You may have been waiting for Part 2 of my comments on the recent same-sex marriage decision by the Supreme Court. Thank you for your patience with me. Before writing another installment, I wanted to be sure to understand completely what the Court had done and how they did it; I wanted to consult with the best and most experienced lawyers in the country to find out the legal implications of this epic decision; and I wanted to talk and pray with Christian leaders on several levels to see what guidance they would give to the people of God as we face this challenge together.
First, let me again clarify what the High Court did on June 26, 2015: In a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, five of the nine justices decided that state laws or constitutional provisions restricting civil marriage to a man and woman violate the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, they said, states must recognize same-sex marriages just as they do opposite-sex marriages.
It’s important to note that this order is directed at states and state actors, or government officials. It does not order the clergy—pastors, priests, ministers, rabbis, or imams—to solemnize same-sex marriages. In fact, there is some language in the Court’s official opinion that seems to safeguard the right of religious people to teach what their religion believes about the nature and definition of marriage. Notwithstanding that assurance, the Chief Justice, John Roberts, warned in his dissenting opinion (his disagreement with the majority) that the majority opinion “ominously” leaves out the word “exercise” when discussing the First Amendment rights of religious people to hold to their beliefs on marriage. In this way, Chief Justice Roberts implies that religious people may be guaranteed a right to believe what they want about marriage, but not be protected in the practice of that belief. We won’t know until it is tested in court.
Here’s how this may be tested: In order for most pastors to legally officiate at a wedding ceremony and sign a marriage license, he/she must register with their local government. There may come a time when state or local government officials require these clergy members to swear or affirm to uphold the constitution of their state and of the United States. That could mean not just upholding the letter of the law, but the “meaning” of the law. If this is the case, it may mean that those members of the clergy will be required to at least agree to same-sex marriage, if not be compelled to solemnize those marriages. Again, this is speculation. Right now, no member of the clergy is being forced to perform a wedding ceremony that would violate either that pastor’s church law or teaching, or his/her own conscience. Of course, that could change. If it does, it will start at the state or local level. The next move belongs to local officials, not Washington politicians or judges.
Another way this could be tested is when a church that would normally make its facilities available for opposite-sex couples outside its own membership refuses a same-sex couple. In this instance, the church could be sued or in some other way charged with violating equal protection laws and human rights ordinances, etc. To cure this, churches may fist consider limiting use of their buildings to only its membership and regular attendees. Another way is to require all couples to attend marriage classes before using the building. Still another way is to define precisely what kind of weddings will be allowed in the church’s facilities and to credibly justify that policy with doctrinal, theological, and dogmatic explanations that have historically been part of the church’s teaching and practice. Of course, I’m not a lawyer and all churches should now seek the very best of legal counsel before they proceed to do any of these things.
As far as Christian business owners that serve wedding parties, like caterers, photographers, printers, and so forth, the implications of this Supreme Court ruling are uncertain. Each case will need to be tested on its own merits. It’s very possible that a situation like the one in Oregon, with bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein, who lost their business and were strapped with a $135,000 penalty for refusing to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, will make its way up to the Supreme Court. If so—and based on how Justice Kennedy voted in the Hobby Lobby and Greece, NY public prayer case—they may, in fact win. The sad part of it is, they may lose everything in the years leading up to a victory at the highest court—and the even sadder truth is, it doesn’t mean that any penalties or legal costs they pay along the way will be returned to them. That’s not how it works with the Supreme Court. If the Kliens win, it doesn’t mean they’ll get back anything they’ve lost; just that others will not have to endure what they did. This is all in a hypothetical future, though. Let’s get back to the present.
As for the options these business owners may have, here’s one: In order to stay safe from penalty, businesses must treat all customers equally. I suggest that Christian businesses that serve the wedding market institute a practice across the board: Before filling customer requests, all wedding-related clientele must attend a one-hour seminar on “The Meaning and Purpose of Marriage.” Providers can do the session themselves, or bring in a minister, counselor, or other instructor to teach. Not only would it be a wonderful evangelistic tool to reach same-sex couples with the Gospel and biblical truth, but it would also help many opposite-sex couples that don’t understand Holy Matrimony any better than their same-sex counterparts. (Such a practice would also weed out a lot of people!) The key would be in being absolutely consistent and universal: No exceptions, ever. All wedding service or product customers must attend the seminar before their orders would be processed. This could be just one way to be as “wise as serpents,” but remain “harmless as doves.” Again, as with churches, business owners should seek legal advice before taking any action.
As it stands now, though, the only thing that has changed is state practice—and the only people directly affected by this same-sex marriage decision are local and state government officials that are now compelled to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Government employees that have a conscientious objection to the issuance of licenses to same-sex couples will have the option of complying, but registering a complaint with their superiors or filing a lawsuit on the basis of religious discrimination, refusing to comply with court directives or the directives of superiors–and taking what penalties come as a result, or, quitting their jobs.
