The divided, the divisive and the divine

Even as gay and lesbian couples began to circle the altar last Tuesday night, Tony Campolo brought home why homosexuality remains a divisive issue within the evangelical Christian church.

Campolo — a “troubled pacifist,” an ordained Baptist minister and a legendary figure in evangelical circles — spoke at Westminster Presbyterian at the invitation of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

He sought to advise a packed house how to rescue the biblical Jesus from the religious right, elements of which have transformed Christ into a vengeful, flag-waving, nationalistic deity. With irony and wit, he ridiculed the notion that the Jesus who blessed the poor, the merciful and the peacemakers has been turned into the champion of prosperity theology, capital punishment and war in the Middle East.

“The Jesus of Scripture comes not in power but in love,” Campolo said. “Do we know how to talk about this Jesus who came in love? You’ve got to know your Bible. Our ignorance is problematic. The reason your fundamentalist, nationalistic brothers and sisters cut you to pieces on ‘Good Morning America’ is . . . they know the Bible and we don’t.”

But on the issue of homosexuality, knowledge of the Bible often cuts both ways. And Campolo conceded that he and his wife, Peggy, are on opposite sides of the resulting divide.

While Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, Paul tackles the subject in the first chapter of Romans, after challenging the idolaters who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

Scripture can be heavy sledding in a newspaper column, but bear with me. Paul continues, “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones . . . Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Campolo has what he describes as a traditional reading of those verses: Christians are not to be involved in homosexual relationships that involve genital contact. His wife disagrees and often drops books on the breakfast table that support her view.

“She asks, ‘How can you read that chapter and not come away with the sense that what Paul is complaining about is not a loving commitment between lifelong partners, but the sexual orgies that went on with the idolatry in Corinth?’ ” Campolo said. “I think that’s reasonable. It’s just not a position I agree with.”

On two other points, however, the couple is of one mind: “You have to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. We cannot impose our decision-making on other people,” Campolo said. In homosexuality, he added, “We have taken a secondary issue and made it a primary issue. While it’s an important issue, it shouldn’t divide the church.”

That divide exists because so many Christians are drawn only to the sayings of Jesus that reflect and support their values and biases. They want to worship the familiar, not the radical. They recall the words of Voltaire: “If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated.”

Campolo believes conservative evangelicals “have a very hard time if we want to be consistent. Jesus doesn’t condemn gay marriage, but he does raise a very strong opinion about divorce and remarrying.” That’s an opinion many fundamentalist churches choose to ignore.

“If the president is really interested in defending marriage,” Campolo said, “he ought to go after divorce. That’s what’s destroying the American family.”

That family was being redefined long before the same-sex weddings began in San Francisco. It’s easy to see why acceptance of those weddings is increasing day by day. Even when nervous evangelical Christians open the Bible, they can’t find consensus on the issue.

And when they do open the book, they find — whatever else they seek — a great argument that love triumphs over power, humility over resentment, and mercy over judgment.

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