On October 10, 2004, a group of eleven Christians who were demonstrating at Philadelphia OutFest were arrested on a variety of charges, including most notoriously “ethinic intimidation.” All charges were eventually dropped, but the story nonetheless has had a powerful impact in Christian circles with its foreboding suggestions of what could happen in the future if hate crimes laws are allowed. Since the event, the “Philadelphia 11” have been treated as heroic defenders of the faith in conservative Christian circles.
I want to set aside the issue of hate speech and hate crimes laws, the legality of the actions of the “Philadelphia 11”, and the question of whether they were treated worse or better than they deserved by the gay event attenders and law enforcement. My concern here though isn’t so much with the events of that day themselves, but with the adoption of the “Philadelphia 11” as conservative Christian poster children (literally–see the smaller picture on the bottom left) and defenders of the faith.
Michael Marcavage and his organization Repent America, which was behind the demonstration, profess to be acting out of love. But wouldn’t love pay heed to the efficacy of a method of evangelism? If he really wants to see men and women turn from their sin to Christ, would he show up at gay pride events with a bullhorn? I can’t help but wonder if this is more about making disturbances, getting attention, making enemies, and trying to get persecuted than it is about presenting the gospel in love to people who need to hear it. In this post I will demonstrate how Repent America’s love falls short, judging them by their own words and by resources they link to from their own site–not by what their enemies have to say about them.
I believe that ultimately it is God who changes hearts. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more and less effective ways of presenting the gospel. And it seems to me that love demands that we opt for the more effective rather than the less effective.
I love this statement, from a devotional (by Charles Spurgeon) on Repent America’s website:
The cross of Christ is in itself an offence to the world; let us take heed that we add no offence of our own. It is “to the Jews a stumblingblock”: let us mind that we put no stumblingblocks where there are enough already. “To the Greeks it is foolishness”: let us not add our folly to give point to the scorn with which the worldly-wise deride the gospel.
(I wish every evangelical Christian in the US would meditate on that gem!)
Contrary to this bit of wisdom, I see Christians (including Repent America) who seem to delight in being as offensive as possible, who seem to rejoice in creating stumbling blocks, in making it even harder for the hard-hearted to turn and repent. What would make someone think that it would be a good idea to try to reach people at a gay pride event by preaching on the evils of homosexuality? It seems to me that that would be the time that they would be least receptive to a call to repentance directed toward that very sin.
In failing to show respect, they disgrace the cause of Christ. Repent America may feel that such people and celebrations do not deserve respect. But the point is that participants in those celebrations certainly feel they do. Party-crashing just makes Repent America look like bad neighbors, and makes it harder for the gospel message to be heard.
Repent America is clearly a big fan of evangelist Ray Comfort. But they apparently missed this advice of Comfort’s, in the sermon “Hell’s Best Kept Secret”, linked to from Repent America’s home page:
“If you want to bring a homosexual to Christ, don’t get into an argument with him over his perversion. He’s ready for you with his boxing gloves on. No, no. Give him the Ten Commandments. The law was made for homosexuals. Show him that he is damned, despite his perversion.”
Now, I wouldn’t use the same language that Comfort uses. But I feel that his basic point here is quite sound: The way to lead gays to Christ is not through arguing with them about homosexuality. If I know you have one deaf ear, I won’t speak in it if I’m trying to get you to hear me. If I know you have a blind spot, I won’t display something in front of it if I’m trying to get you to see. “But they must be convinced of their sin before they will see their need for a Savior!” True enough. But it’s not as though homosexual sex is the only sin that gay people commit. On the contrary, like everybody else, most of them struggle with many things that they themselves wouldn’t hesitate to call wrong. So why not address those matters instead?
Speaking personally, when I first keenly felt my need for a Savior, I felt it because of my pride, because of my greed, because of my hatred, because of my lack of self-control, because of my selfishness, because of my unrighteous anger, because of my impatience, because of how I had hardened my heart against the Lord of the Universe and blasphemed His name. These things condemned me. I did not yet see the sinfulness of homosexuality, or any [consensual] sexual sin for that matter. It was not until after I became a Christian by God’s grace that my eyes were more fully opened and I could see the truth in the Scriptures and in the witness of the Holy Spirit within my heart.
So I wonder if Repent America is really about saving souls, or just about denouncing homosexuality and getting attention? I’ve noticed that other evangelists talk about those they’ve won to the Lord, how God used them to lead people to Christ. Repent America, by contrast, has few stories to tell on their site about their soul-winning, but a lot to say about their protests and legal troubles, making me wonder where their focus is. A Philadelphia City Paper article notes that the only evangelistic success stories Marcavage could muster were one about comforting an apparently already Christian woman worried about being cheated on, and another about persuading a guy to return a porn video. Comforting Christians and convincing people not to watch porn are fine things, but neither counts as swelling the ranks of the saints in heaven.
I don’t think that a lack of converts on its own is necessarily an indicator of a lack of sincerity on Marcavage’s part. In the Bible we see that God at times sent prophets to speak to people who would not listen, whose hearts He had hardened. But Repent America’s apparent lack of success combined with the dubiousness of their methods suggests that they should reconsider their approach. If they refuse to do so, then those who support RA should reconsider that support.
Of course, whether or not RA is acting out of love should have no bearing on their free speech rights. But it should have bearing on whether we put them on a pedestal and celebrate their actions. At bottom, I think some of us are just too desperate for heroes and martyrs.