Many people have asked if this Supreme Court decision can be overturned. The answer is, of course it can. Any court decision can be overturned by a higher court. In the case of the Supreme Court, the Court itself must overturn itself. Any law—even state or federal constitutional law—can be overturned. On the federal level, the Congress can take certain actions to nullify Supreme Court decisions, and, the states can call for a constitutional convention and adopt a whole new federal constitution! That’s the way self-government works. Now, is any of this likely to happen? I don’t think so—and I’ll tell you why.
In my opinion, at the core of American secular values is this one: “Live and let live.” I think that’s the way most Americans feel in their heart of hearts. As a people, we don’t like to tell each other how to live our most private lives. Remember, while most Americans would identify themselves as “Christian,” true believers have always constituted a minority in this country. The majority of people would not be “Bible believers” or “orthodox Christians.” And that majority is, for the most part, libertarian—the “Don’t tread on me” bunch!
So, as I read it, and after having spent over 20 years of ministry here on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, there is not a will in Congress—or anywhere in the federal government—to reverse this decision. I may be a man of little faith, but I simply don’t see it happening on the federal level—not even by a conservative majority in Congress or in the courts. As for a future president, there is nothing he/she could do to reverse this. The executive branch could drag its feet in implementing pro-same-sex marriage policies, but that’s about the extent of executive power and it would only delay the inevitable.
Having said that, this court decision is currently being challenged on the state level. Not all state or local officials are complying with the order. Theoretically, they can ignore it, but they will likely pay serious penalties for doing so. Federal courts will eventually order state, county, and local officials to comply or face fines and maybe even imprisonment. Federal funds may be cut off to states that refuse to implement the Supreme Court’s order. At some point, state officials will capitulate to the pressure.
What are the consequences for each of us in this? Two-fold: The clergy needs to be strong and confident about what the Christian church has historically believed and practiced about marriage since the beginning. The Supreme Court does not speak for the church. It may have redefined civil marriage, but it has done nothing to change sacred marriage. Still, denominational authorities will need to protect their clergy by strenuously defending the church’s right to believe and practice its faith. Church bodies will need to clearly assert rules on who may use its facilities for weddings and place it in the official records of the church’s proceedings. Now is the time for church judicatories, councils, boards, vestries, etc., to place in writing exactly what wedding ceremonies may be performed under its auspices. Churches and ministers should join in cooperative fellowship, collaboration, and in strategic planning because there is always safety in numbers.
On the other hand, and as I wrote in Part 1, in the wake if this decision there will be a temptation for churches to withdraw into isolation from the culture. Some will want to batten down the hatches of the church’s ship, and hope to go unscathed by the cultural storm that surrounds it, sailing by itself safe and secure until Jesus returns.
In my opinion, that would be a bad move.
This happened once before, after the infamous Scopes monkey trial of 1925. Back then a populist movement of Christians challenged the teaching of atheistic evolutionary Darwinism in the public schools. The Christians lost in court and subsequently withdrew into a cultural hole in the ground—essentially going into hiding. That wasn’t good for the progress of the Gospel or for spiritual health of the country. It took almost 20 years for that error to be corrected and for Christians to come out of hiding and re-engage the culture. I believe we face the same challenge now.
We must resist the temptation to become so highly defended that we keep away from the church those that need the Gospel the most. The Bible commands us to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16:15) That includes everyone—not just friendly audiences! To turn defensively inward while keeping others out is the opposite of the Great Commission!
Like the Apostle Paul in Mars Hill, we must skillfully and lovingly proclaim the truth as it is revealed in Holy Scripture and practiced by the church (see Acts 17:22-23). There is a way to engage the culture winsomely and persuasively. If the Apostles could do it in the hostile, pagan world in which they lived and ministered, we can certainly do it in this country.
None of this is to say there won’t be a price to pay. American Christians are spoiled. Most Christians in the rest of the world face severe trials and tribulations because of their witness to Christ and His Gospel. Our fellow believers around the world face complete social ostracism, rejection from family and friends, physical and emotional abuse, assaults, fines, imprisonment, and even death. The threats we only potentially face after this Supreme Court decisions are light afflictions—perhaps only inconveniences. Let’s keep this all in perspective and continue to thank God that we live in free country—even if it’s just slightly less free than it was a few months ago!
As we face these new challenges, let us also pray for wisdom. In the days ahead we will need to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Let us pray for those that are shrouded in spiritual darkness and ignorance, that they will see the light of God’s Truth. Let us pray for those in bondage, that they will come to be free in Christ. Let us pray for ourselves, that we will remain humble and grateful for God’s grace—and that we will be protected from Pharisaical sanctimoniousness.
The Lord has kept His people until now and will continue to do so in the days ahead. “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” says St. Paul in Romans 5:20.
