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Mark Osler

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When the Atheists Are Right

Posted: 06/06/2012 3:33 pm

Because I write as a Christian in favor of marriage equality, I receive a lot of correspondence from people who feel I'm mistaken. There seem to be a large number of suggestions, for example, that I will burn in a lake of flaming sulfur. I usually respond, as kindly as I can, if there is some hope of dialogue.

But then, last week, I received a letter that truly broke my heart. It did so, in part, because I know well the claims of atheists that religion does more harm than good in the world, and have often responded in the defense of faith. But there are some times that the harm done by religion is so clear that I doubt myself. A letter I received this week from "Kevin" presented me with one of those moments of doubt.

As with many other of my correspondents, Kevin responded to an article I wrote which was filled with references to the Bible by accusing me of ignoring the Bible -- a book that he reads to require condemnation by all of us of those who sin (at least so long as the sin is homosexuality).

After several paragraphs complaining of "the homosexual agenda" and "lifestyle choices," Kevin laid bare a real, awful, and certain tragedy:

Lastly, I can speak on this subject very clearly as I am the Father of a child that has chosen the homosexual lifestyle. Even now as I'm writing you this email, my son is lying in a hospital bed dying from his acts of homosexuality. His Mother and I raised him to know Christ, but as a young man he took up this lifestyle against our counsel. Because of his lifestyle and nothing else, he is now facing death. Just know that our sins are forgivable and God is a gracious and loving God, but he is very, very clear about the penalties, especially homosexuality. We are saddened and heart broken that our baby son is going to die such a horrible death and is suffering because of his decision to live the homosexual lifestyle. But we also know and knew what God say's about the wages of sin. The wages of sin are DEATH.

Sincerely,
"Kevin"

Perhaps the atheists are right. If religion, my religion, can twist the truth, the Gospel of love, to the point where a man expresses such hate to his own dying child, I despair of that religion.

I am still struggling with a response. My own beliefs are so different from Kevin's that I find it difficult to find an overlap, that small shaded area of a Venn diagram where my faith intersects with his.

Yet, we do read the same book. I do know that.

And there, in the Book of Luke, is the story of the prodigal son -- the younger of two, who demanded his inheritance and then squandered it through "dissolute living." He hits bottom, having run through the money, and resolves to return to his father and repent. However, before he has a chance to say anything, his father runs to him, puts his arms around him and kisses him. There is love there, before repentance, even in the apparent absence of repentance. There is love before all; that is what Christ directs us to do.

If Kevin's letter was honest, there is a boy dying whose father stands nearby in angry judgment, seeing that death as just and right. That scene is now etched in my head, a photo-negative of the manger scene of warmth and light and love, a reversal of the story God chose to write.

I do not want the atheists to be right, I do not want love to be diminished, I cannot bear to see us become a nation of angry Gods who must each impose judgment on one another, even denouncing our own children on their deathbeds. Not all who oppose gay marriage, of course, take this path, and many people take their position out of true religious conviction rather than a base prejudice bled clear of love. There are people of good faith and compassion on both sides of the marriage debate. Others, though, address this issue only in a language of judgment and anger. To those who preach the gospel of hate, of stark judgment, of demand and control, I invite you look upon the fruit of your work: an unbearably sad fate for two of the least of those amongst us.

By taking on God's task of judgment and condemnation even to his son's deathbed, is Kevin denying the existence of an extraordinary and loving God any less than the atheists, and with harsher consequence? If his view of God is right, of a God who tells us to harshly condemn that dying child, then the atheists are right -- we are better off without that God, to live alone in a Universe wrought by chance.

But perhaps his certainty is wrong. He reads the Bible and sees himself in the role of Jesus in John 8, telling the woman caught in adultery to "go and sin no more." That is not our role, though. There is a God, but it is not me. We are the people Jesus was talking to in John 8, where he teaches that "he who is without sin may cast the first stone" -- we are the people with the stones, being told to put them down, which is always the first step toward love. I hope that Kevin puts down his stone, and takes that first step toward being a true Christian father to his own dear son.

 

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