Recovering Reverend

You can take the pastor out of the church, but you can’t take the Church out of the pastor.


Derrick WestonFlaming
Having your church burnt down by a white supremacist is persecution. Two people of the same sex getting married is not.

by Derrick L. Weston

There is a tone deafness in some segments of American evangelicalism that I can no longer abide (as there is also in progressive Christianity, but that’s another article). As I write this, black churches are burning. Eight predominantly African American churches have gone up in flames, with at least three confirmed as cases of arson (and one judged to be caused by a falling branch and faulty wiring); while some of these may have been accidents, some were also quite deliberate. In Charleston, the crack of a gun fired into a Bible study, killing nine people, still rings in the ears of the Emanuel AME Church family. At the same time, the Christian church is allegedly being “persecuted” by the recent Supreme Court ruling that will allow same-sex couples to marry. There’s a part of me that wants to be condescending and mean-spirited here, but let’s just be perfectly clear: you can disagree with the decision, but disagreement does not constitute persecution.

1) Damage to church property is persecution. Allowing people to use your facility for a wedding is not. (By the way, you don’t have to allow it. That’s how not persecuted you are.¹) 

2) Terrorizing people in their place of worship is persecution. Couples having a private ceremony where they express their love to those invited is not. 

3) The imminent threat of death or physical harm is persecution. The imminent threat of fabulous floral arrangements is not.

We need to be honest. There is a side of the church, and oftentimes a very heavily resourced side of the church, that is so committed to fighting the boogeyman of the “gay agenda” that they have turned their backs on the very real problems of black churches in this country. This is not to trivialize the importance of theological conversations about sexuality or the convictions held by professing evangelicals. But how can anyone in good conscience prioritize a potential threat or even an ideological one over the present realities of people being slaughtered in what is literally and figuratively intended to be sanctuary? 

Many of these same Christians often ask us to be “colorblind” when it comes to race issues. “We’re all God’s children,” they say. “Why do we need to talk about these things again?” It’s as if people of color invented the construct of race in order to separate ourselves. Please learn some history. The notion of race was invented to subjugate based on myths of inferiority. Those who ask us to be colorblind ignore the fact that we inherited a language of separation. It is not our native tongue. 

No, our native tongue, and that of the church, is radically inclusive love. The church of Acts was born in a moment when the language of divine love was spoken and universally heard and understood.

‘How can anyone in good conscience prioritize a potential threat or even an ideological one over the present realities of people being slaughtered in what is literally and figuratively intended to be sanctuary?’

Our inclusivity can’t be lip service. It can’t be tolerance. It can’t be acceptance. It has to be love, or it’s not of Christ. Jesus didn’t say, “You will know you are disciples by your tolerance of one another.” Our love must come in acts of genuine service. The fire of Pentecost that fell on the first church caused them to share their goods and have all things in common. It’s good to give money to rebuild the churches that were burned. It’s better to build relationships with the predominantly black churches in your area and ask how you can be an ally with them. It’s good to have studies about racism within your church. It’s better to listen the anguish of those who have experienced centuries of systemic racial violence. 

After all, the fact that black churches are burning is nothing new. The debate over which church fires were accidental or intentional conceals the larger point: that even one intentional church burning is a problem and reflects a systemization of violence against African Americans. We’re more likely to be frisked, subject to police violence, incarcerated, targeted with racial slurs, overlooked for job promotions and hiring, pushed out of school into juvenile detention, and have our churches burned. The National Fire Protection Association, for instance, reports an average of 14 church arsons a month with a disproportionate number targeting black congregations in the South.

To my liberal friends, I say: putting out these fires requires more than your social media posts. It requires your bodies.

To my conservative friends, the three of you that I have left, marriage equality likely isn’t going anywhere. You have to decide if this is still a fight you want to pursue, but I would suggest that a better place to put your efforts is in strengthening the bonds of the church across racial lines. Work for justice in our cities. Help dismantle the prison industrial complex. There are real problems that can be worked on across ideological lines, and perhaps the relationships that are formed in working toward common goals can be healing and transformative.

Our working together to end racial injustice doesn’t mean you or I have to put “family values” on hold. Racial justice is a family value. And hey, evangelicals, you tend to develop pretty solid material on family and marriage. Adapt what you have to reach out to the same-sex couples who are struggling as newlyweds with what their new-found freedom means. Surround that couple with a loving community so that their marriage has the best chance of success. Same-sex marriage, in the end, is just marriage, and these couples are going to have the same challenges the rest of us do.

Derrick L. Weston is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a community builder for the 29th Street Community Center, and cohost of the podcast God Complex Radio.

Editorial note
1. It’s not completely clear yet what implications the SCOTUS ruling holds for churches, but generally, the author’s statement appears true. The Office of the General Assembly has prepared a helpful Q&A resource about the ruling. To the matter raised by Rev. Weston, the statement says, “The Supreme Court recognized that religious individuals and institutions may continue to teach and practice sincerely held religious beliefs so we presume that clergy may not be compelled by the state to perform or officiate a marriage between two people that violates the sincerely held religious belief of the clergy. . . . The case does not speak about congregations. In some communities, if a congregation allows their building to be used as a ‘public accommodation’ by the community, the building may fall under the state or local anti-discrimination laws as a ‘public accommodation.’ If a congregation is clear that any building use must be approved by Session and keeps published guidelines about the use of buildings, a congregational worship space may be considered private property and not under the state or local ‘public accommodation’ laws. This is a fluid area of law and any congregation concerned about the use of their buildings should consult with a licensed attorney in their state.” The statement also notes that the PC(USA) Constitution clearly states that no teaching elder shall be compelled to perform and no session compelled to devote building space to a marriage service they believe contrary to their discernment of the Holy Spirit and understanding of the Word of God. Changes in PC(USA) policies do not make anyone do anything; they simply empower everyone to act on their own collective discernment.