay kids who had been bullied.  John Corvino expounded:

If Christians would spend even half as much time denouncing anti-gay violence as they do denouncing gay marriage, I might have more sympathy for Savage’s letter-writer. But the denunciations of violence are usually tepid, and they’re too often followed by a “BUT.”  BUT we want to make it clear that we still think gay sex is wrong. BUT marriage is for a man and a woman. BUT we Christians are persecuted too, you know.

Back to Kato, when the news broke my friend Jonathan Fitzgerald  wrote a stirring piece on the harsh judgmentalism of evangelicals toward gays and lesbians that ended in this impassioned plea:

I’m calling for an end to this life threatening judgmentalism. I’m calling for a moratorium on debates over what qualifies as sin in other peoples’ lives. I’m calling for a change in priorities, a shift back to what we should have been doing all along. I’m calling for love, acceptance, and a global admission that we have wronged so many people. Ultimately, I’m pleading with my fellow Christians to change, to make a marked transition from being the most judgmental and angry, to the most accepting and loving. From being the police of others’ morality, to the bearers of others’ burdens. Peoples’ lives, it’s clear, are at stake.

Here’s the painful reality to someone like me:  it doesn’t matter how carefully I make the arguments, how vociferously I contend that people with gay desires are Christians, how rationally and civilly I try to make my case.   In a world where news stories dominate and facts are hard to obtain, the perception is all that matters.  And when the perception is that evangelicals hate gay people, every argument–of any sort–is inevitably one more piece of proof for the case.

Which means that even if conservative evangelicals did denounce anti-gay violence as often as we make the case against gay marriage it wouldn’t be enough.  It’s like fighting with your spouse.  When I’m angry with my wife, I treat even the nice things she says and does as implicitly spiteful ways of hurting me.  Even if I’m wrong–and frankly,  I almost always am–“equal time” is simply not enough for relational harmony to be restored.  I know he’s controversial, but I am glad Marin’s doing his thing up in Chicago.  We need more like him.

Look, I am wholly invested in efforts to have a civil dialogue on this issue and Lord knows I have tried to practice that here at Mere-O.  I have a lot of respect for the few vocal commenters here at Mere-O who have challenged my thinking on this issue throughout the years.   While I know intentions simply aren’t enough, I have always tried to respond to the best arguments against my position rather than mucking about in the ideological rubble.

But we all have our “buts” and they are destroying the possibility of real, meaningful discussion about the question of gay rights in America and the possibility of meaningful discussion about the role–if any–of homosexuality within the church.

Read the final three paragraph’s of Fitzgerald’s essay.  His vague association between judgmentalism, debates over the morality of homosexuality, and Al Mohler’s post insinuates that any moral judgment on the question that is anything other than affirmation is “life threatening” and tantamount to participating in the murder of David Kato.

It’s nice of Fitzgerald to point out that the culpability we can attribute to the preachers who spoke in Uganda is “unclear and probably immeasurable.”  But he trots right through that thorny problem with a “But…” and then proceeds in his final two paragraphs to lump just about every conservative evangelical who wants to say anything about gay marriage into a “life threatening judgmentalism.”

Here’s my point:  If overwrought rhetoric is harmful, then deploying overwrought rhetoric to counter it is just as harmful.  You say I’m taking the “life threatening” line too seriously?  I certainly am.  But that’s the inescapable dilemma of blurring the line between our culpability for words and the bodily harm they ostensibly lead to.  And if my position is “life threatening” then I am in a position where it might be just for someone to physically defend themselves against me as a form of self-defense.  And by his own logic, Fitzgerald will be–ambiguously, at least–responsible.

Crazy talk, yes?  Yes.  But my real frustration is that Fitzgerald’s plea for a moratorium on the debate about the morality of homosexuality actually destroys the possibility of real, civil discourse on the question.  Which is the opposite of what Patrol had set out to do. If rhetoric is powerful enough to kill people, then demanding that people stop speaking in a certain way is the equivalent of prison.  While it may start as voluntary, the logic is an illiberal one and once adopted it will be difficult to stop an involuntary suppression of speech on the part of those Fitzgerald disagrees with.

