Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #009. First published in the St. Cloud Times Apr. 22, 2008

In the run-up to the 2006 election, when I door-knocked at least 1,500 times and made more than 3,000 phone calls, I had one very big surprise. Not once did the subject of homosexuality and its relation to public policy come up.

It could be that people assume the matter is "settled." But I believe the silence is actually much more encouraging for gay people and those of us who aren't gay but consider it our moral responsibility (and privilege) to stand with them and advocate on their behalf.

Earlier this month a prize-winning documentary "For the Bible Tells Me So," had several screenings in this area. The film weaves together the story of five very normal, very Christian, very American families who learn important lessons from their gay sons or lesbian daughters. Included are former presidential candidate Dick Gephardt's daughter, Chrissy, and a Minnesota Lutheran family with their gay son, Jacob Reitan.

Each family, in its own way, has come to terms with the strident claim that in the eyes of God, whose word they believe the Bible to be, homosexuality is disordered and any action based on that disorientation is always morally wrong. They have come to understand that the Bible has many dimensions, that it is historically conditioned, and that the inclusive actions of Jesus (of whom not one single remark about homosexuality is recorded) are of more authority than the Bible's seven brief references to the subject.

It might just be that "For the Bible Tells Me So" is a clue to why I didn't hear about the subject at front doors and on the phone. People are beginning to understand what the five families have come to know — that "the gay issue" is not an abstraction, but is about real people — their own relatives, friends and co-workers.

And even if this isn't true for everyone, it is strikingly true among the young.

In 2004, a TV reporter asked this question of a focus group of at least a dozen young people following the vice presidential debate, in which the gay issue had come front and center with a reference to Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary: "How many of you would favor allowing gay marriage?" Without hesitation, everyone raised a hand. What, the young people appeared to be wondering, is all the fuss about?

One of the five stories in the film has a particularly sharp edge for me. Mary Lou Wallner tells how she disowned her lesbian daughter, Anna. As the movie progresses, you keep thinking they will reconcile and everything will be all right. But then you learn that Anna hanged herself. Her mother's remorse has subsequently been directed into bold action on behalf of gays and lesbians, but nothing can blot out Mary Lou's abiding grief.

Had this happened any time during most of Christian history, the mother would have been burdened not only with official teaching that her daughter was disordered, but also with official teaching that because she killed herself, she had committed yet another unpardonable sin, so would be buried in unconsecrated ground and would be eternally, irretrievably where Dante's Divine Comedy puts suicides: the seventh circle of hell.

Thank God that few churches these days say anything like this, and I, whose father killed himself a quarter-century ago, have not been burdened with a theology that writes him off as lost. But I can imagine what it was like for people like me in earlier centuries: tormented by the image, drawn by those who were acknowledged to know, of an unbridgeable chasm between God and the one they loved.

By what right did churches, which now believe there is hope for suicides and no longer segregate their corpses, during all those generations presume to know otherwise? It is not enough to say doctrine develops, or it takes time for the church to come to full understanding, or historical perspective precludes holding earlier ages to our standards.

History teaches us to be skeptical of our certainties, especially when those certainties exclude people unlike us. Just as we regret an earlier time's authoritative declaration that suicides are unforgivable, I believe most Christians 100 years from now will regard the declaration that gay orientation and behavior are odious in the sight of God as a curiosity of a bygone age.

I predict that recognition of the naturalness of homosexuality will eventually be as persuasive as the recognition that Copernicus and Galileo, and yes, Darwin, were, after all, right. Gay people are not "adopting a lifestyle." They are simply living their lives.

I ask those who are absolutely certain of God's disapproval of homosexuality to imagine a future in which their descendants wonder how they could have been so sure. Jesus said that in God's house there are many rooms (John 14:2), not closets.