Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Colouring the black and white

Have you ever listened to a recorded discussion between two people and wished you could have been there? That was my feeling when I watched this podcast on YouTube a while back and I wanted to jump in. Justin Brierley was interviewing Rob Bell and Andrew Wilson on his Unbelievable radio program. The subject that was being debated was homosexuality and the Bible.

I'm not altogether familiar with either speaker, but my sense of the conversation was that Wilson was questioning Bell on his reasons for taking a more liberal approach to a controversial issue and asking how his stance was grounded in scripture. Bell appeared to become agitated with being asked to explain his views from a Biblical perspective.

Just answer the question, is homosexual behavior sinful or not? The question would later ring in my ears from the comment section, directed at Rob Bell. Like the commenter, I would answer the question differently, more in line with Wilson theologically in some respects, and yet I get what Rob Bell is saying, that society has moved beyond these questions and a lot of people are being turned off by the church's insistence on continuing to ask questions that at present are deemed culturally inappropriate and offensive.

The Bible is offensive. The idea of telling people they are sinners and on their way to hell if they don't repent is rather confrontational isn't it? I've struggled with this. I'm a Canadian Christian. Do you know what you get when you cross a Canadian with a Christian? Yeah, that's right, a Christian who's afraid of offending somebody. I know it's not funny, it's pathetic really, but truth be told I've struggled with a gut-wrenching paranoia of offending people for years, while knowing that I'm commanded to go into all the world to preach a gospel that has offense built into it, the very corner stone. And yet I'm drawn to Jesus, precisely because he demands so much, constantly challenging me to be more than I am, while I'm constantly failing while reaching for something more. I haven't found anything quite like it, which is why I ask, what would be the significance of someone claiming to be God, if they weren't crazy or lying?

And I guess that's why I wonder about this cultural current that assumes that if we can get beyond the intolerance of exclusive belief systems, that it would be a better world. I look at western history, the hospitals and the educational institutions with saints' names and forgotten mission statements. Was that a secular tolerance that built that society, or was it people who believed in the commandments of a Judeo-Christian God, who were compelled to act lovingly in accordance with their beliefs? It's an interesting question isn't it?

But back to the subject at hand.  I don't personally think the answer is in watering down Christianity, in short. Because I think there is a greater hope in an all-powerful personal God that goes beyond the limited thinking of our present culture. I hear so much talk these days, where conservative Christians are bashed for believing, dare they suggest that a relationship with a living God could change anyone. Well I believe it, because it transformed and is continuing to transform my life. That's not to say it's easy or that there aren't struggles, that for some people may continue to be life long.

Yet I think Rob Bell is right in the sense that we need to accept that the church isn't in control anymore. Not everyone is a Christian, and so I think discussions about what the Bible says or doesn't say about behavior should be left for within faith communities. And I think that boundary should be respected by people outside of faith communities as well. Pardon my bluntness, but don't tell me what to believe, and I won't tell you how to live. Respect is a two way street. In short, I think the answer to this very polarizing issue is in the separation of church and state, and in a verse that I don't tend to hear people emphasize enough in current discussions about homosexual rights. The Bible verse I rarely hear mentioned, that may be the foundation of western rights is easy to find. In fact, it's on the first page.

Chapter 1, verse 26: Then God said, "Let us make people in our image, to be like ourselves. Who on earth was he talking to by the way? There was nobody there. I feel another blog coming on folks but I digress. Verse 27: So God created people in his own image: God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them.

Here's my point, simply stated. I think that there is a place for having a frank discussion about what the Bible says or doesn't say on the topic of homosexuality, within the context of faith communities. But at the end of the day, that's for churches to sort out, what we believe according to our conscience and the dictates of our beliefs. And I think that needs to be stressed on the one hand (which is why I'm repeating it), as there seems to be a complete lack of regard for religious freedom in secular discussions of this issue. But it also needs to be said that we are not living in a theocracy, and Biblical standards of moral conduct have no bearing on the rights of individuals in a pluralistic society. But having acknowledged those two frameworks for separate discussion, public and private, as a Christian I cannot think of a better starting point in dialoging with people who may not share our beliefs, than to simply acknowledge the equal worth and dignity of all human beings and to support rights initiatives as a way of supporting the person firstly. Can I get an Amen! lol.

I remember a minister saying once in a sermon, that if the church is doing it's job, loving people, supporting people, that it will grow spontaneously. Actually, Jesus said something very similar, that if we remain in him we will bear much fruit. I think there's a reason why people come from all over the world to live in the west, because we have an ideological tradition that says that people have intrinsic worth regardless of their social status. I understand that this is an emotional issue for many people, as it was for me. But more and more I'm coming to the conclusion that the current culture war is doing more harm than good, and is counter-productive to the advance of the Gospel. We are called to reach out to people, and to love people unconditionally.

Again, I'm not talking about watering down the Gospel or lowering a bar. I'm simply suggesting that as Christians we support the rights of the individual as a way of building bridges and loving people. I would hope that in time the gay community will respect our right to make choices too, even as we disagree. Everyone should know that they are welcome in church, regardless of differences. As a thumbnail sketch of where things are going in the broader church though: I'm guessing more liberal churches are moving towards supporting monogamous same-sex relationships, while conservative churches will continue to support the individual in celibacy. We're not perfect, I know there's a lot of people who have been hurt in churches, myself included, but the options are there for the person who wants to walk with us, or talk with us.

I'll sum it up. We don't need to talk about Leviticus in the public square. We don't need to talk about Romans. The only verse we need to talk about in the public square is written on the first page of Genesis, that a relational God created human beings in His image, therefore endowing all human beings, all human beings with an intrinsic unending worth. This is the foundation of human rights in the western world, and there is no separation of people(s) in this verse. In other words, we can acknowledge each other's basic human rights without agreeing on everything else. I'm not saying there isn't a place to talk about ethics in general even, certainly it's a subject that can't be avoided, but to a world of hurting broken people who may or may not share our beliefs, I can't think of a better starting point as Christians than the assertion that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us, while humbly knowing that western rights are grounded in our religious history.

In closing, I see a lot of black and white thinking going on with this issue. It's not simple. This is a very challenging complex issue. It's not one little bit simple. But rather than see the black or the white, the differences that divide, and beat each other constantly, can we just acknowledge that it is a difficult issue, with many people who see things differently, and allow individuals the right to find their comfy shade in a spectrum of contrasting colour?

thanks for listening,

M.A. Harvey

Here's the link for the podcast:


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