Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" Is Not In the Bible

There's nowhere in scripture where it actually says, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." People say it so often, it starts to sound like scripture, and people act as if it is scripture, but this religious catch phrase is absolutely nowhere in scripture.

So let's unpack it a bit... Scripture does clearly teach us that God is love. It teaches us that God loves all his children and that we, his children, must do the same. Scripture does clearly teach us to forgive others their sins if we wish to have forgiveness ourselves -- it does not matter how big or small the debt being forgiven. Scripture clearly does teach us that we are all debtors, we are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Scripture also clearly teaches that we must not judge others; that when we judge others, we ourselves fall under condemnation.

The formula "love the sinner, hate the sin" implies that we have an obligation to judge the actions and/or the hearts of others, to determine whether another person is a sinner or not. It also implies that some of us are sinners and some are not. Both these implications are profoundly unscriptural.

Scripture does talk about hating sin. But if you study the contexts in which scripture talks about this, it is clear that the sin we are to hate is the sin in ourselves. In other words, yes, we have an obligation to attempt to discern what is and is not sin and to live our lives in accordance with our conscience. I'm not sure we have an obligation to try to be someone else's conscience for them.

If we are concerned about the souls of others (and it is scriptural to be concerned about the souls of others), our primary obligation is to point them to God. They have the scriptures, they have the witness of the prophets, they have the ability to get on their knees and pray, they have a conscience, they can receive guidance from the Spirit. And they are accountable for their own lives. As Christians, we can witness that Christ is the source of life, we can point others toward him. And that is where our obligation ends, and where we stray off the path of Christ when we set ourselves up as the judges of souls. That is God's prerogative, and to arrogate that to ourselves is itself a sin.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Was Korihor an Atheist?

Alma chapter 30 appears, at least on the surface, to be the most explicit treatment of atheism in all LDS scripture. And the character of Korihor seems at least superficially to fit the definition of an atheist in his explicit denial of the existence of God. But the more relevant question in our context is, Does the story of Korihor in Alma 30 amount to a condemnation of modern rationalist materialist / secular humanist philosophy? And the answer, I think, is a resounding No. Korihor was not an atheist in that sense at all. Furthermore, I think it is difficult to find anywhere in scripture coherent support for the kinds of antagonistic attitudes we find among most modern-day, conservative Christians toward modern-day atheists.

Korihor is described in Alma 30 as professing:
1) That Christ would not come in the future, and that to hope for his coming was foolish.
2) That no one can know of things to come, or of things that one cannot see.
3) That belief in Christ is the result of a delusion (a "frenzied mind").
4) That belief in Christ is exploited by religious leaders to deny people their freedom, and to live a life of ease while they sap their followers of their income.
5) That there is no God, and that one should only believe in God if one has tangible signs of God's existence.
So far, most of these statements certainly sound like some of the things we might hear coming from folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. However, the text continues, explaining that in addition to these beliefs, Korihor professed that:
6) "Every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime." (v. 17)

What's worse though, is that at the end of the story Korihor confesses:
1) That he was lying all along, and that he actually always knew there was a God, and (the next one's the zinger),
2) That he taught what he taught because he was commanded by an angel to do so.

The classic Biblical proof text against atheism is, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14: 1 and 53: 1). Korihor may have been a fool, but he was not that kind of a fool. The text states explicitly that Korihor knew in his heart that there was a God, but had entered into a perverse pact with the devil to dissuade people from faith and lead them to commit all sorts of crimes in spite of this knowledge.

The scriptural concern with the denial of God -- both in the story of Korihor and in Psalms and elsewhere -- is focused on the relationship between belief and behavior. The preeminent concern in scripture in relation to the denial of God has to do with whether such a denial is used to rationalize bad behavior, behavior that usually manifests in the form of pursuit of selfish interests without concern for the effect that such pursuit has on others. In other words, in the form of pride and disregard for the poor and vulnerable. The scriptures condemn rationales which suggest that there will be no final reckoning, no final judgment, therefore we may do as we please no matter whom we harm. In other words, the scriptures condemn egotistical nihilism, not necessarily atheism per se.

Thus, for instance, in Alma 30, the author is quick to stress:
Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds. For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve. Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds. (vs. 7-11)

It is worth stressing that this text supposedly condemning atheism stresses that it is "strictly contrary to the commands of God" to discriminate under the law between those who believe and those who do not believe in God. Furthermore, it treats lack of belief in God in rather value-neutral terms. "If a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him." There's no statement here as to whether the failure to believe was culpable; only that if one did believe, one might be privileged to act in accordance with that belief, and that if one did not believe, one should not be punished.

