open bible

Image by Ryk Neethling on Flicker (https://www.flickr.com/photos/rykneethling/4543060842)



Last week, OnFaith published my post about five of the most commonly abused verses in the Bible. The day it went live, my wife and I welcomed our son into the world. While we were busy changing diapers and pushing his bassinet up and down the hospital corridor, the article went a bit viral-ish, being shared more than 18,000 times on Facebook. 

If I could change one thing about my piece, it would be the title. I wish I’d called it “Five Bible Verses We Need to Stop Misusing,” because the truth is, we all do it. We all twist and selectively quote Scripture to suit our preferences. I believe one of the best antidotes is to stop reading the Bible in fragments. It didn’t come to us as a collection of verses; it wasn’t meant to be chopped into soundbites and plastered on t-shirts and coffee mugs. 

—//—

The other day, someone gave me a note with Nahum 1:7 printed at the top: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”For some reason, they neglected to include the next line, which continues the thought from verse 7: “But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of Nineveh.”

Okay, so maybe the fuller version doesn’t deliver quite the same Hallmark moment. And maybe that’s the problem with how many Christians use the Bible.

Christians read (and quote) Scripture in tiny, artificial fragments all the time. And by doing so, do we alter the meaning without even realizing it.

Digital Bible apps make it easier than ever to Twitterize holy writ. But we’ve been doing it for ages. Here are some of the most commonly misused Bible verses.

Read the rest at OnFaith

At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to write something at least once a week. In the past, I’ve aimed to write something everyday, but it’s always proved too much. So this year I decided to try for once a week — in order to keep me in the habit of writing, while giving me an achievable goal.

Last week, I broke that resolution. But I like to think I had a good reason — all 7 pounds, 15 ounces of it:

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Oliver James was born at 9:34 a.m. on April 1. Plus side: his birthdate, 4-1-14 (or 1-4-14 for my international friends) will be easy to remember. Downside: no one will believe him when he says it’s his birthday.

Oliver, his brilliant mom, and his extremely proud big sister are all doing well.

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I’ll get back to writing more soon. For now, I’m preoccupied enjoying the miracle that is my newborn son.

Image courtesy of World Vision US

Image courtesy of World Vision US



Today, World Vision helped care for more than 4 million kids. They do so every day, and they do it without making headlines. There’s not much of a story there, I guess.

But when they announced that Christian employees in monogamous, same-sex marriages didn’t have to fear for their jobs anymore? All hell broke loose.

For a while, World Vision was trending on Twitter. Not because of the 70,000 people they helped gain access to clean water that day, but because of outrage over the fact that a cross-denominational Christian humanitarian organization decided it wasn’t its job to police a theological difference among denominations.

A gospel issue?
Of course, those voicing outrage don’t see it that way. To them, there is only one position you can hold on the issue of same-sex marriage and still be considered a Christian. Russell Moore claimed the gospel itself was at stake. John Piper argued that World Vision was trivializing the cross. Franklin Graham went so far as to say that “World Vision doesn’t believe in the Bible.”

I’ll grant that same-sex marriage is a deeply divisive issue among Christians. (I believe there are people of good faith on both sides of the debate.) But show me which of the great ecumenical creeds — Apostles’, Nicene, Athanasian — makes homosexuality a litmus text for orthodoxy.

Show me which of the defining scriptural summaries of the gospel* say anything about same-sex marriage.

And if we celebrate a polygamist king as a “man after God’s own heart,” then why do we assume that a monogamous relationship between two people of the same gender is supposedly a deal-breaker for God?

We don’t need to trivialize differences of opinion on same-sex marriage. But to characterize it as a gospel issue? To me, that seems to miss the point of the gospel.

A justice issue?
I don’t envy the leadership at World Vision. To those who saw their (initial) decision as an attempt to pander to a broader audience: the people at World Vision know who their donor base is. They knew there would be a cost (update: though it seems they underestimated how much it would cost).

