The Orlando massacre is a terrible tragedy that really ought to make us relook at the way we think about and thus behave towards each other. Sadly, like so many tragedies before it, it seems to have galvanised in certain sectors of society the hatred and bigotry that led to the crime in the first place. I was sick to the stomach when I read about how Pastor Steven Anderson (I won’t provide a link to his page – he doesn’t deserve that) responded to it. It was vitriolic diatribe calling for the execution of gay people. His argument amounted to the fact that although he would not personally advocate vigilantism, the shooter in Orlando was performing an action that he believes the law ought to have mandated in the first place. And I am sure he is not alone. I am certain that scores of pastors the world over, thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of parents are preaching the same message.
Today I do not write for them. I have long since learnt that such deep-seated bigotry and ignorance cannot be reached through appeals to logic and human decency. I cannot hate such people, although I loathe everything that they stand for. Rather, I despair for them, because they are lost in their own fear and hatred, terrified of the very God they claim to love. And I pray that – as only He can – God will perform some sort of miracle that will allow their hearts to be softened and that they may catch a glimpse of His grace and love. But I do not write for them today.
Today I write for two different groups of people: all of those Christians who find themselves in situations where they are being taught that they have a moral imperative to hate, by leaders who use the Bible as a weapon; and – as, if not more, importantly – all of my gay friends.
To those Christians who are being taught to hate, and are tempted to adopt a stance of moral superiority, I will remind you of a few key Biblical tenets. The first is that everybody is a sinner. Pastor Steven Anderson quotes Leviticus 20:13, which states that a man who lies with another man as he would with a woman must be put to death. I am not going to make any sort of case for how we ought to interpret that text. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that this is the Biblical stance on homosexuality. If Pastor Steven Anderson believes that this verse provides a legitimate basis for executing gay people, then he should be equally passionate in campaigning for verse 10:
“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbour—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death”.
After all, the Bible makes no distinction between how homosexuality and adultery ought to be dealt with, so what gives Pastor Steven Anderson the right to? Leviticus is clear that homosexuals and adulterers alike ought to be put to death, along with disobedient children (verse 9):
For anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.
But Mr Anderson will never quote those verses. He will only cherry-pick the ones that he thinks will lend credence to his bigotry. He would never dream of advocating that we kill children, or the entire human population, for that matter. How did I make the leap from adulterers to the whole human population? Well, when Jesus was talking about adultery, he said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart”. (Matthew 5:27-28)
By Jesus’ definition, we are all adulterers, and according to Leviticus, all should be put to death. This is where Steven Anderson (let’s dispense with the title ‘Pastor’ – he hardly seems to exemplify the care that the title suggests) falls short in his argument. You’d be hard-pressed to contend that Jesus was calling for a wholesale purging of humanity.
I think Jesus’ point is more profound than that. I think he is asking us to shift our focus. He is telling us to move out of a space where our spiritual energy is spent on trying to behave ‘perfectly’ (which is really a sort of self-worship) to a place where our endeavours are focused on loving God and our neighbours (which he later states is the summation of all the laws). When we realise that we are all sinners and can never be morally pure, then we can stop obsessing over “good behaviour” and, instead of trying to win God’s approval through personal holiness, accept that even while we are sinners He loves us (Romans 5:8). When we realise that despite our own perfections, God deems us worthy of His love, then we are free to love others without conditions. After all, Paul puts it very elegantly when he states that if our actions are not motivated by love, they are meaningless:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
This doesn’t seem a fitting description of Steven Anderson’s response to Orlando. On the other hand, the principal is perfectly exemplified in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery. In the story, the men, members of a powerful religious elite, hell-bent on protecting their own interests, are exposed for what they are through Jesus’ act of mercy. They had, by their law, every right to stone the woman caught in adultery (as many commentators note, the other half of the adulterous couple is mysteriously and inexplicably absent, testifying to the hypocrisy with which we apply our laws). And Jesus does not deny their law’s legitimacy. What he does is make them relook at its purpose. He tells them that if they themselves have upheld the law, they may enforce the law. And they all walk away. The message is this: God is the only one with the wisdom and moral authority to judge. And the law was never intended as a tool for legitimising condemnation, but as a vehicle by which we might become aware of our need for grace. It is telling that the only one who had – by virtue of his moral authority – the right to stone the woman, let her walk away. Read the story in John 8:1-11 and then tell me that the arguments of the likes of Steven Anderson have any merit.
Bigoted Christians see in the law only where they and others’ contravene it, and use this to justify hatred and self-loathing. Jesus uses the law to show other people how desperately they need to be loved and how precious they are to Him. That has always been the core message of the gospel:
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)
I do not see, in Steven Anderson’s ranting, anything that can be justified within the context of a sound understanding of the Gospels’ core teachings on grace and love, and the purpose of the law. I hear a clanging cymbal. To all of my readers who claim to have been transformed by God’s love and grace, you have a responsibility to be more than merely a resounding gong.
To all my gay friends, I know that the space you find yourself in is not an easy one. Even in a country with a liberal constitution, like South Africa, I should imagine that you often feel self-conscious and even afraid. It must be an awful thing always to feel that you have to account for and defend who you are and the choices that you have made, to small-minded people who believe that they are your betters. Homophobia is rampant, and even when the law technically protects you, there is nothing that can stop blind hatred. Orlando must be a terrible reminder of that. The fact that I even know that any one of you is gay, means that you have a courage that cowards like Steven Anderson will never know. But I am sure Orlando still frightens you.
I wish I could make certain types of religious fanatics change the way the see you. I wish my voice could silence their hatred, which disguises itself as moral authority. Orlando demands a response from me; I know I need to say something but I also know that nothing I could possibly say will be enough. So all I can offer you is my conviction that, like me, you are children of a loving God; I can only ‘out’ myself in the form of my theological rejection of those who welcome Orlando as the act a wrathful deity. It was the despicable expression of a world where hatred comes more easily than love, but I want to be more than merely a clanging cymbal. I pray that somewhere in the midst of all this horror, in the thousands of voices that have been raised in protest against it, that you may catch a glimpse of Jesus and know that you are loved.