A Metaphor for Dialogue on Same-Sex Marriage

"Climb into his skin" - To Kill a Mockingbird Quote

Still from To Kill a Mockingbird (Universal Pictures – 1962)

Requests for Dialogue

In the days following the announcement of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, I noticed that the initial, overwhelming jubilation among my social media friends was tempered slightly by a few folks – some of whom apparently opposed marriage equality – asking that folks be respectful in their celebration, and perhaps even seek dialogue with “the other side.” I suspect that in newsfeeds where the ratio of progressives to conservatives was reversed, there was a few soft voices asking the same of their conservative friends who were screaming about the end of civilization.

One of the more articulate requests for honest conversation came from the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, a priest of the Anglican Church in North America (a religious body that opposes marriage equality). Although my own bias is to think that the Reverend Warren is far too generous toward the concerns of the opponents of marriage equality, I do think she makes a sound point in reminding us that, “‘Dialogue’ is not a code word for ‘convincing the person you’re talking to that they are wrong and you are right.’” If we are to understand each other, and ideally maintain or even deepen our connections to each other, we must listen for understanding rather than speak for persuasion.

This is good advice, and I’ve been trying to do just that. I’ve been tremendously grateful to some of my friends who, amidst their disappointment with the Court’s verdict, have been willing to patiently and clearly articulate their experiences and perspectives for me. Allow me to go on record now as saying that some of the people, whom I know personally, who oppose marriage equality are good, kind, thoughtful people, and they have wrestled with this issue in a number of intentional ways. Of course, as with all human experience, their perspectives are not homogenous, but there are some common threads.

A Proposal for a Metaphor, in Two Parts, with Caveats

With that in mind, I have been trying to come up with a metaphor that might help those of us who supported marriage equality to hear what those Christian conservatives who opposed it are saying, and vice versa. I have ruled out any metaphor that is internal to Christianity or American politics, because I think we are only going to hear that with our own biases. The best I can come up with is a hypothetical law in a hypothetical, predominantly Muslim country, and the experience of a hypothetical Muslim woman in that country. I am cognizant, and deeply apologetic, for committing the sin of appropriation in speaking of a tradition that is not my own, but in this case I think it’s necessary because drawing in the “other” appears to me to be the only way to distance ourselves from visceral responses to familiar scenarios. I suspect that Christian social conservatives might be more skeptical of uniquely Muslim piety than they are of its Christian forms, and I suspect that my progressive friends might be more inclined to sympathize with pietism from a non-Christian religious tradition.  I am not trying to speak as a Muslim, but instead trying to ask how we as outsiders might hear this hypothetical story of Muslim experience.

What I propose to do is to offer the metaphor in two parts. In the first part, I will attempt to clarify for opponents of marriage equality how those of us who support it hear their words. Obviously I am not speaking for all of us, but I think that, after nearly twenty years in this movement, I can speak from my own experience with some assurance that it represents how many of us think about the issue. Having addressed that, I will then continue the metaphor, and describe how it has been helpful to me in my goal of hearing and connecting with the hurt, anger, and confusion voiced by my friends who oppose marriage equality. In this second section, I do not intend to speak for the opponents of marriage equality. Instead, I hope to speak to my fellow supporters about my own approach to establishing a frame of reference for dialogue with those on the other side.

A Metaphor for How We Hear Our Opponents

With these caveats established, imagine that you open a newspaper from a hypothetical Muslim country, and it reads:

The High Court has ruled today that all women have the constitutional right to appear in public without wearing the hijab or even a headscarf.  In a narrow 5-4 vote, the majority opinion concluded that placing separate obligations on women because of their biological sex violated their constitutional right to equal treatment under the law, and that, “while individual conscience or religious faith might compel a woman to wear the veil, it is not the role of the government to impose religious obligations on its citizenry.”

A spokeswoman for the Family Association for Women was quick to decry the ruling, stating, “This decision represents the destruction of the very fabric of our society. It bodes calamity for our nation, a terrifying future for our women, and the inevitable ruin of the families who form the bedrock of our nation. Since time immemorial, the unchanging obligation of a civilized society has been to honor and protect the modesty of our women. This is judicial activism at its worst, fundamentally reinventing the role of women in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our families. Soon we will reap the consequences, and the real victims will be our sisters, daughters, and wives whose trust we have betrayed in our rush to redefine their role.”


I suspect that, if you are a conservative, evangelical, Christian who opposed marriage equality, you are already coming up with reasons why the issue of same-sex marriage is qualitatively different. Don’t! This part of the metaphor is not about how you perceive the issue, it’s how those of us who support marriage equality see it. If you want to understand our response, both to the Supreme Court decision and to your posts, please try to understand why these issues are exactly the same in our eyes.

