Those of you who have heard me speak about LGBT+ issues know that the fundamental question I ask people to consider time and time again is this:
If God has made us all in his image, are we all created equally human?
I raise the issue because it needs raising. And almost every time I raise it, I see two basic responses. People who spend their life in the social majority often fail to understand the question and think I am posing a rhetorical issue which can quickly be passed over. Their response comes at me in variations on a theme of: Of course everyone is equally human - I don’t understand why you are even asking this - please can we talk about things that have real value? By contrast, people who find that they live in a minority situation tend to thank me for asking the question and want to spend more time exploring it…
Because it isn’t rhetorical.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) - a document the Church doesn’t find very easy reading and doesn’t sign up to - sits light to the question of whether or not we are created in the image of God; but it completely understands that without addressing the question of the equality of all persons front and centre, nothing else can ever be achieved.
It is the fundamental issue.
This is why the preamble to the UDHR begins:"Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
It is why Article 1 begins:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
And Article 2 states this again, even more explicitly:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
All human beings. Everyone. Basic statements about the equality and value of all human beings are made explicit because if they aren’t stated clearly, then (to put it bluntly) the strong and the loud presume they are everything, and the quiet and the weak are forgotten; people (real people) get left out.
As I talk about LGBT+ issues in the Church, I often say that talking about equality can never simply be talking about the things that only affect me: that’s selfishness, not equality. It must be understood to be one part of the struggle for all people to be seen as equal. For God made us all in his image, all of us. He made all of us equally human. So though I have a focus and a particular calling in the life of the Church in these days, I must also stand alongside those I agree with and those I don’t understand in their struggle to be accepted as fully valid and valuable sisters and brothers in Christ. It's not my job to speak for others - but it is incumbent upon us all to stand alongside each other. And sometimes I really have to work at understanding other people’s struggles - but always I go back to my fundamental question, because the moment I am tempted to write someone off (just because I don’t understand them, or they are inconvenient to my position or my personal theological understanding) I am reminded how precious this person is to God.
In the last week, I have seen comments about disabled people and trans people in the Church. These comments have come from those who are supportive and those in the social majority who seem to be taking no time to understand. I have seen comments in the Church Times, on the BBC website and on individual writer’s blogs. I have read Sara Gillingham’s article and want to deeply agree with her words and feel privileged to have met her through the House of Bishops’ Living in Love and Faith project - though LLF was clearly pretty awful for her.
All these words and the fresh reminder of all this inequality in the Church has brought me to tears. I have wept for the lack of common humanity I have seen in the words I have read. For those who have felt unloved and for those who have clearly felt unable to sit in the place of another and value that life as their own. I have wept because there are so many struggles beyond my own as a gay man in the Church happening right now and there ought be none.
Did Christ only die for some? Did he place a standard for us to attain to before we might be loved? Did he grant to others the gift of labels and acceptable identities that the rest of us might gape at such awesome normality?
Why should a trans person not be equal to anyone else? Why should supporting a young trans person be automatically bad? What should love look like except treating my neighbour with every bit of respect and understanding that I would want to receive? And if my neighbour’s life experience is different to mine, what possible right does that give me to suggest they try harder to look like my expectations of how life should be? How arrogant is that? How inhuman!
Why should anyone get to choose the words another might have to be forced to use to describe themself their whole life long? Why should anyone be made to live through physical and psychological scarring so that comfortable ‘normal people’ might feel more comfortable and ‘normal’? What kind of sick and ungodly abuse is that - and how dare anyone claim it to be ‘Christian’?
Why should a disabled person be expected to want to be just like an able bodied person? Why should their idea of heaven be all about being physically restored to someone else’s concept of fitness? Why should that agenda be presumed for them - when God has so much more for all of us? All of us like to presume we’ll gain perfection in the resurrection body, but none of us have the foggiest idea what that ‘perfection’ means: Will short people be tall or tall people be short, or will those who lose their hair young regain it? And how on earth can any reasonable concept of ‘perfection’ allow Jesus to keep the nail scars in his hands and sides?
Those nail scars are of course the marks of his perfect love. But it is my imperfections that have often been channels of that perfect love, making all the difference in so many of my best evangelistic moments - mishearing a word that made me give a better answer than I would otherwise have done; an impatient retort turning out to have the power of a prophetic word; an unrequited crush on a bloke making me take the time to tell him about Jesus…
Will these be my personal nail scars? Will I ascend into the new creation half deaf, bad tempered and liable to a never-ending ache of one-sided romantic feelings? I think I’m hoping not! But then again, what does it mean for me to rise in glory if all the things that make me recognisably me have all fallen away?
‘Equally human’ doesn’t make us all identical in every way - as if heaven should be filled with identikit and indistinguishable ‘human’ things, the bland following the bland. Rather, our glorious and God-given equality reminds us that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, all of us, here and now, in astounding human variety, and we are in our innumerable differences all loved by God and we all have infinite value.
It is the disgrace of some Christian theology that it introduces the weighted concept of ‘sin’ as an excuse for a form of moral elitism simply as a means of maintaining some concept of differentiation. Yes, some say, we all have a potential equality, but sin in the world can mean that in effect people live with more or less of the image of God in their lives, and so equality must not be made a ‘god’ - ‘sameness’ is not a given. There are boundaries. People transgress. They make themselves more or less human by their choices. All are never equal. But eat of my tree of knowledge and you will be like God again…
Amazingly, people who believe this never quite hear the overtone inherent in that last sentence. And somehow they will therefore with deaf ears always end up suggesting that the theology and lifestyle they pursue is closest to the ideal, and the rest of us need to get on board. All are not equal, but some are more equal than others.
We should resist such temptation; it has always been wrong.
There is little room for love in this line of thought, for seeing and truly valuing another, let alone for the UDHR, because there is a presumption that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ are wrong. Christians must not give into this subtle deceit: any fool can be right; living righteously is a whole lot harder.
St Paul knew the difference. He took sin very seriously; he saw the Cross as God’s great answer to the world’s great problem and to the ravages it could bring to individuals and to the whole cosmos. But whenever he came across people who saw themselves as better than others, as less sinful, as closer to God, as having a better way that demanded others follow on, he was nothing less than savage in his derision of those who raised themselves up.
And instead he pointed out that the flimsy differences (what we eat, what we wear, our accents or holy days or where we came from, or our marital status or a hundred other things that were thrown around to ‘prove’ superiority before God) were like a morning mist: they soon melt away. No, there is a level playing field, and we have all been invited on to it. Sin is there, to be sure, but not to mark some of us out as better or worse, more or less worthy, holier or bell-ringingly unclean. Rather the stains of sin in this world remind us all of the wonder of the gifts God pours upon us. Any other understanding is misunderstanding.
For God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
For the rest there remains one simple, devastating, glorious, perfect law: to love one another. As people. As equals. As human beings made in the image of God. As Christ has loved us.