Some might ask, “Why take the risk? What about the kids?” It’s a fair question. But another question worth asking is whether it’s right to marginalize one group in order to pacify someone who is willing to hold impoverished children hostage to make sure they get their way.

But the stakes are even higher. Many countries — including some in which World Vision serves — have seen an alarming resurgence of homophobia in recent years. We’re not just talking about places where same-sex marriage is controversial. We’re talking about places where being gay can land you in jail — in some cases for life. We’re talking about places like Uganda and Nigeria, where homosexuality has been criminalized with the support of some US evangelicals who, having lost the culture wars here, are seeking out fertile territory elsewhere. Anti-gay rhetoric in this country has real-world consequences elsewhere. Wherever you stand on same-sex marriage, we we should be able to agree that these trends in other parts of the world are alarming.

One of World Vision’s commitments is to build a world where every person is respected, loved, and given a chance to thrive. Can they really do that halfway around the world if they don’t do so among their own staff here?

A personal issue
For many who weighed in on the controversy, this debate is an abstraction. For me, it’s more than that.

I spent four years writing for World Vision. I had colleagues who were gay, who were afraid of losing their jobs, who had to live in the closet because if they didn’t, they would be fired.

I’m also a World Vision donor. My family and I sponsor four kids. I’ve seen firsthand the difference they makes in impoverished communities.

So for me, this is about colleagues who no longer have to choose between their identity and doing something they believe in. It’s about my sponsored kids and their friends — many of whom have lost sponsors because, evidently, some people think that’s an OK way to retaliate.

This is personal. It’s about people. You may disagree with World Vision’s decision. But please don’t sacrifice children on the altar of your convictions. Especially not over an issue that cannot be construed as a tenant of orthodoxy according to any ecumenical creed or biblical summary of the gospel. Not over questions about which Christians legitimately disagree.

World Vision’s employment policy is not a gospel issue. Loving others is.

* Romans 1:1-4, Romans 3:21-26, 1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:8, 1 Peter 3:18-22. See The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight for a list of definitive gospel summary passages in the New Testament.

I remember the first time I found you online. It was 1997. Your website had more clip art then. I had spent the summer in DC, working for an anti-gay lobby — one that some regard as a hate group.

You were always there to make us feel better about ourselves. We could publish all the fear-inducing propaganda we wanted. But as long as we didn’t actually put the words “God hates fags” on our materials, we weren’t as bad as you. We could always count on Westboro Baptist Church to make us look kind and loving by comparison.

I thought of you that summer when I wrote my booklet. I even wrote this last bit just to prove we weren’t like you:

When confronted with fallen man’s sexuality, we must always return to the biblical norm. We must always do so out of love for our fellow man.

We wanted many of the same things as you. But where you were motivated by hate, we were driven by love… at least that’s what we told ourselves. You were the speck of dust I conveniently used to ignore the plank in my own eye.

In hindsight, the impact of our rhetoric was perhaps more insidious because we masqueraded as loving. You didn’t bother with pretense. You didn’t feign compassion while suggesting that gays are latent child predators who deserve to be locked up.

The reason it felt so good to despise you was because it kept me from facing the darkness that lurked in my own heart.

A decade later, I saw you again, this time on a BBC documentary. By 2008, I was not the same person who wrote that booklet in 1997. You only made a brief appearance in The Most Hated Family in America, but it was enough to convince me that all that hate was more than just a ploy for attention. “This is somebody who was addicted to rage and anger,” one filmmaker said about you.

Now you’re gone. If I’m honest, I don’t want you in the kingdom of God. I don’t want you to find mercy and forgiveness. I want you to feel the weight of all the hurt you caused.

And that worries me, because it means I don’t want God to be as merciful as he wants to be. I don’t want him to leave the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. Not in this case.

