TIME Religion

Dear Christians: Stop Opposing Obama’s Ban on LGBTQ Job Discrimination

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama, during a reception to observe LGBT Pride Month in the East Room of the White House in Washington D.C. on June 30, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP

People of faith asked the President for special permission to discriminate. That is simply theologically indefensible.

I grew up in a deeply Christian family in Oklahoma, the heartland of America. We went to church three times a week and felt our faith required us to be good citizens and good neighbors. I was taught to believe, from the time I could speak, that every human being on the face of this earth is a child of God and deserving of my respect and care. I also learned about the good things Christians had done in our country. They led charge against slavery and then segregation. They were at the forefront of the women’s rights struggle, the labor movement, and the fight against child labor. The list goes on.

For these reasons, I applauded President Obama’s announcement that he would issue an executive order banning job discrimination among federal employees on the basis of gender identity. As an ordained Christian minister and president of Union Theological Seminary, I felt a combination of pride in my visionary country and joy in my Christian heart. It was so very, very right.

The president’s order is a laudable step toward making the country safer for a community that has, for too long, lived in fear. As a Christian, I believe we should resolutely celebrate this decision.

I was therefore devastated when I learned yesterday that a group of prominent faith leaders—my brothers and sisters in Christ—had asked that the President include a religious exemption in his forthcoming executive order. In other words, they asked that people of faith be given special permission to discriminate.

I was saddened, I was embarrassed, I was appalled. The faith that fought for justice for so many is now being used to justify injustice. The faith community that taught me to never throw stones was asking that Christians have a special permission to throw stones if they wanted. It’s simply theologically indefensible.

Clinton Global Citizen Award winner Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, currently a visiting scholar here at Union, has dealt with official government discrimination in his home country of Uganda. He has put his life on the line time and again protecting LGBTQ rights. He has long looked to America as a beacon of justice and hope in this area. As he put it, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, to the oppressed and if our theologies are discriminatory then they are wrong. As people of faith we should be exemplary, not exempted.

I do not support a religious exemption that permits Christians to behave worse than their fellow citizens, and the president should not include it.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. She tweets online at @SereneJones.

TIME Religion

Union Becomes the World’s First Seminary to Divest from Fossil Fuels

New York's Union Theological Seminary--home to famed theologians Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as a $108.4 million endowment--will be the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels.

At Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, we have a particular call to live out our values in the world. In accordance with that call, our Board of Trustees voted unanimously today to begin divesting the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, becoming the first seminary in the world to take this dramatic step in the fight against global climate change.

As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that “the wages of sin is death,” and this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels. As vulnerable communities have been swallowed by rising shorelines, as potable water has become a commodity of increasing rarity, as hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by violent weather, it is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing—or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.

This concerns us deeply, and we are actively committed to finding new ways to participate in healing our wounded creation. We believe that the divestment of our endowment from fossil fuel companies is one small step in this direction.

This was not an easy decision for us. We depend on our endowment to support Union’s educational mission, and are committed to ensuring that our endowment can continue to support needed scholarships and faculty positions.

Fortunately, we can do this and remain fiscally responsible to our students, staff, faculty, and members of the Union community. We were heartened to learn that over the past two decades, a portfolio that had left out fossil fuel companies would have returned, on average, only six tenths of one percent less. This is a small financial loss when compared to the importance of our moral statement.

We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat. That said, it is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment, and on theological grounds that we trust it matters. The Christian term for this reckless hope in the power of God to use our decisions of conscience to transform the world is resurrection, and I have faith in the power of resurrection.

In addition to our divestment and campus sustainability efforts, Union will host a conference in the days leading up to the United Nations’ Climate Summit in September called Religions for the Earth (religionsfortheearth.org). The event will culminate in an interfaith service and will be held in partnership with GreenFaith, the Interfaith Center of New York, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace. We know that the effort to care for the earth must be an interreligious, global one, and we at Union look forward to hosting continuing conversations about the role of faith communities the movement to combat climate change.