Let’s keep on loving God, keep on loving people, and keep on loving the country that has done so much good for so many people for so long!
Your always hopeful and prayerful missionary in Washington, DC,
Rev. Rob Schenck
Part I: How Shall We Then Live?
By Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.’ — Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:12
It could be argued that Protestant Evangelical culture dominated American civilization for 150 years, from the mid-nineteenth to the late-twentieth centuries. This was due mostly to the popularity of the then Bible-believing Methodist Church. Second only to the influence of the Methodists was that of the Presbyterians–and later the Baptists–including the Social Gospel movement–but finishing with Billy Graham and the resurgence of a stricter evangelicalism which segued to a neo-fundamentalism with Jerry Falwell. Together, they formed a cultural juggernaut that resulted in what was, until recently, a common set of American mores including more-or-less regular church attendance, personal modesty, even a slate of television broadcast restrictions and movie ratings. Something has changed in America, though, and it has resulted in a tectonic shift of moral sensibilities. Out of this new American landscape have come a number of phenomena, paramount among them, same-sex marriage.
Some 100 million Americans—or roughly one-third of the population—grew up in a time when homosexuality was classified as a psychological disorder and, in most places, a criminal behavior. During that same period, the majority of Americans certainly considered homosexuality immoral, if not a sin, and, more likely than not, an abhorrent one at that. In the environment I grew up in, most “self-respecting” people did not openly talk about the stuff of those that were politely referred to as “playing on the other team,” “light in the loafers,” or contemptuously derided as “fags,” “perverts,” or “homos.” Those that engaged in homosexual lifestyles were mocked, denigrated, marginalized, and, in some cases, physically abused, jailed, or even murdered.
Then came visible gay and lesbian activists of the late 1970s. (Though they had been quietly active since the 1920s.) As American popular culture shifted away from the Methodist-Presbyterian—vanilla Protestant–and later evangelical /Baptist fundamentalist leaning—social models, “gay,” “lesbian,” “queer,” and, eventually, “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) individuals and organizations gained strength, obtained social, legislative, and legal victories, and came into a certain but limited favored social status, at least in major urban areas and in arts and entertainment.
On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued the majority opinion in Obergefell et al v. Hodges, a consolidation of four cases testing whether state bans on same-sex marriage were constitutional. (Read the majority opinion and dissenting opinions here. I urge you to read all of them, as weighty as they are.) Five of the justices, led by Anthony Kennedy, found the bans unconstitutional; ipso facto, all states are now to recognize the marriages of two persons of the same-sex in exactly the same way as they recognize marriages to two persons of the opposite sex. In the opinion he authored, Justice Kennedy writes, “It demeans gays and lesbians for the State to lock them out of a central institution of the Nation’s society.”
The Obergefell decision marks a new epoch in the American definition of what constitutes “marriage.” Until June 26, the common assumption remained that marriage was the legal union of two persons of the opposite sex—notwithstanding that some 11 states had already legalized same-sex marriages by one method or another; another 26 had been ordered to do so by courts. After June 26, though, the American legal definition of marriage became, universally and by a razor-thin judicial order, the union of two persons of the opposite or same sex.
Public reaction to this decision has ranged from euphoria to despondency. Gay rights activists literally celebrated in the streets outside the Supreme Court, as traditional marriage advocates denounced the Court’s opinion as treachery. The winning side saw their legal victory as an optimistic sign of human advancement, while the losing side saw it as a harbinger of national doom.
Here’s are six things I see about this decision:
First, it is no surprise. This question was first presented to the courts in 1972. It has resurfaced periodically since then. After the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that federal marital benefits applied equally to same-sex couples, Justice Antonin Scalia announced this decision would come inevitably, and sooner rather than later. It did. While I had held out hope—and even saw signs—that Chief Justice John Roberts would weigh in on the actual decision, and thereby tame it—I was wrong. He did, of course, dissent, but not on the actual question of same-sex marriage itself. He, like three other of his colleagues (Scalia, Alito, and Thomas) strenuously objected to how the decision was rendered, as well as its deleterious affect on self-governance, but they have no problem with its social outcome. (Although Justice Alito did warn that those who hold to the traditional definition of marriage could face seriously negative social consequences.) All of this is interesting to me, but, again, not surprising. As their dissents indicate, Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas believe in the robust democratic process. According to them, if the people of the states want same-sex marriage, why, let them have it, but by their own doing, not by judicial imposition. In other words, the dissenters in Obergefell are not asserting a moral position on marriage, only a legal one for achieving it, and that legal position is agnostic on the sex component of the union.
