The Better Angels Of Our Nature (Amendment One)

Sermon by Michael Usey [with lots of help from H. Stephen Shoemaker & Pam Strader, and a few others]
Feb 19, 2012

My new favorite band, Rev Theory, has a song that begins, “You better hold to something; this one is gonna get bumpy.” (1) Good advice for this morning.

First thing: there are copies of this sermon on the way out for you, so that, if what’s being chewed over lunch is my backside, then let it be for something I actually said. We’ll have a sermon talkback after my sermon, but keep in mind death threats should come by the usual avenues: email, phone and blood on my porch.

Secondly, College Park has always been a place of diversity, a place where people who follow Jesus as Lord can have differing opinions and still be one. Where theological and political liberals and conservatives can feel welcome in this room and in this church—as true today as always.

Thirdly, I’m not an expert in most of what we’re talking about this morning. I’m not a lawyer, not a poli-sci guy, nor am I well-versed in LGBT issues. I am a straight white guy from Cali who knows a thing or two about the bible and theology, but—as you know—not knowing about a topic hasn’t stopped me from talking about it. And, like you, I do know discrimination when I see it.

So why is a Baptist minister talking about this amendment anyway? Lots of reasons come to mind. Here at College Park we are outspoken on issues of faith that others might find controversial: abortion, sex, our relationships with Jews and Mormons, homosexuality, hell, war, you name it. We don’t try to be controversial, but we’re a group of people that takes seriously what it means to follow Jesus as Lord, and we try to stay ahead of the curve. We are not afraid of difficult issues; we are not afraid of failure; we not afraid of talking with and listening to each other on crucial issues. If we are afraid of anything, we are afraid of embarrassing Jesus.

The radical gospel of Jesus, and the wild Spirit of God that leads us, compels us here to speak out on injustice, prejudice, and hostility, particularly when it is done in the name of our Messiah. If you’ve been with Baptists before, you know that we are Christians with authority issues. No two Baptists believe the exact same thing about lunch or the Trinity, nor do we tolerate creeds or tests of faith. I offer what I have come to believe about this amendment, in the hopes of beginning a conversation about it. I tell you honestly that I hope that we as a congregation will work to defeat it. You are free to believe what you will about this topic (as if I had to tell you that), as am I. College Park has long had a completely free pulpit, meaning that ministers and members are free to say what they feel God has laid on their hearts, without fear of blowback or of censorship.

We’re talking about it today, too, because it is directly related to our mission and our witness. Our mission is what we pray often here when say St. Francis’ prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.Where there is sadness, joy.

Our witness is to join with the millions of Christians like us who believe that prejudice and discrimination against LGBT persons is morally repugnant and the very opposite of God’s love. LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers; they are eight times more likely to be homeless. We who belong to God are to be the good news to our fellow human being who may be gay or lesbian.

David Kinnaman’s book Unchristian is subtitled What a new generation really thinks about Christianity, and why it matters. In the NT, Paul told the 1 st century Christians, “You yourselves are our letter, known and read by everyone.” (2) Yet research shows that Christians are best known for what they are against; as a faith group we are perceived as being judgmental and anti-homosexual. This amendment furthers this misperception, by allowing fundamentalists to propose writing discrimination into our state constitution. We at College Park who belong to God, and who represent Christ in Greensboro have a calling and a duty to be outspoken that Amendment One is unchristian. If we do not speak for Christ on this, then who will? So this is our witness: we tell the good news—God loves all people, and wills committed love relationships, not exclusive amendments.

There’s a popular cartoon (3) that has a woman with a halo making pronouncements: “If you’re pro-choice, you’re a baby killer; arrest somebody! Gays and lesbians are unnatural abominations! Stop them from getting married! Atheists are amoral agents of Satan! Put God in schools and courts; show them we’re a Christian nation! Somebody ban this obscene art exhibit! Then another woman says to her, “If you want to believe in God and teach your kids about Christianity, that’s your right. Please just let the rest of us make our own choices too.” To which the haloed woman responds, “Stop persecuting me; stop disrespecting my beliefs! Why are you waging a war against Christianity?” This, my friends, is exactly how too many see Christians. If we wish our faith to survive another generation, we progressive Christians had best speak up. John Stewart said this week, “Just because you don’t get your way, it doesn’t mean you’re being persecuted.

