We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land, climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! ’tis our Lord’s command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Waft it on the rolling tide: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Tell to sinners far and wide: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Sing, you islands of the sea; echo back, you ocean caves;
Earth shall keep her jubilee: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Sing above the battle strife: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
By His death and endless life Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Shout it brightly through the gloom, when the heart for mercy craves;
Sing in triumph o’er the tomb: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Give the winds a mighty voice: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Let the nations now rejoice: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Shout salvation full and free; highest hills and deepest caves;
This our song of victory: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
– Priscilla J. Owens (1829-1907)
This bit of doggerel, written for the Sunday School of Baltimore’s Union Square Methodist Church way back in 1882, is familiar to just about anyone who has grown up in the Independent Fundamental Baptist or Bible Church movement where it is often sung as a hymn. Its message is simple and comforting; in fact, it is supposed to be the entire point of the IFB message: Jesus saves! I’ll confess, it’s not my favorite thing to sing in church anymore, though I agree, profoundly so, with the crux of this simple message: Jesus saves!
But what does He save us from and why? A favorite passage of scripture which fundamentalists and evangelicals like to quote to make this point that Jesus saves is found in John’s gospel, chapter 3, verses 14-20 (KJV):
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.
The IFB churches and other institutions have been in the news quite a lot recently. It isn’t because they are singing Jesus saves! everywhere they go that these churches and their preachers are getting all this negative press, either. To the contrary, Sean Harris, pastor of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, recently made news when he said (this statement begins at 45 minutes, 40 seconds in the linked video):
“So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.
Can I make it any clearer? Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too Butch you reign her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’
You say, ‘Can I take charge like that as a parent?’
Yeah, you can. You are authorized. I just gave you a special dispensation this morning to do that.”
Earlier in that video (at around 12 minutes and 45 seconds) he says “God gave you your gender… God designed you to be a male. God designed you to be a female…. and anytime that you indicate gender dissatisfaction, you are sinning towards God.” Remember that, because I will return to that quote shortly.
For his Mother’s Day sermon, Charles Worley, the Pastor of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina decided to make the following statement:
“I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers, but I couldn’t get it past the Congress. Build a great big, large fence – 50 or a 100 mile [sic] long – and put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals, and have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. Feed them. And you know in a few years, they’ll die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce.”
Those of us who have spent any length of time in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement in our lives have heard this kind of thing many times before.
Justin VanLeeuwen, Colin Gray, I and others have elsewhere written about the effect that hearing this kind of hatred from the pulpit had on us as children gradually becoming aware of our same sex attraction. The recent ballot initiative to amend North Carolina’s state constitution for the first time in its history — whose vote was held, oddly enough, during the party primaries — to define marriage in such a way as to prohibit marriage equality for homosexuals and other sexual minorities was the reason the national spotlight happened to pause on the IFB this time. In reality, not much has changed in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement since that day in March of 1980 when Bob Jones, III, then the president and now the chancellor of Bob Jones University, stood on the steps of the White House and told a reporter that
I’m sure this will be greatly misquoted but it would not be a bad idea to bring the swift justice today that was brought in Israel’s day against murder and rape and homosexuality. I guarantee it would solve the problem post-haste if homosexuals were stoned, if murderers were immediately killed as the Bible commands.
When I first heard Sean Harris’s speech advocating for the abuse of children, my thought was immediately for those children sitting in those pews in his church who are homosexual, bisexual, transgender, or intersex — there is no question that in a church of that size there are at least a few of them — and I worried for their safety and their well-being. (The chorus of shouted “amens” from the congregation did not inspire confidence that anyone would actually be concerned for the psychological and physical welfare of those children). This kind of rhetoric does a lot of damage to impressionable young minds. Some of them may not even find out until they are adults that there are physiological reasons for their being different from other children. Others will just be figuring out their same sex attractions within the context of a subculture that is extremely hostile to that awareness. None of them will feel they can confide their confusion and their questions to the adults in their lives.
There is plenty of evidence that most homosexual people begin to discover their sexual orientation around the same time that most heterosexual people do: in puberty. And that’s just people who are anatomically typical for a given gender. For transgender and intersex people, the matter of one’s gender can be a source of confusion even while one’s awareness of sexual attraction is forming. For physiological and/or psychological reasons, there is a large portion of the population for whom gender identity is not nearly so cut and dry as Pastor Harris would like to believe. Statistically, 1 in 1500 births in the United States is intersex, meaning that the child’s sex and gender cannot be readily determined due to the presence of both male and female tissues and sexual organs. Based on 2009 national birthrate statistics, I calculate that nearly 3,000 children were born in the United States in that year alone whose gender and sex are not clearly defined anatomically. To put that into perspective, some 4,000 children are born deaf each year. Approximately 6,000 children are born with Down Syndrome. How many IFB churches have a deaf ministry? How many have a ministry for special needs children like those born with Down Syndrome? And just how many have an intersex ministry?
