North Carolina's recent decision to ban gay marriage (a term I use in a particular sense) and civil unions represents a remarkable failure of Christian political imagination. It should go without saying that conservative Christians have been at the forefront of such movements. Some of my sisters and brothers seem to think that the only way to "protect" their beliefs and morals is to vote them into law: Either yield the public square to "liberals" and "secular humanists" (or something), or head to the ballot box! This is a false choice and a distraction. Christian politics are the politics of the kingdom of God, which certainly involves voting, but mostly is about giving cups of cold water in Jesus' name (Matthew 10:42). The politics of the kingdom have almost nothing to do with gays.
Christianity is political to the core. "Messiah" is a revolutionary word, after all. The early church was persecuted in part because its way of life was an existential threat to the authority of Rome, which rested on violence, hierarchy and oppression. Pagan philosophers mocked Christians for treating slaves, the poor and orphans the same as the rich and powerful. The church did not live up to that ideal, but the fact that they tried to be a new kind of "nation" tells us a lot about their priorities. The church is not the kingdom but where the kingdom happens, thus the early Christians strove to embody what they understood the kingdom of God to be about. The church tried to be an icon of the world's future-made-present in the one they called "Christ."
We should take note of the fact that when Jesus described what it will take to enter the kingdom, he did not mention sex at all. In "The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats," Jesus says that when he returns again, all the nations of the earth will be gathered before him, and he will begin separating the good from the bad -- the righteous from the unrighteous (see Matthew 25:31-46). One thing he will not say is, "You worked hard to keep gays from getting married. Enter into your reward!" Rather, the citizens of God's kingdom will hear, "I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me." Gays are not mentioned anywhere.
The politics of the "sheep" are not about working to restrict the civil rights of the "goats." The "sheep" are able to enter the kingdom of God because, in a way, they have been living in it already. The prophets of Israel hoped for God to establish peace and justice on earth. For Jesus to fulfill the prophets is for that peace and justice to be present in him. The kingdom goes where Jesus goes. If we believe the above verses, that means the kingdom goes where people are hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned. When Christians go to those who have no power or voice in society, they are standing in the presence of the kingdom, because they are standing in the presence of their King.
It is not as if people weren't "gay" back then. The idea of the "homosexual" as a kind of identity is a pretty recent invention, but there is ample evidence from Greek and Roman art and literature that men and women engaged in same-sex acts. Such acts were common enough among Jews that the rabbis who contributed to the Talmud had to address it, sorting out which acts were sinful, why and how much. I am not saying that Jesus did not care about what people did in their bedrooms. My point is that he did not seem to care very much! He certainly cared less about gay sex than the majority of North Carolina's voters.
If the Bible were to reflect the political priorities of Christians who spearhead movements like those we just witnessed in North Carolina, we would end up with maybe a couple of pages of text (in very large font). Only a handful of verses address issues of same-sex orientation, but thousands upon thousands deal with the kinds of things for which Jesus praised his "sheep": how we treat the stranger and alien, the poor, imprisoned and everyone else without any power, voice or influence (For a small sample, see Zechariah 7:9-10, Malachi 3:5, Leviticus 19:9-16 and 33-34, Deuteronomy 24:14, Isaiah 3:13-15, Psalm 146).
If we believe the Bible is inspired, then maybe we should pay attention not only to what God says, but how often God says it! Maybe, like most parents, God repeats the points we need to "get" the most.
I am not saying Christians should not be involved in politics. I am not even saying that we should not care about sex and marriage, but if we want to be faithful to the kingdom of God, then we need to start living more like "sheep." We need to get our priorities straight.
A "sheep" enters the kingdom because she lives in it ahead of time. Her intellect and actions correspond to its appearance in Jesus. The fact that so many of my sisters and brothers are obsessed with the nuclear family makes me wonder if our political imaginations have been shaped more by "Leave it to Beaver" than the hope of the prophets. Otherwise, we might devote more attention to the kinds of issues Jesus said we would be judged on. Better yet, we might spend more time doing the kinds of things Jesus said we would be judged on!
What bothers me (and a lot of other Christians) about North Carolina's ban on gay marriage really has nothing to do with gays or marriage. For me, it is about the efficacy and witness of the church. North Carolina was a "Pyrrhic victory." Whatever my sisters and brothers think they won when they denied civil marriage (and civil unions) to gay folks on May 8 came at too high a price! Denying civil rights to others in the name of Christian love has damaged our witness, alienated millions (including many younger Christians) and done nothing to address the real threats to marriage: the lack of time, energy and material resources necessary to nurture the bonds of love that hold a family together. If the church is to be faithful to Christ, then our political action should focus on what the kingdom of God is all about: sheep and goats, not gays.
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