Paul Prather

Paul Prather: I'm a train wreck and so are you

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

On June 12 at its annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution opposing the Boy Scouts of America's new policy that allows gay Scouts.

According to the Associated Press, the Baptists also called on the Scouts to remove top leaders who tried to allow gays as both members and leaders without consulting religious groups that sponsor troops.

The story didn't say whether the Baptists cited the Bible as their authority for this resolution, but that's usually the source claimed by Protestants on such matters.

Many Christians say homosexual behavior is contrary to biblical standards and cannot be tolerated. They say it a lot, as if being gay were an especially odious sin.

To me, theirs is a selective reading of Scripture.

I'm a Christian, and my worldview also is based on Scripture, or, more specifically, on the New Testament.

The problem I run into with liberals and conservatives alike, with Christians and skeptics, is that hardly anybody seems to read the same New Testament I read. This frustrates me, just as it irritates other people toward me.

Every time I write about gay sex or sex-in-general or any other hormonal folderol, fundamentalists warn me I've sold my soul for approval from the hell-bound "world."

But I get equally acidic responses from liberals, atheists and gay people who call me a rightwing, fanatical homophobe.

Both reactions are kind of funny, when you think about it.

As I said, I try to adhere to the New Testament, whose central theme is unconditional love. This makes people on both sides furious. Who knew?

I think the offense partly arises from the New Testament's premise that all human beings are seriously messed up.

It's not a contemporary sort of touchy-feely "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy. It's an "I'm a train wreck and so are you" philosophy.

The New Testament's authors (and, incidentally, literary giants from Shakespeare to Faulkner) agreed that humanity is wildly flawed.

Jesus and the apostles pointed out that God gave people hundreds of behavioral laws to observe, but no one could measure up.

Nobody measures up today, either.

Ever in your life had sex with anyone but your spouse? Oops.

Ever told a lie? Ever stolen anything? Ever called your brother an idiot? Ever gossiped? Ever been lazy? Ever been jealous? Ever failed to help an immigrant? Ever acted arrogantly? Ever neglected a friend who was sick or in jail? Ever stuck cash in your pocket without reporting it to the tax collector?

I think we know the answers to these and other questions.

As St. Paul put it, the Bible's moral rules mainly serve to demonstrate how imperfect we are. They never make us holy; everybody flunks the test.

And yes, the rules do say you shouldn't sleep with a person of your gender.

There's no place in the Bible, though — not even the fiery Old Testament — that singles out gay sex as unusually wicked. In my reading, it probably draws less ink overall than adultery or divorce.

The Scripture's point isn't that one sin is worse than another, but that we're all ethically and spiritually damaged.

This premise seems truer every time I counsel a parishioner or pick up a newspaper. Or look in a mirror.

It's why we need what the New Testament calls, in a radical understatement, "good news."

The good news goes like this: We fortunately live within God's epoch for total amnesty. We've been offered unconditional grace, mercy and love. Anyone can get a ticket stamped for heaven just by asking.

You go to God, you say, "Hey, I've messed up. Help!"

God then erases all your sins, past, present, future. The sin question is ended for you, forever. You're a saint in God's rose-colored eyes, even if your friends think you're still the same imbecilic goofball.

I know.

The good news is so good Christians themselves don't believe it.

That's why they go around clucking their tongues at supposed reprobates. They, too, are offended by the good news, even as they claim to be its recipients.

They're only happy when they can find someone somewhere to look down on.

They're missionaries of bad news.

The good news is that since we can't earn our way to heaven, God takes us just as we are: liars, divorcees, hypocrites, cranks, fornicators, zealots and gay people.

Come one, come all, the New Testament God declares.

Does that mean he agrees with our actions?

Not always.

He wants the best for us. Misbehavior has earthly consequences. You can rob a liquor store and still go to heaven. But you'll also go to prison. You can have sex with 100 hookers. But you'll likely catch AIDS, hepatitis C or another gosh-awful plague.

"All things are lawful," St. Paul said. "But not all things are profitable."

The paradox is that the less we labor under religious legalism, the better we behave. We're freer to do what's smart and what's right. We do it out of love for God and gratitude to him. The pressure's off.

To me, having been given a pass for my sad little sins, it would be unconscionable to turn around and badmouth some other pilgrim as if he's less deserving. We're all beggars at God's door.

The issue here really isn't our sin anyway. The issue is God's grace.

The New Testament's glory is that it is indeed profoundly good news, not a cudgel with which to thump our fellow travelers.