Friday, May 11, 2012

Our Golden Opportunity

Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. (Hebrews 12.14-15)

No Middle Ground

Three-and-a-half years ago, in the final, furious months of the 2008 US Presidential race, my parents sent me an email that opened the whole same-sex marriage can of worms and prompted a lengthy response in these pages (On Marriage, the Church, and the Nation). Although I continue to stand by much of what I said, my basic premise was deeply flawed and the tortured logic I used to support it severely misguided. In attempting to balance marriage as a sacrament with constitutionally guaranteed equality, I fell into a separate-but-equal trap that, despite using Jesus’s own words, reflected none of His teaching and character.

Trying to locate middle ground, I failed to acknowledge that Jesus never settles for middle ground. In every situation—including His marriage discussion in Matthew 19—Jesus always sides with those on the wrong side of disenfranchisement and loop-holing. Mosaic Law says the Messiah is God’s promise to the Jews; Jesus broadens the definition to include people of all ethnicities, classes, and religions. Mosaic Law commands that adulterers be stoned to death; Jesus pardons a woman caught in the very act and impeaches those who would punish her. Religious tradition castigates Samaritans as unfit outsiders; Jesus invites a Samaritan woman—one with a scandalous sexual history, no less—to experience new life.

Search the Scripture for precedents where Jesus defends inequality or settles for compromise. You won’t find one. Jesus views every situation where religious and legal customs categorize people as “other” as a prime opportunity to prove the power of God’s unconditional love, grace, and acceptance. Time and again He sidesteps legal quibbling to press higher principles. It’s never about Samaritans and lepers and adulterers and tax collectors and criminals; it’s always about removing barriers that deny them grace. There is no middle ground, no appeasement, no give and take. Those without receive. Those outside are welcomed in. And Jesus doesn’t get bogged down with defending why this must be, because His actions as God speak for God. And God says, “That’s how it is.”

An Unequaled Chance

Like millions, I was thrilled with President Obama’s declaration that legalizing same-sex marriage is the right thing to do. But while pundits and opponents wasted time trying to decipher political motives for his affirmation, I gloried in the reason he gave. “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing Himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts. “You know, treat others the way you want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as President.” It was so simple, so just, and so incontrovertibly correct.

It was a watershed in American politics—not as a policy statement or campaign strategy, but as an unabashed witness to Jesus’s life and teaching. It was the first time I ever recall a US President overtly leading us back to Christ in a way that purely reflects Christ’s principles. It instantly brought to mind Paul’s sterling statement in 1 Corinthians 11.1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” I wanted to run up and down streets, ringing doorbells and shouting, “Our President just said, ‘Follow me, as I follow Christ!’”

Without besmirching the sincerity of believers and denominations currently opposed to marital equality, I would also challenge them to consider the golden opportunity they’re overlooking. History has presented them with an unequaled chance to witness the radical grace Jesus embodied—to surrender their cloaks and their shirts, as Jesus teaches, to travel a second mile when asked to walk one, to go beyond what’s asked of them and do what’s required of anyone claiming Jesus as his/her Leader.

From Within

To follow Christ in every way is by its very nature an act of faith because it constrains us to abandon what we think is right in order to do what Jesus says is right. It is not easy by design, as it expects us to live out God’s grace in a very particular, completely selfless way. And this is especially difficult for people who confuse the inhabited (and habitual) faithfulness Jesus demands with behavioral codes that divide “insiders” from “outsiders” and “us” from the “other.” They look to external structures and arbitrary rules to define their beliefs, never realizing that faith is witnessed from within. Faith transforms a subjective experience with God into an objective expression of God’s presence in the world. It exchanges seeking divine approval for trusting divine acceptance. It gives without hope of reward. It exalts without regard to presumed status or worth. It ignores what we see in others to evidence what God wants others to see in us.

Resisting the rigors of faithfulness is hardly a modern phenomenon. Indeed, the challenges of faithful living are so daunting for the Early Church that they become the central topic of virtually every epistle in the New Testament. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Hebrews letter, where the writer takes extraordinary measures to free Jewish Christians from reliance on legalism and religiosity so that they can actualize genuine faith. “This is a new and living way,” Hebrews 10.20 proclaims (emphasis added), pointing to a faith that sheds obsolete attitudes and evolves in response to its surroundings. It is a faith primed for opportunities to witness God’s unfettered love, grace, and acceptance. It is a faith whose only standard is built on compassion, tolerance, and equality.

In Hebrews 12.14 and 15 we read, “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.” Peace with everyone—not a select few whose beliefs and morals align with our own. Holiness that reveals God at work in us. Ensure that no one is denied God’s grace. Don’t cultivate bitterness and trouble that defile our witness. It is a teaching that compels us to look beyond ourselves to find a better, new, and living way.

All Aboard!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great theologian, martyr, and perhaps the 20th century’s clearest voice of discipleship, wrote, “If you board the wrong train it is no use running down the corridor in the opposite direction.” At the time, he was warning German Christians not to bend to anti-Semitic pressures from pro-Nazi religious and civic leaders. American Christians are handed a nearly identical choice with the marital debate. It asks us to forego religious dogma and personal comfort for the sake of the oppressed and disenfranchised. In the wake of President Obama’s affirmation, all but a very few conceded he was on “the right side of history.” But it’s bigger—much bigger—than that. What we’ve just seen is the temerity of one believer to board the right train. May every believer in this nation follow him, as he follows Christ. May all disciples of Christ come to their senses, get on the right train, and join a deafening chorus of “All aboard!”

The marital equality debate presents a golden opportunity for all believers to become living witnesses to the magnitude of God’s grace.

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