While Korihor set out with an agenda to destroy both faith and social order, the agenda of rationalist materialism is to understand the nature of the world we live in through observation of physical phenomena. For modern rationalist materialists there is no explicit agenda of denying God or the social order, but rather simply to understand the physical world. As a philosophy, rationalist materialism is concerned with the existence of God only to the extent that God is observable within the material world. To the extent that God is not observable within the material realm, rationalist materialism is indifferent to God; neither invested in denying nor in proving God's existence.

Where concern about belief in God becomes a factor to rationalist materialists is when claims about God are used to promote or justify repression of dissent, social inequality or violence. Modern rationalist materialists and secular humanists are extremely concerned about creating and preserving a just social order in which, as Alma 30: 7 puts it, none are on "unequal grounds" as a result of their belief or lack thereof. They are extremely concerned about religious violence and bigotry.

Secular humanists and rationalist materialists typically condemn belief in a God who who has at various times commanded slavery, genocide, crusades against unbelievers, and the oppression of women; who is indifferent to poverty and human suffering; who is believed in blindly and unquestioningly; and who commands the use of physical compulsion and violence against those who refuse to believe in such a God. From a scriptural perspective, that God is "the God of this world," Satan wearing a god-like mask, resorting to pious postures while extracting worldly obedience through force. So from a scriptural perspective, the denunciation of such a God would actually be less the work of a Korihor, and more the work of modern day prophets.

Do I see in my atheist friends a desire to undermine faith? A desire to dissuade believers from acting in a socially responsible, law-abiding manner? Not only do I not see this, but I see this kind of concern about how to relate to believers in a way that is respectful, along with a willingness to wrestle with the implications of one's one lack of belief in light of others' belief.

I am a believer. In fact I would say that in light of my own experience with God, it would be easier for me to disbelieve that I exist in some objective sense than it would be for me to deny God. I have experienced God literally as the ground of my existence. But I think that atheism -- at least as it is expressed in the form of rationalist materialist or secular humanist philosophies -- should not worry believers. To condemn that kind of atheism, as far as I am concerned, is a big, fat red herring, designed to make us lose perspective, to forget what true belief really should be all about.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jesus and the Atheists

Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? (Matt. 25: 37-39)

One thing I love about this text from Matthew 25 is that the "sheep," the righteous whom Christ welcomes into his rest at the last day, don't seem to have had any idea that they were in Christ's service during their mortal life time. "When saw we thee?" they ask again and again. They didn't know that Christ was in the persons of their fellow human beings. It had to be explained to them at the final judgment, when the reason for their exaltation comes to them as a complete surprise. Apparently they fed the hungry, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned out of a love for their fellow man, not out of a desire to please God, whom they literally did not see.

One reason this becomes such a powerful statement about the nature of exaltation is because it emphasizes that the sole, ultimate criterion is not whom you think you are serving, but that you serve. It emphasizes that charity, pure love, is the quality that aligns us with the Kingdom of God, not whether or not we see Christ in this life. The seeing of Christ described here is metaphorical. Is believing a form of seeing? I think so. The text definitely suggests that exaltation is not a matter of belief. It is not dependent on whether we see Christ in our suffering fellow humans. It is purely and solely a matter of compassion for one's fellow human beings, compassion that motivates us to act.

Believers who serve their fellow human beings because they've read this text and are eager to be among the sheep are not necessarily described in this text. In fact, I would argue that someone who serves their fellow human beings solely because of concern with reward in the next life has utterly missed the point here. I think the teaching at the heart of this text is that love for the sake of love is the love that exalts. I think that's the true meaning of the text that says, "Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it" (Luke 17: 33). You can't be saved, if the reason for your behavior is to be saved, to avoid damnation. You've missed the point if that is your motivation.

Another text that I think is relevant to the problem of belief is the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21: 28-31. Here, profession is at the core of the problem. It is what distinguishes one son from the other. One son professes that he will serve his father. But he does not. The other son professes that he will not serve his father. But he shows up and serves anyway. Christ asks the Pharisees which of these sons are righteous, and they are compelled to answer, the son who actually showed up for work despite his profession to the contrary. Christ then ends by delivering the shocking moral: "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." Again, this teaching suggests that profession is irrelevant to exaltation.

