Homophobic Heaven?

I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place.
Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu’s comments, the one quoted above and another to the effect that he would refuse to worship a homophobic god, are making the rounds on the internet.  Some folks are responding pretty sharply to his preference for “the other place” over a “homophobic heaven.”

I know better than to jump into this fray. It’s consuming enough ink and bandwidth already and there’s no reason to think I can add anything that smarter people haven’t already said better.

But, sadly, homosexuality seems to be the burning theological issue of our day and I can’t resist weighing in.  If we must argue, it’s a pity we can’t argue over something more profound. But on the other hand I suppose we should be thankful that we aren’t still murdering each other over disputes about the precise meaning of communion, the method of baptism or the theological intricacies of the trinity.

Of course Bishop Tutu is not the first person to announce that he would decline a spot in heaven under certain conditions.  Hank Williams, Jr. says, “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, then I don’t want to go.”  Tanya Tucker says if there are no cowboys in heaven, then she won’t go (preferring Texas instead).   Perhaps most famously, Huckleberry Finn, upon being told that he’d go to hell if he helped the runaway slave Jim escape, thought it over and decided he’d just go to hell.

As an aside, I can’t help smiling at Bishop Tutu’s reference to “the other place.” When I was a boy we used that expression.  We learned to fear that if we didn’t behave a certain way, we would “go to the other place” or go “down there.”  “Hell” was a word we just weren’t allowed to say.  Maybe he was raised that way too.

But on to the comment.  What should we make of his preference for “the other place” over a “homophobic heaven”?

I’m pretty confident that Bishop Tutu believes his comments to be purely hypothetical, as he no doubt believes that there is no fear or hatred in heaven and therefore a homophobic heaven is a logical impossibility.   Heaven won’t be homophobic, because if it is, then it won’t be heaven. (I’ll resist for now the temptation to launch into a comparison of the popular notion of “heaven” to what the writers of the Bible believed and understood about the world to come.  For purposes of this discussion, any understanding of “heaven” will suffice).

I haven’t read his quotes in context, but my guess is that Tutu was addressing some suggestion that heaven won’t include gay people.  So are gay people categorically excluded from heaven? That seems to be the suggestion that Tutu rejects, as we all should. It seems to me that whatever one’s views on homosexuality, only the most extreme anti-gay fringe would contend that homosexuals are categorically excluded from heaven.   Even those who believe that homosexuality is a sin would likely concede that if sinners aren’t allowed in heaven, then heaven will be empty.

But unfortunately that fringe does exist and it does get a lot of press. Last year someone posted a revolting video on youtube of a young child in church singing “ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven.”  Instead of horrified gasps, the child’s song was met with cheers, a standing ovation and guffaws from the pastor.

There will probably always be some people who project their bigotry onto their conception of God, creating a god that reflects their own hatred. But any such god is a false god, undeserving of worship. That, it seems to me, was Tutu’s point.

And it seems to me reasonable and morally correct to reject any “heaven” that is defined as a place where injustice is maintained for eternity. The efforts and struggles of folks like Desmond Tutu, who have spent their life fighting against bigotry, violence and injustice in an effort to advance God’s Kingdom, would have been seemingly in vain if their ultimate reward is to spend eternity in a place where that very injustice continues.

All the division and anger caused by this issue is a shame. Soon we will no longer be debating the place of gay people in God’s kingdom. We will have reached consensus and moved on, as we did with the question of women’s roles in church and society.

In the meantime, heaven help us if we imagine heaven without gay people.