When I think of the way God acts in human history, my mind always moves toward ever expanding horizons. Grace nudges us to move beyond boundaries. Israel breaks out of bondage in Egypt and discovers a new world, a promised land; the crucified Jesus breaks out of the tomb. “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,” hymn #470 in Hymnal '82 says. So it doesn’t quite compute with me when people of faith, particularly followers of Christ, behave in ways that narrow the margins of grace.
But this is what has happened in North Carolina on May 8th, when voters approved Amendment One by about 60% to 40%. I understand that people of faith point to the Bible (usually Leviticus 18:22 – “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”) to support their decision to constitutionally limit marriage to one man, one woman. But there are far more verses in the Bible urging us to have mercy, and there is Jesus’ sole command to us: love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus gives this command explaining that it is the one commandment upon which hangs all the law and the prophets – including the rules in Leviticus. As it has often been pointed out, we have no problem ignoring other proscriptions in that book; right before chapter 18, for example, verse 17:10 says, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. ” So if you have ever eaten non-kosher meat (which most of us do), you’ve eaten meat containing blood. God’s face, according to this, has been set against you from the very first bite, which you probably took as a toddler.
Bishop Michael B. Curry (diocesan- North Carolina), issued a statement following the May 8th vote that said, in part, “I, and many other bishops, clergy and laity from within the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, and faith leaders from many traditions, opposed Amendment One. I opposed it because I believe, as the scripture says, all people are created in the image and likeness of God and that all are therefore to be accorded the rights and dignity that befit a child of God. In like manner, those who hold a very different position are also created in that image – and deserve the same respect that befits a child of God.”
The hardness of heart underlying the vote worries me. I have officiated at the weddings of Lord only knows how many people over the years, and I can tell you that it is no small thing to stand before God and the company of heaven and say, “I love this person and intend to spend the rest of my life loving this person, and I ask God to bless this decision.” It is at once a joyful and sobering statement. It affirms a willingness to be steadfast in our love for another, just as God is steadfast in love for each of us. This dim echo of divine love is the very thing Jesus says defines us as his followers. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13: 33). To deny anyone God has made the privilege of making such a statement is cruel and demeaning. To do it twice -- in the existing NC law and now in the state constituion as well -- in itself displays a lack of love. The hymn I quoted at the top of this article also says, “there’s a kindness in his justice.” Kindness tempers everything. And there's Micah 6:8 as well – “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
There was a time in history when enslaved Africans were not allowed the dignity of marriage but were made to jump over a broom to symbolize their union – unions easily made irrelevant when spouses were separated and sold in slavery. African-American citizens today have turned that indignity into an honored tradition in much the same way that we’ve turned pork intestines – "chitt'lins" (chitterlings for purists) -- into a delicacy. But that doesn’t obscure the fact that jumping the broom was a denial of the sanctity of the marriage and intestines were parts of the pig no one else wanted to eat. It is puzzling how those who own this bitter history could make the same judgment against others. As President Obama told ABC’s Robin Roberts the afternoon following the North Carolina vote, “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word marriage was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs. … The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule — you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”
But how does it feel to be on the receiving end of Amendment One? I asked the Rev. Gene Humphreys, an openly gay deacon here in North Carolina. “My reaction was…visceral, a deep feeling of disappointment and betrayal.” But, he says, it’s not a failure. “Failure would be to develop spirits of scorn. Failure would be to erect walls of hatred.” The situation, he said, reminds him of the Joni Mitchell song, The Circle Game:
And the seasons, they go ‘round and ‘round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time.
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go ‘round and’round and’round
In the circle game.
“That is what happens when you play the circle game,” Humphreys said. “As followers of the Living Spirit of God, neither contests nor questions between groups should ever be an ‘either/or’ position. We should strive for these to always be ‘and/both’ positions because as the circle of exclusions grows more and more wide…eventually there are more people outside the circle than are contained within the circle. And that is when we can move to reshape the circle to be like the Kingdom of Heaven, where all people are welcomed to the banquet.”
The welcome wasn’t there when Charlotte resident Calvin Hefner moved to town. “We posed as cousins so we could live together and not have a lot of questions asked,” he said. The conservative hoopla over marriage is puzzling, he says, especially since the divorce rate among heterosexual couples is high.* “Apparently marriage doesn’t have the meaning it used to have because there are more divorces in this country. I don’t see why they keep beating the marriage drum in the heterosexual community when it hasn’t meant that much. They don’t want me to have the same rights as they have. In the Bible, Jesus doesn’t mention the homosexual lifestyle, and Jesus said nothing against homosexuality.”
The issue, to Hefner, is more a matter of social justice than religion. “I believe it is the law that marries people, the church blesses it. Civil union, to me, makes more sense than marriage if the ‘religious’ people are going to fight the marriage thing, then why can’t’ we have civil unions?” In this regard, his thinking runs parallel with President Obama's, who earlier thought civil unions would be "sufficient."
Hefner has signed a letter calling for the repeal of Amendment One. “I think eventually it could be repealed, but it’s going to take work to do that.” The amendment was approved in part because “we who are true Christians and try to follow Jesus aren’t doing our part in getting out the vote on these issues. Conservatives had the overwhelming majority.” But conservatives also consider themselves to be true followers of Jesus. “Which Jesus, I wonder?” Hefner said. “I tell people I’m a Christian with a small ‘c.’” His faith credentials are in good shape, though. Hefner is a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church here in Charlotte, and he’s active in the cursillo movement on the national level.
Opponents of the amendment can find hope in the words of George Reed, Executive Director of the North Carolina Council of Churches on the day after the vote. Reed, like Hefner, already is looking toward that day, twenty years from now, when the amendment could be repealed. Here’s what he had to say on the NCC website:
“Christians sometimes talk about being citizens of two realms: the secular state and the realm of God. So I am a citizen of North Carolina, but I am also a citizen of God’s realm. Yesterday’s vote determines where the state of North Carolina is, at least for now, but it does not change my beliefs that God loves all of God’s children equally and that all of us are welcomed as full and beloved members of God’s family. Most Christian denominations profess those beliefs in their official statements. The task for all of us, during these interim years, will be to practice what we preach, to live in ways that manifest that we believe what we say we do. Twenty years is a long time if you are one of the people being discriminated against, but it’s only a brief period in the arc of the moral universe about which Dr. King spoke. And we know that the arc is bending towards justice.”
(For the full statement, see http://nccouncilofchurches.org/2012/05/statement-on-passage-of-amendment-one/ )
*North Carolina holds 17th highest divorce rate in the US. Source: http://statemaster.com/graph/lif_div_rat-lifestyle-divorce-rate