Posts tagged ‘Civil Rights’

Changing Racist Hearts

Credit:  AP / The Washington Post

Credit: AP / The Washington Post

It’s been a tough week for race relations in America. Saturday, March 7 began with a march, led by President Obama and Representative John Lewis, across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the day 600 voting rights demonstrators, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., crossed this same bridge and were met by state troopers who attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Indeed, Representative Lewis was among those seriously injured in that fateful march. Reflecting on the events of fifty years ago, the president noted:

In one afternoon fifty years ago, so much of our turbulent history – the stain of slavery and anguish of civil war; the yoke of segregation and tyranny of Jim Crow; the death of four little girls in Birmingham, and the dream of a Baptist preacher – all that history met on this bridge.

It was not a clash of armies, but a clash of wills; a contest to determine the true meaning of America.

And because of men and women like John Lewis, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, Ralph Abernathy, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so many others, the idea of a just America, and a fair America, an inclusive America, and a generous America – that idea ultimately triumphed …

What they did here will reverberate through the ages. Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible; that love and hope can conquer hate.[1]

If only the president’s final line rang a truer longer.

The very next day, a video surfaced showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a horrifyingly racist song on a bus. The University quickly denounced the video, suspended the fraternity from its campus, and expelled two of the students involved.

But then came this:

Attorneys and law professors have watched with interest this week as the University of Oklahoma moved swiftly to disband the school’s SAE chapter and expel two students on suspicion of leading the racist chant, which was captured on a now-viral video.

University President David Boren acted decisively in dismantling the chapter, but experts say the university may be on shaky legal ground.[2]

The issue at hand is whether or not the University of Oklahoma violated the students’ First Amendment rights by closing their fraternity and expelling two students simply because they sang a song that many find – and, I hasten to add, should find – offensive. As Terrence McCoy reports in an article for The Washington Post:

The expulsions immediately struck constitutional law experts such as professor Eugene Volokh, of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Volokh Conspiracy blog, as strange. Did the University of Oklahoma, a public institution, just punish speech that, while clearly abhorrent, was protected under the First Amendment? Was this a violation of the Constitution?

Private institutions – like Sigma Alpha Epsilon – can freely punish speech that breaches their codes or standards. But a public institution such as the University of Oklahoma, which takes public money, operates as an arm of the government under the law. “So, in effect, it’s not a university punishing a student for a racist video or social media post, it is the state itself acting against an individual – a person, importantly, with all the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment,” wrote the University of West Alabama’s Will Nevin on AL.com.[3]

This case is yet another example of how woefully inadequate civic laws can be to address the deeply moral aspects of the human condition and experience.

One the one hand, the First Amendment was put in place to serve an important common good – that of protecting this country’s citizens from being oppressed, even in their speech, by their government. This freedom is important and ought to be fiercely protected.  On the other hand, we must never forget that societal freedom is inevitably fraught with personal danger. Free speech, it turns out, does not always translate into right speech. Just because legally we can say almost anything doesn’t mean that morally we should.

An opinion piece by Byron Williams of The Huffington Post struck me as especially lucid in regard to this story’s moral entailments:

America’s approach to the original sin of racism maintains an aspect of arrested development. It is too easy to temporarily transfer our moral indignation toward a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma that no longer exists than it is to take the more difficult path that could lead to a meaningful transformation.[4]

Notice the explicitly theological and moral category Williams uses for racism: it’s America’s “original sin.” But notice also how Williams also offers a distinctly non-civic answer to his distinctly theological and moral framing of this problem:

The expelled students have already succeeded in dismantling their fraternity chapter. Shouldn’t they be given opportunity for redemption? In lieu of expulsion, could the university have found another way to educate all involved about the poisons of racism?

The ease with which one can easily sing a song for amusement that dehumanizes another cannot be eradicated by an expulsion that, in my view, is unconstitutional.

Because racism is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned.

Moreover, it could prove to be the most meaningful class the students involved ever take.

To answer what he refers to as an “original sin,” Williams proposes a path to “redemption.” Though he does not frame redemption in a particularly Christian way, his argument is nevertheless rich with not-so-subtle theological overtones and vocabulary. Racists, as Williams notes, “cannot be eradicated by an expulsion.” In other words, if we want to root out racism from society, racists will need something more than punitive measures. As Christians, we know that racists will need Jesus – even as all sinners need Jesus. And racists will need followers of Jesus who are willing both to stand up against them and to seek the transformation of them.

