In 1963, William Stringfellow - movement theologian, Sojourners mentor, and gay man - had the following to say about mainline churches who were pondering whether to join the struggle for African-American civil rights:
The issue here...is not some common spiritual values, nor natural law, nor middle axioms. The issue is baptism. The issue is the unity of all humanity wrought by God in the life and work of Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of that unity of all human life in God.
We hear these words anew in the present moment in light of the contemporary public debate over same-sex marriage.
Events in recent months have highlighted same-sex marriage as an issue of full inclusion in both church and society. We receive this as a kind of kairos moment for Christian disciples, specifically those like ourselves who enjoy heterosexual privilege (including the rights of marriage), to act in public solidarity with gays and lesbians, particularly those in the faith, too long shunted to the margin.
Since, as generally practiced in this country, marriage uniquely intersects church and state, this issue raises the question of equal justice for lesbian and gay persons simultaneously in both spheres. With respect to the state, marriage is a legal contract bearing a whole range of rights and obligations to which gays and lesbians should rightly expect equal access and equal protection. With respect to the church, marriage is a sacramental act, a covenant of grace, a vow of fidelity witnessed before God and community. Gay and lesbian Christians called to marriage need and deserve ecclesial resources of blessing and support to fulfill their commitment.
Many good folk will be tempted by what Stringfellow called "middle axioms," specifically recent attempts to preclude marriage for gays and lesbians while allowing "civil unions." This position stops well short of full civil rights, echoing ominously the old "separate but equal" logic. More important, it hedges on the full inclusion of lesbian and gay Christians in the faith community, limiting their access to pastoral resources and the full sacramental life of the church - not to mention suppressing their gifts and ministries. It is such exclusion that threatens the meaning of our baptism.
Biblically, baptism signals commitment to the discipleship practice of Jesus, including communion and solidarity with "the least," the marginal, and the excluded. It names the one humanity forged in Christ's flesh, where the "dividing wall of hostility" has been broken down, abolishing the "laws and traditions" that have separated us (Ephesians 2:14f). It embodies that new reconciled human community.
The transformative power and practice of baptism suggests that our churches would be leading the way to justice through full inclusion of gay and lesbian people. Obviously, however, this has not been the case. But neither was it with respect to the struggle for racial justice and inclusion about which Stringfellow wrote. This painful legacy ought to instruct us regarding the present issue, since constraints on marriage were also fundamental to American apartheid. Under chattel slavery, African Americans were forbidden marriage and so developed alternative rituals, such as "jumping over the broom," to mark their extra-legal covenants. And it was not until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that mixed-race couples were guaranteed marriage rights!
Just months after Stringfellow's remarks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from the Birmingham city jail. He was responding to the "moderate" pastors who had publicly named him as an extremist and identified his ongoing civil rights campaign as "untimely and unwise." Fully half of that famous epistle is devoted to King's anguished love for the church and his grave disappointment in those "more committed to 'order' than to justice." He embraced the charge of extremism, joining himself with the company of Amos as an extremist for justice, of Paul as an extremist for the gospel, and of Jesus as an extremist for love.
The same dynamics are now in play regarding civil and ecclesial marriage rights for lesbian and gay citizens and disciples. We believe that it is not enough to recognize in hindsight that the exclusions of the past were "obviously" wrong; we are called to practice foresight into a future where "liberty and justice for all" is fully realized. Faith is, after all, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).
The real issue once again here is baptism - and the discipleship and inclusive justice that flow from it.
Bill Wylie Kellermann, a United Methodist pastor, works with the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education in Detroit. Ched Myers works with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in Los Angeles. For a more detailed discussion of these points, please go to http://www.bcm-net.org/ta_articles.html.
P.O.V. articles offer a range of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners.