Ethics from the Margins

After two months, the blog is returning from sabbatical — and a great sabbatical it was.  Shortly after it began, there were some significant news developments.  The Supreme Court issued a ruling legalizing gay marriage throughout the United States, and The Episcopal Church’s General Convention cleared the way for same-sex marriages to be conducted throughout the church.  For many, these developments were stunning because they signified victories for which people had been hoping, praying, and working for decades.  For others, they were deeply unsettling, a movement away from what Christians (and other religious traditions) have regarded as sacred tradition for millennia.  The aftermath has not been surprising, really.  Amidst the rejoicing by many, various secular officials have resigned or refused to conform to the Supreme Court’s ruling, mostly citing their own religious beliefs.   And some bishops within The Episcopal Church have announced they will not authorize same-sex marriages in their dioceses — though it seems the General Convention will require them to find a way to make that possible, eventually.

What would Jesus do with all of this?

None of us can answer that question with certainty, of course — though there are many who would like to think they can.  When it comes to marriage, Jesus actually said almost nothing beyond observing why we developed this tradition of marriage between men and women in the first place.    For his time and place, what we now call traditional marriage was normative — just as it has been for us until recently.   And, unlike us, Jesus did not live in a time when that norm was questioned.

But one thing that seems clear to me is that Jesus always did his ethics from the margins.  When he thought and taught about how we should treat each other, he always did so from the point of view of those who were the most disadvantaged of his society.   We see this emerge, for example, in his many debates with other rabbis over the keeping of the sabbath.  In each of those debates, he invariably places human need above law, custom, and tradition.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses all of the people whom we rarely bless.  And in his healing ministry, his attention is mostly directed toward those whose illnesses left them ostracized and on the outside of their cultures and families.  In those acts of healing, the biggest gift he gives people is not the healing of their disease, but the healing of their separation from community and the restoration of their sense of worth, dignity, and even humanity.

What Jesus shows us over and over again is that those in power, those who are privileged, never have the final word on what is right and what is wrong.  Rather, it is the victims of our personal and cultural prejudices who get that final word.  It is those who are the victims of injustice who get to say what injustice is.  Because in truth, they are the only ones who really know.

For the whole of its history, Western culture has marginalized gay and lesbian people, has declared them unworthy or inhuman or disordered or diseased.  They have been killed and imprisoned.  They have been forced to hide who they are and live locked up in unauthentic lives.  The damage that has been done to generations of gay and lesbian people has been profound.

If Jesus were to come among us today, we would find him among the gay and lesbian community, and among all the other people who are marginalized by today’s Western culture.  He would be visiting our churches and angering people with his radical interpretation of scripture.   He would be about the work of telling gays, lesbians, and all marginalized persons that they are beloved, restoring their self-worth and dignity.  He would be doing what he always did:  proclaiming the ethics of the kingdom of God from the margins, and making it very clear that the privileged and powerful don’t have the right to marginalize anyone.

I long ago came to the conclusion that straight people don’t get to say whether gay marriage is right, because they are not the victims of the traditional cultural norm concerning marriage.  Those of us who are in positions of power and privilege must instead look to the gay and lesbian community and ask, “How are you suffering?  And what must we do to alleviate your suffering?”   It is the question we are obligated to ask every marginalized person and group, because it is the only way we will be able to follow Jesus and do as he did:  develop our ethics from the margins, putting human need and the alleviation of human suffering above law, custom, and tradition.

Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  That should be a mission statement for all Christians:  doing everything in our power to free those who are not free to have and hold the most abundant life possible.

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