What I Learned When I Opened My Mouth About Gay Rights

In all my 17 years in Mississippi, I never heard anyone say they were gay. A year ago I moved to Vermont where unmarried couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, live together without shame. The word "partner" has entered my vocabulary. I see adopted children with two mothers or two fathers.

As I awkwardly discern how to ask new friends about their lives and families, Vermont may become the first state to adopt a domestic partnership law giving same-sex couples the benefits, rights, and responsibilities of marriage. Letters pro and con fill my Burlington Free Press. Public radio aired emotional testimony on the subject from packed statehouse chambers. In our small-town church, several people walked out of a Sunday School classroom when a mother shared about her gay son and that she had testified in favor of the law.

I decided to write about Vermont's debate on homosexuality and domestic partnership in "Grace Matters." Before submitting it to the editors, I e-mailed the first draft to 200 friends, asking for critique.

The next evening 57 e-mails greeted me. Slapped me in the face, actually. And they kept coming-eventually I had more than 70 pages of responses printed in 10-point, tightly squeezed type. Old friends came out of the woodwork to offer emotional three-page opinions.

These are all friends I dearly love. All people of sincere faith. And they are deeply divided. I went to bed heartbroken.

I HAVE SPENT 20 years working on an issue-race-where those who try to be bridges get walked on from both sides. Attempt that same approach with homosexuality and the bridge gets detonated.

Before saying what I'm learning from all this, you need to know my bias. Most of my adult life has been in the evangelical world, one part of the larger body of Christ. I believe deeply that God's design for marriage and sexual practice is one man-one woman, for life. I also believe the truth in what one friend shared: "In my profession I'm surrounded by gay people who are so turned off by Christian rhetoric on the subject that they will probably never open their ears to hear the gospel."

I am only a beginner in reflecting more deeply about this issue. Here are some things I have learned: Already my every phrase and every word choice has been suspiciously examined and deciphered, and I have been seriously misunderstood.

I have learned that the debate is dominated by two voices: unqualified condemnation and unqualified acceptance. Many other Christian voices remain fearfully silent.

I have learned that even to voice honest questions invites disdain. What gray areas are there with something so obviously wrong (or right)?

I have learned that to voice opposition to gay marriage is to be immediately branded a bigot, homophobic, unloving, and asinine. Conversely, to note genuine care, commitment, and friendship in the few gay partnerships I know, or to wonder why these friends should not have legal rights of hospital visitation or shared health benefits, is to be labeled automatically as sentimental and condoning of sin. And also asinine.

I have learned that we are deeply divided over what makes for private morality and church policy, vs. what makes for public morality and legal policy.

I have learned that core issues are indeed at stake with homosexuality: the sanctity of marriage as part of God's created order; marriage as a fundamental social institution in a just and healthy society; the raising of children; and, for Christians, the integrity of how we interpret the Bible.

But why the outrage over homosexuality and not over the culture of divorce, premarital sex, and sexual abuse-all of which affect more people and, studies show, occur with the same devastating prevalence in the church as in society? Why is homosexuality treated as a worse sin than the pervasive idolatry of money that is warned about far more throughout scripture? If Christians opposed to homosexuality were equally outraged by racial and economic injustice, we'd have racism and poverty licked by now.

If it is true that "perfect love casts out fear," then it is fear, not love, that is the greater force in the Christian debate on homosexuality. The fear of telling fellow church members, "I am attracted to the same sex." The fear of saying you have friends who are gays and lesbians, who live with partners who are also your friends. The fear in telling a friend, "I love and respect you, but I cannot agree with your gay lifestyle." Some of my friends fear losing their jobs in evangelical institutions if they voiced their honest questions. Wherever self-censorship rules, a real debate is not taking place.

All I can do here is tell about my pain and the climate that I see. And to affirm my need for all of my friends-for their discipline, correction, and love, even when my own falls short.

CHRIS RICE lived and worked in an interracial community in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years. He was co-founder of Reconcilers Fellowship and co-author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. He is now a research fellow at Boston University's Institute on Race and Social Division.

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