By Rev. Oliver White
On Independence Day 2006, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ presented a resolution to hundreds of delegates to affirm same-sex marriages.
It was a very hot, sunny Atlanta, Georgia afternoon with temperatures reaching beyond 100 degrees.
However, it felt good inside the large auditorium, as cool air from powerful fans and air conditioners created a comfortable setting for the civil debate that unfolded for several hours among delegates. Though the historic resolution regarding same-gender marriage was favored, it was not, however, by an overwhelming majority. Not all the delegates were on the same page, but at least hundreds of Congregational Churches across America have collectively unlocked their doors and opened their minds and hearts to all who are 'unlike' the ones gathered inside.
My vote was not an animate-in-your-face pronouncement against those who held opposite beliefs and were outraged because they believe homosexual behavior is unnatural and fundamentally against God's intentions for humankind. I voted in favor of the resolution simply because I think, rather, I believe very deep in my heart that it is not only the right thing to do, but it was also being a part of an authoritative voice that reaches out to people who are socially marginalized and religiously oppressed simply because of their sexual orientation.
I am not gay, but as a black man who was around when "Colored Only" public drinking fountains were on wide display, I am well acquainted with injustice and what it feels like to be on the outside.
Eight years ago, however, I had no reason to believe my vote would lead me to where I am today.
I have had many afflictions in life, such as being 'politely' exiled from ministerial groups and gatherings—an exodus that decreased my congregation by 70 percent and led to a 'desert-like experience' of losing of our building for 14-months until we found a new church home (Hallelujah!). Yet still, through all of that I have been blessed, and I say that with much gratitude.
My biggest surprise in having come this far in the fight for 'justice for all' is why so many people who themselves were victims of gross injustices and inequality, vehemently disagreed with me—and still do. My biggest upset is that most of these people were church-going people, many whom I've known and worked and prayed with for years.
You can be certain that I am not a crusader. I have no networks or friends in high office. Before I was brought before the national media because of my stand, nothing had taken place in my life that I consider out of the ordinary. Rosa Parks and I probably have kindred spirits, given what was taking place in her life before she refused to give up her bus seat. She was an ordinary seamstress with a sincere heart. She was active in her church and she served her community as a volunteer secretary for the Montgomery, AL chapter of the NAACP.
God used this candidly unassuming woman to spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Often, I have teasingly referred to myself as a "country school teacher." None of my sermons have ever been published, I am not a highly acclaimed or "sought-after-preacher" a church would run after to lead a big revival, I do not mimic popular religious practitioners who develop 20,000-member-plus churches. I was blessed, however, with an opportunity to cast one simple vote to affirm humanity.
Not knowing what would happen at the time, that vote was the beginning of an epiphany which has led me to a place--Clark Memorial United Church of Christ of South St. Paul, MN—where I am surrounded by a positive, affirming, supportive, loving spiritual family. It's a place where I can give back doing the work I love.
While speaking to a colleague in Detroit last fall about where my journey has taken me and my congregation, he said:
What? I don't believe you! First you voted for a resolution that destroyed your congregation, and now you're telling me you have partnered with a white congregation? And most of their members are passed 70? Oliver, have you lost your mind?!
This was an actual comment that referred to something I never thought I would do. While a student in the seminary, I even preached a sermon entitled "Why I Can’t Join a White Church." I reasoned that if I can't bring all of who I am into a church body, I can't be a part of it. We’re all acquainted with the saying that the church hour is the most discriminating hour in America.
Well, it’s a very true statement.
Our cultures generally determine how and where we worship, but my epiphany has led me to believe that it’s time to share our cultures and learn from each other as well as bless one another.
What my friend in Detroit said is true—most of their members, about 50 in all, are past 70-years-old, and all of them are white. My congregation is ninety-nine percent black and much younger. One would think, given our widely different cultures, that worshipping and working together is not practical or possible. I beg to differ. Our differences have not equated into deficiencies, and every Sunday we worship, and every hour we share in mission projects, we discover the many ways that we are alike.
We learn from each other, and the more we assimilate, the more capable we become to accommodate.
For the church to have no words except words of condemnation for gays and lesbians is a church that fails to acknowledge Jesus’ command that we love one another as we love ourselves. I praise God for the epiphany that has helped me to grow.
