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Rev. Susan Russell Headshot

The Evolution of an Evangelical

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Evolution is no longer a theory -- it is a reality. Or at least it is when it comes to the evolution of public opinion on LGBT equality. From the White House to the State House; in opinion polls and in church pews; even in NBA locker rooms: the dream of full equality for LGBT people is no longer a far-away light at the end of a very long tunnel -- it is a tide turning and a point tipping.

I've seen lots and lots of analysis about what has been the "game changer" for this movement that I've been part of for over a decade now. And while I'm sure there are books about to be published, articles fixing to be filed and dissertations eventually going to be defended, what I know for a fact certain is that part of the story -- no matter who is telling it or analyzing it -- will be the power of the stories of LGBT people to change hearts and minds. And votes. And eventually the world.

And the best way I know to illustrate the power of those stories is to share this story -- the story of the evolution of an evangelical, the story of Brian McLaren. Author, activist and "public theologian" Brian McLaren took some heat last year when he presided at the wedding of his son Trevor and his husband Owen. In response to some of that "heat" -- mostly from fellow Christians -- McLaren told this story in a recent blog post:

It's much easier to hold the line on the conservative position when nearly all gay people around you are closeted and pretending to be other than they are. Eventually for some, the pain of pretending will become greater than the pain of going public. Whenever a new son or daughter comes out of the closet, their friends and family will face a tough choice: will they "break ranks" with their family member or friend, or will they stay loyal to their family member or friend - which will require them to have others break ranks with them?

In my case, I inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin, so although we should not condemn (i.e. stone them), we must tell people to "go and sin no more." Believe me, for many years as a pastor I tried to faithfully uphold this position, and sadly, I now feel that I unintentionally damaged many people in doing so. Thankfully, I had a long succession of friends who were gay. And then I had a long succession of parishioners come out to me. They endured my pronouncements. They listened and responded patiently as I brought up the famous six or seven Bible passages again and again. They didn't break ranks with me and in fact showed amazing grace and patience to me when I was showing something much less to them.

Over time, I could not square their stories and experiences with the theology I had inherited. So I re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) ... we had been wrong on this issue. In this process, I did not reject the Bible. In fact, my love and reverence for the Bible increased when I became more aware of the hermeneutical assumptions on which many now-discredited traditional interpretations were based and defended. I was able to distinguish "what the Bible says" from "what this school of interpretation says the Bible says," and that helped me in many ways.

The very familiarity of Brian's story makes it such a powerful story. And his willingness to tell his story -- the public story of a public theologian publically evolving on LGBT equality -- is another kind of coming out. It's another part of the tide turning. Another bit of the point tipping. And another beacon of hope to all those who wonder if that long held dream of a nation where liberty and justice for all is not just a pledge but a reality will ever be realized.

It not only will be realized, it is being realized -- in the big moments like the recent legislative victories in Rhode Island, Delaware and Minnesota and in the little moment like the evangelical Christian re-opening his or her Bible and -- like Brian McLaren did -- discovering that the Western church has been just as wrong about using Scripture to justify homophobia as it was about using it to justify slavery, segregation and sexism.

They tell us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And I am convinced that each and every moment -- big and little -- participates in that bending process. I am equally convinced that it is both our privilege and our responsibility to tell our stories and to testify to the truth that will set us free -- the truth that evolution is not a theory, but a reality -- and that the light we see at the end of that tunnel is the light of God's love, justice and compassion intended for absolutely everyone.