In conversations about LGBT* individuals in the Church, a common tactic used to “soften” the hurtful statement that gay people are sinners for being gay is to equalize sin. (If you are a new reader, note: I don’t believe non-heterosexuality is a sin, which is one of many reasons why I find this statement hurtful.) This equalization can take many forms. But the one I hear most commonly — and which is used specifically by my undergraduate senior thesis advisor Jack Crabtree — goes like this:
“[Homosexuality is] just one more manifestation of our rebellion against God, our rebellion against truth, our rebellion against everything good. But it’s just one more manifestation. But, but so is my self-centeredness and so is my pride and so is my self-righteousness and so is all that other garbage in my life. So I’m no better off than they are. We’re all in need of the mercy of God.”
If you think being gay is a sin, or are trying to compassionately wrestle with the question, this sounds good. It sounds like all you’re saying is, “Hey, we’re all sinners! So sure, gay person over there, you’re a sinner — but I’m a sinner, too. So we’re all good, right?”
Earlier today Carina, a member of the Gutenberg College alumni community, argued that this is exactly what Jack is doing. (Which I don’t get, since I specifically said he was doing this. I also pointed out how now he’s doing more than this.) Carina said that Jack’s message “doesn’t sound like putting homosexuality in a group of special sins. This still sounds like someone admitting that we’re all messed up.” To prove this, Carina used the following quotation from Jack last week:
“I would like to stamp out Pharisee-ism just as surely as I would like to stamp out homosexuality.“
We’re all good, right?
No, we’re not all good. You can figure this out instantly by asking gay people, “Does this make you feel any better about yourself?” And unless a gay person already agrees with your original framework (wherein being gay is something that needs to be “stamped out”), they’ll say no. No, it doesn’t make them feel any better.
When someone equalizes sin like this, it is important to note that there are two levels of communication occurring:
First, you reduce the impact of certain sins.
This is the level that appeals to anti-gay Christians. When all sins are equal, sins like “being gay” are on par with sins like lying. No one proposes stoning liars, right? So to say that being gay is no more sinful than lying seems harmless. We can have a group hug among sinners and continue with our day.
But there’s another level of communication, namely:
Second, you enhance the impact of certain sins.
See, when all sins are equal, sins like “being gay” are on par with sins like raping a kid — or murdering human beings by eating them. We are (or should be) horrified, sickened, and repulsed by people who rape and murder. So to say that being gay is no less sinful than rape now seems extraordinarily harmful to gay people. Would we have a group hug with rapists and murderers and continue with our day? Likely not.
Now, maybe you think being gay is as “morally disgusting” as rape or murder (like Jack Crabtree does). If you do, this argument might not faze you. So let’s re-word:
When all sins are equal, sins like 5-year-old kids lying to their dads are on par with sins like those same dads raping their 5-year-old kids.
Not so harmless an analysis anymore, huh?
These conversations we have — conversations about abstract ideas like philosophy and theology — happen in communal contexts. And in those contexts, philosophy and theology are anything but abstract. They have real-life consequences. The people in those conversations — and the people outside them listening in — are impacted by what is said.
When we are in a place of privilege — a place where the conversation remains abstract and doesn’t impact our daily lives — we are at risk of not realizing how hurtful we can be. We think, “Well, I don’t hate or want to hurt gay people, so it’s ok to say I want to ‘stamp out homosexuality,'” and unbeknownst to us — a gay person hears that and thinks, “This person wants to stamp me out.” And you can, after the fact, qualify and explain and excuse what you said ad infinitum. It’s not going to help one bit. Because the sort of language is inherently hateful and hurtful. And no amount of explaining will resolve that fact. Resolution can only be found in realizing why that language is wrong, apologizing for it, and educating yourself on better language choices.
If you don’t believe me, listen to the actual impact:
I hardly expected my teacher to call me animalistic, morally disgusting, viscerally repulsive, an abomination, and to create special category of sinner for me along with pedophiles, sadists, and sociopaths (Section IV E)-
Publically, for all the world to see.
My family agrees with him, you know.
I do not believe I have earned this from him.
Sticks and stones, bullshit. Words do hurt. And words from someone you thought you could trust, when they reinforce some of the most painful realities in your life, are extraordinarily hurtful.
The equalization of sin isn’t just harmful to gay people, by the way. Equalization is used to justify the concept of Total Depravity in a way that is also harmful. The previous example of telling children they are just as sinful as adults who rape them isn’t an abstract example. That’s exactly how Total Depravity is explained in many churches around the U.S. We teach children that they are broken, miserable beings who God pours wrath onto because they’re just as broken and miserable as child-killers.
I grew up with that shit. It messes with your mind.
Furthermore, it’s not even biblical. Yes, the Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But it never says everyone has sinned or fallen short in the same ways. It never erases the contextual and personal realities that give clear evidence of the fact that some actions have much more significant and long-term consequences. It never says, “Let the children come to me, but first make sure they know how morally disgusting they are.”
The Bible tells us that coveting another person’s spouse is analogous to adultery in only one manner. It doesn’t tell us that (1) attraction is coveting, (2) coveting has a one-to-one correspondence to physically cheating on your spouse, or (3) coveting another person’s spouse is in any way analogous to any other sin (i.e., rape). There is a precision there that should give us serious pause. Because that very precision unravels the myth of equalized sin.
There are better ways of having these conversations. We can talk about humanity’s tendency to be less-than-ideal without generalizing, exaggerating, or erasing. Doing so means we can also have these conversations in more compassionate (and more philosophically legitimate) ways.
The first step is to stop talking, move outside of your privileged conversational circle, and actually give the floor and listen to the people you’re talking about.