What Would Jesus Do?
I am willing to admit that I live in a “bubble”—a liberal bubble. I live in an East Coast city and agree with most progressive political and social positions. Most of the people I associate with share similar views and opinions. It takes concentrated effort, therefore, to understand views diametrically opposed to my own. One example is people’s opposition to gay rights and gay marriage.
I cheered when New Jersey recently became the fourteenth state in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage after Governor Chris Christie withdrew his administration’s legal opposition to same-sex nuptials. I hope that Pennsylvania, where I live, will do the same. Pennsylvania has a statute defining marriage as the union of “one man and one woman.” Currently, 21 same-sex couples who married when licenses were issued by a clerk in Montgomery County are seeking to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
President Obama recently said he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. He acknowledged his position came after years of “evolving” on the issue. Obama’s comments were made three days after Biden’s comments when the Vice President said he was “comfortable” with gay marriage. Understandably, whether or not one supports gay marriage and the timing of one’s views, has become a “hot topic” in our politically polarized country.
What interests me more than the political rhetoric surrounding gay marriage are the feelings of a few people I know are “good,” “kind” people who think homosexuality is a “sin” and gay marriage should not be allowed. When I wonder why these people are against homosexuality and gay marriage I realize it is because of their religious beliefs—all are conservative or Evangelical Christians.
One couple, dear friends I have known for years, shared that their son was gay and lived with his partner, who is Muslim. They explained their belief teaches them to “hate the sin” but “love the sinner.” Despite their religious beliefs regarding homosexuality as a sin, to their credit, they enjoy a loving relationship with their son and his partner.
Another person I know, an Evangelical Christian, said he thought homosexuality was “an abomination.” His harshness surprised me until I found, when doing research for this blog, that the word “abomination” is not original with him—it appears in two verses in the Old Testament book of Leviticus and is thought by some to condemn homosexuality. Because I do not follow a literal interpretation of the bible or the dogma of any particular church or religion, I often wonder what it must be like to do so—particularly if I did not believe that a church’s position on an issue was “Christian” or “humanistic.”
Therefore, I was touched to read on the front page of the Sunday, October 20th Philadelphia Inquirer, that “30 United Methodist pastors from Eastern Pennsylvania have agreed to jointly officiate a same-sex marriage next month, an unprecedented showing of solidarity for an embattled colleague.” Their colleague is Reverend Frank Schaefer, who faces a church trial on November 18th for officiating at the marriage between his son and another man in 2007. I imagine the pastors who will officiate at the same-sex marriage did not make their decisions lightly—their actions could result in their ouster from the pulpit. One pastor, who risks losing his job and health insurance for his wife, who has lupus, said it was “a greater risk to not follow God’s leading now than for me to lose access to my health care.”
Other denominations have also been divided on the issues of gay marriage and gay pastors. When Gene Robinson, a homosexual, was elected Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire ten years ago, it rocked the church more than other issues in its history including slavery, the ordination of women, and rewriting ancient liturgy.
The website Religious Tolerance summarizes the attitudes of Christian denominations in the United States. Liberal and progressive Christian groups generally accept homosexual orientation, experienced by a minority of adults, as normal and natural. Conversely, fundamentalist and other evangelical churches and denominations have generally retained the historical beliefs that condemn all same-sex behavior. The Episcopal Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church are in transition and are probably experiencing the greatest amount of conflict over equal rights for their gay, lesbian, and bisexual members and ordination candidates.
In recent years, Judaism has also wrestled with gay rights and same-sex marriage. Orthodox Judaism believes gay marriage is forbidden by the Torah whereas Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative branches of Judaism are more liberal and accepting of gay marriage.
While the debate continues over gay rights and gay marriage, questioning Jesus’ sexual orientation may be even more provocative for some individuals. In 1997, the playwright Terrence McNally provoked controversy with Corpus Christi, a story that portrayed Jesus and his disciples as homosexual. The play was originally cancelled by the Manhattan Theatre Club when board members received death threats. The play opened when several playwrights, including Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America), threatened to withdraw their plays. Almost 2,000 protestors demonstrated against a play they considered blasphemous. When Corpus Christi opened in London, a Muslim group called the Defenders of the Messenger Jesus issued a fatwa sentencing McNally to death.
Others are offended if people think Jesus had any sexual orientation. Some people believe the New Testament suggests that Jesus had a close, loving relationship with Mary Magdalene that might have involved sexual activity. In The Da Vinci Code, a best-selling novel written by Dan Brown and published in 2003, Jesus is portrayed as the father of Mary Magdalene’s child. The book and movie that followed created much controversy.
While I do not spend much time pondering Jesus’ sexual orientation, I think I can understand why others might. People who have suffered discrimination want to know that someone cares and can empathize—especially if that individual is the center of the religion they turn to for love, hope, and support—someone like Jesus.
I think it is only a matter of time until gay marriage is accepted by most people. The Supreme Court has already weighed in in the United States v. Windsor, ruling that interpreting the words “marriage” and “spouse” to only apply to heterosexual unions is unconstitutional. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association long ago abandoned homosexuality as a mental disorder or “something that should be fixed.” According to recent poll conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News, support for gay marriage is at a new high with 81% supporting it among young adults age 18 to 29. Support among older adults has also increased, but those aged 65 and older remain opposed (44% say same-sex marriage should be legal; 50% say illegal). Even among older adults, the percentage that agree and disagree is not that far apart.
In the meantime, while I am waiting for more people to “evolve” to accept gay marriage, what advice do I have for the Methodist Church hierarchy who must decide what to do when 30 ministers officiate at a same-sex wedding this month? I have no advice. I can only pose the question Evangelical Christians popularized in the 1990s: “What would Jesus do?”
Brown, D. (2003) The Da Vinci code. New York, NY: Random House.
Cohen, J. (2013, March 18). Gay marriage support hits new high in Post-ABC poll. The Washington Post. [Online Edition] Retrieved October 26, 2013 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs.the-fix/wp/2013/03/18/gay-marr...
McNally, T. (1998). Corpus Christi. New York, NY: Grove/Atlantic.
Nadolny, T. (2013, October 20). Pastors to jointly officiate marriage. The Philadelphia Inquirer, p. A1.
Religious Tolerance. (n.d.) Churches’ response to homosexuality—The Presbyterian Church (USA), ordination and sexual orientation. Retrieved October 22, 2013 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_pru.htm
-- Christina Robertson