This is the text of my Coming Out Week keynote at Augsburg College. Here I’ve added back in an introductory section that I trimmed from my presentation for time concerns. You can download the pdf if you prefer. (There may be a few minor typos still lurking in here … but I wanted to get it posted asap.)
Honoring the promise to be there:turning back the (anti-)marriage amendment … in the name of God
David R. Weiss
Augsburg College – October 12, 2011
Good evening. Thank you for being here. And thank you for asking me to be here tonight. I presume that most of you share my opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the recognition of marriage in Minnesota to only between a man and a woman. And I’m grateful for your presence.
But, if there any of you here tonight who feel differently, I am especially grateful for your presence. We lose much of our capacity for civil discourse to simple atrophy because we so seldom take the time to talk with those who think and feel differently than we do. So I am indeed glad for any of you who came here tonight to listen across our differences. I hope my words offer insight and honest challenge even when they move in directions different than your own.
This is, least of all, a numbers game. But votes do go up or down based on numbers, so let’s begin there.
We have 391 days before Minnesota voters go to the polls on November 6, 2012. In order to pass, the Amendment needs to receive a total number of “Yes” votes equal to 50% plus one of all voters in that election—whether or not they vote on the amendment itself.
Let me offer a rather far-fetched example to clarify how this works. Imagine an election in which 100 people show up at the polls to vote. 50 of them vote “yes” on the amendment. Only 25 vote “no.” And the remaining 25, after marking their ballots for President, Senator, Representative, and such, decide they don’t know enough or care enough to vote on the amendment at all, so they simply leave it blank. Despite the “yes” votes outnumbering the “no” votes by a margin of 2 to 1 at 50-25, the amendment would fail, because in an election with 100 voters it would need 51 votes to pass. In other words “apathy” is on our side.
And while that example seems a little far-fetched, it’s not really. Since 1900 there have been 147 proposed amendments on the Minnesota ballot. In 136 cases (that’s more than 90% of the time) the “yes”s outnumbered the “no”s. But only 72 of the amendments actually passed. The other 64 times, even though there were more “yes”s than “no”s, the amendment failed because it failed to receive 50% plus one of the total votes cast in the election.
75 proposed amendments have failed. Only 11 times did the “no” votes actually outnumber the “yes” votes. In every other instance the amendment failed because, while a majority of those who voiced their opinion favored it, the minority who opposed it, when combined with the number of those who didn’t vote in it at all, was sufficient to defeat it.
And in nearly half of those 64 failed amendments, that is, 30 times since 1900, just like in my “far-fetched” example, the proposed amendment won the “yes”-“no” vote by a margin of more than 2 to 1, but failed to win a majority of the total votes cast. In those cases, apathy truly carried the day.
AND YET … As much as any defeat of this amendment will be a relief to us, it will a thin sort of relief if, on November 7, 2012, the best we can say is that there were enough Minnesotans who didn’t care enough about tolerance and welcome in our state to vote either way on the amendment, and we “won” thanks to their indifference. Every vote that isn’t a “yes” vote is a vote for our side—and there may be some voters, for whom not voting on the amendment at all represents real movement toward acceptance because of where they have been on this issue in the past. But I, for one, am not particularly interested in courting the “apathy” vote.
We need more than indifference on our side. And we need to believe that we can win this based on more than the apathy of our fellow citizens.
AND YET … even with apathy on our side, the numbers are not especially encouraging. In 31 states voters have gone to polls to vote either on state statutes or constitutional amendments limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. And every time those efforts have succeeded. Nowhere in the country has apathy been sufficiently on our side to protect us.
Further, while the “marriage” at issue is a civil matter; it is not about who is married in the eyes of God, but about the rights and responsibilities, the recognition and regard offered in civil society, we know that everywhere this issue is discussed it is laden with religious language. On this issue the separation between church and state is a legal fact, but it is a cultural mirage. We can say all we wish about the democratic ideal of separation between church and state, but there are not enough civics classes in Minnesota to make that separation real on this issue by November 2012. Whether directly or indirectly Christian rhetoric will give this conversation its primary shape and its emotional edge.
So, like it or not, for the next thirteen months we are “stuck” reacting to and defending our position against Christian arguments and we might as well brace ourselves for this.
