A reflection on a haunting phrase from the marriage equality arguments at the Supreme Court and a call for the church to do what it does best: restore dignity to those experiencing unworthiness, through the love of Jesus Christ.
The oral arguments in the court case that could possibly lead to nationwide marriage equality took place recently at the Supreme Court of the United States of America. Listening to them, there was one phrase that keeps haunting me.
Lawyer Mary Bonauto, arguing for legalization of same-gender marriage, made the following point:
If the legal commitment, responsibility, and protection that is marriage is off-limits to gay people as a class, the stain of unworthiness that follows on individuals and families contravenes the basic constitutional commitment to equal dignity.
The stain of unworthiness. What a haunting phrase.
And in my experience, since the Church has consistently chosen to remove the stain of unworthiness in so many aspects of humanity, I wonder why it has a hard time with this one.
Removing the Stain…
The Church is typically really good about removing the sense of unworthiness from people.
About five years ago, I was traveling with a wise elder minister. We drove through a town and saw two different churches side by side. The United Methodist church ran a clothing store where clothing was sold for 25 cents, jeans for $1, shoes for $2, etc. The other church advertised free clothes, jeans, and shoes. Neither was open at that time in the evening so I had no idea of which was busier.
My travel companion and I had the following conversation:
Me: Well, I hope the Methodists don’t get put outta business.
Elder (craning her neck to see the churches): I would hope so, because that means that everyone is clothed and taken care of.
Me: I meant that the other church is giving clothes away while the UM church is selling their clothes. Seems like an easy choice.
Elder (twinkle in her eye): You think the UM church is selling clothes? They aren’t. Anytime you can buy something and feel a bit more like the rest of the world, you are getting dignity in the deal. So they aren’t selling clothes. They’re selling dignity.
Whether it is a thrift store for clothes, vouchers sold for the homeless shelter, a meal for a few cents, or putting 18 cents in an offering plate, by allowing people experiencing poverty to participate in the very system that excludes them gives them a little dignity. Giving dignity clears out that stain of unworthiness a bit at a time. What a great gift and ministry!
Harder to Claim Responsibility
Honestly, that type of ministry is easier for the Church to handle because they didn’t stain them. For the most part, unless they were taken by a Prosperity Gospel megachurch or snake-oil preacher, the church didn’t cause them to experience poverty. They didn’t put society’s stain of unworthiness on them.
But when it comes to equal marriage and consideration for ordained ministry in various segments of Christianity…the Church did it.
- We claimed homosexuality was a sin.
- We advocated for the Defense of Marriage.
- We paid vast sums to promote constitutional amendments to ban marriage.
- We wrote explicitly into our books of Doctrine that same-gender marriages would not be recognized, and that LGBT ministers would be excluded and defrocked.
The stain of unworthiness came from the Church, originating from thousands of years of conflating actions with orientations when reading the biblical account.
In my United Methodist tradition, we used to put the stain of unworthiness on people groups.
- Women were unworthy to be preachers based on our collective reading of Scripture and our tradition. After a long time, we removed that stain and gave every gender the stainless white garment of ordination.
- We did the same with African-Americans, ordaining their clergy, but relegating their service to a separate-but-equal circuit of churches because they were unworthy to serve white churches. After a few decades, we removed that stain and gave the stainless garment of ordination to all races called to serve.
And so it will be with LGBT persons, once the Church owns that we put the stain there in the first place and it needs to be removed.
The Stained Woman…
When the hemorrhaging woman approached Jesus and desperately touched his cloak after a lifetime of uncleanliness, exclusion, and the very definition of stain, Jesus said a special word–one that he is never recorded as using for anyone else. He calls the woman “Daughter.” The familial bond that Jesus implies is a portent of the Body of Christ that all believers now share as brothers, sisters, sons, daughters in Christ. And he said it to the most stained woman there was–not objectively, but as defined by the purity culture in Jewish society.
What will it take for the Church to own that we stain people just like the Pharisees did?
At a recent gathering of church people, an LGBT minister found the worship service to be exclusionary and painful. She had to get up from her seat and stand in the back of the room. Another participant said that people in the church service would crane their necks to look at her and whispered to each other at the seeming oddity of the situation.
I wonder if one of the comments (that I’ve heard before in other contexts) was “What kind of broken person can’t even worship God anymore?”
If so, I wish I was there to say in return “The kind the Church broke.”
…Now a Daughter
Jesus calls us to break through society’s boundaries and seek restoration and dignity for all those who experience the stain of unworthiness. May we remember that Jesus’ call to love began by calling a woman “daughter” and beginning a movement that would see her as unstained, centuries later. LGBT persons today experience that same call to follow Christ and serve through committed relationships and dedicated ordained service, and yet the stain of unworthiness placed by the Church in society and the church remains.
May this removal of this particular stain of unworthiness begin with us.