This is the transcript of remarks I prepared (most of which I actually delivered) for Saturday's Wyoming Association of Churches forum "Civility Matters." The issue Rev. Bob Norris and I discussed was marriage equality.
“Only those who cry out for the Jews can sing the Gregorian chants.” Bonehoeffer
Why does this discussion matter? What’s at stake. I brought this photograph. It’s my brother and his partner Lee. When Bob died 5 years ago he and Lee had been together in a loving, caring relationship for more than 16 years. It was a relationship defined by love and respect, not by the way in which they had sex.
When I told Bob I had decided to go to seminary…he was not pleased. He told me he figured that my new role in the church would mean I would have to condemn him as other clergy had. I would never have done that but because of Bob I knew I had to reach an understanding of just what it is scripture says about homosexuals.
Ultimately it became a question of how do we read scripture. Without doubt there are verses that condemn homosexuality. We can make persuasive arguments that they don’t really mean what they appear to say but in the end we have to confront a strict interpretation of those verses.
As I studied the Gospels it became clear to me that is exactly what confronted Jesus. Much of his ministry was about making a choice between a strict construction of the Bible and accepting, healing, feeding, touching and loving those who had been historically marginalized by those who read the Bible literally.
The title of this gathering is “Civility Matters.” What is “civility.” Civility is defined as “courteous acts that contribute to smoothness and ease in dealings and social relationships.”
Accordingly, civility involves acts that are “courteous” and that through courtesy they “contribute” something to improving social relationships. How did Jesus approach “social relationships” and what can we learn from him that might civilize the otherwise divisive contemporary dialogue about same-sex marriage?
If this thing we call “civility” has something to do with being polite, Jesus made clear it isn’t the same thing as being a pushover, nor is it the same as false collegiality that needlessly avoids confrontation. It should also be pointed out that Jesus never hesitated to confront those who used scripture to marginalize others. Nor was he always polite about it. He called the literalists a “brood of vipers.” I am guessing a poll of the Pharisees, Sadducees and chief priests would have disclosed a large majority who did not view the rabbi as polite. But as Christians we have him as our model and by definition of faith, Jesus provides a design for us to follow.
Searching for a civil way in which to discuss marriage equality means first understanding the stakes. We can acknowledge the stakes are high but no higher than they were in the debates over the abolition of slavery and the extension of civil and religious rights to women. Scripture has always been used to limit the choices people could make about who they love and who they marry…from admonitions about not marrying outside the faith to condemnation of interracial marriage the Bible has been quoted. It’s always been a contest pitting Biblical interpretation against love. What is at stake today is what was at stake when Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his time.
There are two aspects to the debate over marriage equality. One is civil, the other religious. Marriage is first a civil institution, defined by the laws enacted by government. It is the legislature, not the church who decides whether people of the same-sex can marry. In a multi-cultural society, that decision is made on entirely different criteria than a decision or choice made in the councils of our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues.
A political decision on this matter must adhere to principles of law. This nation made a decision in 1789 that these choices would not be made by imposing one set of religious beliefs on others. The guarantee of religious freedom has, at its heart, an assumption that we don’t all see religious matters in the same way and, as a result, the government should not impose one set of religious beliefs on the rest of us. Thus, the decisions made by the government are to be guided instead by law. The 14th Amendment resolved the question of slavery and the rights of African-Americans to be protected from discriminatory state laws…even in the face of strong Biblical arguments for the preservation of slavery! The 14th Amendment was later used as the basis for overturning state laws that made it a crime for people of different races to marry…again imposed in the face of strong Biblical arguments against interracial marriage.
The 14th Amendment requires that in order to discriminate, the state must convince the court it has a “rational basis” for denying some of the rights it makes available to others.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003) the Court struck down a Texas statute prohibiting homosexual sodomy on the basis of the 14th Amendment. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's argued that by prohibiting only homosexual sodomy, and not heterosexual sodomy as well, Texas's statute did not meet rational-basis review under the Equal Protection Clause. I think there is little doubt the states can provide no rational basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry and all the rights being married bring with the civil marriage license.
The religious community must prepare itself for the day which is coming when the Supreme Court announces that the law of the land must provide marriage equality as it once did for racial and gender equality. It won’t happen because America is godless or that judges are activists with a liberal agenda. It will happen because America is a nation of law where the people consented to being governed by a Constitution rather than the religious beliefs of some.
The other aspect of the debate is the religious question. Regardless of what the civil courts decide, the debate will continue in the churches. How are we to have a “civil” discussion about an issue that necessarily determines how we interpret Holy scripture?
For Christians the roadmap is clearly marked. Learning how to think about these matters requires some self discipline about what we think. If we are not to simply go with our notions and prejudices, we must have some core principles. It’s easy for Christians. Our core principle is Jesus…what he said and taught and how he lived.
The life, teachings, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus have their ultimate meaning in the question of scriptural interpretation. The purpose of his life was to challenge conventional religious beliefs and literal interpretation of scripture. Throughout his ministry Jesus confronted and was confronted by those who had read the scripture, studied it, could quote it and believed it should be followed to the letter. They were the ones who plotted his death.
Charles Dickens observed. “The civility which money will purchase is rarely extended to those who have none.” The same thing can be said of those who have power…in the government and in the churches. The “civility” that power commands is rarely extended to those with no power. And there is perhaps no greater power than that “purchased” through a literal interpretation of scripture. And the Bible itself demonstrates that point.
12At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” Jesus said, 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
3Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
We tend to read the Gospels and judge the Pharisees harshly. But in fact all they were doing was attempting to uphold a literal interpretation of the Bible. But Jesus got in their way. Whenever he ate a meal with tax collectors, palled around with prostitutes, touched a leper or any other person deemed “unclean” or healed on the Sabbath Jesus was in direct violation of the express words of the Bible they read and could quote verbatim.
One of the great definers of the faith was Augustine who taught that the interpretation of scripture must establish what he called “the reign of charity.” Augustine believed a literal understanding of any Biblical passage could lead to hatred and the only way to avoid that was to consider scripture always as an allegory for love.”
A verse can be found, indeed has always been found to justify sins ranging from war to the impoverishment of others to child abuse and slavery and the marginalization of women and now gays and lesbians. By quoting verses from the Bible even the most devout can justify about anything. But the Bible is more than a collection of verses. It’s the story of the relationship between God and humans, the story of God’s hope for the world…a hope achieved only through loving God and one another which is why Jesus reduced all of the 613 laws to two.
So…with Jesus as our teacher…we learn civility demands we challenge a literal interpretation of scripture. When Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and one another, he added…all of the law is to be judged by those two commandments. You cannot claim to “love” someone you condemn, you cannot love someone you marginalize…and any reading of scripture must give way to love. It is the challenge that got him killed. But it was the resurrection that confirmed his teaching.
When it comes to the meaning of the Bible, we are all guessing, hopefully making educated, spirit led guesses…but guessing. If I am going to guess, I will err on the side of loving, accepting and speaking for those whom our society marginalizes.