by Ellen Sims
Text: Acts 9: 1-20
“It is no longer a question of a Christian going about to convert others to the faith, but of each one being ready to listen to the other and so to grow together in mutual understanding.” –Bede Griffiths
Last Thursday, a Mississippi newspaper published an article titled “Religious People Disagree Over Religious Freedom.” It was based on interviews with two Christian ministers—one Baptist minister, Rev. Chris Ashley, supporting Mississippi’s new so-called “religious freedom” law, HB 1523; the other, a retired United Church of Christ minister, Rev. Bruno Schroeder, who was “distressed by the fact that it passed.”
The Baptist pastor disclosed that he’d received hateful Facebook messages and phone calls for supporting HB 1523. “People just start ripping me,” he said. “‘This is your law.’ ‘Your law hurts’ and all this.” Rev. Ashley claims no one has been able to explain to him why some see the law he advocated for as discriminatory. He believes a law that allows public and private businesses to refuse service to gay and transgender people–if providing services violates religious beliefs–is actually preventing discrimination against religious people. He believes this despite the fact that the Supreme Court has already ruled against very similar laws. One writer characterizes HB 1523 as “an unambiguous permission slip to engage in discrimination [that] will likely be enough to shut the law down once it starts to limit the rights of LGBT people in that state”. (Thank God lawmakers in Alabama don’t waste taxpayers’ money with laws hastily crafted to appear pious and properly partisan but which will eventually be deemed unconstitutional.)
In contrast, Rev. Schroeder said he was honored when asked to officiate a same-gender wedding. He had never heard of any minister being pressured to perform a same-sex marriage. Nor had Rev. Ashley, for that matter. And I, for one, can’t imagine that any couple would want to be married by a reluctant minister who openly disapproves of their union when other ministers will bless their marriage with joy and genuine affirmation.
Isn’t it interesting that what one person calls religious freedom another calls discrimination? One side must be using Orwellian doublespeak if a new law’s proponents characterize it as advancing freedom and “rights” while the opposition sees it eroding some of the recently gained rights of same-gender couples. What’s now being contested in the legal arena has long been a topic of the culture wars. Some Christians say they feel persecuted by liberals with a gay agenda. LGBTQ folks and allies, on the other hand, believe the persecution comes from religious people who demean them and deny them rights. This contest to see who is being discriminated against is played out in other legislatures of states like North Carolina, where HB2 is seen by some as preventing religious persecution while others judge it to be enabling persecution.
As this debate continues in social, political, and religious contexts, the argument hinges on proving who is actually the aggrieved. Both the LGBTQ community and the Christian conservatives claim their rights are being abridged. But just because some do not get their way and have to accept change doesn’t mean they’ve been treated unjustly. Even among Christians there’s no unanimity about if/when there is persecution or at least prejudice and discrimination toward them. How do we know who is the persecutor and who is the persecuted—and is persecution too strong a term anyway?
Here’s my tip for sorting out that ethical dilemma for Christians. We follow Jesus’s practice. And Jesus consistently stood up for those ON THE MARGINS. He always sided with the last and the least. That doesn’t mean we should hold a “Most Pitiful Contest.” But in determining if conservative Christians or LGBT folks in Mississippi are the people “on the margins” do this: Place on one side of society’s scale all the esteem, power, privilege, and resources our society accords same-gender couples seeking to be married in Mississippi—and then place on the other side of the scales all the esteem, power, privilege, and resources granted to Mississippi’s heterosexual couples as well as to preachers, churches, legislators, civic leaders, and other representatives of conservative social mores. Which side has less “weight” of privilege? Which side is scorned or simply rendered invisible?
That’s the group that is on the margins. That’s where Jesus wants to step in to make things just.
Don’t tell me conservative Christians in Mississippi are the marginalized and disempowered. Don’t tell me that the LGBTQ community is–in Mississippi or just about anywhere on God’s green earth–the majority culture that determines what’s normative. Don’t tell me that the weight of history and public opinion makes sure there’s no discrimination against LGBTQ folks.
Maybe some are genuinely unsure if Jesus would have endorsed HB1523 in Mississippi or HB2 in North Carolina. One comment on my Facebook newsfeed this week complained: “I’m tired of always giving in to the minorities.” That person explicitly acknowledged that he was a member of the majority yet felt threatened or at least irritated by the minority. There IS actual persecution of Christians in many places of our world. But we dishonor the victims of those tragedies when people in the majority feel threatened as a system starts moving in the direction of equality. Marriage equality, in this case. Or the shift happening now because other religions are occupying the public sphere and Christians have to respect the fact that not everyone in their community is Christian. Or the ongoing work for racial equality. Expanding others’ rights doesn’t abridge the rights of straight couples or Christian people. It’s not persecution. But it is a shift that can feel threatening. Let’s have compassion for those experiencing the discomfort of change–without allowing that discomfort to stall efforts for justice–for LGBTQ people as well as racial, gender, and religious minorities and people with disabilities.
And if we need a reminder of what Jesus said about how we treat those on the margins of society, see this authentic first-century photograph taken of Jesus at his Sermon on the Mount:
Seriously, is it that hard to figure out who is the minority and who the majority? Even during South African apartheid, it was clear that the white numerical minority still held the power.
