by Ken McIntosh
“My gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.”
I begin this article with a confession. I should probably have used the #IWASKIMDAVIS hashtag for my Twitter and Facebook posts last month, because I’m one of those older ministers whose views have changed, and I’m chagrined to think of some of my past sermons and comments. My Christian life began in the Evangelical camp and I remained there for more than a decade. “You can only know what you know” and for years the only theological writings that I came across were of the typical and unfortunate category labeling “homosexuality” as a choice and a sin. Given that background, when I came across GLBT Christ followers, I could only see them as a challenge—challenging the presuppositions that I held.
My sister proved to be my salvation in this regard; without her I might still cling to a very limited view of God’s mercy, along with a hyper-literalist approach to the Bible. She has always been a model Christ-follower in our family (although I’m the one with the formal degree in theology). Simply by being herself, Joyce witnessed to me that my spiritual siblings who loved their partners of the same sex are as faithful to Christ and as transformed by the Spirit as I (nay, they are more so). And I’ve come to realize that my gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.
As the culture wars heat up I’ve become intensely aware of how Christians get painted with a broad brush stroke. That came to a head a few weeks ago when a long-time friend told me “You’re not a Christian. If you choose that word to self-identify that’s your right, but I know Christians and you’re not that.” Now, she meant that as a compliment—her way of acknowledging that I’ve become a more inclusive and broad-minded person. But it also stung, because that accusation divides me within myself. Bombarded by the statements of right-wing politicians, preachers and ordinary believers, I struggle with doubts. Have I hit upon a truer faith now, or am I deluding myself to remain in a religion that has so long been characterized by oppression? Why couldn’t I have chosen a religion like Buddhism or Jainism that isn’t regarded as evil? Yes, I’m part of a big UCC family, with many inclusive fellow believers, but our numbers (around a million) are pretty small compared to more conservative groups like the Southern Baptists (15 times as many). And then I keep hearing old friends tell how they’ve left the faith and are so much more congruent embracing atheism (they do a good job evangelizing for their non-faith).
So am I crazy to keep believing? Thank God for the example of gay believers—they give me hope to keep on. If any group has reason to feel the sting of Christian guilt-by-association, it’s them. They’ve been told for centuries that their faith is illegitimate, that they are shameful and unloved by God. Yet their experience belies those lies and they continue to proclaim love for Jesus.
I read John Fortunato’s book Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians. He recounts the long and difficult struggle of growing up being both Catholic (sincerely devout) and gay. At one point he complains to God about his fellow believers saying “They call my light darkness! They call my love perverted! They call my gifts corruptions. What the hell are you asking me to do?” And then John Fortunato hears God’s voice, clear and unmistakable. “Love them anyway,” God said. “Love them anyway.”
I think of a trusted colleague in ministry, a gay man who reminds me that our calling is to assist all UCC churches to prosper—not just the Open and Affirming churches, not just the Progressive Churches—but all the churches in our conference.
I think of the young woman with a spikey hairdo in my church who wears a “Gay Christian” t-shirt and engages people in dialogue when they comment on that, taking on the role of an educator for the misinformed.
And if my gay companions can wear the label “Christian” despite the toxicity that’s been pinned onto that, then surely I can. Jesus is indeed fortunate to have such faithful followers—and I am blessed to be surrounded on earth by such witnesses.