Though I usually try to make my point through story-telling, I’ve been reminded of Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail as I’ve read recent reports about people who believe their religious freedom is under attack. I feel compelled to follow Dr. King’s example in speaking out to those who share my faith.
My Dear Fellow Christians:
While living here in the shadow of our nation’s capital, where many of us choose vocations that protect our freedoms, I often listen to reports of your statements claiming that Christianity is under attack and that we in the Washington area are out of touch with the values of Americans. Seldom do I pause to respond to statements so at odds with my own understanding of the world. If I did not dismiss most such comments that I read in the news and social media, I would have little time for anything other than argument in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are people of genuine good will and that your fears are deeply troubling to you, I want to try to respond in what I hope will be respectful and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I feel compelled to write at this particular moment in time since I am neither homosexual nor a resident of Arizona. I write because I am Christian. I write because I’m alarmed at the frequency with which such laws are being proposed around the country. I write because I read the Gospels that are the cornerstone of our shared faith every day. I write because I cannot understand how the denial of service to gays and lesbians is in any way consistent with the stories and parables and words of the Jesus I watch so closely in the pages of our four Gospels.
I will admit that we disagree on the nature of homosexuality and that I do not consider homosexuality a sin or a lifestyle choice. I know that you will not agree with me that it is a part of the genetic make-up of a person—a DNA so complex that I think we do agree that only God could have created it. Our sacred texts do have verses that forbid homosexuality, but as many have pointed out before me, those verses are mostly in the Old Testament in the context of laws that also allow the stoning to death of women and many other practices we no longer accept. Not once does Jesus even hint at the subject of homosexuality in any of the four Gospels.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you might be right about homosexuality as sin. How would that be any different from any of the other sins that Christians commit—telling a lie, telling a half-truth, refusing to help the poor? Would you deny service to any of the millions of Americans who commit adultery in your hotels and then dine over candlelight in your restaurants? And even if homosexuality were a sin, Jesus ate with sinners as often as he ate with the apostles. He also served others and commanded his disciples to do the same. Jesus served bread and wine and washed the feet of all the apostles, who had surely sinned. Even Judas. Yes. Jesus served at the feet of the only person about whom he ever said, “It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (Mark 14: 21, NRSV*).
What does Christ require of us? His words give us a clear vision of how to live our lives. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…In everything do to others as you would have them do to you…” (Matthew 7: 1, 12, NRSV). He commands us first to love God, “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12: 30, NRSV). Loving with our mind, to me, means doing everything we can to reason out how to live and love others. And so I read on to find that the second greatest commandment is this: “’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 31, NRSV).
When a wealthy young man insists that he’s done all these things, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’” (Mark 10: 21, NRSV). I certainly haven’t done that, and neither has any devout Christian I know. Ultimately, God loves us all for trying. But he also warns us: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 20, NRSV). He reserved his greatest condemnation not for a homosexual or an adulteress or a wealthy young man who holds on to his money, but for the religious people who condemn others and insist on their own righteousness and rightness.
You argue that freedom of religion is not freedom from religion. You argue that separation of church and state is not an absence of church. On those points, we agree. My faith should and does inform the way I interact with other human beings in the world around me. My faith should and does allow me to bring the values I hold dear into the classroom every day as I teach my students about the power of language to do both good and evil in the world. But freedom of religion and separation of church and state also mean that all the human beings I encounter have an equal right to live according to their own values in the world. And it means that those students in my classroom have an equal right to learn about all cultures—and therefore the religions of those cultures—and to walk away from my classroom feeling that not one is honored and valued above another. To learn to value any religion as faith, my students have their parents and their own houses of worship.
Fearing the loss of religious freedom does not grant any of us the right to curtail the freedoms of others. Freedom denied to anyone is a threat to freedom for everyone. I can let out the soaring kite of my own faith without slicing the kite strings of another. Inevitably, if our kite strings become hopelessly entangled in God’s broad expanse of sky, they come crashing to the ground. But if we can find a way to let our kites ascend together, taking care to share the glory of God’s blue sky, then how dazzling, how delightful to see humans’ handiwork against the expanse of God’s vast universe.
I must make an honest confession to you. I am gravely disappointed each time a Christian invokes the name of our God to justify condemning human beings who are often in more loving and committed relationships than most Christians I know. Try as I may, I cannot see a way past judging your actions, my fellow Christians. But if I would be judged as I am judging you—if I forget that loving my neighbor is the second greatest of the commandments—I hope I would accept your criticism and reflect on my behavior and my faith.
Nourished by their frustration with religious leaders, many people have lost faith in America, have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and have concluded that we are anything but Christlike. I have often been labeled a “bleeding heart liberal” by more conservative Christians. But was not Christ liberal in his willingness to shed his heart’s blood for his beliefs?
When God judges me in the end, I do not wish to be judged for my appalling silence in the face of ill will toward other human beings. I must honestly reiterate my disappointment with the church. I say this as an elder of my denomination, who loves the church, who finds direction for my life in its community, who is sustained by seeing the face of God in my brothers and sisters in my times of need, and who will remain as true to it as my understanding of the Good News will allow.
If I have said anything that bears false witness or judges you unjustly, I pray that you will forgive me. If I have said anything that misinterprets the life of Christ, I pray that God will forgive me.
I hope that we can see an end to the suffocating air of oppressive judgment. I hope that we can weather the storm of discord and disunity. Let us all hope that we can let go of the clouds of fear that keep us from loving as God first loved us and look to the clear blue sky that reaches toward a harmonious heaven we can only imagine.
Yours for the cause of grace and peace,
*All verses come from the New Revised Standard translation and are used in accordance with the guidelines of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.