Exodus, Empire and Repentance

It doesn’t get much more foundational than “exodus.” When it comes to a biblical event that then becomes a dominant metaphor of biblical faith, “exodus” is right up there with “creation.” You can’t really understand Israel’s story without the exodus. And you can’t understand Jesus, or his most eloquent interpreter, St. Paul, without exodus either. It is, if you will, paradigmatic of the whole thing.

Exodus has to do with a dangerous path from slavery to freedom. A journey from the oppression of the empire to the justice of the kingdom. And it is all about liberation.

So you would think that the disbanding of something like Exodus International would be a sad day in the life of the church. But it isn’t. Indeed, closing Exodus International might well be the most liberative thing the organization has done. In closing their doors they just might be living up to their name.

On Wednesday night, Exodus president Alan Chambers kicked off the 38th annual conference of the organization by announcing that this would be their last gathering.

In a powerful, painful and repentant speech he acknowledged that the movement’s therapeutic approach to helping gay men and women to ‘exodus’ from homosexuality to a straight lifestyle has done incredible harm.

In a published piece simply titled, “I am sorry,” Chambers offers an act of repentance that could well do more for the churches’ ministry in the LGBTTQ community than anything that Exodus International has ever done in the past 37 years.

His speech is worth watching, and his apology is an important historical document that all should read.

The temptation throughout the biblical exodus narrative is that those who have been liberated from the empire want to go back. The ongoing crisis in the story of Israel is that Israel becomes Egypt. The covenant people fall back into the patterns of empire.

What was a story and an experience of radical liberation devolves into a system of oppression, exclusion and violence. The church gets in bed with empire and, enjoying the privileges of empire, forgets its call to the margins, forgets its solidarity in Christ with those who are most vulnerable, forgets that Jesus is to be found in the places of deepest pain.

Exodus International never wanted to be an agent of oppression. They took their name because they believed that in Christ, folks could ‘exodus’ from a lifestyle of LGBTTQ sinfulness into either a life of straight marriage or celibacy.

And here’s the thing; the gospel is about exodus, it is about exiting deathly patterns of life and being embraced by Life Abundant. But “curing gays” is not the gospel. Shame is not the gospel. Indeed, Paul says that he is “not ashamed of the gospel” precisely in a context in which it is offered free of charge to those who the empire most deeply dismisses as ‘shameful.’

Make no mistake, the gospel does call us to “come out” of the empire, out of Babylon. And when it comes to sexuality, this exodus from empire does mean being set free from patterns of sexual life that are oppressive, promiscuous, covetous and exploitative.

That is a word that we proclaim and struggle to live in a culture of commodified sexuality devoid of commitment, devoid of covenant – whether in the straight or LGBTTQ communities. In a Biblical sense, exodus is about keeping covenant and deepening covenant. That is why Israel receives the Torah during their exodus journey. And covenant is deeply good news.

My hunch is that Exodus International has always known this, but got hung up in an exclusionary, homophobic church culture and political ideology that could only imagine covenant being sexually manifest in one way.

At its worse, Exodus International was a rear-guard reaction against folks finally ‘coming out’ to who they are and who God has called them to be. Alan Chambers’ apology goes a long way towards repenting of that homophobic ideology.

This is, of course, a serious blow to American evangelicalism. Exodus International was the flagship organization promoting a conservative view of homosexuality. Their about-face leaves a significant hole in the fabric of the movement.

The question becomes: will evangelicalism retrench, found a new organization to promote a homophobic agenda, or will it see the integrity of Chambers’ apology, and be led by the Spirit into a wider repentance?

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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