6 months ago our church held a carol service with our nearest neighbours, Mandalyns; a gay bar and night club. We had a great time, we prayed, we sang carols, we read passages from the Bible about the birth of Jesus and before rounding the night off with karaoke I gave a short talk (or sermon for the more traditionally minded.)
In preparing what I would say I found myself discovering that despite taking time over the previous years to dismantle the prejudices I had carried for a long time as a good church boy (homophobia, in case you missed the allusion) I discovered I still made assumptions about the community whose building was across the street from ours.
Do not be afraid! That’s what I spoke about. These are the words of various angels throughout the Christmas story. With humour and story and theology I called on all of us from the church and the bar to round one year up and to start the next one unafraid. It felt important.
Today it feels even more important. I’m a straight, white man living in what was recently named the safest city in Europe. I have very little to be afraid of. It is easy for me to say, ‘do not be afraid,’ but today, two days after a terrorist attack against the LGBT community in Orlando and therefore against us all, I realise that for half of those in the room that night it is a lot harder to say. If Orlando tells us one thing it is that being an LGBT person is not easy and this week it is incredibly scary.
I’ve seen various reactions within the Christian world to this atrocity ranging from heartbroken compassion to abhorrent bigotry. What has shocked me most is that I’ve seen leaders tweet calls to prayer for the bereaved and injured with caveats including, ‘love your enemies,’ and ‘even though these people lived LGBT lifestyles.’ I rarely get angry but this compassion with conditions and caveats in order to defend a theology enraged me. It hasn’t really left my mind all day. If ever there was a sign that we need a rethink it is statements like those. If your response to a tragedy like that in Orlando involves placing a proviso on the humanity of the victims you have not understood Jesus, never mind basic human decency.
Here is the painful truth that I’ve faced today as a Christian church leader; if the news had reported that the murderer had been a Christian, radicalised online, rather than a Jihadi, it would have been a logical end to much of the narrative around human sexuality that has come out of Christendom in the past few years. If this evil killer had claimed to be following the teachings of any number of reasonably high profile ‘Christian’ teachers I would have no right to be surprised.
Don’t believe me? Google these words, ‘Christian teaching on homosexuality.’ Before too long you’ll find statements written by straight people about the most intimate and core identities of people they often don’t know. You’ll find words like deviant, sinful, abhorrent, unnatural, ungodly, perverts and of course on the more extreme sites, homos, queers and fags.
On more moderate sites you’ll read the language of ‘othering’ that paints LGBT people as the ‘them’ to the Christian ‘us.’ Moderate?!? You’ll read of evangelical leaders and Christian politicians in my beautiful Northern Ireland demanding a ban on blood donation from gay men and denial of equality of rights. You’ll see long theological discussions laced with pseudo-psychology (long since denounced by the scientific community) that focus on inner turmoil and temptation in essence labelling non-heterosexuals mentally ill.
On some of the more compassionate websites you will still find that LGBT people are being spoken of as a problem to be solved or accommodated and not as people, the same as you and I, with dreams and hopes and fears and worries to be loved. Even there it is a case of us and them.
I’m done. I don’t care about the pacifying the other side of the debate about what is the right theology about human sexuality anymore. I care more about being a voice that silences the type of religious rhetoric and bigotry that leads to someone shooting over 100 people because of their sexuality. I care about the fact that the result of the us and them behaviour of the church, the culture wars, the synods and debates, lead us to this place. It leads us via LGBT people avoiding Christians via LGBT Christian teenagers taking their own lives via protests and news articles against gay rights all the way to events like Orlando.
The Christian church needs to wake up and realise that the longer we continue to dehumanise LGBT people the longer we invest in a culture that educates people like that murderer (I won’t say his name, may he be a forgotten footnote ) that they are something less than sacred to be exterminated.
My own words from Christmas have been in my head all day, ‘don’t be afraid.’ It seems I am incredibly naive, in 2016, the LGBT community have still got a lot to fear but it is time for Christians to speak to their leaders and say, from now on, we won’t allow ourselves to feed into that fear. It is time to call out your pastor when they dehumanise. It is time to call out the Evangelical superstars who think ‘hate the sin, love the sinner,’ hides their homophobia. Don’t be a voice for fear.
This cannot go on in our name anymore.
We must be a voice of love and compassion. Grace and acceptance are at the core of our faith. We must be those who celebrate the beauty of diversity. We must be a loud voice for these things. It is only when we are that we can truly look our LGBT neighbours in the eye and genuinely say ‘do not be afraid.’