No, I don’t think so.
See, beyond the numbers game, and the role of apathy, and the weight of history, and the unhappy entry of Christian rhetoric into this debate, I am genuinely hopeful that in Minnesota we will turn back this proposed amendment. And that we will do so with momentum to carry us forward toward full marriage equality in the years ahead.
I don’t say this glibly. And I don’t think it will be easy. But I believe that here in the land of 10,000 lakes we can turn back this (anti-) marriage amendment – and do so in the name of God. Let me makes a couple caveats to that claim, and then I’ll unpack it.
We know from very solid research that, around this issue:
- change happens through conversations, not debates;
- it occurs in hearts; and our heads follow later;
- we are moved more by who we know—and whose story we hear—than by what we know; meaning that “coming out” and being visible is more important than ever;
- while we may find language about rights and equality very compelling, the folks still trying to make up their minds—the movable middle—simply are not as moved by it as we are;
- these same folks tend to value marriage as an institution where love and commitment can thrive—so if we can speak this language they just might hear us and be moved.
Finally, no one likes be lectured from the outside. My remarks tonight will be most helpful for those of you who will be speaking about this amendment over the next year to Christians … because you’re also Christian. These insights can also be used effectively in conversation with Christians (especially with family and friends) even if you’re not Christian yourself, but those conversations will require a good deal more finesse, lest you be seen as someone trying to second-guess the tradition from the outside.
Because we know that in Minnesota a great percentage of the movable middle is Christian, it will make a huge difference if we can speak about this amendment in terms and images that they are already invested in. If we can link our stories of commitment and love to the biblical story of commitment and love we can move people to stand with us on marriage.
So how do I, as a Christian, think about this proposed amendment? Let me offer a few more opening thoughts, and then I’ll turn to that question in earnest. And afterwards, I’ll be glad to spend a little time answering your questions.
In Richard Bach’s classic fable, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the title character is a bird determined to fly as fast as possible. At one point another seagull, Jonathan’s mentor, gives him a priceless insight. He explains that “perfect speed” cannot be measured by an increasing number; rather it is a quality of increasing presence. Finally he tells Jonathan, “Perfect speed is being there.”
That’s true of marriages as well: Perfect speed is being there.
To be human is to be without beginning. We start – each one of us and always – in the middle. We are born into expectations and anxieties that wait for us unspoken the moment we breech the womb.
We enter life, we join this world, we become human as it were, by learning to take our place in the web of personal and symbolic relationships that comprise our identity. We weave ourselves into being by investing (or entangling) ourselves into relationship with the people and the labels that swirl around us – or by divesting (or disentangling – or altogether tearing) ourselves from those relationships when they threaten to un-make us.
Our identity is the interplay of these relationships. Our character rests in the promise to be there, to persist across time in our presence to self and to one another. No one ever simply IS on their own. The grammatically correct phrase “I am” belies the more existentially accurate truth, “I are.” Whether I acknowledge you or not, it is only together with you that I are.
There are innumerable arenas in our lives where this promise to be there, this persisting across time in presence is critical. Marriage is surely such an arena. As humans, quite apart from our particular religious fidelities, we have every reason to acknowledge with honor and respect both the challenge and the accomplishment – and also the accompanying social good – that can come from marriage. Even our opponents in this cause agree here. It is because of the value they attach to marriage that they fight so tenaciously to keep certain people out.
This isn’t to say that every marriage is a worthy accomplishment or that every marriage deserves respect. I know firsthand that marriage can be a relationship defined by terror and violence. When I left such a marriage a dozen years ago, I needed the support of family and friends to help me leave – not to urge me to stay. So I do not laud marriage lightly or indiscriminately.
I only say that marriages, well-chosen and well-tended, have the potential to help us flourish as human beings the way we were intended to flourish: together, in companionship. They are hardly the only place this happens; by no means am I suggesting that the fullness of life is found only within marriage! But for those who choose to marry, the challenge is to flourish together, upholding the promise to be there and persisting across time in presence to one’s beloved. You need not be religious to admire that ideal.
