The Charleston legislature voted to make the Confederate flag a relic of the past! Inside I cheered! Then, I paused and took a moment to reflect on the agony and the ecstasy of recent weeks.
We celebrated in the midst of grief as we gained marriage equality.
When throngs kissed and danced in the street after the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, we knew that we could now marry, but we can still be fired from our jobs.The funerals of the nine martyrs of Charleston proceeded in veils of grief, while cheers went up for Bree Newsome who climbed the flag pole on the South Carolina State House grounds and brought down the Confederate flag. As state after state took down their Confederate flags we gained hope that this was not just another cosmetic layer on the boils of racism that need to be lanced.
The demise of the Confederate flag across this country is a sign that a movement for justice and love is taking on new life.
But it is just beginning. As the head of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded almost 50 years ago as a church where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people are welcome, I have been part of the celebrating and grieving for decades and understand that racism and poverty live at the intersection of gender, nationality, and sexual identities. Today, I wonder, where do we go from here? This moment has the potential to be a catalyst for a movement for love and justice.
Another movement was born 2000 years ago in the crucible of martyrdom, hope, religious persecution, political domination, and dramatic social change—the Jesus movement, which came to be known as Christianity. The Jesus movement proclaimed freedom to the captive, food for the hungry, and shelter for the homeless. Categories of gender, class, and religion were subordinated to spiritual unity. Goods were held in common so all would receive what they needed.
One of the first proponents of this nascent movement was Paul.
Before he was Paul, he was Saul. The Bible describes him as “breathing out murderous threats” against believers. He was a Jewish leader and a Roman citizen who was driven to persecute followers of Jesus, the “King of the Jews.” Saul was also a Roman citizen who saw the Jesus movement as a destabilizing force with loyalties above the State.
Saul was on his way to the next city to implement his reign of terror, but in a flash, Paul was confronted and transformed. Everyone heard the voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” But only Saul was struck blind by the light. He did not regain his sight until a follower of Jesus was brave enough to go and pray for him in person.
Before long, Paul was offending just as many people as Jesus did by announcing that God reaches across all human lines to bring people into the fold with the power of love. Persecutors walk our lands today—many of them claim religion drives them. What blast of light will knock them to the ground to participate in God’s new chapter of freedom and justice? As the flags come down, we can expect more reaction.
In recent days historically Black churches started to burn.
Eight churches burned in 10 days; three are being investigated as arson. In a community devastated by the massacre in the historic Mother Emmanuel AME Church, the torching of churches can be nothing less than one more layer of domestic terrorism in the name of white supremacy. Then, Black women pastors in South Carolina received death threats against them and their whole families. The threats were for being women in charge of a congregation, but it was no accident that all three were Black women.
Like the executions of nine African Americans in a Bible study, the death threats are not just about an individual woman or even her whole family. These are acts of terror designed to strike fear into the heart of every African American.
Going to church becomes an act of courage. Silence equals death in the face of these acts of terror.
Saul let religious people lay their cloaks at his feet before they stoned Stephen to death, so Saul would not be unclean for the Sabbath. Today, even though poor whites are often the ones doing the direct violence, anyone who keeps their hands clean by not doing or saying anything to stop the persecution of people of color is guilty of violence. Unless we speak and act to break down barriers of race and class, the cloaks at our feet will be the white robes of the KKK.
All of us must do more. We must elect leaders from all parts of the country who are committed to making the world a better place for all of us. We must come together across lines of race to celebrate difference and to learn to love each other fiercely. This fierce love comes from working together, building communities together, worshiping together, grieving together, and celebrating together.
Like the early church, we must give to our common good.
We ask governments and the United Nations to bring equality to our lands, but government can only do so much. We must rise up as humankind, one in our diversity, and birthed by God to create beauty, fairness, generosity, and communities in which all are welcome and supported.
Religion begins with the fervor of newfound truth and the power of love. Religion, like governments, can be corrupted by greed and power, but at its best, religion is about love and justice. This love is not passive. Transforming love knows no boundaries and no sacrifice for others is too great, if it leads us to a time when we can all live in a world of peace.
The love chapter written by Paul in 1 Corinthians: 13 is his most famous writing.
It closes with the statement, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.” We don’t know where we will end up, but the path we must take is the path of love. Love is not a soft thing.
It is commitment. It is valuing all life. It is the willingness to die for one another and, even more, to live for one another. This next great movement is about a love that breaks down barriers, that transcends tragic history, and writes a new story. It is time.
Photo via Errol Tisdale