This post was originally posted by Reconciling Ministries Network Blog on November 15, 2012.
I used to believe that imagining someone’s intentions was the best way to make a moral judgment on their action. If they didn’t mean to cause harm, then they should get a sort of by-pass on any condemnation. I also used to be “against homosexuality.” My understanding of scripture had me in the “love the sinner, not the sin” camp. While at first these two pieces of my history may seem completely irrelevant to one another, they are deeply intertwined in their theological grounding.
Although I would not have described it this way at the time, I used to hold a theology which suggested that our being and our doing were not necessarily one in the same. Somebody might say something sexist, but they are not actually sexist in their being. Or, someone might do something that is “homosexual” but that doesn’t mean they are “a homosexual.” The advantage of this perspective was that it justified my treating everyone equally. For the most part, I was able to respond to people who did or said things I disagreed with the same way I would treat people who thought or acted in line with what I thought was “right.” The downside was that while I might secretly judge people if they said something offensive or treated anyone wrongly, I had no grounds or conviction to speak up – because to me, they always meant well.
Over the years, however, I have had experiences that have taught me to think differently. My previous theology began to reveal itself as dangerous. On what grounds could I ever speak up for myself or anyone else if I was always imagining the other person’s good heart and letting things slide? On no grounds, and thus my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was ultimately one of passivity and putting up with a lot of awful things. My basis for loving others was built upon the idea that they were “good” inside even if they did “bad” things.
Since coming out as a lesbian, my thoughts have shifted greatly. While the language of the Book of Discipline might suggest otherwise, it is not the case that “homosexuals” practice – we just are. I am not only lesbian if I am actively engaged in any sort of sexual act. I am lesbian in my being. If I never dated anyone the rest of my life, I’d still be lesbian. My acts and my being are one in the same. I have similarly come to believe that the hurtful things I, or other people say, actually reflect our being.
I used to say things about the “sinfulness of homosexuality” because I was homophobic, even if repressed. I had the best of intentions built around my understanding of scripture and how to best love people, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was in the wrong and causing others harm. People excusing my ignorance time and time again because of my intentions is not what changed my perspective. My friends who challenged my thinking, told me I was wrong, and helped me understand the harm I was causing are the ones who changed my perspective – and I couldn’t be more grateful for the path to freedom they paved for me. The same goes for my racism. As a white woman in a racist society, in spite of my good intentions, I still say and do racist things because my being is racist. I work every day to make it less so, but I need the firm love of others to continue calling me out rather than giving me a pass because they know I mean well. This is part of the work of Christian community.
It is time we Christians stop making excuses for homophobia or any other form of oppression because people “don’t mean to be mean” or because “they’re just ignorant.” We claim a theology which suggests no one other than Christ is yet free of sin, so why are we so unwilling to reconcile the fact that we each hold sin in our being and not just in our action? Instead of giving people a pass, why don’t we correct them – in love for those they speak against and out of love for them? Because being lovingly called out on things like homophobia, is indeed a path to freedom.
While it might make sense to love people because we imagine they are “good on the inside” even if they do or say homophobic things, it is more transforming to love one another because, no matter what, we are claimed by God – even in our homophobia. The love and compassion we are called to live out toward others should not be founded upon naïve excuses or claims to internal goodness. It should be founded on the fact that we are all “flesh of each other’s flesh” and “bone of each other’s bone.” We are all struggling to free our being of sin and love should be less about turning a blind eye to harm and more about saying to one another, “you are loved even in your sin.” By kindly and compassionately calling one another out on our participation in systemic sin (while remaining open to being shown our own sins) we can actually create healing change in the world which, it turns out, is much more powerful than being nice. There is a difference in being nonviolent Christians (in language, thought or deed) and passive Christians. We are called to one but not the other.