After nearly four decades, Exodus International, the largest anti-gay charity in the world has issued an apology not for their beliefs, but for the condemnation they made people feel in the name of God. In their farewell press release, a line struck me:
“From a Judeo-Christian perspective, gay, straight or otherwise, we’re all prodigal sons and daughters. Exodus International is the prodigal’s older brother, trying to impose its will on God’s promises, and make judgments on who’s worthy of His Kingdom. God is calling us to be the Father – to welcome everyone, to love unhindered.”
It is human nature to group people into “us” and “them.” I am convinced that this tendency is a dark one and that it does not come from God. There is a reason Exodus International uses the story of the prodigal son, which is God’s story.
God loves unhindered. God loves us so much that the Bible says “God is Love.” In a God that we can’t grasp or comprehend, it is not unreasonable, then, to believe that God’s love is not only bigger than our love, but God’s love is greater than we can even fathom. Even the title we’ve given of “the prodigal son” story shows just how much we fail to grasp God’s incomprehensibly boundless love. It’s not simply the story of a child that chooses to leave his father’s grace and love — a child who comes back believing he will never again be welcomed as a son. It is a story of both sons — but moreover it is the story of their Father’s love. If it were just about one son (as the title we’ve given it would suggest), Jesus would never have mentioned another son.
Jesus knew, that like the other son, we would continue to see the world as “us vs. them” and that we would see God’s unhindered love as unfair when God chooses to offer it freely to people we see as undeserving, when we feel like we’ve done so much to deserve our place in God’s house. This stands in direct opposition to what any Christian will tell you they believe about salvation. They will call it a free gift of God. They will say they are saved only through God’s grace, and not through any works of their own. But when Alan Chambers (the head of Exodus International) said that God wants to call us all, that God loves unhindered, and when Rob Bell said that we should trust the Father’s story because His love is greater than we (or the prodigal son’s older brother) can fathom, some Christians were quick to call them heretics and enemies of God.
While it is a poor reflection of God’s love, we have armed ourselves in “us vs. them” camps of believers who view the issue differently and have come to opposing conclusions. I am loathe to use titles to group these sides as these labels are inadequate and part of the “us vs. them” mentality that is not from God. So rather than say conservative vs. liberal or evangelical vs. mainline, or whatever labels you already have in your mind…
As a person who has chosen one of those camps and who has felt like it was important to argue for what I believe in, I will try to observe as impartially as I am able (though I admit, that’s not very impartial at all).
Those who have stood in opposition to gay marriage, those who believe that being gay is incompatible with being a Christian have been quick to say that believers on the other side of the dividing line are disregarding scripture, that they are willfully ignoring God just because it is culturally convenient to do so, and that doing so makes them enemies of God.
On the other side, people have been quick to call their opponents bigots. Those people have said (and continue to say) they are standing up against people who would use God to promote their own hate.
And for the most part, these views of the “other” camp are simply strawman arguments that don’t come close to comprehending the true reasons why “they” disagree with “us,” and the vitriolic language and attitudes on both sides don’t look anything like the unhindered love of God.
I’ll admit that one of my greatest struggles as a follower of Christ is the disdain I hold people in when they use the name of my God to promote ideas I find to be abhorrent. Luckily God’s love is not dependent upon me also loving those people. If God’s love is unhindered and we are God’s representatives on earth, when we fail to love people we disagree with, we are a hindrance to people experiencing God’s love. We are called to shine the light of God’s love into the darkness. Rather than act like a mirror that reflects God’s light in every direction, we are more like a block of Swiss Cheese, letting the light through in places, but blocking entirely too much of it.
The truth, for many people on either side of this issue, is that they are well-meaning, well-read, intelligent people who are trying to make the world a better place, the best way they know how. Is someone wrong? Sure, we can’t both be right…but again, God doesn’t fail when we do. This doesn’t mean we should be ok with failing God, we should always strive to shine God’s love better today than we did yesterday.
