The following was prompted, in part, by Republican Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James’ Sunday tweet in which he shared a recent message from the pastor of Charlotte’s Calvary Church. In it, the pastor said, “God’s Plan is to Vote Yes [on Amendment One].” James’ tweet and the pastor’s message was the final impetus that led to this message – this public “talking to myself” – that follows below, as these thoughts have been swirling in my mind for months.
As a person who grew up in the fundamentalist and evangelical Baptist faith, I’ve always felt a connection with those with whom I disagree on many matters of theology and doctrine, especially as it relates to sexuality. While my own faith has grown in different ways, I still identify as a Baptist and, in many ways, still proclaim that old evangelical faith of my childhood and of my ancestors. Even in the face my personal growth in faith, however, I’ve always been able to maintain some semblance of respect – some feeling of Christian brother- and sisterhood – with those who find themselves on the other side of the divide in our Christian family on homosexuality and matters of civic, social and religious equality for LGBT people.
Jeremy Hooper of GoodAsYou.org, among others, has been doing amazing work documenting the vitriol from religious right leaders in North Carolina during the debate over our proposed anti-LGBT constitutional amendment. I’ve been surfing over to his blog many times to see his latest updates. It’s important work, and the words and statements Hooper documents need to be preserved for posterity, thereby enabling future generations to learn from the painful mistakes of their elders today. But, while reading the comments and statements Hooper shares, it has become increasingly more difficult for me to reconcile – to continue living in some spirit of Christian fellowship – with people who would see me and my life ostracized, marginalized and criminalized – some, even, to the point of physical abuse and, dare they say it, death.
I once firmly believed, despite the theological and doctrinal gap between us, that some sort of reconciliation and mutual respect was possible – that even among intense debate over the meaning of Scripture and the nature of the divine, those more fundamentalist or evangelical Christians and I could still manage to live, work, speak, love and act with true Christian grace and humility.
After months of incredibly incendiary and hateful debate, I fear such a notion was mere naïveté. The hate-filled words and actions of those I consider my brothers and sisters are pushing me away from – not drawing me closer toward – our God and our spiritual family. Whatever became of, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)?
How can I respect and love – much less expect it returned from – a person who believes it’s okay to punch a young gay boy or “crack” his “limp” wrist, as a Fayetteville, N.C., pastor told his congregation? How can I respect and love – much less expect it returned from – a person who believes that by me living life openly and honestly and expecting dignity and equality in return that I somehow have “signed America’s death warrant” and opened the doors to legalized pedophilia and bestiality? How can I respect and love – much less expect it returned from – a person who believes the government should jail or fine me for expressing my love toward another person? How can I respect and love – much less expect it returned from – a person who believes I and any future lifelong partner of mine and our family aren’t deserving of the same medical and legal benefits as my straight family members and friends and their families?
Of course, the list goes on and on.
In church yesterday, as our congregation celebrated this fifth Sunday of Easter, my pastor spoke of “doubting Thomas,” and the rightful place doubts and honest questions should have in a healthy, growing faith. It was a message, I think, I was meant to hear, for my doubts and questions have only grown since the beginning of this maddening and sickening debate in North Carolina.
How can so many of God’s children use God’s name in promoting division, prejudice, mean-spiritedness and hatred when the gospel I know speaks only of unity, fellowship, kindness and love? How can I reconcile my contempt for words of malice with Christ’s commandment to love one another as he loved us? How can I continue believing in the oneness of the body of Christ, yet be faced with the very stark reality that so many of my fellow Christians wish me cast out, placed aside and left behind?
My pastor’s message was prompted, of course, by John’s account of Thomas’ doubtful nature. But, it was the accompanying epistle reading, perhaps, that related so plainly to my own questions (emphasis added):
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24, NRSV)
In thinking through my questions, I was also reminded of those old, familiar words from Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. (3:1, NRSV)
As well as (once more, emphasis added):
Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. (3:16-17, NRSV)
I can’t and won’t claim to have the answers I seek, but I think I’m heading in the right direction. I’ve always believed that many a well-meaning Christian have simply no real knowledge or awareness of the pain they cause in the lives of LGBT people. I’ve known too many good and kind-hearted people who fit this description – too many, dear friends and family included, who simply heed the misguided teachings and proclamations of their chosen religious leaders. These people would never intentionally hurt anyone and many have simply never had the opportunity to meet or speak with an LGBT person, much less the opportunity to learn how to love and include them unconditionally.
It isn’t my place to judge them. It isn’t my place to lash out with anger. It isn’t my place to threaten retribution. Instead, it is my place, as Christ commanded, to love and to teach, to live in kindness and charity. It’s a hard place to live in – difficult to practice love and fellowship when I know it might very well remain unrequited. Surely, it’s far more difficult than the easier path giving way to anger, frustration and bitterness. But, no one said it would be easy: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,” Christ said (Luke 9:23, NRSV).
I am comforted knowing that history, no doubt guided by the hand of divine justice, falls squarely on the side of the oppressed:
The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed (Psalm 103:6, NRSV).
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV).
In time, just as many did following the abominable era of slavery, the shameful mistreatment of women and the tumultuous days of Jim Crow and segregation, my fellow Christians who would seek to strip away my rights, my dignity and my humanity, will come to understand the errors of their ways. They will look back in shock; they will wonder why they said what they said, why they promoted division and hatred, why they voted to harm others. They will tell their children and grandchildren of the time when the world was a more hostile, less welcoming place. They will impart wisdom, borne from a personal experience wherein they themselves inflicted pain on others and learned lessons only that may teach. And, humanity will be better and stronger for it.
At least, that’s what I hope – even if doubt beckons me in the opposition direction.
No matter the outcome of North Carolina’s vote on Tuesday, I trust that our current struggle will not be in vain. I trust that some greater meaning and purpose is handed down in a lesson from which we can all learn better how to love one another and live in true Christian fellowship that celebrates, rather than takes insidious advantage of, our disagreements and differences.
The photograph used in this commentary is entitled “The Crucifixion of Christ,” a painting by artist Becki Jayne Harrelson, copyright © 1993. I encourage you to visit her website, peruse her other works and support her own, unique ministry.