On October 23, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell hosted 200 evangelical leaders and 200 homosexuals at his Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg,Virginia (see yesterday's article, Falwell Tames his Tongue). The idea for the reconciliation gathering came from Mel White, a minister who ghostwrote Falwell's autobiography years before declaring himself homosexual. The following is his welcome speech for that forum.
This is one of the most unlikely gatherings of our times. In fact, it is probably unprecedented to convene a meeting of 400 gay and lesbian activists and evangelical Christians for the purpose of creating good. I welcome my friend Mel White and those of you who have journeyed with him to Lynchburg this weekend. Thank you for coming to Thomas Road Baptist Church.
Why are we here today? I doubt there is anyone here or elsewhere who knows anything about me who thinks that by meeting with 200 gays and lesbians, I have suddenly changed my belief that homosexuality is Scripturally wrong—that it is sin. Indeed I have not. But we are not here today to debate homosexuality, as our views are clearly and equally divided in this room on that subject.
The Memory of 100
We are here because seven Christian young people were shot and killed in cold blood at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas several weeks ago.
We are here because of the senseless shootings of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado earlier this year, most of whom were apparently evangelical Christians, such as Cassie Burnall, who was shot after answering at rifle-point, "Yes, I believe in God."
We're here because two persons full of hate in a Wyoming bar decided to torture and kill a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd.
We are here because, in February, Billy Jack Gaither of Alabama was bludgeoned to death with an ax handle by two men who got tired of him being gay.
We are here because innocent people of various religious faiths, racial and ethnic groups, and sexual preferences have increasingly had their lives abruptly and violently ended by people with opposing views and beliefs in recent months and years.
Today, we have made this room in our church a memorial and a rostrum. It is a memorial to the 100 human beings whose pictures hang on the walls of this room and the sanctuary next door. All of them have been violently killed because someone did not like their faith, their color, or their lifestyle.
It is a rostrum from which we speak to our respective communities and to all whom would hear our words. We will state our precepts as clearly as possible:
- It is wrong to hate homosexuals; and those who lift a violent hand against them invite the wrath of God upon themselves.
- Reciprocally, it is wrong for homosexuals to hate Christians or others who believe homosexuality to be a sin. It is doubly shameful to aim violent and destructive actions at these believers.
Here today, we commit ourselves to reducing the hostility in our culture against gays and lesbians, against evangelical Christians, and against anyone on the basis of faith, color, and creed. We invoke the memory of the 100. Through our words and actions may we give additional meaning to their senseless deaths.
To Hate is Human; to Love Divine
Animosity between people who are different is unfortunately a deeply human tendency. Unchecked, this natural aversion can degrade to hatred and violence. It is perhaps the most visible evil of modern times. Can anyone argue otherwise at the end of the 20th century, the century of mass graves and ethnic cleansing?
We can restrain and reverse this hatred through greater contact, a commitment to understanding, a check on our own pride, and ultimately, by God's grace. It is unlikely that we can love those who are different than us in this very room without both extraordinary effort and, far more importantly, the supernatural hand of God. God does not condone our sin. But, He does reach out to us with His love, not where we ought to be, but where we are.
I have deep convictions about homosexuality. Mel White has never asked me to refrain from preaching what I believe, that the Bible describes the practice of homosexuality as a sin against God. I could not even if he had asked. And I contend that a pastor should be permitted to preach the whole counsel of God without being labeled and targeted as a bigot. With that said, I also believe my role as a pastor is to help followers of Jesus Christ to develop a spiritual balance that enables them to hate sin while genuinely loving sinners—for it is for sinners like you and me that Christ died 2000 years ago.
By the way, let me clarify that there aren't 200 sinners in this room, there are 400.
While my convictions are firm, so too is my commitment to take greater care in my characterizations and criticisms of the homosexual community. I have agreed that my staff and I will be vigilant in assuring that we do not make statements that can be construed as sanctioning hate or antagonism against homosexuals. God has called me to be a minister to my fellow man and I cannot do that from a perspective of selective rejection and condemnation. I must share God's grace and forgiveness to all men.
The Excesses in our Communities
Sadly, there are those in the religious world who commit heinous acts in the name of Christ. Some of them have traveled here to parade their campaign of hate in Lynchburg this weekend simply because we are having this meeting. Others have burned crosses on lawns of black families and burned entire black churches to the ground. Still others have bombed abortion clinics or killed homosexuals. May God save us from those kinds of un-Christian attitudes and actions. They are an abomination to Almighty God and we must call it such when we see it.
Then too, there are radical and violent homosexual groups, which I'm glad to say Mel White has never been a part of. These groups have desecrated places of worship like St. Patrick's Cathedral, mailed containers of "AIDS-infected urine" to my office with written threats of physical harm, and stormed and disrupted meetings where I was speaking. They have carried out other hateful acts toward people of faith just because these people honestly believe homosexuality is wrong. We should also join in condemning this kind of behavior.
There simply is too much hate on both sides of the debate on homosexuality. It must be curbed: First, because hatred is a sin; and second, because hatred too often leads to violence. Such violence must stop, and reasonable people on both sides must speak out and say so.
Words Lead to Actions
Often the hateful actions of various groups and individuals begin with reckless and dangerous language. We acknowledge that words can lead to actions, intended for good or evil. Our words must compel love, not hate.
The Bible commands us in Romans 13:8-10 to "love one another; for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law ... and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, that thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law."