Second, the legal question of same-sex marriage is, I believe, now a settled one. As Roe v. Wade set the basic framework for abortion laws well into the future, so Obergefell has set the basic framework for marriage laws. This will be for a long time to come—maybe even for the remainder of the existence of the American republic. Some states will, no doubt, play around the edges of Obergefell, but they won’t blatantly or successfully defy it. And, it’s hard to imagine a major political candidate campaigning on a call to reverse Obergefell, other than a rare someone, running in a small, anomalous district. Same-sex marriage is the new social reality and Christians must face it head on. The church has never been served well by heading to the hills to hide out until Jesus returns. Instead, heeding His charge, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” (John 9:4)
Third, the realization of same-sex marriage will mean virtually universal acceptance of same-sex couples, families, and, by extension, homosexual individuals everywhere. Already, just about anyone under the age of 50 finds it hard to believe that a gay person could have ever been ostracized, harassed and arrested by the police, charged with a crime and jailed or worse, simply because of their sexual orientation. The younger the audience is, the more incredulous they are when they read or hear of these one-time practices. Gay people, gay couples, gay families, are simply a fact for the younger generations, and that will now become even more so. Decrying perversion, grousing over acceptance of gay people and their lifestyles, labeling them as wicked and satanic, will neither win them, nor their friends and family. It may leave us feeling better about ourselves, but that’s not what the Gospel is about; the Gospel is for the other, not against the other.
Fourth, gay families will now come to churches—all different kinds of churches—seeking benefits, as they did from the states, only this time it will be for spiritual affirmation and nurture, membership in the community, religious instruction and ritual, pastoral care and crisis intervention. The people of God will need to wisely and generously react and respond to this new mission field. The temptation will be to defensively deny its existence by simply battening down the hatches, closing up the sealed ship of the church, and hoping to ride out the storm untouched. In contrast, as the great 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody said of his ministry, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”
Fifth, as lawyers, lobbyists, and legislators hash out the legal and political ramifications of Obergefell, I want to give myself to evangelization and disciple-making. To do that, I need to look at people as Christ did, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them . . .” (Matthew 9:36) The word “compassion’ comes from the Old French and Late Latin meaning “to feel with,” or, “to suffer with.” This is the essence of the incarnation, as the writer of Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
When Jesus looked out at the multitude, with its mix of saints and sinners, he felt what they felt and he cared for them “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
As I considered this new challenge in front of us, I thought about the people whose lives have been upended by this event. There are my fellow Christians, of course, who feel their country is drifting away from them, that society is courting spiritual ruin, that the devil is getting the better of everything, and that the world as we know will soon come to an end with the return of Jesus Christ. Some feel personally offended, reading the Court’s decision as a wholesale rejection of everything they consider sacred. I want to feel with all these folks in their time of spiritual and emotional distress.
Then there are the gay people I know. Most are ecstatic, but some are disoriented by this development. They’ve learned to live their lives mostly in the shadows and as outsiders, at least when it comes to legal marriage. Some are both exhilarated and anxious about what this means for the way they will live their lives going forward. Portentously, at least one legal practice has opened specializing in same-sex divorce.
Because my gay friends have been the furthest from me on this issue, I have intentionally put myself in their place and tried to look out at the world from their vantage point, and from their experience. During the arguments in the Supreme Court chamber, I actually “happened” to sit next to Jim Obergefell, the man at the center of the case, whose long-time partner, John Arthur, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jim’s story of being denied access to help John during his many health crises, and, later Jim’s being denied death benefits, helped me to appreciate the intensely human dimension to this drama.
Even though I can’t naturally identify with gay people, as I’ve prayed for them, I’ve intentionally put myself in their place, and thought about what it must be like to experience your most intimate longing not for a person of the opposite sex, as I do, (that, for them, is a repulsive thought), but for a person of the same sex, and then to be told you can never have that; intimate human companionship must be tentative, fragile, uncertain; you cannot have physical intimacy, and you are not allowed family bonds of your own. This is what life was like for individuals with same-sex attractions for most of human history—and certainly for all of American history until now.
Whether any of this is an accurate assessment of their situations, or, is right and good, are other moral questions. My only point is that it is a painfully real history for some people, and they are not, as I had long assumed, simply motivated by a deviant attitude towards nature and a defiant attitude towards God. No doubt some people are motivated in these ways, but heterosexuals share those vices, too. I’m talking about the gay people I know, and they are not motivated by hatred toward God. They are motivated by the same longings that drove me to my wife of 37 years. I want to simply understand what they feel. I want to appreciate the isolation and marginalization they experienced in the past, and their consequent feelings about what has just happened. I believe compassion—feeling with them and for them—will help bridge the cavernous divide that separates people from each other, and, more importantly, from God.
At the same time, I want to appreciate what so many others feel in the aftermath of Obergefell: fear, desperation, alienation, anger, and betrayal.
