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Rev. Jay Emerson Johnson, Ph.D. Headshot

Religious Hate Speech: Time to End This Groundhog Day Cycle

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A recent CNN blog post by the Rev. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. about the Bible and sexuality reminded me of the funny though poignant Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day. You might recall that Murray's character in that film finds himself reliving the same day over and over again.

Whenever I read yet another article, essay, book, or blog on the Bible and homosexuality, I feel exactly the same way as Murray's character did, caught in an endlessly repeating loop of Bible bashing. This cycle must end, now, so that our churches and the wider society can actually get on with addressing a host of other issues that really matter.

Rev. Mohler's point, of course, is that "homosexuality" is not a distraction from more urgent concerns but instead the most "pressing moral question of our times." Really? Now that is stunning. Does Rev. Mohler really consider whom people choose to love to be a more pressing moral issue than, say, global climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, grinding worldwide poverty, epidemic starvation, or genocide? The list of possible issues that just might be a bit more pressing is actually quite long.

To that list I would add this: religious hate speech. And it's high time that religious leaders across this country held our colleagues accountable for their poisonous rhetoric.

There's no point in rehearsing yet again why Rev. Mohler's approach to the Bible is seriously misguided. I have had enough, more than enough, of living in this biblical Groundhog Day. Biblical scholarship on these questions has been, for more than 50 years now, resoundingly clear: Biblical writers and their communities had no experience with what we today mean by LGBT people. (For those who are genuinely concerned about these topics, read a short summary of that scholarship here).

This, too, is clear: It's not the Bible that any of us needs to worry about but how people use the Bible to support their own cultural prejudices. This has been happening for a very long time, of course. Many of us are guilty of it, including me. But when it starts killing people, it is so time to stop.

As a Christian, an Episcopal priest, and a theologian, I am dismayed and appalled by the lack of moral responsibility demonstrated by Rev. Mohler in his cavalier religious condemnation of a whole segment of the human family, as if these condemnations have no social consequences. And he is certainly not alone. Consider the pastor who recently suggested corralling LGBT people behind an electrified fence and waiting for us to die out. Or consider another pastor who advocated prosecuting and punishing LGBT people like they were punished "historically" (read: Stone them to death).

This kind of vitriolic and hurtful religious rhetoric leads far too many of our young people to commit suicide. Too many? One would be too many.

Consider how Rev. Mohler lumped same-gender affection together with bestiality and incest. So imagine you're 15 years old, a devout Christian, and coming to grips with your same-gender attraction. Adolescence is arduous enough without a religious leader comparing you to someone who has sex with horses and your siblings. Throw peer bullying into that mix and it's not so difficult to see why our teenagers are killing themselves. (Read this heartbreaking account of just one town's struggle to keep their kids alive, and the appalling lack of religious help they received.)

I am no longer interested in reasonable debate about diverse interpretations of ancient cultural sensibilities with religious leaders who refuse to do their homework. We don't have time for that anymore. I want our teenagers to stop killing themselves. And I want our religious leaders to take responsibility for their hateful religious rhetoric.

Rev. Mohler, the blood on your hands comes with names: Jay "Corey" Jones, Jack Reese, Kenneth Weishuhn, Eric James Borges, Seth Walsh, TJ Hayes, Samantha Johnson, Aaron Jurek, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Tyler Clemeti, and far, far too many more. Rev. Mohler, how do you even sleep at night?

In this country built on freedom and liberty, we are actually not free to yell "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater when we know there is no fire. That's called "reckless endangerment," and to put people in danger knowingly and without justification is illegal in all 50 states. It's high time we realized that yelling "Leviticus 20:13" in a crowded high school has the same, reckless, dangerous effect.

How many more teenagers have to kill themselves before our courts of law prosecute these irresponsible and reckless clergy? Isn't it past time that we file a class-action lawsuit against these purveyors of religious hate speech? How many more cycles of this biblical Groundhog Day must we endure?

Phil, Bill Murray's character in that film, eventually uses that repetitive day to his advantage. He improves his life, learns new skills, and he even saves people's lives. And yes, love actually breaks the cycle.

That sounds like the Gospel.