“I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid.” These are the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, revered for his role in ending racial segregation in South Africa (known as Apartheid), just a few weeks ago at the launch of a UN-backed campaign to promote gay rights throughout Africa. “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven,” he continued. “No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”
Tutu’s sentiment strikes a chord with me, and presumably others like me who, for lack of a better term, call themselves allies. We are those who know LGBT folks and, perhaps despite our former, traditionalist sensibilities, we love them–their partners, their gender expressions–everything about them, really. The idea of a God or a heaven unwelcoming of these friends and family members? No thanks.
Of course, I doubt Archbishop Tutu actually believes in a God like that. And neither do I. But, at the risk of reading too deeply into his statements, I think behind his satire is a subtle acknowledgement of the moral complexity that this issue raises for Christian allies.
On the one hand, there is the very real possibility that the conservative-traditional interpretation of the Bible is correct and that God really does condemn all forms of same-sex relationships. That’s what we all grew up hearing. That’s what the church has taught, historically. The idea that God might be homophobic (or having a broader attitude of opposition with which this inflammatory term is often conflated) has to be taken seriously. On the other hand, homophobia in any form seems like such a foreign and ridiculous attitude to hold toward my LGBT friends, those who are just as wonderfully creative and responsible and emotive and dysfunctional and vulnerable as me or any other straight person I know. So my experience of the LGBT community seems to undermine the message of those traditionalist values. Gay people are not dangerous. Gay marriage is not a threat. Gay parents are every bit as capable as their straight counterparts. I’ve come to believe all this, quite strongly, during the last few years of my direct engagement with the LGBT community.
These twin realities–the legitimacy of the Conservative community’s argument from Scripture, and the legitimacy of the LGBT community’s argument from experience–creates, for me, a very real ethical perplexity. Do I support my LGBT friends, or not? There was a moment, and I couldn’t tell you when exactly it was, when my guilt at the desire to put my affinity for the gay community into action was outweighed by my guilt at the thought of inaction. So I became an ally. I voted. I spoke up. I welcomed opportunities to officiate gay weddings. It wasn’t that I lost my faith, nor that I found some other way of relieving my conflicted conscious. No, I just decided that I couldn’t let this lack of resolution keep me from feeling, well…resolute.
Archbishop Tutu reminds me of another great Christian figure who took decisive action in the face of moral ambiguity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. How did he do it? He ignored his conscience.
In his book, unceremoniously titled, Ethics, Bonhoeffer describes the conscience as “the call of human existence for unity with itself, voiced from a deep wellspring beyond one’s own will and reason.” In other words, it’s an instinct to be true to one’s own sense of integrity. So behind the inclinations of our conscience is the desire for self-preservation, inner peace and freedom from guilt.
This is not a good thing.
Rather than trying to do good or be right, Bonhoeffer argues that we should lead a life in answer to the life of Jesus. He calls this “responsibility.” This is not a petty distinction. Bonhoeffer carries out his arguments to a dramatic conclusion: Following Jesus does not promise a life free of guilt. “Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty…place their personal innocence above their responsibility for other human beings,” he writes. Taking responsible action means following the example of Christ, who was not afraid to break the law to honor those who were oppressed, who put the needs of others before himself, who willingly sacrificed his guiltlessness for our sake.
What guilt was Bonhoeffer himself willing to incur for the sake of others? That of killing Hitler. Literally. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian living under Nazi regime, but he was also committed to nonviolence, and understood Jesus teaching to specifically prohibit the kind of action which he and others knew would be necessary to bring an end to the wholesale slaughter of the Jewish people.
We see in Bonhoeffer’s writings a man who takes the seemingly antithetical commands of Scripture–to love one’s enemy and one’s neighbor, to act peacefully and also protectively–very seriously. And he is willing to let both commands sit together in contradiction, without trying to pit one against the other in false resolution. Bonhoeffer accepted that both action and inaction likely entangled him in guilt.
The conflicted conscious, whether in the paralysis of inaction or the liability of action, means that those facing a moral dilemma will necessarily feel a lack of inner peace. “From now on,” writes the German, pacifist bombmaker from jail, “I can only find unity with myself by surrendering my ego to God and others.”
I think those are wise words for this Evangelical, gay-rights advocate today. As a Christian, my responsibility is not to be guiltless but to follow Christ’s example and thrust myself upon his grace with every decision I make. And if I risk incurring hell in my solidarity with the LGBT community, at least I’ll be in good company. Maybe I’ll even be cellmates with Desmond Tutu.
Note: This post first appeared on The Marin Foundation's blog, Love is an Orientation, on 8/9/13.