So, sixth, and finally, I think we all need to do a “fear check.” How afraid has this decision made you? Are you afraid you will now be the one isolated and marginalized? Are you afraid you will be punished socially or economically? Are you afraid you’ll lose your liberties? Are you afraid you’ll be criminalized? Are you afraid your children or grandchildren will be taught values contrary to your own? These are natural feelings, common to all human beings during times of extreme social change and spiritual upheaval, but remember what Jesus said to His disciples when they feared for their lives, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
There is nothing simple or easy about what has happened with the Supreme Court and marriage. It’s complicated, difficult, even painful, but it’s far easier than what most of the world’s Christians must face every hour of every day. When I was recently with believers that work in the Middle East, they could not understand why we make such a big deal out of what they see as fairly small things. “You will know the real cost of the Gospel when you face martyrdom,” one young pastor told me. “America needs martyrdom.” It was sobering.
Let’s keep all of this in perspective. This new challenge will demand more from all of us: More faith in our Lord, more love of other people, more wisdom in our witness, more risk in relationships.
There are practical implications for Christians that hold to the biblical definition of marriage, and I’ll be addressing those things in the days ahead. I even have some advice for photographers and cake-bakers. For now, though, let’s take time to pray and to reflect on the new world God has given to us. Let’s face this new time with confidence in the resurrected Christ!
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Jesus, John16:33)
Rev. Rob Schenck is an evangelical minister to top elected and appointed officials in Washington, DC. He is president and lead missionary of Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital, a Christian missionary outreach to those serving in federal government. He is also the first appointed chaplain to the Capitol Hill Executive Service Club, the only private association allowed to meet regularly in the U.S. Capitol. He is in his second term as elected chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance, America’s oldest association of independent ministers, missionaries, and military, police, prison, and civilian institutional chaplains. He holds degrees in Bible and theology, religion, and Christian ministry, and is a Senior Fellow of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford.
“Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 29:20)
I sure don’t want to be a fool. That’s why I’ve been taking premium time to pray, seek counsel, and reflect on what happened a week ago.
Last Friday was enough to remind me I’m called to a difficult mission field. A whole lot of people are now angry and disappointed with some prominent occupants of my field of ministry, namely, five justices of the Supreme Court.
There are others in the country are now afraid they may be forced to accept something they don’t believe in—on pain of being sued or even imprisoned.
Still others see in all this the end of not only marriage, the family, and our nation, but, maybe even the end of the world.
Both these groups are of equal concern to me. I’m called to evangelize the ones that made this upsetting decision—and to encourage and inform those affected by it. That’s not easy. Still, I wouldn’t trade my calling for anything.
Since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on same-sex marriage, I’ve been in Oxford, England, where I’m working in my capacity as a senior fellow with the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy, chaired by my long-time friend, Jay Sekulow. My ongoing work with the Centre has been a study on international religious freedom, but it’s even more relevant in the wake of this decision.
The timing of my visit to Oxford was perfect. I needed to get some distance from the controversy so I can reflect on what our ministry should do in the days ahead—and what our supporters should do. Jay and his team have been invaluable in giving me their highly skilled legal interpretation of this opinion. I’ve also had time alone here to pray and to meditate on Scripture.
And there’s been one other factor here: A vibrant, growing, evangelistic church called St. Aldate’s. This biblically faithful congregation has been proclaiming the Gospel and forming Christian disciples in Oxford for over 1000 years! Imagine what they’ve faced in a millennium—wars, famines, plagues, paganism, apostasy, and martyrdom—just to name a few. If the Lord preserved St. Aldate’s until today, he can certainly preserve all of us.
In the days ahead I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about the nature of the same-sex marriage decision and what I think we should do in the wake of it. I won’t do this too quickly, though, because this thing is just too big and too consequential.
Please be patient with me. I want to be wise and not foolish, so I can be of the most help to you and to the work of God.
When I first read that a “Pastor Pinckney” had died in the killing spree at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I ran immediately for the guest book at our ministry house on Capitol Hill. I knew that several months before we had hosted an African-American minister from the south by the same name—even with its peculiar spelling. The thought that it may have been him sickened me that much more.
But, it wasn’t the pastor I had hosted that had been killed. I found Pastor “Glenn Pinckney” alive and well in Hickory, North Carolina. I told him on the phone I was concerned the slain pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, may have been his relation. “Not exactly,” the pastor said. He explained the name Pinckney, “spelled with the c, goes back to a common plantation owner. It was customary in the south for freed slaves to assume the names of their former owners, so, while the two Pinckneys were not related by blood, they did share in a common and ugly historical line.
The Pastor Pinckney I talked to in Hickory does happen to have a son that is a pastor in Charleston. In fact, Charleston is the family’s original home. At the behest of his father, the son, Reverend Philip Pinckney, would end up hosting Rev. Pat Mahoney and me on a whirlwind visit to his stricken community, but what we found there was nothing less than a fountain of Christ-like love and life-giving hope. In the midst of their suffering, the people of Charleston, particularly those related to Emanuel AME Church, where the tragedy took place, were having nothing short of a love fest in the street.