First, and most fundamentally, both issues are about denying civil rights. When we changed our Facebook profile pictures and shared exuberant posts of celebration, we were celebrating our neighbors’ freedom to finally live as equals, after having lived for centuries in a legal system that treated them as second-class citizens simply because of an outdated distinction of biology. To us, denying two consenting, unrelated adults the right to marry because of their sex is as absurd and untenable as denying them the right to marry because of their ethnicity, or insisting that they wear a particular article of clothing because of their sex.

There is no ambiguity or grey area here for us, because it is the logical extension of extending full status to women in our culture. Amanda Marcotte explains this extremely well. Simply put, the arguments against marriage equality were predicated on assumptions about sex and gender identity that were already archaic in the twentieth century, and which have no place in the twenty-first. Some religious groups still haven’t caught up on the issue of gender equality, thus it is hardly surprising that the two largest Christian denominations advocating against marriage equality also do not allow women to serve as pastors/priests. The conflict, therefore, is not just about marriage. At the heart of the debate is our desire to push back against certain groups’ anachronistic and irrational need to categorize and limit people based on their biological sex. For us, that debate is long-settled, and opposing it in the public square sounds to us sounds like an attempt to turn back the clock to the medieval era.

In fact, we realize that there isn’t a cogent argument for doing so, other than from religious fundamentalism. I know from past experience that opponents of marriage equality often object to the “fundamentalist” label, but those who make those objections would be well-advised to read the conclusions of the Fundamentalism Project, led by Martin Marty. Fundamentalism emerged in the early twentieth century as a reaction to modernism, when certain superstitions and prejudices could not withstand the cultural consensus created by social and scientific progress. When religious “conservatives” enter into the public sphere to deny rights to women, people of color, members of minority religions, or LGBT folks, it is fundamentalism at work.

Simply put, we do not want a theocracy, and we definitely do not want fundamentalism – Christian, Jewish, or Muslim – to dictate any aspect of our governmental policy, ever. If you self-identify as a “conservative Christian” and oppose marriage equality, please understand that we hear your rhetoric in exactly the same way that you would hear the words of an imam proclaiming that the law should require that all women – regardless of their own beliefs –  wear the hijab. This is not because all supporters of marriage equality are atheists or hostile to Christianity. Many of us are Christians ourselves, and I am a theologically conservative Christian clergyman. We are not opposed to you imposing the restrictions of fundamentalism on yourself. We may not like it, but if someone believes God does not want them to marry someone of the same sex, we respect their right to choose not to do so. However, when someone acts to prevent others who do not feel the same religious obligations to nonetheless abide by them, then we feel compelled to respond.

Our response is not in opposition to personal religious belief or practice. It grows out of our strong opposition to theocracy of any kind, and our specific desire – as people who support social and scientific progress – to prevent fundamentalism from gaining any power in our government. We see the evils of fundamentalist theocracies in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, and we recall the horrors of Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva. We do not want an America where other people’s religious beliefs are imposed on our citizens.

So, if you want to step into our shoes and hear your arguments the way we do, try to understand that it sounds to us as if you are opposing civil rights for American citizens, perpetuating a patriarchal and sexist system that defines rights and civil/family roles according to people’s biological sex, and advocating for a fundamentalist theocracy. If you want us to take your arguments seriously, you will have to address these concerns. You will have to explain how preventing same-sex couples in loving, lifelong, committed relationships from having access to the rights and protections of marriage is not denying them civil rights. You will have to explain how you are not trying to reinstate an older worldview that defines people’s social and familial roles based on their genitalia. And you will have to demonstrate that you are not trying to use your minority theological opinion to dictate U.S. law. If you can work through those concerns, if you can demonstrate that your logic is qualitatively different from those who argue that the laws of their nation should require (or continue to require) that women wear the hijab, then you will have framed it in a way that we can hear it without immediately rejecting or mocking it.

A Metaphor to Help Us Understand the Fears of Our Opponents

Now let us return to our hypothetical country.

Imagine that you are a woman named Amina who grew up in a medium-sized town in a country where the law required that women wear the hijab. You are a devout Muslim, and to you your wearing of the veil has always been a daily reminder of the comfort of your faith, as well as a public statement of your belief in the dignity and special calling of women as set apart from the coarseness of male roles and behavior.

