June 30, 1999
Yesterday, at a family reunion celebrating the 29th birthday of our son, Michael, (and my 59th) we received a call from a friend who couldn't wait to tell us the good news. "Reverend Falwell has answered your first OPEN LETTER TO JERRY," he said, "and on the front page of the July issue of his National Liberty Journal."
All seven of us were there - son, daughter, son-in-law, grand-daughter, Katie, former wife, Lyla; and Gary, my partner of fifteen years. We gathered around the computer to read your response to my OPEN LETTER. They were stunned by the way you fictionalized our lives to make your point. "Mel abandoned his family, and his ministry," you wrote, "and moved in with his male lover." In the silence that followed those five pages of misinformation, Katie said softly, "Why did he say that you abandoned us, Grampa?" "Because he just doesn't understand," I replied.
There are so many things you don't understand, Jerry. But that's all right. You aren't alone. Millions of people are as confused and confounded by this issue as you are. For decades our family, too, was a victim of misinformation about sexual orientation. Thank God, our story has a happy ending, but far too many lives are wasted, too many families ruined, too many congregations torn apart because they don't know the truth about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered minorities and are victims of fear and ignorance instead.
When I appealed to you in 1996 you replied, "I am not interested in promoting your publicity stunts and/or media hypes." Jerry, I'm not interested in personal publicity or media hype. I'm not asking for a "debate" either. The "debate" has gone on far too long. We're just shouting at each other across an ever-widening chasm. Almost no one is listening. The whole country is divided. Let's begin a real conversation before more families are ruined and more lives are lost. If you and I are totally honest and lovingly frank, our public conversation could benefit everyone on both sides of this issue.
I'll start by admitting that you are right when you say that I sinned in leaving my wife, Lyla. Jesus is very clear that divorce is a sin. I have confessed my sin and been forgiven by God, by my former wife, and by my children. And out of their forgiveness and understanding, we have become a family again.
What you find difficult to understand is that the sin I committed in getting a divorce had roots in another kind of sin altogether, the sin of misinformation. In your first OPEN LETTER TO MEL you recall that you were, "·born and raised in a segregationist culture." And you admit frankly that as a young believer, "·this [misinformation about race] was one of the first things that the Holy Spirit began purging from my life."
I was born and raised in a culture misinformed about homosexuality. I was told that my feelings were a sickess and that to act on those feelings was a sin. "All you need," one counselor informed me, "is to marry a good woman." I did and from that misinformation, all kinds of suffering followed.
In my childhood and youth there were reasons to be convinced that homosexuality was a sickness and a sin. The American Psychological Association listed homosexuality as an illness until 1973 and the six verses in the Bible that referred to any kind of same-sex intimacy, seemed plainly to condemn homosexuality as a sin to those who had never studied what the verses meant in their time and place. Like millions before, we became victims of scientific and biblical misinformation. It took the Spirit of Truth thirty-five years to purge that misinformation from my life.
In your letter, you say that I have "sinned against Scripture." Then you reprint an entire letter you wrote me in 1996 to explain your biblical opposition to homosexuality." However, in that long letter you didn't mention Sodom, or the 'holiness' passages in Leviticus. You don't even discuss Paul's writings in Romans, I Corinthians or I Timothy, the only passages used to support the biblical case against homosexuality. You only say: "Make no mistake about it. The bible in both the Old and New Testaments declares homosexuality to be a sin." Don't we both owe it to God, to the Bible, to each other, and to those we serve, to take time to see if your assumptions are true?
Before we do that, Jerry, I hope you will remember that whatever you feel about homosexuality and homosexuals, our right to equal protection under the law is a Constitutional, not a biblical issue. We are a democracy, not a theocracy. The laws of this land protect our right to disagree about these six biblical verses without being denied the basic rights guaranteed all Americans by the Constitution. Nevertheless, since you support your case against us on biblical grounds, let's use this second Open Letter to focus on the ancient story of Sodom in Genesis 19.
These are your words, Jerry: "God wiped Sodom and Gomorrah clean from the face of the earth! These two Old Testament cities were so filled with homosexuality and perversion that they were utterly destroyed·Will our nation face a similar fate because God-fearing moral people failed to stop homosexuality from becoming an accepted lifestyle in our churches, schools and public places?"
