"You're a bigot": How to respond when asked about gay marriage
Picture the scene. You’re in the workplace, an open plan office; you know, the kind where every conversation is overheard. And the question comes from a colleague: “You’re a Christian. What’s your view on same-sex marriage?” And you know that not just this one colleague, but ten others will hear your answer. What do you say?
Australia is gearing up to follow the lead of other countries and have a plebiscite on same-sex marriage [UPDATE: The Federal Government has announced its intention to hold a plebiscite on same-sex marriage February 11 2017]. In light of this, we thought it would be a good time to consider afresh how we might keep talking about gay marriage in the office and beyond. How should Christians who hold to marriage being between a man and a woman respond when the conversation comes up with our colleagues, family and friends? [i]Here are five simple suggestions:
1. Say sorry
The Apostle Peter encourages us that when we respond to questions about our faith to not only be concerned with what we say, but how we say it, with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). So perhaps a good starting point when asked our views on same-sex marriage is to start with an apology, a response that adopts a posture of gentleness and respect. We apologise for the unkind and hurtful ways that Christians have spoken about, and treated homosexual people.
In his recent book We Cannot Be Silent Albert Mohler writes, “As the church considers the challenge of the present age, we must acknowledge our own sin, even when we speak the truth. Christians do not hurl the truth like a spear at a sinful world. We are called to live the truth, to teach the truth, to be the truth, and to love our neighbours on the basis of that truth. And we must admit that the church often fails at this task – and fails miserably”. [ii] We need to be quick to confess, as Australian apologist John Dickson explains, that Christians “have often let Biblical convictions lead to unbiblical actions”. [iii]
We do not have to look very far to see many sad examples of Christians judging homosexual people. We must heed the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:12: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside”.
So perhaps begin your response with something like this: “As a Christian I hold a view of marriage that is probably very different from you. And I’d be happy to explain it. But what I really want to say is sorry. I know Christians have said and done things which have really hurt homosexual people, and for that I am deeply sorry.” A gentle and respectful response.
2. Establish the playing field
The climate that we now live in means that asking a simple question to lay the foundations for the conversation can be a helpful first step, ensuring that it is truly safe to express our views. So when we’re asked, particularly in a context like the workplace, perhaps the first response is, “That’s a very personal question. And I don’t mind answering at all. But I just want to check, is it safe for me to offer my view, even if you disagree?”
Starting with a question like this does two things. Firstly it ensures that it truly is safe for us to express our views, even if the questioner disagrees. But secondly it paves the way for us to talk about true tolerance.
In our culture a high value is placed on tolerance. And yet what passes as tolerance is often gross intolerance. Tolerance has come to mean something like everyone needs to agree, or agree with the majority view, or even you must agree with me! None of which is actually true tolerance.
In his book Humilitas John Dickson explores what true tolerance is; that ability to “profoundly disagree” but still “profoundly love” the person we disagree with. [iv] To not respond with “you’re a bigot” simply because we think differently.
So perhaps start your response with a simple question to establish the playing field, and if the conversation requires, explore the issue of true tolerance further, with another question like this: “I find it surprising that it’s ok to call someone who doesn’t agree with same-sex marriage a bigot. Isn’t calling them a bigot actually an act of bigotry itself?”
Our model in true tolerance is Jesus, who challenged sinners (profoundly disagree; Luke 13:3), but also sat and ate a meal with them (profoundly love; Luke 15:2).
3. Speak grace and truth
Having established the playing field what might we move on and actually say? Having the words “grace and truth” at the forefront of our minds in all our interactions on this topic can be really helpful. We want to speak both words of truth and words of grace. Not one without the other.
This is the model we have from Jesus. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
A short response that incorporates both grace and truth might be, “I believe God loves all people so much that He died for them. And so if God loves homosexual people that much then that’s my attitude too. Of course those who trust in God also believe that we give all our lives to Him, including our sex lives and His pattern for relationships and marriage. And His pattern for that is between male and female”. Such a response again flows out of a posture of gentleness and respect.
4. Ask questions
In some scenarios it is not necessarily we who might be asked our views on same-sex marriage. Rather a statement is made that we want to respond to and challenge, but perhaps feel ill-equipped to do so, especially in a group. This is where asking questions can be very helpful.
Questions allow us to do a number of things, not least get to the personal worldviews that lie behind opinions on same-sex marriage. Oftentimes discussing these worldviews is a much more fruitful exercise, particularly given that it is opposing worldviews which lead us to different views on same-sex marriage. Again this is an approach that flows out of 1 Peter 3, where we seek to engage with gentleness and respect.