We Baptists value the separation of church and state. It was the contribution of Baptists in the formative years of America to insist that the First Amendment of the US Constitution began with, “ Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” This separation is protected in two ways; on the state side, there is to be no establishment of religious services, laws, or practices. You’ll recall that it was on this basis that I strongly opposed our former mayor changing the moment of silence to a prayer before the City Council. Happily, our new mayor has restored a moment of silence. This also prevents churches from electioneering, or backing particular candidates or parties. The distinction I trust is clear in the handout in your bulletin.

On the church side, the First Amendment guarantees people of faith the right to speak about such issues. This separation does not mean that religious people may not try to influence politics. One of you said to me Wednesday night (the exact same thing this one said to me after my plea to the mayor about prayer before city council meetings), “I feel like you’re getting ready to mix religion and politics, and I’ve never thought that was a good idea.” I reminded my congregant that the two had been mixed at least since Jesus’ life and teachings got him killed by the Empire. Furthermore, American history is filled with faithful Christians seeking to transform culture. Quaker Christians spoke out against slavery, right here in Greens-boro. At every turn of freedom won in the political realm, people of faith have spoken out against prejudice and discrimination. Women’s right to vote at the turn of the 20 th century, child labor laws, civil rights for African Americans, immoral wars, reproductive rights for women, gambling: Christ’s church had cogent things to say about each and every movement toward freedom and justice, both from the pew and pulpit.

H. Richard Niebuhr, in his seminal book Christ & Culture, examined the ways in which different Christians related to culture as a whole. One model that he found vastly inadequate was what he called Christ & Culture in Paradox, meaning that the church and culture were two separate arenas of thought, and the two should never mix. Here the church loses her voice to say anything meaningful to culture, and so accepts pagan culture as it is. Rather, in Niebuhr’s opinion, the highest expression was Christ Transformer of Culture, in which Christians seek to influence civil discourse by speaking the truth and pointing to the highest values that all religions share: those of justice, mercy, love, peace, freedom, and truth. It’s the mode we attempt to live out here.

I’m aware that those for Amendment One would say that they too are trying to influence culture; however, the difference is that they are attempting to make their biblical interpretation into civil law that all must adhere to. This is the erroneous model that Niebuhr calls Christ Above Culture. In this understanding the church and citizenship are one, the very thing our Baptist forebears fought against. “ The tyranny of a religious majority can turn a democracy into theocracy, and there are those in our land who want exactly this, America as a Christian theocracy.” (4)

Listen to the people who are for this amendment; their letters to the editor, their comments before our City Council. They argue that “God’s Word” demands such an amendment—a false statement, in that the Bible demands no such thing and, in my mind, a serious misreading of our sacred scripture. (And, by the way, many in this group claim to be “Bible-believing Christians,” which is a nasty way of implying the rest of us are not.)

Had they really been concerned about the state of hetero marriage, one would think they would have begun by outlawing divorce, since Jesus has several hard sayings about divorce and has nothing to say about homosexuality. (I say this not to demonize those of us who are divorced, but to point out the absurdity of their claim to be following Jesus’ on marriage.)

The other part of their argument is that so-called “activist” judges will over turn anything less than a constitutional amendment. We will see this part of their argument more as the news of California’s Prop 8 being overturned spreads. In contrast, look at Iowa whose state legislature ruled that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional. Iowa, now officially more progressive than North Carolina.

On March 1, 2011, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James revealed another purpose behind the proposed anti-LGBT amendment to the Raleigh News & Observer: making LGBT people unwelcome in the Tar Heel State. “We don’t want them here,” Mr. James said. I don’t know whether to pray Mr. James has a gay son or daughter, or beg God for that to never happen. (5) Apple founder Steve Jobs once said to Rupert Murdock that the critical axis in today’s politics is not liberal/conservative but constructive/destructive.  I believe he’s exactly right. (6)

The text of the proposed amendment is in an insert in your bulletin. I oppose this amendment because I believe represents blatant discrimination against LGBT persons, and it builds this discrimination into our state’s foundational document. North Carolina was the 11 th of the original 13 states to approve the U.S. Constitution because our forebears demanded that a Bill of Rights accompany it.  Our state has a long legacy of protecting individual rights. I hope this spirit prevails.  One can be against same-sex marriage and against this amendment on civil rights grounds. (7)

