Countless gay and lesbian people have felt ostracized by Christian people and the church and many have without doubt been mistreated. I think that this kind of treatment is not what Jesus would have us do; I believe Jesus would have us be loving first and foremost. My personal position for at least twenty years has consistently been that no matter what your theological perspective or biblical interpretation on the issue of homosexuality, every Christian has the responsibility to defend the lives, dignity, and human rights of gay and lesbian people. As Christians we should be welcoming of all people, regardless of race, gender, age, disabilities, religious background or denomination, or sexual orientation. The most important message we have to offer is the love of Jesus.
Differences in theology and biblical interpretation on social justice issues should not be allowed to divide churches and Christian people. We need to have a deeper conversation on matters which divide opinion.
In England we are now seeing Christian leaders take very different positions on the Assisted Dying Bill ([HL] 2014-15), which was introduced by Lord Falconer. This is a fascinating parallel to the debate briefly outlined above and I think a social justice approach should still prevail. Falconer’s legislation would make it legal for a doctor to hand over a lethal medication to a terminally ill patient who is believed to have less than six months to live.
Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s most respected religious leaders, has entered the debate over assisted death, by backing the right of the terminally ill to end their lives in dignity. Writing in the Observer, he says that laws that prevent people being helped to end their lives are an affront to those affected and their families. Tutu, who calls for a “mind shift” in the right to die debate, writes: “I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost.”
The former archbishop of Canterbury Lord (George) Carey also spoke out in favour of the bill; in contrast to Justin Welby, the current archbishop and head of the Church of England, who reaffirmed the church’s traditional hostility to any move that would endanger the principle of the sanctity of life.
Tutu says that he has been moved by the case of a 28-year-old South African, Craig Schonegevel, who suffered from neurofibromatosis and felt forced to end his life by swallowing 12 sleeping pills and tying two plastic bags around his head with elastic bands because doctors could not help him. Tutu wrote: “Some say that palliative care, including the giving of sedation to ensure freedom from pain, should be enough for the journeying towards an easeful death. Some people opine that with good palliative care there is no need for assisted dying, no need for people to request to be legally given a lethal dose of medication. That was not the case for Craig Schonegevel. Others assert their right to autonomy and consciousness – why exit in the fog of sedation when there’s the alternative of being alert and truly present with loved ones?”
Tutu has never been afraid to take unpopular positions or stir debate. Mandela once said of him: “Sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
I have taken this opportunity to affirm my commitment to human rights for gay and lesbian people. Baptistcare’s, board, and staff, like the wider Christian community, have not been of one mind on human sexuality. However, at Baptistcare we do seek to foster honest, fair, and loving dialogue; we always ask what would Jesus do? when addressing complex social justice issues. This usually means that we take an inclusive approach.