Sunday, January 20, 2013

Good News as Week Ends: Leading U.K. Evangelical Pastor Endorses Marriage Equality

As the week turns, I don't want to forget to draw readers' attention to some very good news from the past week. As Candace Chellew-Hodge and Fred Clark note, Steve Chalke, a Baptist pastor in London and evangelical leader in the U.K., came out in favor of marriage equality this past week. To quote Fred Clark, "This is a big deal."

It's a big deal because it shows that the trajectory of the movement to grant human rights to LGBT human beings is similar to that of the abolitionist movement. The notion that gay and lesbian human beings are fully human and deserve to be accorded the full range of human rights was, only a few years ago, a radical minority position within faith communities, as was the notion that slavery was morally wrong in the first part of the 19th century. Both movements had to move and argue against the weight of centuries of Judaeo-Christian belief and practice, bolstered by selective recourse to the bible.

The abolitionist movement eventually succeeded in convincing the large majority of Christians that slavery is incompatible with Christian morality, even though the practice of slavery is taken for granted and endorsed by the Judaeo-Christian scriptures. The anti-slavery movement produced a seismic shift in the thinking of Christians who had previously been well-nigh unanimous in their acceptance of slavery.

The same thing is happening in our time vis-a-vis gay rights, and, once again, Christians who believe that something is morally awry when LGBT human beings are excluded from human rights are up against the fierce opposition of other Christians who maintain that the bible is clear about the issue of homosexuality, and that millennia of unbroken condemnation and exclusion of those who are gay cannot be shrugged off by Christians of the 21st century who appear to be reinventing the scriptures and Christian morality.

I have framed this discussion in terms that will be familiar to those who have an evangelical background or who understand this discussion in terms dictated by evangelical presuppositions--as is the case with American culture in general, where the influence of the religious right on the thinking of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and other members of faith communities opposed to full inclusion of LGBT people in society and religious communities is predominant. These "the-bible-says" terms are the terms that primarily frame the discussion of homosexuality in the American cultural context.

And so the decision of a leading English evangelical pastor to endorse marriage equality is, indeed, significant, and has implications for the American religious and cultural discussion of these matters. In a statement at the Christianity Magazine website and at the Oasis site, Steve Chalke lays out his argument for Christian endorsement of marriage equality. The argument directly addresses the "bible-says" contentions of his fellow evangelicals. 

It notes that, for those who take the scriptures seriously as the central norm of their lives of faith--for evangelicals like Steve Chalke, this is to say--what the bible says about inclusion and exclusion is at the very heart of the biblical message, and at the very heart of the message of Jesus: as Chalke writes, 

in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message.

As so, as he insists, the "real question" for the church, which is obscured by arguments about whether this or that particular text represents a condemnation of homosexuality, is "about the nature of inclusion." And many Christians who pride themselves on following the bible faithfully in its every perambulation, in every jot and tittle, are actually losing sight of what's absolutely, critically significant for the scriptures as they focus on exegetically disputed texts about "homosexuality" in isolation from the central message of the bible and of Jesus himself.

In Chalke's view, the most significant question arising out of the debate over gay and lesbian rights and over marriage equality in particular is the question of what inclusion looks like, and how faith communities can model it. As he notes, real human lives hang on how faith communities answer this question: Chalke notes the high rates of suicide among gay people, particularly young gay people. And he notes that the choice of faith communities to treat gay folks as pariahs and push them outside human community and faith community, and the refusal of faith communities to bless and support committed gay relationships, result in serious questions about self-worth for those who are gay.

Here's what the church might do instead, if it chooses to focus on inclusion as the leitmotiv of its approach to those who are gay:

Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and well-being can be talked about, where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?

There will be--there already is--considerable opposition to what Steve Chalke says in this important essay. Evangelicals who are convinced that the voice of the bible re: homosexuality is univocal, clear, and easy to ascertain (it's none of those things) are already attacking Chalke for, as they maintain, ditching the bible. While they seem oblivious to his insistence that it's the primary message of the bible itself he's trying to hear and respect in his approach to LGBT persons . . . . 

For the Catholic community, what Chalke has to say here has particular importance, of course, when the term "catholic" means "universal," "all-inclusive." And when the church's primary mission is to be a sacramental sign of God's all-inclusive love in the world . . . . 

Though I suspect that Chalke's argument will have little effect on the thinking of the current leaders of the Catholic church, who appear determined to place the Catholic church at the forefront of the worldwide battle against LGBT human rights, and who are now transcending conservative evangelicalism as the chief movers and shakers of Christian opposition to gay rights. Chalke's decision to support marriage equality may, in fact, confirm Timothy Kincaid's argument that we're now going to see fewer and fewer evangelicals hopping onto the anti-gay bandwagon, as the current pope and the bishops of the Catholic church--in particular, in the U.S.--now take over the driver's seat of that particular wagon.

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