As my friend Pam Strader pointed out so well in Saturday’s News & Record, State law alreadydefines marriage as between “a male and a female.” (8) To change the state constitution is a drastic act, and one that should only be done for citizens’ “safety and happiness and consistently with the U.S Constitution.” (9) Instead of protecting the safety of our citizens, Amendment One could do great harm. In a paper entitled “ Potential Legal Impact of the Proposed Same-Sex Marriage Amendment to the NC Constitution,” legal experts warn that because the bill’s language is vague, unclear, and untested, passage of Amendment One “ would enmesh our courts in years of litigation to untangle its appropriate meaning [and could] be interpreted to upend completely the very minimal legal rights, obligations, and protections now available to unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex.” (10)

Pam also points out that Amendment One would affect all unmarried couples, and children in those households, in domestic violence protection, child custody, wills, medical directives, and insurance coverage for families of public employees. It will stir up litigation that North Carolina neither needs nor can afford. A state constitution as a document should protect the safety, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of its citizens. Similar laws in other states have had some disastrous and lethal consequences.

The economic impact could be the worst of all. It was for this reason I believe that Greensboro’s City Council voted 8-1 condemning Amendment One. Our fine city council hasn’t voted 8-1 on much of anything lately, but they are united against the amendment. The negative economic impact is much greater than I can express here, but let me quote the Charlotte Observer, “ We think such an amendment is wrong for North Carolina. It would contribute to a climate of hostility toward homosexuals, and it also could be bad for business. Recent research by UNC School of Law professor Victor B. Flatt concluded that a gay marriage amendment could cause businesses to see our state as inhospitable to their gay employees while undermining efforts to attract new talent to their companies.”

Pam, Lin, Jim Luck, and I (along with Kelli & Mark) are members of a group of 40-plus clergy opposing Amendment One.(12) The trick of any religious person is to be on the side of the angels on controversial issues. This requires rising about the zeit geist of any given culture. We all hope that our great-grandchildren might be proud of what we do here today, not apologizing or making restitution. In our faith, we appeal to the life of Jesus, read widely, and open ourselves up to the divine Spirit.

The wonderful Pauline text we read this morning points to the twin Christian core values of freedom and love. Jesus means freedom, the freedom of all people to make moral decisions before God, such as whom we will love and whom we might marry. Paul gives the church in Galatia his version of the golden rule: Love others as you love yourself. Then he follows it with these words, That’s an act of true freedom. In America, people ought to be free to marry whom they love; this is a basic civil right. If God has given us the freedom to choose the good, and if Christ has set us free to serve others in love, then our civil discourse should not bind our fellow citizens. To seek to deny others civil rights that we enjoy solely because of what we believe is wrong.

My pastor in seminary, Steve Shoemaker, is now pastor of Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, and he reminds us of the process by which America finally gave legal sanction to interracial marriage.  For 300 years one form or another of interracial marriage was prohibited by law, including white/black, white/Asian, white/Filipino, white/Hindu, white/Native American, and white/Hispanic.  The arguments were similar to arguments against same-sex marriage: The Bible and God’s will are against it; it is “unnatural”; then the perennial debate about states’ rights vs. federal law.

It was not until 1967 in Loving v. Virginia that the Supreme Court ruled, on the basis of the 14 th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law, that interracial marriage was “a basic civil right.” Most Americans’ feelings about interracial marriage have changed dramatically since then.  The law led the way, enabling our experience to overcome our prejudices.

Recently the New York Times Magazine ran an article about the couple whose case led to the Supreme Court ruling. (13)   In 1958 24 states still had laws against interracial marriage.  Virginia was one.  In that year Richard and Mildred Loving were arrested in a midnight raid into their bedroom by the county sheriff.  Richard was a handsome blond bricklayer with a crew cut.  Mildred was a pretty woman of African-American and Native American descent.  They were ordered by the state to leave Virginia for 25 years.  The original sentence was one year in prison for violating the “Racial Integrity Act.”   Virginia wasn’t always for lovers. Mildred kept writing letters to Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General, and to the ACLU.  Finally, two lawyers took up the case, which led to the Supreme Court ruling.  Richard’s lawyer asked him if he had anything to say to the Supreme Court.  He said, “Tell the court I love my wife.”

The constitutional amendment, if passed, will be a step backward for human rights.  Its wording will threaten numerous rights of domestic partnerships, and our state’s economic recovery.  And it will reinforce cruel and harmful attitudes toward LGBT people and their families. Let’s lean into the better angels of our nature, and be on the side of the angels on this one.

One of the reasons for our nation’s founding was for religious freedom. At the heart of religious freedom is respect for the freedom of individual conscience. The way forward, the way to sustain and enhance our common life together, is equal respect for the freedom of all. (14)

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