Several years ago, on the courthouse steps of the town in which I lived, there was a rally. A homosexual couple in our community was seeking to become foster parents. You can imagine the kickback that erupted in a small Southern town. But it wasn’t just the members of our community who were most vocal in protest. Gathered on the courthouse steps of our fair city were representatives of a religious group from Washington D.C. and points beyond, to speak out in holy fury. I strolled up the street to check it out, and what I found there was horrifying. Laced with scripture quotations and shaking the abysmally familiar “God Hates Fags” signs, speaker after speaker raged with some of the most vicious and hateful words I have ever heard. I could not believe how angry and poisonous it was.
One of the police officers watching over the proceedings walked up and asked me, “What do think about this, preacher?” I knew this officer. He was a good man but did not consider himself a Christian. So, I turned his question around and asked him what he thought about it. He answered, “This is why you all ought to keep your church and Bible to yourself.”
Dorothy Sayers was fond of saying that Jesus endured three great humiliations: The Incarnation, the cross, and the church. Jesus has subjected himself to a spastic, debilitated, malfunctioning body; a body called the church. And rather than communicating clearly the love and grace of God, we obscure and twist the message so that it cannot be heard correctly. That is what I felt most strongly as I stood near the court house steps on that afternoon. These people, exercising their freedom of speech for which I am so very thankful and for which I would go to the wall, were attaching hateful words and spiteful talk to the name of Christ. Somehow, in the convulsive twisting of the body of Jesus, the message was twisted. I felt ashamed.
The following Sunday I fumed from my own church pulpit about how we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves – even the people we just positively know that God condemns. Love your neighbor with a love that goes beyond feeding their dog or keeping an eye on their home while they are out of town. No, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, I rightfully said that Sunday, is to love whoever you come across, whoever is in need, no matter who they are. If they live across the street or on another continent; if they are black or white; if they are straight or gay; if they are Latino or Anglo; if they are of my political persuasion or not; if they are Christian or Muslim; if they are my buddy on the bar stool beside me or someone I would never shake hands with, they are my neighbor. As a follower of Christ my responsibility is to love them and not condemn.
Oh, it was a virtuous, unfettered, holy tirade; and I felt so very good after it was delivered. But over the course of the next few days all my good feelings ebbed away. These feelings were replaced by genuine conviction of heart. I realized that what had made me feel so “good,” and what eventually disturbed me about myself was this: I hated the people who were hateful. I did not love them – as my neighbors – instead, I loved condemning them. My actions were nothing more than a variation of the words and behavior I found so repugnant.
Street preachers railed against and hated homosexuals, abortionists, teenagers with tattoos and piercings, and the like. In my righteous indignation, I fumed against and condemned them. We were all wrong. Opinions, conviction, beliefs: We all have them and we all have the freedom to express them. But the moment our beliefs are used as motivation and means to hate others, we have left the path of Christ who taught us that the greatest commandment is to love.