It also means I’m more like you than I care to admit. You always made it clear that you didn’t give a rip whether anyone had a change of heart because of your protests. When someone asked if you ever pray for the salvation of those you condemn, you bellowed, “Of course not!” You were happy to watch souls burn. You were convinced God had already preselected you and a handful of others for salvation. And you despised anyone who hoped God might cast his love a bit wider.

If I cheer for your damnation, then I am no different from you. I won’t make that mistake. Not anymore. I want a merciful God. I want a God who sees no one as beyond rescuing, not even from their own hatred.

So I will pray for your repose, Fred Phelps. I pray that perpetual light shines on you. I don’t know if we get a second chance after death, but if we do, I pray that yours will be to discover a God who is infinitely more loving than you dared to imagine. I still pray you’ll feel the weight of all the hurt you caused, but that you will find forgiveness and mercy for it, too. Because I need that just as much as you do.

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48 hours in Haiti

20 March 2014 — 1 Comment

I spent 48 hours in Haiti last week.

It wasn’t much time. But it was enough to taste the hot, sticky air. To navigate the teeming streets of Port-au-Prince, pressed by a sea of humanity. To jostle my spine on roads which my traveling companion assured me had gotten better since the last time he had visited.

On our way to a World Vision-supported community in the Central Plateau region (a few hours north of the city), we passed more than one person who seemed less than pleased to see yet another white face peering at them from behind an SUV window. Who can blame them? Outsiders in SUVs have not always brought good things to Haiti.

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While negotiating our way out of the city, we passed recently vacated refugee camps, where survivors of the 2010 earthquake eked out an existence under impossible circumstances. Miles outside the city, there was a collection of homes built by the government, where some of the displaced will be resettled, far removed from loved ones and livelihoods.

There were even a few places in the city where people still lived in tents reinforced with bits of cardboard, plastic, or whatever was at hand. After four years of wear, it was hard to imagine these shelters kept out much of anything. Yet almost 150,000 Haitians continue to live in them. Granted, that’s a big drop from what it used to be — at one point, it was 10 times that number — but still.

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On some of the weatherworn tarps you could just make out the faded USAID logo. Though the tents (and the people living in them) are still there, the funding has all but dried up. Billions in promised international aid never even materialized.

More jarring than the tents themselves were the billboards just outside some of the displacement camps, advertising expensive liquors, luxury kitchens, and other extravagances — flaunting unattainable wealth to those who haven’t had a solid roof over their heads for more than four years. Reportedly there’s a tent community within sight of a Porsche dealership.

But this was hardly the only story in Haiti. My colleague, for whom this was something like his 20th visit, observed that Port-au-Prince was looking more like its old self than at any time since the earthquake. Which isn’t to say it was “thriving,” exactly (or that the new buildings are any more capable of withstanding a major tremor than the old ones). But the streets were loaded with people, many of them hopping on and off tap taps (Haitian taxis). Sidewalks were barely visible beneath a sea of vendors selling produce, soda, hubcaps, and more. There was life in Haiti. Resilience.

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Outside the city, in World Vision’s community project (known as an ADP or Area Development Program), we saw hope. We saw Haiti’s future. The kids there projected a quiet confidence that comes when children are valued, empowered, and listened to by the community. We sat in a community center where each of the three dozen or so children gathered could read. We saw them lead their peers (and even the adults). Any one of these kids could lead Haiti someday.

I spent four years working for World Vision, so I know firsthand how important youth empowerment is to them. Now I can say I’ve seen it… and the difference it can make to a whole community.

(Also, the hands-down best meal I had on this trip was in that rural community.)

I’m still processing my experience in Haiti. For now, I’m reminded once more that poverty and injustice are complicated, messy affairs. But we shouldn’t forget: they’re not the only narrative that defines a place like Haiti. Not by a long shot. There is hope and resilience there. True, there are aid efforts which have sometimes gone wrong, efforts which are incomplete… and others that have reaped huge benefits for the people of Haiti.

I wish I’d had more than 48 hours, but it was long enough to leave an indelible mark.

