Over the past twenty years, we have seen American attitudes on sexual orientation, particularly in the debate over same-sex marriage, shift toward the more tolerant. This culminated in the landmark Supreme Court case last summer of Obergefell v. Hodges.
While the majority of Americans tend to be supportive of measures granting increased protections for, and expanded rights to LGBT persons, there has been an unfortunate, yet predictable, backlash.
In the lead up to the Supreme Court ruling last summer, and since, there have been a number of so-called, “religious freedom” laws proposed and enacted across the country. The intention behind these laws has been, as I have understood them, to protect businesses and business owners from litigation should they refuse service to someone because they do not agree with that person’s lifestyle based on religious grounds.
Over the past month, the most controversial of these laws has come out of North Carolina. The North Carolina bill dubbed the “bathroom bill,” has drawn criticism from around the world. The law was a response to an ordinance in the city of Charlotte. According to an NPR report, “Charlotte already protected residents from discrimination based on race, age, religion and gender. On Feb. 22, the city council voted to expand those protections to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity, too” (Domonoske).
The part of the legislation that many took issue with “was the fact that it would allow [transgender] people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity” (Domonoske). The state legislature then enacted a bill during a special session that blocks “local governments from passing anti-discrimination rules to grant protections to gay and transgender people” (Domonoske). In other words, the state bill renders the Charlotte bill unlawful and denies any city or town in North Carolina the ability to extend civil protections to people identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender.
While gay and lesbian concerns have been on the cultural radar for a while now, transgender issues are relatively new to the public sphere, though by no means a new issue. Therefore, there is a lot of misinformation, prejudice, lack of understanding. In brief, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “A transgender person… is someone whose sex assigned at birth is different from who they know they are on the inside” (HRC). The issue is incredibly complex, and this definition only begins to scratch the surface, and I would encourage everyone to learn more.
So when we look at the “bathroom bill,” what the city of Charlotte was attempting to do was to allow individuals to use the bathroom that they feel most comfortable using, regardless of the gender they were “assigned” at birth. The state bill reversed this.
Opponents of the bill say that “It [is] forcing [transgender] people to use the bathroom of the opposite gender [and] that is dangerous… [One trans woman said], ‘If I were to walk into a men’s bathroom, I would either be told that I’m in the wrong bathroom or I’d be outed as a transgender woman. This can often lead to violence or harassment, especially when there’s no protection in place for people like me’” (Domonoske).
What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?
This is where people’s lives are put in danger. According to the FBI, in 2013, there were 5,922 single-bias hate crimes reported, of which 20.8 percent were attributed to the sexual orientation of the victim (FBI). In a report published by the Human Rights Campaign in 2009, researchers looked at 7,624 hate crime incidents (statistics provided from a report by Marzullo & Libman). They found that 51 percent were motivated by Race, 18 percent by religion, 17 percent by sexual orientation, 13 percent by Ethnicity or National origin, and 1 percent by Disability. The research found that “racially and ethnically motivated violence, [and] sexual orientation bias crimes are more frequently committed against persons than property,” while crimes with a religious bias are more likely to be perpetuated against property, places of worship, for example.
Crimes against persons included murder, though the majority occurred as aggravated and simple assault, and intimidation. “Fifty-four percent of LGBT people say they are concerned about being a victim of a hate crime.” In sexual orientation-motivated hate crimes, when the offender’s race was known, they were most likely to be white (46%). Furthermore, “lesbian and gay victims were blamed for being attacked at a higher rate than heterosexuals.” People’s very lives are at risk.
What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?
If we swap North Carolina in 2016 for Jerusalem in our text this morning, there is really very little difference. Peter has been traveling from town to town, village to village, all over the countryside, evangelizing, healing, and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, when he makes his way back to Jerusalem. It is there that he is confronted by “the circumcised believers,” criticized and chastised for eating with Gentiles (meaning unbelievers), or more specifically, the “uncircumcised.”
Circumcision was established in Genesis chapter 17 as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God, and the Jews have held this as a sacred trust ever since. It was a very special way they were set apart from all others, identifying them as God’s chosen people. Genesis 17 verses 13 and 14 say, “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” For 1st century Jews, the threat of persecution from Rome was quite real, and their identity was constantly under threat.
The tension between the Jewish faithful and the Gentiles at this time was nothing new. We see this pressure consistently throughout Jesus’ ministry. When he breaks bread with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “unclean,” he is accused of heresy, rumors about him are spread, and it ultimately leads to his crucifixion.
Of course, we must also remember that Peter was originally of this mindset, so this passage of Acts can, in some real way, be seen as his ultimate understanding. He finally sees what Jesus was talking about, that in God’s eyes, there is no distinction between “them” and “us.”
Peter reminds us this morning that we are not called to judge, but only to love. We end up with laws like those in North Carolina when we react out of fear. The main argument of supporters is, “I don’t want a man in a woman’s bathroom” and vice versa. Transgender people have been equated with sexual predators by supporters of these bills, an unsubstantiated, and downright disgusting claim. They have managed to take one of the most private and personal spaces- the bathroom- and turn it into a hostile, dangerous place. And simply because people are afraid of what they do not understand.
We have so many ways we divide and separate ourselves: by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, education, profession… the list goes on and on. We designate some of those divisions as “unclean,” just as the circumcised saw the uncircumcised. They were and are “less than,” and we perpetuate this belief by enacting laws that limit their protection and safety.
But Jesus does what we cannot- he destroys those human-made rifts and unites us as one. In Christ, there is no right or left, no black or white, no gay or straight, not even male or female. There is only the loved by God.
This is something that the Reformed Church in America has affirmed as a denomination in the Belhar Confession which originated out of apartheid in South Africa. The Confession is divided into 5 parts, the second of which speaks directly to this idea of Christian Unity.
I would like to conclude with this portion of the confession. Listen for the Word of God:
“We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.
- that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another;
- that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain;
- that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted;
- that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity;
- that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
- that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.”
This morning, let us love one another, as God first loved us. Amen.
“Confession of Belhar.” RCA.org. Reformed Church in America, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Domonoske, Camila. “North Carolina Passes Law Blocking Measures To Protect LGBT People.” NPR. NPR, 24 Mar. 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
Marzullo, Michelle A., and Alyn J. Libman. “Hate Crimes and Violence Against LGBT People.” Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign, 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
“Publication Includes New Data Collected Under Shepard/Byrd Act.” FBI. FBI, 08 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.
“Reporting About Transgender People?” Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign, 2016. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.