I recently watched For the Bible Tells Me So for the first time. I went in not really knowing what to expect. I mean, I already knew the stories of Gene Robinson and Anna Wakefield and her mother Mary Lou Wallner. I had heard plenty about the documentary, and to be honest, I was mostly watching it to fill some time before I went to sleep.
But seeing the story of those families play out in front of me I felt rage start to fill me. These were all parents who had raised their children according to tradition that they had been raised with. To their knowledge, this was just what the Bible said. God hates “faggits”, as one letter to Bishop Robinson put it. And one by one they went on a long journey of reconciliation, with the exception of one family. But that journey turned them all from actively homophobic to activism toward equality.
The documentary itself is already outdated. Many of us celebrated when Exodus International decided to finally close its doors last year. And rather than decrying President Bush’s attempts to trounce same-sex marriage, America finds itself in sweeping change as one-by-one states repeal the last remnants of DoMA, calling it unconstitutional. But much still remains. Churches around the world, entire countries in fact, are persecuting their members based on their sexuality. Many have yet to even act on their homosexual inclinations, forced into silence by those holding authority over them.
When Vicky Beeching came out this August, she sent shockwaves throughout the global Christian community. A combination of shock, horror and disdain split the church down the middle, with many taking to Twitter and elsewhere to support her. She’s no stranger to politics, and is a regular guest on news programmes and panel discussions about religion and Christianity here in the UK and abroad as well. Any of us who spent any time at all in the church in the noughties will have sung her songs on a weekly basis. But before coming out, she started to declare support for gay marriage. In her words:
Many of you from a non-religious background will think “Great, so what?”. Many ‘liberal’ Christians will also think “Great, so what?” But for me, since sharing my views, (pardon the pun) all hell has broken loose. My inbox has been overwhelmed with angry messages. I’m now daily called a “heretic”, a “false prophet”, a “massive disappointment to the evangelical church” and many other names too inappropriate to print.
This will be of no surprise to those of us used to how the church has historically responded to this particular issue. In 2013, Christianity magazine launched a two-part exploration of homosexuality, that followed quickly on from the blessing of a gay couple at Oasis Church in Waterloo, conducted by Steve Chalke. Steve Chalke is arguably one of the most influential men in British Christianity, with one of the most impressive CVs of a church leader ever. He has an MBE for “services to social inclusion”, he was a torchbearer in 2012 for the London Olympics, he founded the charity Stop the Traffik and the organisation Faithworks, he’s authored over 40 books and has held the Guinness World Record for largest amount of sponsorship money raised by an individual for an event three times. He’s a regular face in the media, he runs a large training arm through Oasis church for young leaders and, perhaps most impressively, is a UN Special Advisor on human trafficking.
After publishing his article – titled A Matter of Integrity – in Christianity magazine and on his website, Chalke was swiftly reprimanded by most of right-wing evangelical Christianity. The Evangelical Alliance, of which the Oasis Trust was a major, powerful member, published a response to the article by General Director Steve Clifford, adding to the rebuttal article already present in Christianity magazine. And then, following further activism from Chalke around the issue in the run up to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK, the Evangelical Alliance decided to unceremoniously remove the Oasis Trust, and Reverend Chalke, from the EA altogether.
The Oasis Trust published a statement around the issue. But the fact remained that the EA, one of the bigger and more important pressure groups and networks in the UK and perhaps the world, was so disgusted over talk of homosexuality and Biblical interpretation that it chose to kick Chalke out. An organisation that regularly lobbies the government removed the single-most influential member in its organisation, who has the ear of the Prime Minister and secular society as well as of the United Nations. Brave, illogical.
Rob Bell went through a similar experience. As a major American Christian leader, when he spoke out in favour of monogamous gay couples, he got declared the same names as Beeching. John Piper, a majorly influential figure in evangelical Christianity, even tweeted ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ in response to the trailer for a book Bell was publishing in the weeks leading up to his big reveal. Like Chalke, Rob Bell was not unused to being greeted with controversy and disdain for some of his views, but nothing had encouraged such a major response towards him like this before.
The same goes for endless figures. Gene Robinson, already mentioned, had to wear a bulletproof vest at his consecration in New Hampshire, just in case. He was wrongly accused of sex scandals, including paedophilia, in an attempt to discredit him. Tony Campolo, though maintaining a conservative exegesis and theology, encourages fellowship and love towards homosexual christians and non-christians, and has been greeted with similar cries. The list goes on and on and on.
But Vicky Beeching was universally acclaimed. Nobody would question her. She was a powerful force in the media that repeatedly had evangelicals yelling ‘amen!’ when she so much as thought of Jesus. Just by coming out, just by talking about same-sex marriage, she’s been boycotted across the Bible Belt. As she put it, it has cost her her very salary.
In For the Bible Tells Me So, Mary Lou Wallner recounts the story of how her daughter Anna Wakefield was estranged from her over time, the result of Wallner’s viewpoints on sexuality, informed by the church and her subsequent interpretation of the Bible. In February 1997, Anna committed suicide, hanging herself with a dog’s leash. She is just one of countless gay Christians unable to come to terms with their sexuality and their faith. As the film explores, gay people are 3-7 more times likely to attempt suicide. Jorge Valencia of the Trevor Project Suicide Hotline puts it that:
It’s estimated that every five hours an LGBT teen takes his life. And for every teen that takes his or her life, there are twenty more who try. One of the top five reasons why teenagers call us is religious reasons. They’re feeling there isn’t a place for them and God… They’re afraid to talk to their parents, they’re afraid to talk to their peers about what they’re going through and sadly they resort to that irreversible decision, which is suicide.
What happened to our outrage? What happened to our anger? These stories, these statistics make our churches places of death. They call our young brothers and sisters into angry retaliation, whether that’s through a cry for help or a rejection of not only the church but of God and salvation itself.
Arguably, if you’re a major, internationally-known Christian leader, you’re prepared for and asking for conflict or at the very least criticism. But the average day-to-day Christian isn’t expecting that at all.
As I put it once to a friend: unless you’re a universalist, whenever the church turns away an LGBT person or rejects them or makes them feel unwelcome, they are knowingly, consciously sentencing them not only to death, but to eternal torment or destruction. They are openly choosing who gets in to the kingdom and who doesn’t. I believe this post by Candice Czubernat where she recounts her struggle to find an affirming church in California for her wife and children puts it better than most:
Rejecting people from worshipping God is everything – everything – that Christianity is opposed to but we have somehow reached the point where rejecting people is the normal, even “Christian” thing to do.
And let me be clear on my stance here. The blood of these children is on each and every one of our hands. Whether our personal views are affirming or rejecting of homosexual relationships, and whether we actively encourage LGBTQ people to come to our churches or not, until we stand up and fight with everything we have, their blood is on our hands. We are all a part of the body, and we are all the church. We are one bride, not multiple brides split by denominational lines. We are united, not divided, and we are diverse. The whole global church needs to stop this now, and for those of us that are affirming, it is our responsibility to make it happen.
Where is our rage? Where is our anger? I titled this blog Remember These Chains based on Paul’s letter to the Colossians, written from prison. Now we must remember theirs.