So let’s be clear at the outset. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Christian about the affirmation of marriage equality. Marriage today is about finding one’s beloved, making the promise to be there to another, and fashioning a life together, however that unfolds. That promise is not made to a set of genitals; it’s made to a person. In Minnesota, as everywhere else, marriage ought to be a matter of the promises we keep in our hearts, not the genitals we keep in our pants. And I don’t think you need to read the Bible to figure that out.
I do link myself to the Christian story. The images that both anchor and inspire my soul are often biblical ones. And even when I make the choices I make as an engaged citizen in civil society, my compass is drawn to the magnetic north that I find in this tale …
And that magnetic north begins in a Burning Bush in the wilderness of Midian, near the base of Mount Horeb. Doubtless, most of you know this scene, but I doubt you know it well enough.
At the point when this bush bursts into flame, the Hebrew people have lived in Egypt as slaves for several hundred years. They originally came to Egypt as honored guests, welcomed to the land by Joseph during a great famine. You may recall Joseph – of “Technicolor Dreamcoat” fame – as Jacob’s favored son who had been sold into slavery years earlier by his jealous brothers. Joseph, however, rose to great power in Egypt and during the famine he was able to secure safety for his extended family there. Generations later, however, their descendants had multiplied and were enslaved by a Pharaoh who became fearful of their growing numbers. So by the time Moses arrives on the scene it’s safe to say that the Hebrews could barely recall a time before they were slaves and could not even imagine a tomorrow that didn’t include slavery. They were locked into a moment of unremitting oppression.
We cannot begin to imagine the life of a slave, but try to grasp this much. When you are a slave you have no capacity to promise anyone that you will be there, no capacity to persist across time in presence to another. This is part of slavery’s dehumanizing dynamic: that it denies you the ability to be the creature of promise that you are designed to be. It isn’t merely your toil that is owned by another; it is your potentiality to be in relationship that is enslaved.
Moses’ story begins in this moment, and from the basket set afloat in the reeds to his childhood in the palace, to his flight from Egypt, it’s a captivating tale, but we’re talking about my compass right now, so we’re going to fast forward to the wilderness of Midian. Here, against this distant backdrop of his people enslaved and without hope, the scene with the burning bush unfolds. And what happens in this scene becomes the defining revelation of God both for the Jewish people and for Jesus.
Moses is not out there trying to plan a slave revolt or to imagine some covert escape for his people from Egypt. He’s just trying to move his father-in-law’s flock of sheep from one place to another. The Bible says that as he came to the base of the mountain he noticed a bush that was ablaze, but the flames did not consume the branches. Intrigued, he came closer to get a better look.
Suddenly a voice calls out his name from within the flames, telling him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. The voice continues, “I am the God of your ancestors and I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. Indeed, I have heard their cries, and I have come down to liberate them. So come, Moses, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Moses objects. Repeatedly. He says he isn’t up to the task. That Pharaoh won’t listen to him. That he’s not good with words. That his own people won’t believe him. It’s a good narrative, with multiple layers of its own meaning. But tonight I’m not interested in Moses’ stubborn lack of confidence. I’m interested in the name God reveals in the Burning Bush.
See, finally Moses says, “If I’m going to gather these people together and tell them you sent me, they’re going to me who sent me; they’re going to want to know your name. What am I supposed to tell them?” And the Voice from within the flames says, “I AM THAT I AM. Tell them that ‘I AM’ sent you.”
The name seems to be not a name at all. What does that mean, “I AM THAT I AM”? And who really cares? Well, it matters for me; I care; because it offers a glimpse directly into the heart of God, and it shapes – very directly – how I think about marriage equality.
In the Hebraic worldview, names bear a sense of deep character; knowing a person’s name is about recognizing the terms of relationship. It is about establishing the identities that are necessary for real relationships, for intimacy, to unfold. Adam names the creatures in the garden because God has seen that Adam is lonely, and God creates the animals not for Adam’s use but for relationship. Naming begins that process; it is the first step toward final intimacy. Isaac is named “laughter” because how can his parents relate to him without remembering, each time they call to him by name, the wondrous humor that he is at all? Jesus is called “Emmanuel, God-with-us” because how can one begin to relate to this man without acknowledging the very “God-presence” that is his life?