Without depriving the majority of their equal rights, we can work for fairer policies and practices. Whom would Jesus side with? Not every situation is clear cut. But I believe that Jesus would side with the LGBT community.
Others would inject here that Jesus doesn’t “side” with anyone. Jesus loved all equally and so Jesus would not want to offend either the conservatives or progressives on topics like marriage equality—to oversimplify the diversity of opinions for the sake of this point. I agree Jesus loved all equally. But he was not neutral on moral matters.
Some of my fellow clergy believe they serve their congregations best by avoiding controversial topics or touching on them gently, without offending either “side.” I don’t want to encourage polarization as I’m trying to make a point, and I realize that our ministry settings vary widely in demographics and needs. But I believe our LGBTQ friends and family and church family deserve more than mere neutrality from Christian ministers and churches or oblique sermons about showing kindness to everyone. Here I must also confess I was slow to appreciate my own prejudices and become an ally and advocate for LGBT inclusion. But I believe too many clergy have waited too long to speak and preach and teach in support of LGBTQ folks. I have talked to too many gay or trans folks whose families have disowned them, emotionally and even physically abused them—and all because their church taught them that their gay or trans family member was sinful in the worst way. Neutrality in the pulpit doesn’t move anyone toward justice and compassion. Tepid support for those on the margins doesn’t change hearts or save lives. Where the Church has sanctioned and sponsored widespread and deeply entrenched prejudice and persecution, we as Christians, I as a minister, must actively work to reverse and repair.
With that word “persecution” let us now briefly respond to the story of Saul’s persecution of Christians. I’m interested in the relationship here between persecution and conversion—two words we ordinarily hear more often from Evangelical Christians. Progressives are unlikely to describe Christians as experiencing religious persecution and also unlikely to make the religious conversion of others their goal. But let’s see what Saul/Paul’s persecution and conversion might teach us.
Saul’s story begins with his persecution of the earliest followers of Jesus. Saul witnessed and tacitly sanctioned the stoning of Stephen. We’re not told why Saul zealously persecuted this new offshoot of his religion. But that may be all we need to know. Reform was happening. Jesus, a practicing Jew, had critiqued aspects of his own beloved tradition and had led other Jews to practice their Judaism while reforming it. In contrast, Saul, a leader of the Pharisees, was invested in scrupulously maintaining the laws and practices of his religion. The first apostles of Jesus did not scrupulously observe the Sabbath. They were criticized for gleaning on the Sabbath, not washing their hands ritually, interacting with the reviled Samaritans and tax collectors. Jesus’s disciples must have seemed to be watering down the Jewish faith. This change provoked fear that sparked persecution at the hands of traditionalists like Saul.
But change–conversion, to use a term not in this biblical passage but a term often applied to it–eventually came to Saul. On his way to ferret out and persecute the people of the Way, Saul became converted to that movement. He was almost to Damascus when he saw a bright light, fell to the ground, experienced Jesus, and lost his sight. For three days Saul experienced the death of his vision—his literal vision and his vision of God–until Ananias laid hands on him, renewing his sight. Saul saw Jesus then as his Lord, a new recognition that persecuting Jesus’s people was tantamount to harming God, and Saul was baptized into the Way of Jesus.
That’s the kind of conversion many of us have experienced. In fact, some of us would say we get converted over and over again as we see and understand anew. We may be able to help others perceive that persecution or disrespect injures God’s very self. Conversion then converts us from persecutors to disciples of Jesus.
The most powerful stories are conversion stories–stories of transformation, to use a synonym without the connotations of hell fire and coercion. In the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” and in her own book, The Slow Miracle of Transformation, Mary Lou Wallner tells the heartbreaking story of her lesbian daughter coming out to her—and Mary Lou rejecting her child because she believed her Christian faith demanded that response. Mary Lou practiced her religion so unquestioningly that she could not see Anna’s desperation. Anna committed suicide by hanging herself in her closet. Only then, in that dark period, could Mary Lou finally see how she had failed her daughter, how she had persecuted her own child, and how a fundamentalist Christianity had failed HER. Thankfully a “converted” Mary Lou has told her sad story for many years in order to prevent other parents from making the same mistake.
The church should not be in either the persecution business or in the conversion business, at least not a conversion as it was long ago presented to me. Saul’s conversion/transformation came without Bible thumping, red-faced preaching, plan-of-salvation professing, or public “witnessing.” Conversion came to Saul in a flash of compassion, a profoundly spiritual realization that when we harm others, we are harming God by inhibiting the flow of Love in this world. Conversion needs to happen to us many times in our lives. Often we must hear Jesus ask us, “Why are you persecuting me?” As we give up responsibility for judging the world, we can instead see others with Christ’s eyes of justice and compassion. That’s the vision that will convert our world.
PRAYER: God of Great Compassion, we pray that your church will go out of the persecution business. May we stop purveying prejudice and persecution. Then let us reopen our doors to all so that we may be about our heavenly Parent’s business of care and compassion.