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Are Gays (as a Group) Still Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group)?

08/06/12+ Share

Back in 1993, Stanley Hauerwas wrote a provocative essay with the playful title “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” That essay, which is now available in the Hauerwas Reader, engaged the now settled debate about whether it was appropriate for those who claim to be homosexual to serve in the military. As someone who believes nonviolence is normative for Christians, Hauerwas found it interesting that a majority of the U.S. military back then did not think homosexuals would make very good warriors, but they all agreed Christians would.

Those who claim to follow Jesus—the same Jesus who broke down the wall between ethnic groups, who commanded his followers to love their enemies, who taught his followers nonviolent ways to handle conflict, and who demanded unswerving allegiance to a kingdom that transcends national borders—were, and continue to be, deemed perfectly fit for violent combat against anyone the U.S. identifies as an enemy who needs to be killed or otherwise subjugated.

Hauerwas’ point, of course, has little to do with the topic of homosexuality as such. He simply wishes that Christians would be numbered among those who are deemed unfit for violent combat on account of their specific orientation. Since being moral entails, for Hauerwas, refusing to kill people at the behest of the state, he pointedly suggests that homosexuals had a better reputation than Christians in that particular department.

The lesbian gay bisexual transgender (hereafter LGBT) community has since successfully convinced the state of its equal ability to perform whatever tasks the military may request of it. Having done so, they have abdicated the moral high ground Hauerwas attributed to them. Nonetheless, two decades later his essay still informs how Christians might think about the hot topics of our day. In particular, I have in mind the currently debate surrounding the commitment of members and friends of the LGBT community to boycott the Chick-fil-A restaurant on account of recent statements made by its president, Dan Cathy, that go against the grain of their worldview. Two interesting commentaries on this debate are offered by Branson Parler and Chris Smith.

Like Hauerwas, I will entirely dodge the issue of what properly constitutes marriage and what the church’s stance toward certain LGBT practices might be. Instead I, too, see the majority of Christians occupying the moral low ground in comparison with the LGBT community when it comes to aligning its economic and recreational habits with its strongest convictions. If a particular franchise wants to take a strong stance that violates LGBT sensibilities, they are willing to deny patronage to that franchise. By contrast, a majority of Christians have been quite willing to shop at stores whose CEO’s motives are twisted, to eat from restaurants that offer unreasonably low wages or profit from the abuse of animals, and to benefit from cheap overseas laborers who are treated inhumanely.

Of course, not all in the LGBT community care much about who they support by where they shop and what they eat. Likewise, there are plenty of Christians who are quite deliberate about their shopping and eating habits and take note of who is benefiting and suffering from the production and distribution of certain goods and services. That is why the title of this essay, like that of Hauerwas’ essay, includes the important qualifier “as a group.” Neither of us is making an absolute statement about all people who claim to be Christian or LGBT.

I am also bothered that Christians in America keep getting wrapped up in intra-American squabbles about who has what specks of sawdust in their eyes, while that very dispute exposes the logs we have protruding from our own. Christian apathy toward whom we support with our resources is a larger problem for the church than how pagans wish to rearrange the furniture on their sinking ship.

By this I mean that the American Constitution is a temporary charter for a temporary political configuration that Scripture clearly teaches will be re-colonized by God’s eternal kingdom—a kingdom in which Jesus says there will be no marriage at all.

What, then, should Christians do? Here I employ a typology I’ve culled from John Howard Yoder’s essay, “The Original Revolution.” This instructive typology draws from various groups during Jesus’ time. When Jesus arrived on the scene he was not the only Jew with a position on how to engage issues of public and political significance. The Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees all advocated distinct approaches that Jesus could have endorsed, but did not.

The Zealots were rebels against the existing pagan order. They wanted to see God’s kingdom come and they were willing to storm the gates of Jerusalem to take the empire by force. They were attracted to Jesus’ message of revolution, but were impatient with his methods and timing.

A Zealot approach to a public institution whose values conflict with theirs would probably include vandalism of the institution’s buildings and threats to the families connected with the organization.

The Essenes took the opposite approach. They believed that all the public institutions were corrupt and built their own self-sustaining segregated community in the desert by the Dead Sea. They were a “make your own Chick-fil-A at home” sort of people.