You are well-educated, with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from a university in a nearby country. While at university, you tended to only socialize with other women who wore the hijab. In fact, you thought that, because so many women went uncovered, Muslims were a minority at your school. It never occurred to you that the women there might be equally pious Muslims, and that the hijab might not be a part of their religious practice, since going unveiled was unheard of (and in fact illegal) in your homeland. Although you encountered things in your studies that might have challenged your faith, you always resolved any contradictions you encountered by assuming that human knowledge was limited, and that God’s eternal teachings took precedence.

Now imagine that you work in a research lab at a hospital in your town. You show up for work the day of the high court’s decision, wearing your hijab as usual. You know that a couple of the staff members of the hospital are not Muslims, and you are not surprised to see that those women show up with their heads uncovered. What does surprise you is to see a significant number of your Muslim friends with their heads uncovered as well. Even more surprising is the significant number of patients who arrive throughout the day, all unveiled.

Nonetheless, the majority of the women you know well, and generally the majority of the women in your town, are still wearing the hijab. When you return home that evening to watch the news, however, you realize that the same is not true in any of the cities throughout the country. In fact, according to the television footage, the streets of the cities are packed with women laughingly marching in solidarity, their heads bare of scarf or hijab. Even more surprisingly, the reporters are only giving token attention to those who opposed allowing women to go in public unveiled, and those opponents are universally being portrayed as rural, ignorant, and superstitious. You view yourself as none of these things.


It is important for those of us who support marriage equality to realize that the shock and hurt felt by our fellow citizens in opposition is not unlike that of Amina in the metaphor above. Again, I am not trying to speak for them. Instead, I simply hope to describe how this illustration has helped me find some sympathy for their responses.

Just as our hypothetical chemist thinks that the hijab actually protects and helps women, so too do the opponents of marriage equality genuinely believe that preventing same-sex couples from getting married helps them, helps children, and helps society as a whole. Yes, I think this is nonsense, and surveys consistently indicate that the majority of Americans agree, but this is not about the logic of the argument, this is about how it feels. Opponents of marriage equality feel that they are losing a stable, healthy society in which gender roles are clearly defined, an orderly world in which people know to behave the “right” way. No matter how we may feel about that worldview, it is important that we recognize the grief and sense of loss they feel at seeing it disappear.

We must also recognize that this isn’t just about their views regarding a stable society. For them, the debate about marriage equality is also about their religious beliefs. Many, if not most, of the opponents of marriage equality view their stance as essential to their faith. This seems self-evident considering the language of the debate, but the obviousness of the fact may keep us from recognizing how deeply personal and foundational the issue has become to some people. Even though it is clear from the number of Christian denominations who support marriage equality that Christianity is not inextricably linked to opposition of same-sex marriage, some Christian leaders continue to speak as if it were. As a result, this means that some Christians hear the overwhelming support for marriage equality as an attack on their faith, as a critique of their deeply-held, lifelong convictions about God and human nature. From my perspective, this means that more work needs to be done to extricate Christianity from fundamentalism, but that work will never even begin if we cannot find honest sympathy for those who feel as if the very basis of faith is being threatened.

For many “social conservatives,” the Supreme Court’s decision not only seems like a challenge to their religious beliefs, it’s also a stunning blow to their long-held assumptions about their political power. Russell Moore, president of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, states that marriage equality opponents, “assumed that we would always represent a majority in American opinion.” Many of us are surprised to learn that they thought this way, but only because it is easy to stand in our own echo chamber and forget that our opponents live in one as well. Like our hypothetical friend Amina, many opponents of marriage equality genuinely thought that they were in the majority in their home country. The harsh realization that they are not carries with it the double blow of finding themselves in the minority, and of learning that their organizations do not carry the political power they thought they had.

Consequently, opponents of marriage equality have abruptly learned that they are members of a minority group, one with limited political clout, one with minimal and biased representation in the media. As a result they now fear the possibility of social stigma, ostracism, and even persecution over something that they view as fundamental to their identity. The irony of this circumstance is not lost on me, but as someone who has spent his professional ministerial career advocating for those who found themselves on the margins, I can also sympathize with their feelings of marginalization and powerlessness. Fundamentalists have always used a disingenuous persecution complex to further their agenda, and years of that rhetoric have now collided with the realization that their views are clearly in the minority, leading to tremendous anxiety about the possible loss of their freedom as a result of their marginal political and social status.

In light of the protections of the First Amendment, those fears are absurd, but I can understand how the tone of public opinion might engender that anxiety. Speaking for myself along, I have to confess that I want opponents of marriage equality on the margins, and I do not want them to have political power. Nonetheless, they do have a right to be heard, and if I want to hear their voices, the voices of humans speaking from their flawed experiences just as I speak from mine, it is essential that I recognize the fear and loss associated with their new-found minority status. Even if I find many of their hyperbolic claims ridiculous, I will never be able to have honest dialogue with them if I cannot find a way to empathize with the source of their fear.

