Like many across this country I’ll joining the voices and libations celebrating Black Heritage Month acknowledging those ancestors and my contemporaries who have and are contributing to our heritage. That heritage doesn’t begin post Civil War or the Civil Rights era. It begins before many Africans from various tribes across the continent of Africa were chained and sailed across the waters to Europe, the Caribbean, and the US. It is the celebration of those black men and women who were strong enough to stand chattle slavery, family separations, and rebellions that ended in the deaths of many for the cause of freedom and liberty.
I take this moment for the celebration of my personal history. My paternal and maternal families have a wonderfully diverse history rooted in the oppression that they endured that empowered them to build families in the midst of it. My maternal and paternal family history is a combination of former slaves and sharecroppers and biracial freedmen. I am a reflection of their beautifully unique relationships. They created the legacy upon which I am standing and building on. My ancestors were not the best educated but they were masters of the world around them which empowered them to build entire communities that continue to this day.
Black Heritage needs to be more than a few popular talking heads that the majority approves of. It needs to reflect the authentic reality of our history and people who made it. This includes those unsung heros who will never have schools, streets, buildings, or anything else named for them. It is these who bore the burdens of oppression that gave hope and power to the eventual liberation and freedoms we now have and don’t fully appreciate. I choose to speak and honor that history that is the present and future.
After conceding having an affair on his wife, Pastor John Gray of the Relentless Church, took to the pulpit to defend himself. In an article by Paul Mason published in the Empowering Everyday Women (EEW) Magazine, Gray in a sermon titled “Graveyard Shift states” I saw people—bless their hearts—online talking about, Pastor John talked about suicide. I didn’t say that I went and got a gun. I didn’t say I bought pills. I said the enemy put thoughts in my mind, and people tried to make that like I was out of my mind…“And you know what’s funny? It wasn’t devils that made me feel that way; it was people.” Gray went on to quote scriptures from Genesis and Proverbs as a defensive response to those who chose to speak out about his situation. In both quotes, Gray misappropriates scripture towards those he sees as not being faithful Christians for not concealing the matter. While I am all for keeping home business in the home, this is not one of those moments.
Gray raised his profile from lowly preacher to mid-level celebrity after co-starring on the daytime television talk show “The Preachers” alongside Dr. E. Dewey Smith, Dr. Jamal Bryant, and Orrick Quick. From there he and his wife have starred in their own reality television series on the OWN network. It was these and other church platforms that propelled him into the national spotlight and brought the added scrutiny of his public and private life. Going from preacher to pop culture shifted the culpability of his actions to full public commentary. This is not to say that he is entitled to such, but it comes with the territory (and should I ever get to the level that he is I should expect the same).
Scripture presents us with case scenarios of how we should deal with individuals who have failed because of public or private sin of some kind. While the Old Testament provides plenty of case studies in the human frailty of highly gifted persons, the New Testament provides better insight because Jesus of Nazareth and Paul the Apostle both had personal interactions with those people. In John 4, Jesus was brought a woman who was caught in the act of adultery to which he responded to her accusers by writing something in the sand and giving the famous quote “he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He later meets a single Samaritan woman at a local well, engages her in conversation, and after telling her of her past and current relationship status, helps empower her to become an evangelist on his behalf. It appears that Jesus was more concerned about the victim being oppressed than those who would call out the cause of their oppression.
Apostle Paul seemingly has a different approach. In his first response letter to the church of Corinth, he directly addresses an issue of sexual immorality and stated that “although absent in body but present in spirit, I have already judged him who has committed this as though I were present” (I Corinthians 5:3). Paul had proclaimed appropriate condemnation and punishment for the individual even though he was not physically present to do so. He had written that because the Corinthian church had more pride in themselves they had chosen to not adequately address the direct inflammation of sin that had become a part of their church body. Paul later writes in Galatians that individual believers should be so interconnected that whenever one sees another brother or sister overtaken in any trespasses that we should reach out to that person regarding our own sensitivity and culpability to sin in like manner (Galatians 5:25-26, 6:1-10).
