Friday, June 28, 2013

What We Have Lost

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “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.”And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Luke 4:16-21

I am often struck by the distance between Jesus and the religion that bears his name. Our harmless, domesticated Jesus, committed to the normalcy of civilization, the preservation of privilege and the maintenance of the status quo has little in common with the radical prophet we meet in the Gospels. Christianity has marginalized and silenced him in ways that Pilate and Herod, and the Roman Empire could only dream about.

As we contemplate the fallout from the recent Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, it is clear that one of the biggest losers is Christianity.

The problem is not the decision. As followers of Jesus, we might have hoped for a more sweeping affirmation of the rights of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but the decision moved us in the right direction. The problem is that along the way, Christianity became identified with some of the ugliest and most bigoted arguments against the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

To be fair, identifying Christianity with the “anti-gay” side of this argument is largely a creation of the media. When the television folks look at this issue they often pair a gay activist (who may or may not be a person of faith) with an opponent of same sex marriage who self-identifies as a Christian. Ordinary mainstream Christians are generally ignored by the media. Opponents of same sex marriage almost always say they are against it because they are Christians. Supporters do not as often cite their faith as a reason for their support. But fairly or not, the perception is there.

When young people outside the church are asked what they think of when they think of Christianity, they come up with words like, “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “narrow-minded,” “intolerant,” and “anti-scientific.”

How did we get so far from the Kingdom of God? Jesus called us to join with God in creating a place where “the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich are sent away empty,” “where the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” where the poor and marginalized have security and dignity, where we love our enemies and put the needs of others before our own. Instead, those who call themselves Christians seem determined to live in the cramped darkness of their own self-righteousness.

A century ago Walter Rauschenbusch called on the church to embrace the Social Gospel in response to the issues and concerns of that time. He called for the church to renew its emphasis on the Kingdom of God as the core message of the Gospel. He argued that the church must do this in order to be faithful to the call of Jesus, and he believed that this was what the world needed from the church. But he also argued forcefully that if the church failed to embrace the Social Gospel it would lose a whole generation of young people. The youth, he said, were already moving. Young people might not understand the theological nuances of biblical interpretation, but they could hear the call of Jesus and they have chosen to follow that call. The church, he argued, would lose its moral authority if it did not move with them.

Our young people today have grown up in a more secular environment. Most of them lack the biblical background that Rauschenbusch could take for granted even among youth who were not directly involved in any church. But today’s young people have followed their hearts and minds, and they have intuitively come out on the right side of this issue when too many of us in the church have come out on the wrong side.

Beyond the position they have taken, Christian opponents of same sex marriage have also done great damage by the way they got there. Almost invariably they are biblical literalists. Their arguments depend on a selective reading of Scripture which misses the great sweep of the biblical narrative. They have used the Bible as a weapon. In the process they have inflicted great harm on LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer or Questioning) persons, especially young people, and they have also convinced countless others that the Bible makes no sense.

The Supreme Court vote was a great victory, but it will take a long time to repair the damage done in the struggle.

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