“A [Baptist] Conversation on Sexuality” did many things for CBF Baptists, including creating an open forum for people of differing theological beliefs to sit across from one another and talk. It welcomed more people from differing perspectives on issues of sexuality and covenant than any have seen in Baptist life. It couched plenary lectures and covenant conversations in heavy doses of singing, prayer and meditation, elevating this event into the realm of holy conversation shared between peers and God.
Yet for all the beautiful work put into this event, one refrain keeps buzzing now two months later: This is not about that.
This conversation about inclusion is not about that hiring policy excluding from leadership gifted gay and lesbian people in CBF life.
This conversation about justice and equality is not about that political policy of injustice and inequality commonplace in our public sphere.
This was the opening refrain of the conference in April and it rang out again from the report at CBF General Assembly in Fort Worth in June. It is the careful work of institutional preservation.
But it is also the work of disconnect that can stifle the prophetic voice in favor of the institutional voice. It is the voice that bears the false hope that if we bury our head in the sand, we can wait until the storm passes and hope we did just enough to survive – just enough witness to a new civil rights movements to bear mentioning in history, just enough justice to those on the margins to warrant satisfaction for our socially conscious Baptist movement.
The Hebrew prophets are important in regards to the biblical conceptions of justice, equality and their place within institutions. In fact, if you asked the prophets, they would say institutions fail to bring about true justice and societal transformation:
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord. For if you truly amend your ways and your doing, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place…” (Jeremiah 7:4-7).
The temple had become a place of religious institution, where divine power was invoked to keep people out in the name of preservation. The prophet notices the disconnect between those claiming to worship God and those who practice the way of God – rooted in love of God and love of neighbor. This neighbor love extends particularly to those on the margins – the alien who may not worship the same God, the widow who no longer has legal standing in society, and the orphan who has been abandoned without care. True worship is inextricably bound to true justice and mercy, to the inclusion of all people, and to the love of God overflowing in and out of the walls of institutions.
We all would do well to ask ourselves which side we are on. Are we standing on the inside, marveling at the fanciful walls we have built, and standing before God saying, “We are safe”? Are we hoping that we can insulate ourselves from the injustice occurring around us, disconnecting ourselves from hurting people because it may be risky?
In God’s work in the world, it seems that this is connected to that. This band of worshippers seeking to lift up praise to the God of justice is about how that justice is practiced in our movement in CBF. This conversation of justice and mercy is about the societal and political realities that affect many of God’s children in our churches. This gathered body of believers is connected to how that group of people is welcomed in our fellowship and welcomed in broader Christian fellowship and society.
I mention all this because at our best, CBF is a prophetic movement engaged in social justice. We have latched onto Baptist principles and global missions, no questions asked.
That’s because hurting people need help. Hungry people need food, thirsty people need water, prisoners and the homeless need friends and shelter. It is obvious that these are on the heart of Jesus.
Before we let the refrain creep in again (you know, the one right now that’s saying “Yes, but that is different, this is not about that!) let’s ask ourselves this: What is giving food to hungry people if not an act of prophetic justice? What is visiting with prisoners and sick people if not turning societal norms entirely on their heads? What is helping hurting people if not calling into question all the broken systems of injustice, the politics of overabundance, and the social privilege perpetuating structures wherein certain people favored over others?
Let’s take a step back and see that the work we have been doing all along has been calling systems and institutions of powers, politics, and society into question. We have been trying to tilt the scales of injustice in favor of those marginalized few. What is to keep us from doing the same for people of different sexual orientations at their moment of greatest need?
It is only a matter of time before conversations like this lead us into bigger questions about that.
So perhaps we are in need of a new song to sing. We can look to the prophets again:
“Sing, O barren one who did not bear;
Burst into song and shout…
Enlarge the site of your tent,
And let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out.” (Isaiah 54:1-2)
Instead of cramping ourselves with the same dull refrain, perhaps it’s time to stretch our tent wide and open our hearts to people outside the walls. Doesn’t that sound like something to sing about?