(Now I’m about to speak in generalities about the people debating gay marriage. I recognize that there are some bad apples out there, but for now, I’m going to contend that most people are decent folk who are just trying to make sense of the world and generally don’t go out of their way to harm others. Our selfish nature means we might not always act in other people’s best interest, but we generally won’t go out of our way to hurt others. Our sense of ethics –what we consider right and wrong — might vary, but for the most part we have ethical systems and for the most part we consider ourselves moral beings that try to do the right thing.)
Let’s collectively recognize that many people who are against gay marriage aren’t trying to make the world a worse place by stopping other people from feeling equal. If you asked them, they’d say the emotion they feel for gay people isn’t hate, it’s love. They truly believe that gay people aren’t experiencing the full joy of God, and same-sex relationships are a hindrance that stands between them and this complete love. I am not saying that they are right for feeling this way…but to say that they are hateful people (again, for the most part) isn’t true. It doesn’t accurately represent how they feel, and there can be no reconciliation between two groups at war until each side really tries to understand where the other side is coming from. It adds nothing to discourse nor does it get us closer toward the party that God wants to throw for all His children for us to entrench ourselves in a fevered conflict that exists between us.
Now, let’s collectively recognize that many people in the church who don’t view same-sex relationships as less-than-opposite-sex relationships don’t think less of the Word of God than people in the former camp. Many of them simply interpret the passages in the Bible differently than those on the other side of the line. And from the moment Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the church, we as the church have allowed for that. Anyone who calls themselves a Christian who isn’t Catholic or Eastern Orthodox (and frankly many people who are in those two churches) have said “we will not be dictated to by a single body what the word of God is.”
We are standing on the shoulders of generations of believers who have said God has given us a brain for a reason: that we might use that brain to interpret what we read and what we are told of God and for the world around us. Many also believe that free will means that while God may have been working in the many authors of the many books of the Bible (and in the groups who decided what books should be canonized and which should not) those authors viewed God’s revelations though their own perceptions, their own worldviews, and that we have to view the Bible in that context, rather than as a single book that fell from Heaven, complete and unaltered.
The truth for both sides is that these are only a partial view at the positions millions of people have come to over years of thoughts, influenced by years of experiences. What I’ve offered here is like the photos you see of the Sistine chapel — when you see a cropped picture of just the part of the ceiling that shows God reaching out to man, you’re only seeing a very small part of the complete picture. And while some of you just quickly did a web search because you realize you have no idea what the rest of the painting looks like, even a full photograph won’t give you the same experience that you get standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of tourists trying to take it all in with only a few minutes until you are rushed out for the sake of the hundreds coming behind you.
The only way to understand the people who disagree with you on this topic (or any topic) is to listen to them, listen to their story, think about the lifetime of experiences that has led someone with the same access to the Bible as you do, someone with a God-given faculty for reason (much like you have), and try to understand how their journey took them to a place that may be unfathomable to you. We must learn to calm the voices in our own head that make us want to cut them off and call them evil. We must realize that God wants to bestow limitless love and generosity on people we agree with and people we disagree with alike.
For just a moment let’s all stop viewing this through the lens of who is right and who is wrong. In the story Jesus tells both sons are wrong, both sons draw conclusions that their father rejects in His boundless love for both His sons. The story Jesus tells isn’t about being right and being wrong, it’s about a God’s love that is so grand that God says: you’re both wrong, but I love you both anyway. God is telling a story that rejects the very notion of the warring camps we try to put ourselves in.
As Rob Bell put it, God’s love is bigger than that. We have to realize that this story isn’t about one son, it’s God’s story. The Bible is God’s story. All of existence is God’s story. And while we put labels on things, and join groups of us vs. them — we need to realize it’s not our story, it’s not their story, it is God’s story. It is all — all of it — a story of God’s love for us.
The great thing about it not being our story, is that if it were our story, our conclusion would end with one side winning and being proved right and the other side losing and being proved wrong. The great thing about it being God’s story is that no matter how wrong we all are (on a great many issues) God’s love is always big enough to reach us. The great thing about this being God’s story, as Mr. Bell put it, Love Wins.
I might think you’re wrong on this issue or another issue, but I refuse to let that disagreement define who you are to me, who I am to you, and which one of us God sides with more.