On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) surprised the nation when it refused to further wade into the contentious waters of the debate over same-sex marriage.
SCOTUS left intact decisions by a number of federal appeal courts that struck down bans on gay marriage. Having been asked to review those decisions and overrule them, SCOTUS stepped back and chose not to establish a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.
Even still, the ruling from SCOTUS points to the inevitable reality that in the not-too-long run, same-sex marriage will likely be legalized in every state.
And that isn’t just my opinion.
According to the New York Times, the SCOTUS decision Monday could signal the inevitability of the right of same-sex marriage nationwide. Most immediately, the decision to let the appeals court rulings stand increases the number of states allowing same-sex marriage to 24, along with the District of Columbia (it was previously 19).
In just a few weeks, that number could expand to 30.
The legal landscape shifted dramatically in June of last year, when the court decided in Windsor v. United States that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. By overturning this federal statute, the court opened the floodgates for other challenges to state laws barring gay marriage (and otherwise treating the LGBT community differently, such as issues of workplace discrimination).
The refusal to make a definitive ruling by SCOTUS on Monday signals that as more and more states’ rulings banning same-sex marriage are challenged, federal courts at all levels are applying that same reasoning with greater consistency.
It is possible, of course, that the court could choose to re-enter the conversation once another circuit court comes with a ruling that supports a state’s right to ban same-sex marriage. Or, perhaps more likely, SCOTUS could revisit the issue later. But as the number of legal same-sex marriages continues to climb and the practice becomes increasingly common across the majority of states, the likelihood of a future SCOTUS decision rescinding it becomes less and less likely.
For all intents and purposes, the SCOTUS decision Monday points toward the legalization of same-sex marriage as the new norm across the nation.
How did evangelicals respond to the news?
While recent months have seen the creation of a number of evangelical organizations with an affirming position on same-sex marriage and relationships (e.g., The Reformation Project and Evangelicals for Marriage Equality), not everyone within the Christian camp shares their perspective.
Focus on the Family warned that the decision will result in a ‘further expansion of threats to religious freedom in a blog post titled, ‘SCOTUS and Gay Marriage: No Court Can Change the Truth.’
More extremely conservative organizations had a litany of responses with spokespersons accusing the court of ‘a miscarriage of justice’ and ‘a total dereliction of duty.’ One organization in my home state of Illinois called for ‘civil disobedience on a massive scale.’
In a slightly more reasoned round-up of responses from conservative evangelicals, one prominent voice claimed the Christian Church in America must ‘respond with a siege mentality. We wring our hands or shake our fists at the cultural moment in a way that also detracts from the gospel of Jesus Christ…we ought to have the confidence of people who have heard a word from God.’
A siege mentality? Really?
Whatever happened to the words of Jesus, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’?
Like it or not, the legal definition of marriage doesn’t belong solely to religious communities. It belongs to the government.
And the reality is that the legal definition of marriage is quickly moving from the limitation ‘between one man and one woman’ to include committed monogamous couples of the same gender.
So, how would Jesus call us to respond?
Regardless of one’s political, social or religious convictions on the topic of same-sex marriage, Christians are called to live into the unconditional love of Christ.
Gay couples will increasingly be legally married and become more visibly our neighbors. Their families will be integrated into our society’s comprehension of cultural normalcy – in our communities, our schools and yes… even our churches.
As I look at the Gospels and study the life, teachings and example of Jesus, I am convinced he would love and accept them.
God dignifies all of humanity, and asks us to do the same – even (perhaps especially?) those who are different than us. Tracing the overarching narrative of Scripture, one can see in the midst of the evolving Jewish understanding of the character of God a progression or evolution in the elevation of the Other:
‘You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.’
‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.’
‘Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.’
These hints of social justice for the alien and outcast were elevated, heightened and intensified in both the major and the minor prophets (Amos, for example, forges an explicit and unbreakable link between the call for justice toward those outside the community and the righteousness of God). The celebration of the fact we are each hand-crafted works from divine fingertips, regardless of our religion (or lack thereof), ethnicity, citizenship, gender, race, sexuality, or socio-economic status is woven throughout the story of Scripture. This radical inclusion is best seen in the person of Jesus who saved his statements of exclusion only for those who would make it difficult for others to find their way to YHWH.
As I read through the Red-Letters of the Bible, I don’t see Jesus creating barriers or building walls to keep any individual ‘out’ by alienating them or denouncing the existence of a group of people – regardless of their theological beliefs or political alignment on hot-topic issues.
The countless stipulations and demands for conformity in the Old Testament Law were fulfilled in the very same person who crossed cultural, religious and even political boundaries by including any and all into his new way of living, standing in solidarity with Others as the way of reconciliation:
- The Samaritan woman– scorned by the Jewish status quo for worshipping the ‘wrong way’ on the ‘wrong mountain.’
- The Syrophoenician woman– who didn’t worship YHWH at all, but instead likely had false idols to which she subscribed deity.
- The Centurion’s ‘servant’– another Gentile oppressor of God’s people, likely engaging in amoral behavior.
- The blind and lame beggars– sent to the margins of society because their disabilities were seen as acts of divine retribution for sinful behavior – either their own or that of their parents.
- The lepers– each of whom carried not only a socially unacceptable stigma, but also the very real and present danger of an incurable and fatal disease.
- The man with a withered hand– lingering in the Synagogue and hoping for a miracle on the Sabbath, he was seen as unclean to those in religious authority.
- The unbelieving paralytic– lowered from a rooftop into the compassionate presence of Jesus by his faithful friends.
- The disciples– dropouts and outcasts, this ragtag band of curiously single Jewish men was composed of a diversity of cultural, socio-economical and political categories – including one whom he knew would betray him.
- The woman caught in the act of adultery– clearly caught in a black-and-white sin, Jesus turns the Law on its head to protect her from the condemnation of the religious elite.
I simply don’t see Jesus keeping out or attempting to pass resolutions and calling for a ‘siege mentality’ against those considered by the religious elite to be ‘unworthy’. Instead, I see him opening up spaces for them to belong, even when the Law said otherwise. Jesus had a habit of radical hospitality and inclusion which went directly against the religious status quo.
Christ’s counter-cultural way of engaging the Other was, in his own words, the path toward eternal life.
As we follow God in the way of Jesus, we continually find ourselves forced out of the comfort zone of ‘us’ and into community with ‘them.’ The so-called Other becomes a part of one-another.
This does not mean we all will agree on what Scripture teaches on homosexuality – just as Jesus likely disagreed with a great many beliefs of those listed above (including his own disciples).
The mistaken assumption within contemporary culture is that we all must agree in order to love one another well. But the reality is, disagreement does not dictate disrespect or dissent. Differences in cultural, political or theological belief systems do not necessitate aggressive lobbying or campaigning against another person or group of people. It is possible to disagree while dignifying and legitimizing other individual’s experiences.
As we follow the example of Jesus, it is our responsibility to be tilted toward reconciliation, treating others the way we ourselves would like to be treated. It is our responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Other. It is our responsibility to be at peace with all people, regardless of agreement or disagreement.
Alignment to our particular preferred theological and philosophical perspective does not serve as a prerequisite for our command to love our neighbors (more pointedly, Jesus commands his followers to love even their enemies).
Christ’s counter-cultural commitment to the Other stands in stark contrast to the way his self-proclaimed followers in 21st Century Western Evangelicalism have become primarily known for the exclusion of the Other.
At what point did we begin to move backwards and away from the ‘come as you are culture’ which Jesus created and move toward excluding Others with whom we disagree? More importantly, which communities will lead by example to show us what the Way of Jesus looks like today?