Today, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that, under the 14th Amendment, it is legal for same-sex couples in all states to be married under the law. This landmark case has made it so that states can no longer ban couples from marrying on the basis of gender and orientation. Love, as the rallying cry goes, has been made legal today across our nation.
Last summer in the Presbyterian Church (USA), our General Assembly voted to affirm same-sex marriage. What this means varies from church to church- our denomination is large and diverse. But that vote and today’s SCOTUS decision show us that the question of how our churches should address marriage equality, and how we talk about the LGBTQIA community in general, is of pressing importance.
“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Romans 15:7, NRSV
Whether we’ve known it or not, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have always been an important and vital part of our communities, and this includes our churches. However, the way which church folks have often talked about LGBTQIA people has and continues to be woefully inadequate. In light of today’s victory for human rights and equality, we must challenge ourselves to think about how oft-used rhetorical devices actually increase alienation and estrangement rather than promoting authentic hospitality and community.
“We accept all kinds of people in our church.” “We are tolerant of gay people.” “Everyone is welcome to worship with us.” “We love the sinner.”
These are all examples of statements that sound hospitable but carry loaded meanings for LGBTQIA people trying to find a church home. Acceptance and tolerance may sound like nice concepts, but the unspoken “in spite of…” is still heard by those on the outside looking in. “Welcome to worship” is often code for “but not welcome to serve in a position of leadership or to preach or to even become a member.” And “loving the sinner,” a familiar turn of phrase from the axiom “love the sinner, hate the sin,” is, at best, a duplicitous attempt at parceling a person’s identity, as if “what one does” and “who one is” can be separated into neat little boxes, and at worst, an attempt at sanitizing hate in a “polite” way.
Acceptance, and rhetoric of its ilk, is deceiving in that it appears to be inclusive but doesn’t have to be. Strings are easily attached- we accept you, but not your “sin.” Or it can indicate a last resort, a defeated, hands-thrown-in-the-air acceptance in the absence of a willingness (or, more accurately, ability) to change. Acceptance and “tolerance” might once have sounded like enough, but as rhetorical devices they allow space for judgement and yes, hatred, in the guise of hospitality. They allow enough room to question whether the people supposedly being welcomed and accepted are truly children of God and equal to straight people, and whether they are fully able to live as a Christian and be gay or lesbian or transgender.
Our language is extremely important; the words we say have material consequences. The way we welcome others matters, to the marginalized and to God. Jesus was not merely tolerant of the marginalized in his community. He did not declare his companions “sinners” before he sat down to dine with the oppressed of his time. In fact, Jesus did not say “love the sinner.” Jesus said “love your neighbor,” knowing that our neighbors are everyone. And the example of hospitality that Jesus gave was one of no-holds-barred, authentic love and welcome. Jesus did not label people (that was the Pharisees), Jesus named people in their full dignity and in the image of God. His ministry was characterized by its openness to the marginalized of society, a clear slap in the face to the religious leaders of the day who used Scripture to exclude and judge.
There is no love without full, no-strings-attached inclusion.
This is what the General Assembly affirmed by voting to allow marriage equality in our churches and for ordaining gay, lesbian, and bisexual clergy within our denomination. And it is what we must do in our own congregations if we want to practice the radical hospitality of Christ.
A rhetoric of love in our congregations will look like affirmation, not merely acceptance. It will look like this:
When we say we affirm you, we mean that we see you. We hear you. We recognize who you are and we celebrate you, as you have been created in the image of God. Your identity, every part of it, is a reflection of your full humanity before God.
The rhetoric of love extends to the affirmation of marriage between loving partners. It recognizes the truth and realness of these marriages and families in our churches and sees them as nothing short of beautiful and sanctified by God.
This is true welcome and true hospitality. To affirm one another in Christ, recognizing in each of our identities the God-in-us and using a rhetoric of love to welcome people to God’s church, as Christ has welcomed us. Our church, reformed and always reforming, must continue to be open and let our words and minds be transformed by God’s love. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that death and life are in the power of the tongue. So let us choose life and a rhetoric of love.