This dichotomy presented by Paul is what we see being played out in the contemporary church. There are those who would love to call judgment and justice for the moral failures of church leaders and there are those who will not be so quick to act or condemn because they are aware of their own human frailty. We live in an age where social media intrudes on the private lives of everyone. Social media has a way of complicating the nuances of personal and public interactions. Choosing to conceal or reveal is up to individual choice. We all know someone in church leadership who has had a moral failure. We can be discreet in addressing it to those we care, or we can be proud and self-righteous in addressing it. While both can be seemingly done in love, one leads to self-fulfillment, and the other leads to repentance for all.
After nearly 30 years in ministry I’ve come to discover that I have spent a great deal of my ministry life being simultaneously anointed, gifted and toxic. Like many preachers, I spent years developing my craft, shaping my preaching style and personality, and developing a philosophy of ministry that I hoped would be beneficial to those I ministered to. I also discovered that with that development came a lot of personal moral challenges that all my ministry grooming could never quite prepare me for. Because I began preaching as a teenager, I was instructed to take Proverbs 5-8 to heart and “ preserve discretion and keep knowledge on my lips”. I had plenty of ministry mentors who had gone down the path of immorality in one form or another and they did their best to admonish me not to make their mistakes.
While I have never been removed from a pulpit, publicly corrected or rebuked, or ever had any inappropriate behavior publicly exposed and scrutinized, I have had my share of moral failings that have caused me to turn inwardly for reflection and repentance. I went through a divorce that had me emotionally unbalanced for over a decade. I had a relationship at one time that although was innocent, was in hindsight inappropriate. I had been in romantic relationships where I did not maintain sexual purity and continued to preach weekly to wondrous reception. I continue to struggle with general anxiety and feelings of inadequacy despite my training, education, and accolades. I have been the toxic person in relationships that led to others involved being more hurt than helped by me.
There are thousands of other preachers just like me. They don’t make the national church headlines with their routine toxicity. They sit in pulpits or pews with the task of ministering to someone else despite their own misgivings. They are aware of their giftedness and toxicity but are only allowed and encouraged to express the former over the latter. It is quite emotionally ravaging for them. They, like me, are not spiritually or emotionally healthy. They are called upon to be God’s vessels of healing and wonder, leading to the salvific knowledge of Christ the Redeemer, and a life of abundance on this side and eternity on the other. It is a duplicitous life at best and certainly an intoxicating one when the ministry gifts are on full display for people to be in awe and wonder of the individual in praxis but not the toxicity attached.
This is why we find it hard to minister to those ministers who have fallen hard to the duality of their anointing and their toxicity. It’s no different than that of Noah getting drunk and being inappropriately exposed to his grandson after having followed God’s plan of successfully building, servicing, and replenishing the earth. It’s also David having to witness the death of a child birthed out of his coveting another man’s wife and successfully conspiring to have that man murdered. It’ Solomon, who after soliciting the Lord for wisdom, receiving it and the wealth that accompanied it, giving himself over to all the vanities of life and causing his successor to be just as foolish in turn leading to the eventual destruction of the House of David. It’s Peter, the great Apostle, denying Christ before those who sought him executed, or the Peter who chose to be hypocritical in his praxis of faith in front Gentiles or Jews.
The point I hope to get across is that as ministers, preachers, prophets, apostles, pastors, evangelists, teachers, or any other title one wishes to utilize, we are well acquainted with our anointing and our toxicity. There are those of us who are more disciplined in our concealment of it than others, but it is still very present. Scripture assures us that we have an Advocate in our toxicity. We have a Christ who wholly identifies with us yet can shield the wrath that our toxicity incurs. The author of Hebrews in 4:12-16, reminds us that our Advocate is one who is fully aware of us in our entirety. He through our engagement of the scriptures, can discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. He beholds the nakedness of our humanity, encouraging us to hold fast the profession of our faith and calling, and empowering us to boldly come to Him to obtain the mercy and grace to help in our time of need. It is ok for us to be anointed and toxic, but we must always know that God is our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast of our anointed and toxic lives and ministry, but most of all, He is our Eternal Home.