An Essene approach to rival public institutions would be to avoid them altogether. To participate in corruption in any form would be to compromise their own purity, which would jeopardize their status as the elect community that God will use to reform the world when he comes to establish his kingdom.

The Sadducees had no such qualms about purity. They wanted God’s people to make a positive impact on the world and that meant finding ways to partner with all respectable public institutions. They met the powerbrokers of society on their own terms so they could carve out a place for themselves among them. In Jesus’ day that meant partnering with the Roman Empire so they could at least have their own temple and interests represented in Jerusalem.

Their approach to institutions that conflicted with their values would be to assess the impact that various ways of interacting with them may have on their own aims. If partnering with them would be advantageous, they would get their hands dirty for the sake of the cause. If it would hurt their cause, they would abstain.

The Pharisees, like the Essenes, were also concerned with purity. Yet they were most interested in impacting the masses around them and strove for purity among the common people, rather than separate from them. Since they lived among corruption and were necessarily affiliated with it in one way or another, they took a dualistic stance that distinguished between outer actions and inner dispositions. They could either interact with corrupt organizations bodily as long as their inner thoughts remained pure, or they could abstain from obviously inappropriate outward behaviors, like stealing, while inwardly coveting their neighbor’s possessions.

Modern day Pharisees might outwardly participate in activities of corrupt institutions while inwardly disapproving what they stand for. Or they could abstain from public association with those institutions, while acquiring their goods in a less conspicuous way.

Jesus rejected all four approaches. He knew that the Jerusalem establishment was corrupt, yet he made no attempt to (a) overthrow it violently like a Zealot, (b) align with it strategically like a Sadducee, (c) isolate himself from it altogether like an Essene, or (d) avoid blatant association with corruption like a Pharisee while enjoying more subtle forms of corruption among the common country folk.

Instead, Jesus resisted temptation in the desert, corruption in the city, and manipulation among the masses, all the while spending time in desert, city, and country without getting caught up in the power plays of those various terrains. He refused to play the world’s game on the world’s terms and began forming a community who would embody the wholesome life of God’s kingdom.

Today, Jesus would likely avoid gravitating toward the politically correct positions of the right or left. He wouldn’t get sucked into polarizing options whose shared goal is to rule the masses with their unique philosophy. Jesus rejected the temptation to rule over the masses and chose to serve them by being and doing for each what was in their best interests.

When one Pharisee sought him out sincerely, he had a frank conversation with him. When other Pharisees tried to trap him, he exposed their duplicity. When the Pharisees and Sadducees brought their petty debates to him to suck him into their game, he changed the rules and helped both see how limited their own perspectives were. When instruction was offered in Jerusalem, the young Jesus lingered longer (than his parents) to glean as much as he could from its teachers. But when the temple was turned into a marketing scheme, he prophetically turned the tables and exposed the corruption.

For Jesus, each situation was a unique new opportunity, not a pre-scripted scene with media-induced pre-determined responses. He relied on the Spirit’s guidance to discern how best to engage each new person and situation and he used each opportunity to draw his neighbors closer to a proper understanding of God’s kingdom.

So instead of assuming that Dan Cathy must be right because he is a Christian who affirms the orthodox vision of marriage or that the LGBT community must be wrong because they are morally suspect, are attacking America’s ideal of free speech, and transcending the separation of religion and commerce, perhaps we should take our cues from Hauerwas and Jesus: we should refuse to get sucked in to the world’s debate on the world’s terms. We should allow both sincere businessmen and morally suspect persons to teach God’s people about honoring our convictions and integrating them into the various spheres of our lives.

Will we be bold enough like Cathy to proclaim our convictions at the risk of retaliation? Will we have the integrity of the LGBT community to put our money behind our convictions and to abstain from food we might enjoy as a prophetic statement against values that grate against our core convictions?

Do we affirm that the freedom to articulate our core convictions as a gift granted us by God and sealed by the blood of his son, or do we accept the nationalistic narrative that it was won on the battlefields of America and enshrined in the Constitution?

Could Christians show themselves to be morally superior for a change by resisting the urge to play the world’s game on the world’s terms and by offering them a new perspective that draws them closer to a proper understanding of God’s kingdom?

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