Anglican pastor John Stott wrote recently, "If homosexuals cannot be loved in the church, where are they to go for what only the church can offer? As unpleasant as this debate may be to some, the church is called to express faith by accepting God's standards and His grace, to share hope, to look past the suffering of this present world, and to show love in a supporting and caring way."
Actions Validate Words: A Call for Compassionate Conviction
We agree that any kind of hate or violence aimed at people with whom we disagree is wrong, regardless of the legitimacy of the cause. We want to state this clearly, and also do something about it.
As Christians, we believe that healing comes not only from the absence of hate but from the presence of love. Many of us pastors like to talk about loving the sinner but hating the sin, as I have already mentioned. Unfortunately, that statement has often become a meaningless cliché. While we may not always be guilty of hating the sinner, we too often fall short of the mark of hating the sin but truly loving the sinner.
Those of us who have strong convictions about sexual sin, which I have always believed the Bible considered all sex outside of a marriage bond between a man and a woman, should daily examine our own lives in light of the fact that the Bible also deals harshly with the sins of pride, hypocrisy, and hate.
We as evangelicals would do well to demonstrate more of what I would call compassionate conviction. Compassionate conviction includes three elements: First, we hold firmly to historic biblical truths that remain unchanged with time. Second, we express our views—even our attempts to persuade—with respect and kindness. And third, we take action to demonstrate our care and compassion for those who disagree with our views.
We commit ourselves and call today for evangelicals to embrace compassionate conviction. Those on the right should not misconstrue our compassion as compromise, and those on the left should not equate our conviction with intolerance. There is plenty of room, and need, in our society for both our convictions and our compassion.
My relationship with my own three children illustrates this concept. I have often been asked by reporters and critics, "what would you do if your daughter came home one day and told you she was pregnant out of wedlock or even had an abortion? Or what if one of your sons informed you that he was homosexual?" As firm as my beliefs and convictions are on these two subjects, these are easy questions to answer.
I have said publicly for years that if I learned my daughter was having an abortion or that my son was homosexual, it would be at that time, more than ever, that my children need to know and feel my unconditional love for them. Yet sadly, many parents, even pastors, have rejected their children, even putting them out of their home, at just such difficult times.
That is why, nearly 18 years ago we started the Liberty Godparent Home for unwed mothers. Many young girls were being thrown out of their homes because they were pregnant and many of them were children of evangelical pastors who had rejected them just when they needed their parents' love most. That is just wrong. I have said for 37 years that there is nothing my children could ever do that would cause me to withhold my love from them.
I have preached about the evils of pornography my entire public ministry but most of you know of my relationship with Larry Flynt and others like him. I have reached out to him in Christian love without compromising any of my convictions that what he is doing is wrong.
I have also preached against alcohol and drug-addiction most of my life, yet our church operates the Elim Home for Alcohol and Drug-Addicted Men here in Lynchburg where we, in love, give men who have given in to the power of alcohol and drugs in their lives a second and third and fourth chance. These men know of my beliefs and convictions, and they know of my love (and God's love) for them at the same time.
Although our guests would disagree with the characterization of homosexuality in the same context with pre-marital sex, pornography, and alcoholism—again we agree to disagree—nonetheless it is incumbent on me, in the demonstration of consistent, compassionate conviction, to back my words with action. That is why we are here today. That is why this ministry provides free counseling to gays and lesbians who seek it.
As Christians we must show this kind of love to people everywhere who believe and live differently than we do. It is possible with God's help.
So what can we do about all of this? Let me propose several things.
- Let each of us search our own heart for any evidence of hate toward any people. If we find any, let us ask first for God's forgiveness, and then for the forgiveness of the ones we have hated.
- Let us seek to balance our convictions with grace and compassion for those who don't share those convictions.
- Let us quickly condemn any and all violence aimed at homosexuals, evangelicals, racial and ethnic minorities, or anyone.
- Parents, above anyone else, must reach out in love to their children when they are living contrary to the beliefs of the parent.
- I will firmly tell those who say I should not be in the same room with 200 homosexuals today that they are wrong, and I would encourage Mel White to tell those who say he should not be showing respect and breaking bread with Jerry Falwell because I believe and preach that homosexuality is a sin, that they are wrong.
We have agreed that this will not be the last meeting of this kind. We must continue to dialogue, to listen to others, and more importantly, to demonstrate the love of Christ to all mankind. We remember these 100 victims pictured here today, and we see in our mind's eye the thousands who will follow them if we allow the voices of hate to prevail. We must contend with evil, but we will fight evil not with evil, but with good. Ultimately, the only eternal hope for all of us—heterosexual or homosexual—is a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ through His death, burial, and resurrection in our behalf. And in so saying, I will be ever mindful to preach this message with a heart of love and not condemnation for Mel White and other homosexuals in our nation.
I well remember the challenge this church and pastor faced in the 50s and 60s when we were able to overcome the challenge of segregation and racism, and I believe, set the trend for many in the evangelical church world. I well remember how this church and pastor led the way for political and moral involvement in America during the 70s and 80s, during the Moral Majority era.
Now, as we face the new Millennium, this same church and pastor are charged with building a loving and Biblical outreach and friendship with the homosexual community. It is quite different from the two earlier challenges. We believe the homosexual lifestyle is wrong. But, we are commanded by Christ to love our neighbors and make very clear to the world from henceforth that we love the sinner even more than we hate the sin.
Today, as followers of Jesus Christ, we extend our hand of friendship, we seek understanding, we commit to care, and we resolve to love.
Yesterday's news article, "Falwell Tames his Tongue," also examines some of the outside response to the Anti-Violence Forum.
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