The Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to deny her cake and flowers at her wedding."
Now: Anybody with passing familiarity with the Christian Bible probably can spot right away that this is not a faithful retelling of the incident in John 8. Instead, it’s a telling of scripture as I re-imagined it in light of the law, passed recently in Indiana, allowing shopkeepers to discriminate against gays. My conservative writing/debating partner, Ben Boychuk, has told me on several occasions that my effort was “glib,” but I disagree. Satirical, yes, but considered satire, with a purpose that was quite serious: To suggest that Christians might want to reconsider this issue in light of an age-old question: What Would Jesus Do?
Of all the responses I received — and I continue to receive them, weeks later — none was quite as surprising as my discovery that the Bishop of Honolulu, Larry Silva, took my column and made it the centerpiece of his Sunday homily a few weeks ago. Suffice it to say, he did not agree with my outlook. He deserves to be quoted at length. (And, in fact, I’ll be writing at some length here, so you might as well settle in.)
Recently I read the following as a reaction to those who insist on the religious freedom to believe that true marriage can only be between one man and one woman.
“To my Christian friends . . . the Jesus of the Bible was a man who, whenever he countered individuals accused of some unpardonable sin, usually sat down and broke bread with them. He offered grace, forgiveness, and love” [Joel Mathis, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, April 5, 2015, p. E6.]
It is the nature of the devil to take the truth and to twist it to his perverse purposes.
Here the author — and many others in our culture today — point out the truth of Jesus’ magnanimous mercy, but they presume that Jesus’ mercy does not demand conversion from sin. They presume that because Jesus is so merciful and so loving, he really does not care whether we sin or not. He is blind to sin, if he believes there is such a thing at all, because he is just so blindly in love with every person.
Such twisted thinking takes the truth and distorts it so that it is no longer the truth, but just the opposite. If we follow this path of thinking to its logical conclusion, then we have to ask what significance Jesus has anyway — or any kind of savior for that matter.
Ben sums up: “Sliva makes the case that Joel is leading people into serious moral error. And that deserves a serious reply.”
It does indeed deserve a serious reply. Let me say at the outset, though, that my purpose here isn’t to win an argument, exactly — because, well, that would assume some level of shared premises. So I don’t presume to get into a theological debate with Bishop SIlva. Instead, let me first declare the ground we don’t share — so as to fix the question as narrowly as possible.
• I am not a Catholic. Seems obvious, enough, but Bishop Silva seems to proceed from some exclusively Catholic grounds — citing St. Faustina in support of his arguments. The saints had no place in my (Protestant, occasionally fundamentalist) upbringing or education, so I can’t really engage Bishop Silva on those grounds.
• I am not a Christian … mostly. This is, uh, complicated. I spent a long time calling myself agnostic. Even now, it’s the closest thing probably to an accurate descriptor of my religious beliefs. I still would say I don’t know if there’s a God, or what, precisely, God wants from our lives. But: I miss the church. So I’ve been edging my way back, very slowly, to what the conservative writer Rod Dreher sneeringly refers to as “therapeutic moralist deism” — a soft-and-fuzzy version of the Mennonite theology I embraced wholeheartedly during my late teens and most of my 20s. So.
• I don’t think homosexuality is a sin. Period. Full stop. I need to mention this prominently, because shortly hereafter, I’ll be addressing myself to people who do think homosexuality is a sin. But I don’t.
Admittedly: I’ve evolved on this topic. As late as high school, I pretty much accepted the orthodox Christian view that gay behavior was sinful. Then I went to a conservative evangelical college; for a variety of reasons I can explain elsewhere, I came to believe the gay behavior might be a sin, but that the modern church — perhaps too conveniently — put too much emphasis on it amongst a range of sinful behaviors.
Mostly, though, I came to know gay people. Liked them. I met gay couples who were loving and supportive with each other, and their children. And I saw extreme pain in the lives of Christians whom I knew (or was reasonably confident) to be gay, but who closed off that part of themselves in order to remain close to friends, family, and the church. I decided, ultimately, that while the wisdom accumulated in thousands of years of tradition bears paying attention to, I must also consider the evidence gathered by my own senses and experiences — that the writings of men 2,000 years ago can augment, but is no substitute for, my lived experience. And those experiences told me that the gay people I knew who loved each other were little different from my mom and dad.
