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The Table Video

Richard Mouw

Civil Disagreement with the LGBTQ Community

President Emeritus and Professor of Christian Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
August 9, 2015

Richard Mouw tells the story of his visit to an Episcopal mass for LGBTQ parishioners, why he did it, and his response to those who suggest that such an approach sends the wrong message of condoning or legitimizing homosexuality. He goes on to describe the importance of empathy and other civil attitudes.


And I think what you’re advocating, Richard, is what we call perspective-taking. It’s to step outta my perspective long enough to see the world how you’ve constructed it and how you created it. And one thing that you did that I found fascinating, when it comes to the whole sexuality issue, is that you went to an Episcopal Mass for gay parishioners and you actually sat in that Mass along with them.

Now can I ask you what do you think was the value of that and was there any pushback from people saying, “But aren’t you condoning what they’re doing?” So what was the value and what was the pushback?

Well first of all, I’ve talked a lot about that subject so I thought I gotta experience first-hand people who disagree with me but nonetheless find it necessary to come together and worship God. And so I thought I could sit in the back but when I got there, all the back seats were taken and I could do nothing but sit in the midst of what was largely a gay lesbian audience, congregation.

And the two things that just overwhelmed me was one, we prayed Psalm 139. “When I was in my mother’s womb, “you knit my parts together.” To hear people around me saying this God who knit me together as a human person. But then at a certain point when we had the prayers for the dead, which I’m not used to but, and the priest said, “A lot of you have lost people to HIV/AIDS. “Just speak out the name of a person “who you have loved who died of HIV/AIDS.” And it began with just a simple, “Marlene” or “Harry”. And pretty soon it became thunderous and people were sobbing.

And I thought these are grieving people, these are people who’ve experienced tremendous loss. And I felt that solidarity with them, bonding with them and their sobbing that, if I’d been arguing with them about their views, how do you interpret Romans 1, or something like that, it would’ve been a very different experience.

But there was something wonderful about that and I experienced that as a gift. I didn’t change my theology or my ethics but to see their humanness I think is a very important thing.

One way to think about what happened there is you were drawn further deeper into empathy and you’ve written about the importance of empathy along with other civil attitudes, as you call them. Talk some about the other attitudes you think that we ought to be seeking to cultivate so that we can do better at civil discourse.

Well first of all, I do think empathy is fundamental because the incarnation is all about empathy, the Epistle to the Hebrews says that he knows what it’s like to be us because he suffered in the ways that we’ve suffered, he tempted in the ways that we’ve been tempted.

And so if we’re going to be followers of Jesus I think we have to cultivate that kind of empathy with people who, while we were yet sinners, he came with empathy for us. Secondly, I do think that a sense of humility and you can go right back to just the Old Testament, rigid command morality, we’re not supposed to bear false witness against our neighbors.

Go back to the Mass that you attended. Where you heard those names being said and you heard the weeping, we call that embodied perspective-taking, my body is in there and I’m hearing it and I’m seeing it. That deeply resonates with me but I can hear the objections and the objections would be something like, “Yeah but Richard, your presence there condoned it.”

Acknowledgement is synonymous with condoning it. And so I think that there’s some people who’d be deeply disappointed that you legitimized that congregation. And that’s the kind of objections I tend to run into, what would be your response to that?

Well, presence isn’t necessarily condoning. I mean we sent out missionaries into cultures that do some pretty bad things and yet their presence there, in order to find ways in which we can open up conversations about the deepest needs of the human condition.

And I think that’s the thing where, I don’t wanna say I went as a missionary, that sounds a little too much, but on the other hand, the missionary model is not a bad one to think about. I’m part of a denomination now where people are getting out because they disagree with decisions that have been made in that denomination.

And I respect the sense that God is calling people to do various things but if you were sent as a missionary to a Hindu village and you discover that they were doing things there that really really bothered you, you wouldn’t leave because of that.

For no other reason, we can think of ourselves as staying in certain denominations, something like missionaries, representing a certain perspective that goes counter to. Now again, that can sound very imperialistic and one-upmanship and all the rest but the heart of it is that presence, being among, when we think of Jesus’ willingness to sit at a meal with people with whom he disagreed, he didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “Unless you repair your ways, “I’m not gonna come to your house.” The first thing he said to him was, “I’m coming to your house.” And he tells us to go into villages and to seek out possibilities and so I think, yeah presence does not constitute condoning and I guess I’d wanna talk to people who say that it does.

What is it exactly that you fear about that? What is it that, if there were a thousand gays and lesbians at that Mass, how would you have reached them? Or do you think it wasn’t important? How would you have tried to understand what was going on there? And one way to do it is show up.

Barbara Myerhoff is a communication therapist who has a great quote. She says, “Unless we exist in the eyes of others, “we come to doubt our own existence.” And I think Richard, what happened was those people existed in front of you and you acknowledged their pain, their sorrow and I think we could get a lot more of that today in our civil discourse of reaching out to people outside the Christian community.