When it comes to recent turning points in history, a few significant ones come to mind for me: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; the first humans on the moon; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the invention of the Internet; and 9/11. You may have a similar list.
And now there is Orlando in 2016. The terrible massacre of 49 people because they were gay may prove to be another turning point in history for many when it comes to the situation facing LBGTQ people in North America—including for some people of faith.
The killings have already prompted some unexpected responses from conservative Christian quarters.
The editors of Christianity Today—the influential American evangelical publication—noted how “deeply grieved” they were and offered prayers “for gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities who now live with a heightened sense of fear.”
Here in Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also offered prayers "for those impacted" by the shooting and offered prayers “for our gay and lesbian neighbours."
But will it really be a turning point for some Christians? I decided to ask my friend, James Toews, pastor of the Neighbourhood Mennonite Brethren Church in Nanaimo, B.C.,
James was a good person to ask since he faced a couple of dividing lines in his own life on this issue. Four years ago a close relative came out as gay, an experience that was, he said, “a big shift. This wasn’t an issue—it was a real person.”
Then two years ago the local LGBTQ community and some evangelical churches got into a nasty fight about whether a Christian group that was anti-gay marriage could use public facilities for a conference.
Alarmed by the bitterness that was dividing the city, Toews reached out to one a leader in the LGBTQ community to try to build bridges—an act that continues in an ongoing friendship between the two.
“One never knows what proves to be a ‘dividing line,” he said in reply to my question, noting that nobody expected the picture of a dead Syrian refugee child washed up on a beach to sway world opinion, and affect the Canadian election.
Yet the killings “have made people who wanted to stay on the sidelines take some kind of a position, ready or not,” he added.
I asked him: Will it make a long-term difference, or just be a blip?
“In my opinion, the tide on this issue is pretty inexorable,” he said. “There will be holdouts and the fortress will be strengthened in some quarters . . . but I don’t see a swing back any time soon.”
He does hope that the conversation doesn’t get fixed on Orlando, though.
“I try to move on to the deep stuff as fast as possible,” he said of events like Orlando. “It was the same with the refugee issue. Two year-old children die in terrible situations all the time. Otherwise we will keep looking for the next moving event or picture to define the conversation.”
He also hopes that the conversation moves past the common statement heard in some churches to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.”
That, he says, “is a theological statement I’ve come to hate and have concluded that it’s completely wrong . . . Jesus loved sinner—period. Jesus went ballistic on those who drew lines to keep wounded and broken people from entering the Kingdom . . . it is a hateful and pernicious statement.”
And what about those who blame religion, and Christianity in particular, for creating the context for the killings? Toews doesn’t agree.
“There are a whole lot of factors in play,” he says. “I think the most direct responsibility are U.S. gun laws.”
That said, “churches are responsible for more than enough bad stuff around this LGBTQ issue,” he says.
“The church does have a responsibility for not being as Jesus-like as they should be when relating to their gay and lesbian neighbours.”
Overall, his hope is that the killings will spark a deep and long-term conversation between people of faith and the LGBTQ community about the issues affecting each group, and that bridges of understanding will be built.
Will the Orlando massacre change the way you think, or the conversation at your place of worship? Or will nothing change?
What do you think?