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Excerpts from "Open Letter to the Rev. Jerry Falwell" Who do you think you're fooling? writes Bishop John Shelby Spong
8/14/00
Dear Jerry:

I know you were pleased to be present at the Republican National Convention, even though the space provided for you, Pat Robertson and the other members of the religious right was greatly diminished this year. Clearly someone recognized that the rhetoric of religious hostility and cultural warfare in 1996 had contributed to the losing candidacy of Bob Dole and was simply not going to be allowed again. So we saw a kinder, gentler, more inclusive Republican convention and hence less time for people like you. But, as you know, there is a lot of dead time in the typical convention and media people look for a chance to create excitement. So you were not totally forgotten.

When an openly gay Republican congressmen was assigned to speak on world trade, you were there, ready to be interviewed. As usual most of what you had to say was about sex and your negativity toward homosexuality was not hidden by your wan smile or your solemn statements. Your comments were typical.

"As a Christian, I regard homosexuality as a sin," you said. "It is clearly condemned in the Bible."

You went on to say that God loves sinners and you even admitted, rather humbly I thought, that you are yourself numbered among that group. It was a clever tactic designed to show that Christianity, the Bible and the opinions of Jerry Falwell were mutually supportive, indeed almost identical. But, Jerry, you know that rhetoric won't wash. I, too, am a Christian, Jerry, and I do not regard homosexuality as sin.

You need to educate yourself about homosexuality, if you want to be part of the larger public debate on this issue. You cling to a definition of homosexuality that is all but rejected in medical and scientific circles. You assume that homosexuality is either a mental disease that needs to be cured or a moral depravity that needs to be judged or converted. That is nothing but ignorance, Jerry, and ignorance, no matter how sanctified, is still ignorance.

You also support that array of fraudulent organizations which claim they are in the business of "curing homosexuals." They are in fact nothing more than the 2lst century's version of snake-oil peddlers who promise their new elixir will do miraculous things, which of course it never does. These organizations have a perfect out. They can always blame the victim who didn't try hard enough or who did not have sufficient faith. It is a tiresomely circular argument, as arguments tend to be, when the premise upon which they are built is false.

Perhaps you haven't noticed, Jerry, that all of these organizations that "cure" homosexuals are identified with a right wing evangelical mentality. Surely you don't think that is a coincidence. Yes, they quote an occasional doctor or scientist to undergird their claims, but you will soon discover that both the doctor and the scientist are themselves right-wing evangelicals and none of them has rank in the top medical or scientific circles.

There is no medical or scientific evidence I know of that will support the assertion that homosexuality can be "cured" or changed. Please don't trot out your corroborative data unless you are willing to have it examined by a recognized panel of experts. I'm not interested in your anecdotal stories that only prove that when you identify your prejudices with God it is hard to admit that both you and God are wrong. I think anyone who tries to change another's sexual orientation is doing nothing less than practicing pastoral violence based on scientific ignorance.

A century ago, similar religious people thought being left-handed was either abnormal, a mistake of nature or perverse. So in the name of their lack of knowledge, these "Christians" tied the left hands of little children behind their backs and subjected them to both mental torment and even physical punishment for their "sin." Your past rhetoric about homosexual people, Jerry, has also encouraged similar kind of pain and violence.

I resent greatly your prefacing your negativity toward homosexual people with the words "As a Christian." You are surely a Christian, Jerry, I would never suggest otherwise, but you do not speak for Christianity. You certainly do not speak for me or for my church.

Perhaps you believe that one who is pro gay cannot be a Christian. That is certainly the impression you give and would mean that you have dismissed someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu from Christianity. Perhaps you have never met a Christian who was also gay or lesbian. The church has produced millions of them through the years. They have been popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, monks, sisters and, yes, saintly lay people, as well as ghost writers for famous evangelists. I could introduce them to you by the score.

Some have lived their lives in the loneliness of enforced celibacy. Some have dared to share their lives and their love in a silent and hidden commitment that is so deep and so faithful, it puts many married couples to shame. We've all known them. They have been members of your family and mine. In a less sophisticated time we referred to them as permanent bachelors and old maids.

