When the U.S. Supreme Court released its recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country, my social media news feed was divided between grief and jubilation. My activist friends were overjoyed at the decision. My Christian friends were not, and rarely did the two identities cross.
As my activist friends celebrated the recognition of LGBTQ equality, my Christian friends espoused that they didn't care what President Barack Obama or the Supreme Court said; God's law is the only law they would ever recognize. They were determined to “take back the rainbow” and “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Their reactions were strong and immediate, their posts defiant and visceral, like the body fighting back against a shock to the system.
I think that for conservative Christians, the decision probably did come as a shock. In spite of polls that say the country has shifted rapidly to acceptance of homosexuality, it was hard to believe that the high court would validate something so antithetical to their belief system. There was an uncomfortable confrontation between Justice Anthony Kennedy’s prose and the Bible, and the secular won.
I believe uncomfortable confrontation can be good for Christianity. I am among those who celebrated what I see as the Supreme Court's recognition of the humanity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer persons and of their love as equal to that of heterosexual couples. It has become increasingly difficult for me to understand why many Christians do not see it the same way.
While I would not label my Christian friends' beliefs as hateful, homophobic or bigoted, I do see them as short-sighted and shallow when compared to the expansive love and grace the God we worship offers -- and that the body of Christ could offer if we would allow ourselves to.
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In my ongoing academic and self-study of my intersecting identities as a black woman who is also a feminist and a Christian, I've come across theologies of oppressed peoples that express a vision for Christianity's as yet unachieved possibilities. In a 1978 article in the Anglican Theological Review, the late Episcopalian priest Pauli Murray wrote:
"Both black theology and feminist theology express the goal of wholeness of the human being, of authentic selfhood, self-esteem, and dignity. They deal with questions of identity, the retrieval of lost history, the destruction of self-deprecation, and liberating self-affirmation."
Murray was the first African American female priest ordained in the Episcopal church, a position that I imagine gave her cohorts in the largely secular second-wave feminist movement pause. She was also a co-founder of the National Organization for Women -- an accomplishment I hypothesize may have put her at odds with male church leaders confronted with women’s demands for leadership within the church; with black women who felt feminism of the 1960s and 70s was too much about middle class white women; and with black men and women who saw feminism as a divisive distraction from Black Power. Murray also embraced an identity layer I don’t share: she had what she called a “he/she personality” (today, we might say gender nonconforming, gender queer or transgender), and she had lesbian relationships.
In revisiting Murray’s essay since the Supreme Court decision, one main feature of black and feminist theology stands out to me: acceptance of the whole person. Murray was born in 1910. She grew up in the Jim Crow South. In so many ways and at countless times in her life, there was no place for a woman, an African American, a Christian, an LGBTQ person, or a feminist like Murray. Yet she found, within the Christian faith, a way not to relegate any part of herself to the sidelines.
That is important because, while people can hide some aspects of their identity, at some point, it becomes impossible to deny who they are, and everyone wants and deserves to be loved and accepted. The platitude “Hate the sin, love the sinner” does little for a lesbian or gay Christian who wants to live openly as lesbian or gay and Christian. Their attraction to persons of the same sex makes them no less human than the heterosexual person sitting in the pew next to them, so why “love” them as though they were lesser?
Christianity has an ugly history of promoting one human’s race, gender or sexual orientation as superior to that of another. People who have intersecting identities as Christians and as members of marginalized groups have had to learn how to occupy many spaces simultaneously in order to affirm their humanity. They’ve had to interrogate their faith, face difficult challenges to it and make decisions about how they will live freely within it. As Murray summarized Major J. Jones’ Christian Ethics and Black Theology, “It is a sign of maturity when an oppressed people are no longer willing to adopt without question a religion or God who accepts the idea of inequality for any part of the human family.”
People want and deserve love and acceptance because they are human. That should be enough of a reason for the church to give it. And enough of a reason to question why the church isn’t, as Rev. Candice Benbow said, “radical in its expression of love/acceptance.”