Judge not the play before the play is done;
Her plot has many changes; every day
Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.
—Francis Quarles (1592–1644)
For the past two weeks, we’ve been witnessing a couple of fierce contests come to a kind of head. A move is growing in the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of LGBTQ couples to legally marry. Neither contest is over, and I don’t know where they will lead.
Douglas Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Slavery by Another Name, wrote about the persistence of the Confederate flag in the South:
“. . . the seeming immovability of that symbol over the past half century has been about something very different from an appreciation of actual history. The modern resurrection and defense of the flag was wholly a product of the civil rights struggles since the 1950s, and the need for a rallying point for defenders of segregation and apologists for white discrimination and white privilege. The flag wasn’t even flying in most southern states until the 1960s . . . . And wherever that flag was invoked, it was accompanied in those days by explicit defenses of the most virulent racism and ethnic hate.”1
One or even several legislative decisions about a piece of cloth will not cure our country of its persistent racism, nor moderate the privilege still enjoyed by whites at the expense of people of color, nor heal the brokenness in the human family. Nor will a court decision about the right of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers to marry assure their respect and fair treatment. On the day after the high court’s decision, one county clerk in Kentucky said he would stop issuing marriage licenses altogether rather than follow the governor’s instructions and issue licenses to LGBTQ couples.2
Conflict over the right of LGBTQ couples to marry also continues in the church. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “the Court is wrong again. It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.” On the other hand, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said about the decision, “Today love and the Constitution triumphed over bigotry and religious extremism.”3
We’re certainly not exempt from that contest within The United Methodist Church. We’ve been debating the issue vigorously for decades, and recently it has grown more energetic. I suppose will continue to do so. This year the Upper New York Annual Conference joined annual conferences across the nation in proposing changes in The Book of Discipline to humanize our language about homosexuality and to allow the possibility that same-sex marriages could be performed by our pastors and in our churches. The proposals would have to be approved by next year’s General Conference, and your guess is as good as mine whether that will happen.
With masterful understatement, John Wesley once observed that two of the biggest reasons why we Christians don’t love one another – we’re pretty good in theory, not so good in practice – is that we don’t think alike and we don’t practice our faith alike.4 The issues we face today are good examples of why it’s difficult to love one another. But Wesley wondered, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”
Some in the church suggest it’s time for us to split over the issue, either by large regions or church-by-church. Recently there’s been more talk of that than I remember hearing before in my thirty-plus years of ministry. It shouldn’t surprise me. Congregations divide over smaller issues than these – over the choice of hymnals and music, for example, or worship style, or chicken-and-egg questions about whether members should hire someone to do ministry for them or do it themselves.
Today it just seems ironic that a body of at least nominal Christians, commissioned by God to carry on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, should be so close to dividing over the very gospel they are here to proclaim. We reach the point of readiness in society when the church might actually effect extraordinary progress in its mission to transform the world, and we risk squandering it in family quarrels.
I think it’s time to start all over with our faith. I think it’s time to surrender our views of righteousness and heaven and justice, and learn to listen – really listen, with the ear of the heart as St. Benedict put it – to the creative word God is still speaking, and to see this ongoing creation not from the perspective of our vested interests but from God’s surprisingly original perspective. Our newly formed Mission Prayer Team is preparing to do that.
We need a new conversion, a new turning to God. That’s more than a one-time event, you know. God’s love, God’s mercy, is new every morning, as sure as the sunrise (Lam. 3:22-23). Our response to God’s love needs to be new every morning as well. We need not only to commit ourselves to walk in the way of the Lord; we need also to return to that way, together, every time we depart from it. This is one of those times.
I’m not sure where all of this is leading – our responses to the shootings in Charleston, our responses to last week’s Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage, our responses to any of the other life issues that challenge us today. I’m only convinced that this drama of our life is not over, that reconciliation and renewal as the body of Christ still is our work for the sake of the world, and that this moment is our opportunity for a soul-searching new beginning.
notes — 1. Douglas A. Blackmon, “Why the Confederate Banner Must Come Down,” Moyers & Company, billmoyers.com, 26 June 2015. ▪ 2. The Cincinnati Enquirer, cincinnati.com, 26 June 2015. ▪ 3. Lauren Markoe, “Righteous or repugnant? Religious response to the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision,” Religion News Service, 26 June 2015. ▪ 4. John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 81-95.