I spoke this past Sunday, appearing as a faith leader in support of fairness for LGBTQ people, at a unity rally in anticipation of Pride Week here in Louisville. In my remarks I said that since Kentucky is a state with a population that identifies heavily as Christian, and that since much of the violence done to LGBTQ people has been done in the name of Christianity, it is Christians who should be the first to stand up to take responsibility for the damage that’s been done. And moving forward, Christians need to raise their voices loudly in opposition to the forces that would discriminate against LGBTQ people when it comes to things like employment, housing, and public accommodations. The heart of my argument was that religious people should be leading the effort to support and advocate for LGBTQ people precisely because of their faith commitments.
Throughout the rally two guys were hollering about Jesus, and about how “homosexuals and transgender people are an abomination to God” — pretty standard fare for a Pride Rally. I noticed them. Everybody noticed them, which, I suspect, is what they wanted.
After the rally, I was speaking to someone in the crowd. About 10 feet away from me were the two Jesus guys who were once again shouting about how they loved all these people, and that these people were in danger of going to hell, which is why these two street evangelists felt it necessary to come out to a Pride rally. “I want you to know that I love you all! God loves you and I love you!”
Just then, the older of the two men saw me and said, “Here’s the pastor I want to talk to.” My immediate reaction was to ignore him. I’ve had these encounters before, and after standing for a couple hours in the summer sun, I did not want to spend any more time in it arguing with this guy. I said, “I don’t want to talk with you. That conversation isn’t going to go anywhere satisfying to either of us. Trust me.”
He persisted. “But I just want to know how you can justify what you said as a pastor.”
I said, “I don’t feel like I have to justify it. I love these people, many of whom have been harmed by the church; which is to say, by people like you.”
“Why are you judging me?” he wanted to know. “I love these people.”
“Well then,” I said, “let me give you a little friendly advice: When you have to scream at people that you love them, it’s almost always the case that love is the last thing they hear coming out of your mouth. These are people who’ve suffered a great deal of persecution over the years, just for being who God created them to be. If they want some time to be together and recognize the beauty in themselves they’ve been told their whole lives doesn’t exist, they don’t need people like you shouting at them about how they’re going to hell unless and until they read the Bible the same way you do.”
He protested. “I’m the one being persecuted here. I’m just here to share God’s love.”
“Well, God needs a better front man then because you’re certainly not doing God any favors.”
Before going any further, I have to be honest and admit that the whole conversation flew all over me, as we say in Kentucky, and that I wound up doing some shouting myself. The people gathered for that rally are my friends and family, and I take any kind of abuse directed at them personally. So, I recognize my own share of responsibility for how the encounter played out.
But the whole thing got me to thinking about this odd dynamic in which some Christians (it’s almost always Christians—usually fundamentalists, but also evangelicals, who typically use more subtle and sophisticated bullhorns) go to marginalized peoples, scream at them about all the wrong they’ve done and the consequences they will surely suffer at the hands of a wrathful God, and then tack on a brief footnote at the end about how, of course, they love these marginalized peoples. (“How can they not see this? I don’t know how much louder I have to shout to get them to understand this.”) Then when anyone says to them, “Look, we just want a little peaceful community gathering, without being told how much God wants to barbecue us in the next life. Why don’t you take off?” these Christians immediately claim to be victims of persecution.
Whining about how persecuted you are when you say that by shouting at them all you’re trying to do is show people that you love them, strikes me as shameless rationalization of your unwillingness to do the kind of work that would actually demonstrate your love for them.
At this point, someone will surely point out that the apostles Peter and Paul, for instance, were street preachers who went around making people angry. This is true, but the people Peter and Paul routinely angered were the authorities, and the reason the authorities were angry with them was because they were preaching about Jesus, a guy many of those authorities were responsible for stringing up. And the reason those authorities strung Jesus up revolved around the challenge he posed to a system that allowed the people in power to persist in their marginalization of the powerless. Religious and political big shots saw in Jesus a subversive radical who was always loving the wrong people and who they were pretty sure was on the verge of inspiring some sort of insurgency—armed or otherwise. So when Peter and Paul started revving up the same revolution machine once again, the authorities got twitchy.
But what differentiates Peter and Paul from the two fundamentalists on the street corner at a Pride Rally is that Peter and Paul were part of the powerless minority, whereas our modern day street preachers are part of a number of majorities. Let’s be honest, straight, cisgender, white guys who claim Christianity aren’t really anybody the authorities have on their hit list because they pose a challenge to an unjust system that oppresses the powerless. These two fundamentalists weren’t being persecuted because of their faith; they were being ignored because they were acting like loudmouth bigots.
The truth of the matter is, 81% of white evangelicals—admittedly a broad category, but one with which these two guys share a great deal—supported the current president, and, I suspect, the partisan side of the congress presently enabling him. White evangelicals and their political surrogates in Washington D.C. control two (arguably three now) branches of the federal government. It is literally impossible to be a persecuted minority when you’re also in charge of the whole government. Just because you’re convinced the “cultural elite” have taken to calling you mindless dolts, doesn’t mean you’re being oppressed. To people who are actually being oppressed such protestations sound like the worst sort of self-absorbed whinging.
Furthermore, if you have to shout defensively about how much you love somebody, don’t be surprised when the “object of your affection” refuses to take you seriously.
- If the only time LGBTQ people see you is when you’re toting a Bible and bullhorn, chances are pretty good they’re not going to hear your screaming as expressions of love.
- If you tell black people that the only reason you talk incessantly about “black-on-black” crime is because you care about them, your message will most likely fall on deaf ears.
- If the only things Muslims know about your faith is that you’re obsessed with Sharia (though you don’t know exactly what that means) and that you talk nonstop about “the need for moderate Muslims to speak up and denounce terrorism,” your cries of love will go in one ear and out the other.
- If you talk to the poor like the only thing standing between them and prosperity is their laziness, don’t be shocked when they walk the other way once they see you coming.
- If you sing all the time about how “Jesus loves the little children,” but then cheer when legislators move to take away food and healthcare from those children so that rich people can buy an extra Lexus, people are going to laugh in your face, and curse you behind your back.
Love is certainly something you can talk about — though shouting is never advisable — but taking the time to act lovingly is almost always preferable.