Loving Enemies in and outside the Church

D. Stephen Long

At a recent conference on “love” a presenter was defending Christian nonviolence based on Jesus’s teaching to love one’s enemies. An African theologian stood up, expressed his strong sympathy for the presenter but then posed the question, “If a member of Boko Haram is headed toward a large crowd of innocent persons in order to blow himself and them up, should you not shoot him before he has the chance to do so?” He then added, “For us, this situation is not hypothetical.” It has never been hypothetical for those of us in the US either.

The recent horrific, heinous violence at The Pulse in Orlando has, to my great horror, brought together the themes in my first two installments in “Loving Enemies.” The first began to address the question how to love enemies outside the church. The second addressed how to love enemies inside the church who disagree over homosexuality and are willing to divide the church yet again. The genocidal violence against LGBTQ persons in Orlando is an all-too-glaring sign that the significant advances in civil rights for gays and lesbians still stands under a constant threat by forces who seek their elimination. Those forces do not have the US judicial and political system on their side; those judicial and political protections must be continued and strengthened. It is our church’s position to do so. The church should continue to lend its voice to insure this minimalist human decency. It is also imperative that good theological arguments are presented that are persuasive to guide us through an issue that is not, and should not, go away.

Unlike one of my respondents who uncharitably misunderstood my previous installment, I do not think that those who disagree with me on homosexuality are all complicit in the violence against the LGBT community inasmuch as they unequivocally condemn that violence and seek to continue and strengthen the protections gays and lesbians have fought and died for the past few decades. I continue to think theological deliberation on the question of sexuality, marriage, and ordination is sorely needed. Splitting the church into two or three will, of course, resolve nothing. The “organization” (I don’t think we can continue to call ourselves church if we split) that ordains and marries LGBTQ persons will have dissenters in its midst. The “organization” that refuses will do so as well. Purifying the church of either group by force or juridical means courts disaster. At the risk of being denounced for “supercilious theological clothing” that somehow creates an “us versus them judgment,” when my intention is the exact opposite, I will try yet again to advance such an argument that is, in fact, nothing short of trying to dance on the head of a pin (see the comment section of my previous post).

Let us begin by acknowledging two arguments that do not work and should be abandoned. The first is liberal inclusivism. It is “liberal” in that it begins with the assumption that freedom liberates us from traditioned notions of truth or goodness. When coupled with inclusiveness, it becomes incoherent, reducing to this syllogism:

We are inclusive.
You are not inclusive.
Therefore, you must be excluded.

The major premise cannot sustain the concluding moral judgment. If we are to think theologically about the matters before us, something more than liberal inclusivism must lead the way; we must recognize that there are theological matters of truth and goodness to which we must attend.

The second argument eschews the hermeneutic task for a strict, literal reading of Scripture. No one applies Levitical laws to everyday life without some kind of hermeneutic, neither Jews nor Christians, not in antiquity nor the Middle Ages. We should not seek to do so now. Take the command to stone adulterers to death in Lev 20:10. The good rabbi from Nazareth, who is also truly divine and human in one person, applied a hermeneutic as to how the law should be fulfilled in such a situation that on the face of it appears directly to oppose the literal reading (John 8:1-11). Or take the vision God gave Peter in Acts 10:9-16. Is it not precedent-setting for a hermeneutic of the law’s fulfillment? It at least suggests that what God appeared to condemn as anathema, defiling, detestable at one place (Lev 11:24-45) becomes understood as clean, fulfilling, and permitted at another (Acts 10). I am not arguing for the old anti-Jewish grace versus law hermeneutic. The law matters. Wesleyans formed by “General Rules” should understand that. But how the law matters must be carefully set forth. Scripture must not be dismissed; it must be interpreted. The ancient fourfold sense of biblical interpretation that associated it with the virtues of charity, faith, and hope could guide us with a better hermeneutic. To look on the deaths of those killed at The Pulse in Orlando and to cry out “abomination” (Lev 18:22), applying it to homosexuality rather than the loathing and hatred of gays that led to it, is not only a clear violation of faith, charity, and hope; it is obscene. No one in the church should be married or ordained who cannot recognize that; it is that loathing and hatred that is clearly incompatible with Christian teaching.

So what might we do as a church? First, we could do away with the Social Principles altogether, and in so doing do away with the original controversial statement that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. The social principles are ineffective at making disciples; their purpose seems more to give policy wonks directions to tell legislators what The United Methodist Church believes when in fact on almost every issue addressed the Methodist people have not received most of those principles. I would be pleased if we could do away with the Social Principles and replace them with the Sermon on the Mount, but I know that argument will go nowhere. Second, we could do away with the specific statements on homosexuality in the Book of Discipline. I support that, but it will most likely not happen either. So I return to my previous post. Could those who are enemies in the church at least agree that the sexual practices identified as incompatible with Christianity be expanded so that gays and lesbians are not singled out as they currently are? I have little doubt that for all of us our sexuality is in some sense broken, even while it is also a joyful blessing. Let us add all the traditional broken practices identified by the church as incompatible with Christian teaching and see if anyone is left standing to condemn. Then we might hear Jesus saying to all of us, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.” Figuring out that last bit will require a charitable hermeneutic. If we apply it to ourselves, we should equally apply it to others.

I have not yet addressed my African colleague’s question. If you can shoot an enemy whom you know is headed toward a gay night club to cause untold evil, and in so doing save those threatened by his act, should you? Of course, yes. How could anyone say something other than that to such a question? But this is not all that needs to be said. I hope to explore this more fully in the next installment.

Posted Jun 27, 2016

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