Last week, we celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision concerning protections for LGBT workers. This decision was personal, but not because I will receive any protection — churches, as you know, have our own metrics which are rightly independent of the state. It was personal because the issue of protections for LGBT workers was the subject of my very first humiliating experience as a priest.
The bishop placed me in Jonesboro, AR, right out of seminary. At the time, folks were organizing all over the country to try and pass local nondiscrimination ordinances through city councils. A group of us worked and spoke and rallied in Jonesboro, and it will not surprise you to hear that each action felt like running headlong into a brick wall. One of the council members looked at me as I sat, asking for his support in a one-on-one meeting, and said, with utter confusion and some concern, “You’re really sticking your neck out for this.”
The council argued that such discrimination didn’t exist, so why pass protections? As arguments go, it’s hard to counter. Provide examples, and you’re met with a litany of reasons for an individual’s lack of qualifications or dismissal other than sexual orientation. To clear up the confusion of just why you might be sticking your neck out for this, to tell the story of your life — that was even worse, to feel the quiet derision fill the room: Ah, you are one of those.
The work went exactly nowhere. SCOTUS’ ruling on marriage equality erupted in 2015, and I hung some hope that protections for LGBT workers might make its way to that mythical arbiter of justice and equality someday. Whatever happened, it wouldn’t be done through the city of Jonesboro.
A couple of weeks ago, I preached on Scripture that isn’t “our” Scripture — the idea that we live vastly different lives than, say, the writer of Psalm 137, and that when we disagree with their sentiments, we tend to silence them in our readings of the Bible. I said that these sorts of songs may not be our songs, but that we ought to listen, to work on their behalf, to treasure them despite the differences in ideology, to remember that Scripture speaks and argues with itself, that these songs are still the Word of the Lord making claim over your life and mine.
What I didn’t have time to say was that in listening to their words, the song of the “other” could be brought into our own.
As you may know, SCOTUS’ ruling last week interpreted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reading the opinions sounds like a piece of biblical interpretation to me. The dissenters argued that no one who brought the Civil Rights Act into being could’ve imagined this would extend to someone like me, one of those, when they wrote it; indeed, I can’t imagine anyone at the time would have supported this month’s interpretation had it been suggested.
But the majority wrote that the intent could expand. It’s what makes a text alive and vital — that it can breathe new air. Now that I’m stomping in galoshes where the angels of the law fear to tread, I’ll just say that it delighted me to hear something of what we say in interpreting the Bible: yes, it was for a time, and yes, it’s for your time, too. The question will be how you choose to employ it. There are paths of costly love and paths of easier neglect. You get to choose.
The SCOTUS ruling came in June, Pride month to all of us who sing this particular song (and to those who love us.) I find myself indebted in a new way to the black freedom fighters of past ages, people unlike me in so many ways, who risked far more than a little humiliation and momentary public failure for their rights — folks who risked their very lives and livelihoods bringing these freedoms to pass, whose songs are now somehow lifting up and enabling my own.
The final stage of enlightenment in every Dostoevsky work is finding yourself responsible for the whole world and everyone in it and finding joy in that responsibility. This month has marked an important new chapter in my understanding of this truth. I wonder: how do you find your stories expanding and evolving at this time?