What experiences have shaped your understanding of poverty and injustice? 

To learn more about World Vision’s work in Haiti and get involved, go here.

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Flip phone, circa 2008

My cell phone, circa 2008



The other day, we took our daughter to the botanical gardens. There’s a spot on the way out where everyone takes a picture of their kids: the butterfly chair. No matter how many times we take Elizabeth to the gardens (which is a lot), she always wants her picture there.

As we waited for another dad to finish snapping a picture of his daughter, I caught a glimpse of the phone he was using.

A flip phone? What decade does he think this is?

Before I even realized it, I was forming a judgment about this guy from the device he was using to capture a memory with his daughter.

We tell our kids not to judge others by the clothes they wear, the house they live in, or the car they drive. But judging people for what kind of cell phone they use? Apparently that’s another matter.

According to one survey, more than half of people admit to judging someone based on the model and condition of their phone. The fact that I’m one of them worries me.

What am I teaching my daughter to value? The person or the technology they carry?

—//—

Could it be that all this new technology is eroding our sense of wonder, in addition to making us even more judgmental?

Remember 2007, when the iPhone was a groundbreaking innovation that promised to revolutionize your life?

Well, it did. Now… I get cranky whenever I leave the house and forget my smartphone. What, you mean I have to think about where I’m going? I can’t just let my phone tell me how to get there?

As my older-generation smartphone became slower and less responsive over the years, I became more and more irritable. Could you revolutionize my life a little faster, please?

And then the newer model came out. How come nothing happens when I try to talk to MY phone? What is this, 2008?

Technology that once inspired wonder and excitement gradually nurtured a sense of entitlement instead. I learned just how grumpy I can get when that technology doesn’t work the way I expect it to.

We are passing this discontentment on to the next generation, too. When my wife and I recently upgraded our phones, our daughter asked when she was going to get a phone like ours. Not a toy phone. A real one.

She’s three.

—//—

I’m not convinced the answer is to renounce technology. It has, after all, revolutionized our lives…mostly (though not always) for the better.

Still, I don’t want to the price of this revolution to be my sense of wonder. I shouldn’t forget that I was born into privilege, the likes of which most have never known. Even the old phone I recently replaced is one of the most remarkable pieces of technology ever made.

Most importantly, for my sake and my daughter’s, I want to stop judging others by what kind of technology they do (or don’t) carry.

I have no idea why the guy at the botanical gardens was using a flip phone. Maybe it was out of economic necessity. Maybe his iPhone was broken. Or maybe he’s concerned about the fact that most smartphones are made with unethically sourced minerals. Maybe he’s just not phased by the intense cultural pressure to always have the latest gadget.

It doesn’t matter. He is more than the technology he carries. We all are.

I don’t want my daughter to forget that. Which means that I can’t afford to forget it, either.

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The butterfly chair

Photo by ☻☺ on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/c0t0s0d0/2334183401/

Recently I’ve been making my way through Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Yeah, it’s been out for a while, but you know… life.

I love this book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sometimes startling honesty that permeates Rachel’s writing. Startling, because this kind of honesty… well, it’s not the norm for Christian authors.

cover-image1One example: when Rachel shares several reasons for being terrified of having children — something which, as she notes, can earn scorn from Christians who seem to think the whole point of being a woman is to churn out babies.

My wife and I waited eight years before we became parents, partly because I had many of the same fears that Rachel describes, especially this one:

I’m afraid that I have to figure out my own faith before I can pass it along to a new generation.

Today, I have a three-and-a-half year-old daughter who has captured my heart. A few weeks from now, I’ll hold my son in my arms for the first time.

And I don’t have my own faith figured out.

It’s not for lack of trying. I keep searching, wondering, fumbling in the dark. I used to be more certain in what I believed (and in the importance of being certain in what you believe), but then, you know… life.

