So, I was interviewed on KUER yesterday. Turns out I’m not good at live radio. I’ve been editing in my head all day, so this could be a really long post, but I’m just going to take another shot at one question I really botched. (That is, one that I remember–I can’t bear to listen to it to clean up all my answers!)
A caller asked how, since the doctrine of many religions* forbids homosexual relationships, adherents of those churches could maintain belief in their churches and also be welcoming of gay people. This is really two questions, I think–one practical or pastoral, and one theological, but the answers are related.
(*I answer from a Christian and Mormon perspective because, well, that’s the one I’ve got, but it seems to me that similar ideas might work in many traditions.)
At the most basic level, this is a question about how religious believers ought to behave towards people who are breaking commandments of the tradition in ways that are public. That’s easy (easy to say, anyway)–exactly the same way as they would behave towards themselves or their beloved sister who had sinned. Because she has. We all have. The only operative difference in this case is that some sins are easily visible to others and some are not. The trick is, as Elder Eyring once put it, to be merciful towards people who sin differently than we do. Because we are all beggars. Because Christ first loved us.
And we all know what this kind of welcome looks like: listening, sharing, tending, hugging, scolding (betimes with sharpness!), sighing, singing, laughing, and crying together. For Mormons, it will often involve Jello.
But there’s a larger and more difficult question, of course. If our fundamental beliefs exclude some people from full participation in our communities, or insist that they are called to bear a heavier cross than the rest of us, can our superficial niceness or even our sincere kindness make up for such doctrinal discrimination? If not, must we abandon those beliefs? How can we reconcile what we believe God to have revealed with love for people who are hurt or marginalized by the truth we think we know?
As much as it would be comfortable for me, I think that a shrugging, anything-goes tolerance is cheap. Real love is difficult, and it does sometimes require drawing lines and making moral judgments. If one earnestly believes that God requires some standard of action, it is condescending to not articulate that belief to a person one thinks might not be able to meet the standard. Is it possible to lovingly insist on theological clarity?
I’m not sure, and I’m very glad it is not my job to articulate doctrine for my church (or anyone else’s). But President Packer’s talk, and the responses to it, particularly the response presented by Michael Otterson, suggest the following easy-to-state, nearly-impossible-to-implement principle to me: Our religious certainties ought to be troubled by our encounters with our fellow human beings; no theological abstraction should matter to us more than the pains and joys of our brothers and sisters.
What was most hurtful about President Packer’s talk, I think, was the tone of absolute moral certainty, the definitive insistence that such certainty mandated the rejection of the reported experience of thousands of gay Latter-day Saints. President Packer articulated a vision of a moral universe so tidy that it couldn’t account for the messiness of human love and yearning; his proof required ignoring some of the data–the living, breathing, aching data of women and men who cannot, despite their heroically faithful effort, be something other than their nature compels them to be. Brother Otterson’s response, though insistent on the same commandments, showed evidence of his (or the writer(s)) having been moved by the suffering of others. I think this is at the heart of what we must do, as believers, if we are to arrive at truth–we must allow our encounters with other human beings, with Christ in “the features of men’s faces” to transform us, to shake us from our comfortable beliefs and throw us to our knees to beg for wisdom and understanding.
We’re told that Christ suffered so that He would know how to succor His children and how to judge them. He is a righteous judge because he fully and freely entered into our suffering, our brokenness. It seems to me that until we can enter into the suffering our rules and our words inflict on our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, all of our doctrinal pronouncements ought to come from a place of humility and err on the side of mercy. I believe that this humility is also the ground of revelation, and that we might well come up with better answers than we currently have if we listened more and theorized less. But if not, if it turns out that our truest understanding of God makes us insist on heterosexual marriage as the righteous way, then we are called to mourn with those that mourn–we ought to weep with frustration and grief when we prescribe celibacy as their best hope of salvation. And we ought to never stop imploring the heavens on their behalf.