In short, as Atticus Finch said, if we are going to understand the opponents of marriage equality, we have to “climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.” We have to consider what it feels like to genuinely believe that society is in decline, and to grieve that the beliefs we hold most dear are under attack. Even as our political power as progressives seems to be on the ascent, we must remember the disquiet and frustration of feeling politically powerless. In the end, we must, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, recognize that – regardless of how ignoble and intolerant the reason – our opponents are now entering into the experiences of marginalization and stigmatization long felt by members of the LGBT community. If the late Reverend Will Campbell, a passionate advocate for racial inclusiveness, was able to hear the pain and longing in the stories of klansmen, then we can do the same for those who oppose civil rights for LGBT persons.

Concluding Thoughts

Opponents of marriage equality will no doubt object to being compared to the racists of yore. Although I am aware of those objections, I also note their historic myopia. In previous generations, well-meaning people of faith used religious rhetoric to oppose the abolition of slavery, oppose women’s suffrage (even in the modern day), and to oppose integration and multi-ethnic marriages. The rhetoric is the same, and the outcome is the same. Society moves forward, and eventually the “conservative” religious rhetoric catches up. My point here has not been to defend opponents of marriage equality, or even to assert that their arguments deserve equal weight. I think the pattern of history is clear, and I think that future generations will simply group all of these issues together as representing our gradual rejection of the tyranny of medieval superstition and ancient prejudices.

In the here-and-now, however, we are faced with the reality of neighbors, colleagues, social media friends, and family members who sincerely and passionately disagree on this issue. Neither side is likely to persuade the other, but somehow we have to find a way to see ourselves the way our opponents see us, and to try and step into their world so that we might find common ground in empathy, if not in understanding.

When Jesus was asked whom we should consider our neighbor (after commanding that we should love our neighbors as ourselves) he responded with a parable that, were he to seek to offend us as much as he did his original audience, he would likely have titled “The Good Nazi” or “The Good Klansman” of instead of “The Good Samaritan.” The call of the gospel is to love even those who hate what we represent, and whose views we despise, as if they were our brother or sister. We cannot do that unless we recognize each other’s wounds, and actively work to heal them.

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The Sky Is Not Falling

Icon of the Council of Nicaea

Symbolum Nicaeno-Constantinopolitanum (Wikipedia)

The astonishing rhetoric from the far right has reached such a level of absurdity, that is easy to confuse it with parody. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz called this “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.” An American Family Association editorial by Bryan Fischer compared Obergefell v. Hodges to the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and D.C., and then made the even more astonishing claim that American citizens are now “serfs on a plantation run by cultural elites wearing black robes.””Crunchy Con” pundit Rod Dreher used an opinion piece in Time to continue to push for his “Benedict Option,” making the melodramatic claim that orthodox Christians “are going to have to learn how to live as exiles in our own country…with at least a mild form of persecution.

Common to these and other impassioned screeds from the far right, is the claim that full inclusion of LGBT persons is an attack on Christianity. In making their case, far-right Christians have even partnered with non-Christian groups to fight in every sphere against that inclusion. This means that socially conservative voices have elevated the issue of LGBT rights to the level that it trumps issues of actual theology, e.g. the nature of God, the Church, and humanity. The irony is that they make these partnerships, including with groups who actively work to undermine Christian orthodoxy, because of their desperate claims that it is Christianity itself that is under attack. This is patently absurd for several reasons, in particular: the nature of Christian orthodoxy, the diversity of Christian views on LGBT rights, and the actual impact of full LGBT inclusion on American life.

The Nature of Christian Orthodoxy

The history of Christian orthodoxy offers little support for the far-right’s claims that Christianity itself is under attack.  Literally meaning, “straight belief,” the concept of “orthodoxy” in Christianity grew out of the need for increasingly geographically separated Christian communities to establish a framework for what defined “Christian” belief.  Over the course of hundreds of years, through a process of ecumenical councils, Christian leaders worked to find consensus about what common, core beliefs defined our shared identity as “Christians,” despite our many differences in practice.  The foundational statements of those beliefs are found in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Elsewhere I have written about how these beliefs break down, how fundamentalism damages the strength and meaning of traditional orthodoxy, and how orthodox Christian beliefs are not an impediment to social progressivism. I will not restate those essays here. The short version is this:  throughout history, Christians have disagreed about what it means to act as a Christian. The members of the early Church had no personal possessions and were pacifists. For over fifteen hundred years, most Christians were comfortable with the institution of slavery. Festal and feasting obligations, baptismal practices, and a wide range of other issues have been sources of disagreement and debate for Christians since the Apostles first argued about whether or not uncircumcised Gentiles could be Christians, twenty years after the crucifixion. And yet, despite our many differences, we have all remained Christians because what defines Christianity is not our diversity of beliefs about specific behaviors, but rather our common beliefs about the nature of God, the person of Jesus, the character of humanity, and the good news of the gospel. This is the totality of Christian orthodoxy. Consequently, unless there is a sudden and overwhelming cultural push to deny the Trinity, or the unique divinity of Jesus, or that humanity is restored to God through Jesus’ sacrifice, then there is no “attack on Christian orthodoxy” in mainstream culture. In fact,  the most prominent group in the US to attack the Christian understanding of the nature of God and humanity is the Latter Day Saints, but the opponents of marriage equality consider the issue of same-sex marriage so much more important than actual Christian orthodoxy that they are willing to overlook real doctrinal issues for the sake of their pet casus belli.

