(RNS) So Rowan County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis is now in jail for her refusal to issue any marriage licenses if she must issue them to gay couples. As I write on Friday (Sept. 4) morning, preachers are outside the courthouse with their “homosexuality is an abomination to God Almighty” signs and their shouts of defiance.
Not long after the Supreme Court ruling affirming gay marriage and requiring national access to it, I wrote several pieces exploring the civil disobedience issue and its applicability here. I stand by my claim that government officials who fail to enforce the law are not practicing civil disobedience, but instead simply violating the rule of law and their sworn obligation to enforce it. Because they are not conscripts, they have an obvious alternative to enforcing a law they do not like — they can resign.
It appears that all legal arguments in defense of Davis and others like her will fail. When it’s all over, the law will be enforced.
I will not comment further on the legal issues. Now I simply want to speak as a Christian to my fellow Christians, like Davis and those who rally angrily for her. If I were in a room with you all, I would say this:
Brothers and sisters, clearly you intend to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to your Christian faith. I respect that. You are willing to pay a price for your faith. I respect that too. You believe the Bible could never permit two men or two women to wed. Understood. Many Christians agree.
But your actions in defense of the faith are actually harming Christianity and its witness today.
The fundamental message of the Christian faith is not that homosexuality is an abomination or unjust laws should not be enforced. Even if you believe both of those things, that is still not the Christian message. Don’t you agree that our message is more like “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)? Isn’t that the “good news” that we preach?
Certainly that is good news. And certainly that is the kind of ministry that Jesus himself conducted, going everywhere and to everyone to tell them the news that God is for them, that God loves them. And then Jesus showed his love for the world by dying on the cross.
But today many Christians seem to be leading with the back of their hands to gay people, not with the embrace of God’s love. And it just makes us look like haters to everyone else. This approach really needs to be reconsidered.
The early Christians took the message of God’s redeeming love out into the pagan Roman Empire. They had no power at all in that fearsome empire other than the power of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that was all the power they needed. The gospel advanced through inclusive, reconciling love.
Maybe the situation conservative Christians face today should be interpreted in light of the early church and ancient Rome. If the United States has taken a fateful wrong turn with gay marriage (and abortion, and etc.), then probably it is not going to work for Christians who believe this to hold public office and be required to enforce the laws of this country.
A clearer separation between conservative Christianity and a liberal democratic state will have to be made. If you don’t have the people or the law with you, then you may need to walk away from state positions and retreat into church communities where your values can be expressed.
Of course, you will probably want to pay attention to the charge that your group of Christians is selectively interpreting the Bible, as when, for example, you attack homosexuality but not serial marriage, divorce, and remarriage (Matthew 19:1-12), or materialism (Matthew 6:24-25), or lack of forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15), or judging others (Matthew 7:1-5).
You do know, I hope, that not every Christian agrees with your interpretation of the Bible on the gay issue itself. Some of us have come to the conclusion that the church has been wrong on gay people and how God relates to them — and therefore how Christians should do so. You probably will never agree with me or others like me who have taken a more embracing view, but I hope you will at least consider that view — and certainly remember that you do not speak for all Christians.
Meanwhile, my friends, as the TV cameras record your every word and gesture outside that Kentucky courthouse, remember that, as we Christians like to say, “for some people you are the only Jesus they will ever see.” Ask yourself whether the Jesus the world is seeing in you today resembles the Jesus we see in the Gospels. It’s a question for all Christians, all the time.
(Rev. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the author or editor of 20 books, including “Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust,” “Kingdom Ethics,” “The Sacredness of Human Life,” and “Changing Our Mind.”)
LM/AMB END GUSHEE