So at the burning bush, when Moses asks of the Voice within the flames, “Who are you?” this isn’t a question of idle curiosity. And it isn’t one more attempt to sidestep the mission God intends to send him on. The question reflects Moses desperate desire to know who he’s dealing with; he wants a foothold on which to establish a relationship with this presence that he cannot fathom.
God’s response is to give a name that is a form of the being verb in Hebrew, hence the awkward rendering: “I AM THAT I AM,” sometimes translated “I AM WHO I AM.” But the verb tense itself is actually ambiguous; it can be either present or future, depending on the context. Well, God is speaking, so present tense seems the right choice – until you listen to what God is saying. When God gives Moses the message he is to deliver to his people back in Egypt, listen for the verb tenses that provide the context for the divine name. This is what God says (in the Book of Exodus, chapters 3 and 6):
“I will be with you; and this will be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain. … [For] I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to [another] land, a land flowing with milk and honey. [And] I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that [Pharaoh] will let you go.”
Say therefore to the Israelites, “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and [I will] deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. … I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you. … I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.”
Because all the verbs around it are future tense, the name itself is better rendered – as it is in some translations: “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” And on one level this is a declaration of supreme freedom by God. As though, if we could here what rests between the lines, God is sayings to Moses, “I will tell you my name, because only by knowing my name will you know how to relate to me. Here it is: ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.’ Build any box for me, and it will be too small. Build a house for me – even a grand Temple – and I will exceed it. Think Pharaoh and his armies are too much for me, and I will prove otherwise. Try to limit my love to narrow doctrines or literal texts and I will burst them asunder. Because this, Moses, is my name: ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.’ I am the freedom to love and liberate. And knowing that is the basis for our relationship.”
And suddenly that puzzling name has a far richer meaning.
But there is still something more here. From within that declaration of radical freedom, there is also a commitment made, a vow spoken. In the promises declared to Moses at the Burning Bush, God says, “In the midst of my radical freedom, this is the deepest truth of who I am: I will be there for you. Across time, from your present oppression, into Pharaoh’s court, through the wilderness, and on into that land of milk honey, my presence will persist, in the choice to be there for you.”
In the wilderness of Midian, in the flames blazing from the burning bush, God declares that God’s own divine identity lies in the interplay of relationships. God’s own very character rests in the promise to be there, to persist across time in presence to us. Even for God the grammatically correct phrase “I am” belies the existentially revelatory truth, “I are.” More specifically, as we’ve heard in these promises to Moses, God says – and the words prefigure the vows spoken between every couple who, irrespective of genitals, choose to meet the unpredictable hazards and the much anticipated hopes of life side-by-side – God says, “Together, in our promised presence to one another, we will be who we will be.”
This story relating God’s name as the promise to be there, to persist in presence to another in order to aid in their flourishing, this story reveals who God is. And who God is, just happens to be what marriage is about: the promise to be there, to persist in presence to another in order to aid in their flourishing. So, as a Christian, how can I not honor that “promise to be there” whenever and wherever it finds an echo in human lives?
But of course, some Christians will tell me that when two men or two women make such promises they’re being un-biblical, unnatural, sinful, just plain wrong. They’ll even quote bible passages to support their view. I could speak at length about these passages. I could show how they really deal with behaviors like using anal rape to terrorize newcomers to a territory or to humiliate vanquished soldiers. Behaviors like temple prostitution and pederasty – adopting a prepubescent boy as a sort of sex toy. These are behaviors that have no link to sexual orientation and have nothing to do with marriage. So they have absolutely no relevance to the (anti-)marriage amendment.
But that’s rarely a helpful response. There may be occasions when someone really wants to understand these passages in their original context, but most of the time, letting the conversation turn toward these texts shifts the focus from hope to fear. It becomes a conversation about the importance of following God’s rules to avoid God’s wrath, and I’m not really interested in going there because that becomes a conversation about a very different understanding of God than I hold. A very different understanding of God than I hear at the burning bush. Indeed, a very different understanding of God than I hear across the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. So I’m not going to spend my time talking about God on terms I don’t recognize as my own.
But there is something to learn here. And this trio of insights may be the most important bit of wisdom I offer tonight – worth the whole price of your admission in the next ninety seconds, so listen up.