The Diversity of Christian Views on LGBT Issues

They have no choice, because their fellow Christians are not uniformly on their side. On the individual level as well as on the denominational level, Christians have a diversity of views on same-sex relationships. Beyond that, the trend is unambiguous: Christians increasingly affirm same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex ones, and the majority of mainline Protestants in the United States no longer view homosexuality as a sin. I have written on this subject, and the relevance of biblical studies, at length. As time moves forward, more and more of us concur with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, that, “A parent who teaches a child that there is only one sexual orientation and that anything else is evil denies our humanity and their own too.

With these trends in mind, and recognizing the growing body of Christian scholarship in support of LGBT rights, it is virtually impossible to make the claim that “orthodox Christianity” is somehow under “attack” by the movement toward full inclusion of LGBT persons. Many of the people pushing for those rights are themselves orthodox Christians. It is not orthodox Christianity that is under attack, it is fundamentalism, a contemporary movement that emerged when the cumulative effect of hundreds of years of Enlightenment thinking eventually made a superstitious and overly-simplistic approach to Christianity and Scripture untenable. It’s hardly surprising that fundamentalism is increasingly under “attack” by social progress. The movement was created to fight against progressive issues. It is unlikely to survive their victory.

It important to note that fundamentalism is not, however, an implicitly Christian movement. If it were, it would not have so much in common with fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Islam. Fundamentalism is a social movement by people who feel left behind by science, scholarly research, feminism, civil rights, and other areas of social progress. It simply dresses itself up in religious rhetoric in an attempt to deflect criticisms of its irrational claims. As an analogy, imagine if a building were on fire, and there is only one exit. Everyone inside the building is wearing a red shirt. One person, for some unknown reason, wants everyone to die in the fire, so he puts on a red shirt and blocks the only exit. His assumption is that, if he clothes himself like everyone else, his motives will seem to be beyond reproach. Now imagine that everyone in the building shoves him aside to get out of the building. Any claims the man might make that he was being mistreated because of his red shirt would sound absurd. Fundamentalist claims that their views are under attack (again, often by their fellow Christians) “because of their Christianity” are equally absurd.

The Realities of Same-Sex Marriage

Not all people opposing LGBT rights, however, are fundamentalists. There are deeply established cultural norms against homosexuality that are only slowly fading away in some places. Lacking a familiarity with the Church’s long history of diversity opinion, and even profound doctrinal shifts, regarding social issues, they assume that their beliefs regarding homosexuality are substantiated by Christianity. They are often unaware that, were they to be consistent, the same simple biblicism that allows them to casually condemn homosexuality would also require them to affirm slavery and give all their possessions to the poor. They are willing to accept complex theological arguments when it makes their lives more comfortable, and unwilling to do so when it might make them face their own prejudices.

In the coming years, that will become increasingly difficult to do. In the same way that few people feel justified in arguing against multi-racial marriages using religious rhetoric, the shifting cultural consensus will make arguments against same-sex marriage seem equally incomprehensible for future generation. So yes, opposition to same-sex marriage is under attack in the United States, but that is not the catastrophe that the right wing wishes to claim. Ultimately, only one thing has changed: people of the same sex can now get married everywhere in the United States. Some marriages will have two husbands, some two wives. Some children will grow up with two mothers, others with two fathers. Some of the couples growing old together, holding hands in their rocking chairs on their front porches, will be male-male or female-female. That’s the shocking thing about same-sex marriage – it’s just marriage. How can more people trying their best to sustain each other and their families, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for their entire lives, be a disaster in any way?

