(The views expressed are my own and do not reflect an official position of the parish or its members.)
Once again, we are faced with the presence of evil and the horror of violence in the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Once again, my heart is breaking for this unfathomable pain and loss. The ugly spectres of race, homophobia (of both secular and religiously condoned variations), Islamophobia, anti-immigrant baiting and more are all present in this event and its aftermath-a hydra-headed monster staring us in the face. Prejudice against and fear of those who do not fit the neat box of male/female gender and heterosexuality, cut across religious, cultural and ethnic lines, and are supported by a dominant understanding of narrowly defined masculinity and justified by “tradition.”
In the setting of North America, the church’s position has profoundly shaped the norms and mores of the societies in which we live, even in this increasingly secular age. The Christian faith (in which I serve as a priest in the Anglican denomination) has historically named homosexuality as a sin and an abomination. Some parts of the church still do. More recently, the church has tried to be more pastoral by affirming that sexual orientations other than heterosexual are not in and of themselves sinful, but acting on them is. And it has also proclaimed that we “hate the sin, not the sinner.”
For many Christians, these distinctions seem inadequate and wrong-headed. Lively conversations are reframing Christian theologies of sexuality and marriage. Hence many Christians have come to a full acceptance of all sorts of sexual orientations and gender identities. They base their beliefs on sound theological reasoning in conversation with Scripture and tradition as well as insights from psychology, biology and sociology. These Christians reject outright any dogma or doctrine that defines non-traditional expressions of sexuality as sinful. There are many who still hold to the traditional teachings of the church. An honest and sincere debate continues within the church by a great variety of people who take their faith very seriously.
However, the events in Orlando must be a moment of reckoning for our common assumptions and many established doctrines. Such distinctions, no matter how finely parsed or subtly nuanced, which claim that to be a certain way by virtue of how one is born is not a sin, but to express and live out of that way of being is sinful, simply do not bear up under serious examination. They do not logically and rationally hold together.
While individuals may hold varying views, and I will respect their freedom of conscience to do so, the church, as an institution of power and influence, bears a different level of responsibility. Any religious teaching that denigrates a person, their personhood or the expression of their personhood as inherently sinful provides a divinely sanctioned rationale for intolerance and hate. Moreover, they create the very thing they claim to be overcoming: creating a hierarchy, a two-tiered humanity, of “those” kind of people vs. “these” kind of people. “Those” people are still understood as different, suspect and less in the image of God than “these” people. They feed the stream of contempt and disdain, fear and judgment, in which some people are identified as a priori better or more in the image of God than others. We have seen the consequences of this in other areas (i.e., anti-Semitism, racism, colonialism and so on-all areas in which the church has taught theologies of support). They inform who is seen as acceptable to target and victimize. When was the last time we had a report of a “straight bashing”? When did men have to draw attention to being groped or catcalled on a regular basis on public transit? And as such, they contribute to the cultural context that still is abusive to and discriminatory of GLBTQ2S (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Two-Spirited) persons. The events of Orlando require that such teachings no longer find any sanction in the church.
Beyond this repudiation, there must be more proactive movement. The church is invited to reorient itself in its views about the nature, purpose, scope and promise of our sexuality, gender and intimate relationships. It is called to widen its lens and celebrate the integrity and love embodied in the intimate and committed relationships between adults. It is a conversation about how we live holy and loving lives as sexed persons with a variety of sexual inclinations and gender identities. It is a rethinking of what “sin” means in a sexual context. Sexual sin happens when power is misused. It happens in acts that violate or objectify another. It happens when trust and commitments are betrayed. The church’s voice can, from this place, offer something life-giving and valuable.
God pushes the church as a body and each of its members to constantly expand and refine our understanding of love and how we embody it. This is such a moment. We are called, as best we can, to come down on the side of respecting the dignity of every human being and love. Every single time.
Natasha Brubaker Garrison is rector of St. Martin’s Anglican Church, Calgary.