Dear America

Most of you who know me know my political persuasions; I have not tried to hide them. But, at the same time, I hope most of you would agree that I am a reasonable person, that I try very hard to listen before I speak, and that I am careful to consider the opinions and arguments of as many as possible before making an informed decision. With that in mind, please remain open to the following words.

 

I believe that all people are redeemable. My Christian conviction tells me that people are neither basically good nor basically evil – they are basically human; and everyone has the capacity to do good and bad things. I am not concerned about Donald Trump, the man. He, like anyone else, has the capacity to do better.

 

I am concerned about Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and the fact that so many people supported it. I want to believe that the reason over 59 million people voted for Trump is that they have been hurting, and they truly believe he can help them. I want to believe that such a sizeable portion of America voted for Donald Trump in spite of the awful things he had to say, rather than because of them. I want to believe that people do not really expect him to build a wall, to throw people out of our country, to require an entire religious group to be registered with the state, to torture the families and friends of so-called “terrorists”, or to do any other number of things he has promised during this campaign. I want to believe the best in you, America. But I’m not sure I can.

 

You say you want to move forward, to unite the country. The only way we can do that, the only way we can accept a Trump presidency, is if you, America, unequivocally condemn the hateful, violent, racist, misogynistic rhetoric that characterized his campaign. This is not who we should be. Maybe it’s who we are, but it is not who we should be. It is not Christian. It is not decent. It is not right.

 

For those of you telling us to suck it up, to accept change, to deal with it, that the people have spoken, to stop being sore losers – understand that we are not just upset or annoyed that he won. There are many who are legitimately terrified of how they will be treated under his administration. They have to entertain a lot of maybes right now. Maybe he won’t do all of the things he said he would.

Maybe he won’t build the wall.

Maybe he won’t send a militarized police force after undocumented families.

Maybe he won’t bar Muslims from entering the country.

Maybe he won’t require Muslims to register with the government.

Maybe he won’t find ways to silence those who disagree with him.

Maybe he won’t torture and kill the families and friends of those he considers to be his enemies.

Maybe he won’t authorize the nuclear destruction of countries he doesn’t like.

Or maybe he’ll try, but the Constitution will protect us.

Maybe his supporters all across the nation will not feel emboldened to perpetrate violence against those who are different from them.

Maybe. We shall see.

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I Stand with my Transgender Brothers and Sisters: My Response to the Passage of NC HB2

For those who don’t know, my state – North Carolina – just passed this bill: http://www.ncleg.net/Applications/BillLookUp/LoadBillDocument.aspx?SessionCode=2015E2&DocNum=2&SeqNum=0

This bill is in response to a Charlotte ordinance that would allow transgender people to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity. The North Carolina Legislature apparently feels that Charlotte should not be allowed to do this, and that the ordinance would place women and girls who use public restrooms in danger. Thus, they called a special session to rush this bill through before the ordinance would take effect. In addition to explicitly mandating that people are only allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to their “biological sex” (listed on their birth certificate), this bill also strips local governments of their rights to create ordinances pertaining to both non-discrimination and worker compensation.

I state right here and now my firm opposition to this bill. Although one might think that the Christian, loving thing to do is to stay silent and not ruffle anyone’s feathers, on this most significant of weeks it is imperative to recognize that to ruffle the feathers of the status quo is in fact one of the most Christian things one could do. To stand for justice and truth is to stand in the very footprints of Jesus, and so must I stand.

The truth is that transgender people are not evil. They are not degenerate. Neither is anyone else in the LGBTQIA+ community. They are people, just like anyone else. And, in fact, they are my friends. I have two very close friends in the trans community, and if they’re reading this I hope they know who they are. They are two of the kindest, most compassionate, courageous men of God I know, and they deserve to be treated as such.

The truth is that our brothers and sisters are not “living in sin”. They are living normal lives like everyone else. They are living out their God-given identity, and in a world that disparages that very identity, that requires an extensive amount of courage. One of the most humble, Christian guys I know is gay, and if he’s reading this, I hope he knows who he is. I remember him being the kind of Christian that I only wished I could be. I never knew how courageous he was until he came out, and he set me on the path to loving my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters for who they are, rather than in spite of it.

The truth is that babies are born all the time with ambiguous genitalia, and often a quick decision is made. And it is not inconceivable to think that the same impulse inside of me that tells me I am a man might well lie within a person born with female genitalia (or vice versa). Just as it is not outside of the realm of comprehension that the same attraction I experience toward the female body might similarly be experienced by someone who is female (and vice versa). Much of what we once considered “normal” has been shown to be only one category out of many. All it takes is a step out of the box, a pinhole in the bubble.

