NEW YORK — Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network, says he is willing to talk with anyone, whether they identify with the far left, the far right, or fall in-between in their position on marriage and sexuality. The goal, according to Lee, is not to get everyone to agree on those issues, but to commit to loving one another despite their differences.
The Gay Christian Network was founded in 2001 to provide resources and support to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians, and the Raleigh, North Carolina-based nonprofit welcomes straight allies and those who believe the Bible prohibits sex outside of heterosexual marriage.
Lee holds the belief that God “blesses” same-sex marriages and that the Bible, if read in its appropriate historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, supports that view — although opponents make a similar argument for their position. Lee describes his view as “Side A,” while Christians who hold a more traditional stance on marriage are considered “Side B.” The Gay Christian Network founder presents these two arguments as “The Great Debate” on his organization’s website.
While in New York City for a Nov. 5 speaking engagement at Forefront Church in Brooklyn (read about it here), Lee took time to discuss his work with the Gay Christian Network, his upbringing in a conservative Southern Baptist household, and observations of how what he believes are much-needed talks between disputing Christians have progressed.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q: Why do you think you had such a hugely positive response to your presentation on “LGBTQ and the Church [at Forefront Church]?”
JL: I think that a lot of people are really eager for conversation about these issues in a way that is gracious and loving and focuses on the real lives of people rather than just treating them as issues. I think on both sides there’s been a lot of rhetoric that’s not gracious or loving, and it feels often like a culture war and I think a lot of people are tired of feeling caught in a culture war. So I think that’s a lot of it. I think it’s important for us to be able to disagree with grace, because as Christians we have historically disagreed with each other on a lot of things and we’ve disagreed with people outside the church on a lot of things, but if we can’t do that with grace and love then I think we’re not representing Christ very well.
Q: How old is the Gay Christian Network?
JL: We started over 14 years ago.
Q: That’s a long time.
Q: So what do you make of the progress of the conversations over time?
JL: I think in some ways a lot has changed and in other ways not a lot has changed. I think…it’s so interesting as I travel from place to place how different the conversation feels in one church versus another, in one part of the country versus another. I think in general Christians across the country and especially Evangelicals across the country, because I do a lot of work with Evangelicals, are…kind of in the midst of a transition period. Recognizing that the way we’ve had these conversations in the past hasn’t been very Christ-like, but unsure where we’re gonna end up, what that looks like. Sometimes, often, disagreeing with each other about what that should look like. But I think that transition is important.
I think more than ever before there are Christians saying we need to do a better job of being loving in these conversations. And I think that’s true of folks who are on both sides of the theological divide. So I think that’s important progress.
Q: You mentioned during the Q&A session after your presentation that you have been having a lot of closed-door conversations with, I’m guessing with people of the more conservative camp. A lot of the vocal folks whose names come up most often in these discussions — Al Mohler, Russell Moore, maybe even Franklin Graham — are you talking with folks like them? And what kind of progress do you feel is happening with those closed-door conversations?
JL: I’m willing to talk to anybody who wants to talk, so I’ve talked to some folks who are on the very far right and I’ve talked with some folks who are on the very far left, and I’ve talked with a lot of folks in-between and there are folks that I’d love to talk to but I haven’t yet but I still would love to. I think that, in my experience talking to people on both ends of the spectrum, just about all of them feel that people on the other side have misrepresented them in some way. So that’s a recurring theme that I hear, on the right and on the left. People say, “Well, I don’t believe the things they say I believe. I don’t feel the way that they think I feel.” And people get angry about that push back, and then the other side interprets that pushing back as evidence that they were right all along, you know.
So I try to never demonize anyone on any side of this. I genuinely believe that people on both sides, including the people I disagree with the most, are sincere and caring people who want to get this right. So even if I think they’ve gotten it wrong, I still believe that they want to get it right. I find that if I go into a conversation with somebody willing to listen to where they’re coming from and understand their point of view, then they become more interested in hearing what I have to say too. But if somebody goes into a conversation just expecting a fight, then that’s what they’re gonna get.
I will say this, I have had people criticize me for being willing to sit down and have conversations with people they don’t think I should be having conversations with because they say, ‘That person is too extreme and you shouldn’t be talking to them.’ And I say, ‘Well, God loves that person, so I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be talking to them. Jesus would talk to them.’ I think Jesus would talk to anybody who wanted to talk. I’m certainly no Jesus but I aspire to be as much like Jesus as I can. So that’s kind of the approach that I take.
I find that a lot of people, even if their public rhetoric — on both sides, again, even if their public rhetoric comes across as harsh, most of them I find to be really…nice people in person.
Q: Nice, as in nice-nice, or do you mean genuinely…?