The pressure to have it all figured out affects parents, would-be parents, and not-sure-if-they-want-to-be-parents alike. It’s real. I’ve felt it.

I know the pressure to be the perfect Christian parent who raises perfect Christian kids who have all the answers, pray the sinner’s prayer as soon as they can talk, and never question anything.

We’ve been told good Christian parents instill rock-solid faith in their kids, the implication being that if we project even the smallest doubt or the slightest hesitation when they ask difficult questions, their faith will melt away faster than you can say “evolution.”

We’re afraid they’ll see uncertainty as weakness, as a sign of something deficient in the faith we (aspire to) profess and live.

But what if our fear is misplaced? What if they see something else in us when we admit to not having all the answers? What if they see authenticity? Honesty?

What if we don’t have to figure out our own faith before we can pass it on to a new generation?

What would happen if we modeled a different kind of faith, one that leaves room for uncertainty? What if we gave our kids permission to be inquisitive, to wonder, to even doubt?

Would it really be the end of Christianity as we know it? Or is it possible our kids will find an inherently inquisitive faith to be more attractive than the kind that insists on having all the answers?

To be honest, I don’t know. If you’re looking for a foolproof model for passing your faith to the next generation, I don’t have one. I’m pretty sure one doesn’t exist.

Faith is a risky venture. There are no guarantees. There are no foolproof models. (Isn’t that one reason why we call it faith?)

One thing I’m sure of, though: a faith that leaves no room for doubt, one that insists on having it all together (or pretending to) — that kind of faith doesn’t have a future.  That kind of faith leads to disillusionment and even loss of faith when kids suddenly face questions they can’t answer.  

So I won’t pretend for the sake of my kids to have it all figured out. Then again, maybe you don’t have to have everything figured out in order to belong. Maybe belonging is what really matters — being part of a community of people, none of whom have their faith completely figured out either. Maybe belonging can help us overcome our unbelief.

I want my kids to know they belong, no matter how much or little they think they’ve got “figured out.” I want them to know it’s OK not to know everything. Uncertainty is not the enemy.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul urged his friends to work out their faith with fear and trembling. That doesn’t sound to me like the posture of someone who has it all figured out.

For Paul, faith wasn’t something you possessed. It wasn’t something you mastered or acquired. It wasn’t the end of the journey but the beginning of one. It’s something we have to keep working at, something we get to discover and rediscover anew every day.

That’s the kind of faith I want to pass along to my children: an inquisitive faith — one that never stops wondering, never stops asking. A faith that’s OK with not having every detail figured out.

In the end, it’s up to each couple whether or not to have kids. And choosing not to have kids doesn’t make you any less of a family than those who do. But if you have kids, or are thinking about having kids, the fact that you don’t have your own faith figured out is not a liability. It’s a gift.

 

Not that long ago, a friend came out of the closet to me. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say. I knew it wasn’t my place to express an opinion on the moral legitimacy of same-sex relationships, especially when I wasn’t even sure what I believed about that anymore.

What I did know was that I cared about my friend. I owed it to them — and myself — to reconsider what I had always assumed by default to be true, to make sure I’d thought this through, listened to the other side, considered all possibilities. That’s something I’d never really done before.

In the end, what motivated my decision to reconsider wasn’t some big epiphany. It was a friend.

Courtesy Spencer E Holtaway

Recently, when Facebook announced it was offering 51 additional gender identities for people to choose from, conservative pundits reacted with predictable outrage. But even some of us who aren’t conservative were probably tempted to roll our eyes at the news.

Then a friend on Facebook started using one of the 51 new options. Suddenly it didn’t seem like PC sensitivity run amok. To my friend, it meant safety. Validation. Reassurance they were OK even if they didn’t fit neatly into one of the only two categories previously available to them.

Photo by ChodHound on Flickr

I’m not saying all of this is simple. Figuring out what you should believe isn’t always an easy task. But our first (and perhaps only) response to someone who is gay or who identifies according to a gender category we’ve never even heard of… well, let me suggest that part IS simple.