With respect, I'm asking you to consider the possibility that you are missing the point of this ancient story altogether and in the process you've become a primary source of misinformation about homosexuality and homosexuals that has tragic consequences for its victims, heterosexual and homosexual alike.
With all the love we have for the Scriptures, Jerry, we still have to admit that the Bible can be a very dangerous book. In the 16th century, John Selden said, "These three words - 'Search the Scriptures' - have undone the world." He was right; yet we must go on searching them for our sake and for the sake of our wounded world. The Bible's central theme is clear: God loves the world and is determined to rescue and renew it. Yet the misuse of the Bible's great love story has drenched the planet in blood and tears.
The Scriptures have been misused to defend bloody crusades and inquisitions; to support slavery, apartheid, and segregation; to sanction the physical and emotional abuse of women and children; to persecute Jews and other non-Christian people of faith; to support the holocaust of Hitler's Third Reich; to oppose medical science; to condemn inter-racial marriage; to execute women as witches; to excuse the violent racism of the Klu Klux Klan; to mobilize militias, white supremacy and neo-nazi movements; and to condone intolerance and discrimination against sexual minorities.
You claim that God destroyed Sodom because of homosexuality. Yet Jesus and five Jewish prophets all describe the sins of Sodom without including homosexuality. Even your friend, Billy Graham, doesn't mention homosexuality on Sodom's list of sins.
"This is the sin of Sodom," said the prophet, Ezekiel. "She and her suburbs had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not help or encourage the poor and needy. They were arrogant and this was abominable in God's eyes, (Ez.16: 48-49)."
How could the prophet make it more clear? This story of Sodom is not about sexual orientation. It is a rather terrifying example of how God feels about a rich and selfish city whose citizens refused to feed the hungry, house the homeless, care for widows and orphans, or open their hearts and homes to strangers at the gate.
Is it fair to blame homosexuals for the destruction of Sodom when the prophets and Jesus make it clear that God destroyed that city because it refused to help the needy and the outcast? Isn't it equally clear that God decided to destroy the city long before its men and boys gathered in Lot's front yard? Isn't it possible that by using this story to condemn homosexuals we might also be missing the real lesson God wants us to learn from whatever happened in the darkness that night?
In Genesis 19:4-5, Moses tells us who had gathered on Lot's lawn. "All the men of the city, both old and young, all the men from every quarter." Jerry, not even in San Francisco could every man and boy be gay. So, what really is happening at Lot's gate? The only clues Moses gives us are the words shouted by the mob. "Where are the men who came to your home tonight? Bring them out that we might know them."
The Hebrew verb "to know" is rarely used to mean sexual intercourse. More often it is used exactly as we use it today when we ask, "Who are you?" A soldier on guard would say, "Halt! Who goes there?" A threatening phone call might be answered "Who is this?" In July, 1964, when the four boys from the Congress on Racial Equality were arrested for protesting segregation on your church steps, did anyone say it this way? "Who are these strangers? Why do they come here?"
No one might even have suspected that there were sexual overtones if Lot hadn't tried to appease the mob by offering them his virgin daughters. (Sexism and homophobia usually go hand in hand). But the girls weren't spared because the mob was gay. The bullies in that mob, like bullies throughout the centuries, wanted no outsiders in their neighborhood. This was their turf and the gang assembled to defend it.
The men of Sodom were demonstrating the very reason that God had decided to destroy that city. Whatever they feared, hated, or didn't understand, they sought to punish and eliminate. Think of Nazi Brown Shirts breaking Jewish shop windows, or the Klu Klux Klan burning a cross on a black family's lawn, or Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney murdering Matthew Shepard.
If Russell and Aaron had raped Matthew before they killed him, would you have assumed that the two boys were homosexuals? Gang rape, heterosexual or homosexual, is not about sex. It's about humiliating someone you hate, fear, or don't understand. It was common in ancient times for soldiers to dehumanize and demean the vanquished by raping them in the heat of victory. It is still happening today.
