I had the remarkably good fortune to get to meet Bishop Desmond Tutu a few years ago and be part of a small group of people to sit and talk with him for a few hours. Tutu recently stirred up some controversy by declaring that he would never worship a homophobic God and would rather go to hell than to heaven with such a God.
“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place,” Archbishop Tutu said at the launch of the Free and Equal campaign in Cape Town.
“I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”
Archbishop Tutu said the campaign against homophobia was similar to the campaign waged against racism in South Africa.
“I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level,” he added.
This is very admirable, of course, and I applaud him for his strong stand for justice and equality. I did the same in person when we spoke. And he said to me then that he fights for equality because he is absolutely certain that if Jesus were alive today, that is what he would be doing. And I told him that though we start from very different premises, we end up at the same place and working for the same goals. And I think that’s important. I will gladly work with those I disagree with on religion when it comes to freedom, equality and justice. And the person who made that experience possible for me is a very close and beloved friend and one who fights tirelessly for those things.
But the truth is that I still think there is a problem here theologically. Because if you really don’t believe that God is homophobic then I think you are forced into either very strained and incoherent interpretations of the Bible — the commandment to stone gay people to death is pretty unequivocal, and no I do not buy the many fanciful ways to make it mean something it clearly does not mean — or into believing that the Bible isn’t really the word of God, or both.
Even if you believe that Jesus came and did away with all that Old Testament barbarism, the fact still remains that, if the Bible is reliable and accurate, God did command the death penalty for gays. And for women who aren’t virgins on their wedding day (but not men, of course). And for women who don’t cry loudly enough when they’re raped. So either God really did command those things or he didn’t, in which case how do we know that anything else said in the Bible is true?
These are precisely the questions that I pondered when I was in the midst of leaving Christianity. I could never find a coherent and reasonable answer to them, either from conservative or liberal theology. Either the God of the Bible is a barbaric tyrant or the people who wrote the Bible lied when they claimed God had spoken to them and commanded such things. Neither option allowed me to be an intellectually consistent Christian, so I left that faith behind.
I have dear friends who remain liberal Christians and do wonderful work on the many causes I care about. I applaud them for it, as I applaud Bishop Tutu for doing the same. Ultimately, I care what you do far more than I care what you believe. But I still don’t think their beliefs are really consistent or compelling.