Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Stranger At The Gate

I didn't write this, it's a book review by my mother(from a Christian perspective.) I decided to post it up because 1) I love the book that this is a review of; 2) it makes some valid points.

Book Review by Kay Allen
‘Stranger at the Gate’ by Mel White. ISBN: 0-671-88407-7
Can be obtained from

‘Who is my neighbour?’

An expert in the law once asked Jesus this question. The reason he asked it was that he had understood what Jesus meant him to do, and he knew the law alright, but he was hoping that there might be some limit on the kind of person he was being asked to love.

‘Who is my neighbour?’

The question is equally relevant to us today, and we might still have the same reservations as the original enquirer: What if my neighbour is not easy to love? What if I don’t understand my neighbour? What if my neighbour is not like me?

It is not so long ago that black people in America were denied their civil rights; they were considered inferior to their white neighbours until Martin Luther King introduced his special blend of peaceful activism, and the injustice of that situation was rectified. Before that, black people were not allowed to worship in churches with their white brothers and sisters. The religious right, spearheaded by Jerry Falwell, were firm in their white supremacy stance.
However, Falwell was challenged by the black man who shone his shoes every day, who remarked that he so enjoyed the religious broadcasts that the preacher put out, that he would love to be able to hear them in person for himself. At that point Falwell was convicted of his error and black people were allowed to join his church.

From today’s enlightened standpoint, it seems incredible that we could have considered anyone to be inferior to us and fair game for prejudice because of their skin colour! How illogical and ridiculous it would all seem, if not for the fact that hate crimes and prejudice destroyed the lives of so many innocent black people. There are still incidences of racism today, but enlightened people would not allow or condone it, and laws are in place to ensure that those who will not change their attitudes can at least be made to change their behaviour.

Falwell and the religious right thus learnt to accept black people, who had been set apart from others by the colour of their skin, something which they had been born with, could not change, and which did not make them any less valuable than white people. To quote Christopher Hitchens in ‘God is Not Great’: ‘One of the great emancipating results of genomics is to show that all ‘racial’ and colour differences are recent, superficial and misleading.’

Unfortunately, this new-found tolerance did not extend to another group of people similarly disadvantaged within society. These people were homosexual. Rather than promote tolerance, the religious right in America did all they could to promote intolerance and hatred of homosexuals, and even used this stance to generate funds for their campaigns.
Convinced that homosexuality was a sin, based on six biblical verses ambiguously translated, Falwell and his ilk whipped up a fever of anti-gay feeling, and as a result hate crimes and suicide claimed the lives of many gay people. ‘Hate the sin and love the sinner’ became a cop out via which prejudice could be fostered without question. Hatred of the sin without hatred of the sinner is in fact not possible in the case of homosexuality because the inborn sexual orientation of a person is integral to (whilst not comprising the whole) of their personality. You would thus be rejecting part of who they are by rejecting their sexuality. Like skin colour, sexual orientation is encoded into who we are.

Who is my neighbour?

In essence this is the question posed by Mel White’s book, ‘Stranger at the Gate’. As Christians we are asked to show love to other people without discrimination. In his story of the Good Samaritan, in his meeting with the woman at the well, in his healing of lepers, Jesus himself issued a challenge to his followers in word and action to demonstrate the love of God to others – all others.

Martin Luther King taught the world that people of other races are our neighbours. Mel White’s book should teach us that gays and lesbians can also be our brothers and sisters in Christ. In this respect, for many, it will be a challenging read.

Brought up in 1950s California by strict Evangelical parents and grandparents, Mel was encouraged from an early age to witness to his school friends. Winning others to Christ was for him a personal responsibility, and he was terrified that he was responsible for the eternal souls of those who failed to convert to Christianity. Thus much of his early life was spent in guilt and fear; only in retrospect was he able to realise that as long as he had ‘sown the seed’ the spiritual growth of another was the work of God.

However, Mel had another compelling reason to witness so enthusiastically. Not only did he feel burdened towards others, he was desperately trying to earn his own salvation. Early in his life, Mel realised that he was different, but at the time he did not have a word for what he felt. In fact, he came slowly to the realisation that he was homosexual. His autobiography is the story of Mel’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality, and the torture he endured as he tried to overcome what he had been taught was a sin incompatible with the Christian faith. If only he believed strongly enough and fought hard enough he would be healed.

It is testament to Mel’s faith in God that although occasionally he felt that God had abandoned him, and more than once he contemplated suicide, Mel never considered an alternative route – to abandon Christianity as incompatible with his sexual orientation.

Who is my neighbour?

Like other Christian Fundamentalists, Mel was initially convinced that homosexuality was a sin – a case of sexual preference rather than sexual orientation. In fact, in America, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 1973 – the implication being that it was something unnatural that could be ‘cured’.

