Jesus Already Answered the Refugee Question

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

The Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) (Wikimedia)

Politicians and theologians in the United States frequently turn to the writings of the Christian Bible for guidance on contemporary political issues. Often this requires some stretched or complicated logic, and, at times, texts from the Torah have to be weighed against Jesus’ teachings in the gospels or Paul’s paranetic guidance in his epistles. This is hardly surprising, since the writings in our Scriptures span over a thousand years of different political events, all of which took place in times with radically different questions from our own. Applying those texts to modern circumstances requires some skill and effort.

That is why the question of the Christian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is so refreshing. It’s one of the few times where we have clear, unambiguous, explicit guidance from Jesus about what is expected of those of us who claim to be Christians. That guidance is found in what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous parable, that of the “Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37. The story is so widely known that in popular, secular culture, someone who goes out of their way to help a stranger is often called a “Good Samaritan.” News reporters and the general public, however, would probably think twice about using the phrase if they knew how Jesus’ original audience would have heard it.

The northern and southern regions of what was – for a brief time under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon – a united kingdom had a long history of enmity and conflict. After the death of Solomon, the northern region formed the Kingdom of Israel, and the southern region formed the Kingdom of Judah. Samaria was the capital of Israel, and Jerusalem the capital of Judah. Over time, religious practices increasingly diverged, with what would become modern-day Judaism centered around Jerusalem and its temple. By the time of Jesus, Jews had over eight hundred years of fractious, sometimes violent, conflict with Samaritans. They hated each other for political, ethnic, and theological reasons. Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem viewed Samaritans as polytheistic pagans whose scriptures and practices were, at best, a perversion of the true worship and commandments of God.

Jesus’ own teaching on scripture and practice indicate that, as an orthodox Jew, he agreed with them (see Matt 5:17-18 as an example). In fact, Jesus’ religious movement was so completely entrenched in Judaism that his closest disciples taught for years after the crucifixion that you had to convert to Judaism if you wanted to be saved (they changed their view after the Council at Jerusalem). With that in mind, and considering the centuries of hostility and conflict, if you want to hear how Jesus and his audience heard the word “Samaritan,” imagine how an evangelical Christian living in the United States would hear “Muslim.”

So, with that as our historical framework, let’s look at the parable of the “Good Muslim.” It begins when someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I want to inherit eternal life. What do I need to do?” At this point, anyone who went to the Sunday School I went to as a child knows the answer is, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior!” Jesus, however, gives a very different answer. As a good teacher, he first asks the student, “What’s your read of Scripture?” The response is, in brief, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus answers, “That’s right!”

Apparently it occurred to the person asking the question that if “neighbor” meant more than just the people who are like us and whom we like, “loving” them might be a bit too much to ask, even if the reward is eternal salvation. Their follow-up question is, “So, um, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story. I’ll paraphrase it here. A deacon from a church in Nashville came to Atlanta for a religious conference, and was staying at a hotel near the airport. As he was walking back to his hotel from a nearby restaurant, three strangers held him up at gunpoint. They took his wallet, his smartphone, his wedding ring, and then, just for fun, made him strip naked and beat him so badly he couldn’t walk. They left him there, bloody and naked on the sidewalk.

The pastor of the local First Baptist Church was attending the same conference, and was on his way to the restaurant the man had just left. He saw the poor deacon lying there, bleeding, and immediately crossed the street, not wanting to get involved. He was afraid that the man might be an HIV-positive homeless person, and that he would be exposing himself to the disease if he got too close. A Roman Catholic priest, also there for the conference, saw the bloodied, crying man and thought it might be a trap of some kind. What if, knowing there was a religious conference in town, a bunch of thugs had disguised one of their own as a crime victim, hoping to lure a naive clergyman into coming over so that they could ambush the do-gooder? The priest decided to play it safe, and crossed the street as well.

The third person to come along was a Muslim man who was staying at  the same hotel, waiting out a layover on his international flight. It had been a long day for him. The hotel was full of impassioned Christians all attending workshops on “Muslim extremism.” The looks and attitude he had been getting from the guests had not been exactly kind. None of that mattered, however, when he saw the battered man, crying in pain, by the side of the road. The Muslim man immediately took off his shirt, tearing it into bandages to stop the blood from the other man’s wounds. He then picked up the stranger, summoned a cab, and took him to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, the Muslim man gave his credit card, to make sure that the injured deacon would get the best possible care despite his lack of identification or insurance card.