We all saw front page photos recently of Abner Louima, the young black immigrant from Haiti who was held down in a restroom by Officer Charles Schwarz while Officer Justin Volpe rammed a broken broomstick into Louima's rectum. These two men and the three other officers who covered up this outrage were not gay. This act was not about sex anymore than that threat in Lot's front yard was about homosexuality.
The phrase "f--- you" is not about having sex. It's an angry threat (if only symbolic) just like the mob's threat at Lot's house. The one finger gesture that often accompanies the threat isn't an invitation to make love. It is a threat to violate an enemy sexually. Jerry, if you believe this passage condemns any kind of sexual practice, it condemns gang rape and homosexuals are against gang rape as much as you are, maybe more, because we are so often the victims of that kind of mob.
The story of Sodom says a lot about what makes God angry and nothing at all about homosexuality or homosexuals. By misusing this story to argue about sexual orientation, we risk missing God's point altogether. Heterosexuals and homosexuals alike are both in danger of becoming "Sodomites" in God's eyes when we do not care for the needy around us and when we cause suffering to those we fear, hate, or do not understand.
When Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, and raise the dead," he ends his instructions to them with this clear command: "If a city or a house will not receive you, depart and shake the dust out of your sandals; for it shall be treated as Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, (Matt.10: 11f.)
Jesus doesn't condemn homosexuality. He condemns people who are unwilling to hear the truth, let alone to provide hospitality to those who have come to share it. But he blesses those who open their hearts and homes to the strangers in their midst.
So, in the spirit of those angels who visited Sodom with life-changing news, on the weekend of October 22-24*, Gary and I are coming to Lynchburg to visit you and your congregation. We're not angels, Jerry, but we bring life-changing news and we're inviting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people of faith, their families and friends to join us.
Here's the idea. Though we disagree about sexual orientation, Christ has commanded us "to love one another." How can we say that we love each other if we refuse to listen to the other's side? We've heard your side, Jerry, in print, on radio and television, in newspapers and newsmagazines, on Geraldo, Larry King Live, and Nightline. Isn't it right for you (and for your congregation) to hear our side, too?
Would you open your church homes to Gary and me and to the strangers from across the nation who may join us in Lynchburg? Would you match up our gay and lesbian families with your church families at least for Sunday dinner at the church or in local restaurant? My partner and I would love to treat you and Macel to a meal and an honest, open conversation. Imagine what might happen if your people heard our stories and our people heard yours.
In the meantime, this is my promise to you. I will use the next four months to respond thoughtfully to every question you raise in our OPEN LETTER series. I'll review the biblical, scientific, and historic evidence that supports my premise that homosexuality is neither a sickness, nor a sin. When you prove me wrong or confused, I WILL ADMIT IT. I only ask that you take our questions seriously as well. I've linked my OPEN LETTERS to your web page. Why not link your OPEN LETTER responses to mine?
I remember the first time you told me about those four teenagers from CORE who demonstrated on the steps of your Thomas Road Baptist Church in '64. They carried a sign reading "Does God Discriminate? You had them arrested. Now you regret it.
"We resented those teenage boys," you said, "for their interference in the lives of our community. But looking back, they were courageous, and it is time that I for one admit it." Then you confessed something that makes me proud of you and gives me hope that one day you will change your mind about us. "The years of tradition that separated us were wrong," you said, "and the boys were right to point it out to us." Then you concluded with, "I just wish there had been another way for them to get our attention."
Isn't it ironic that while we argue about the sexual orientation of the mob outside Lot's house, we've almost forgotten the strangers inside? They had come from God with truth that could have saved the city. By refusing to grant hospitality to the strangers, the people of Sodom sealed their fate. Jerry, we offer you "another way" to confront our differences, the Soulforce way of truth, love, and nonviolence.
PS: After reading your OPEN LETTER TO MEL the family took this picture to show you that we are together again just as you hoped. Enter into this dialogue with us, Jerry. Let's learn from each other. When you prove me wrong, I will admit it. Will you do the same? Notice the matching brown t-shirts. When my father, the Mayor of Santa Cruz, was proven wrong, he'd say, "Well eat my shirt." These t-shirts are dyed in Ghirardelli chocolate. It's the family's way of saying, "It's good to be wrong now and then. It's the only way we grow. So, if we have to 'eat our shirts,' we plan to enjoy it."