JL: I mean genuine good people. I think a lot of the harsh rhetoric that we see on both sides of this culture war comes about because people are afraid that they won’t be heard. They’re afraid that something bad is going to happen or is happening and a lot of us, when we’re worried, when we’re afraid, when we’re hurting, when we think that we’re not being heard, we get loud. And I think any of us, if people only got to know us through the loudest things that we’ve said, the times that we’ve been angry or responded to pain or fear, then people probably wouldn’t have a very good impression of us.
But you know… I mean, because we really look at public figures and we see them often in the moments when they’re being loud and trying to make a point as loudly as possible because they want to be heard. But if you really get to know them privately when they know you’re listening, I think a lot of them turn out to be actually really genuine good people.
Q: The point you just made, about when people feel cornered or fearful or threatened in some way, that they tend to maybe go to extremes — can you comment on that in light of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) that was shot down by voters? There’s a conservative mindset that Christians are being persecuted, their religious freedoms are threatened. Do you think those fears maybe contributed to so-called scare tactics used to shut HERO down? [Note: the Gay Christian Network is holding its 2016 annual conference in Houston]
JL: I do. I think people on both sides of these conversations often think that they’re being persecuted. They feel persecuted, they worry about what’s going to happen. And so, in the case of the HERO legislation, I think there’s a lot of fear. I think there’s fear from folks in the LGBT community, particularly in the transgender community. There’s fear of violence of persecution, of a lot of different kinds of harm. I think what we saw in the kinds of messages there in Houston was a lot of fear on the other side as well.
I think that this is one of the reasons that sitting down and listening to each other and sharing our stories is so important, because if all I know about you is all the ways you disagree with me then I might be afraid that if you get your way bad things might happen to me. But if we get to know each other, we become friends and I find that there are lot of things about you that I really like and there are a lot of things about me that you really like, then maybe we can disagree and not be so afraid of each other. Maybe we can trust each other more and we can find ways to meet in the middle and find ways that I can have my rights and freedoms protected and you can have your rights and freedoms protected and we can live in a society where we don’t agree on a lot of things.
So, yeah, I think fear plays a major role and the antidote to that fear is listening to each and getting to know each other as human beings.
Q: Do you see down the road a lot of these divisions, these hard walls that seem difficult to take down, maybe coming down? That we’ll take sledgehammers to them ourselves and things will be a little more kumbaya, more peaceful?
JL: I think so. You know one of the things that’s changing right now in the church, as more LGBT people are coming out, a lot of conservative Christians are finding that they have people in their families, in their circle of friends, people that they love very dearly that are LGBT. This means that they’re having conversations and they’re getting to know what these people experience and it’s giving them a different perspective on what it is to be a member of the LGBT community.
On the flip side, a lot of LGBT are growing up in Christian homes and are coming out and saying, “Hey, I’m gay,” “I’m bi,” “I’m trans” and “I’m also a Christian. And as a Christian, here’s how I feel about stuff.” That helps to shape how the culture understands who Christians are. I think as more Christians stand up and speak out with a gracious voice, that makes a difference in how the culture perceives Christians as well.
So I think what we need, is not for Christians or LGBT folks to “win,” but for all of us to stand up together and say, “This person is my neighbor. I love this person as my neighbor, as my friend, my family member even though we may disagree on some things.”
Q: You grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist household. How did your own family deal with it when you came out? I’m sure you talk about it in your book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.
JL: I do talk about it in the book… I was really afraid to tell my parents. I grew up in a really wonderful, loving, two-parent Christian home. Had a great relationship with both my mom and my dad, yet I was afraid to tell them that I was gay because I was afraid that they’d be disappointed. I didn’t want to hurt them. I was so ashamed of myself that I didn’t know how to tell them. But they responded with so much love and compassion. And even though we went through a period of time where we disagreed very strongly, my parents kept reinforcing their love for me, so we continued to maintain a strong relationship. My mom died two years ago of a really terrible brain disease but we stayed close to the end of her life. My dad and I continue to be close and my siblings and I are close. It’s not been without challenges along the way, but I think we’ve continued to express our love for each other in ways that’s enabled us to move through areas where we’ve disagreed.
Q: Any trends that you’ve noticed, good or bad, as you travel and talk with different people and groups?
JL: I think the biggest trend [is] just that I see more and more people who are eager to put aside the harsh rhetoric. There’s still a lot of harsh rhetoric out there but I see more and more people saying, “We’re just so tired of this being an us versus them thing and we need to figure out how to listen to these folks who we disagree with and have better conversations.” And I think that is happening across denominational lines, across theological lines, all over the country. I think it’s a really positive trend.
Q: Any parting thoughts? About your work? The 2016 Gay Christian Network Conference?
JL: It’s open to anybody who wants to be part of this conversation whether they’re on Side A or Side B theology. We have speakers and workshops from both sides and we want it to be a place where people can come with their friends, their family members, their congregation and worship together side-by-side with people they may not agree with but who they love because they’re brothers and sisters in Christ.
[This article was written by Nicola A. Menzie and first appeared Nov. 13, 2015, on nicolamenzieonline.com]
Photo by tedeytan