Triumph and tragedy at SCOTUS

The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG ) For those of us in the faith community, this past … Continued


The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG )

For those of us in the faith community, this past week has been a time of triumph and of tragedy. On Wednesday night June 26 hundreds of people gathered in the Washington National Cathedral’s nave to celebrate the two Supreme Court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, both victories for all of us who support marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as both a civil and religious right. It was a joyful night, full of laughter and tears as those who had suffered so much discrimination savored a cultural and legal turning point in our shared march toward justice.

But if Wednesday was a day of triumph Tuesday, the day before, was a day of tragedy. On Tuesday June 25 the same court that extended marriage equality effectively gutted the central provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act. On Tuesday I found myself as dejected as I would find myself elated on Wednesday. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, when I was in high school. I remember what that movement achieved and what that achievement cost. I remember its adversaries: Lester Maddox and George Wallace and Bull Connor. I remember its martyrs, too: Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and Johnathan Daniels. So even though I’m a white person, the Civil Rights movement is precious to me.

When the news of the decision came down on Tuesday I thought, “I can’t believe I live in a country that has turned back a signal victory of the Civil Rights movement.” And as I struggled to make sense of this news, I remembered a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals I had read in graduate school when I was writing my dissertation on him. Emerson lived in Concord Massachusetts in the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, the Congress passed what’s known as “the compromise of 1850″: in exchange for admitting California to the Union as a free state, Congress also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that made it a crime to give shelter to a runaway slave, even in the northern free states. As you can imagine, those opposed to slavery were outraged: average citizens had to decide whether they would uphold or break what they felt was an unjust law. Here is what Emerson had to say about it:

Along with Emerson, I have no choice but to call Tuesday’s decision rolling back the heart of the Voting Rights Act “a filthy enactment”. That it was made in the 21st century by people who could read and write and who know better makes it not only filthy but shameful. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christianity has never been only about our own personal, private piety. We go with Jesus to Jerusalem because we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are really following Jesus, we try to care as much about the sufferings of people we don’t know as we do about our own children and parents and spouses and friends. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice.

If we are really following Jesus, we try to care as much about the sufferings of people we don’t know as we do about our own children and parents and spouses and friends. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice. We must together call on Congress to restore what the Court has taken away. We must together defend and rebuild the Voting Rights Act.

Gary Hall is the dean of the National Cathedral.

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  • Hildy J

    While your motives are pure your defense of them is just plain unchristian. The bible makes clear that individually you should love your neighbor and should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It also makes clear that you should accept what society dictates. You should render unto Caesar, whether or not you agree with Rome’s policies.

    This is no more clear than in the bible’s view of slavery. Christian slaves should be obedient to their masters and christian masters should be good to their slaves (but they don’t have to free them). Indeed, in the Epistle to Philemon, Paul returns a fugitive slave to his master Philemon. Sure he asks Philemon to be treat the slave as he would treat Paul, but let’s reiterate they key point – Paul returns a fugitive slave to his master.

    There is no justice in the bible other than god’s justice (which is spotty in this world). Hall and others need to accept that even if there is a god, he doesn’t care about what happens on Earth. There is an old saying that “god helps those who help themselves” but the reality is that “those help those who help themselves”. What is needed is Blake’s call to fight “Till we [not god] have built Jerusalem, In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

  • WmarkW

    PART, not all, of the Voting Rights Act was overturned because it was based on conditions that are half a century old — that Alabama should be treated differently than New Hampshire or Idaho.

    The SCOTUS ruled that the section on discrimination was still valid, but the part about pre-clearance needed re-evaluation to modern conditions. Since the act had been essentially rubber-stamped in Congress each time it was re-passed, it is time to check again who the real targets should be.

  • Hildy J

    It is a great brief regarding DOMA and it clearly points out the difference between civil and religious marriage. As an ex-Episcopalian, I am proud that the church filed it. But praise must be tempered because the church still follows the biblical prohibition on same sex marriage.

    It’s time for christians to admit that sometimes the bible and their god got it wrong. Not misinterpreted or mistranslated – wrong. In discussing the other court decision, Hall speaks of the Fugitive Slave Act. When Emerson condemned it, he was right, when Paul returned Philemon’s fugitive slave, he and the bible and god were wrong.

  • An-Toan

    Well I read that, as of 2012, the Episcopal Church thankfully has a “blessing ceremony” for same sex couples. I didn’t know that same sex marriage is not sanctioned yet. I think religious marriage for same sex couples can be celebrated in some of the denominations that signed the brief, although I’m not sure which ones. Anybody know?

  • ThomasBaum

    There is a difference, a big difference, between rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and accepting what society dictates.

    When you wrote, “You should render unto Caesar, whether or not you agree with Rome’s policies”, what a crock, just because Caesar demands something does NOT mean that it is his to demand.

    You seem to have a totally warped sense of what Jesus was saying when He said something to the effect, “Give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

    Just because Caesar declares something of God’s to be his (Caesar’s) does not make it so, Jesus spoke and taught in a way that should encourage us to think, not to let others tell us just what is acceptable for us to think and/or believe.