That understanding of God – the one bound up with rules and wrath – is the only understanding of God that far too many Christians have learned. Sure, they’ll tell you God is loving and gracious – but don’t piss him off (and this God is almost always decidedly male). Even in traditions where God’s “unconditional” love is emphasized, there often wind up being a host of fine print conditions you have to meet in order to qualify for the “unconditional” love.
So most Christians who pull out these texts of terror – even if their motives are sometimes suspect, even if they have a bothersome habit of pulling out texts that point at everyone but themselves – despite this, they have a measure of sincerity on their side. I think they’re wrong, but they are quoting Scripture that matches the God they’ve learned about growing up. And that’s worth knowing.
Second, you should know that this is not the only, and far from the most compelling portrait of God that the biblical narrative supports. The Bible is a collection of books by a variety of authors with a range of worldviews and theological perspectives. It is not of a single mind about God. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a faithful witness to God; it simply means we actually have to work at discerning that witness. But I believe when we do that work we discover a God whom the Bible repeatedly describes as being deeply committed to our flourishing, radically engaged in welcome, and ever-prepared to surprise us by bringing new people home for dinner. That’s the most compelling portrait of God in Scripture, but it’s one that most of us have never even been introduced to.
And third, and this is most important insight of all: most of the people who will oppose us on this amendment – especially those among the movable middle – would actually prefer this potrait of an extravagantly welcoming and radically gracious God to the one they have learned … if only someone presented it to them.
Listen, Gandhi was convinced that nonviolence was effective not because he thought it worked at the conscious level to change other people but because he believed that written into the souls of each person, including his adversaries, was a spark of sacred humanity that longed to be honored without condition. And he believed that nonviolence demonstrated this type of unconditional regard and that this demonstration of unconditional regard had the capacity to awaken the better selves in those who opposed him. He was convinced with every fiber of his being that nonviolence was not a shot in the dark; it was not wishful thinking; it was not even a reasonable gamble. It was the application of courage with insight to awaken the full humanity residing in others.
I am equally convinced that we human beings bear within us a hunger and a hope to reach out to one another in companionship. It is in relationship that we become who we are. It is in promising to be there for one another that we complete ourselves. This is true even of our adversaries, even if they remain “closeted” to this truth in their own lives.
To claim a God whose very being is to promise to be there and to persist across time in presence is not to claim the God we find convenient. It is rather to acknowledge the God who claims us, the God whose promise to be there for us becomes the ground for our own courage, for our acts of solidarity as well as our friendships and our intimacies.
If we tell the story of this God, as surely as Gandhi’s deeds of creative nonviolence had the power to awaken humanity in others, this story of God’s promised presence linked to the larger narrative of a widening welcome – this is the true biblical tale of GRACE – this story will awaken hope in others. Because the same God who gives us courage to live our lives is the God they have been waiting all their lives to meet as well, often without realizing it.
That’s why I don’t move from the burning bush into a debate over proof texts about rules and wrath. Instead, I talk about the “arc of welcome” in the biblical story as a whole. I explain how the God who speaks from the burning bush, the God who promises to be there and to seek our flourishing is seen again and again in the biblical tale. But I also make clear that in the Bible God often promises to be there and often seeks the flourishing of people who are least expected to receive God’s promises, people whom society has pushed to the edges, but whom the biblical tale places at the center of God’s presence.
There is a long list of these folks who populate the biblical story. They are nomads and shepherds, wives and widows, second-born sons and concubines, prostitutes and foreigners – all of them unexpected recipients of God’s promise to be there. Indeed, many of them are downright outcasts whose presence in God’s circle of welcome no doubt unsettled and upset many who thought that this was some sort of exclusive club reserved for them only.
They are the cultural equivalent of undocumented immigrants, sex workers, homeless beggars, transpeople, and same-sex couples – and they appear again and again in the biblical tale. Only our cultural distance from their stories saves us from shifting uncomfortably when they appear.
Let me offer just a couple examples.