Yet these efforts do not mark the end of our obligation to be faithful stewards of the earth. Certainly, there is more work to be done, by Union and by all people of conscience.

I hope our decision to divest encourages other seminaries and universities to recognize that there are things we can do as a country and as a people to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions. For Christians, sin is the word that describes anything that prevents us from having a faithful relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation.

We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union. All of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. She tweets online at @SereneJones.

TIME Religion

The Economy Is More Important Than Fighting Over Evolution

An evolutionist went fly-fishing with Tea Partiers, and they had more in common than she thought.

Last week, the New York Times reported that yet another Christian school—this time Tennessee’s Bryan College—is embroiled in a debate about the instruction of evolution on its campus. As a theologian, pastor, and seminary president I believe in evolution, and we certainly don’t teach creationism here at Union Theological Seminary. I also know that for this and many other issues you can’t just go to the Bible and find a passage that tells you exactly what to think.

However, reading the article left me feeling confused. Why, almost a century after the Scopes trial, are Christians still fighting about evolution—an issue wholly unrelated to Jesus’ gospel charge—while ignoring the egregious sin of systemic wealth inequality? When it comes to economic justice and the abolition of poverty, you don’t need any interpretive tools to approach the Christian Scriptures. Each page in our Holy Book addresses economic realities and makes clear to those gathered under the gracious arms of God what kind of world we should seek: a world where there is no poverty. It is not ambiguous.

Since I was three years-old, my family and I have jigsawed ourselves into the proverbial station wagon every summer and driven into the wilderness for three weeks of fly fishing. This past summer, I couldn’t find anyone who would agree to go along, and—mostly because I needed the kind of soul renewal that comes with it—I decided I was going to do it by myself. I signed up to go twenty miles into the Bob Marshall Wilderness on horseback with a group of people I didn’t know to fly fish for 10 days. We were an amazing, offbeat coterie and we got to know each other really well, really quickly. It wasn’t until the third day that I accidentally found out that everyone in the group was a member of the Tea Party.

There was great laughter when everyone realized that I had discovered it. They confessed that they quickly realized I was a liberal Yankee. What struck me most about our conversations around issues of economics was that the language and concerns that were spoken did not, on the whole, sound very different at all from those that I hear from my students here at Union, one of the most socially and politically progressive seminaries in the country. During Occupy Wall Street, 62 students went down from Union to Zuccotti Park, set up their tents, built their camp fires, and lived there for three months to bear witness to their desire for a new economic reality.

Among my new Tea Party friends and my long-beloved students, I heard three things passionately echo over and over again, with little discrepancy.

First, there is a shared conviction that the economic system in which we presently live is completely corrupt, and that Wall Street and the leaders of corporate America are not concerned about the flourishing of common people.

Second, there is a deep concern about the failure of our political system to work on behalf of the United States citizenry. Both Tea Partiers and Occupiers demand a government that is truly of the people, not one that merely masquerades as such.

Third, there is an anxiety about the destruction of the values of community—the values that mark how we care for our children; how we decide what we eat; how we build homes for ourselves; and how we constitute communities where we feel safe.

I travel with a flyer in my pocket that I was able to pull out several more days into the trip and share with them. It’s called the Freedom Budget for All Americans, drafted in 1966 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute in Atlanta under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin. This manifesto for economic change reminds me of the work ahead.

“We are budgeting our resources,” it says, “so that our nation can achieve freedom from want.” It’s not a complicated socialist or communist vision: guaranteed full employment, full production and high economic growth, an adequate minimum wage, farm income parity, guaranteed income for all who are unable to work, a decent home for every American family, modern health services for all, full educational opportunities for all, updated social security and welfare programs, equitable tax and money policies. It’s a Christian vision of economic justice in which people thrive because their basic human needs are met.

It is startling that fifty years later we have not—on a national level—taken steps toward the realization of any of these desires. In fact, in some areas, we’ve moved backwards. We must be better.