When we got there, clusters of black, white, and brown, young and old, including passers by, were clustered together, singing hymns, raising their hands in praise, and praying loudly and in turn. If the perpetrator of that heinous act had intended to wipe out a center of the black community in Charleston, he ended up to doing the opposite. The next morning, when Rev. Pinckney, Rev. Mahoney, and I, led a special prayer service in front of the church, I thanked the people of Beautiful Mother Emanuel for teaching us all how to live out the Gospel. The church that one man wanted to destroy has now become a life-giving model to the whole world.
The downside to Charleston is, of course, the enormity of pain and loss experienced by the loved ones of those that died. They will carry that agony for the rest of their earthly lives. But there is something else lamentable for all of us in the Charleston calamity; it is the grotesque reminder that racial hatred has not yet disappeared from the American fabric. This deep, devilish, and dangerous flaw that dates to before the very inception of our country—and was even codified into our constitution at the nation’s founding—persists to this day. It lingers in the recesses of America’s psyche and continues to drive so much injury, death, anxiety, and fear for people of all races.
The voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. played in the background of all of my formative years. I can still hear the fuzzy transmission of his eloquent voice thundering his dream for America:
. . . that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
My prayer on Calhoun Street in front of Mother Emanuel, arm-in-arm with black and white church leaders, was that we could all live out this dream, in obedience to a Gospel in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Jesus Christ.”
Unwittingly, maliciously, murderously, one tortured young man may have helped this Gospel dream to come a little closer to reality. Joseph said to the brothers that sold him into slavery, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20) So the family members of the #EmanuelNine are teaching us by the example of love, forgiveness, and prayers toward the killer of their loved ones.
Thank you brothers and sisters of #EmanuelAME ; Thank you brothers and sisters throughout #Charleston ; Thank you dear departed Pastor Pinckney and all those who helped shape a Christian community that can help eradicate a persistent disease in the American body politic.
Thank you, Lord, for all we can learn form the #EmanuelNine .
Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min., is an evangelical minister to top-level government officials in Washington, DC, president of the National Clergy Council, and chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance. Dr. Schenck is the subject of the newly released documentary, Armor of Light, directed by Abigail Disney, and focusing on Christians and the problem of gun violence in America.
Revelations and allegations against Washington personalities have lately made for scandalous headlines, as they should. Investigations of a former speaker of the House and former member of Congress should be taken seriously. Still, they are only investigations at this stage. I hope we still hold to a fundamental legal concept in this country that the accused is “innocent until proven guilty.” Simply comparing our history to that of most of the rest of the world should be enough to convince us of the importance of this principle.
Still, we all know, generally where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It certainly won’t be the first time. Scandal is such a standard here in Washington that it became the name of a very popular TV series about, well, Washington scandals. Until recently, you could take a guided “Scandal Tour” of the nation’s capital.
Every time a story breaks like the ones surrounding Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, Rep. Aaron Schock, or, even the former Family Research Council executive Josh Duggar, I don’t think about the salacious appeal of the story, or of the terrible straights those public figures find themselves in—I think about the possible victims. Maybe that’s because I’m married to psychotherapist who specializes in helping victims of sexual abuse and other forms of trauma. Make no mistake about it—sexual abuse is a life-long trauma, as is being implicated in any form of criminal activity—for example, the Schock office interns now being hauled in front of a grand jury.
When the subject of scandal is a person in high public office, or engaged in political or social action, or, more immediately relevant to my world, a religious figure—the victims are myriad. The pain and suffering just continues to emanate out from the perpetrator’s immediate circle of casualties to an enormous, almost limitless ring of likely never-to-be-named and even unknown sufferers. For a top elected official, it includes all those that put their trust and, sometimes, their time, energy, and money into a campaign. Those supporters feel they have a friend, an advocate that will help them, not someone that will turn and embarrass them. For donors to organizations that promote public virtue, only to discover gross hypocrisy, it feels like an utter betrayal.
I remember the day, years ago, when I led a delegation to Capitol Hill to present a beautiful plaque of the Ten Commandments to then Speaker Hastert. I knew little about him, except that he was an active layman in his evangelical church back in Aurora, Illinois. (Oddly, in mid-December 1999, I had been in then Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s office in the US Capitol on the day of Hastert’s election. I remember a frantic staffer rushed in to announce, “Denny’s going up to the big chair. It’s Denny. He‘s a good guy.” I didn’t know Rep. Hastert at the time, so it made no impression on me.)
Eight months later, at the conclusion of that ceremony when our group conveyed the tablets to the new Speaker, charging him to “always obey them and to display them,” he said something peculiar. He looked the plaque up and down nervously and said something like, You guys know these aren’t in force anymore. We’re under grace now, not the law.
