Is God doing “a new thing” with regard to the issue of sexual orientation?
This was the phrase Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, used in an interview with Beliefnet before his election as the church’s first openly gay bishop had been confirmed by the General Convention in 2004.
I am uncomfortable with the notion of God doing “new” things. Yes, I recognize that Christian doctrine regards God’s historical relationship with humanity as existing in two stages: old and new covenants, with the arrival and sacrifice of Jesus fundamentally changing the dynamic between the Creator and creation, though I admit I am not wholly on board with that idea. I see God and his relationship with humanity as essentially constant, and am more apt to argue that much of the Old Testament is rooted in misunderstanding which the prophets bemoaned and Jesus later came to correct.
While God remains constant, humanity’s relationship with the Divine is clearly one that evolves. Whereas the Old Testament not only authorizes but requires the stoning of disobedient children and the beating of slaves, the world has largely – through the influence of the Spirit, I would assert – come to understand such notions as at least counterproductive and more generally amoral, contrary to the will of God.
Judeo-Christian thinking over the years has experienced massive paradigm-shifts on several issues, notably with respect to issues of race and gender, and now sexual orientation. Maintaining a “But the Bible says…” stance is not always helpful, as Scripture has historically been invoked to justify slavery and anti-miscegenation (which thinking still finds adherents, in places like Bob Jones University) and the subjugation of women. We haven’t all come to the same conclusions, but it is inescapable that regarding people with black skin as bearing “the mark of Cain” is now a ludicrous fringe position, and mainline protestant denominations, as well as both Reform and Conservative Jewish traditions, regularly ordain women. It’s not about ignoring or discarding Scripture, but rather reading it in a new way, with an objective approach to context. It is about believing that the period of revelation didn’t end with the book of that name; God is still speaking.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – who knew a thing or two about having Scripture cited as justification for oppression – remarked that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That arc is plain to see. A movement that has heeded Jesus’ radical welcome of traditional social outcasts as a permanent call for expansive inclusion has used it as a mandate for racial and gender equality and is now pondering sexual orientation.
At the same time, the visibility of gay and lesbian people of faith has dramatically increased, along with straight supporters. They are virtually coming out of the woodwork, in every faith and sect, to testify about their walk with God; indeed, in this year’s New York City Gay Pride parade, special prominence was given to religious groups, turning the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is incompatible with religious belief on its head. Yesterday, three former leaders of the “ex-gay” ministry group Exodus International apologized “for the psychological harm they caused,” and disavowed the notion that sexual orientation can be changed through prayer. A recent CNN poll indicated that a majority of people believe that people cannot change their orientation.
What is going on here? Is God doing a new thing? Is he reaching out to His gay and lesbian children for the first time? Or is it that we’re just starting to listen?