**Originally published here; http://blog.sojo.net/blogs/2009/03/27/when-calls-unity-sow-division-civil-union-debate
Last month, legislators in Hawaii introduced House Bill 444 (HB 444), which would provide rights and privileges to same-sex couples equal to those granted by the state for marriage. The religious and social fallout has partitioned our little island state into factions either in support or opposition to same sex civil unions. The inflammatory language from both sides of the issue has too often stoked the flames of discord, perpetuating a type of intellectual segregation — each camp speaking in isolated response to, instead in fellowship with, each another.
I find it profound that 46 years ago next month, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.His cause was civil in nature: legal and social equality for the black community in America. Many people can identify with his struggle and certainly reflect upon it with great respect and reverence. Not as many people know what actually incited King to write his epistle, however. Four days prior to his incredibly moving oratory, eight local clergy members wrote what they titled “A Call to Unity,” insisting that King’s actions were “unwise and untimely.”
I myself was recently implored, under a similar standard of unity, by a local Christian leader to refrain from writing in support of HB 444 from a perspective rooted in my Christian faith. It was insisted that I was fracturing the unity of, and sowing divisiveness within, the Church.Ironically, less than one week later, in a sermon aired to his several thousand-strong flock, the same pastor preached that there is “No Neutrality,” warning that there was no middle ground in what I could only assume is a war against the homosexual “lifestyle.” In trying to continue our discourse, the exchange devolved from a clear exchange of ideas to his refusal to respond as relayed through a personal secretary. King faced similarly hardened hearts in those white clergymen in 1963, whom he said “live[d] in monologue rather than dialogue.” I am deeply troubled by this refusal to participate in open conversation, not only because I think the Church needs it, but also because I am a regular attendee of and prior donor to this pastor’s church.
Just as in the movement for racial equality, what we hear coming from many churches here in Hawaii — and elsewhere across the nation–is that this issue is “untimely,” and that we need to let it die. Minorities treated unjustly have been told for ages to wait, but King reminds us all “the time is always ripe to do right.” During a marathon hearing before our State Senate Judiciary Committee last month, elected officials were fed what King would refer to in his dispatch as “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities” by many church leaders sure in their holy quest against the homosexual community, which is not very different from the crusade that was inflicted upon the black communities of the South. Under a banner of love, our local churches have preached partiality and inequity. On a subsequent Sunday (March 15) at a prayer service at the Capitol, it was asked that “[homosexuals’] dirty hearts” be cleansed while thanking God for “clean hearts,” emulating the heart of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11.
I do not speak as one who is innocent, as I too am a part of the Church. With every word uttered in ignorance, I wince.With every sign waved and horn honked in blind religio-centric fervor, my heart breaks. Such behavior reveals our local communities failing (as churches) to be the universal Body of Christ (the Church). I deeply believe that what fuels this misdirected religiosity is not hatred or scorn, but well-intentioned passion, yet we know what road such zealous intentions may unintentionally lead down. The church must be educated and informed; it must seek out, not suppress, a diversity of voices from within its own ranks as well as beyond its own borders. We must favor literacy over literalism, functionality over fundamentalism.
Finally, I respect opponents of HB 444 even while I disagree with them, for it is said that the truly wise are able to disagree agreeably. I applaud their efforts to continually discern the best for their flocks. I trust that they too recognize in me the deep affection for the Church that causes me such pain. After all, Dr. King said “there can be no deep disappointment where there is no deep love.” Just as Saint Augustine wrestled with the dynamic between the church and the state before us, I too am compelled to mourn that sometimes the church can be a harlot, “but she is still my mother.” The Church must be more willing to participate in more open discourse, for if we cannot engage in good-faith conciliation as King asked of those eight white clergymen, if we refuse to “rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal,” we tragically and prophetically fail Jesus’ very own Call to Unity in Gethsemane.