At that moment, one of our delegates, the inimitable (and late) Reverend Dr. Edwin Elliott of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, said to the Speaker in his witty way with a wry smile, “Has anyone informed Mrs. Hastert of this?” Dr. Elliott used his famous bushy eyebrows to indicate he was alluding to the commandment against adultery. Speaker Hastert did not respond.
What we’re reading and hearing about in the news these days is the reason our ministry continues to distribute plaques of the Ten Commandments to elected and appointed officials, as we did just this past week when we gave them to a new US senator. The timeless Words of Sinai are a reminder to us all that no one is perfect and we all need a higher moral authority than ourselves to hold us in check and accountable. The Commandments are a gift to us from a loving God who saves us from ourselves, and, by doing so, spares others from suffering at our hands. I think of the Commandments as a defense against scandal and victimization.
My team and I are planning more Ten Commandments presentations in the days ahead. Perhaps the more plaques there are on walls in Washington, the less scandals there will be in the headlines, and the fewer victims there will be to suffer that trauma.
If you read me at all, you know I rarely prognosticate about Supreme Court decisions. First, the justices and their staff members are exceedingly good at keeping confidentiality and leaks virtually never happen. Second, in a technical sense, the justices can change their decisions at any point up to the day the opinions are announced from the bench—and, in an even more technical sense—afterwards, until those opinions are formally published in the federal record. So, predicting the outcome of any case is fraught with problems and is risky. Keep in mind, too, that I’m not a lawyer or legal scholar, but I have been observing cases closely at the High Court for over 20 years, and I’ve even been through my own in Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network. Notwithstanding all the caveats, I’m prepared to make my prediction on the impending same-sex marriage cases.
Before I announce my prediction, though, I’ll bring you up to date. First, you need to know the decision has already been made, for all intent and purposes. That happened on May 1, the Friday following the oral arguments by lawyers in front of the justices. After each of the justices and their clerks had read hundreds of pages of legal briefs, and after they listened to the presentations by lawyers from each side, grilling them with tough questions, the nine “Supremes,” as I affectionately call them, met privately to vote, without staff or security in their justices-only conference room. Then, either the Chief Justice, if he is in the majority, or, if he is not, the most senior justice among the majority, assigned the writing of the opinions, which they have all been doing since. The case is expected to be announced within the next few weeks, but likely not until the last week of June, when the Court will adjourn for the summer.
Now, to the heart of the matter: What I expect the Supreme Court will do with the question of same-sex marriage. To cut to the chase: They will make it the law of the land. That is, a majority of the justices (I am putting the number at 6-3) will order states to issue marriage licenses to couples of the same sex. But wait, NOT for the reason you might think.
What advocates of same-sex marriage want is the finding of a fundamental “right” to marriage for any two persons, same-sex or opposite sex. That would mean a constitutional right, which would result in three things: 1) The highest level of legal protection and the least amount of restrictions surrounding marriage; 2) The seizure of marriage regulation by the federal government, taking it away from the jurisdiction of the states; and, 3) The uncertain legal status of clergy who decline to solemnize same-sex marriages based on religious belief. (Due to the fact that in most states, clergy must be authorized, or even sworn-in, at some level of government—county court, county clerk, etc.—in order to legally solemnize, or legalize, a marriage. Such an authorization includes, implicitly or explicitly, promising to uphold the Constitutions of the respective state and United States. If same-sex marriage were found to be in the constitutions, government-authorized clergy would be forced to facilitate same-sex marriages or relinquish their legal ability to marry anyone.)
Before you panic, let me say these outcomes are highly unlikely. My prediction is that the majority will NOT find such a fundamental constitutional right to marriage. Instead, I see the court taking a different—and safer—route to get to universal same-sex marriage. Based on comments I heard from Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Breyer, and, most importantly, Chief Justice Roberts, as well as the people I have talked to behind the scenes, I see the Court basing its decision on another finding: sex discrimination. In other words, the majority will find that any law that says to a man, because you are male, you may only marry a female, and vice versa, telling a woman that because she is female, she may only marry a male, is patent sex discrimination. Such a finding will result in a federal order for the states to stop discriminating against marriage license applicants based on their sex, but it will not find a universal right to marriage, opposite-sex, same-sex, or anything else. While such a finding results in the national recognition of same-sex marriages, it keeps the adjudication of marriage in the states and away from the federal government, while it protects the First Amendment rights of clergy, based on religious freedom, to decline to marry a same-sex couple based on religious conviction. (It may also preclude claims to such a right by other marriage groups, i.e., plural marriage and human-animal marriage advocates, etc.)
