Friday, July 10, 2009

The Mercies of God

The Lord is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9

For those of us who believe, as the hymn says, that there really is “a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,” and trust that the “arc of the moral universe” really does “bend toward justice,” there have been some bright spots this spring.

Maine and New Hampshire both adopted laws approving Gay Marriage, leaving Rhode Island as the last defender of marriage inequality in New England. At the Methodist Church my daughter Carolyn attends in Philadelphia, at the prayer time one Sunday, she shared the celebrations that her cousin was in the balcony when the New Hampshire law was passed, and her parents had been at a rally for marriage equality in Providence. One man in the congregation responded audibly, “Thank God for New England!”

But yesterday the Portland Press Herald carried a front page story on the efforts of a group called “Stand for Marriage Maine” is gathering signatures to put it on the ballot in November and calling for a “people’s veto.” The group has collected more than the necessary 55,000 signatures and has until August to submit them to the Secretary of State for verification. The group is supported by the Roman Catholic Church and other conservative Christians. In her story, Susan M. Cover reports:

Bob Emrich, a Baptist pastor and a member of Stand for Marriage Maine, said in a written statement that he looks forward to a "vigorous defense of marriage" throughout the campaign.

"Traditional marriage has never lost on the ballot in any state," he said. "We expect it to prevail in Maine. The fact that we've gathered all these signatures in just a month to proceed with the people's veto suggests that the people of Maine, like those in 43 other states, want to restore marriage to its historical and time-honored definition as between a man and a woman."

The traditionalists rest their argument in part on the Bible. Although those of us who support marriage equality can stand on the great biblical themes of freedom and equality, which are woven into the narrative from beginning to end, opponents focus on a few negative verses.

In his Torah Commentary this week, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, offers a reflection which speaks directly to the issue of biblical interpretation in relation to equality.

This is how he frames the question:

“Is there ever a discernible gap between God's morality and the Torah, or is the Torah itself our only window into the realm of divine values? Put another way, is it permissible for a reverent Jew to challenge the morality of a law, and to base this challenge on his or her own understanding of justice and thus God's will?”

The passage he is interpreting is from Numbers 27:1-11. It is the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are disenfranchised by the law as it was first given at Sinai. Only male heirs can inherit. The five daughters have no brother, so they are left out. Their family will disappear from the land and the memory of Israel. But they present their claim to Moses, and he prays about it and delivers a NEW WORD from God. This new word of God overturns the injustice and grants them an inheritance. The living Spirit of God proclaims a justice that transcends the written text.

Nevins cites an early Midrash found in Sifre BeMidbar (133):

The daughters of Zelophehad approached. When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that the Land was to be divided among the tribes, to males and not to females, they gathered together to take counsel in each other. They said, "Not like the mercies of people are the mercies of God. People have more mercy [i.e., preference] for males than females, but the One Who spoke and the World came to Be is not like this; rather, [God's] mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, "The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations." (Psalms 145:9)

Nevins point out the “blithe anachronism” of the midrash. The daughters of Zelophehad consult the Psalms, which will not be written for many more centuries. When we enter into dialog with the sacred texts of scripture, we take part in a conversation that transcends time and connects us to people of faith across the centuries.

The One Who spoke and the World came to be is not bound by narrow prejudice, but is filled with the widest compassion. “The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations.” God is a God of Justice. The “One Who spoke” created the world with a moral arc that bends toward justice.

It saddens me that other Christians choose to stand on the wrong side of history. I do not believe that in the end they will be able to unbend the arc, but they are trying. I am sad for Gay and Lesbian sisters and brothers who are being betrayed by the very people who should be shaped by the biblical story to stand with them. And I am troubled that narrow prejudice will once again be lifted up as if it were God’s word and will. Christians everywhere will be tarnished by their prejudice.

But as the ancient rabbis saw, the mercies of God are not like the mercies of human beings. God’s “mercies are for both males and for females, and for all, as it says, ‘The Lord is good to all; His mercies are over all his creations’." (Psalms 145:9)

The One Who spoke and the World came to be proclaims justice for all. And "all" means "all."

1 comment:

  1. I find it ironic that people take a biblical stance on gay marriage. Why not adopt "polygamy?" If we are going to be literal about it why not listen to Jesus who spoke directly against divorce?

    Of course there is a context for Jesus condemning divorce and it is argued that he was really condemning men in a highly patriarchal society for just "dismissing" their wives when they grew tired of them. However, if you are going to go by the letter of the Bible (which people who are against homosexuality tend to do) where is the outrage against divorce?

    Even without biblical support there is the idea of tradition. True, tradition has marriage between a man and a woman, but doesn't tradition say "as long as they both shall live?" The divorce rate is over 50% in the country a much bigger "threat" to marriage than gay people (who are at most 3-5% even if I consider them a threat -- which I don't.) Where is the proposal for the constitutional amendment to stop divorce?

    And we need to stop the "love the sinner and hate the sin" business. I have yet to meet a gay person who really thinks that is a loving phrase. We need to accept people as they are and who they are going to be needs to be between them and God.

    Would a divorced person tolerate it if we said, "We love and accept you even though you violate God's law and are fundamentally broken. We accept you despite the fact you couldn't get your relationship to work." Of course not! It would be judgmental and rude. It is a very passive-aggressive love.

    Sometimes people get divorced. If we have not, then we don't know what they are going through and we should just keep quite about it without any smug sense of superiority. We should be grateful that we have not gone through their pain. As Christians we should be in the business of easing the pain, not judging and labeling what we see as the source of their pain. Of course that is all common sense and basic decency. Where is that common sense and decency when it comes to gay people?

    *** If it isn't abundantly clear ---- I am NOT against people's right to have a divorce or think they are "wrong" in seeking them. Things happen.

    I am against hypocrisy. The same arguments against gay people COULD be used against those who get divorces. Since over 50% of the people in the country have had a divorce, I am merely suggesting there should be more empathy. By thinking about being against divorce puts a personal spin on it for a large portion of the country. Is it really a "Defense of Marriage" or just power, bigotry and hypocrisy?