In his book Tactics Greg Koukl suggests asking questions that “put a stone in someone’s shoe”, causing them to reflect on why they believe what they believe. [v] This was a “tactic” Jesus used often (Luke 20:3-4; 23-24, Mark 2:9).
Koukl outlines three types of questions that we can ask. Firstly questions that seek more information, so as to find out what a person really thinks. Simple questions like, “What do you mean by that?” can be helpful. Secondly we can ask questions that reverse the burden of proof, finding out why a person thinks what they think. For example “Why do you say that?” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” or even simply, “Oh? How do you know that?”.Finally we can ask questions which lead a person to a certain point of view, proffering an opinion with gentleness and respect by asking it in the form of a question, rather than a statement. Questions like, “Have you ever considered” or “Can you help me understand this” can help accomplish this goal.
For example, say you’re standing in the kitchen at work and the conversation turns to same-sex marriage. A vocal, confident colleague states emphatically, “Who am I to say how gay couples should live their lives. Their relationship doesn’t impact on me”. Instead of trying to refute the statement, why not ask a question like, “Why do you think that?”. Depending on the answer you could then ask a follow-up question like, “But it’s not a private matter is it if the entire public is being asked to live under a new definition of marriage? Or have I missed something?”
Some might accuse Koukl’s approach of being disingenuous, especially his third type of question. However I don’t think so, especially if we have genuinely sought to understand what and why they think the way they do.
5. Be a storyteller
Finally we can respond to questions not simply with rational arguments but also tell a story, another approach that has an inherent gentleness and respect to it.
In his book How (Not) To Be Secular James Smith writes, “We are ‘narrative animals’: we define who we are, and what we ought to do, on the basis of what story we see ourselves in”. [vi] Smith argues that this is especially the case in a secular age such as ours, and so persuasion must be done primarily through narrative not rational argument. “Rival stories are always at the door offering a very different account of the world”. [vii]
The corporate world has embraced this method. In an article titled The CEO as Storyteller Hollywood screenwriter Robert McKee explains to corporate executives that stories, “fulfil a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional, experience”. [viii] The CEO is better off telling a story to his staff or shareholders than presenting a rational case when endeavouring to chart a new course. Of course this was Jesus’ model too. When asked the question “Who is my neighbour?” He responded with a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.
We not the only ones making this suggestion when it comes to same-sex marriage. Rory O’Neill, aka Panti Bliss, was one of the key figures behind the successful “Yes” campaign in Ireland for same-sex marriage. In a recent interview O’Neill explained what won them the debate: “The ‘yes’ campaign was about real people telling stories…And the ‘no’ campaign against marriage equality: theirs were intellectual arguments about the kind of society they wanted to see reflected in the constitution…And when it came down to it…real people and real lives trump those kind of dry arguments every time”.
There is a persuasive power to storytelling that we should embrace when asked questions about same-sex marriage. This is not suitable in every context, but in a situation where we are having a longer discussion with a colleague, perhaps over lunch, we have the time to explore the issue more deeply. And telling a story might be the way to do it.
So what sort of stories should we tell? At a recent Melbourne conference, Wesley Hill suggested stories about "belonging" and "home" powerfully resonate in this conversation*. Similarly stories of the beauty of harmonious diversity that come in marriages of more than one gender; both male and female.
One final point to make. It may still be the case that regardless of what we say we are still labelled a bigot. Even if we have sought to answer with great humility, gentleness and respect, nevertheless such a view may still be costly. It may cost us a promotion. It may affect a friendship. When this occurs we need to remember the words of Jesus: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (John 15:18). But we also draw comfort from these words of Jesus also: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10).
[i] In this article we’re not seeking to make the case for marriage being between a man and a woman. Rather we’re suggesting practical ways forward for those who hold to this position and wish to engage respectfully, winsomely and lovingly in conversation with those who disagree.
[ii] R. Albert Mohler, Jr. We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, & the very meaning of right and wrong, 139.
[iii] John Dickson, “Reflections on same-sex relationships 2”, sermon preached 3 October 2011.
[iv] John Dickson, Humilitas: A lost key to life, love and leadership, 169-70.
[v] Greg Koukl, Tactics: A game plan for discussing your Christian convictions, 38.
[vi] James K. A. Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 25.
[vii] Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular, 10.
[viii] Bronwyn Fryer, The CEO as Storyteller, Harvard Business Review.
* Comment was made during a question time at the 2016 Ridley Pastoral Seminar
Image courtesy: telegraph.co.uk