The Sky Is Not Falling

The unequivocal answer: it is not. The sky is not falling, civilization is not coming to an end, and Christianity is not under attack. The claims of the politicians fighting this fight simply do not  hold water. “Christian orthodoxy” is not under attack, because social issues are not fundamental to Christian orthodoxy. Christians and Christianity are not under attack, because many of the people actively working for LGBT inclusion are, themselves, Christians. Ultimately, Western civilization is not in crisis, because all we are talking about is people having the chance to spend their lives together, raise their children together, and share in the joys and challenges of marriage.

In his own discussions of the nature of orthodoxy (defending, in fact, the pietist movement that was a forerunner to modern evangelicalism), Rupertus Meldenius concluded, “in essentials: unity;  in areas of question: diversity; in all things: charity.” That is the center of the two-thousand year history of Christian orthodoxy – finding common ground in God, recognizing the limits and diversity of our flawed human logic, and – when in doubt – erring on the side of love. If, in fact, all of us who have worked so hard for LGBT inclusion have erred, it is on the side of love, and the only thing threatened by love is hatred.

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A Prayer of Gratitude for Marriage Equality

Fractio Panis - Image from the Catacomb of Priscilla

Fractio Panis from the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome (Wikipedia)

Most generous God, since the earliest days of your Church, when your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, first invited us to the banquet feast of the gospel, we have – in our brokenness and sin – sought to exclude those whom we considered unworthy to share in the sacrificial gifts you have placed into our hands. Seated at the Council of Jerusalem, less than a score of years after the Ascension of the Lord, your own Apostles debated whether the uncircumcised were welcome at your table. Through the providence of your guidance, the gospel was opened to those whom the prescriptions of the Law had excluded.  Thank you, generous God, for welcoming us all to your table.

We ask your mercy, most holy God, for in the centuries since, we have proven intransigent in our unwillingness to remember the words of the Apostle James, that we should, “not make it difficult for the nations who are turning to God,” and instead we have continued to add “other burdens” born of our own provincialism, narcissism, and prejudices. Forgive us, merciful God, for the times when we have failed in your commission to share the good news of freedom for the oppressed. We failed because we feared that their freedom would somehow cost us the privileges we have come to enjoy, and it is only perfect love that can cast out that fear. Forgive us our failure to obey your command to love one another as you love us. Thank you, holy God, for your mercy.

God of all love, we give thanks to you, as we continue to move forward into an era in which the loving, committed unions of men and women of the same sex are recognized and celebrated in our sanctuaries and in our courthouses. We give thanks to you, God of all rejoicing, for we know that it is only in our love for one another that we know you and see your face.  May we hear the echoes of your laughter in our own cries of joy at the welcome of our brothers and sisters.  In celebrating love, may we come more fully into the knowledge of the love of Christ, which surpasses all understanding.  Thank you, joyful God, for your love.

Guide us, God of wisdom and compassion.  As the light of your extravagant generosity grows ever more bright in our world, may we not neglect those who remain in shadow. May we hear the voices of those who no longer feel welcome at your Celebration, whose cries of dissent have been silenced by the tide of inclusion. May we remember, in our fallibility and brokenness, that we too fall short of the glory of God, and even at our best we only glimpse the truth of your grace through a glass darkly. May we always include in your Church those with whom we disagree, our fellow sinners for whom your beloved Son gave his precious life. As we offer them welcome, may we also never cease to seek out the other sheep of your limitless flock, who – through our own failures in proclaiming the gospel – continue to believe themselves outside the scope of your grace. Thank you, God of wisdom and kindness, for the expansiveness of your grace.

In all things, may we celebrate that your mercy triumphs over our failed judgment.  For you have called us to act with justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before you.  When given the opportunity, may we choose welcome over rejection. May we choose mercy over moral superiority.  May we choose fellowship over ostracism.  Ultimately, may we choose love over everything, for you, our God, are love. Amen.

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Doctrine, Disagreement, and the Holy Spirit

Bishop-elect Philip North SRC: Christianity Today

Bishop-elect Philip North
SRC: Christianity Today

I find this article deeply troubling.  For reasons I genuinely cannot understand, the ordination of women remains a contentious issue for some Christian clergy.  I can, however, understand each side’s insistence on defending their claims to orthodoxy, but the idea of refusing the laying on of hands by clergy who differ on the topic strikes me as profoundly theologically unhealthy.

How can the intentional unwillingness to receive the laying on of hands be anything other than a rejection of Christian unity? For a person of faith, the physical act of laying on hands is the act of trusting the Holy Spirit to create unity between the work that has gone before and the work that we hope to do. Rejecting it strikes me as a clear and arrogant assertion that the Holy Spirit who works through the flawed and sinful hands of one’s opponents is somehow not the same Spirit who works through the flawed and sinful hands of one’s allies.  Doing so elevates theological disagreement from simply a matter of difference of perspective or interpretation to one of inferior or superior status as an instrument of God.  Making that assertion is hubris.