One student’s words on last Monday’s NBC Nightly News broadcast express my hope for the students of Sigma Alpha Epsilon: “I want this to be a rehabilitory time for them.”[5] I hope it is. Because although the First Amendment may be able to defend them legally, it’s only Jesus who can change them internally. And it’s only Jesus who can heal people left broken by these students’ words relationally. So let’s lift our eyes to that hope. After a week like this last one, it’s a hope that we need.

_________________________

[1] Chris Cillizza, “A single photo that tells the powerful story of the 50th anniversary of Selma,” The Washington Post (3.7.2015).

[2] Matt Pearce, “Is University of Oklahoma frat’s racist chant protected by 1st Amendment?Los Angeles Times (3.10.2015).

[3] Terrence McCoy, “Why expelled Oklahoma frat boys would have an ‘excellent chance’ in court,” The Washington Post (3.11.2015).

[4] Byron Williams, “It’s Not Unconstitutional to Be Racist,” The Huffington Post (3.11.2015).

[5] NBC Nightly News, Lester Holt reporting (3.9.2015).

March 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Subpoenaing Sermons

Credit: houstonmatters.org

Credit: houstonmatters.org

“Show us your sermons.” This was the message of the City of Houston to five area pastors. Last May, Houston’s City Council passed an equal rights ordinance prohibiting “any type of discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy”[1] among private and public employers. Almost immediately, those in faith communities and even in some businesses raised concerns. Will this limit a pastor’s ability to address issues such as same-sex marriage and gender identity in his sermons? Could a business be sued for refusing to allow a transgender person to use the restroom of the gender with which that person identifies, even if that identity does not match up with his or her assigned gender?

Opponents of the ordinance rallied and gathered some 500,000 signatures in an effort to repeal it, but the validity of the signatures was called into question and the ordinance was not repealed. This is when things got really contentious. As The Washington Post reports:

A group of Christians sued the city. In response, city attorneys issued subpoenas to five local pastors during the case’s discovery phase, though the five pastors were not involved in the lawsuit.

The subpoenas sought “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession,” according to the Houston Chronicle.[2]

The City subpoenaed sermons. And people were furious. Indeed, when several national news outlets picked up on this story, the City had to change course.  Mayor Parker announced last Friday that the City would narrow the scope of the subpoena and City Attorney David Feldman admitted, “When I looked at [the subpoena] I felt it was overly broad, I would not have worded it that way myself … It’s unfortunate that it has been construed as some effort to infringe upon religious liberty.”[3]

So what are we to make of all this?

On the one hand, as Eugene Volokh of The Washington Post notes, the City, by all reasonable standards, overreached and needs to be called to account:

I don’t quite see how “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession” would be relevant to the litigation about the validity of the referendum petitions.

At the very least, the subpoena seems vastly overbroad. And the fact that it seeks the contents of religious speeches does counsel in favor of making the subpoena as narrow as possible (which would likewise be the case if it sought the contents of political speeches). I’m not sure what sort of legally relevant information might be contained in the subpoenaed sermons. But the subpoena ought to be narrowed to that legally relevant information, not to all things about homosexuality, gender identity, the mayor, or even the petition or the ordinance.[4]

On the other hand, if these pastors were indeed “using the pulpit to do political organizing … [by] encouraging congregation members to sign petitions and help gather signatures for equal rights ordinance foes,”[5] as the City Attorney suggests, even if such conduct is Constitutionally permissible, theologically, this kind of political posturing can compromise the integrity of the Office of the Ministry and can actually impugn the Church’s witness on the moral and ethical issues of our day. Charles Colson explains why:

Because it tempts one to water down the truth of the gospel, ideological alignment, whether on the left or the right, accelerates the church’s secularization. When the Church aligns itself politically, it gives priority to the compromises and temporal successes of the political world rather than its Christian confession of eternal truth.[6]

When pastors try to address concerns that are, at their heart, theological by using political means like petitions, theology can all too readily and quickly – even if unknowingly – get sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.  We need to be careful we don’t compromise our witness for the sake of cynical political gain.

Make no mistake about it:  I do not believe City of Houston officials should, in any way, shape, form, or fashion critique or try silence what pastors preach.  Such actions are beyond their purview of their vocations.  But as a Christian, I also believe that what the Church and her pastors have to say about human sexuality and gender identity is best said from the Word of God and not with a petition.

So, to the pastors who have been subpoenaed, I say: rather than looking at these subpoenas as infringements on your rights, consider them opportunities for ministry (cf. Ephesians 5:15-16). City Hall – even if the wording of the subpoena has now been changed – has invited you to send in your sermons. So do so! Inundate City Hall with the sermons from God’s Word – and not just with sermons where you happen to mention sex or gender. Send in as many of your sermons as you can. While you’re at it, include a charitable note indicating that you are praying for your leaders and praying that your sermons will be a blessing to them.