There are people who can make Scripture-based, theological arguments against the the idea of homosexuality as sin. That’s great. You should check them out if that’s what you’re interested in. But that’s not how I found my way there. I found my way there through shared meals and prayers and though simple inspiration from people who had fashioned a faith in the midst of trying circumstances. So.
Where does that leave us? Is there any way that Bishop Silva and I can dialogue on this topic without talking straight past each other? I’m not sure.
But for me, it leaves open the possibility of answering a very narrow question — the one I tried to address in the column that got all this started:
How are Christians called to respond to gays and lesbians?
In considering the question for a national newspaper audience, I decided to concede the more foundational question: Is homosexuality a sin? Why? Because I didn’t think I would convince anybody on that point. But I hoped I might prompt reflection, and perhaps even some changes of behavior, but focusing in instead on the question of how Christians ought to act even if they think gay behavior is sinful.
Why should anybody listen to me on this point? Good question. My short answer: I may not be an orthodox Christian these days, but I have a lifetime’s immersion in the church and in the the Bible, and I have insights into both that might still be valid. Take it or leave it.
So again, the question: How should Christians respond to gay relationships they find sinful?
As my column suggests, I found the basis my answer in John 8. Here is the “real” version, as found in the New International Version, a translation used in many modern evangelical churches:
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
A lot of letter-writers pointed out to me that, in “re-imagining” the verses, I failed to mention Jesus’s story-ending admonition to the woman as “go and sin no more.” They’re right. But I’m not sure it means what they think it means.
As I understand it, there are two moments of “go and sin no more” in the stories of Jesus. The other occurs also in the Book of John, this time in Chapter 5:
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by pthe Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic1 called Bethesda,2 which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and qparalyzed.3 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, r“Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9 rAnd at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
sNow that day was the Sabbath. 10 So the Jews4 said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and tit is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me,‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ ” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for uJesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! vSin no more, wthat nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.
Now, take these two stories together, a couple of themes emerge:
• In moments of tension between the individual and the judgments of the religious community about sin, Jesus kept the individual and their well-being his highest priority. In fact, he didn’t seem to have much use for the judgments of religious authorities at all.
• The admonishments against sin, in both cases, happened privately. Jesus didn’t make a show or public matter of those admonishments — he waited until the religious authorities had withdrawn, and then spoke privately to the individuals concerned.
What’s this tell us? Well, if I were a Christian, I might start to think that my job as a follower of Jesus, as a member of a community that follows Jesus, is to show grace, forgiveness, and love. Period. Full stop. Think, too, Zaccheus. If there is sin involved, it is Christ who will do the dealing with it.
These are just two stories. Yet, I feel like I find reinforcements for these themes throughout the stories of Jesus in the Christian Bible:
7 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Seems straightforward enough to me.
Even when he sent his disciples out to evangelize, it was not with a hellfire-and-brimstone commission:
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
9 “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— 10 no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
In short: Go and do good works — help people live better lives. And if people don’t want to hear what you have to say about that, well, move on. Nobody, as far as I can tell, was commanded by Jesus to admonish sin in his name.* (The only time he got super-angry, as far as I can tell, was when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple.) Everything I read about Jesus always seemed to me a rebuke of the loud, tribalistic Christianity I grew up with.
(*But Joel, I hear you saying, does that mean we don’t confront evil? I think where we see clear harm being done, we intervene. But where harm is a matter of debate — depending highly on one’s view of God — perhaps it is best to act humbly, cautiously, and with love in our hearts. It’s an imperfect answer; it’s an imperfect world. We each must do the best we can)
Bishop Silva names the phenomenon he thinks I represent: “Diabolical mercy.” I think that’s an oxymoron. The job of the Christian is mercy, full stop. The rest will take care of itself. If you really believe, as Christianity asserts, that Eternity Has Already Been Won, this shouldn’t be much problem.
This isn’t easy to write. In trying to see the world as my conservative Christian friends see it, I risk giving some offense to my gay friends. In standing in solidarity with my gay friends, I risk hurting my Christian friends. In threading a narrow path between Christian-not Christian, I’m sure I exasperate almost everybody I know. And I suspect that Bishop Silva and I might still be talking past each other.
But even on that narrow path, I occasionally ask: What would Jesus do? In the case of our current battles, I think he’d show a lot more love and patience than we ourselves seem capable of showing.