As an outcast homosexual, I think about this a lot. I will be a witness at the last day of the kindness and compassion shown me by people who professed no belief in God, contrasted with the hardness of heart of those who profess belief and a love for God. Believers so often pick and choose whom they will serve. The "worthy" poor are a favorite target for charity. Jesus didn't seem to make any such distinction. He anticipated seeing harlots and publicans in Heaven before good, righteous believers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Three Generations of Gay

It became clear to me in the course of a discussion about relationships, and the price that older generations of gay men paid to pave the way for this generation's freedom.

Gay men who came of age prior to the 1980s simply didn't have the same freedom to seek and establish same-sex relationships that we do today. Let's speak nothing of legal gay marriage. The price that you paid for being open enough about who you were to establish a household with a person of the same sex was just too steep for most gay men and lesbians to risk it. With the exception of tiny conclaves in cities like New York and San Francisco, if you were openly gay enough to openly live with a person of the same sex, you would likely lose your job, your community reputation, your family, your church... You faced extreme hostility and violence. Your property would be vandalized. You could be assaulted or even killed. And the police were generally indifferent.

In order to safely establish a same-sex household, you would be best off to pack your bags and head off to one of the east or west coast gay meccas. You might have to be willing to work in a lower paying job in the service industry, where they winked if you were gay. You literally had to be willing to sacrifice almost everything for love.

And that's to say nothing of the demons you had to wrestle with internally. A gay person had to have incredible internal fortitude to affirm that he or she was OK, when it seemed everyone else in the world thought you were the worst kind of pervert.

Most gay men and lesbians couldn't bring themselves to pay that kind of price.


I was having a chat with an older gay man of that generation, and he was mourning the loss of his youth. Fear kept him in the closet until his fifties. Gradually, he came to accept himself as a gay man, though the battle for his soul was fierce. Intense internalized homophobia made it difficult for him to believe that he deserved happiness in a relationship. And when he finally did come to believe in himself enough to take those first tentative steps toward dating, he found a wild mix of emotions pushing up to the surface. Physically he was in his fifties, but mentally and emotionally dating turned him into a teenager again. And he found the experience humiliating and demoralizing. So humiliating and demoralizing that he wondered out loud to me if it was even worth the effort to try to find a relationship.

I tried to comfort this friend with the story of my Aunt Myrtle, who lived alone for 60 years after her first husband died. Finally, in her 90s she married Jack, a man in his 70s. (Cradle robbing!) I saw Jack and Myrtle together, and Oh, they were happy! It was delightful to see how giddily happy they made each other. Myrtle scandalized the family with her marriage. Some folks thought Jack was after her inheritance. But she proved everybody wrong by outliving Jack. From Aunt Myrtle I learned that there's no age at which love and companionship can't make a life better. I was delighted when my friend referred to himself in his next email to me as my "gay male Aunt Myrtle."

Still, it's painful. He paid, and is still paying, a heavy price for homophobia.


I think about my generation. Mike Quinn, a gay man of that older generation, was teaching American History at BYU when I was a student there in the early 1980s, just as I was starting to wrestle with being gay. Mike, who himself was deeply in the closet at that time, had at least opened the door a crack by including information about homosexuality in a course I took from him on American Social History. He included data from a number of studies of sexuality, including the Kinsey Report, and corollary studies that had been done on Mormon men and women at BYU.

Mike once apologized to me for not being able to help me more. He felt bad that he was so deeply in the closet and unable to be a better role model for me at a time when I was struggling and in so much pain that I nearly committed suicide. But he didn't realize how huge an impact he had, just by sharing the information that he did. In his class I learned that I was not alone; that large numbers of men and women were gay, like me. It took me time to digest that information, to apply it. But eventually I did. And Mike's courage to open the door just a crack as he did, enabled me to take steps that his generation would have found unthinkable.

When I started grad school at the University of Minnesota in 1987, only 4 faculty members were openly gay -- at a university with a student body of 50,000. Homophobia was rampant on campus. There were no laws on the books in Minnesota protecting gay people from discrimination. There were no support programs for gay students. No gay studies classes.

