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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Take a Breath

Decisions by the Supreme Court last week were, in a word, breathtaking. Sustaining a key provision in the Affordable Care Act and asserting a Constitutional right to marry provided social progressives with a rare sense of elation. Gay Pride parades around the country became a kind of victory lap for many who never imagined this moment in their lives. Not that everyone was elated! Social conservatives railed against judicial overreach and predicted dire consequences. Social media is rife with predictions that religious liberty is in peril. And the Republican presidential cast has promised everything from civil disobedience to a Constitutional amendment, though much of that, while reflecting real conviction, is intended for primary season appeal more than actual implementation. Breathtaking indeed.

As one who participated ten years ago this week in the vote of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ to support marriage equality, the Supreme Court decision evoked several responses – amazement that change has happened this fast, recognition of the persistent courage of many who have refused to accept second class citizenship, remembrance of many colleagues in the church who were attacked for what was then considered a theologically suspect step and who spent endless days enduring hostile abuse from members and congregations. The years following were marked by navigating tough conflict in the struggle to interpret to other Christians and the wider culture why this was, for us, a faithful expression of Gospel commitments.

Now, recovering from the hangover of Pride celebrations and the sense of vindication many of us share, the question becomes, “what next?” Some on the losing side of the Court decision are already planning a counterattack, proposing so-called “religious freedom” legislation at the state level to provide exemptions for persons who want to continue to discriminate. And many on the winning side are in a “go for the jugular” mode, eager to batter down the last barriers to full legal equality. Clearly, many are itching to reengage the struggle. And struggle, I’m sure, there will be.

But what of the church? What is our role right now? Having played the part of proponent and opponent in recent years, the various factions of the church could simply carry on the fight. I wonder, however, whether it might be time to take a breath. Not to back away from strongly held convictions about, faith, justice or inclusion. Not to avoid difficult conversations about how biblical faith informs our lives and our culture. Not to be any less prophetic. But to more deliberately weave our pastoral vocation through our prophetic voice.

I was struck, for example, by the tone set by Archbishop Blaise Cupich, newly installed in the archdiocese of Chicago, who wrote about the Supreme Court decisions in a statement this week. While the doctrine of marriage of the Catholic Church is clearly affirmed, Cupich also reminds his readers that respect for gay persons in the Catholic Church must be “real, not rhetorical, and ever reflective of the Church’s commitment to accompany all people. For this reason, the church must extend support to all families, no matter their circumstances, recognizing that we are all relatives, journeying through life under the careful watch of a loving God.” Critical voices are no doubt poised to pounce here. But it would be hard and unfair to simply dismiss this attempt to respond positively and pastorally to a decision with which he and his church disagree.

Archbishop Cupich goes on to say,

“The US Supreme Court has ruled that two persons of the same sex have a constitutional right to marry each other. In so doing, the Court has re-defined civil marriage. The proposed reason for this ruling is the protection of equal rights for all citizens, including those who identify themselves as gay. The rapid social changes signaled by the Court ruling call us to nurture a serene reflection as we move forward together in that process; the Catholic Church will stand ready to offer a wisdom rooted in faith and a wide range of experience.”

In our deeply polarized culture persons who have experienced theologically or biblically based rejection may find it impossible to trust any expression of grace or be receptive to the possibility of hearing any wisdom that is offered. But between the seductions of triumphalism on the one hand or bitter resistance on the other, I sense a reach toward another way. We, too, have a wisdom rooted in faith and a wide range of experience. Sharing that with those willing to receive it may be the gift we bring right now, more than merely girding for the next political fight. After a breathtaking week, is it time to take a breath?

John H. Thomas
July 2, 2015

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