I’ve got a bit of a reductio working through here.  My goal here is to chase the logic where it leads and to point out the double standards.  I hope Fitzgerald clarifies his position and I’ll link to anything he writes in response.  I take him seriously as a thinker and have a great deal of respect for him.  In fact, it’s because I have such respect for him that I would love to see him clarify his remarks.  Because if he’s right that rhetoric matters, then he needs to play by his own rules.

Let me say this in closing:  have evangelicals done enough to denounce violence against gays and lesbians?  Almost certainly not, especially given the contentious dialogue we’re in.   Have I personally done enough to denounce violence against gays and lesbians?  No.

To me, it is self-evident that bodily harm or intimidation toward others on the basis of their sexuality is morally wrong.  But I am realizing that more than self-evidence is needed to make space for a healthy and civil disagreement on this issue.  Because I want to hold myself and Mere-O to a standard of discourse higher than anywhere else online—to be, as it were, “above reproach” in our public discourse—I want to acknowledge that shortcoming and say that I hope to remedy it.

This is a conversation our culture cannot have, but must have.   When I fight with my wife, reconciliation never really occurs until I drop my skepticism that her overtures and attempts at reaching out are genuine and remember that love “believes all things” just as much as it “hopes all things.”  I believe that homosexuality is wrong.  My reason and my desire to be faithful to Scripture won’t let me think otherwise.  But I hope that gay and lesbian people will realize that the denunciations of violence that precede the “BUT” are genuinely grounded in real compassion that is motivated by our a sense of our shared humanity.  Because the possibility of a civil discussion may depend upon it.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Amen and amen. We had a discussion on Sunday in a church group I attend about how to speak truth in love to homosexual people that we know, about how to get past the “Christians hate gays” perception. Although we talked about loving in real concrete active ways—inviting gay people to our homes, having open civil conversations, etc.–the discussion quickly devolved into justifying and defending our moral stance against homosexual behavior. I think we all shared the feeling that no matter what we do, it won’t be enough to change the perception that because we are Christians who believe that homosexual behavior is wrong, we hate gays. So, many of us are ready to give up before we ever start. Of course that abdication of our responsibility to act in love no matter what the response is wrong, too. But it is a temptation.

  • Jeff Q

    Great post. We live in a “camp” society. You are placed, whether you like it or not, into one of 2 camps. You’re either for or against something. The media cannot accept anything deeper than that. It’s a headline, soundbyte culture. There are very few people who would take the time to read a few hundred words and think about it, rather than just placing you (us) into one of the camps.

    It’s basically, “Christian talking about homosexuality = hate.” “Christian talking in depth about homosexuality = we can put the 2 groups against each other and bring rational discourse to a halt.”

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention The Conversation Our Culture Cannot Have, But Must Anyway | Mere Orthodoxy -- Topsy.com()

  • Scott Shaffer

    You make several good points. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald is dead wrong and sounds like Brian McLaren when he writes, “I’m calling for a moratorium on debates over what qualifies as sin in other peoples’ lives.” The biblical, Christlike response is to preach the truth with love. Too often either truth or love are absent. Both are needed.

  • The trouble with language is that it is never a full and accurate way to express belief. Nevertheless, when articulate believers prayerfully try to put into words what they believe about even as charged an issue as this, they are doing what Christians have been called to do… give expression to the hope that is within us.

    If we are silent, if we fail to speak and write because we fear that our words will be misinterpreted, we cede the discussion to the most unprayerful, ungodly and inarticulate voices, such as those who preach God’s hatred towards gays. Our silence would be interpreted as tacit approval of those who preach violence and hatred. We must continue to write and speak with as much grace and love as God gives us, and continue to insist that a biblical opposition to homosexual politics and practice is not intrinsically hateful nor phobic nor unloving nor unChristian.

  • @Sherry, “So, many of us are ready to give up before we ever start. Of course that abdication of our responsibility to act in love no matter what the response is wrong, too. But it is a temptation.”

    Yes. It is a temptation. Part of the frustration, I think, is that as evangelicals we want to treat the relationship a bit like a science–if we denounce violence x many times, then we’ll be perceived differently. So I should denounce violence twice as often as I defend traditional marriage. The only problem is that relationships don’t seem to fit into those sorts of formulas very easily.

    @Jeff, as someone who spent way too long working on this, that’s the most discouraging reminder I’ve had in a while. : )

    @Charlie, “We must continue to write and speak with as much grace and love as God gives us, and continue to insist that a biblical opposition to homosexual politics and practice is not intrinsically hateful nor phobic nor unloving nor unChristian.”

