Pastoral Letter Extended 2: Perspectives and Perceptions

This is the second of a series of posts expanding on my Pastoral Letter post based on my sermon from June 28th. In my last post, I spoke to people who have trouble understanding why some think that the recent US Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage is a big deal. In this post, I’m addressing those who do consider it a big deal and struggle to understand the perspectives of others, including other Christians.

We must understand the perspectives of others assessing this situation from different vantage points.

It’s clear to everyone who’s been paying attention that there are a lot of different opinions on the subject of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. I can’t address the nuances of each, but I’d like to give attention to three general perspectives that are important for us to understand and engage in a Godly way. That means that, instead of talking past or over them, we need to wrestle honestly with what they’re saying and why, and we must interact with them lovingly and critically, being diligent to invite Biblical truth to shed light on the subject.

As we do that, it’s critical for us to remember, though, that perception does not dictate reality. We have to engage with these perceptions, but that doesn’t mean that we have to believe them ourselves.

This is a triumph.

It’s understandable why so many would rejoice over this most recent ruling. For many, this stands as a moral apex in American history. They perceive this as a monumental victory in the long-waged war for equal rights and dignity for every human in America. And it’s not an abstract debate for most. It’s about the rights and dignity of brothers, sisters, roommates, parents and best friends. They celebrate alongside of and on on behalf of people who have loved, cared for, and inspired them. This collective relief has been intensified by movement toward the removal of the rebel flag from South Carolina following the horrible shootings there.

For many in our society, these are signs of hard-won victory on the horizon. It is a glimmer of hope for those who genuinely believe that these decisions point toward the sunset of oppression and inequality in two foundational arenas. If they’re right about what this moment means, then they’re absolutely right to celebrate it. We should agree on that level. We ought always to rejoice over justice and flourishing in our world. Our fundamental dissent, though, lies deeper. We don’t agree about what this moment means, and we don’t agree about the nature and source of true flourishing. As responsible citizens, stewards of rationality, and Christians, we are called to appraise every perception honestly without taking for granted that it represents reality. We are responsible to engage with perceptions, not believe them.

This will strengthen marriage.

Many of our *Liberal Christian neighbors sincerely believe that this redefinition of marriage will strengthen the institution of marriage, which ought to be celebrated. I’ve had several conversations with local church leaders, including the President of the Wisconsin Council of Churches (WCC), who was also the first openly gay ordained Presbyterian minister with the PC(USA). He very strongly believes that the dissolution of marriage is the most important social problem in America. Many conservative Christians may be surprised to find that common ground.

While we may agree that there is a problem, though, we disagree about how to solve that problem. Many Liberal Christians believe that same-sex marriage will help marriage rather than hurt it, because it welcomes an entire demographic into marriage that has been excluded until now. By making marriage more inclusive, they suppose, we will see a shift away from unmarried co-habitation of committed couples, moving toward committed monogamous marriages. They expect that this will ultimately strengthen marriage and re-establish its centrality in families, the most important building-block of society.

We may not agree with that conclusion, but we cannot afford to be ignorant of their view. If we are going to have meaningful conversations with our neighbors, we must learn to speak with and to them rather than speaking past them.

This is life.

Lastly, we must learn from the voices of our brothers and sisters around the world. Most global Christians have never held the illusion that their government and their faith are co-supportive. Most Christians in the world have always lived in a dangerous tension between the gospel and the State. When we complain that our government is less and less supportive of Christian values, it likely won’t elicit the kind of commiseration we might expect from our global family.

As American Christians, we have long enjoyed the residual effects of the Christian ideology which played a significant role in the foundation of our nation state. This has bred in us the illusion that our government and culture support the life and purposes of the Church. Now, as we perceive that foundation eroding, our lamenting cries, even if they are legitimate, seem strange to the ears of our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultural and political situations. Few Christians in world history have ever been able to sustain for so long the illusion that their government is on the same side as Jesus Christ.

For that reason, most Christians in the world are not going to be particularly sympathetic to us. Same-sex marriage was officially legalized in all of Canada a decade ago. Christian assembly and practice have been restricted in areas of the world since the resurrection of Christ. There are people in Syria and Iraq right now who are being beheaded, burned alive, crucified, and disemboweled, and government opposition to Christianity has been a reality for most world Christians for years, decades, generations, or longer. They may grieve along with us, but they may not be particularly sympathetic to our cries. We need to realize that. As we are forced to renegotiate our expectations about the relationship between faith and government, we will have much to learn from the church outside of America.,

* I use the term “Liberal Christian” not in reference to any political ideology. Rather, I use it in the theological sense, referring to the belief that we need perpetually to redefine Christian doctrines to fit modern cultural norms. With this definition, I don’t think formal Liberal Christianity is truly Christian.

Feel free to comment below. Please be respectful and use appropriate language so the dialogue can continue.

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