After telling the story, Jesus asked his audience, all good, faithful Christians,  “Who is the one who loved his neighbor in this story? Who is the one who will have eternal life?” They knew the answer before he even asked:  The Good Muslim.

The parallels are less than subtle. When we look at a Syrian, Muslim refugee we see someone who is politically, ethnically, and theologically a “stranger.” Jesus makes it extraordinarily clear, however, that there is only one way to see them: as our neighbor. Knowing that, Jesus’ command is clear. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is, along with loving God, the heart of all God’s commandments (Mark 12:30-31; Matt 22:37-40). Simply put, if a person claims allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, there is no other option than to help someone in need, no matter how different they may be from us, no matter how much we may dislike them, even if we think it’s a trap or dangerous, and even if they are our sworn enemy.

Few of us live up to that command perfectly, and I sincerely hope that God will be more merciful to us (in our failures to love one another) than we are toward those whom we are commanded to love. Let us pray that is the case, because, in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus taught about who would be saved, he did not say anything about what people believed regarding who was their “personal Lord and Savior.” Jesus gave only one criteria: those who help vulnerable people when they are in need are the ones who are saved (Matt 25:31-46).

Our political leaders are quick to claim religious justification for the policies that serve their interests. They would do well to remember Jesus’ words of caution. Simply claiming to act in his name is not enough (Matt 7:21-23). Jesus expects us to act, not according to some bigoted stereotype of what we think it means to be a Christian, but in accordance with his clear and unambiguous teaching that every single person is our neighbor, our brother or sister.

An entire nation of people very different from (yet remarkably like) us is lying, bloody, by the side of the road. We can cross the street and pretend it’s not our responsibility, or we can take the risks and costs on ourselves to help. For those who rely on secular sources of guidance, the appropriate response may be more complex or nuanced, but for those who claim the label “Christian” the choice is clear. Like the Good Samaritan, we must find a way to help, even if it means reaching deeply into our national resources of ingenuity and wealth to do so safely, effectively, comprehensively, and quickly. It’s the neighborly thing, the loving thing, and the Christian thing to do.

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Thoughts on Service and Honor

My Grandfather during WW2

My grandfather, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Sr. (center), on a ruck march during the Second World War.

By virtue of education and occupation, I now spend a lot of time in a world that is a couple of social echelons above that of my childhood. In contrast to the blue-collar, middle-class environment that defined my neighborhood and public education, our son graduated from a private school where the annual tuition would be enough to buy a new car every year. He now attends an elite, Northern liberal arts college where the families of half the students can afford the $65,000 per year cost of attendance, out of pocket, without financial aid.

Over a decade of social overlap with members of the “one percent” has taught me more than a few lessons about class differences, and has occasionally made me self-conscious of our solidly middle-class income and home. Comments like, “Our nanny has an apartment that’s bigger than your whole house,” and “You don’t make enough money to understand why I vote Republican,” have had the cumulative effect of reminding me that our family’s definition of wealth and prosperity is out of step with the one used by wealthy elites. In fact, there have been moments of jarring collision between the working-class values that shaped me and the lives led by those in the upper class.

None stands in more stark relief for me than the Spring concert when our son was in elementary school. The auditorium, which could comfortably seat 300 people, was packed with parents and grandparents who listened intently as their cherubic progeny sang their hearts out. For the final performance, the music director asked everyone who had ever served in the military to stand. The school’s founder, a retired Navy Commander in his late eighties, was at the front, bracing the American flag. I stood, as did two other parents. One was a Coast Guard officer, the other an Army officer. I was was the only NCO.  The other two men were in or near their fifties, I was in my early thirties.

It was a vivid, visual reminder that the social tier that produces our political and cultural leaders is not the social tier that places its life on the line to defend the policies they put in place. Over 300 people – physicians, attorneys, politicians, academics, corporate executives – were gathered in that room. The question was asked who there had taken an oath to serve their country. Fewer than 1 percent stood, and only one of them was an enlisted person, a former soldier who was also the only one under fifty.

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

The author, at left, as a newly-minted paratrooper studying at the Defense Language Institute (1993)

Larger samples of age and demographic data also support that anecdotal visual. This trend is reflected in the makeup of Congress, a statistic that likely includes very few former NCO’s or junior enlisted. The numbers also show that military service tends to run in families, as it does in mine (including my grandfather, a mustang who climbed from private to Lieutenant Colonel and served in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam). Increasingly, however, those are not the families that are casting the votes – in Congress or in the shareholder meetings that actually govern our country – that send us to war.