I get it. I understand the desire for the world to be simple – for there to simply be men and women, each attracted to the opposite sex. But our God did not make a simple Universe. It is beautifully complex and diverse. And instead of cowering in fear and asking God to protect us from it, we should be begging God to introduce us to it. Only then might we truly learn something. Amen.

Religious Liberty and Human Sin: What Kim Davis is Missing

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation in Kentucky. Kim Davis, a county clerk, is refusing to issue marriage licenses to all couples, claiming that her religion forbids her from affixing her name to any document that would endorse or otherwise support the marriage of LGBTQIA+ persons. Claiming the 1st Amendment as her primary argument, she believes that she has a constitutional right to refuse service to the LGBTQIA+ community. There are many people who support her and many who oppose her, and it’s usually times like these when some Christians will stand up and say, “Not all Christians…” If, however, we Christians who are supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community really want the world to understand that we are out there, then we need to do more than just shout “Not all Christians…” If we truly want to effect change for the Kindom of God, we must be just as vocal in denouncing anti- LGBTQIA+ rhetoric as those who speak it. So, please, allow me to be one of those voices here.

 

I do not wish to go into a long explanation of why I am both a Christian and an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community. Suffice it to say, one can be both, and there is a fairly large number of us. What this means is that those who vehemently assert that Christianity is fundamentally anti- LGBTQIA+ do not have a monopoly on Christianity. Their version of Christianity is anti- LGBTQIA+; mine is not. So, when Kim Davis says that her religion prohibits her from supporting any LGBTQIA+ relationships, she is absolutely correct. But, the funny thing about Ms. Davis’ religion is that it’s not the only one.

 

Most religions – and most, if not all, cultures – adhere to a certain code of ethics. This code tells adherents when something is right and when it is wrong. For those of us steeped in Christian theology, we call what is wrong “sin”. Most people would agree that “sin” is readily apparent in the world. Indeed, Reinhold Niebuhr, a very well-known American theologian of the mid-20th century, once said that “…sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Let’s face it – our world isn’t perfect. Human beings act in sinful ways. In fact, oftentimes human beings create sinful structures, and those structures continue to exist throughout generations, so that younger generations – who might never have been inclined to the particular sin that a certain structure maintains – participate in that structure and, sometimes unknowingly, perpetuate the sin. Racism is a good example of this kind of structural sin. Most people today would agree that racism is an expression of our sinful nature as human beings. Yet, racism, as a system, is so ingrained in our society from centuries of slavery and segregation that many people unknowingly participate in it and perpetuate it even to this day. Indeed, sin does not easily go away. Once it establishes a foothold in society, it is very difficult to expel it.

 

There are times, therefore, when it must be forcibly expelled. Because, otherwise, it simply will not leave. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized this in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, when he said:

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

 

As Dr. King so eloquently points out, had the people not been willing to fight for their rights, and had their rights not been granted to them, we may well have found ourselves still in a society that refuses to treat our black brothers and sisters as equal human beings. We might well still be living in a time when businesses could freely refuse service to someone simply based on the color of their skin. Thankfully, we are not; but it was not because the free market drove those businesses out of business. It was, in fact, because those businesses were legally compelled to serve everyone, regardless of skin color. Sin was not allowed to “run its course”, because the government recognized the truth of Dr. King’s words – sin never “runs its course”. It is either allowed to remain or it is asked to leave.

 

Now, the issue at hand, of course, is not racial integration. It is LGBTQIA+ marriage. Ms. Davis argues that this is sinful, according to her religious beliefs, and so she cannot support it and must be given an exemption from performing her normal duties as a county clerk. Unfortunately for Ms. Davis, this was the same argument used by those opposed to integration in the 1960s. Those who objected to the Civil Rights Act did so on the grounds of religious liberty. So, why is Ms. Davis’ objection, along with the objections of all those both past and present who wished to be excused from the new requirements of the law to treat everyone equally, not legitimate?

 

The simple answer is that Ms. Davis’ religion is not the only religion out there. Indeed, it is not even the only form of Christianity. It is not, therefore, the supreme moral authority of the land; and as a result it cannot claim complete imperviousness to the all-consuming power of structural sin. In fact, it is entirely conceivable that Ms. Davis’ religion preserves and perpetuates a structural sin. In short, religion is not a license to do whatever you want, because sinful things can be (and have been) done in the name of religion – yes, even in the name of Christianity. As an extreme example, you may not claim religious liberty as a homicide defense simply because the “free exercise” of your religion includes killing people. Any reasonable person would see that in this case the right of someone to freely practice his or her religion ends at the other person’s right to life. Similarly, Ms. Davis’ right to disapprove of LGBTQIA+ relationships ends at the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons not to be discriminated against. White supremacists’ rights to dislike people of color end at the rights of people of color not to be discriminated against.