There’s an old folktale about an elephant, a rabbit, and a whale. The whale and the elephant met together and both proclaimed their rule as the strongest animals on land and in the sea. While they were talking, a rabbit was nearby and decided to listen in. Once he heard their plan to rule all the animals in their particular domains, he declared that he would not be ruled by them, he devised a simple but brilliant plan to prove them both wrong.
The rabbit approaches the elephant and tells him that his cow is stuck in the sea. He asks the elephant to help him retrieve him by tying a rope around his trunk to pull him out. The rabbit goes to the whale and says his cow is stuck in the mud and needs his assistance to get him out. The whale agrees and the rabbit ties a rope around the whale’s tail. At the signal of rabbit’s drum beating, both massive animals begin to pull on an object in an attempt to free it. They later discover that they have not been pulling on a cow, but they have been pulling on each other to no avail. They realize that while they may be the strongest, they have been outsmarted by the rabbit. The rabbit proves he may not be the strongest physically, but he is the strongest intellectually.
This fable sums up the recent presidential election. The two major party candidates did not expect the outcome. Americans across demographic and political lines spoke loudly by electing to overthrow a political system. While the US Congress will remain red for at least the next two years, the system that supported both Democrats and Republicans has been radically changed. The idea of a post-racial, post-gender, and post-religious America has been tossed asunder. What was clear is that the back and forth tugging for political strength has given way to the smaller but smarter rabbit. The moral of the story is that those who believe themselves to be the strongest will eventually fall because of their own pride.
What does this mean for Christians in America? What does it mean for the 100 or more Black pastors who supported Donald Trump and faced so much criticism for doing so? What does it mean for those who expressed racial supremacist overtones during the campaign season?
It is very clear that many evangelical Christians cast their vote for a POTUS who has expressed little to no consistent religious belief system. They may have bought into the fear of a far-left progressive agenda that neglects the lives of those in the womb in favor of exalting the gender-bending lives of celebrities. They may have felt marginalized in a ever changing multi-cultural country where more of their rights seemed infringed upon for the sake of civil liberties. This of course is speculation that will likely go on for decades to follow, but what is certain is that they made their choice for change known even if it was at the expense of their private faith.
For those Black preachers, well it can definitely mean profit. They are now on the willing team. They will gain more credibility among the gullible hoping for trickle down blessings from Trump’s anointed heralds. They will reap the benefits and profits of being on the Trump bandwagon. The question becomes will they be engaged any further towards issues of social action and justice that will be on the forefront of the black church agenda for the next two to four years? This is highly doubtful since they have no history of doing anything other than exploiting the gospel for their benefit.
For those who expressed racial supremacist overtones, this is certainly a time of jubilation for them. They have a President who articulated their rhetoric to the rest of America and the rest of America seemed to agree with them. They are becoming emboldened to act out the rhetoric without consideration of consequence. Yes they understand there are laws that protect speech, religion, and assembly, and they now have that opportunity to do what they have been unable to do in nearly a half a century, they can talk their talk of supremacy because it will “Make America Great Again.”
The reality is that America has been down this road many times before. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says in 3:1-8:
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep and a time to throw away;
a time to tear and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, amd a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
This is just another time for America to do what America does best-Be the shining light on a hill, a city that cannot be hidden.
And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. Genesis 4:9-10
On October 19, 2016, my 18-year-old nephew was shot and killed in another senseless act of gun violence. My nephew was a charming, intelligent, and talented young man who had a lot going for him. Like many teens his age in urban areas, he felt the need to belong. He got with his click, they did typical things people in the hood do. What no one expected was that the hood would be the one to take him out. In only moments, his life was taken and he became another statistic. He became another young brother taken away from us violently. He became another young brother taken by one of his own.