Consider this – would you subject the neighbour whom you are encouraged to love to electric shock therapy, isolation therapy and other types of aversion therapy? All this and more Mel willingly submitted to in a valiant effort to subdue his natural inclinations. Would Mel, a kind and gentle man, have wanted anyone else to endure such torture? No, but he subjected himself to these ‘cures’ in the vain hope that he could change. He allowed himself to be mistreated in ways that he would never have inflicted on his neighbour because he could not love himself.

Ironically, Mel was employed during this time by Jerry Falwell and others of the religious right as a ‘ghost writer’ and film maker. Even Liberal Christians have always believed that homosexuality is wrong, and this general acceptance fostered a climate in which the religious right could promote intolerance as there was an underlying agreement with their beliefs, if not with the various reparative therapies they espoused. The political atmosphere at the time was not conducive to a challenge to the homophobic obsessions of the religious right.

Even today, extremist groups like Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptists base most of their preaching around their hatred of homosexuals, to the point where they stand with placards proclaiming God’s hatred of America at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. Their twisted reasoning is that God hates homosexuality and thus punishes Americans by killing their troops, since there is a certain amount of tolerance to homosexuality in the United States.

Who is my neighbour?

I wonder if we would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr Martin Luther King in his fight for Equal Rights for black people? It was when speaking with Dr King that Mel experienced a revelation that Christianity was not only about saving souls, but about making life better for those marginalised here and now. Later Mel would attribute his desire to be an activist to that meeting. Throughout the book he writes of meetings with various people who wrought changes in his life, and I think we can all relate to such meetings in our own lives.

I wonder if we have the courage to stand shoulder to shoulder with gays and lesbians today in order to demonstrate a belief that they too should have equal rights? I believe that God gave us a brain and that we should use it to examine our own thoughts and feelings in order to challenge prejudice and intolerance within ourselves. Do we have that courage? And once we have challenged ourselves, can we go on and challenge others?

Who is my neighbour?

Jesus gave us an example of speaking out for the oppressed in the parable of the unjust judge (sometimes called the parable of the persistent widow). A widow has been wronged and appeals to an uncaring judge for justice in the matter.

Let us be clear here that although the parable is often used to encourage persistence in prayer, the judge does not represent God. We are told that he fears not God or man and does not really seem to care about right and wrong at all. It is not because of any sense of pity or justice that he gives in to the widow’s request; rather he is just fed up with her! If the judge is meant to reflect God in any way it is as a direct contrast. The judge is a symbol of corrupt power.

However, in the widow, who represents the poor and marginalised, we see a reflection of God. She is the one who peacefully (if irritatingly!) persists in her protest against the injustice done to her. She is both a symbol of God’s justice and the ‘voice of the poor’. The power of what is right eventually wins through. The widow, though apparently helpless, obtains the justice that is the will of God through her constant plea. Her victory is perhaps a minor one, but if we all stood up for what we believed to be right, intolerance and injustice would eventually cease. We are not told that the judge changes his opinion in any away on the matter brought to him, and indeed we cannot change attitudes in every circumstance – that is why we have laws pertaining to tolerance and equality.

In this story the Bible itself has given us a perfect model for Martin Luther King’s peaceful protest and resistance to injustice. For the above explanation I am indebted to Reg Bott, Curate of Saint Faith and St Lawrence Church, Harborne, who spoke on this theme on 21st October 2007.

The book of James also tells us that faith without works is useless.

Who is my neighbour?

It was many years before Mel White was able to accept his homosexuality. He was in fact married with children, trying desperately to overcome his sexual orientation. However, it was with great regret towards his wife and family that he came to realise that he could not experience true partnership with a woman. Eventually came the realisation that his sexuality, far from being a disorder, could be viewed as a God-given source of joy.

Part of the change in Mel’s vision occurred because scientific explanations of homosexuality now indicate that rather than being a wayward choice that can be tamed by prayer or will, homosexuality is possibly genetic and certainly intrinsic to the nature of a person. Mel postulates that just as our understanding of creation has been informed by Darwin’s theory of evolution, so our ideas about homosexuality should be informed and advanced by psychological and scientific knowledge.

In addition, his study in translation of the six Biblical verses generally cited as forbidding homosexuality, led Mel to conclude that other interpretations are possible, given the cultural context of their origin.

Final acceptance of self, and the conviction that he could not live a lie, meant that Mel saw no alternative but to ‘come out’ and live his life honestly and productively as a gay Christian. Integrity was not without cost, as the work Mel was engaged in with the religious right came to an end, as did many of his Christian friendships. Although his marriage also ended, his friendship with his wife Lyla, an extraordinarily understanding partner and friend, did not come to a close. His children also were able to accept and love their father unreservedly.

Thankfully, Mel was able to continue his lifelong call to Christian ministry within a gay and lesbian church which provided him with new employment and livelihood. Thinking back to the meeting with Martin Luther King, Mel also felt called to become a peaceful activist for the equal rights cause.

Mel White really interprets his own story so well that there is not much more I can do than to urge you to read his book and allow yourself to be challenged prayerfully by it.
Who is my neighbour?

Your neighbour is the stranger at the gate. How will you respond?

Kay Allen

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