The first time I felt sorry for a gay person was when two guys beat Matthew Shepard within an inch of his life while he was tied to a fence post and left him to die in a Wyoming field. He was discovered in a coma eighteen hours later—still tied to the fence post—and eventually succumbed to his injuries at the hospital. It was 1998 and I was an 18-year-old freshman in college at Bellarmine College.
Although I never remember being told or directly taught this, prior to Matthew Shepard, I thought that whatever harassment LGBTQ people (though we did not yet have this term) received, they brought on themselves. I grew up in the midst of the AIDS epidemic when homosexuals were dying in droves and I do not ever remember feeling sorry for them, much to my present shame.
It took Matthew Shepard dying a brutal death for me even to start a rethinking process. Whatever he had done, he did not deserve that. Twenty-four years later, as a 42-year-old man, I look back at that first bit of sympathy that I felt and stand ashamed of the preceding callousness. How was I raised in a thoroughly loving, Christian home and church context that screamed about how much Jesus loves everybody and how nothing can keep anyone from that love and had been so personally unconcerned about extending that concern to such a vulnerable population?
I thought about Matthew Shepard, and the impact of his death on me, recently because of the Christian Academy of Louisville middle-school assignment that asked students to talk a hypothetical gay friend out of their homosexuality in favor of “God’s design” of heterosexuality.
The responses have been typical and as polarized as every other issue in our society. One side decries the abuse of this homework assignment, which primes students for a real-world conversation with real-world effects. They note, rightly, that a private school founded as a reaction against desegregation, which Christian Academy of Louisville was, is once again segregating itself from particular minorities. The school system’s defenders point out that they are only what they ever said they were—an evangelical private Christian school with a “biblical” worldview. They have a right, they say—and they are not wrong on this point—to teach their religious commitments.
They do have that right, but one problem with such a response is that neither the Bible nor Jesus solves this situation, for either side, really. To the extent that the Bible speaks about homosexuality, it is against it, and clearly so, in both testaments. As a New Testament scholar, I am fairly confident that the idea that Jesus or Paul would have been completely embracing of homosexuality runs aground. I wish that were not true, but it is. Jesus and Paul were Second Temple Jewish men and would almost certainly have thought what other Second Temple Jews thought, which is that, based on the pattern of creation, marriage was between one man and one woman (each repeats Gen 2:24 in his teachings) and therefore homosexuality was wrong.
Yet the kind of homosexuality that the Bible specifically condemns is not typically what is happening in middle schools today. The Bible condemns specific sex acts, not same-sex affinity or other gender- and sexuality-related issues like non-binarism. Asking what the Bible says about a teenager who is attracted to someone of their own sex, or even what the Bible says about state-sanctioned marriages between two people of the same sex is like asking what the Bible says about Ford versus Chevy; these are not categories in the biblical authors’ brains.
Those of us who cherish biblical texts on some level or another also need to exercise the important and necessary right to disagree with the text. The texts come to us today from worlds different from our own in time, culture and distance. I saw a different claim in a social media post defending CAL earlier this week. It said, “Either you believe the Bible or you don’t. Period. You can’t pick and choose which parts are true and which are false for the sake of your moral relativism.” Nonsense. Believers or not, we recognize the distance between the biblical texts and ourselves all the time. Here are some matters that the Bible is pretty clear about:
God’s people cannot eat lobster (Lev 11:9–12)
Polygamy and concubinage are alright (Abraham, Jacob, Saul, David, Solomon, et al.)
When a man’s life may be in danger, he can offer his wife or concubine to strangers to save his own neck (Gen 12:10–20; Gen 20:1–18; Judges 19)
Genocide is alright as long as they are your enemies (Deut 20:16), and when conquering your enemies, dashing their babies’ heads against a rock is a blessed thing (Ps 137:9).
Let us not forget the apostle Paul’s upholding of the institution of slavery: he twice tells slaves to obey their masters (Eph 6:5; Col 3:22); sends a runaway slave back to his owner (Philemon); and when he encounters a slave girl being exploited by her owner, he sets her free from a demon but not her owner (Acts 16:16–19).
I have been going to church all my life, but I cannot remember a single anti-lobster, pro-polygamy, pro-spousal sexual sacrifice, pro-genocide, pro-slavery sermon. Just think of all the sinners pouring into Red Lobster on Sundays, after worship no less.
Observing the complexity of applying ancient texts to today is not to suggest that Jesus is irrelevant, however, especially for those who care about his teachings. Jesus is particularly clear about his followers’ needs to love others as themselves, love even their enemies, and the need to take care of the marginalized and outcast in God’s kingdom.
He is also particularly clear about whether the precepts of Scripture or human beings take precedence. Addressing several issues related to food, Jesus teaches that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Observance of the Sabbath day was required by the law of Moses, enshrined in the fourth of the ten commandments (Exod 20:8). Without ever saying that the law is unimportant—because he did not think it was unimportant—Jesus says that people are more important.
Jesus’s teaching that human beings and their wellbeing supersede scriptural requirements brings us back to the issue that the to-and-fro about the school’s “right” to make this assignment misses—the real, live children exposed to this conversational conversion therapy. I hope the church culture surrounding the Christian Academy of Louisville can recover an empathy for the LGBTQ children in their midst, the ones who are out and the ones who are closeted. This demographic is already traversing the wild social terrain that is middle school and is substantially more at risk for suicide and self-harm than heterosexual children.
They deserve greater care and consideration, not ostracization. I think of all the friends and acquaintances of mine from Bullitt County Public Schools and then Bellarmine, who have come out of the closet since we were classmates, what they might remember of the me who had yet to come to affirm them. To any of them reading this, I am so sorry for my earlier callousness and I am sorry that it took Matthew Shepard’s death for me to start to see you in the light you deserve. I hope that the Christian Academy of Louisville can make its way to a biblically informed affirmation of LGBTQ students. Even if it doesn’t, however, I hope it can find a way to privilege caring for them and recover an empathy for these amazing children.
Chris Keith, Ph.D.
Chris Keith (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary's University, Twickenham (London, UK) and Research Professor of Theology at The University of Notre Dame Australia. He is a born-and-raised Louisvillian and lives there now with his family.
He is also the Director of the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity. His most recent book is The Gospel as Manuscript: An Early History of the Jesus Tradition as Material Artifact (Oxford University Press, 2020). Find him on Twitter @chriskeith7.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: I study the Bible and it is clear. LGBTQ kids deserve our empathy