- See more at: http://www.believeoutloud.com/latest/how-one-epiphany-helped-me-grow-christian#sthash.PFCutGS5.dpuf
Before I made the leap from Side B (the belief that gay sex is sinful) to Side A (the belief that God blesses same sex relationships) I believed that to shift my beliefs on the matter would radically alter my life, my faith, and my very religion. To me, the chasm between Side A and side B was as wide as the gap between Christianity and Hinduism, and to allow myself to get a boyfriend would be the equivalent of praying to Shiva. A world where I was free to pursue my dream to have a partner was a fundamentally different world, and a God who approved of same sex relationships was a different God. The dream of partnership felt as inaccessible as all my childhood dreams: no, Hogwarts is not real and I will not be receiving a letter informing me that I am a wizard. No, Narnia does not exist and I will not be finding the wardrobe at a thrift store any time soon. No, Doctor Who is only fiction and there is no Time Lord blazing across the night sky in his TARDIS, rescuing humanity from the horrors of the cosmos. No, there is no such thing as a gay relationship that God blesses, and there is no such thing as a God who would condone such a thing as moral. Such a life, such a God, is only fiction.
And then something astounding happened: it wasn't a fiction to me anymore. By a long, tumultuous and at times dangerous process, I came to believe that I had been wrong. I now believe that gay people can experience long lasting, monogamous bonds that can be blessed by God. I had believed that such a shift would be a fundamental transformation that would devestate every aspect of my life. But it didn't.
I believed I would worship a different God if I believed I could marry a man, but I don't. He is still Three in One, the great I AM, the maker and sustainer of worlds. He is the same God who hung on that cross and died for my sins. He is still the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am still a great sinner, and he is still a great savior. Christ is still the Son of God in my life, with as much glory, mystery, and compassion as before.
I believed that my Bible would be less meaningful and authoritative if believed gay people could marry, but it isn't. I still read my Bible every morning, and it is still the God breathed and inspired scripture it was before. It is still the final authority in my life, and engaging with it is still one of the most important journeys I could ever make.
I believed that the shape of my faith itself would be radically altered if I accepted gay marriage, but it isn't. The creeds that define the central aspects of my faith have not changed, and I can still speak them, affirming every word.
I thought that I would compromise the integrity of my intellect if I affirmed gay relationships, but I haven't. I find that my intellect is as robust as ever, and that I have not had to stoop to compromised forms of theology to believe that God blesses gay relationships, nor have I had to compromise other deeper values of hermeneutics that act as guides in my life. Instead, I have found that the integrity of my mind and the integrity of my heart are now finally dance partners instead of rivals.
The glorious and beautiful truth is this: nothing truly significant has changed. I believe the same things, worship the same God, and have the same faith. Even in practice, my faith has not changed. What has changed is that I feel that I have grown in my faith, and have more deeply surrendered my sexuality to God. When put into perspective, all that has changed is a shift in how I view one aspect of human nature and how God responds to it: something that, despite all the "doctrinal statements" the church throws about these days on homosexuality, has not enjoyed any central and authoritative doctrine or creeds. I stand in disagreement with the majority of the Church, but not in such a way that excludes me from her company.
I know this now, but for years I didn't. For years, I had emotionally confused secondary Christian questions with the central Christian questions. I believed that the question of gay marriage was as central to my salvation and as pressing as the question of whether Christ really did die on the cross and atone for my sins. This is not to say that these secondary questions are not important, or that our ideas don't have real consequences. They are extremely important and must be confronted with grace and wisdom, but it is to say that I - and much of the church - have confused the secondary for the primary, and there is only one word for such confusion: idolatry.
Yes, we will have our disagreements, and we will have our convictions, and we will all struggle to the best of our ability to try to fathom the will and words of a perfect creator with our sin-stained and limited minds. But at the end of the end of the day, to follow Christ and to believe in his grace is the best any of us can do, regardless of whether we are gay or straight, married or unmarried, affirming or non affirming. If he is God, he is big enough and good enough to pick up all the pieces our best attempts at following him leave in our wake.
By Rachel Held Evans
For those who believe in the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people and who support LGBT equality both in the U.S. and abroad, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.
Coverage of the Olympic Winter Games brought Russia’s anti-gay laws back into the conversation and exposed some of that country’s cultural prejudice against LGBT people.
And in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that makes homosexuality punishable by life in prison. The following day, the front page headline of a popular Ugandan newspaper read, “EXPOSED: Uganda’s 200 Top Homos Named” with several photographs next to the headline. (When similar articles were released in 2011, a gay rights activist was found beaten to death in his home.) It has been said that the Ugandan government was influenced by evangelical Christians from the U.S., and indeed Museveni’s argument that gay and lesbian people are “disgusting” has been echoed by Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition, who has spoken positively about similar legislation in Liberia and Russia.
Here in the U.S., several states—most recently Kansas and Arizona— have been considering bills that would ensure the protection of businesses that refuse service to gay and lesbian people.