 

Religious liberty may not be used as an excuse to perpetuate structural sin. Ms. Davis’ ability to exercise her religion is not being curtailed by the government – her attempt to impose her own religion on others is. If she does not wish to serve the LGBTQIA+ community, she is free to resign her post and seek employment elsewhere. If a white business owner does not wish to serve a black customer, he is free to close down his business and seek employment elsewhere. If a couple who operate a bakery that provides wedding cakes do not wish to serve LGBTQIA+ couples, they are free to close down their business and seek employment elsewhere. However, if sin is freely allowed to run rampant, and business owners and county clerks across the country are allowed to refuse service to persons on the basis of their religious beliefs, then those persons are not free to obtain the service elsewhere, because, with everyone discriminating against them, there is no elsewhere.

 

This is what Kim Davis has missed – the persistence and perniciousness of structural sin. Suppose county clerks are allowed to claim religious exemption from issuing marriage licenses: the LGBTQIA+ community cannot wait for county clerks across the country to decide to grant them marriage licenses, because it simply will not happen. Similarly, Dr. King and the rest of black America could not wait to be served in restaurants and businesses across the country, because it simply would not happen. Without legal compulsion, these structural sins would continue to remain, unchecked. That is why she must either obey the court’s ruling or find a new job.

 

We must be very clear – Kim Davis is still a child of God, made in the image of God, and she deserves our love, compassion, and grace. Rather than call her names and inundate her with threats, we must treat her with kindness and love. We must help her to see that she is participating in a structural sin that systematically hurts people and treats them as less than human, and no amount of religious liberty makes that acceptable. Above all, we must keep in mind that the God of the universe is much bigger than any one religion, book, or person can ever know or describe. Let us all continue to seek Her.

The Other Side of the Fence

There is an inclination – shared by all humans – to hate the Other. It’s almost instinctual. When things aren’t going all that well in our lives, or when someone threatens our well-built defenses, we fall back into a mode of self-protection, and our empathy fails to extend beyond our own.

I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it is some sort of survival instinct that evolved over time to keep us safe; to keep us alive. We humans are fundamentally created to be in community with one another; the lone wolf does not survive long without the pack. However, we are as a result conditioned not to trust anything outside of our community. We fear what we do not know, and if there are people out there who do not look like us or act like us, we judge them not to be people at all.

This is the foundation of much of the world’s problems today. Hating/fearing the Other and thinking we are the only real humans is how racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia continue to thrive. It is the failure to look into the eyes of another human being and recognize that they, too, have a soul. They, too, are made in the image of God. I believe the most recent tragedy in Charleston, SC is a result of this failure. It is the result of a systemic failure to recognize persons of color as full human beings in their own right, equally deserving of the rights and privileges so many of us enjoy without a second thought. More than anything, it is the result of a communal failure to bring up our own to look beyond the bounds of the community; to tear down the walls that we built centuries ago; and to reach across the barrier to shake hands with the one we used to call our enemy.

Jesus speaks very plainly of this. From his parable of the Good Samaritan to his exhortation that we love our enemies, Jesus understood long ago what was causing us problems. When we segregate ourselves into groups, and label the other group as “terrorists”, “criminals”, “murderers”, “rapists”, “thugs”, “enemies” – essentially, “evil” – then it becomes so much easier to hate them. It becomes that much easier to kill them, and to feel justified in doing so. But Jesus, very clearly, understands the thing that we all need to understand. Behind that “terrorist”, behind that “criminal”, that “murderer”, that “thug” – behind that “enemy” is a human being. A flawed human being, just like you and me.

This is not to excuse the atrocious and incredibly destructive actions of others. Those who have erred grievously must bear the responsibility for doing so. It is, however, a calling. It is a calling to preach love instead of hate. It is a calling to eliminate the word “enemy” from our vocabulary and replace it with “a human being, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God”. It is a calling to eliminate our borders rather than secure them. It is a calling to recognize that we are always only one step away from becoming our worst enemy.

Most importantly, we must reckon with the fact that there are 7.1 billion people in this world. You are on the Other side of someone else’s fence.