The book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, a Hebrew widow, and Ruth, her daughter-in-law. The story begins during a famine. Naomi journeys with her husband from the land of Israel to the land of Moab in search of food, only to have him die there, leaving her alone with two boys. The boys grow up and both of them marry Moabite women. But soon both of Naomi’s sons die as well, and she is left only with two foreign daughters-in-law, living in a foreign land. Now, to be a widow in your own land in the ancient world was bad enough. But to be a widow in a foreign land, tied only to other widowed women – and foreigners, at that – was to be at almost unimaginable risk for both your economic and personal safety.
So Naomi, upon learning that there was food again in Israel, returns to her own people. Although her two daughters-in-law initially set out with her, Naomi does not wish them to be vulnerable back in Israel, so she urges them to stay in Moab, expressing her hope that each may find security for herself by finding a new husband among their own people, the Moabites. After a bit of protesting, one of her daughters-in-law agrees to stay in Moab, but the other one, Ruth, is almost defiant in her loyalty to Naomi.
Her words become a classic text of promised faithfulness as she says to Naomi: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people; and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17 NRSV)
The words pass here from daughter-in-law to mother-in-law, from foreigner to Jew, from woman to woman, but because they capture the universal ideal of promising to be there for another and to persist in presence across time in order to seek another’s flourishing they have become prized words read at countless weddings.
Upon hearing them, Naomi allows Ruth to return with her to Israel. There, this foreign woman is coached by her mother-in-law to secure a Hebrew husband in a tale that is both romantic and racy, and which results in her marriage to Boaz and her place in Israel’s royal lineage as the great-grandmother of King David.
But there is a little more to the story. While the setting of the tale is around 1100 BCE, many scholars believe, for a variety of reasons related to the text itself, that the story was actually written as folklore some 650 or more years later, on the far side of Israel’s return from Exile. After the Exile, Israel experienced a bout of severe xenophobia: a desire to purify their life and their gene pool. It seems that at least twice Israel pursued a round of national ethnic cleansing, driving out from their midst all foreign women married to Israelite men – and driving out their children as well. These cleansings happened between 400 and 450 BCE – and they specifically included Moabite women.
Suddenly this tale of tragedy and desperation, of romance and happy endings, becomes a claim about the scandalously wide welcome of God. Written against the views expressed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Book of Ruth dares to portray this foreign woman as modeling exactly the sort of promised presence across time that God pledges at the burning bush. The book of Ruth audaciously asserts that those persons whom Ezra and Nehemiah seek to exclude from marriage not simply by constitutional amendment but by ethnic cleansing, these persons are worthy to marry because they model faithfulness after the fashion of God’s own promises and because their faithfulness contributes to the nation’s good. Hello?! Minnesota? Are we listening?!
Around this same time, 400-450 BCE, another writing appears in Israel, the book of Jonah. In this tale, Jonah receives a preaching assignment from God that he has no desire to fulfill, so instead he books passage on a ship sailing in the opposite direction. But when the ship is caught in a storm, Jonah confesses that the storm is on account of him running away from God, and he begs to be thrown overboard lest his disobedience cost the life of everyone on the ship. Tossed into the sea, he spends three days in the belly of whale, before being spit out on the beach where he reluctantly agrees to do God’s bidding.
Most church-going children know this much of the tale. Much church-going adults have never learned anything more about it.
Well, after Jonah preaches a threat of destruction on the city, its inhabitants repent and God relents, choosing instead to spare the city. At this point Jonah goes and sits outside the city in a big pout, unhappy that the destruction he preached has not come to pass. It would be almost comical if we did not learn that Jonah is upset … because 120,000 people did not fried by God.
But there is more to this story, too. Although scholars are in broad agreement that it was written around 450 to 400 BCE, the tale, like the story of Ruth, is set in an earlier era: in this case around 750 BCE. In the story Jonah is told to preach to the city of Ninevah, the capital of Assyria, the nation that will soon conquer Israel itself. He is told to preach to people that he considers his enemies. That’s why he runs in the opposite direction. But why isn’t he eager to preach, since he’s been given a message of threatened destruction?