I preached my nephew’s funeral and I wrestled with what to say and how to say it. I knew there would be plenty of young people there. I knew they needed to hear a message of hope and comfort. I knew they needed to hear stories about my nephew’s outgoing personality, big smile, and musical talent. I knew they needed to hear all the good things about my nephew. I also knew something else they needed to hear: I knew they needed to hear the truth.
I wrestled with preaching what they needed to hear. I knew the message would not be one of heaven and angels, and the glorious life of the hereafter. It would be the truth of our silence and passivity leading to so many of our sons and daughters dying needless deaths. It would be the truth of our negligence, passiveness, and silence leading to so many of our sons and daughters are losing their lives to a penal system that treats them as subhuman caged animals.
The truth hurts but it heals. I understand the angst so many young blacks feel. I understand this sense of inalienable rights to claim turf and clicks and amass a rep within the hood. No person wants to seem unappreciated, unnecessary, and unsung. The church and other community and spiritual leaders must address angst. It is the fear of being lost forever that we must combat. It is the distrust of a system that is supposed to protect and serve them that we must address. It is the soul that needs to be actualized and mobilized to see better and greater things not just in the future but in the present.
WE ARE OUR BROTHER’S KEEPER!
We are accountable for the life and death of those we care. We can contribute to their empowerment and liberation from a deep anxiety of over-hood exposure. The story says that Cain spoke with Abel before killing him. It does not say what they discussed or what emotions Cain felt, but whatever it was led to him committing a crime that has affected humanity every since. When God confronts Cain, his response is chilling. It reeks of insensitivity to the divine community. It speaks loudly of how easy it is to brush off another black man’s life and meaningless. In spite of this, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God. It spoke of his tragedy as no language could. It lamented his relationship and his death, but it also gave hope. It gave hope because it cried to the Creator. It cried to the Eternal. It spoke with enough authority to cause God to hear and act.
We should learn from Abel’s blood. We should learn to cry out to God against all violence. We should learn that death does not silence the voice of the slain. We should demand accountability in our communities from one another. We should allow the blood voices of the slain to resonate within our communities until we stand and cry No More! Their blood is crying out to us and to God. Are we listening or are like Cain, continuing the passivity of life only asking, “Are we our brother’s keeper?”
September 2015 has is considered as a month to go down in history. There are those who are making deep connections to end time events such as the Rapture of Christians, an asteroid/comet collision with Earth, the rolling out of a global currency, empire, and New World Order, the rise of the Anti-Christ, and at the very least, the destruction of the United States of America as we know it. I have literally watched dozens of hours of videos all seeming to collaborate that between September 21-30, 2015 and early October 2015 that the world as we know it will no longer exist. I must admit some provided some very good arguments, and others were just plain old good fashioned entertainment. I have been amazed at the depth of creativity and research that has gone into many of those YouTube videos. The creators ranged from Evangelical Christian to agnostic anarchistic conspiracy theorists. What they all shared was a common thread of both fear and vigilance.
I will be the first to admit that I am a skeptic. I grew up watching the left behind movies of the 70’s and early 80’s that showed how the world would be in a post-Christian church society. I read the books of Hal Lindsey and others that predicted the great fate of the planet earth. I later followed a pre-millennialist view of end time prophecy that was always dating and naming said events getting every Christian who subscribed to their view rapture ready. I reveled in watching shows like John Van Impe, Perry Stone, and just about any Church of God Prophecy broadcast on television. These persons were clear experts and authorities on all things end times. They marked every new invention, world leader, world event, and anything else as being another sign of the times (with the exception of Prince’s album of the same name). Some had set dates like the infamous October 1988 rapture date. Others simply warned against the use of credit cards with the readable stripes on the back or purchasing groceries from stores that used bar codes. It literally drove many people crazy.
One would think that with all the failed predictions and inaccurate interpretations of scriptures that people would give up trying to predict the end of the world, the rapture, or the return of Christ, but they haven’t. The 2000’s brought the bestselling Left Behind series of books and movies and made some people very wealthy while promoting a misguided sense of urgency for rapture preparation. I witnessed churches showing the movies to youth at lock-ins and conferences. While it brought many people into the church, it also created a warped sense of Christian faith and end time events. It may have also created more problems regarding sinful behaviors among youth and young adults believing that they could sin and still be rapture ready perhaps even without suffering the consequences of that behavior (I’ll sin today and be raptured tomorrow! LOL). The reality has been that The Lord has yet delayed His coming and we must still live with the consequences of our sin and must be in a consistent state of repentance regarding them.
