Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

Less than a day after North Carolina voted to legally discriminate against the LGBTQ community, and before President Obama declared his support for marriage equality, one of my Facebook friends posted the prescient words Martin Luther King Jr. penned from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama:

So often [the church] is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”

Never in my lifetime have these words felt more timely. I, too, meet people every day whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust. For many young people, the church is viewed as the last bastion of homophobia in the United States, and despite all attempts progressive Christians make to show otherwise, these perceptions are difficult to overcome. Earlier this week, Rachel Held Evans reminded us that when asked to describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “anti-homosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, Rachel writes, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers.

So where does the church go from here? While I used to think it was a slight gain for congregations to “agree to disagree,” or to be content by entering into dialogue and conversation “around the table” (perpetually so it seems), my patience with these gestures is beginning to wear thin. I recognize that in the Disciples of Christ the pastor speaks to the church and not for the church, and that there is always room for disagreement around the table, but at a certain point, as Dr. King reminds us, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

I am of course for civil discourse and respect on these matters. But in the same way that I admire the Disciples of Christ’s historic commitment to racial reconciliation, which includes an explicit condemnation of racism, so too do I believe it is time that churches, pastors, and leaders explicitly condemn discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation. Otherwise we risk sounding far too similar to the white pastors and churches and leaders in the 1950s and 60s who, for lack of moral integrity, refused to stand up in the face of segregation and civil rights, even though they knew better. I’d hate to think that if the Disciples would’ve had a general assembly in 1963 we would’ve passed a resolution that declared, “The church agrees to have dialogue and conversation on whether racial discrimination reflects God’s will or not.” I’d much rather it say, “The church condemns racial discrimination in all its forms.”

As William Sloane Coffin writes:

It is not scripture that creates hostility to homosexuality, but rather hostility to homosexuals that prompts some Christians to recite a few sentences from Paul and retain passages from an otherwise discarded Old Testament law code. In abolishing slavery and in ordaining women we’ve gone beyond biblical literalism. It’s time we did the same with gays and lesbians. The problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it, but rather how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of gays and lesbians with the love of Christ. It can’t be done. So instead of harping on what’s ‘natural,’ let’s talk of what’s ‘normal,’ what operates according to the norm. For Christians the norm is Christ’s love. If people can show the tenderness and constancy in caring that honors Christ’s love, what matters their sexual orientation? Shouldn’t a relationship be judged by its inner worth rather than by its outer appearance? When has a monopoly on durable life-warming love been held by legally wed heterosexuals?”

Justice delayed is justice denied, and at some point the call of justice demands to come true–not only in society, but in the churches as well. The question becomes, will we be a door through which justice can enter? Or will we be the archdefender of the status quo?

The comedian Lenny Bruce once quipped, “Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” True enough. But perhaps it’s time we help them find God inside the church door as well.