If our first impulse is anything other than to love, embrace, and accept the other person as they are, then we have missed the boat.  

You might say I’m being overly simplistic. You might argue this kind of acceptance only encourages people down a destructive path.

Set aside for a moment the question of whether loving someone of the same gender or identifying as “non-binary” on Facebook causes actual harm to someone. That’s a debatable assumption at best. The real problem with any other response is that you start to see issues instead of people. You begin treating loved ones as problems to be solved, instead of divine image-bearers who were made to be cherished.

Well, I’m done viewing others as problems that need to be fixed.

AFP, Isaac Kasamani

If you want to know where treating people as problems gets you, just look at Uganda.

The president of Uganda just signed a bill to solve the “problem” of homosexuality in his country. The law makes homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment in some cases. It requires citizens to denounce anyone they suspect of being gay.

One Ugandan newspaper wasted no time complying with that last provision, publishing a list of “200 top homos.” The last time a paper did this in Uganda, the names and addresses were run under the headline “Hang Them.” A gay rights campaigner was bludgeoned to death.

Defending the Bill, Uganda’s minister for ethics and integrity, Simon Lokodo, described gays as “beasts of the forest.” To him, homosexuality is a disease to be cured. Lokodo has even suggested that heterosexual child rape is preferable to consensual sex between two male adults.

That’s where you end up when you start viewing members of the LGBT community — or anyone else, for that matter — as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

—//—

I used to look down on those who started questioning longstanding beliefs, all because they knew someone who was gay. I used to think the strength of your convictions was measured by your willingness to hold them no matter what the fallout, no matter how much hurt they caused.

Then I remembered that “love does no harm to a neighbor.” I remembered that the FIRST thing we should see in someone else is the divine imprint, the image of God staring back at us.

Whatever your beliefs may be, if you don’t start here, then there’s no way to get it right.

Maybe caring about a friend is one of the best reasons you could have to reevaluate your convictions.

[Photo credits: Spencer E Holtaway, ChodHound on Flickr, Isaac Kasamani/AFP]

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)



In a previous post, I mentioned Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 as “problem passages” for those whose view of inspiration depends on the Bible being accurate in everything it says (or seems to say) about astronomy, geology, biology, etc.

Joshua 10 claims the sun temporarily stood still during a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, while 1 Chronicles 16 describes an immovable earth. On my blog the other day, I wrote that it’s obvious these texts “should be viewed as metaphor, not literal assertion.”

Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.

These texts are not simply metaphor. They’re not merely “the language of appearance,” as sometimes claimed. They’re not the equivalent of modern-day people saying “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well the sun doesn’t literally rise and set.

Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 reflect how people in the ancient Near East understood the cosmos.

They really DID think the sun moved and the earth didn’t. “Sunrise” and “sunset” weren’t metaphors to them; that’s what they thought the sun did.

This drawing depicts the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern world.

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The earth was conceived of as a flat disc, surrounded by a primeval ocean. Above the earth was the firmament, a solid dome which held the sun, moon, and stars. Above that, a heavenly ocean.

This is how pretty much everyone, including the writers of the Bible, understood the universe. That’s why the authors of Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 wrote what they did.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that we also find this view of the cosmos in the creation story of Genesis 1.

The primeval ocean shows up as the watery depth over which God’s spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. A solid “firmament” or “vault” is depicted a few lines later (1:6), holding back the “waters above,” a.k.a. the heavenly ocean (1:7).

In other words, Genesis 1 reflects an ancient cosmology which we all know to be scientifically inaccurate. The earth is not a flat disc surrounded by a primeval ocean. There is no solid dome above us, and there is no heavenly ocean above that.

For young-earth creationists like Ken Ham, to question the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 is to undermine confidence in the whole Bible. For me, accepting that Genesis reflects an ancient (and scientifically inaccurate) cosmology causes me to love these ancient texts even more.

