Facts on marriage equality in the United States.
One of the hot button topics in America today is same-sex marriage. This issue has been in the news often due to same-sex marriage bans being struck down in state after state and on the minds of many after the controversial "religious freedom" law passed in Indiana (and similar ones already enacted in other states). And it has been in the hearts of many gay and lesbian couples faced with the possibility of being denied access to services because of who they are and who they love.
Imagine planning and preparing for your wedding for months, making decisions about guest lists, music, menus, seating charts, and attire. You go to the lone bakeshop in town to talk about your cake choices, only to be told that the baker is not willing to work with you because you are gay or a bi-racial couple or a couple from another faith tradition. Imagine the feelings of rejection, isolation, and denial that you would potentially feel, because the state allows this denial of services. This scenario is not hard to imagine, because it is legally allowed in many places throughout our country.
"Othering" happens all the time for many different reasons - not just sexuality, race, and gender.
About 10 years ago, my son and I were at a local park playing on the swings when a group of young boys started taunting a small child with a disfigured arm about 50 yards away from us. They were calling her ugly names and throwing small rocks and sticks in her direction. We had seen this little girl playing happily, running around, and laughing with delight. But now she looked terrified.
I heard the taunts and began moving that direction to intercede, but my son outran me. Only six years old at the time, he yelled at the boys, "Leave her alone. She's just like us." The boys saw and heard my son and likely saw an adult close on his heels. They abandoned their harassment and ran away.
The young girl, Mandy, was crying and scared. I wanted to thrash the boys for scaring and taunting her but my son knew better. He knew that what Mandy needed was compassion and acceptance. He touched her disfigured arm and said, "Wanna come play with me?" And off they ran - holding hands, giggling wildly, and laughing.
The young girl's mother showed up very quickly after the episode occurred and I relayed the story to her. She lowered her head and said, "This happens too dang often. How do I protect my child from people who fear her differences?" I did not have an answer then. And I don't have a perfect one now. It seems that some people just cannot help but "other" people different than themselves.
The past few months, not unlike a vast majority of human history, have been full of episodes of "othering" - LGBTQ folks, African Americans, people of other faiths, and too many groups and individuals to name. Throwing sticks and stones - figuratively or literally - at people because they are different seems to be commonplace. Taunting the "other" - with words, actions, or abuse - happens on an all too familiar basis.
The question continues to be, "How do we protect those we love from this "othering?"
In our text from Acts, we read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a man quite different from Philip racially as a black African and from what must have been a powerful position, given his status description and traveling situation. And depending on how the text is interpreted, he also may have been a sexual minority who was excluded from some parts of society.
Philip is there to spread the gospel story of Jesus. He is directed to do this work and comes upon someone who is "other" than himself, a eunuch, reading the scriptures as he traveled. This chance encounter provides a glimpse of what it means to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and be the church for all persons - despite their differences. The very text that the eunuch was reading provided an opportunity for Philip to tell him about Jesus.
For me, the most interesting part of the text is when the eunuch seeks guidance about being baptized (we are not told by Luke the status of the eunuch's faith) and he appears to expect rejection. In verse 37, the eunuch asks Philip what prevents him from being baptized? Had he been denied baptism before? Was he aware that his "othering" might exclude him from admittance and acceptance into the community of faith? Did his status as a "mutilated" person mean he was thought of as less than others? We're not sure.
Some commentators note the question might be alluding to a ritual questioning and answering nature of proselyte baptism, but the text is still open to interpretation. Baptism meant being included into the community and for someone who was "other," that cannot always be assumed.
Philip's response to the question about baptism, regardless of its intent or meaning, is not words, but action. He baptizes the eunuch. PERIOD. He welcomes him into the faith. And the eunuch rejoices at this act of grace. My son's response was to act - not think or question - to just go to Mandy and be her friend.
With states passing religious freedom laws, the Supreme Court set to hear more cases this month regarding same-sex marriage, and the polarization of our political and religious realms bringing people into conflict on a regular basis, reading a text about someone being brought into the faith who would likely be considered different is both helpful and insightful.
We live in a culture where people are often forced into "us" and "them" categories. We hear news pundits yell at each other about social issues on a daily basis. And we witness the "othering" of marginalized persons from churches to playgrounds to wedding cake shops and beyond.
Isn't it time we stop putting people into categories and denying their identity? Isn't it time for us, like Philip, to just act out of care for the common good? Isn't it time for us to stop "othering" and start accepting people for who they are?
Wouldn't our faith lives and our public lives look different if we did?
That's the kind of world I want to live in.
Bible Study Questions
1. Who are the "others" who you encounter as part of your daily life? How do you welcome them or not welcome them into your family, work, and faith communities?
2. What experiences have you had with "othering" in your own life? Have you been excluded for some reason from groups or organizations? How did it feel? If not, how have you excluded others?