Wanting our leaders to have “skin in the game” is reason enough to encourage our elites to consider military service, but I don’t think it should be our primary motivation. Those with power will always have ways to keep their families out of harms way. I think the formative aspect of military service is a much better argument for military service among the ruling class.

Uncle Henry

My Great Uncle, TSgt Henry Clay Travis

Another anecdote from observing my son’s academic world is perhaps relevant here. I had the opportunity to sit in on a class at our son’s top-notch school. A gifted professor was leading a spirited discussion on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, a medieval text that, among other things, deals with the price of honor and loyalty to friends and family. The professor asked the students, “Is there such a thing as too much honor?” One student answered, “These days, probably. Then, no.” There were murmurs of assent from the other students in the class.

It occurred to me that the students, all of whom were obviously smart, thoughtful, and conscious of the many social and political nuances and relevancies of this 700-year-old text, are likely to choose careers where concepts like “honor” and “loyalty” are considered anachronisms. They are unlikely to enter career paths where commitment to integrity and an established code might mean life or death for themselves and for their comrades-in-arms. Whether a member of the military ever sees combat (and, unlike my grandfather, I never did), joining into the centuries of tradition that train our warfighters shapes us in ways that no other experience can. To a servicemember, there is no such thing as too much honor, and there is no price too high to pay for the sake of loyalty.

Aubrey Thompson Villines, Jr. - 2LT

My Uncle, 2LT Aubrey T. Villines, Jr., during Vietnam.

The military has a long, successful history of inculcating the importance of those archaic values. It carries forward other anachronisms too, like honoring the generations who preceded us, and respect for those who have earned their place of leadership or authority through diligence, skill, and sacrifice. My own understanding of leadership was shaped as much by knowing I could trust that my NCO’s and officers earned their place, and that they would put my needs above theirs, as it was by the sophisticated, formal leadership training I received. Having watched the world of elite education firsthand, I am deeply concerned that we are training our future leaders to begin at the top and only periodically peer down from there, a critique that William Deresiewicz articulates beautifully in his book Excellent Sheep. Military service, even for those who begin as officers without having been enlisted, teaches leadership from the bottom up. Living that out changed the way I understood my obligations and expectations as a leader in ways that I think are unique to the military.

That life also let me to shared experiences of collaboration and interdependence with people from the widest range of socio-economic backgrounds I have ever encountered in one place. As an enlisted person, I served alongside a (fellow enlisted) Harvard graduate with a law degree from Boston College, as well as a soldier from the swamps of Louisiana fresh out of high school. In Basic Training, I was one bunk over from a soldier from the south side of Chicago, and one bunk over from him was a guy who enlisted after finishing his Master’s at Tuskegee. In an era where our neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by class and income, and where social mobility is, at best, stagnant, military service is a rare opportunity to actually work alongside people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Grandpa, Great-Great Grandpa, Barbara

My grandfather, Aubrey T. Villines, Sr., newly graduated from OCS, stands with his grandfather, John Castner Villines, and his newborn daughter, Barbara.

“Alongside” is the key adverb there. Military service means knowing, trusting, and sacrificing for the person on either side of you, no matter how much or how little you might have in common. This is vastly different from the controlled, scripted opportunities for “cross-cultural understanding” or “community service” through which young elites are dutifully filtered before returning to their lives of privilege. I remember the moment in Basic Training when I realized that my strong academic skills and linguistic facility had absolutely zero likelihood of determining my success, and that I needed to rely on the people around me, people with far less experience with the skills that – until then – had defined “achievement” for me, to survive. When I was going through PLDC in the Okefenokee swamp in July, I didn’t care if the guy pouring his canteen of water over my head to stop me from puking had read Chaucer. I was just glad to know that if I needed him to, he would carry me out of that godforsaken swamp, or die trying.

We do our best to teach our future leaders that they should value everyone equally, but that equality takes on an entirely different dimension when you realize that the “value” of the person who is saving you from heat exhaustion has nothing to do with their level of education or tax bracket. Our next generation of leaders could benefit greatly from that kind of education.

If they are not going to get it through the military, then we need to have a serious discussion about where they might. There are millions of people for whom honor, sacrifice, and loyalty are not abstract concepts. Our future leaders should be among them.

Grandpa's Grave Marker

After presenting the Flag of the United States to my Grandma Sue, I stood, in uniform, at attention, on this spot in Lynchburg, Tennessee as my fellow soldier was finally laid to rest. I carried forward his watch, and others will succeed me.

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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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