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Can Christians and the LGBTQ Community be Friends? by Scott Sauls

New York Times writer Frank Bruni recently identified “homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.” Scott Sauls, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church is grieved by that potential portrayal and calls Christians to apologize, even though ethical differences remain. "Perhaps we should not focus first on defending our rights, but should instead focus first on repairing relational damage caused by unChristian representations of Jesus. Perhaps we should first apologize for our own part in the “fierce collision” about which Frank Bruni writes." Sauls goes on to write, "It’s not that ethics are unimportant. Ethics are very important. But we can’t talk about ethics in a productive way without the necessary prerequisite of friendship."

As you might imagine, as a Christian minister I have taken interest in recent news coming out of Indiana. This is just the latest in what New York Times writer Frank Bruni identifies as “homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.”

I am grieved by such portrayals of the relationship between Christians and the LGBTQ community. Though ethical differences exist, I think I speak for a majority of Christians in saying that I would never want to be part of a movement that is “in fierce collision” with those who identify as LGBTQ.

I say this not in spite of my Christian convictions, but because of them.

Christians…time to apologize?

Christians should feel sorrow for whatever ways people of faith have made matters worse instead of better.

As our nation grieved 9/11, a self-appointed “moral majority” blamed the LGBTQ community and others “who are trying to secularize America”—not the terrorists—for the death and ruin. One spokesman later apologized for these words, but the damage had already been done. Then there was the fundamentalist pastor from Topeka, along with his little “church” of about 15 people who went around the country doing the unthinkable—parading a message of hate in the name of Christ.

So, I think it’s time for us Christians to step back and ask what our first response should be to our own liberties and freedom of speech being at risk. Perhaps we should not focus first on defending our rights, but should instead focus first one repairing relational damage caused by unChristian representations of Jesus. Perhaps we should first apologize for our own part in the “fierce collision” about which Frank Bruni writes.

Why apologize? Because it’s what Jesus would have us do. When his disciples wanted to call down fire on a group of hostile Samaritans, Jesus rebuked them for having such a thought. When Peter cut off the ear of Malchus, a man who supported Judas in his betrayal of Jesus, Jesus healed Malchus’ ear and told Peter to put his sword away. Even as Judas himself was in the act of betraying Jesus, Jesus called him “friend.” As far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with all people.

Another thing we Christians must accept is that Jesus never once scolded or shamed a person whose sexual ethic was incongruent with his. While he did tell the woman caught in adultery to “leave her life of sin,” it was only after he assured her of his love. “I do not condemn you,” he said to her, “now go leave your life of sin.” Reverse the order of these two sentences and you lose the essence of Christianity. Paul also modeled this approach when he insisted that it is not Christians’ job to judge those outside the church. It is kindness, not ethical scoldings or lectures, that leads people to repentance.

What does this mean for Christians? It means inviting people into friendship that communicates love without strings attached. It means being true to our convictions, while simultaneously loving, listening to, and serving those whose ethical vision does not agree with our own. When LGBTQ activist Shane Windemeyer “came out” as a friend to Christian businessman Dan Cathy in The Huffington Post, he said two things about Dan Cathy. First, Dan “will likely not change his” historic Christian view that sex and marriage are Scripturally limited to one man and one woman. Second, in spite of their differences on this issue, Shane continues to embrace Dan as his good friend. We need more stories like this.

Fundamentalism, in all its forms, will eventually backfire

Besides offering a humble, sincere apology for any hurtful, unChristian behavior by Christians (including me), I want to propose a different way forward for the Christian and LGBTQ communities: friendship across differences.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would want both Christians and the LGBTQ community forsake fundamentalist postures in favor of disagreeing agreeably. The LGBTQ community has felt deep pain from religious fundamentalism, the tone of which has been damning and hurtful. According to Jesus, fundamentalists 1) are convinced beyond any doubt that their moral vision is right, and 2) treat those who don’t share their moral vision with contempt.

Religious fundamentalism has (thankfully) been pushed to the margins in our society. Its voice is not credible to the LGBTQ or the Christian community at large. But, if I may risk saying so, a new, less religious but no less ideological fundamentalism may be emerging. As it continues to gain moral support from the culture at large, the LGBTQ movement itself may be at risk of spawning a new fundamentalism. If my instincts are correct, I would urge my LGBTQ friends to learn from the failed project of yesterday’s so-called moral majority. Over time, intolerance of those with opposing views hurts fundamentalists more than it helps them. This will always be the case for movements that promote their vision with coercion instead of persuasion.

In my book, Jesus Outside the Lines, I wrote the following for my fellow-Christians. I trust that many friends in the LGBTQ community will identify with it as well:

What matters more to us—that we successfully put others in their place, or that we are known to love well? That we win culture wars with carefully constructed arguments and political power plays, or that we win hearts with humility, truth, and love? God have mercy on us if we do not love well because all that matters to us is being right and winning arguments…Truth and love must go together.

A more hopeful way forward?

There are already many who are choosing this path instead of fundamentalism. Like Shane Windemeyer and Dan Cathy, these people are focusing less on what makes us different and more on how friendship and respectful, spirited dialogue about ideas and differences can be developed. After all, whether Christian or LGBTQ or other, we are all part of the human community and are better served by kindness across differences than we are by hatred because of differences. As Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly said, hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.

When such a vision is embraced, great things can happen. Shane Windemeyer and Dan Cathy are not alone. Christian evangelist Kevin Palau and Portland’s gay mayor Sam Adams came together across differences, combining ideas and resources to serve Portland’s less fortunate. In the end, both parties saw the experience as a win, not only for Portland, but for them personally. Former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, an evangelical Christian, became the world’s foremost advocate to fight AIDS, then believed to be a disease that only affected gay men. And there is Chris Stedman, who self-identifies as both “atheist” and “queer,” who wrote the following in a recent essay:

The divide between Christians and atheists is deep…I’m dedicated to bridging that divide—to working with atheists, Christians and people of all different beliefs and backgrounds on building a more cooperative world…to see a world in which people are able to have honest, challenging, and loving conversation across lines of difference.

Can we envision this for ourselves as well?

Can we envision a world where convictions are not abandoned, and not in spite of those convictions but because of them, friendships are made and honoring dialogue happens across ideological differences?

Can we see a way forward in which friendship and serving the common good become the main emphasis for the Christian and LGBTQ communities? If Jesus chose a Samaritan to be the hero of one of his parables, frequented tax collector parties, and hung around people whose sex ethic, drinking habits, and religious beliefs and practices contradicted his own, I think we can do better than we have thus far.

It’s not that ethics are unimportant. Ethics are very important. But we can’t talk about ethics in a productive way without the necessary prerequisite of friendship.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves.