Lately I’ve been asked how I can so adamantly draw on the Bible to support my views that the poor and sick should be treated with dignity and respect, yet at the same time seemingly ignore the Bible’s teachings when it comes to my affirmation of LGBT+ persons. Isn’t that conflictual? Isn’t that inconsistent? After all, doesn’t the Bible condemn LGBT+ persons?
Well, I’ve written at length about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, it’s important to point out that the Bible says a lot of different things about a lot of different issues. And people have to choose what criteria to use when interpreting the text. And for me and many others — because God is revealed in Christ as love — the most responsible way to proceed is by interpreting the text through the lens of love. To proceed otherwise is to begin with a God that is not revealed in love, which is (literally in this case) an absolute non-starter for me, representative of a faith not worth having. Which leads to a few observations:
(1) This is actually a pretty conventional (and hardly radical) approach. To paraphrase the fairly orthodox theologian Karl Barth, “The Bible is the word of God insofar as it conforms to the image of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
(2) Contrary to popular accusations, this isn’t just some modern “liberal” propaganda. It has an ancient pedigree. As Gianni Vattimo reminds us, if you read “the gospels or the fathers of the church carefully, at the end, the only virtue left is always that of charity. From Saint Paul we learn that the three greatest virtues are faith, hope, and love, ‘but the greatest of these is love.’ Even faith and hope will end at one point or another. As Saint Augustine instructs, ‘Love and do what you want.’” And it was Saint Augustine who said that “If when reading scripture you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, you have not yet understood scripture…. [For] if love is the only measure, the only measure of love is love without measure.” (paraphrased)
(3) We mustn’t confuse that which tries to point to God (the Bible) for God, anymore than we mustn’t confuse the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself (from an orthodox Christian perspective, the living Word of God is Christ, not a book). As a product of many different authors writing over hundreds of years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Bible contains lots of different perspectives. Not all of them are great. I highly doubt anyone today would want to say that slaves should obey their masters, as both Paul and Peter instructed. Or that women should be treated as property, etc. etc. Instead, we understand that at times the Bible reflects the prejudices of its day. In the same way that at times it got it wrong about slavery and women as property, it also got it wrong at times in terms of human sexuality. What we take for granted today (slavery should be abolished, women shouldn’t be treated as property, etc.) was once viewed as heretical. But reinterpreting through the lens of love helped get it right, even though it took a while and even though there’s still a long way to go.
(4) Interpreting through the lens of love helps distinguish which passages from the Bible are helpful and healthy, and which are problematic. So, to turn to the original questions in this post, it’s pretty clear that standing with the sick and the poor, as Jesus did, is an act of love, conforming with the law of love. And so is standing in affirmation and solidarity with LGBT+ friends and family. This too conforms to the law of love. So in the end, such a stance is intrinsically consistent, not conflictual. The actual conflictual stance would be to say that God as a God of love punishes and condemns people for being LGBT. This is inconsistent and conflictual, not the other way around. And for those who say that condemning LGBT+ persons is actually a loving thing to do, because it helps them in the long run flee from the sin that hurts their lives, all I have to say is that there is zero evidence that backs this up, and it’s a terribly myopic point of view, and the precise opposite of this is actually the case. A lot of times I hear people say something like “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,” followed by equating a person who is LGBT as being on par with an addict or adulterer (or some other pronounced vice). Yet the difference here is crucial. Think about it. If sin is that which hurts lives, you can easily see that being an addict can hurt your life and the lives of those you love, just as being an adulterer can hurt your life and the lives of those you love. In contrast, however, what hurts the lives of LGBT+ persons is the condemnation that our society and religious groups have heaped onto them, conditioning them to believe they are less than, or not equal to others in the eyes of God and society. And the most liberating thing that can lead to their well-being is by being able to embrace who they are, as they were created to be. If sin is that which hurts lives, then, in this case, the sin lies with the societies and religious groups that condemn rather than affirm — and *not* with LGBT+ persons. Again, the law of love.
(5) Lastly, when I say I interpret through the lens of love, I’m not simply understanding love in some warm fuzzy sentimentalist kind of way. There are lots of different ways to understand love, but the kind of love I’m getting at here is better defined as unconditional courage and risk forged in solidarity with others for the sake of justice.
* I originally wrote this on Facebook but copied it here so I can more easily locate it down the road.