Perhaps what we need are more fly fishing moments, where our perceptions are challenged and we glimpse the possibility of a movement. Anything less than the abolition of poverty is too costly.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. This piece is adapted from one of her recent sermons, preached at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. She tweets online at @SereneJones.

TIME Religion

What North Carolina Gets Wrong About Same-Sex Marriages

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Civil Partnership Bob Thomas—Getty Images

Preventing ministers from performing same-sex marriages is more than unconstitutional--it's sacrilegious

Earlier this week the United Church of Christ, in which I am an ordained minister, filed a lawsuit in North Carolina defending their churches’ right to the free exercise of religion, specifically for their clergies’ right to officiate at the marriages of same-sex couples.

I couldn’t be prouder. What an amazing act of Christian witness.

As a UCC minister, I officiated at my first same-sex ceremony more than 25 years ago, at a time when not a single one of our United States sanctified such unions. I was aware it wasn’t “legal,” but that didn’t matter. I was doing it because I deeply believed that God wanted me and my church to do it. As a devoted reader of the Bible and as a seminary theology professor, I also believed that Christian scriptures and theological doctrines strongly supported it.

In 2014, I still feel this way, even more so. The sharing of the sacred covenant vows of marriage—making a deep commitment to love and care for each other for a life-time, and to use the gifts of that love to strengthen the couples’ ability to care for others and love God—is a key feature of Christian life and community.

Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t fear that the State of Connecticut would throw me in jail for this Christian act. But today, if I performed the same ceremony in North Carolina, I’d face up to 120 days in prison for presiding over a religious service that is in complete accordance with my denomination’s rites, its theology, and sanctioned practices.

This is not just unfortunate, it’s unconstitutional. Even more, it is deeply offensive to me and to the millions of my Christian brothers and sisters who share my theology.

The State of North Carolina is sadly mistaken if it thinks such legislation will stop people from following the commands of their faith. If any same-sex couple wants to get married in North Carolina, call me. I’ll happily face the consequences, and I know many other clergy in the state who are ready to as well. The Christian line is long!

When you know its God’s work you’re doing, you’re willing to face whatever persecution comes, whether its lions, the cross, or North Carolina police.

The fact that this is happening in North Carolina is symptomatic, for me, of how not just one state but also our whole country has lost track of what really matters. Family, love, community, caring for neighbors, peace, grace. These are my core Christian values. So what am I to think when good Christians are threatened with prison for wanting to participate in the sacred Christian ritual of marriage, while at the same time a so-called Christian leader publically takes the sacred ritual of baptism and blasphemes it by using it to describe torture?

This is sacrilegious.

Likewise, what are Christians to think when they see political leaders fighting for the freedom to carry weapons while also fighting against the religious freedom to marriage? You can take your guns to church and lay them on the altar but you can’t stand before the altar and marry the person you love?

It’s a moral outrage.

In my life as a minister, I have officiated and celebrated at numerous marriage ceremonies. The love, joy, and wonder I see and experience in and through same-sex unions equals—in fact, often surpasses—that in so-called “traditional” marriages. What we call traditional marriage is itself not a very Biblical notion, in fact. But what’s is clearly and truly biblical is God’s commandment that we love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves.

What God has joined together, let no one, not even the State of North Carolina, put asunder.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World.

TIME society

Selling Social Justice Short

What are we to do in a world where corporations have assumed the voice of social justice?

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This Super Bowl season we’ve learned that social justice is in fashion. It sells. It sells Coke, it sells cars, and it sells us short.

So it begins, imagine it with me. The loud roar of the ocean, waves crashing across the screen. Then the small child-like voice of an African American girl speaks. We see her awakening in her bed in the morning light, and she narrates to us the story of the little ones.

“The world is full of giants,” she begins, “they have always been here. We had to learn how to overcome them.” We see on the screen an inner city alley. We see mountains and we see a shadow fall across them. “As long as we keep our heads down. As long as we work hard. Trust what we feel in our guts, our hearts. Then we’re ready.” We see workers in steel mills, on boats, fighting fires, in wheat fields. A ballerina tying her shoe.