I daresay most IFB churches, like Sean Harris’s Berean Baptist Church, would rather torment those children for being different. That troubles me.
Would that those children could grow up instead with the happy delight of the Psalmist, who says “I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.” – Psalm 139: 14 (KJV)
When I first saw and heard the footage of Charles Worley’s Mother’s Day sermon, the 1997 movie Bent came to mind. If you read this blog regularly you have no doubt noticed the little pink triangles in the photograph that spans the top of the blog. The origin of those triangles as a symbol for homosexuals may be unclear to you. Allow me to explain. In the mid-1930s, Nazis began to round up known homosexuals at Hitler’s behest and ship them off to concentration camps that had electric fences around them where they wore prison uniforms with a pink triangle over one breast to denote that they were homosexual or queer. In those camps, homosexuals were subjected to all the unspeakable horrors that we all know befell the Jews, including torture, rape, and genocide. To wear the pink triangle was, in the minds of the Nazi tormentors, even more despicable than to wear the yellow Star of David that Jews wore sewn on their uniforms. Here is the official trailer for Bent, a movie that depicts what it was like to be homosexual in the concentration camp at Dachau.
Is this what Charles Worley has in mind? Does that trouble you?
Would that gay and lesbian Christians could hear instead these words of grace and affirmation from the pulpit: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” – Galatians 3: 28-29 (KJV)
So what do these guys have to say for themselves?
Sean Harris issued a statement claiming his words had been “taken out of context.” Charles Worley’s church members have told CNN that his words were “taken out of context” and “you need to lay off my pastor.” This persecution complex, the tired trope of IFB pastors whenever they are held publicly accountable for rash words and bizarre, threatening rhetoric, is all too familiar to those who of us who have heard the mantra that “Hollywood, homosexuals, and heathens — the WORLD is against us” day in and day out for decades. None have donned the mantle of imagined oppression more often and to greater dramatic effect than the three Bob Joneses (Sr., Jr., and III) whenever their idle words and angry diatribes have made national headlines. The hyperbole of “coming persecution” has long been a near-daily vehicle for fear-mongering at Bob Jones University:
Would that Bob Jones University students, faculty, and staff could hear instead these words of comfort from St. Paul to Timothy: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” — II Timothy 1:7 (KJV)
“We’re living in a day when it saddens my heart to think homosexuals can go around, bless God, and get the applause of a lot of people, lesbians and all the rest of it. Forty years ago they would’ve hung, bless God, from a white oak tree! Wouldn’t they? Amen.” — Charles Worley, 1978
From whence does this rhetoric of hatred spring? This is not the message of John 3:16. These are not the words of Jesus who spoke gently and without judgment to the sexual minorities of his own day. It would seem that far too often prejudice and hatred have worn the subtle mask of religiosity. The Bible is used to enforce cultural preferences and to maintain a political status quo when a majority fear change. The rhetoric of the Independent Fundamentalists against homosexual marriage equality of today sadly echoes the past rhetoric against marriage equality for inter-racial couples.
At a recent conference, my friend Dr. Camille Lewis presented her research on the enormous inter-twined religious and political influence and power wielded throughout the twentieth-century history of evangelical Christianity in the United States by the Ku Klux Klan. The conference description states “Called as ‘absolutely American as chewing gum, crooked District Attorneys, and chautauquas,’ [H. L. Mencken] the Ku Klux Klan is part of our religious history as American Evangelicals. Its story is ours. And by unpacking its words, we can learn about our own pride and limitations and how we can more wisely enact our faith in the civic sphere.” Sadly, the Klan still wields power in many places where the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement is also strong. It seems hardly coincidental that a man who in 1978 pined for the “old days” when homosexuals were lynched and “hung from a white oak tree” is the pastor of a large Independent Fundamental church in a county known for being a hotbed of Klan activity.
While the hateful rhetoric from fundamentalists appears to be louder and stronger at present, fortunately the national dialogue is changing. Thank God for those within the Baptist movement willing to stand up against this hate speech. Thank God for local citizens who are willing to organize protests against hate speech. Thank God for Christians willing to speak out and say “No” to the rhetoric of hatred and the politics of division.
We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves, Jesus saves!
Jesus saves from hatred, from fear, from intolerance, from oppression, from ignorance, and from injustice. He comes to bring us freedom and peace. If we will but let Him.
(originally published on lgbt-BJU.org, now BJUnity.org)