The Battle over Sexual Diversity
by Tim Stoner
I’ve just returned from Oriented to Love, a dialogue convened by Evangelicals for Social Action about sexual diversity in the church. So I suppose the question I’m getting from folks is as natural as it is inescapable: “So, are you Side A (believing that God blesses same-sex marriages) or Side B (believing that God calls gay Christians to lifelong celibacy)?”
On the surface it is, shall we say, fairly straightforward.
Though simple, the question comes hauling a whole cartload of expectations, desires and prejudices behind it, like a string of canvas-covered caissons in WWI. And its context was anything but: a dialogue in which something startling, shocking even, happened. During the course of something as evanescent as 16-hours of conversation among 13 people, at a spiritual retreat center dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, an object became a subject. An issue took on a face—and her name was Marg. (Not Marge, but a full glottal stop at the end, as in the diminutive of Margo.) Though “an old dog” (her words), her bark has been tempered by pain and much suffering into the gentle cadences of wisdom, and a meekness that is the hard-won fruit of power under control.
Marg is also a lesbian.
Thus, henceforth, whenever the topic is broached, it will be her face that I see first, along with the polished blue quartz heart that she gave as a gift to each of the participants. And as a writer, this is big: I will also have her to thank for teaching me not so much new words but new meanings to some very old ones.
So context aside, which side am I on? Whose flag do I wave? In whose bunker will I share a pouch of tuna and noodles, some saltine crackers, along with a tin of peaches, washed down with lukewarm coffee prepared inside a sweaty helmet?
As I ponder the question, the only answer I can possibly give is that which Joshua received when he asked the same thing of a warrior with wicked-sharp sword who appeared just as he was preparing to launch his attack on Jericho. Out of nowhere the stranger appeared and, with his hand resting on the hilt of his own sword, Joshua demanded:
“Are you for us, or for our enemies?”
It was an imminently fair question and one that received an immediate response:
Which, it seems to me, is the best answer I can give if forced to declare my allegiance in this rather heated confrontation surrounding what some call the “War on Marriage.”
“I will not enter the foxholes on either side of the FFZ (free fire zone). I will wave neither the rainbow nor the crusader’s flag. I will take my stance between the combatants and refuse to point a carbine in either direction.”
Because this posture is so easy to misunderstand, I would add:
“Not because right or wrong suddenly no longer matter, but because there is something more important at play here than winning the argument, defending a principle, waving the flag—proving my right at the expense of your wrong. Because, sometimes being in the right can actually be wrong. Battling for truth may put you on the side of the lie.”
This may sound heretical for those accustomed to the clear-cut, adversarial posture of the Culture Wars. I understand. I admit, it feels kind of heretical to me too. Choosing sides is the easiest thing for us who have been weaned on categorical imperatives and biblical truth claims and who sincerely desire to be faithful to the voice of the Holy Spirit as spoken through the church. Which makes it nearly impossible to avoid the polarities caused by the over-heated rhetoric of battle.
This is not just an almost insurmountable challenge for conservatives (the “Sexual Majority”); it also poses a great challenge for those who embrace or affirm sexual diversity. The former shoots at the other using the words of Jesus—“Go and sin no more!”—while the opposite camp dodges the bullet with the defensive response that Jesus does not judge but rather declares, “I do not accuse you.”
Of course, what these adversaries overlook is that Jesus said both, to the same woman, but in the opposite order. The parrying and thrust of warfare causes the one taking the first shot to forget that our Lord’s command was swaddled in actions and words that unmistakably exhibited a most humble and profound love. He only issued the imperative after soiling his robes by kneeling in the dust alongside the terrified woman.
But, let us go back to the “Neither!”—the unexpected and rather sharp retort Joshua’s rational question received. We are told that it came from the mouth of the commander of the army of the Lord. And in that capacity the angel issued what must have felt to the Israelite general like a harsh, categorical rebuke.
But it was not.
It was a declaration of loyalty to a higher love, a broader devotion, a more compelling commitment. And lest we miss the stupefying weight of that response, the One delivering it had actually sanctioned the bloody mayhem Joshua was gearing up to unleash.
So, Joshua has every reason to bristle with resentment and wounded pride: “You called us into this war. Why stand aloof from us who, not to put too fine a point on it, are on the side of the—angels?”
