Last night, I sat down and read in its entirety, somehow for the very first time, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written 50 years ago this April. Doing so after what can only be termed the one of the most remarkable MLK Days we’ve ever witnessed was powerful indeed.
Not only did the federal holiday honoring King coincide with the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, a laughable impossibility during King’s lifetime, but President Obama’s speech directly tackled the civil rights cause of our time – the right of every couple to marry, regardless of gender.
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
The reference to Stonewall is especially remarkable, as Obama placed it in line after the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and the voting rights march led by King himself in 1965. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City are considered the seminal moment in gay rights history, when LGBT patrons of the Stonewall Inn refused to be bullied any longer by the NYPD and began the push that is culminating before our eyes in the successful drive for gay marriage in multiple states across the country.
Equating gay rights with the civil rights era personified by King remains controversial in some circles, but less so in recent years – and rightly so, I’d argue. Race may be more clearly genetic than sexual orientation, which appears to be a complicated, even mysterious, mix of environmental and genetic factors, but the right of minorities, including sexual minorities, to be treated equally remains a driving force in American society. We should not close the book on racial equality just yet, but working on a new one simultaneously is not inappropriate. Indeed, gay rights and civil rights are more like chapters in the same book, rather than separate tomes entirely.
Which brings me back to King’s letter from Birmingham. The context, in case you’re unaware, was the criticism King and his marchers had received from, of all people, local church leaders. King, as was his wont, issued a remarkable response, defending his passion for nonviolent resistance and leveling some eloquent – and richly deserved – criticism at those “moderate whites” who seemed to spend more time finding reasons not to support the cause of justice. In one section of the letter, King quotes from a letter he received from a white Texan arguing that since racial equality was inevitable, but that such things take time, and that King should not agitate for change that will happen in its own time.
King’s response is, of course, beautifully written, but it also dovetails with a theme of this blog lately, that God calls us to do kingdom work now, partnering with him in the restoration of all things and ensuring that his will is done on earth, as it is in heaven:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Remove the word “racial” from the last sentence, and this could have written by any advocate for gay marriage rights today.
But should it be? Should gay rights be tied to “the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God”? Can Christians who advocate for marriage equality be performing kingdom work?
The answer likely depends a great deal on one’s position about the morality of same-sex romantic intimacy in the first place. After all, if you affirm gay relationships and believe God blesses them just as he does straight relationships, then it’s a no-brainer. But if you believe acting on same-sex attraction is sinful, or if you’re somewhere in the middle, acknowledging the ambiguity of the traditional texts and the radically different culture in which we live from when those texts were written, the question becomes much harder. You might agree that in the context of a secular American government, gay marriage should be legal, but advocating for it as kingdom work? That’s tough.
And yet. I can’t help but wonder. Within our cultural context, marriage remains for many an important symbol of their worth, an inextricable piece of their very humanity. Further, to deny a minority group of rights granted to the majority is to, by implication, declare them less human. It is unjust. King makes this point, as well:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
There is an understandable resistance among conservatives at the table to using this line of argument in the service of gay rights. After all, murderers or rapists are minority groups, and they are deprived of their rights, and rightly so. Setting aside the patent offensiveness of comparing one’s sexual identity to a heinous crime, this argument relies solely on the assumption that same-sex attraction is not in any way inborn, that it is purely a choice, like the choice to commit a crime or, less offensively, forego purchasing health insurance (to select a choice with risks and far-reaching ramifications for both that person and society as a whole). But if sexual identity is, even in some small way, inherent genetically or biologically, that argument falls apart – and this explains why so much time and effort has been put into parsing, and denying, every new study that purports to showing something one way or the other.
We need not agree one way or the other, because the very complexity of the argument is evidence that we should be very careful playing the role of God. We simply do not know why some people are gay, others are straight and still others are bisexual or transgender or queer in some other way. And since we don’t know, why are we so comfortable denying justice and equality to our gay brothers and sisters? Why are we so comfortable diminishing their very humanity?
This is why advocacy for gay rights is kingdom work. Because building up the worth and humanity of minority groups – those people outside the power structure – is exactly what Jesus did when he gave a taste of what the kingdom would be like. And it didn’t matter whether they chose to be part of the minority or not.
Jesus affirmed the humanity and provided a measure of justice to the oppressed innocent – the blind and the lame, the women and the children – as well as the oppressed guilty – the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the thief on the cross. Yes, Jesus condemned sin, but here’s the thing: He also forgave it. Because he was God, which, by the way, I am not.
I may never know the full causes of same-sex attraction or whether God blesses or condemns those who act on theirs. And though I have my guesses, I don’t need to know. All I need to know is that when Jesus was confronted with members of a minority group, no matter what their sin or their struggle, he affirmed their worth as people with value. That’s kingdom work.
Our cultural setting is a little different. Jews in the first century Roman Empire didn’t have much hope of changing the laws to affirm the rights of oppressed minority groups. But we do. Whether we minister to a member of the LGBT community individually or stand at the forefront of anti-bullying efforts or push for the eradication of vicious anti-gay laws in other countries or affirm the community’s inherent humanity through advocacy for each member’s right to marry if he or she chooses, that’s kingdom work, too.
Because if there’s one thing of which I’m sure, it’s this: When God’s heavenly kingdom comes to earth, men and women we identify today as LGBT will be there, and they will be whole, complete, fully affirmed and fully equal with the rest of us – regardless of what that looks like. That is God’s will in heaven. To the extent we Christians can make that a reality on earth, I think we should do it.