I’m not a Christian. I’m not anything religion-wise. I’m not even an atheist. The closest category into which I might fit would be deist, but even that label I resist; I feel like I’d be subscribing to a magazine I know going in I’d never read. I believe in God and that’s as far as I’m willing to go — and I only go that far out of wishful thinking, I freely admit. I’m antireligious, so I don’t often go out of my way to find kind things to say about Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Shinto or the many flavors of paganism, while I’m at it). It’s so much easier, and more fun, to point out its numerous scientific and historical inaccuracies and make fun of its preposterous mythology and outrageously immoral morality. Still, I know a great many Christian people, and they are good people, and when I see bigots and loons like Pat Robertson or James Dobson or John Hagee in the media speaking for their faith, I feel sorry for them.
I wish there was more attention paid to Christians like Mel White. He used to work for evangelical Christian groups, actually ghost-wrote Jerry Falwell’s autobiography, and felt tormented by the attraction he felt toward other men. Heeding the message preached by the people he was working for, he sought counseling and various purported cures for his sexuality, including electro-convulsive therapy. Finally, he accepted his orientation, and sought to square it with his religion. In 1993 Mel was named dean of the largest gay-friendly Christian congregation in the United States, and said to those gathered to witness his installation, “I am gay. I am proud. And God loves me without reservation.”
Mel and his partner Gary Nixon founded Soulforce in 1999, a ministry devoted to advocating gay rights in general, and specifically to opposing anti-gay bigotry within the Christian community. That’s one hell of a job, as the recent passage of anti-gay amendments to the state constitutions of California, Arizona, and Florida reminds me, and I sometimes wonder why it’s a battle Mel White is so determined to fight.
The struggle for gay equality is a vital and necessary one, just as the fight for black civil rights was forty years ago. But why take on the entrenched, seemingly inextricable homophobia of Christianity? I try to put myself in Mel White’s place, and I think if I were gay and a Christian, I’d only get about as far as the “men who sleep with other men should be executed” verses of Leviticus before deciding that this was obviously not for me and pulling up stakes to seek my spiritual guidance elsewhere. Not Mel. He and a large and increasingly vocal number of his fellow gay Christians, men and women, are standing up against the virulent strain of anti-gay bigotry that has infected their religion for centuries.
These are true disciples of Jesus. Were I a Christian, I’d want someone like Mel White as the public face of my faith, not James Dobson or Rod Parsley. Why? Because he trusts his conscience and his reason over words on a page, and because he would rather try to improve his religion than abandon it to the bigots. The God Mel White believes in is a god of love and acceptance, inconsistent with the jealous tyrant portrayed in most interpretations of the Old Testament, and absolutely irreconcilable with the philosophy of compassion and forgiveness espoused by Jesus in the New Testament.
Many Christians read the homophobic verses in Leviticus and Romans and accept them at face value. They take the Bible as something holy and inerrant, words from the very mouth of God, and align their personal codes of morality accordingly without giving the matter a moment of independent thought. They are the people who allowed slavery to exist in Europe and the Americas for hundreds of years. They are the people who kept women from gaining the full rights of citizenship in the United States until the 20th century. While they read God’s commands to practice bigotry and nod obediently along, Mel White chooses to dig a little deeper.
He wrote an invaluable pamphlet entitled What the Bible Says — and Doesn’t Say — About Homosexuality where he argues that the Bible isn’t as homophobic as it appears to be. (The pamphlet is available here in its entirety as a free PDF download.) Most of the often-cited passages prohibiting or condemning homosexual behavior were meant for the culture in which they were written and should not be applied to modern society, Mel argues. Some, like the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, have simply been wrongly interpreted and actually have nothing to do with homosexuality in the first place. Most of these specific arguments are persuasive; a few require some rhetorical contortionism. Mel’s real strength comes from his general premise, that the Bible is not a book about human sexuality, but a book about God. He contends that the Bible does not deal with homosexuality as we understand it today, and points out that Jesus never refers to it at all.
Jesus, or whoever was writing his dialogue, had obviously read the books that now comprise the Old Testament. He even quotes Leviticus at one point. But it’s not one of the homophobic verses. No, it’s a line from Leviticus 19:18 to which Jesus alludes in all three synoptic gospels: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
In one of those gospels, Luke 6:31 to be precise, Jesus also presents his own version of the Golden Rule: And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Mel White wants the rest of his religion to live up to that sentence.
Do I agree with Mel White’s interpretation of the Bible? I wish I could, but I think it gives the book’s ancient authors too much credit. It doesn’t really matter to me, since I don’t believe there’s anything holy or supernatural about the Bible. It was written by ordinary people, and it contains all the bigotry and pettiness and close-mindedness they brought with them. It is a homophobic book. It’s also sexist, racist, ethnocentric, tolerant of slavery, intolerant of other religions and cultures, and despicable and immoral in dozens of other ways. To me that’s obvious.
Mel White chooses not to agree with that reading. He chooses to look closer, to hunt for proof that the Bible is not a narrow and intolerant text and that its God is not a violent and cruel despot. I think Christians like him, who seek out the positive aspects of their faith and work to discredit the bigotry and intolerance, are a hell of a lot closer to living out the philosophy of Jesus than those who rely on the Bible to justify their own ignorant prejudices.