Because, as he admits to God in the last chapter of the book, he knew from the very beginning that God was “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Those are his words, but he’s quoting a description of God found many other places in the Hebrew Bible. And it’s a description of God that parallels closely the way I described God’s promise to Moses at the burning bush: this is the God who promises to be there, persisting in presence across time to seek the flourishing of another. Of course this God would be quick to spare Ninevah the moment they repented. But Jonah’s anger is that he wanted this God all to himself, all to his people. And he ran away precisely because he was scared from the very beginning that now “his” God was going to be gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love to those people, the ones he hated. People whose lifestyle he detested. People he wanted dead.
Ultimately, the story of Jonah has nothing to do with the size of the fish’s belly and everything to do with the size of God’s love. Appearing in Israel alongside the story of Ruth, this tale is not about Ninevites but about Moabites. At precisely the time that Ezra and Nehemiah are promoting policies to exclude anyone different than them from marriage, this story proclaims to the people of Israel that the God they met through Moses at the burning bush, the God who promised to be there for them, is just as interested in being there for other people, too. The book of Jonah is attempting to convince the people of Israel around 2400 years ago, that what matters about marriage – as far as God is concerned – is not the ways that some marriage look different from others, but about the ways that marriages are the same: founded on promised faithfulness in an uncertain world. Are we listening?!
The story of Jesus in the New Testament is a bit like these Hebrew Bible examples on steroids. Almost every category of questionable character or outcast status makes an appearance. We see shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more. The man is a magnet for every imaginable outcast person.
Let me lift up just one: Samaritans. They make three significant cameo appearances in the gospel accounts.
When Jesus encounters a woman at the well and asks for a drink she reacts with surprise, that this Jewish prophet would stoop so low as to seek water from a Samaritan. But a few verses later she becomes one of the first “apostles” of Jesus, sharing the good news of her experience at the well with her fellow villagers.
When Jesus heals ten lepers, nine – all Jews – are so happy to be cleansed of the disease that they go their own ways never returning to praise God or thank Jesus. Only one – a Samaritan returns to do so.
And when Jesus tells the parable about the injured traveler lying alongside the road, he describes how both the priest and Levite pass by on the other side. Their official duties in the Temple forbid them to come in contact with anyone near death. So while their actions strike us as callous, they would explain they are only following the orders of their occupation. But someone needs to aid the traveler, and the Samaritan – never named in the parable as the “Good Samaritan” but known almost universally by that phrase – comes along and saves the day.
Well, what’s at stake in these Samaritan sightings? Most of us have no idea, but in Jesus’ day these encounters were scandalous beyond measure … the result of animosity several centuries old.
Twice in Israel’s early history, great empires swept in and conquered them. In the eighth century before Jesus the northern tribes were scattered by Assyria, eventually lost to history, becoming in fact “the lost tribes of Israel.” Later on, in the sixth century before Jesus, the Southern tribe of Judah was carried off into Exile. Both times the Bible says that “the poorest of the poor” were left behind. There were some Jews these superpowers didn’t bother scatter or deport. They were too poor, too illiterate, too unskilled, too worthless to worry about. Left behind, they lived up in the hill country of Israel known as Samaria. Over the years they intermarried with refugees from other nations, but they persevered in worshipping the God who had promised to be there for them.
Decades later, when their kinfolk returned from Exile to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, the descendants of these poorest Jews from the hill country came down, understandably overjoyed to greet their once lost family and to help them reclaim the land and rebuild the Temple. They were scorned as half-breeds. They were told to get lost. They were regarded as illegitimate Jews – bastards, really – on account of sleeping with the wrong type of people.
As the family feud lasted over the centuries, these folks were denied the name “Jew” and were instead called Samaritans. The Jews considered Samaritans worse than Gentiles (who were at least “honestly” non-Jewish); Samaritans claimed to be Jews, but the “real” Jews knew better. In Jesus’ day, Samaritans remained, without question, the single most despised category of people you could mention.
Seriously, think of the queer, male-to-female transgender, undocumented worker who walks up the aisle wearing her rainbow sash to receive communion from the Archbishop in the Cathedral: that’s the Samaritan coming down the highway in Jesus’ parable. It’s a wrecking ball applied to a worldview.
