From 'Just War' to 'Just Sexuality'

Today, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool used his presidential address to seek unity within the fractured Anglican Communion...he did so by way of making an interesting comparison. The Bishop talked about the theory of Just War, a Christian ethic that sought a way of making sense of military service and human casualties of war.
The fact that conscripts and pacifists divided along one moral line does not detract from our admiration now nor deflect us from acknowledging now the moral courage of both. We may sympathise with the soldier yet we can salute the pacifist; we may identify fully with the pacifist yet admire the sacrifice of the soldier.  In other words, we can now stand on either side of the moral argument and still be in fellowship despite disagreeing on this the most fundamental ethical issue, the sixth of the Ten Commandments.
It's an eye-opening example that I haven't articulated before: in our churches we have people who are pacifist and war hawk, soldiers and hippies, who believe Jesus would condone and condemn violence. We are talking about human lives here!  And yet we (predominantly) keep in fellowship and disagree, with the issue so far from home and yet so close to our military families.  On an issue of life and death, we choose fellowship over schism, don't we?  When it comes to disagreement over the Sixth Commandment (for crying out loud!), we keep together!!

And yet denominations are dividing, churches are fracturing, and caucus groups are raising tons of money over something that doesn't kill people: sexual identity.  Incredible.

Over time, Christian denominations and churches have come to accept the full spectrum of Just War theories and pacifistic theories with incredible disagreement but also incredible commitment to covenant faithfulness.  And yet in just a few short decades, disagreement over sexual identity, which doesn't kill people, has reduced it to rubble and decreased the Church's social witness (much to the delight of interdenominational caucus groups that seek to blunt Christian social involvement).  In short, covenant faithfulness has been left at the door when sexual identity enters the conversation.

Why? Multiple reasons but I think it is because for biblical literalists there is a plethora of Christian and Hebrew scripture to support either side of the just war debate. Neither side can tell the other they are ignoring plain scriptural account, neither side can use their Bible as a weapon. But for sexual identity, there is no clear counterbalance to the eight clobber passages referencing same-gender relations (at least for biblical literalists).

However, such one-sided clarity didn't stop entire denominations from affirming women's pastoral leadership in the face of the Pauline epistles, and didn't stop John Wesley and the entire abolitionist movement from opposing slavery in the face of its passive acceptance in the Bible. Those social movements found scriptural support slowly, creepingly, and ultimately renewed the church when reconciliation came to fruition.

Perhaps we are at the same junction that war, women in ministry, and abolitionism was at.  The Bishop seems to think so as he crescendos into a call for unity:
Just as the church over the last 2000 years has come to allow a variety of ethical conviction about the taking of life and the application of the sixth Commandment so I believe that in this period it is also moving towards allowing a variety of ethical conviction about people of the same gender loving each other fully. Just as Christian pacifists and Christian soldiers profoundly disagree with one another yet in their disagreement continue to drink from the same cup because they share in the one body so too I believe the day is coming when Christians who equally profoundly disagree about the consonancy of same gender love with the discipleship of Christ will in spite of their disagreement drink openly from the same cup of salvation.
The Bishop concludes with a renewed drive to fellowship with one another:
If on this subject of sexuality the traditionalists are ultimately right and those who advocate the acceptance of stable and faithful gay relationships are wrong what will their sin be? That in a world of such little love two people sought to express a love that no other relationship could offer them? And if those advocating the acceptance of gay relationship are right and the traditionalists are wrong what will their sin be? That in a church that has forever wrestled with interpreting and applying Scripture they missed the principle in the application of the literal text? Do these two thoughts not of themselves enlarge the arena in which to do our ethical exploration?

I believe that to have “diversity without enmity”, as the Dean put it at the Bishop’s Council, provides a safe and a spiritually and emotionally healthy place for Christians of differing convictions to discern the will of God for our lives. To know and to do God’s will is our calling. The place for that discernment is the Body of Christ where the different members, differentiated by the diversity of our graces, gifts and experiences, are called to be in harmony and love with one another.
I think this is fascinating because the Bishop is a believer in traditional Christian sexual relations and would be gladly welcomed into the most homophobic of church circles.  But this Bishop can see people holding differing views on killing people share the common cup, so why not sexual identity disagreements as well?  It's a powerful witness.

Perhaps it is time to move towards an embrace of Just Sexuality, or the acknowledgement of a sexual ethic that seeks wholeness in relationships, justice in ways & means, with biblical foundations. With such an ethic the church can more clearly and forcefully witness to a culture that embraces life-sucking forms of sexuality at every second of media depiction.  Do we have such an ethic already? Sure. But just as the Just War theory took twists and turns over time (Aquinas in the 1200s changed it significantly), perhaps we also can develop a more nuanced ethic for the modern age.

Just War has been around for 1600 years. For 1600 years, Christians have disagreed over the taking of human lives...and yet they stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews singing together. And they will for the next 1600 years, I guarantee!  So for the next 1600 years, why can't we continue to stand together with each other in disagreement over Just Sexuality and instead seek an ethic together that satisfies no one fully but places our trust in God, turning our energies outward to heal the world in its brokenness, and replaces self-serving calls for schism with renewed dedication to life together?

