When disgust eclipses compassion: evangelicals and homosexuality

In a recent post I defended believers whose genuine compassion causes them to show concern about homosexuality among believers. Unfortunately, there is another common response to homosexuality, often accompanying and getting mistaken for the compassionate type, that I find much less defensible.

It’s apparent to most believers, at least intuitively if not deductively, that some sins are “worse” than others. Fudging the truth (lying, intentionally misleading, etc.) is not considered to be as bad as theft, theft is not as bad as murder, murder is not as bad as voting Democratic (a little joke there), etc. Even the many Christians who would support the idea that all sins carry equal weight before God as a result of their belief in His perfectionistic criterion admit that, in the temporal realm anyway, some sins carry greater consequences than others. Even in the Torah, the severity of the punishment often fluctuated according to the crime’s varying severity.

We are more horrified that even somebody incapable of rape (a quadraplegic, say) might idly desire to commit the act than we are if he actually committed another sin such as shoplifting. This is because physical violence and actions with painful or irreversible consequences are generally what burdens us the most when we evaluate how unacceptable sins are. At any rate, this is what most of us would say are our main criteria: yet no matter what we say, there are certain exceptions.

Yes, we are generally more offended with sins that harm innocent victims; we’re also likely to be especially offended by behavior for which we cannot fathom the temptation — temptations to do unnatural things. As with teetotalling Baptists looking at Presbyterians, what really sets us off is when the person doesn’t recognize as sin that which we recognize to be sin, especially when s/he openly embraces it.

But a lifestyle commitment to sin doesn’t alone account for the reactions most evangelicals have toward homosexuality. For instance, Christians are likely to feel worse about someone embracing homosexuality than we are that s/he has unapologetically embraced a negative attitude manifesting with a slanderous tongue about others. I have known plenty of this latter sort of Christian and cannot help concluding that they have the potential to do much more damage than the former. Should the amount of grief we feel over each not be divvied up accordingly?

I think a huge part of it comes down to being disgusted by something reckoned to be unnatural. This disgust is often masked by righteous indignation: Christians will often pretend that they’re reacting toward sin in the same way that they think God does. Those who believe that God wants to smite all sinners will egg God on toward doing so. But others are much more nuanced and subtle. To these, sin is something that disturbs us and grieves us. If we, like God, are of purer eyes than to behold sin, we will be disturbed by sin. How can true believers ignore what we believe to be true?

But is this really the way Jesus taught us to respond to sin? Looking at the Gospels, I feel safe saying that our right to be “disturbed” by someone’s sin stops where our empathy for the sinner is compromised, at least in areas in which the only victims are those involved (and probably other areas, too). In the South especially, we’re much likelier to try to befriend a person with a chronically bad attitude in order to “love them out of it” than we are to befriend, for the same reason, a homosexual whom we’re disgusted by.

My guess is that we easily mistake our visceral reaction to the thought of homosexual sex for a righteous indignation toward sin. But visceral reactions did not stop Jesus from fellowshipping with “tax collectors and sinners”, including prostitutes whose chosen lifestyles are clearly condemned in Scripture. (I also guess that those who feel the most convicted by my other guess have already begun to justify their emotions on some other basis.)

Whatever the misused “judge not” teaching in Scripture means, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not at all scriptural to put ourselves in God’s seat to be affronted, offended, or otherwise similarly aggrieved by every sin according to His (supposed) perfectionistic criterion. Only a being without sin has that right, so we certainly can’t claim it.

I think there’s a good argument to be made from the Gospels that Jesus’ response to sin was always compassion that eclipsed disgust, except perhaps for those situations in which the sin was taking advantage of innocents. For example, the cleansing in the temple is a scarcely questioned historic fact, but we don’t have the whole picture if we take John’s commentary (“Zeal for your house has eaten me up”) to mean that Jesus was offended because they were mocking God. In what way were they mocking God? Was it the fact that they were exchanging money in the temple? Where’s the Torah regulation against that? The consensus seems to be, rather, that Jesus was exhibiting his OT prophetic credentials: he was offended by the moneychanging because they were “thieves” in that they were taking advantage of the poor who had to buy animals to sacrifice, and because they had the audacity to do so in God’s house of all places! Do modern Christians, especially those deeply aggrieved by other Christians not condemning homosexuality, ever display their ire for that sort of injustice?

The main group Jesus regularly showed his disgust for was the Jewish leadership, and there is no doubt that this was because he was so deeply offended that those who were supposed to be shepherding the people were instead condemning and casting them aside because of their perfectionistic criteria. Like those upset by Jennifer Knapp’s sins, Jesus’ dispute was with those within the community of faith, but unlike Knappgate, it was because of a disregard for the helpless perpetrated by those whose self-righteous disgust for unrighteous living eclipsed their compassion.

I can certainly imagine Jesus finding cause to fashion a whip to scourge many modern day houses of worship.

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