    Oh, I agree. I’m not shy about it in my upcoming book. I think I’ve got enough in there that no one will like me when it’s over. : )

    –matt

  • Ben

    I guess the question I would come to the table with is, what does the church do with the Christian homosexual? The lack of response to this question is the most damning of them all. If you want to see a form of pure prejudice in the church, then watch how Christian homosexuals are treated by leaders. Until the church has a strong grasp on dealing with the issue, I fear the solution will never be reached.

  • Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (2/3) « scientia et sapientia()

  • @Ben, I totally agree that’s a problem. It’s not just pastors from the pulpit, though–we need a structure of support and care within our church’s life.

    That said, stay tuned on that front. I’m hoping my book will say in 6000 words what you and I just said in 60. : )

  • Pingback: Let's Not Talk About the Morality of Strangers | Patrol()

  • Pingback: A Self-Imposed Silence: Fitzgerald’s Response | Mere Orthodoxy()

  • Pingback: links for 2011-02-10 | The 'K' is not silent()

  • I never understand the amount of time Christians put into this argument. Homosexuality is the unforgivable sin to Christians. Divorce and adultury, even just looking at someone with lust in your heart are mentioned more often in the bible than homosexuality, yet we put so much emphasis on it. Why aren’t we picketing about these other sins, or legislating against them? Why don’t we feel the need to tell everyone about all the other sins they continue to do on a daily basis? If we look to our savior, is this how he would want us to respond to our neighbors? I don’t think so, my 2 most important commands are to love my God and my neighbor. No where does it say tell your neighbor all the things he is doing wrong. We have a responsibility to share God’s love, to turn people toward God – He will do the rest. If we have a message to send, telling people how wrong they are is not the way to be heard. We have turned away almost 10% of the population by making them feel unloved and unwanted, it is a terrible tragedy.

  • Lisa,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s completely possible to overemphasize sins and that’s something that I’m wrestling with. I think it’s best, though, to separate (at least for purposes of thinking the issues through) the theological question from the legal question.

    With respect to the amount of space the Bible devotes to homosexuality….that’s true. However, the Bible also says precious little about “the image of God” with respect to humans (the phrase shows up in fewer verses, I think, than about homosexuality). While we should attend to that, I don’t think sheer frequency is enough as a theological method to determine what should be emphasized. The Trinity, after all, doesn’t get mentioned once by name–yet as a doctrine, it’s absolutely core. I’m not saying homosexuality is core, but as a method of interpretation, the problem is worth noting.

    I think the shape and nature of that love is precisely the question. It doesn’t seem helpful to suggest that people who disagree with your position on the question aren’t loving their neighbor. Can’t we start by presuming that those who think homosexuality is wrong *are* loving their neighbor and simply ask what form love should take?

    Thanks again for commenting. Tough issues, these.

    Best,

    matt

  • I would ask you to answer just one question, do you think homosexuals are welcomed into the Christian Church with the same love and respect as say a divorcee?

  • @Lisa,

    No.

    • Great reply, thank you. And thank you for the discussion. I am passionate about this topic because there are people I love who will not go to church because they don’t feel welcome and it breaks my heart. I wish we could shift all that energy placed in opposing homosexuality and put it into something more productive.

  • Pingback: Let's Not Judge the Morality of Strangers()

  • Pingback: FRC Blog » The Social Conservative Review: March 3, 2011 Edition()

  • Bob Greenpoint

    Or, we can just acknowledge that the anti-gay sex laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and Paul’s reliance on those passages in his New Testament condemnation of homosexuality) were written by real, biased, homophobic men in the Bronze Age. Both Leviticus and Deureronomy are considered “law” books and codified common beliefs of their day.

    Interestingly, the laws prohibiting it are pratically verbatim with the law prohibiting it in Zoroastorism, Judaism’s predecessor.

    At any rate, the prohibiton of homosexuality isn’t anywhere near the main point of either testament. Modern day Christianity’s ridiculous obsession with it now has everything to do with the human feeling of one’s authority being threatened and one’s power being taken away.

    Live and let live, and focus on what your saviour focused on. Tolerance and forgiveness at a level that most humans can only aspire to.