What happens in church doesn’t stay in church.
At least not in the age of social media where one provocative Sunday morning video can land you on CNN in the morning and in the newsfeed of millions of Facebook users by mid-afternoon. A Baptist preacher in Fayetteville, North Carolina found this out the hard way when his controversial sermon exploded on the internet within 48 hours of delivery.
Sean Harris was addressing an upcoming state-wide vote on Amendment One, while he was also (or, rather, supposed to be) preaching–ostensibly from Mark chapter 10. But preaching partisan politics from the pulpit (loss of tax exempt status for you, Berean Baptist Church?) is probably the least of Harris’s worries.
The Amendment, which calls for “marriage between a man and a woman,” is redundant and unnecessary since same-sex marriage is already illegal in North Carolina. But Harris’s pitch for votes was vicious. Exploiting bigotry and fear, and to nervous titters and rousing “amens” from his congregants, he gave explicit instructions for how to deal with children who might display “homosexual tendencies”:
Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.
Or this for your “butch” daughters:
You rein her in and you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’
And we thought “pray the gay away” was bad.
Harris (sort of) apologized on Wednesday. His official statement of retraction was lawyerly, and struck the tone of many a grudgingly offered public mea culpa. That is, he wasn’t really sorry for what he said; he was sorry that some were offended. (Sorry for those who were offended is another way these non-apologies do their passive-aggressive, patronizing work).
But Harris stood by his view that “effeminate behavior is ungodly.” Drawing on passages from the Old and New Testament, and PowerPointing them to the congregation, Harris condemned homosexuality with a smug confidence that his interpretation of the Bible on these matters is unassailable. (He told the congregation, after all, that they had a “special dispensation” from him to use violence against their children).
If only biblical interpretation were easy.
While Harris pivots into damage control in North Carolina, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, meeting this week in Tampa, lost an opportunity to deal honestly with its own brokenness over issues of sexuality. (And why is it that we American Christians are so fixated on sex? For Christ’s sake–literally–there’s a suffering world out there waiting for a word of grace, a tangible sign of hope, and we wrangle obsessively, continually, mean-spiritedly over sex acts and supposed limp wrists. God help us).
Two prominent United Methodist pastors proposed a sensible substitution amendment (ah, the Church–like the State–and its amendments!) that offers a way for rethinking Methodism’s bitter divisiveness over LGBT issues. In part, it says:
A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible’s passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery and the role of women in the church.
These two pastors contend that long-standing interpretive differences on matters of same-sex relationships ought not keep us at odds with each other and with those whom we are called to love. The language of the amendment, especially as it relates to those who view same-sex intimacy as contrary to scripture, is generous, conciliatory, full of humility. As these things go in the bloated bureacracy that is the UMC, the amendment offered real hope for a denomination in crisis.
Of course it was defeated.
If only we could get past the limited and limiting view of the Bible as an instructional manual and see it, instead, as a record of encounter: the people Israel coming to terms with a God who rescues those in trouble and who relentlessly seeks their good; the early followers of the Way realizing that in a Jewish peasant dialectician God’s will for a reconciled creation had been enfleshed.
If scripture is this first, then the “advice” passages — do this, don’t do this — can be seen in the context of their particular time and place and in the light of an overarching narrative of God’s boundless, indiscriminate love for all that God has made. If we learned this in church, then it shouldn’t stay in church. “See how they love one another,” might be what they said about us.