Practicing What We Preach

The brutal and tragic killing of Matthew Shepard last fall makes it clear that Christians need a more mature response to the issue of homosexuality in general, and gay-bashing in particular. Not that Christians were responsible for Shepard's killing. They weren't. Yet while the church has been debating among various positions on homosexuality, gay and lesbian people have largely been left to defend themselves against those who twist Christians' statements or silence into a crusade against homosexuals.

Christians on both sides of the homosexuality debate need to take responsibility for the ways they've contributed to an environment that leaves gays and lesbians vulnerable to attack. Because the Bible declares that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), we share an equality in our fallenness. Yet gays and lesbians are often singled out as somehow unique among sinners—on the one side, because their "sins" are somehow worse than others' sins; on the other, because anybody who is uncomfortable with homosexuality is seen to be a bigot.

We cannot allow the savage murder of Matthew Shepard to degenerate into a plebiscite on his lifestyle, with winners on one side and losers on the other. A young man lost his life, two other young men committed a horrendous crime for which they will lose what little they had, and the church—perhaps—will lose an opportunity to show to whom it belongs. We all have lost something in this situation.

There is a need for additional responsible theological and biblical work on the issue of homosexuality. But regardless of our theological assessment of homosexuality, a primary priority for Christians is to love others and defend the scapegoated and marginalized of our society. By working harder to show what is meant by loving others, Christians could resist further polarization of our culture-war-torn society. Volunteering to defend—in word and deed—individuals against gay-bashing may put us into uncomfortable situations with people we disagree with, don't approve of, or otherwise find offensive. Yet this could be a first step in recovering what it means to be a follower of Christ in this age when so many are seeking a positive example of God's love.

IT SEEMS IT'S STILL easier for Christians to claim to "love their enemies" than it is to actually stand up for the civil rights of those whose lifestyles we disapprove of (on the one side), or those who hold a perspective different than our own on a hot-button issue like homosexuality (on the other). But unless we can find a way to start talking and working with each other, the Christian response to such issues will continue to be shaped by extremists like Rev. Fred Phelps, who protested at Matthew Shepard's funeral with signs reading "God Hates Fags" and "Fags Burn in Hell." It would be a tragedy to allow dysfunctional labels like "liberal" or "conservative" to hinder Christians from responding together to offer sanctuary to gays, lesbians, minorities, immigrants, or any other people in times of persecution.

For Christians to advocate in defense of others' right to life, safety, and security doesn't necessarily mean agreement with their lifestyle, culture, religion, or political beliefs. It has more to do with who "we" are than who "they" are. While the passing of anti-hate-crime legislation that prosecutes attacks on gays and lesbians would be a good thing, it will do very little to prevent such crimes unless Christians and other people of conscience work to change the atmosphere where gays are seen as less than complete human beings with the full civil privileges of other citizens. Gays and lesbians aren't going to go away. Nor are they going to stay away from the church, where—rumor has it—people "love their neighbors as themselves." This is an opportunity to practice what we preach. —Aaron McCarroll Gallegos

AARON McCARROLL GALLEGOS, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a free-lance writer living in Toronto.

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