    As far as “There is an old saying that “god helps those who help themselves””, this does seem to be an old saying but it is not an old biblical saying.

    When God became One of us in the person of Jesus, He taught many things that goes against our human nature, one could say He encouraged us to rise above our human nature, “These are hard sayings”, as it is put in the bible and if one were to think than one could see why this phrase was spoken.

  • ThomasBaum

    Gary Hall

    You wrote, “For those of us in the faith community, this past week has been a time of triumph and of tragedy. On Wednesday night June 26 hundreds of people gathered in the Washington National Cathedral’s nave to celebrate the two Supreme Court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, both victories for all of us who support marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as both a civil and religious right.”

    The Supreme Court of the United States deals with civil law and civil rights not religious laws and religious rights only to the point that we have the right to our beliefs but we do not have the right to force these beliefs on others.

    It would be a travesty for the Supreme Court to force itself on any religion or for any religion to force itself on any person, this is a fundamental right of a human being even tho it is not enshrined in the law of the land everywhere and it is not even followed in many places where it supposedly is the law of the land.

  • Catken1

    I have also heard interpretations of that story that state that it was customary, when a slave had issues with his master’s treatment of him (aside from the obvious horror of keeping him as a slave, naturally, which didn’t occur to many as a horror back then, just part of the way things were) that often he or she would flee and seek help from a powerful third party. Not seeking to run away per se – the penalties for that under Roman law were draconian – just getting someone on their side in an essentially powerless situation, to have their voice heard and their dispute mediated by an outsider with a legal status and a voice the slave lacked. It was this author’s suggestion that Onesimus (I think that was the slave’s name?) was seeking this sort of mediation from Paul.

    I do not know how true this possibly is, but it suggests another interpretation. It does not, however, do anything to justify slavery or any deity’s potential endorsement/tolerance of slavery.

  • Marilyn Hill

    Jesus Has never been and never will be wrong !! Jesus IS PERFECT !

  • SimonTemplar

    Slavery in the Mediterranean world of the first century was completely different from the slavery of our colonial period (which is likely what most modern westerners think of when they hear the word “slavery”). For many people of that time, slavery was their means of survival.

  • twmatthews

    Hi Marilyn.

    You mean when Jesus spoke about where you should get your slaves from and admonished slaves to follow their masters?

    I don’t recall anywhere in the bible — old or new testament — where it’s said that owning another human being is wrong. There are lots of places where God, as described in the bible, is unworthy of worship and acts more like an arrogant dictator. The bible is a particularly poor moral guideline.

  • twmatthews

    You are, of course right Thomas. It’s just that many people seem to make a point about the Christian principles upon which this country was founded and ignore the idea that it was found with the intention of giving no favoritism to any religion. Those same principles of justice, equality and fairness are certainly not unique to Christianity.

    In an obvious example of ignorance, a state senator from my own state of NC tried to introduce legislation making Christianity the “official” religion of North Carolina. His bill was pulled when he became the laughing stock for late night comedians.

    There are many people in America who believe that America is a Christian nation. Mr. Hall’s distinction between religion and secular America is correct and worthy of emphasis.

  • ThomasBaum

    twmatthews

    You wrote, “There are many people in America who believe that America is a Christian nation.”

    I know and the fact of the matter is that a nation, any nation, can not be Christian, only a person can be or can at least make an attempt to be one.

    That being said, if it were possible that a nation could be Christian than that nation would not need any laws, seeing that everything would come from within all of the people of that nation rather than imposed by anyone or anything from the outside.

    As is or should be obvious there really is not a single person on this planet who is a Christian, there are those that attempt to be a Christian but we all, to put it mildly, fall short.

    To get back to those that “believe that America is a Christian nation”, they also believe that their “conception” of Christianity is Christianity.

    As far as what you wrote concerning “a state senator from my own state of NC tried to introduce legislation making Christianity the “official” religion of North Carolina”, it is my opinion that this person attempted to spit in God’s Face since when God became One of us, He forced Himself on no one and he also seems to know nothing about religious freedom because if everyone does not have religious freedom than no one has religious freedom.

  • ThomasBaum

    Some seem to think that we so-called moderns are so much “better” than the so-called Ancients, anyone ever thought that the term “slave wages” might just be more of a truth about us humans rather than just about someone’s pay?

  • malusk03

    “For many people of that time, slavery was their means of survival” That is, if you were a skilled tradesman or well educated and ended up as a slave in a kindly master’s household. The life of the slaves on the large farms and the mines was short, brutish, nasty, and hopeless.
    And even the house slaves often wore iron collars inscribed “tene me quia fugi” (“Arrest me, for I have run away”). The phrase was so common that it was often abbreviated as TMQF
    After the legalization of Christianity, many of these collars bore symbols indicating that the owner was Christian. A particularly poignant one read “I belong to Felix, the Archdeacon.”