A few weeks ago I participated in a press conference with a group in Southeast Washington called Clergy United. All of the major local press outlets were there. The location was a historic African American church in Marion Barry’s district. This location was picked because it was a press conference in support of Marriage Equality for Gays and Lesbians and Barry has made so many negative comments about gay marriage while mischaracterizing the African American community’s unanimity on this subject. Various speakers from a multitude of Christian traditions spoke to the press about the Declaration of Religious Support for Marriage Equality that we had all signed. Today I would like to talk about why I strongly support this document and my feelings about marriage equality as a member of the clergy.
Before I wade into the hedges I think that the parameters of the discussion need to be clearly demarcated. I believe that there are two separate arenas that need justification when the civil and liturgical rights of marriage for gays and lesbians in the United States is discussed. This is to talk about the state’s role in sanctioning marriage and the church’s liturgical and biblical self-understanding on the subject.
Separation of Church and State is a bedrock principle in our democratic process for liberty. Ever since the early Baptists introduced it in the 17th Century Rhode Island Plantation it has been a protection for minority religious groups that would otherwise have been compelled to conform to the majority’s worship. In some cases it literally saved the lives of dissenters. It is a principle that protects each and every religious group from the tyranny and persecution of the majority.
I do not believe that in our 233 year striving for an inclusive secular state there is sufficient room for legislative, legal or administrative opinions on actions that should be regulated by the church. To wade into a liturgical and sacramental act is too often to side with a majority or to take only a powerful interest’s opinion into account at the exclusion and persecution of a minority. So, while the state might have a compelling interest in recording marriages for the protection of abuse to minors, the restriction of an individuals civil rights, tax, census and historical purposes it does not strike me that it will do any better at defining marriage for religions than it would be at telling us how Jesus can both be divine and human. We must have less, not more governmental intrusion in acts that historically have been liturgical and sacramental.
Now to the biblical and liturgical elements of an argument for marriage equality. Let me from the outset say that I refuse to start my discussion on the evangelical or fundamentalist’s level. That would be to string together a group of biblical passages to support my belief that Gay marriage is okay for Christians to practice. While I believe that there is ample evidence to suggest that most of the passages against gay marriage trotted out to call it an abomination are being ripped from their cultural context to support something that the writers of Leviticus or Romans would never recognize. While making a strictly biblical quotes argument on sexual ethics might be compelling to some, I do not believe that it presents anything but an ambiguous and conflicting moral direction.
To take this type of conservative biblical argument against marriage equality seriously I would have to also admit I believe that the bible has a coherent and unified stream representing a unchanging divine narrative thread throughout. Having read the Bible from cover to cover several times I believe that it takes Herculean efforts to unify texts that are diverse and span literally hundreds if not a thousand years of revelation to God’s people. I am not willing to choose one small part of the Biblical narrative that fits my political or cultural outlook to defend or defeat marriage equality. If I was a literalist then I would feel compelled to also advocate arranged marriages, polygamy, premarital sex if it brings about marriage to a brother, the idea of a kinsman redeemer, equating women betrothed in marriage to the ownership of cattle, immediate acceptance of those extolling the type of erotic premarital sex eloquently poeticized in the Song of Solomon and the bisexual friendship covenant that we see between Jonathan and David in today’s text.
Instead of attempting to unify what I believe can never be unified I would rather point to general ethical principles that I believe both Christ and Paul espoused. First, there is the freedom in Christ that releases us from the bonds of law and turns us to a much more fulfilling and humanizing path of mercy and grace. Instead of the chaos that is often predicted by those who seem to need rules and restrictions in their lives, freedom in Christ actually brings a much more challenging set of living conditions. All things are permissible, but of course not all things are beneficial. I would rather live with a sense of freedom whose ethic is a responsibility to others and not reducing life to rules or regulations.
Second, Christ appears to accept those whose behavior we find unacceptable. It is a gospel of good news that speaks to the woman at the well, the woman with a non-stop period, tax collectors, lepers, wealthy women, rogue religious leaders, thieves and a demon possessed man living amongst the tombs. For, Paul it is us uncircumcised gentile who can never fulfill the requirements of the law who need acceptance. Both show a general acceptance that God’s grace is ever expanding and accepting of those that we might find unacceptable.
Last, it appears Christ is less worried about individuals keeping sexual purity than he is that we grow a faith rooted in mercy, hospitality for strangers and in love. Jesus gives no moralizing tomes to the two women he meets who do not conform to societal norms for sexuality. Instead the first he gives an opportunity to spread his message of living water and for the other he turns against those who are judging her. Both quite antithetical to judging homosexual’s lifestyles. Even after a Romans text that many have used to vilify homosexuality as sin Paul exclaims to the church, “Judge not that you be judged for in the same measure that you judge others you will be judged.” It seems to me that nurturing a humble, caring faith that turns toward mercy, love and justice for the suffering is more important that keeping a group’s particular rule or concrete regulation.
Even if I thought that the act of homosexuality or bisexuality that led to two women or two men entering into a loving relationship with each other was wrong, which I do not, in the ethics that I believe Paul and Christ espouse it is not my concern. It is the responsibility of the two who have entered into that mutual covenant in all aspects of their relationship with each other, their neighbors and God to sin no more. As a pastor I am not to deny their covenant, but as with any couple to encourage them to live within a covenant of mutuality with their new spouse, within their community and with their God. To me there is no credible distinction of that covenant between them as being a blessing or a marital vow.
Freedom is frightening because it means a loss of control. Yet, freedom is exactly what we need more of in our country and the church itself. Freedom will mean that a moralistic majority will not be able to impose their liturgical and sacramental sexual restrictions upon a minority that is currently being denied their basic human rights. Freedom in the church will mean that no matter what you think of this issue you will be forced to show tolerance, love and mercy to those whom you believe to be outside the realm of acceptable practice.
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