This outcast Samaritan man, dis-owned by his own people because they didn’t approve of who he and his community slept with, this is the person Jesus chooses to portray as stooping beside the injured traveler and whispering to him as he lies there near death, “Listen my friend, have no fear. I am promising to be there for you.” And when he delivers the injured man to the inn, you may recall he says to the innkeeper, “I need to be on my way, but I am committed to this man’s flourishing. My concern for his well-being will persist across time, and when next I pass this way, I will pay you for whatever care you give him.”
So, just in case you didn’t catch the point about Jesus’ ministry taking the promise of God’s faithfulness and the wideness of God’s welcome – already stretched in the Hebrew Scriptures – and stretching it yet further in his day … In case you missed the parts where shepherds, wizards, barren women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, all manner of persons with disabilities, tax collectors, revolutionaries, and more got included in the story … Well, the Samaritan sightings come along like an italicized, underlined, bold print, brightly colored bit of text that says, whoever the hell you are, you’re welcome here alongside Jesus.
And, finally, just to be clear that the early church did pick up on this message, I want to mention the episode with Peter and Cornelius in Acts, chapter 10.
Peter has a rooftop vision in which God invites him to enjoy a feast of forbidden foods spread out on a blanket. He declines to eat anything, telling God he’s never eaten anything off the ritually impure menu. God responds by declaring, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” But Peter doesn’t understand at first that God’s not talking about food; God’s talking about folks that are viewed as ritually unclean. Only a little later, when he receives a request to go preach to Cornelius, a Gentile, and thus ritually unclean, does he realize that his vision was really about regarding these unexpected people as clean.
So he accepts the invitation, goes to Cornelius’ home and preaches to Cornelius and his entire household – all of them Gentiles, all of the men uncircumcised, all of the women and children ritually unclean in other ways. Every one of them falls outside the bounds of God’s welcome. But before Peter even finishes his message, the Spirit claims all these foreigners – exactly as they are – as they are carried away in a moment of holy ecstasy. Although it will be a couple decades before the rest of the church figures it out, in that moment Peter at least connects the dots from the vision of the blanket all the way back to the voice in the burning bush. And he exclaims out loud “How can we not welcome fully in our churches those whom God has already welcomed so fully into God’s heart?”
See, this isn’t just a minor theme. I’ve given you four examples of how the faithfulness that God promises at the Burning Bush reaches into unexpected places and includes unexpected people: in Ruth, Jonah, Samaritans, and Gentiles. But I could give a dozen more. This is THE central theme of the biblical story. It’s called “grace,” but “grace” is just an abstract theological word that doesn’t mean much of anything until you put flesh on it. Until you clothe it with ethnicity and skin tone, with class and power, with gender and sexuality. To say that God deals in grace – in radical, absolute, unexpected, unconditional, and sometimes even unsettling gift – that doesn’t mean jack shit until it means “the people not like us.”
But here in Minnesota (as pretty much everywhere else) it will be Christians whose voices are loudest in trying to put in place an (anti-)marriage amendment that says whose “promise to be there” will be honored on our communities and whose “promise to be there” will be excluded. We need to stop this – and we need to do so IN THE NAME OF GOD.
At the burning bush, God tells Moses, my name is “I PROMISE TO BE THERE FOR YOU.” God’s name makes sacred every sincerely spoken promise to be there.
Marriage is not the only place such promises are spoken, but when persons in committed relationships of professed love and fidelity, seek to make these promises publically, they deserve our civil honor and recognition.
As I said at the start, I don’t think there’s anything particularly Christian about the affirmation of marriage equality. Marriage is about making the promise to be there to another, and fashioning a life together, however that unfolds. That promise is not made to a set of genitals, but to a person. In Minnesota, as everywhere else, marriage ought to be a matter of the promises we keep in our hearts, not the genitals we keep in our pants. And I don’t think you need to read the Bible to figure that out.
BUT— If you do read the Bible, you ought to read it carefully enough to realize that every couple – straight or gay – who makes the “promise to be there,” isn’t simply pursuing a high ideal, they’re actually echoing a holy name. And for those of us who take our Christianity seriously, that ought to be more than enough reason for us to work tirelessly to turn back this amendment in the name of God.
© 2011 David R. Weiss
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace, David lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is a self-employed speaker and writer on the intersection of sexuality & spirituality. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at https://tothetune.wordpress.com.