What if September 2015 is the game changing event that leads to a dramatic change in the world, as we know it? Scripture is clear that as believers, we should be prepared as a bride prepared for her bridegroom. We’ve read the story of the 10 virgins, five wise and five foolish, but are we prepared as we need to be? Is there enough controlled chaos in the world that God is ready to end it all just as He did during the days of Noah? Is He ready to create such massive destruction that only He can restore? That has yet to be known, but what is clear is that there is no better time to align oneself with God than at present. There is no better time than now to, as we African Methodists solicit at the call of our sacrament of Holy Communion, “truly and earnestly repent of your sins, walk in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead new life following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways.”
The dates and scenarios may be different, but the message is an unchanging one. There will be an end. It may come with a raptured church. It may come with a one-world government. It may come with a massive extinction level event. It may come with no global disaster at all. It remains that if it does come, will you be ready. It doesn’t matter to me where you are a Christian following end-time prophecy or an agnostic/atheist simply hoping to escape mass extinction, are you prepared for the end?
The book of Jonah is an interesting one. We find the story of a reluctant prophet who would rather see an entire nation of people destroyed than receive the mercy of the Lord. We see an individual with a divine mandate intentionally attempt to not carry out that mandate. The prophet Jonah boards a ship heading in another direction gets entangled in a storm that forces him to admit his flawed attempt to evade ministry, and eventually gets him the in belly of a large fish that forces him to rethink his relationship and purpose with God. Jonah is indeed one good read. I have found myself in Jonah’s shoes on a number of occasions. I had rather see some persons retained in their messy affairs of life than deal with the mandate of God to minister to them.
What is disturbing about Jonah isn’t that he was swallowed by a large fish or that he reluctantly repents and carries out his mission. What is disturbing to me is the way the book ends. It ends so abruptly. Jonah speaks as if he were the biggest disappointment to his call as a prophet of Jehovah. He had been sitting outside of the city of Nineveh angry at God and himself for feeling as if he had been manipulated by God into carrying out God’s mission. He had understood God’s mercy and benevolence towards mankind. He had experienced firsthand when he was on the boat headed to Tarshish and after he had been thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish. In spite of all of this, even though he was repentant and grateful, he was still reluctant.
For many, reluctance is a big burden of ministry. Those who have been in ministry long enough have encountered individuals they were reluctant to minister to. While there are plenty who rejoice in being called to prison ministry, pastoral care ministry, and especially the pastoral ministry, there are more who are very reluctant to serve “the least of these.” Service requires both the desire to go and the need to follow. What Jonah experienced was nothing short of simply being human. Reluctance is more present in ministry than many pastors and church members would care to admit. It can be challenging when confronting our own biases and prejudices about those we are commanded to serve and minister to.
What makes Jonah’s narrative interesting is the way he confronts God about regarding His immediate compassion upon seeing the Ninevites turn from their evil way. I would argue that there are plenty of clergy just like Jonah. We would rather see God’s judgment and condemnation on people we have deemed undeserving of His grace. Perhaps this is more succinctly seen in contemporary political and religious freedom movements. There are those standing by their right to religious freedom condemning others choosing to express the same. It is destructive and does not demonstrate the character of God to non-believers.
Another interesting thing about this narrative is that while Nineveh likely had early connections to the ancient Jews, that connection had long been lost by the time of Jonah’s mission there. The question then becomes why did Jehovah even desire for them to hear from Him and repent? It was clear that the great city of Nineveh was enjoying prosperity without God and He apparently tolerated it for generations. This could have contributed to Jonah’s reluctance. Think about the number of times pastors have preached in communities infested with crime of all kinds and not one person responds to the invitation to abundant life (not even after funerals lol). Yet immediately after hearing the cry from the reluctant prophet about an imminent overthrow of their great city in 40 days, they all believed God from the youngest to the oldest. Even the king made it a public law that everyone cries out mightily to God so that His anger would be turned away from them. If only people would heed that message now and produce similar reaction, what a marvelous change this country and world would see!
