Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright is urging conservative Christians to go the “extra mile” when “witnessing” to gays and lesbians.
He chastised his fellow conservatives for using hateful rhetoric against gays and lesbians, and urged a gentler, kinder approach.
“It’s not only upholding God’s Word, but there’s always that spirit of Jesus that we want to seek to communicate. When we feel passionately that something is wrong, we are still called to love that person who is ignoring what God’s Word says. It’s not always easy to do.”
Those, of course, sound like fighting words to the ears of more liberal people of faith who see their acceptance of LGBT people as the fulfillment and embodiment of Jesus’ call to embrace the outcast.
Wright, who pastors Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., made his comments after a meeting with a coalition of LGBT leaders and supporters on June 15 while the SBC was in Phoenix for its annual gathering. At that meeting he modeled what he is asking conservative Christians to do: don’t argue, maintain a loving tone, and stick to their guns about what they believe the Bible says.
I’m naturally suspicious of the “friendship evangelism” that Wright is espousing, and have strongly criticized this position before, but, as I reflect on Wright’s words, I believe that if he is sincerely asking conservative Christians to cultivate not just a loving tone, but a truly loving attitude toward LGBT people—and not just use kindness as a cynical conversion tool—this is a big step forward in reconciliation between LGBT people and their conservative brothers and sisters.
If anti-LGBT religious people—and even anti-religious right people on the left—were to truly begin to cultivate a heart of compassion for one another, we would go a long way toward ending this spiritual standoff. Does this mean that conservatives must give up their belief that homosexuality is sinful and the religious left must give up its belief that there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality? No.
Instead, it means we give up our hateful rhetoric on both sides and instead decide to come together in relationship with one another. Wright did not have to meet with those LGBT people in June. He could have ignored them, tossed them out of the conference and railed against them from the pulpit. He didn’t. He stepped out. He stopped the cycle of hateful rhetoric and took the time to listen.
He didn’t change his mind, but the shift he did make is huge—staggeringly so for a Southern Baptist. We must recognize it, applaud it, and build from there. Instead of striking back, or seeing hypocrisy around every corner, let’s take him at his word. Let’s hope he can lead a revolution within conservative Christian circles (along with fellow Southern Baptist Albert Mohler who has called his conservative friends to the carpet for their “homophobia”) to end the lies and hateful words used against LGBT people.
While I am willing to take Wright at his word and believe that he is sincerely trying to stop the vile rhetoric coming from the religious right, I am a realist. I realize that the vast majority of the religious right have no intention of following suit, especially those organizations whose financial lifeblood depends upon using the LGBT community as the bogeyman in their fundraising. But, it could be an important first step down a long road to reconciliation.
But, if by some miracle – or movement of the Spirit – anti-LGBT religious people will embrace Wright’s idea – and stop the hate, the harsh words and distortions about LGBT people, and instead truly act out of love and compassion, their hearts cannot help but soften toward LGBT people. Same goes for those on the religious left. If we would truly practice compassion for our conservative brothers and sisters, our hearts will soften to them as well. It’s difficult to perpetuate hatred and injustice toward anyone who occupies a soft place in our hearts.
As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, there is a difference between erotic love—where we gaze longingly into the eyes of another—and brotherly or sisterly love, where we stand shoulder to shoulder looking out toward a common goal. Let that common goal be the formation of a community of reconciliation and justice; even if it is not a community in full agreement on every issue. It is at least a community that refrains from beating each other to a bloody pulp with a book both sides revere as holy.
As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield reminds us in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry:
If we expect community relationships to be ideal, spiritual, friendly, and enlightened, we are seeking what we can’t even expect of our own minds. To want the company of others without suffering is unrealistic. But if we avoid close relationships, we will also suffer. In a wise spiritual community we acknowledge our difficulties and choose to help one another anyway. Sometimes we will be the one to carry the blessings of spaciousness and love. Sometimes it is we who will carry conflict and trouble to the group. This too is a gift others can learn from. We play both roles in this plot, switching periodically. […] Instead of inflaming a bad situation, we can seek ways of touching the good in another. Without denying pain and injustice, we can also look for the secret beauty of others.
Wright and Mohler are attempting to bring spaciousness and love into this situation. Are we willing to “go the extra mile,” too?