I think we the molecular level of the church, starting with my pew, and your pew, and the pew behind and in front, until entire churches respect a diversity of belief and commit to keeping in fellowship with one another.  There will be casualties, there will be crises of faith, but there will also be a grace that calls us to diversity without enmity for the sake of the shared mission of the body of Christ.



johnmeunier March 6, 2010 at 7:41 PM  

Interesting comparison, Jeremy, and a heartfelt appeal.

In the arena of "Just War" it seems to me that most people disagree while acknowledging that the other side of the debate has plausible and interesting arguments.

I don't see us getting there with sexuality. For instance, I do not hear people who oppose the current UMC position saying that the other side makes some reasonable arguments and clearly has some valid Scriptural reasons for holding its position. (Same goes for traditionalists.)

For my money, both sides do make interesting and valid arguments. I would like it if we could learn to get along in our differences - but that would require allowing people to disagree with us. So, when a pastor bars a man from church membership, we respect that his interpretation of holiness requires that, and when a church in another place blesses a marriage, we agree that they have reflected carefully on the matter and come to a decision that - while we may disagree - does not strike at the heart of the faith.

Of course, to do that we have to admit that this issue does not strike at the heart of the faith.

Another key difference is that Just War does not involve questions of pastoral qualifications.

I think the matter of women's ordination is a closer parallel.

Anonymous,  March 6, 2010 at 11:05 PM  

Very interesting read, a couple thoughts:

There is a huge difference between a person disagreeing with what you believe, and them disagreeing with who you ARE. Each one of us determines our own different beliefs about social issues, but sexuality is a part of who we are, created by God and made in God's image. It would be oh SO helpful if allies got this.

In this way, war and sexuality are not easily comparable (apples to oranges). American Christians whose identities include being a soldier have come to that identity through a choice and some degree of agency. I suppose the same could be said for pacifists. We can't say this about LGBT folks.

I believe that "diversity without enmity" is very possible...but first we must create the spaces for this to happen. Cries for unity benefit the status quo. The opportunities will not exist until the UMC opens its policies for openly LGBT folks to be ordained and have their marriages celebrated. Oh, and be able to be members in every UMC!

This is similar to women's ordination and how many women were appointed to unfriendly congregations (and still are!). Members who disagreed either left or stayed despite the objection. And in the process many were converted to support women's ordination. Because of our itinerant system, this is how it will be when LGBT persons are ordained. Gaining ordination is just the first step. God help us!

On another note, the issues around just war are much, much more complex than this article could describe. I don't know how military families feel in the UMC but I do know that as a Christian who is strongly committed to nonviolence and peacemaking, I deeply, deeply mourn and pray for the church's sins (as I see them) for its compliance with war. Every flag in every sanctuary, every veteran's day celebration (when is conscientious objectors day?), every patriotic hymn is so painful for me to experience in my home church.

Stephen Lingwood March 7, 2010 at 2:41 AM  

I agree very much with Anonymous. If you're straight then same-gender relationships are an "issue" on which you can decide to take a stance. But if you're queer, it's not an "issue" - it's your life. It's not a matter about taking one side or another of an issue, it's a matter of how welcome you are at the table in the first place to enter into conversation.

Steven Adams March 7, 2010 at 7:01 AM  

I see two main problems with this:

1.Homosexuals do not choose to be homosexuals, they are born that way; conversely, soldiers choose to kill, they choose to obey the state and those churches which advocate war.

2.Jesus Christ preached a message of love and peace (consistent with that found in many other religions).

Jesus rejected hatred, commanding:

“Love your neighbour as yourself”, (Matthew 22:39)

Jesus rejected violence, commanding:

“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39).

Are we really expected to believe (because we are told by discredited theologians preaching blind obedience to the state) that the Son of God, who created all human beings regardless of language and skin colour, would want us to kill, because of some ridiculous interpretation of a story about overturning the tables of the money-changers (Mt 21.12)?

No. Jesus, the Son of God, preached a message of love and peace. His word is superior to that of any man or woman, theologian or apostle.

And as homosexual Christians, we should remember the words of Christ:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44).

Full article is here:

Carleigh,  March 7, 2010 at 4:08 PM  

What about those who are drafted? They don't have a choice either, but they're still generally respected.

Steven Adams March 8, 2010 at 11:09 AM  

They do have a choice: they can have the courage of their convictions and refuse to obey, refuse to be drafted.

They can stand up and face the crowd and refuse to participate both directly and indirectly in violence of any kind.

That is real courage.

Matt Stone March 9, 2010 at 7:45 AM  

Very interesting and thought provoking line of argument, but I think you hit the nail on the head in saying, "But for sexual identity, there is no clear counterbalance to the eight clobber passages referencing same-gender relations (at least for biblical literalists)." Quite simply, the homosexual debate can easily escalate into a proxy war over scriptural authority, whereas its harder for that to happen over pacifism versus just war given both claim at least some scriptural warrant. Also, in the case of just war versus pacifism, the arguably more worldly view is actually in clear dominance.