In spite of Jonah’s reluctance, the people still received. It begs the question of how much our reluctance matters when it comes to God’s mission. We may feel like pawns in God’s game of repentance, but ultimately what He desires for individuals gets accomplished. We may go into and come away from a divine ministry assignment throwing a big tantrum, but the reality is we are still being used to the glory of God the Father. Reluctance in ministry does not take away the need for ministry. There will be moments in service to the Father that we will utterly despise, but when the seed has been planted, watered, and grows, it will be one that will bring forth fruit for generations to come.
Recently, the New Republic magazine published an essay that created frenzy within the black public intellectual community. The Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson published a 10,000-word essay lambasting his former friend and mentor, Dr. Cornel West. Dr. Dyson lamented Dr. West’s descent into irrational outburst of public disdain against President Barack Obama. The essay establishes the formidable voices these two black intellectuals have forged over the last two decades of American history. Dyson writes that West’s influence has not only waned, but has run its course in the annals of black prophetic voices in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Both men rose to prominence as notable voices of the hip-hop generation, speaking against the powers that be. They became the new voices of a different timbre of black liberation theology. Both men are deeply rooted in the black religious experience. Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister who has pastored and now lectures and teaches across the country. West is the son of a preacher, and while not in ordained ministry of any capacity, has been recognized as a prophetic voice on race, gender, social, and religious matters. Both are prolific authors (I own several of their books) and are highly esteemed by the hip-hop community culture as gurus and prophets. Indeed both have contributed to the storied fables and rhetorical synopses of the hip hop culture by either the spoken word genre (West has released several spoken word albums) or the dissection of hip-hop icons (Dyson has written several articles and books icons such as Tupac Shakur). However, their biggest connection is that both esteem Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a modern day prophet and seek to fill the void of his prophetic voice that was lost after his assassination.
While both Dyson and West have created for themselves a large public sphere for their intellectual prowess and prognostication, much of what they say and write remains largely unknown to many Black Americans. West rocketed to fame with his book “Race Matters” the seminal piece of writing that has continued to generate the main thinking points for contemporary racial thought. Dyson’s articulate, incredibly rapid speech filled with the highest of eloquent words, and swift cadence captures the ears of black and white listeners alike. Both still fail to connect to the general body of black believers, the faithful churchgoers who have yet to be liberated from an over-idealized existence in the faith of the black church and its religious experience. In that sense, both seem not to matter to the Master of their souls.
It is from this perspective that the “beef” between Dyson and West as exposed in the article is an elegy to the authentic prophetic voice that the Black church and community needs. What made the voices of James and Cecil Cone, King, Gardner C. Taylor, Howard Thurman, E.V. Hill, C.A.W. Clark, Leon Sullivan, and others is that they spoke to the masses and the master under the prophetic unction of an oppressed people. They have been revered as pillars of black faith and social empowerment. Both Dyson and West’s voice have been sullied by the esteem given them by the very media that once denied those aforementioned giants seats at the table (though to be fair, the American has become a different beast since the time of some of the aforementioned preachers). Dyson and West have both been the go-to scholars for the media to help bring that tense intellectual edge to matters that affect Black America. For some, Dyson and West represent the best and brightest of minds and voices in the Black community. For others, Dyson and West represent sell-outs who no longer authentically connect to the world or the people they speak for. For this writer, Dyson and West present only a pericope of the black intellectual prophetic voices that are yearning to engage on the same platform. Dyson and West only matter to the masters of the airwaves and not the Master of the “souls of Black folks.” When the prophetic voice becomes mainstream, it can no longer be prophetic. It becomes nothing more than a minstrel show. When the prophetic voice creates dissension among those to whom it has given. It loses its authenticity and power. When one prophetic voice uses the element that helped to shape it as an attack against another, it becomes nothing more than sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
We are in need of authentic prophetic voices in the black community. We are in dire need of black intellectuals who are unafraid to once again proclaim what “thus says the Lord” to the masters of this American universe. We are in need of scholars who can help reshape the black mind into the great one it once was. While both Dyson and West will still share space in the amphitheater of public intellectuals, their fates have been sealed as nothing more than media puppets whose voice is no longer prophetic but leaning more towards pathetic.
