Last night the Marriage Equality Bill passed into law. I know you’re pretty excited about that.
As a Christian and a pastor, throughout the process I’ve wondered if there is anything I should do or say. I’ve considered making theological arguments, stating my “position” on a social networking site, and a couple of other things. In the end though, I reckon that I’m just going to write you this letter, because I want to convey how I feel, as well as what I think.
I’m not really a fan of apologising on behalf of others, but I do want to acknowledge at the beginning that there have been some pretty tactless and sometimes dumb things said and posted by Christians about this bill. I’ve read some of it and cringed. I do believe that constructive political engagement is possible for Christians (there’s an Anglican named Tom Wright who has written quite well about this) but in the world of “us vs. them” politics I’m not sure what that looks like. I haven’t particularly liked most of what I’ve seen when it comes to Christians engaging politically in any area, but I don’t exactly have any answers either.
I also realise that for the people who supported the Marriage Equality Bill this is a historic time. Socially and culturally I think I get that. I realise that in this environment, Christians who oppose gay couples getting married come off as killjoys, or if you’re really enthusiastic, bigots. I don’t think many of us enjoy our position on this issue, and sometimes – if I’m honest – it feels a little bit embarrassing. This is the world we live in, after all.
Having said that, I’d like to take a shot at explaining why I land where I do.
I’m a Christian because of Jesus, more or less. For me it started (at a fairly young age) with questions about the meaning of life, and the vague ache of something missing, as well as a pretty acute knowledge of my own propensity to screw things up. In Jesus I found the most compelling answer to those things, and over the years my experience of him has reinforced that. This experience has been personal (and yes, I do know this is subjective) and it’s been communal (as I’ve met other people who have felt similar things). Finally, as I’ve studied theology, and also learnt what other Christians have had to say throughout the years, the roots have gone down deeper.
I’m interested in Jesus, because I believe he brings life. My interest in the Christian position on homosexuality barely registers in comparison.
However, because this is a post about same-sex marriage; yes, the bible has some stuff to say about homosexuality. Generally, it lists homosexual activity (though, I don’t think orientation) as off-limits. Still, it’s complex.
You probably know this, but the bible is an ancient text, written in different languages, and it requires an understanding of social and historical context for interpretation. Some Christians – and some of them are my friends – pursue an interpretation that attempts to understand these verses as not being about the kind of homosexual relationships we know today. Instead they see these verses as dealing with pederasty, which was a relationship (if you could call it that) between a man and a boy, common in the Roman Empire. There are definitely a few smart Christian academics who would argue this way too.
Let me be direct: if I could embrace this interpretation with any shred of authenticity I would. I absolutely would. It would make things simpler, and it would do away with the cultural embarrassment around this issue.
I just can’t, though. I’ve read and listened to enough of the arguments to know that the weight of scholarship is not on the side of this interpretation. And I know enough about my own tendency to avoid conflict to know that I’d be stepping into the murky water of shaping my religion when what I really want is for it to shape me.
But individual verses aren’t really the biggest deal. I think there’s a broader narrative to consider.
I believe that the God we meet in the bible (and in Jesus) is one who has made us to live according to rhythms and patterns which will bring us flourishing and life. I have a friend who likes to talk about it as God re-teaching his creation a song, after we managed to somehow lose all sense of how to even play music in the beginning. God did this through a set of guidelines and directions, through a training program called a temple, and finally through Jesus.
I wish I could make you understand that as a Christian I’m not constantly on the lookout for things to prohibit, but rather my impulse is to point people towards that which brings life and flourishing and wholeness, and that is living in tune (as much as possible) with the rhythms and notes of the song God made us to play.
That’s what informs me as a Christian. Not anger. I’m not angry at all. And not a desire to be some kind of morality police. I couldn’t think of anything worse.
I read a lot last night: articles on various news sites, and posts on Facebook and Twitter. There was a lot of heated debate, and some understandably passionate opinions. In our world, things do tend to get oversimplified, and it’s a lot easier to demonise the person with the opposite view to yours. But, things are often more nuanced than that.
Here’s what I hope that you will remember…
• Christianity is a big, diverse religion. We see badly-behaving people on the news every night, but no one assumes that if they saw an angry, tactless teacher (for example), that all teachers are angry and tactless. Please don’t assume the badly-behaving Christian you saw on the news or on your Facebook feed represents every Christian.
• We’re a society that is big on freedom and tolerance. But true freedom and tolerance means that we need to respect the beliefs of other people, even if they never agree with ours. As I’ve watched some of the parliamentary speeches, there’s been a lot of “churches will come round to this in their own time” spoken. There is a threatening and latent “absolutism” there. Can you see it?
• Christianity, in the West, has been culturally influential for thousands of years. That influence is fading in the West (though rising in the South and East). Leaving aside the arguments about the downsides of this kind of power, please be aware that for a lot of Christians this is a confusing time to be alive. There is no doubt the Church is going to have to learn to be itself in a fresh way in this changing context. And while it feels cheeky to ask, I still will… give us a little bit of grace as we work this stuff out.
I write all this with a slight sense of despair. I am aware that if you see this is a civil rights issue (and most do) you probably see me as a bigot asking you to understand my bigotry. I know how this reads in New Zealand society and it makes me grind my teeth.
All I can do is to say that if you truly get Jesus, there can be no room at all for any sense of superiority. I don’t think any gay person is any more messed up than I am. If a gay person was willing to be my friend, I’d be stoked.
In terms of my faith I feel like a person who stumbled into this thing that brings life. I continue to stumble forward in it. I really do believe that Jesus offers this life to everyone.