Why? Because it means God meets us where we are, limitations and all. Speaking in and through the scriptures, he met people of the ancient Near Eastern world where they were. He didn’t let their limited understanding of the universe stop him from revealing himself. He doesn’t let our limited understanding stop him from doing he same for us today.

So, for example, when God revealed himself as creator, he did so in the language of a prescientific world, within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology — flat earth, solid firmament, moving stars, and all. That’s the only way that would have made sense to an ancient Near Eastern person, so that’s how God spoke.

This is sometimes called the incarnational view of scripture. Just as God took on flesh in the form of Jesus — a reality people could see, touch and understand — so God revealed himself in scripture in ways the very first to encounter his revelation could understand.

He doesn’t demand we overcome our limitations first. He did not wait for ancient people to shed their ancient cosmology before he said something about why he made the world.

We’re not so different from the people of the ancient Near East. We have our limitations, our blind spots. We may know the sun doesn’t move across a solid dome of firmament, but we do not know everything there is to know. Not by a long shot.

That doesn’t stop God from revealing himself to us.

Genesis is not a scientifically accurate record of how the universe came into being. It was never meant to be. But that didn’t stop God from telling us something about why the universe came into being.

For me, the latter is a story worth reading.

—//—

*A great book on the incarnational view of Scripture is Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

Seriously, Kansas?

14 February 2014 — 8 Comments

Kansas state capitol building (credit: Rand McNally)

With same-sex marriage advancing faster than anyone expected, you might wonder what the LGBT community has to complain about anymore. The grand prize, marriage equality nationwide, is almost within reach. Surely the country has entered some kind of “post-homophobic” era.

Right. Just like the election of Barack Obama ushered in a “post-racial” era.

Reality is never quite that simple, and history is never a completely linear affair, as the state of Kansas reminded us when its House of Representatives passed House Bill 2453 by a vote of 72-49. The Kansas Senate, which consists of 32 Republicans and 8 Democrats, is likely to follow suit, and the state’s conservative governor, Sam Brownback, will almost certainly sign the bill into law.

Slate contributor Mark Joseph Stern describes the impact of HB 2453 like this:

The result will mark Kansas as the first state, though certainly not the last, to legalize segregation of gay and straight people in virtually every area of life.

Slate is a liberal publication. Of course they’re going to describe the bill in the most melodramatic terms possible, right?

So I read HB 2453 for myself. You should too.

It’s fairly short, as legislation goes. But in case you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I’ve included some of the major provisions below. (Highlights are mine.)

In short, the bill asserts the right of any “individual or religious entity” to deny “any services” to someone based on the individual or entity’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill has been described as an attempt to protect people from being forced to help with same-sex weddings, but section 1 goes could be interpreted as going much further, apparently perhaps giving people the right to refuse ANY service, “related to or unrelated to” marriage. (Update: Thanks to Dan for pointing out in the comments below that the wording of the bill is somewhat vague on this point.)

No individual or religious entity shall be required by any governmental entity to do any of the following, if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender:

(a) Provide any services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges; provide counseling, adoption, foster care and other social services; or provide employment or employment benefits, related to, or related to the celebration of, any marriage, domestic partnership, civil union or similar arrangement.

House Bill 2453 strips away a person’s legal recourse in response to such refusal to provide service. To quote Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, “If a gay couple sues for discrimination, they won’t just lose; they’ll be forced to pay their opponent’s attorney fees.”

He appears to be right on that count:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no refusal by an individual or religious entity to engage in any activity described in section 1, and amendments hereto, shall result in:

(1) A civil claim or cause of action under state or local law based upon such refusal; or

(2) an action by any governmental entity to penalize, withhold benefits from, discriminate against or otherwise disadvantage any protected individual or religious entity, under any state or local law.