While these bills may have originally been proposed in response to a few isolated incidents in other states (in which, for example, a baker refused to bake a cake for a wedding between two men), the language is broad enough and vague enough to empower individuals or businesses to refuse to serve anyone whose presence violates “deeply-held religious beliefs.” It would allow a restaurant owner to hang a “NO GAYS ALLOWED” sign in his window, or a hotel manager to turn away a gay couple, or a doctor to insist on only treating straight people.
This is a serious overreaction to the wedding cake scenario, and at least in Arizona, totally unnecessary, as the state already allows discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
It has been disheartening to see evangelical Christians remain silent on the injustices in Russia and Uganda and then rally in support of these discrimination bills in the name of religious freedom.
Religious freedom is the banner under which this decade’s culture wars are being waged, and so, while there are many angles to this story we could discus, I’d like to focus on this one.
Evangelical Christians in America enjoy incredible religious freedom, perhaps more than any other group in this country. Christians remain the religious majority in the U.S. Every American president has identified himself as a Christian, and Christians make up the overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. If you are a white evangelical Christian in the U.S. you are unlikely to be “randomly” screened by the T.S.A. every time you try to board an airplane. It is unlikely that you will face protests and governmental obstruction when you attempt build a new place of worship, which is a reality faced by many of our Muslim citizens.
And yet despite enjoying majority status, significant privilege, and unchallenged religious freedom in this country, we evangelical Christians have become known as a group of people who cry “persecution!” upon being wished “Happy Holidays" by a store clerk.
We have become known as a group of people who sees themselves perpetually under attack, perpetually victimized, and perpetually entitled, a group who, ironically, often responds to these imagined disadvantages by advancing legislation that restricts the civil liberties of other people.
But living in a pluralistic society that also grants freedom and civil rights protection to those with whom one disagrees is not the same as religious persecution. And crying persecution every time one doesn’t get one’s way is an insult to the very real religious persecution happening in the world today. It's no way to be a good citizen and certainly no way to advance the gospel in the world.
Now, one could argue all day, from a strictly civic perspective, about whether a person should be allowed to deny services to another person on account of religious differences. Maybe they should; maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. It's a complex issue and I can see both sides. (Most gay folks I know wouldn't sue a vendor for refusing to provide wedding services, but would choose someone else. Suing, I think, is a bad idea for everyone.)
But what I want to address here is whether followers of Jesus should devote their time and efforts to rallying in support of legislation that would empower business owners to deny services to gay and lesbian people (many of whom are fellow Christians, by the way) or whether, as Andy Stanely puts it, “serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.”
I'm with Andy on this, because I can’t help but think of the words of Jesus:
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
You know who was actually persecuted for their religious beliefs?
Jews under Roman occupation in the first century.
And you know what Jesus told those Jews to do?
Pay your taxes. Obey the law. Give to those who ask. Do not turn people away. Love your neighbors. Love even your enemies.
When Jesus spoke of “walking the second mile,” he was referring to an oppressive Roman law that allowed a traveling Roman solider to demand that a stranger carry his pack for up to one mile. No doubt some of Jesus’ first listeners had been forced to do just that, to drop their farming equipment, fishing nets, or carpentry tools and carry a heavy pack, losing hours of work in the process.
The law allowed the soldier to demand from them a mile, no more. Jesus told his followers to walk two.
As Christians, our most “deeply held religious belief” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death.
So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people.
And I think that refusing to serve gay and lesbian people, and advancing legislation that denies others their civil liberties in response to perceived threats to our own, does irreparable damage to our witness as Christians and leaves a whole group of people feeling like second-class citizens, not only in our country, but also in the Kingdom. There may be second-class citizens in the U.S. and in Uganda and in Russia, but there should be no second-class citizens in the Kingdom.
As I’ve made it clear in the past, I support marriage equality and affirm my gay and lesbian friends who want to commit themselves to another person for life. But even if I didn’t, even if I believed same-sex marriage was a sin, I could never, in good conscience, throw my support behind a law that would put my gay and lesbian neighbors behind bars for being gay or allow businesses free range to discriminate against them because of their orientation.
Because over and beyond my beliefs regarding homosexuality is my most deeply-held conviction that I am called to love my neighbor as myself…even if it costs me something, even if it means walking a second mile.
I've been watching people with golden crosses around their necks and on their lapels shout at the TV about how serving gay and lesbian people is a violation of their “sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
And I can't help but laugh at the sad irony of it.
Two-thousand years ago, Jesus hung from that cross, looked out on the people who put him there and said, "Father, forgive them." Jesus served sinners all the way to the cross.
The truth is, evangelical Christians have already "lost" the culture wars.And it's not because the "other side" won or because evangelicals have failed to protect our own religious liberties. Evangelicals lost the culture wars the moment they committed to fighting them, the moment they decided to stop washing feet and start waging war.
And I fear that we've lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the "right to refuse" service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.