As Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog croaks that it’s not easy being green, today reminds me that it’s not easy being right, whatever “right” is.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) recently amended the Church’s constitutional definition of marriage as a commitment between two people. It was a good day for those of us who have discussed, debated, and advocated for full inclusion over the last 40 years.
It represents something akin to the civil rights movement – institutionalization of the same ethic that refused any longer to deny equal rights to African-Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was the right thing to do.
But nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Collateral consequences accompany every controversial decision, and sometimes those collateral consequences place us in conflict between two highly prized commitments.
No sooner did the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitutional change make the news than the National Black Church Initiative (NBCI) announced its decision to break fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Click HERE for the story. The NBCI claim that the PC(USA) has abandoned or “manipulated” sacred text is not a new charge, but it’s a mistaken one. Said NBCI’s President, the Rev. Anthony Evans:
“No church has the right to change the Word of God. By voting to redefine marriage PCUSA automatically forfeits Christ’s saving grace. There is always redemption in the body of Christ through confession of faith and adhering to Holy Scripture.
“In this case, PCUSA deliberately voted to change the Word of God and the interpretation of holy marriage between one man and one woman. This is why we must break fellowship with them and urge the entire Christendom to do so as well.”
But the PC(USA) did not alter Scripture. It amended its understanding of the Word of God, as we did when we repented of the biblically acceptable practice of slavery. Scripture and tradition without the guidance of the Holy Spirit are not the sine qua non of the Christian faith. It was and is through the guidance of the Spirit of the Living God that we are called to read the Bible through the eyes of Christ, the eyes of love and human dignity, to bring the church and society into a greater light.
It seems, as best I can tell, that there are two grounds on which opposition to the PC(USA)’s full embrace of GLBT members is based. One is psychological (fear). Whenever fear appears, we are called to be compassionate. To understand and walk in the fearful one’s shoes. The second ground is intellectual, as in arguing against biblical interpretation. To argue that one’s biblical literalism is the only faithful reading of the Bible is intellectually dishonest. It’s buried in denial, but it no less intellectually dishonest if it were spoken from unfettered consciousness.
Life is messy. Theology, ethics, and morality are messy. Every decision is contextual, and in that complex set of competing claims and valued, we stand responsible for our decisions of interpretation, faith, and action.
The “breaking of fellowship” by the National Black Church Initiative and its 36,000 African American congregations cuts to the bone of a church for whom racial justice and reconciliation has long been a mandate of the gospel of Jesus. Racism is America’s great sin. Its forms are personal and institutional.
The PC(USA) Confession of 1967 declared the ending of discrimination as of first important to the church’s mission of reconciliation, a confession of faith we now apply to discrimination against the GLBT community. Section 4 on Reconciliation in Society, begins as follows:
In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act. The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations. The following are particularly urgent at the present time.
a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love he overcomes the barriers between brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all men to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.
It was in that same spirit of God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ that the Presbyterian Church (USA) slowly moved over the last 40 years to the position of full inclusion of GLBT members, culminating in the marriage amendment.
It’s not easy being green. It’s not easy being right, whatever right means, especially when one right creates another wrong, or is perceived as sin.
This Wednesday of Holy Week, we once again move with Jesus toward the cross. Green, black, white, yellow, red, and brown, straight and gay; the certain and the confused. Sin is everywhere, even in our best intentions, and often it hides in the corners of our own claims of righteousness. Only a vast love and mercy can overcome the gulfs of estrangement that divide us. Some sins are plain to us, some escape us, some we cannot face. Even our best intentions…. Johan Hermann’s text “Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended” (1630) set to music by Johann Cruger’s “Herzliebster Jesu” (1640) is a heartfelt prayer for the whole Church and for the world itself as we move through confession on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday toward Easter this Holy Week.