To even suggest that we should have a University-sponsored course addressing issues of relevance to the GLBT community would have seemed crazy then. But I was crazy enough to suggest it, along with two other grad students, Jim Berg and Deb Quist, with whom I helped form something called "the Association of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Associations." Among other things, I and this crazy bunch of students organized a Queer Studies conference at the University of Minnesota, and we focused our own graduate studies in this area. (My book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand, was a fruit of that effort.) We lobbied the administration to do a study of campus homophobia, and to consider what steps might be taken to improve the campus environment. Eventually, the administration adopted one of our key suggestions, and established a GLBT Programs Office at the University of Minnesota, one of the first of its kind in the country. I had the privilege of being on the search committee that hired its first director.

My generation was simultaneously pushing forward in many other different areas as well. I had friends and colleagues who were working to transform the homophobic environment in high schools, so that gay teens would no longer have to live in terror of being ostracized or brutalized. Individuals I knew were instrumental in establishing gay youth centers, and establishing programs for homeless gay teens, and establishing anti-suicide programs. Individuals I knew were among the first to work with a variety of social service agencies to push for greater understanding and inclusiveness. Legislators of my generation were starting to demand anti-gay bashing laws, anti-discrimination laws, and the first laws that would grant some legal protections to same-sex couples.

Gay men and lesbians of my generation were among the first to come out publicly in the military and draw attention to the hypocrisy of the military's ban on openly gay servicemen and women. Couples of my generation were among the first to demand the right to marry. They had to courage to go fight in court. When they first started that battle, it sounded even to me like Don Quixote's crusade against the windmills. But now, here I am, legally married in a handful of US states.


When Glen went through orientation at the University of Minnesota, in preparation for his freshman year this fall, he began to tell me with great excitement about how the University had this really cool thing called the "GLBT Programs Office," and how it was one of the first such offices in the country.

I laughed. So did Göran. "Do you know who helped bring that into being?"

"No," said Glen, "Who?"

We laughed again, and Göran pointed at me.

"No, really?" Glen exclaimed.

It made me wonder how many incoming gay and lesbian freshmen will take advantage of the services of that office and not realize what had to happen to make something like that a reality.

As a gay teen, Glen was able to belong to a GLBT Student Association at South High School that had over 100 members. As a foster kid, he was able to be placed in a home where a gay couple could serve as role models to him of a healthy, stable relationship.

Certainly, many important battles are still far from won. Certainly, there are still people who need to be educated about homophobia, and the price we all pay -- gay and straight -- for any form of hatred or discrimination. Furthermore, Minneapolis is an unusually liberal, tolerant, open environment for gay people. There are still many parts of the country where gay people are still fighting for even the most minimal kinds of safety and respect. Glen participated in awareness groups in high school and had a chance to tell his peers his own story. He's doing his part, the part his generation needs to do for future generations.


I look back over three generations of gay men. That older generation, who were only able to come out fully in their fifties or older, for whom the idea of establishing a loving, committed relationship seemed an impossible dream, they laid the groundwork for me and others of my generation to come out in our twenties; they helped us to dream and risk for a society where their impossible dream could become something like a reality. And I was able to establish a relationship in my late twenties and early thirties. We fought so that our son's generation, thank God, could have a "normal" youth, so that he could be a teenager -- imagine this! -- in his teens. So that he could grow up in the first generation in America where being gay might just not be an issue any more.

There was a point when I sat down with Glen and I told him the stories I've told here. He's seen Milk. (What an important film for a young gay man to see!) I wanted him to understand and appreciate, not just the fact that challenges have been overcome, but that individuals have had to pay a very, very painful and personal price before something better could come into being. I told him with tears in my eyes what Mike Quinn's generation did for me. And he thanked me, with tears in his eyes, for what my generation has done for him.


There's still more to be done. Perhaps the most difficult is yet to be done. The gap this blog in some sense exists to bridge -- the gap between the spiritual and the physical -- lies at the root of all the great struggles not just for gay rights, but for human dignity everywhere.

Gay people are still paying a terrible price for homophobia in our churches. We are excommunicated, cast out, and made unwelcome in a myriad of ways subtle and unsubtle. And we wrestle with doubt. We're stuck in the classic theodicy problem, splitting us in two from the marrow of our bones out. How can God be good if those who claim to love him make it their mission to hate us and deny us basic human rights? If we can somehow find a faith born of the deepest kind of wrestling with that problem, we will have contributed something of worth to humanity.

If you believe, as I do, that nothing is temporal, then the most important battles are spiritual. The most important work is yet to be done.