If a government entity, or any person asserts a claim or cause of action, or takes any adverse action against an individual or religious entity in violation of subsection (a), such individual or religious entity shall be entitled upon request to recover all reasonable attorney fees, costs, and damages such individual or religious entity incurred as a result of such violation.

In theory, governments and “non-religious” entities are still obligated to provide “lawful service” to gay people — i.e. driver’s licenses (though not marriage, in the eyes of Kansas):

If an individual employed by a governmental entity or other non-religious entity invokes any of the protections provided by section 1, and amendments hereto, as a basis for declining to provide a lawful service that is otherwise consistent with the entity’s duties or policies, the individual’s employer, in directing the performance of such service, shall either promptly provide another employee to provide such service, or shall otherwise ensure that the requested service is provided, if it can be done without undo hardship to the employer.

But religious entities are not mentioned in the bill’s provision to “ensure that the requested service is provided.” On top of which, House Bill 2453 defines religious entities pretty broadly, as:

An organization, regardless of its non-profit or for-profit status, and regardless of whether its activities are deemed wholly or partly religious…

For purposes of discriminating against gays, a religious entity can even be:

A privately held business operating consistently with its sincerely held religious beliefs…

Apparently Slate wasn’t being so melodramatic after all.

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Under HB 2453, it’s possible that if you work at the DMV and someone you know (or suspect) to be gay asks you to renew their driver’s license, you can refuse. In which case, your supervisor has to find someone who will. But essentially, you get to recreate the experience of a 1950s-era “whites only” lunch counter, right here in 2014. You get to tell someone you think they’re unworthy of your attention — even if the requested service has nothing to do with gay marriage. You get to discriminate, consequence-free.

Mark Joseph Stern suggested that HB 2453 would allow police officers to refuse to respond if a gay couple called for help. I can’t find anything in this monstrosity of a law that would suggest he’s read it wrongly.

The wording of HB 2453 is vague enough to create the possibility that someone who owns or works for a private business, you could refuse any service to someone you know or suspect to be gay, as long as you can claim to operate your business in accordance with your “sincerely held religious beliefs.” (What does that mean, anyway? Can you claim to be a religious business if you put gospel tracts next to the cash register? If you hang a fish decal in the window?)

We’re not necessarily just talking about wedding planners and photographers, either. We’re not just talking about pastors who choose not to officiate same-sex weddings. (Religious ministers have never been compelled to officiate weddings to which they objected, regardless of the reason.)

Depending on how the bill is read, any business providing any service — related or unrelated to marriage — is allowed to discriminate under Kansas House Bill 2453.

Proponents of the law say it will prevent discrimination. Discrimination against those who want to discriminate, it seems. “Discrimination is horrible. It’s hurtful… It has no place in civilized society, and that’s precisely why we’re moving this bill,” said Rep. Charles Macheers in defense of HB 2453.

Was he oblivious to the irony?

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Same-sex marriage remains a contentious issue. Though not everyone will agree, I happen to believe there are people of goodwill on both sides. Not everyone who objects to same-sex marriage is a hater or a homophobe. Likewise, not everyone who supports gay marriage is out to destroy Western civilization.

But all persons are equal before the law. This bedrock principle of democracy is enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. It means you cannot target one group or class of people for discrimination, even in the name of protecting your “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Especially not when it comes to basic services to which every citizen is entitled — like getting a driver’s license or having a police officer respond when you’re being held at gunpoint.

Finally, to my fellow Christians in Kansas and beyond who think laws like HB 2453 are necessary to protect their religiously-based objection to gay marriage, please remember what the apostle Paul taught. Only one law is necessary. Only one law trumps the rest. It’s not the law of religious freedom. And it’s certainly not the law that allows allowing you to discriminate against someone even when it comes to providing a service that in no way requires you to violate your conscience.

The only law that matters is the law of love. This is the law that fulfills all the rest, according to Paul. This law, he insists, “does no harm to a neighbor.”

HB 2453, on the other hand, does a great deal of harm to our neighbors.