In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell speaks a little about his childhood conversion story, which is traditional by any definition of the word: on his knees, beside his bed, saying the sinner’s prayer. In a postmodern world, he writes, it can be easy to be embarrassed by stories like that. No child making that decision is really doing so of his or her own free will, but rather through the influence of environmental factors that, once loosened in teenage and college years, might ultimately lead to a far different choice.
“With very little effort,” Bell writes, “a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one’s parents and the power of religion to shape a child.”
Bell argues we should embrace our pasts, despite the “temptation at times to become hostile to our earlier understandings, feeling embarrassed we were so ‘simple’ or ‘naive’ or ‘brainwashed’ or whatever terms arrive when we haven’t come to terms with our own story.”
In short, “That’s where we were at that point in our life, and God met us there. Those moments were necessary for us to arrive here, at this place at this time, as we are. Love frees us to embrace all of our history, the history in which all things are being made new.”
Though I’ve never felt embarrassed by my (first) conversion story (I was 4, and I tacked the sinner’s prayer onto the end of praying for dinner), there are plenty of things in my earlier life about which I do feel a little uneasy, mostly my very opinionated high school career as a “song” and column writer.
Yes, I wrote columns, some of them for assignments in our Government class, others just for fun – the doctors tell me the dorkiness is incurable; it’s certainly been a lifelong affliction. Though perhaps that should be the embarrassing part, it’s not. Rather, the content is something just short of horrifying to me now. And my words, especially about homosexuality, still haunt me today.
Like Bell, it’s easy to see now the source of what I wrote (I won’t be quoting anything; it is that revolting to me). There were ultraconservative influences at home and at school. There literally were no voices of moderation in my life, and that includes the textbooks from which I was taught and the radio I listened to. I was a product of my environment.
My opinions, at least on homosexuality, started to change when I learned my favorite uncle is gay. As I frequently argue, it’s very difficult for narrow-mindedness and blind judgment to co-exist with love and friendship. Our attitudes toward homosexuality are shaped less by the Bible and more by the fact that most of us think we don’t know anyone who is gay.
After all, if they were shaped even by a literal reading of the Bible, we would consider divorce a worse problem than homosexual behavior. But we don’t. Because we all know good people who have been divorced. Well, we probably all know good people who are gay and either have accepted it or struggle against it. But since we think we don’t, we can stigmatize, demonize and ostracize without worrying that we might be damaging the faith, if not the entire life, of a brother or sister.
So when I read stories like this one, it breaks my heart because I used to be one of these people:
My friend hesitated. “Dan, you are the only friend I have that knows I’m gay. The only freaking one,” he said.
“What do you mean? I know you’ve told other friends.”
That’s when his voice cracked. He began crying.
“Every single person I’ve told has ditched me. They just disappear. They stop calling. They remove me on Facebook. They’re just gone,” he said. “They can’t handle knowing and being friends with a gay person.”
I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything.
“You don’t know what it’s like, man. You don’t know what it’s like to live here and be gay. You don’t know what it’s like to have freaking nobody. You don’t know what it’s like to have your own parents hate you and try and cover up your existence. I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want this. And I’m so tired of people hating me for it. I can’t take it anymore. I just can’t.”
How do you respond to that?
I wanted to tell him it was all in his head. I knew it wasn’t. I wanted to tell him it would get better and easier. The words would have been hollow and without conviction, and I knew it.
You see, I live in this community too. And I’ve heard the hate. I’ve heard the disgust. I’ve heard the disdain. I’ve heard the gossip. I’ve heard the distrust. I’ve heard the anger. I’ve heard it all, and I’ve heard it tucked and disguised neatly beneath a wrapper of self-righteousness and a blanket of “caring” or “religious” words. I’ve heard it more times than I care to number.
I’ve heard it, and I’ve heard it over, and over, and over again.
Hell, in the past (and to some degree in the present) I participated in it. I propagated it. I smugly took part in it. I’ll admit that.
And I did so under the blanketing term “Christian.” I did so believing that my actions were somehow justified because of my beliefs at the time.
But actually knowing and loving someone who turned out to be gay – someone who is family, not someone I can simply unfriend on Facebook or not return his calls, but someone whose wit and sensibilities are very similar to mine (so similar, my mother sometimes calls me his name by mistake) and who has been incredibly loving and gracious to me (and, later, my wife) – that changes a person’s views on things. Turns out, when you truly love someone, there’s not much room for condemnation.
My freshman year of college, it suddenly dawned on me that using the f-word – the one that means “gay,” not the one that means “sex” – and utilizing “gay” as a pejorative were actually pretty offensive. Both of those linguistic tricks were in heavy rotation in my high-school vocabulary. I remember simply making the decision one day not to use them anymore, and they were gone. Likewise, I remember sitting with one of my great friends and mentors, a professor in the journalism department who taught First Amendment law, and working through how we simply could not use religious viewpoints about homosexuality as the basis for legislating who can participate in a state-sanctioned marriage.
Now, a little more than a decade later, I stand at the edge of another big decision. The Bible speaks very little about homosexuality – much less than is assumed, I think. The homosexual acts it does condemn bear no resemblance to the homosexuality of my uncle, who has had two partners in my lifetime – the same number as one of my heterosexual uncles – and has lived with his current partner in monogamy for nearly 15 years. My research into Leviticus 18 and 20 for my class’s big semester-end paper convinces me that the condemnation of anal sex between men (and that’s the only thing condemned in those passages, by the way) in the Holiness Code is purely a concern for ritual purity, not moral rectitude. You’d better believe that when we do a New Testament exegesis paper in the spring, I’ll be focusing on Romans 1.
Because this is an important issue to get right. For too long, Christians – including me – have understood and loved too little, and assumed and condemned too much. In part because of my embarrassment for my previous words (though, thankfully, no one but me read most of them), I desperately want to affirm the rightness of monogamous homosexual relationships. But I also don’t want to do so simply because I was too hasty in condemning them as a teenager. That’s why you’ve seen a lot of conversation on this blog about this. It’s something I think about, and wrestle with, a lot. And I’ll continue to do so. I hope you’ll join me in the journey.
Needless to say, I haven’t embraced my past yet, not like Bell has. I’m not sure I can ever get to that place. But it’s true that God found me even in that darkness, and he’s bringing me to the light, freeing me from the shackles of my own environment and giving me the room to run – hopefully, to a place where I can truly let love win, no matter how well I know a person or how sure I am about the wrongness of their actions.