“We wait until they get sleepy. Wait until they get so big they can barely move.” We see Wall Street, we see skyscrapers, we see the center of finance. “Then we walk out of the shadows, quietly walk out of the dark, and strike.”

A roar fills the frame, giants fall, a system crashes, and our power becomes incarnate in… Fiat’s new Maserati Ghibli. For $67,000, it’s all yours.

The same day this Super Bowl ad premiered, the New York Times reported that since the recession “ended” in 2009, the top 5% of people in this country have increased their spending by almost 20%. The bottom 95% have found their role in the market flat or declining.

Bob Dylan, with his folk protest blues playing in the background — Bob Dylan! — tells us we should buy Chrysler. An interracial couple sits around a breakfast table with their biracial child, using Cheerios to tell her about a new baby on the way. Coca-Cola paints a picture of our nation with “America the Beautiful” so diverse, that some in the Tea Party are planning a boycott of Coke. Go Coke.

And finally, Morpheus from the Matrix, a revolutionary leader who resists the colonization of all thought by the oppressive machine of illusion and consumption asks us to choose the blue car keys or the red car keys. Luxury will never be the same.

If this year’s Super Bowl advertisements allow us to see what the brightest advertising minds in the world think will sell, then a progressive, diverse, revolutionary, little-ones-unite spirit is alive in our land. And it’s being used to sell the things that will make us free: Coke, cars, beer, nutritionally empty food, and more cars.

What are we to do in a world where corporations have assumed the voice of social justice? As a pastor and president of Union Theological Seminary, I worry that the voice of the liberating Jesus, the savior, the lover, the world-transforming vision-maker, the embracer of our world’s real little ones, has been co-opted by major corporations to sell us things. They have come in through the front gate and we are following them, not like those seeking life abundant, but as sheep led to the slaughter.

These commercials work because they paint existentially compelling pictures. They show us things that we really want, good things, connection and love and meaning and beauty. But they are tied to products, and we are led to believe that in buying them, we will feed our deepest selves.

But we know they won’t. There’s no pleasure in cars or sugar water or cereals like the pleasure that comes from true community. The joys of life abundant together. But at this time in history, when progressive possibilities are opening up before us, we need to look at our culture and our yearnings and discern even more deeply why meaningless things like soft drinks and cars have taken over the language of social justice and love.

What is it? We’re afraid of dying. We’re lonely. We’re desperate for a connection with people we love and, perhaps even more importantly, with people we don’t even like. We want that connection. We want a story that brings meaning to our lives, gives us purpose and direction. Not just an individual story, and not even just a tribal story, but a cosmic story. A cosmic story that makes our daily life shimmer with life. A story as beautiful as the one that fills these ads.

And at the end of the day, we want a story that reminds us that we seek love, that we want to be loved, that we want to love, that we have the power of love within us and the power of love around us. And we seek a grace that lets us go on the morning after the Super Bowl—even Broncos fans—and forgives us, embraces us, calls us to newness.

Historically at Union, as a Christian seminary, we’ve called this the story of Jesus. Sometimes we call it the Trinity, sometimes just God. But at this moment when the market is running away with all our cultural stories about justice and love, we don’t have to figure out “God’s” proper name. Too much is at stake to quibble. The struggle before us is to take those stories back. Claim the sounds and sights of a poetry that has long filled them. They are strong enough to actually hold our lives, to narrate our hopes.

Yes, it true, that more than any other social barometer, our advertisements illuminate the defining spirit of our moment. They tell us who we are. Right now, they are showing us that at one level, there is a progressive, loving spirit moving us toward greater things. It tells us: this is your moment. Awaken.

It tells, too, us that those who would steal the vision have gotten very big. And very beautiful.

And the real question is …how do we, the little ones, truly, strike back?

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World.

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