We all have our bigotries, and many of us try to allow the collective wisdom of the Church, and the direct work of the Holy Spirit, to help pull us out from our provincialism, superstition, and bigotry. To reject the help of that Spirit if it comes through the hands of fellow Christians – regardless of their political or theological bent – is to reject the very thing that gives the Body of Christ its strength.  

To continue with the somatic metaphor, it this sort of rejection is like an auto-immune response in which the body is so eager to keep out intruders that it even attacks parts of itself, sometimes with devastating results.  We cannot be so intent on challenging what we consider unhealthy to the Faith that we destroy the very fabric that knits together.  In fact, questioning the legitimacy or validity of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a believer with whom we disagree on doctrinal grounds undermines the very purpose of the Holy Spirit as Jesus explains it in Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”  It’s the role of the Holy Spirit to help us find unity and draw closer to the truth of God’s will – together.  Keep in mind that even the Apostles, who knew Jesus personally, took thirty years to decide that Gentiles could also be Christians without converting to Judaism (see Acts 15).  It was another 1800 years before any Christian consensus on the topic of slavery was reached.  To reject the reality that the Holy Spirit’s power and authority transcends our differences, failings, and sinfulness, is to reject the very nature of the Church. We rely on the Holy Spirit to unite us and guide us together, however slowly we might move, toward justice.

Along the way, Paul – whose writings are often the foundation for the arguments of the most doctrinaire among us – cautions us to be humble. In discussing the the disagreements regarding superstitions of some believers about meat sacrificed to idols, Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 8:11, “By your knowledge weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.”  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) means that the grace which we proclaim our fellow sinners need is also the grace which our own sins desperately require.

We can and should fight passionately for the issues we think are crucial to the faith, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the people with whom we disagree are not the only sinners in the debate.  Whether it is our wisdom, or ignorance; our inclusion, or bigotry; our faithfulness, or licentiousness; none of it changes the reality that we are all flawed and ignorant of the true mind of God.  To be clear, I think those who reject full participation of women or LGBT persons in the life of the Church are the “weak believers” acting in ignorance and/or bigotry.  But they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ, and if – flawed, broken, and sinful person that I am – I can be an instrument for God’s work, they can be too.  To assert otherwise, to limit the power of the Holy Spirit to those who are ideological perfect, is to simultaneously impugn the transformative nature of the gospel and damn us all.

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When Not To Act on Behalf of God

Cover of L'Indépendant

Cover of L’Indépendant – 08 Jan 2015
SRC: Huffington Post

People are dead because a few idiots thought that a particular god was offended by their actions.  Unfortunately, this is not a novel occurrence in human history.  On a scale from the denial of basic civil rights to genocide, the list of atrocities committed in the name of God is endless.  For as long as humans have anthropomorphized our understanding of the metaphysical world, some of us have used the ostensible will of our particularity deity or deities to rationalize behavior that would otherwise be completely indefensible.

The problem with this “logic” is that reprehensible behavior, even if justified by a perceived divine command, is still inexcusable.  Here are three reasons why.

We Do Not Hear Directly from God

Whatever specific claims a religion might make about their deity, all religions claim some level of supernatural ability for their god(s).  My own faith, Christianity, claims omnipotence.  We believe in one God, who can do anything God wants to do.  Curiously, however, neither our God nor anyone else’s uses this supernatural power to communicate with us in obvious, incontrovertible ways.

Considering the claims some make about how strongly their particular god feels about things, this is a little surprising.  If, for instance, the bark on every single tree read “Give to the poor or I will be angry,” charitable giving might go up considerably.  If the words “Keep the Sabbath holy” hung in fiery letters in the sky every Friday evening at sundown, Shabbat meals would be the norm all over the world.  I shudder to think of the impact of creating us with warnings against promiscuity pre-inscribed on certain parts of our bodies.

Yet this is not how God communicates.  We do not have obvious proclamations that are unquestionably of divine origin.  What we have is tradition, the history of the members of our community of faith constantly seeking to know the will of God and recording that very human effort in scripture and liturgy.  Human writings created by human hands using human language and mediated by human teachers, that is all that we have.

