Matthew Bolton: What would Jesus say to these adults in love?

New York, NY —

To welcome is not just to be passively pleasant. Welcome must be extended. It is an active process of recognizing and valuing the worth, humanity and equality of someone who is excluded, the “stranger,” the “other.”

This Sunday, back in Independence for the weekend, I was asked to preach a sermon on “Welcome All” by a local Community of Christ congregation. I struggled with what to say, but when New York state passed its marriage equality bill late last week, I felt compelled to preach an uncompromising message of acceptance and welcome.

Jesus was radically and prophetically inclusive. He hung out with every group of people that was rejected by polite society – women, tax collectors, lepers, the mentally ill, Samaritans, thieves and political subversives (the Romans would have considered Simon the Zealot a terrorist).

One would thus expect churches to be the first institutions to open their doors to those excluded by the world. Unfortunately, a history of complicity with oppression is Christianity’s skeleton in the closet.

For example, my denomination, the Community of Christ, has had a disappointing record of standing up against racism when it really mattered. Joseph Smith III, writing after the Civil War, argued that different races were “unequal in scale of civilization” and morality and discouraged interracial marriage.

President W. Wallace Smith wrote in a 1956 memo that missionaries in Korea should be “cautious and slow to ordain men of the colored race.” In 1960, the church magazine’s editor condemned the civil rights movement for disobeying segregation laws. Some people did speak out, like Wilford Winholtz and William Taft Blue, but until racism became broadly taboo, they were not in the church’s upper echelons.

For most Americans, racism seems so clearly un-Christian now that we like to imagine we would be on the right side of a similar contemporary issue. I know I do. But I have to confess that I have not always “welcomed all” when it mattered. I have participated in the exclusion and stigmatization of gays and lesbians, and for that I want to make this public apology.

Growing up in church, in Sunday School and at home, I learned that gays and lesbians were sinful and that the love they might feel for their partners and companions was something deeply dirty. I parroted this bile in a wide variety of settings, including at church camps and even at the church college.

But this hateful artifice began to crumble as I became acquainted with more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Maintaining the fiction that they were more sinful than anyone else became difficult when most of them treated me with such kindness, while also challenging my lazy thinking.

A couple of people particularly impressed me with their ministry and pastoral abilities, and as I learned more about the Bible in religion classes, I realized just how shaky the theological foundations of homophobia really are.

As I became more interested in following my vocation of working in situations of poverty and conflict, I found it harder to muster any enthusiasm for condemning homosexuality. If two adults could love each other with compassion, gentleness and mutuality in a world so torn by violence, abuse and deprivation, who was I to “put asunder” an immensely rare and precious human relationship?

One day, quite unexpectedly as I walked back to my dorm from dinner, I had a moment of empathy that tore down the remaining foundations of my unenlightened views. I was in the midst of a woozy, late-teens kind of crush. I suddenly realized that if someone told me that the feelings of attraction, joy and love I felt toward someone of the opposite sex were sinful – and that I needed to one day marry a man – how emotionally devastating it would be.

More recently, as I have grown close to gay friends and participated in a civil ceremony, I see that what they see in their partners is little different than what I see in my spouse, Emily. I can recognize the passion, the warmth, the vulnerability and yes, the occasional friction, that is so familiar to me in my marriage. And I know how furious I would be if someone dared tell me that my love for Emily was dirty, unwholesome or dangerous.

I believe that Christians – all people of faith – have a duty to honor this kind of love and commitment. I still seek forgiveness for the damage I have done. I want to challenge the religious communities in Independence to make it an open and accepting city for all people.

If you are a religious person, consider asking your place of worship to become a welcoming community, a place that actively extends welcome to those traditionally excluded from religious life – including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – in all aspects and levels of congregational life.

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