The recent religious freedom restoration bill passed by the Indiana State legislature has created the latest uproar in a growing news cycle reporting on the infringement of rights for the LGBTQ community. Indiana’s SB 101 was created to protect the religious freedom for business owners, churches, and other religious related communities and organizations against those who threaten said freedoms. The LGBTQ community believes that it and others like it passed in several states (mostly southern states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and Arkansas) believe the bill was created to enhance discrimination against their community and causes. The reality is that it all boils down to one word: tolerance.
If you were to ask the average American if they considered themselves intolerant, bigoted, racist, or homophobic, the answer would probably be an overwhelming No. It is true that most individuals, especially those who ascribe to a religious belief system, believe that they are good and kind-hearted Americans, however when pressed with certain social issues, they discover they may not be as tolerant as they believe. In their 2005 book “The Truth about Tolerance,” Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti point out how tolerance has gotten lost in the American culture war. This war is even more distinct in American Christianity as seen in the battles between the liberal and conservative branches of Protestant Christianity. While both branches claim the same goal of evangelizing and making disciples (as presented in Matthew 28:18-20, the conflict resides in who is more right in discipling-a fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative Christian, or an affirming, liberal, progressive Christian. This schism is affecting mainline Protestant American Christianity as Episcopal, Methodists, and more recently Presbyterian denominations wrestle with progressive ideologies and concepts such as abortion and same sex unions. Both of these branches of Christianity grapple with the understanding and application of truth in the context of American pluralism (Stetson and Conti, 2005, pg.61).
What makes the Indiana law and others like it disturbing is that it commits the fraud of seemingly speaking for oppressed (or seemingly oppressed) people, businesses, and organizations. The very title suggests that religious freedom has been taken away from them. That is far from the truth. The greatness of living in the United States of America is wealth of religious diversity and freedom one is allowed to experience. Even within evangelical Christianity, there is no consensus on worship rituals, liturgy, music, clergy vestments, or theological training. There are evangelical pastors, business owners, and even state lawmakers who do not agree with the bill. The connecting factor for those lawmakers who designed the bill and supported the bill was perhaps the sense of fear in regards to the religious diversity that is becoming more evident in the state and America. This religious pluralism threatens their perception of truth as relayed to them through their faith. In fact, their defense of their brand of faith is associated more with intolerance and narrow-mindedness than intellectual good faith and genuine concern for the well-being of those they propose to protect with the bill (Ibid, pg.63.)
While tolerance needs truth to be coherent, truth cannot be misrepresented and legislated as absolute. When state lawmakers begin to dispel myths about their perspectives of truth, they are more likely to govern from the perspective of humanity and not faux religious authority. It is under the guise of the latter that laws like Jim Crow was institutionalized and maintained for decades. It is under the guise of the latter that the Jewish leadership during the time of Christ sought to have him killed. It is under the strain of the latter that the Civil Rights leaders marched until they ascertained the liberation desired. It is from such laws that the American public wants to distance itself and cry for the boycott of an entire state.
In the end, the governors and legislators of states who pass religious freedom laws do more harm than help to their cause. Their zeal to “save America” or “restore America” falls far short of the command of their faith to make disciples. It fails to be fully aware of the rich religious and social diversity that the United States has enjoyed over the last two centuries. While Indiana Governor Pence and his staff are doing their best to defend the law and lawmakers, there will continue to be big fallout for that state. The call is not for renunciation of beliefs or values; the call is to the recognition of the diminutive voices of the same.