Some members of some traditions claim otherwise.  They assert that their scriptures were actually composed, or dictated, or directly and verbatim inspired, by God.  This assertion is fine for comforting and reassuring the faithful, and for guiding adherents in the management of their interior life of faith.  If, however, a person wants to act in a way that restricts the rights of another person, harms another person, or – God forbid – kills another person, an unsubstantiated claim of divine authorship for a religion’s teachings is not good enough.  If an all-powerful God, or even a moderately powerful hedge deity, really wants you to oppress or kill someone, then God had better make it abundantly clear in some supernatural and indisputable way.  Holding up a piece of paper and claiming “God wrote this” is simply not adequate justification for harming another human being.

People of Faith Constantly Reinterpret Their Teachings

Besides the obvious reason to question the sanity of committing murder based on unproven claims of divine authority, there is justification for caution from within our faith traditions as well.  Even the religions that make the most strident claims about the immutability of their scriptures have modified their interpretation of those Scriptures over time.  The Roman Catholic Church now recognizes that the Sun is the center of our solar system.  The Southern Baptist Convention, despite being founded solely for the purpose of defending slavery, has repudiated both slavery and racism.  Even the most doctrinaire of faiths change their normative interpretations over time.

Beyond the proven history of reinterpretation, there is also the matter of a lack of consensus even (or especially) among the most devout.  Gather any three Orthodox Jews together and ask them about halakah and the use of electricity on the Sabbath, and be prepared for three different answers – all based on the Torah.  Ask a Sunni  scholar and a Shi’a scholar about taqiyya in times of oppression, and their Koranic interpretations will likely take very different directions.  Try getting the aforementioned Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists to come to a biblical consensus on the Eucharist.

Even if one were to concede the unprovable assertion that a faiths’s scriptures and/or traditions were divinely authored, there remains the inarguable fact that the contents of those scriptures and traditions are sufficiently ambiguous that even the most devout cannot agree on what they mean.  This is fine if the topic at hand is whether or not to flip a light switch on Saturday morning.  It is problematic, however, when the topic is murder.  Simply put, if the purported claims of a deity are not so abundantly clear that every single person who encounters them agrees on exactly what they mean, then those claims are not clear enough to justify oppression, violence, or murder.

Speaking as a member of the clergy who has also served as a soldier, this seems like an obvious minimum standard.  If a military order came down about a building, and three different officers read the order and came up with three different interpretations –  attack the building, leave the building alone, and protect the troops inside the building – moving forward with an attack would be unjustifiable.  The same is true with any act of violence or oppression committed in the name of God.

God Does Not Need Our Help

This is even more evident in view of what it means to be God in the first place.  Assuming that a deity is worthy of worship, they must have some level of power over the world in which we live.  In decades of studying religion, I have yet to encounter any group that burned incense to Bernard the Ineffectual, God of Weakness and Passivity.  For a being to be worthy of our worship, they must have power.  We seek the divine because we want to draw closer to the metaphysical power of creation, to our own Creator, to the guiding forces of the universe.  We only worship gods who have power.

If a being with that level of power finds something offensive, then – by definition – they have the ability to do something about it.  If God thinks blasphemers should be struck dead, then God, who has the power of life and death, has the option of doing so.  If God thinks those who dress in revealing ways should suffer excruciating pain, God has the ability to make that happen instantly and incurably.  If God is the one who is offended, God has the power to act.  God has no need of us taking offense and acting of our own accord.  Besides, even our best efforts would pale compared to the power of divine wrath, assuming that’s what God really wants.  Any god incapable of divine retribution for blasphemy – and who therefore relies on puny humans to do the dirty work – is a weak and impotent god in the first place, one unworthy of worship or sacrifice.

People of faith might recognize a flaw in this argument.  Presumably the power of any god worth worshiping is not just limited to divine retribution.  Such a god is also capable of performing miraculous deeds of beneficence, curing all illnesses, feeding all who hunger, and protecting all who are in need.  If God wants these things done, shouldn’t we also leave them to God?  If we are not expected to emulate or embody God’s wrath, why should it be necessary for us to act as instruments of God’s benevolence?

As a person of faith myself, I would like to propose a simple way to resolve this inconsistency.  Recognizing the previous points about the inherent ambiguity of religious tradition, the only instances in which we should act towards others on behalf of God are those times when those same people ask us to do so.  If we believe God wants everyone to be fed, and someone asks us for food, we should feed them.  If we believe God values mercy, and someone comes to us seeking a second chance, we should offer it.  If we believe God is a God of hope, then our words and our actions should restore those who come to us because they feel hopeless.

Setting this simple distinction, that it our duty to act on the will of God only when it does not impose violence on another person, or act in some other way against their wishes, allows us to continue to have a living faith that requires us to act, but prevents us from allowing our flawed human intellect from bringing more evil and cruelty into the world.  If everything our respective religions have taught us about God is true, then that’s a line God would never want us to cross in the first place.

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