Anonymous,  March 9, 2010 at 8:25 AM  

Having seen both a French Prime Minister once observed, "There never was a good war or a bad peace." War is a awful necessity sometimes forced upon the unwilling, never with desire embraced and as soon as possible always abandoned. Idealism not withstanding history offers multiple outrageous examples when war was the only possible response by which to secure justice and peace. Pacifist are only able to even consider their pacificism because not once but many multiple times others have stood up and faced horror beyond description. History fails to document an instance in which pacifist ever did the same.

What that PM said does not apply to homosexuality. There is no good sin. There is no bad abandonment of sin. According to the uniform witness of Scripture, homosexuality is a sin to be confessed, repented and abandoned not a character trait to be noted or a preference to be affirmed. Homosexuals are not persons who need to be recognized but sinners who need to experience forgiveness in Christ.

Carleigh,  March 10, 2010 at 9:11 PM  

"History fails to document an instance in which pacifist ever did the same."

If I had a nickel for everything that history did not document, or at least document accurately.

David Hawkins,  March 11, 2010 at 10:22 PM  

"There never was a good war or a bad peace."

As with most absolutes, this one is a bit of a stretch. What would we call the period of European peace that led up to WWII? Was it good that half the world appeased Germany while that country rebuilt its military? Was it good that the United States ignored egregious acts committed by Germany in order to maintain trade with that country? Trade that, by the way, directly contributed to the build-up of the German military.

A pacifist can't help but ask would WWII have occurred without the cowardice of American politicians and the greed American industrialists (some of the latter maintained economic ties with Nazi Germany after war was declared)? What would have happened had world governments acted decisively, but without military force, when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 or Germany began enacting racist anti-semitic laws in 1933? Would trade embargoes of those two nations at that point helped to avoid a war? That none of those things were done (the US continued open trade with Japan until only a few months before Pearl Harbor) at least invalidates the notion of "no bad peace."

As for pacifists never having stood up to face horrors in the name of justice and peace, tell that to the Christians who died in the Roman coliseum or countless other martyrs who died rather than forsake a central tenant of their faith. Tell the followers of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi that without a violent response the world simply won't change. Then study up a bit on Christian Peacemaker teams that everyday, in places like Colombia, attempt to intersperse themselves between oppressors (many of whom are armed by the US government) and the oppressed.

Finally, name one person besides Christ who is not a sinner in need of forgiveness? I won't argue your quaint view on homosexuality as not constituting a character trait. Likewise I won't argue that giving up sin is always good. Just give me an example of anyone who has succeeded in living a sin-free life when we use that term as defined by Jesus (remember, an angry thought is the same as murder and a wandering eye no different than adultery).

All sin needs "to be confessed, repented and abandoned." But few if any sinners accomplish that final step. So, if we are all sinners and we continue to sin after we are saved, how then is a homosexual different from anyone else (Christian or not)? And if they are no different than we, how should we deal with that? Maybe affirmation is too much to expect from some. But as Jesus said in Matthew 7, there really isn't any room for any of us to judge.

Anonymous,  March 15, 2010 at 9:30 PM  

A general response was made to the subject of discussion. Regarding the quote, those who have had firsthand experience with the one can be understood for strongly preferring the latter.

The interwar period was in fact only a temporary truce. Europe marched away from any potential of permanent peace when it insisted Germany negotiators swallow a poison pill in a railway car outside of Compiegne. A resumption of hostilities was made inevitable as any hope for enduring peace was poisoned at Versailles. In the run-up to 1939 and the subsequent catastrophe that engulfed the world, the efforts of the League of Nations were at best clumsy. In recent experience the U.N. mirrors its predecessor. In each era at issue is not what the causes of war are. At issue is that irrespective of era or cause, there are times when the only possible best solution is war. In the face of implacable malevolence some sing psalms to the lions. Others shoot the lions. From a practical perspective Nehemiah’s strategy is about the most realistic approach to dealing with a hostile world.

The tragic reality is that we are all fallen people living in a fallen world, lost in sin that leaves us alienated, separated and estranged from one another and ultimately from God. Not one of us has the power to change what we are by nature and choice. That requires nothing less than an act of God. We are all in need of that radical grace that is found in Christ. We are all in need of that cruciform forgiveness that is only found in Christ. There is no N.T. basis by which to justify engaging in word games that end up calling evil good. As is true of all sin, this is no less true of homosexuality. Such a theological sleight of hand only misdirects attention from the unchanging truth that like every other person, homosexual persons are sinners who need to experience forgiveness and new life in Christ.

Not homosexuals only but all who come to Christ struggle with sin. Not homosexuals only but all who come to Christ struggle with the challenge of what the Apostle Paul described as a inner tension between the old man and the new man. Thankfully in the midst of such an extreme struggle, we can trust God to give us victory.

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