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Dear Indiana: Christian Love Embraces Those on the Margins of Society

4 minute read
Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she also 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.

In the current debate over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), conservative Christians would have America believe that they stand with a united and monolithic block of the faithful. That all of those committed to following a God who suffered on the cross in the ultimate act of love for humanity are somehow religiously required to discriminate against their fellow human beings because of who it is they love.

As a Christian minister, I take great joy in seeing conversion: conversion to faith in Christ, conversion to deeper discipleship. This week we have seen a conversion among many Americans around the dignity and worth of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

As someone who has been deeply transformed by the Gospel, my conscience and my faith demands that I raise my voice in opposition to the oppression and discrimination allowed by Indiana’s original law. I am not alone in this. Polling shows that even among white evangelical Protestants — the most politically conservative Christian group on this issue — only a quarter believe that businesses ought to be able to refuse service to gay and lesbian people.

Religious freedom is a core American value, one that is cherished by the vast majority of Americans across all religious affiliations. This freedom has allowed Americans to practice the religion of their choice by freely gathering in worshipping communities, and to live out their deeply held beliefs without fear of oppression or discrimination.

These very convictions can and should extend into the way that people of faith engage in the marketplace and in public life. Certainly, Jesus’s commands to welcome the stranger and to care for the “least of these” guide me in the personal, professional, and even political decisions that I make.

However, when it comes to the society that we share — be it government services like libraries and schools or businesses that are open to the public— there is no place for discrimination. This is an issue of fundamental fairness — a deeply religious and spiritual value. As laid out in our Constitution, religious freedom was never meant to override the inherent dignity of human beings. RFRAs that don’t protect the rights of LGBTQ people have no place in America.

In too many parts of America, being gay is a heavy burden to bear. While marriage equality is sweeping across America, and minds are being changed everyday, prejudice toward gay and lesbian people throughout American history has left a deep scar emotionally, and sometimes physically as well.

Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Gay teens are four times as likely to attempt suicide. The statistics (and the stories behind the statistics) are nothing short of tragic.

What the Indiana law and laws like it say to our precious LGBTQ brothers and sisters throughout the nation is that your dignity and the dignity of your relationships are still up for debate in this country.

As a Christian, I follow the example of a God who constantly placed himself with those who are on the margin, whose disciples were made up of the most reviled and marginalized people of his day. This experience of marginalization exposes our sinful theological shortcomings, specifically that we don’t treat everyone who bears the image of God equally.

While the legalistic Pharisees sat back and judged all those who did not conform to their understanding of the letter of the law, Jesus cast a vision of God’s law that includes everyone. “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Our gay neighbors are suffering. Christian love embraces those on the margins of society, and all of those who suffer. Moreover, Christian love is for each and every one of God’s children.

May we have a daily conversion that will bring us ever closer to a Christian vision of justice, freedom, and equality.

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Write to Serene Jones at presoffice@uts.columbia.edu

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