I know some homosexual persons who have taught Sunday school and dealt with their imposed isolation by shaping in beautiful ways the character of the children of their heterosexual friends. Please don't tell me these children were at risk, as if molesting children were a homosexual proclivity. In fact, studies show child molesters are overwhelmingly heterosexual and yet no school board and no church that I know of has ever sought to prohibit heterosexuals from teaching in public or in Sunday school because of that fear. So speak for yourself, Jerry, and let other Christians do likewise.

"The Bible clearly teaches" is another of your favorite phrases. I do wish you would study a bit of church history as well as read the Bible more carefully. Surely you recognize by now that Galileo was right and the Bible was wrong about whether the sun rotated around the earth. The Bible was also used to support the Divine Right of kings against the Magna Carta. It was wrong there as well. The Bible was quoted to justify slavery, to undergird segregation and apartheid, and to condemn Charles Darwin. Who supports that "clear biblical teaching" today? Through the centuries the Bible has also been quoted to keep women from owning property, going to universities, voting, and even from being ordained.

The majority of the Christians of the world are moving way from these ideas today, led by women who are deeply Christian. They will not long tolerate this lingering patriarchal chauvinism. The Southern Baptist Church, with which you are loosely affiliated, has now decided that the "clear teaching of the Bible" requires wifely obedience. Have you tried that on your wife, Jerry? Or better still, try it on my four daughters and see how it plays in their generation. This same Southern Baptist Church has now voted to preclude women from serving in senior pastor positions. Women can serve our nation as senators, attorneys general, secretary of state and as members of the Supreme Court. They can even be the CEO of Hewlett Packard and Toys R Us, but they cannot be senior pastors in the Southern Baptist Church because the Bible precludes it? Who are you fooling, Jerry? That use of the sacred text will not endure, nor should it.

Perhaps you have forgotten that I've known you for a long time. I lived in Lynchburg, VA., from 1965-69 and you were even then quoting the Bible to oppose integration of the public schools, building your own segregation academy and praising the apartheid government of South Africa as a bulwark against Communism. You even identified the African National Congress as a Communist front organization and its leader, Nelson Mandela, as a Communist sympathizer. Those opinions look off the wall today and so does your claim to condemn homosexual people on the basis of clear biblical teaching.

The Bible says many things, Jerry, but above all it has introduced me to the Jesus that you and I both call "Lord." The Jesus that I meet in scripture, however, never blessed the status quo or sought to suppress change. He rather called his disciples to step beyond their security systems into a barrier-free humanity. He reached out to all of those who were made outcasts by the prevailing religious norms of his day. Those of us who seek to be his disciples must do no less in our day.

My study has convinced me that homosexuality is a given part of the broad spectrum of humanity, so I, as a Christian, could never equate it with sin as you so glibly do. Before you go on the offensive to cite the destructive behavior that you attribute to homosexual people, Jerry, let me say that there is certainly some homosexual behavior that is sinful. But maybe you haven't noticed that there is also some heterosexual behavior that is sinful. I regard any sexual activity that is promiscuous or predatory, forced or uninvited to be evil or sinful to use your words. It matters not to me whether it is the behavior of heterosexuals or homosexuals. It is still destructive behavior and Christians must be clear about that.

But I also regard that sexual activity which expresses love, which is lived out in a monogamous commitment, which is part of a relationship of trust and dedication, which does not violate one's word given to another person and which issues in life, to be blessed by its own fruits and thus to be ultimately holy. I believe that the benefits and sanctity of marriage must be extended by both church and society to faithful homosexual partnerships and the sooner the better. Not to do so is to continue the pattern of a killing prejudice based upon uninformed ignorance.

I, like you Jerry, was raised in a Southern fundamentalist church. I got over it and I hope you can, too. There is so much more to Christianity than what I found in that tradition. You need to experience that, Jerry, for in the expression of your narrow and uninformed opinions articulated so frequently in the public arena, you are in danger of becoming an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. Until we meet again, I am your fellow Christian. 

John Shelby Spong.

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