Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stones in the Dirt

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

-John 8:10-11 (TNIV)

There weren’t any homosexual students at the college I attended.
     This was twenty years ago, in a small town in the south, at a church-affiliated university. There was no LGBT group because there were no students that were L, G, B, or T. Oh, there were some who came out after college, to be sure. But not while they were students there. Certainly not.
     I’m thinking about this because of the news this week that Harding University, my alma mater, now has homosexual students. Actually, the news is that Harding made the decision to block an underground website on campus that details “the anonymous experiences of gay and lesbian students at Harding University.” Predictably, the decision to use the university’s firewall to block the site on campus has brought Harding a lot of national media attention and criticism. There are accusations of censorship, and claims that Harding’s actions are unconstitutional. 
     For their part, the administration at Harding hasn’t backed down. A statement by the university’s president, David Burks, cites the student handbook’s prohibition of sexual immorality as one of their reasons for blocking the site, and references biblical passages that include homosexual activity within that category. “Harding University holds to the biblical principle that sexual relationships are unacceptable to God outside the context of marriage,” he said. He goes on in the statement to say, “I think it is important for you to know that we are not trying to control your thinking on this. But it was important for us to block the website because of what it says about Harding, who we are and what we believe.”
     As a Christian, it’s hard for me to argue with Burks’ statement. I’m quite sure the students responsible for the website aren’t the first group of students whose lifestyles and impulses have put them at odds with the university’s code of behavior. I doubt that they’ll be the last, either. The university already blocks websites it considers offensive or pornographic, and according to reports the site in question is fairly explicit. Despite the splash this seems to have made in the media, it really shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone that the university would block the site.
     Besides that, I live in Chicago, where another university president issued a statement on the same day as Dr. Burks’ questioning the judgment of a professor who allowed a sexual act in an on-campus presentation. Maybe there is a place for, if not censorship, then at least some restraint. Maybe it’s OK to sometimes remind ourselves and one another that we can choose how we behave, and that there are times when faith or even scholarship might require us to put the brakes on our impulses.
     Dr. Burks also referenced something else in his speech. He mentioned that the university would not tolerate bullying in any form. I took that as a reference to the bullying of homosexual students and, assuming that’s what he meant, I applaud him for it. That’s the side of the societal debate about homosexuality that Christians, eager to defend the biblical ground, sometimes forget. 
     Justice and righteousness is biblical ground, too, every bit as much as condemnation of sex outside of marriage. And sometimes the ground Christians defend in calling homosexuality wrong is lost immediately in the way some of us lash out against homosexuals, as if they are our enemies. As soon as Christians make homosexuals the objects of our hate, derision, and ridicule, we’ve lost whatever moral traction we may have had. 
     Truthfully, of course, there were gay and lesbian students at Harding, even back in the Dark Ages twenty years ago. They wouldn’t have dared to admit it, though, because back then we had created a place where such an admission would not have been tolerated easily. I hope there wouldn’t have been physical violence, though I hesitate to say absolutely that there wouldn’t have been. There would have been ridicule. There would have been insults. Cold shoulders given generously. Friendship revoked. Some of us, a lot of us, would have looked past the beams in our own eyes and down our self-righteous noses, condemning the homosexuals without a trace of awareness that our own hatred and arrogance condemned us equally. 
     I know this because there were those who we suspected, and we talked about it. We laughed about it, made fun of them behind their backs. And while my understanding of the biblical texts on homosexuality haven’t changed a lot in twenty years, I do realize now how wrong some of my fellow students and I were in our treatment of people who our Father loves. And how my treatment of them may have made it less likely that they could hear the message of forgiveness and hope in the gospel for them.
     The woman in John 8 was guilty of a different kind of sexual immorality, but not all that different. It was still illicit, still with a partner she had no right to be with. Caught in the act, likely left with little to cover herself and nothing to cover her guilt. The mob was sure, certain. They had Right and Truth on their side, after all. So maybe they were a little harsh; they can be forgiven for their zeal in defending the Law. All that’s left to decide is who will cast the first stone.
     Only, it never comes. Jesus reminds the woman’s accusers that they have their own stuff to deal with. In the end, no one is left to condemn her. Not even Jesus, who could have. “Go and leave your life of sin,” he told her. He called her behavior what it was, but he didn’t sit in judgment on her.
     The public discourse will continue. Christians will have to defend our thinking and stances on issues like homosexuality. We will, from time to time, have to stand up and call sin what it is. But may we always do it like Jesus spoke to that woman: as her defender and Savior, not judge, jury, and executioner. May we speak to people from beside them, in the dirt, not standing around them in a circle warming up our throwing arms. 
     I understand why Harding blocked that site. But I pray that the conversation with those students isn’t ended. And I pray that, as I meet people who are battered and broken by sin, that I will drop the stone I sometimes carry so I can take them by the hand and introduce them to Jesus.

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