The good general did not ask that very logical question, though he might have thought it for a millisecond, right before finding himself on his face. Rather, what he did ask was this: “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”
“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.”
A question about battle was met by a command to worship. A request for affirmation, accompanied by the secret handshake, the shared vocabulary accompanied by an insider’s wink, was answered by a call to acknowledge the paramount holiness of God.
“What you are about, Joshua,” the angel was saying, “is way bigger than ‘us versus them.’ Ultimately this has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with the Lord of Sabaoth, who is a God of War, but who fights for Himself first, above all—not for your own, personal side, or any ‘side,’ for that matter.”
The danger of warfare is that it polarizes us into belligerent camps convinced that over our heads waves the pristine banner of the right, the good, and the brave and, with the irresistible force of gravity, presses from our lips the fervent declaration “God is on our side!”
But, even more dangerously, it can so overwhelm us as to provoke the Crusader’s mantra: “Deus lo Vult!—God Wills it!” And beneath that zealous, sincere certainty a host of uncharitable sins can fester and sprout undetected.
So, the wisest thing a combatant can be told is that “the God of War is for Himself—He is not for you. And even when He may choose to fight for you He is really fighting for Himself.”
The meaning of life is not in winning whatever war we think we may be in, but in bowing and worshiping and saying with face to the ground:
“In your presence and because of the overarching greatness of your glory, the crushing beauty of your holiness, I unlace my dusty army boots, set them next to my ammunition belt and battered rifle, and declare that I am for you, my Lord and my God.”
There was once a brilliant man, a master of philosophy and rhetoric. Though notorious for winning verbal duels, he was vanquished by the insistent demands of a grinding sexual addiction. He was oriented to love, but it was a love for himself, his needs, his desires, his pleasures. And in that orientation he was enslaved.
After an extended battle culminating in the God of War cutting the chains and scattering twisted iron links on the floor of his self-imposed cell, the man wrote a book that made him justifiably famous. It was an extended prayer, which is more like a fervent love song to the One who had, at great cost, set him free.
“Yet man, this part of your creation, wishes to praise you,” St. Augustine wrote. “You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Later, this adoring poet philosopher would go on to write, in words only a chastened, passionate lover can:
“Too late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved you! Behold you were within me, while I was outside: It was there that I sought you, and a deformed creature, rushed headlong upon these things of beauty which you have made. . . .You have called to me and have cried out and have shattered my deafness. You have blazed forth with light, and have shone upon me, and you have put blindness to flight! You have sent forth fragrance, and I have drawn in my breath, and I pant after you. I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst after you. You have touched me, and I have burned for your peace.”
These are words that Joshua, a battle-hardened veteran, a tough, simple soldier, would have wanted to say had he been more articulate. But it is what he discovered laying prostrate in worship before the One who takes no side but His own.
Joyeux Noel is a film that relates the dramatic, spontaneous ceasefire that occurred between enemy soldiers on Christmas Eve in the trenches in France. As the story goes, a German tenor, responding to Scottish bagpipes exits his trench, holding a small Christmas tree, singing “Adeste Fideles.” Following his lead, the French, German, and Scottish officers meet in no-man’s-land and agree on a ceasefire for the evening. The soldiers then gather and wish each other “Merry Christmas” in three languages, exchanging chocolate, champagne, and photographs of loved ones.
Are we not capable of doing something similar? Could we for one day transform the FFZ (free-fire zone) into a CFZ (ceasefire zone), as these fierce combatants did in 1914? Could we come out from behind our defensive embankments, step out onto the snow-covered ground, not to confront but to kneel and worship the One who stepped out first, humbling Himself by taking on our flesh, making Himself the target, and saying, “Train your weapons on me, that out of my death, I may make the two one.”
Then maybe that one day will become two. And we will create enough space and quiet and trust to finally be able to listen to each other, to love each other, and be changed—rather than condemned. For which of us would argue that we do not need to change?
Tim Stoner is a lawyer and author of several books: The God Who Smokes (NavPress, 2008),Demons of Poverty (with Ted Boers, Micah Enterprises, 2012), most recently Warrior Poet: Before David Became King, released by David C. Cook this month, and Crucify! Why the Crowd Killed Jesus, to be released in March 2014. He generally refuses to take sides unless the Michigan Wolverines or Manchester City are playing, at which point all bets are off.