On Sunday, June 4, Pastor Dillon Awes stepped behind the pulpit at Steadfast Baptist Church in Watauga, Texas and declared, “What does God say is the answer, is the solution for the homosexual in 2022?…That they are worthy of death.” His statement was greeted by shouts of “Amen” from within his congregation. He continued preaching, saying, “they should be sentenced to death, they should be lined up against a wall and shot in the back of the head.” Again, his words were greeted by “Amens” from within his church.
This clip soon spread online, causing widespread backlash from religious and non-religious alike. But for me, an openly gay, former evangelical, Christian pastor, Pastor Awes’s words are not surprising at all. In fact, I’ve heard similar sentiments regularly. The only difference between Pastor Awes and most other conservative Christian pastors across the United States today is that Pastor Awes was willing to say the silent part out loud. After all, Pastor Awes was not wrong — the passage he was preaching on, as commonly interpreted by conservative Christians, does in fact say, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1:32) If you put any evangelical pastor on the spot and asked if they believed that this verse was true and was in reference to LGBTQ+ people, they would have to answer, even if reluctantly, “yes.”
In a strange way, I am glad Pastor Awes preached what he did so clearly, because he is revealing the truth that most other evangelicals don’t want to acknowledge — that their theology related to the LGBTQ+ community is a theology of death. Despite attempts in recent years by evangelicals to seem more welcoming and inclusive, their core theological claim that the lives and love of LGBTQ+ people is sinful, broken, and abomination is a claim that has resulted in the suffering, oppression, and death of millions of queer people around the world, and it is high time that they own up and are honest about the beliefs they hold and their impact on LGBTQ+ people. Because again, Pastor Awes view is not a minority view, as hard as that might be to believe. He simply said what a majority of evangelical churches teach in a horrifyingly clear way. While most evangelicals would probably disagree with Pastor Awes graphic call for the execution of LGBTQ+ people, the would still affirm the truthfulness of Romans 1:32: “They are worthy of death.”
And even if evangelicals attempted theological gymnastics to get out of this horrifying interpretation of scripture that calls for violence toward queer people, their theology, which tells LGBTQ+ people that they must suppress their sexuality or gender identity or seek to change it to be acceptable to God and welcome in the church does, in fact, cause death. A 2015 study published by the National Institutes of Health found that LGBTQ+ people who are subjected to non-affirming religious teachings have a significantly higher rate of attempted suicide. These numbers have been reaffirmed in study after study, and are certainly true in my experience as a young gay evangelical who was forced into conversion therapy by my Christian college in my early twenties. When you’re told that a fundamental aspect of your identity is evil and realize that there is nothing you can do to change it, for many, death can seem like the only viable escape from this mental and spiritual anguish.
So how are we to respond to the truth that this dangerous theology is being preached in literally every corner of our nation? How can those of us- religious or not- who are allies to the LGBTQ+ community protect our queer friends and family from violence and harm in the face of millions of people who hold to these dangerous beliefs and are feeling more empowered than ever to say them out loud and to act on them?
First, it’s important that we do our work and are informed. The truth is that while this interpretation of the biblical texts is unfortunately common among Christians around the world, it is not an accurate understanding of the biblical texts. The six verses in the Christian scriptures that reference any sort of same-sex behavior are all condemnations of a very particular practice that was common in the ancient world — sexual exploitation related to temple prostitution. Same-sex relationships and queer gender identities were well known throughout the ancient Near East and especially within the Roman Empire — instead of speaking about these realities, every condemnation of homosexuality in scripture is tied to “idolatry,” which means worshipping something other than God, and in context is clearly a condemnation of temple prostitution, a practice where people who have sex with priests or priestesses in pagan temples as a way to honor various gods and goddesses. That is what is being condemned in Scripture; there is not a single condemnation of same-sex relationships or queer gender identity anywhere, and we must challenge these teachings the same way we challenged the church’s teachings on slavery, the equality of women, and the panoply of other backwards beliefs that have been perpetuated in the name of Christianity.
Second, we must challenge our conservative Christian friends and family members to be honest about what they believe and the harm that it causes. The reason so many Christians shy away from saying things as clearly as Pastor Awes is because they inherently know that these beliefs are dangerous and wrong. How can one follow Jesus, whose central command was to “love your neighbor as yourself” and hold on to a belief that a group of people are abominations who are worthy of death? These are wholly inconsistent, and this inconsistency should be drawn out and turned into an invitation for our friends to change their damaging and dangerous beliefs.
Third, we must continue to uplift and celebrate LGBTQ+ people and relationships in our society. The hatred spewed by Pastor Awes is a clear reminder of why Pride is still so important — Pride celebrations began to increase visibility of queer folks, decrease stigma around our lives and loves, and to use celebration and joy as a tool for resistance in the face of fear and bigotry. Despite the broad progress the LGBTQ+ rights movement has made in the U.S., our lives and rights are consistently under attack and in the post-Trump era, there has been a reinvigoration of anti-LGBTQ+ policies and rhetoric across the nation rooted in fear being perpetuated by the alt-right. Old tropes conflating queer people with pedophilia and sexual abuse have found new life, and the demonization of LGBTQ+ people as a threat to basic morality is now commonly heard on Fox News and across social media. The way we combat such dangerous rhetoric is ensuring more people see and know LGBTQ+ people and for our allies to speak out whenever anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is used or policies are proposed, signaling the broad support of queer people by the American public.
During this Pride month, it’s time for a renewed commitment to the fight for LGBTQ+ dignity and equality in the United States. It’s time for queer people to stand up and let our lights shine brighter than ever before, so that LGBTQ+ youth can see our example and know that there is space for them, in all their uniqueness, in our society.
It’s time for allies to be bold in their condemnation of bigotry wherever it occurs. It’s time for our nation’s leaders to reaffirm their commitment to fight for LGBTQ+ rights in every corner of this nation and around the world. If we remain complacent, fear-based views like those of Pastor Awes will spread and will result in more abuse and violence against LGBTQ+ people. Progress is not inevitable, and the fight has not yet been won. This Pride month, may we return again to the spirit of the earliest Pride marches, standing boldly in the face of fear and bigotry and declaring that love will win in the end.
Rev. Brandan Robertson is an author, pastor, activist, and public theologian working at the intersections of spirituality, sexuality, and social renewal. He currently serves as the Lead Pastor of Metanoia Church, a digital progressive faith community.