Remember, with God’s Word comes God’s promise: “My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire” (Isaiah 55:11). The preaching of God’s Word can do more than a petition could ever hope to accomplish. A petition can win a political war. God’s Word can change a human heart.

Which sounds better to you?

_______________________________

[1] City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-530.

[2] Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Houston subpoenas pastors’ sermons in gay rights ordinance case,” The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[3]Houston Backtracks on Church Subpoenas,” ktrh.com (10.15.2014).

[4] Eugene Volokh, “Is it constitutional for a court to enforce a subpoena of ministers’ sermons?The Washington Post (10.15.2014).

[5] Jacob Gershman, “Houston Mayor Says City’s Sermon Subpoenas Came as a Surprise,” The Wall Street Journal (10.15.2014).

[6] Charles Colson in Render Unto Caesar…and Unto God: A Lutheran View of Church and State, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (September 1995), 60.

October 20, 2014 at 5:15 am 4 comments

Michael Sam Makes It Public

Credit: cnn.com

Credit: cnn.com

“Does the NFL have any gay players?” my wife asked me last Sunday.  She was watching a Hallmark Valentine movie where one of the characters, an NFL quarterback, came out as homosexual.  “No, sweetie,” I responded.  “The NFL does not have any openly gay players.  There have been some players who have come out after they left the NFL, but to date, no players currently in the NFL are openly homosexual.”

It didn’t take long for that to change.

The next morning, while I was working out and watching ESPN, there was Michael Sam, former Missouri Defensive End and candidate in the NFL draft, coming out on national TV as a gay football player.   “I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”  Granted, Sam is not an NFL player…yet.  But his prospects are good.

I am surprised – pleasantly so – by how muted the negative response to Sam’s announcement has been.  Some journalists have hinted that responses could turn negative, but to date there is no swell of detractors decrying Sam as a dangerous degenerate.  By the same token, those who are writing and speaking about him are hailing him as a hero.  Brendon Ayanbadejo, a former linebacker who is currently a free agent, was effusive about Sam’s announcement, comparing him to Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks.  To cap off his feelings concerning Sam, he said, “To borrow from Neil Amstrong, this is one small step for gay men and one giant leap for the LGBTQ community.”[1]  Juliet Macur of the New York Times wrote a manifesto demanding that an NFL team draft Sam.  She begins by writing, “It’s time,” and ends by declaring, “Sam must be drafted. It’s time to move forward. The teams and the league are on the clock.”[2]  For Macur, Sam’s status as a future NFL star is not a matter of his talent, but of a moral imperative that says the NFL must have an openly gay player.

For orthodox Christians, all of this can be hard to sort out.  On the one hand, there is something to be celebrated here.  It is refreshing to see so many display a measured sensitivity to and deep compassion for those with same-sex attractions and those in same-sex relationships.  The gay slurs, gay jokes, and gay bashing of yesteryear have drastically dissipated and, for my part, I say, “Good riddance.”  Such speech is diametrically opposed to the biblical command to love, which Paul says is the fulfillment and summation of all biblical commandments (cf. Romans 13:8-9).  On the other hand, Christians cannot pretend that our society’s sexual free-for-all, which demands not only the toleration of, but the celebration of sexual practices that are far from biblical standards for human sexuality, is nothing more than an issue of civil rights.  Whether it’s Michael Sam touting his homosexuality or Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin exchanging texts about how many women they have slept with and the use of prostitutes,[3] the spacious sexual ethic of our society is simply not something Christians can endorse.  Partly because it’s immoral and Scripturally forbidden, yes.  But also because it hurts, belittles, and objectifies people, which, in and of itself, is tragic, no matter what your ethical worldview.

Ultimately, the loose sexual standards of our society are nothing new.  The path of sexual salaciousness is well worn – not only in twenty-first century America, but in all the societies that have come before her.  But we can choose a different path.  We can choose the path of sexual commitment in marriage while walking “humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).  I pray that we do.  For when we do, we not only live out God’s sexual standard in our commitments, we show God’s lavish love by our humility.


[1] Mike Foss, “Ex-NFL player: Draft prospect who came out is like Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks,” USA Today (2.10.2014).

[2] Juliet Macur, “It’s Time for the N.F.L. to Welcome a Gay Player,” New York Times (2.9.2014).

[3] Adam H. Beasley, “Texts shed light on relationship between Miami Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito,” Miami Herald (2.5.2014).

February 17, 2014 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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