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.