Conservative Christians hate gay people.

That’s the narrative anyway. Culturally, “bigot” is the de facto tame way to describe those who hold a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. Descriptions of those who do not conform to modern notions of sexual morality are blithely dripping with tacit or overt charges of ignorance or hatred. Almost as bad as that is the dismissive brushing aside of traditionalists who, so many people are so sure, are just about to be crushed by the wheels of time.

Christian, my people, bristle at this, of course. But before defensive shields shoot up and we say too much, perhaps our first move in response to such charges should be that…. sometimes those charges are true. I’ve talked with people or heard from people that have similar religious views to me about many things, but who talk about gay people in a way that I find uncomfortable at best and abhorrent at worst. And to justify the kind of ignorance or hatred or disdain or disgust that drips from their words, they’ll bookend their speech with some poorly done Bible quotes. It’s chilling. I think the insistence that gay rights = slavery/segretationist issues in our day is more than a little off base for a number of reasons. However. This particular slice of the issue should rankle and concern us. Because this did happen in those contexts: using religious language to justify real venom.

We should own up: That does happen in churches. There are plenty of people who wear the “Christian” hat that say awful things in the name of Jesus. People aren’t making up the fact that they meet people like that. It’s real. And that’s terrible.

Do I think that that’s most of the Christians in this country? No. I really don’t. But it doesn’t take too many interactions with someone like that to give the overwhelming impression that “Hate guy” equals “Christian guy.” So before we go about getting personally offended by words like “bigot” and “hater,” perhaps we should pause to say, “I’m really sorry that that label has believable backing in their mind.” What a terrible thing to endure.

In any place where we hope to have meaningful relationship and dialogue (and I hope we want that across our communities), there has to be a willingness to listen to people we disagree with and grant that they might actually believe what they say. What I mean is that people who don’t agree with a traditional sexual ethic should perhaps listen closely to Christians (or others) who say that they don’t hate gay people and think, “Well… maybe they don’t actually hate anyone here.” It rarely seems to enter the minds of those who recount the narrative that the people over there on the other side, those bigots, they may not just be using religious language to protect their hatred. They might generally believe what they’re saying. And they may not hate anyone.

What we have between us is wildly divergent ways in which we express love. For Christians, it is so normal for us inside our own community to understand that you can both be loved and called a sinner at the same time. We often view ourselves before God as children. We have no problem admitting that we may crave cake but God lovingly tells us no. For us, this is normal to have both “love” and “sinner” together.

But many, many people do not understand how that can be so. I’d say equality and acceptance are more likely the primary avenues of understanding love and respect (Jonathan Haidt talks about this in The Righteous Mind, a non-Christian book about morality that it is really helpful in conversations like this.) Leaving aside any kind of religious imagery, can you imagine anything more loving than being told that you will be loved and accepted for who you are, just as you are, no matter what? That sounds like the ideal expression of love to a lot of people.

So when people who have been hated for the way they were born run into people who tell them their sinful, the idea of love flees the pictures and we just have two groups of people staring at one another, seething and hurt. People then refuse to accept that the person on the other side is doing anything but hating them.

What a mess.

We can’t keep doing this. We’ll never have any friends who think differently from us.

I don’t really know how to fix all of this. But I do know that Christians have to do better to live the love they say they have. It has to be believable to an outsider that they’re actually loved even when the person across from them doesn’t accept something they do. We’re speaking across one another and instead of to one another. I wish that we could give one another the chance to show the best possible version of what we say we believe. I wish the dominant narrative would pause to grant that Christians may actually mean what they say when they say the love people they disagree with.

But I wish that Christians would make a more compelling lived argument for that truth. I think we “love the sinner, hate the sin” to the point that we “love” them by staying away and not getting to know them. That’s not love. If you’re not going to accept everything about someone and then you don’t accept them at all, it just seems like you’re rejecting them flat out. That can’t be what we mean. It just can’t.

I can’t make anyone change their definition of love. And I can’t change my definition of love to make it look like unquestioning acceptance. I just truly do not believe that that is love. I don’t think that I have that from anyone and I think I’m better off for it. But what I need to change is I need to make it believable that I am actually trying to love people even if I’m not meeting their terms. I want someone, at the least, to say, “They don’t love me very well because they reject X about me. But I do know that their substandard love is sincere. They don’t hate me. They don’t love me like I want. But they don’t hate me.”

That would be a huge step forward. I don’t think that that falls on anyone’s shoulders but my own. I have to live the argument I wish would be otherwise widely accepted. I have to demonstrate with my life that I actually do love this person or that person. Maybe someday, we’ll come to love and trust each other. I think that’s a better way forward. We won’t argue our way out of this conflict. But we might be able to build bridges and move towards trusting our way out.