3. What can you do to be an advocate for those who are labeled "others" around you? How can you be there for them like Philip was for the Ethiopian eunuch? What can you do to stop the taunts and conflict directed at them? How can you bring them into your community?
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Facts about free speech around the world.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was an act of absolute evil. The fact that people sitting down for a simple editorial meeting at their work site could be killed due to hate is disturbing beyond words. It is a tragedy for all involved -- for those killed, for the family and friends of those killed inside of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, for the officer killed on the street outside, and for those involved in the hostage situations as the perpetrators were tracked down. It is also a tragedy for Muslims, Christians, Jews and others who often find themselves being impacted by radical fringe elements who often do not represent the basic tenants of their faith or beliefs.
It can be so hard to watch these violent terrorist events unfold around the world. And we often try to explain them way too quickly. In this instance, some immediately blamed all Muslims for the attacks. Others immediately chastised the editorial decisions of Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons this satirical magazine has published of the Prophet Mohammed. Still others protest that this is a "simple" free speech situation. They say that the cartoons posted by Charlie Hebdo were satire but harmless and that the attackers were trying to silence them.
But free speech is an interesting and complicated thing. The question is often about the limits of free speech.
One of my favorite movies of all time is called, The American President. In it, President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), makes a statement about free speech and American democracy. He says,
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man [sic] whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."
While this event happened in France, American and democratic issues related to free speech have permeated the debate in the media and in the wider community.
Sometimes what we say is important, powerful, and impactful. Sometimes what we say is controversial, satirical, and insulting to many. So what then are the limits of free speech?
In a recent Huffington Post survey, 63% of Americans shared that they support protecting free speech over defending religions from being satirized. Speaking freely is of great import in democracies - and around the world. Sadly, journalists and others suffer for their words on a regular basis. Many have been jailed, tortured, and even killed for speaking the truth they feel called to speak. But we are called to speak anyway.
In the Old Testament text this week, Jonah was called by God to speak prophetically in a dangerous place. Jonah's story is quite familiar to many. He was called by God to deliver a message of redemption to the people of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but he refused God's command. The rest of the story tells us about his journey fleeing this call, a Big Fish swallowing him up, and his subsequent encounters with the community after seeing the light to answer his call while in the belly of the fish. Well, that's the story I heard growing up. It really was not until an Old Testament seminary course that I learned the "real story."
This particular text, Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, is the second call of Jonah by God to deliver a word to the people. The first time he refused, fled, and got swallowed by a fish. Now he is back on dry land after his water adventure. In this text, he answers the call and agrees to go where he is being sent without debate or intervention by a big fish. Despite the risk in speaking truth to an unruly and unfaithful bunch, God sends Jonah to speak anyway.
In verse 2, Jonah is promised that he will receive the words from God that he needs to speak. But he is being asked to speak to his nation's enemies. Why would God send him to save them? Why would God want to deliver them from sinfulness? Why them? Why him?
He was not part of their community but he spoke because God called him to. He was finally answering a long-standing tradition of God asking persons to speak prophetically in moments of need. But it was risky. He was not Assyrian. He was not from Nineveh. But he spoke anyway because God called him to speak.
I am not Charlie Hebdo. Even though there is a hashtag going around social media sites - "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), I know that I am not Charlie. I do not think that I would ever intentionally make fun of a faith tradition or belief system, except maybe my own. But, dangit, I will defend their right to do so. President Shepherd in The American President said it so well. As a believer in free speech and democracy, I have to acknowledge the person whose words make my blood boil if I really do believe in their right to say it. But I don't have to agree with them.
The Ninevites probably did not want to hear anything from a foreigner. They probably did not want someone from outside of their community to come in and call them on their lives. They did not want their actions called into question. According to ancient studies, the Assyrians were brutal and violent. Despite this, God sends them a word of redemption and grace through Jonah. That is how God chooses to counter their torturous behavior. That is how God chooses to respond. God chooses to respond with grace and mercy. And that is hard.
How do we respond to this act of violence and other violent acts around us? With grace and mercy? So far many certainly have responded with mercy and grace. But others are responding with vile assumptions and hateful rhetoric toward Muslims and about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their creators.
We don't have to agree with their posts or their beliefs. They do, however, have the right to have them. None, though, have the right to attack others for those beliefs with violence or hatred.
I think this is a unique opportunity. We have a chance to do better. We have a chance to call others on their hateful speech and behavior, but figuring out what is evil and what is hate speech is a distinction that I am not qualified to determine.
But showing mercy, I can do that. Maybe, just maybe, that's just what we all need right about now.
Bible Study Questions
1. Is it ever ok to satirize religious leaders? Is that free speech or hate speech? What are the "lines in the sand" for you on the subject?
2. In the passage, Jonah is given a second chance from God to answer the call and go to Nineveh. Have you experienced a "do-over" from God? What did you do with that second chance? What does it mean when we don't get that second chance?
3. When have you experienced grace and mercy? What did it feel like to receive that when you least expect it? How can you express that for others in your everyday lives?
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