I’m sure that, before this case even arrived at the Court, there was already a 5-4 majority for same-sex marriage (Ginzburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan—and, yes, Kennedy), so, it was a fait accompli. Here’s how my imaginative scenario goes: Chief Justice Roberts went to Justice Kennedy and said, “Tony, you can have your weak 5-4 majority that puts most religious groups in an enormous crisis and invites endless litigation that must inevitably come here, or, you can have a 6-3 strong mandate with me. Caveat: The 6-3 will be on the basis of sex discrimination, and, if that’s your position, you’ll write the opinion. You got this started ten years ago in Lawrence, and you can finish it now with Obergefell.”
On the last point, there’s another possible twist: Again, if the Chief joins the majority, he gets to say who writes the opinion—either himself, or whatever member of the majority he selects. Maybe the Chief wants to control the language of the decision. If so, he’ll write it. In either case (and here’s where I’ll take a great risk of being pilloried by my conservative cohorts) John Roberts saves the day for religious leaders across this country. If my presumed 5-4 majority gets it, there’s no protection for religious freedom or right of conscience. If my predicted 6-3 gets it, there is—because of John Roberts.
Whether you like it or not, my predicted outcome would be a Solomonic solution to a very natty problem. I’m convinced the Court was going to establish universal same-sex marriage one way or the other. If I’m right in my hunch, the outcome won’t be the worst of the possibilities. And, if I’m right, clerics like me will have John Roberts to thank for preserving our religious freedom.
Now my final caveat: I’m neither a prophet, nor the son of prophet (Amos 7:14). In other words, I could be completely wrong.
While global warming remains controversial among conservatives, something we can probably all agree on is a phenomenon I call, “Washington Warming.” The hot season has come a little early this time around, but as presidential campaigns get underway, the political atmosphere heats up; as it does, Christians need to keep our cool. Allow me to explain . . .
The best way for Christians to contribute to the political life of our country is to keep to the big picture. Faith informs politics, but not the other way around. Faith is bigger than politics, partisanship, and personalities. God’s ways (“faith”) are infinitely higher than man’s ways (politics). That doesn’t excuse apathy and disengagement. Faith propels us towards politics, but not beneath it.
Christians end up beneath politics when we let politicians and political powers drive our thinking, our actions, and our anxieties. This happens when we see the political as the be all and end all. I cringe when I hear Christians say, “If Congress doesn’t pass this law, we’re through,” and, “If the Supreme Court issues this ruling, we’re done!” or, “If the President orders that, we’re finished.” How could any of this possibly be? No earthly, human, limited potentate possesses absolute or ultimate authority over anything, let alone the future of humankind!
There is only, “one Lord.” (See Ephesians 4:5) and, “he will strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3) When we assign ultimate and absolute outcomes to the machinations of human actors, we diminish in our own minds the absolute and ultimate power of God. This is a form of idolatry, and it is a sin and a heresy.
Christians need to be engaged in the political process at all levels, from simply being informed, to voting, to attending town hall gatherings, to running for office. In all of this, we must assiduously maintain a faith perspective. Our anchor must be the Bible, the model of Christ, historic Christian moral teaching, and prayerful reflection. These must must be our only ultimate reference points.
The dirty side to politics in unavoidable. After 21 years in Capitol Hill, I know it too well. Voting blocks will be identified, categorized, marketed to, exploited, and manipulated. It’s the nature of the business. Even if the candidate doesn’t approve of this activity, the thousands of businesses and individuals that stand to make millions of dollars off of campaigns will do what they need to do to outshine their competition, and that means yank you and me around.
We must not play their game or let them play us. Instead, we need to be the voice of conscience and confidence at the table. We know the rules, because they were given to us on Mount Sinai and at Capernaum. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, together with all of Holy Scripture, constitute the only ultimate and absolute platform for every part of the Christian life, including the political.
When it comes to the anxieties attendant to the political season, we must remember to, “Never worry about anything. Instead, in every situation let your petitions be made known to God through prayers and requests, with thanksgiving. “ (Philippians 4:6) I love these words of Paul because they’re not only emphatic, they’re optimistic. He tells us to include “thanksgiving,” presumably because God will and does answer, but in His time and in His way.
As this political season continues, we must be informed and engaged, but we must also be cool. In the end, God will have His way, whether we like it or not.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
You know by now I’ve been wary of the growing infatuation with guns in our society. My concern is for those that may face moral and ethical temptations to use them for the wrong reasons. The Christian has a much higher standard to answer to than the Second Amendment ( as important as it is), state gun laws (as good as they may be), and sloganeering by secular political and advocacy groups (as clever as they may be). So, I’ve issued a caution to Christians when it comes to equipping ourselves for deadly conflict.
This past week, though, I got another view of the gun question, when I visited chaplains of the Arizona Army National Guard. Of course, military chaplains are unarmed non-combatants, and for very good reasons. I’ll explore that virtuous philosophy in a future post. Instead, here I want to reflect on the women and men these chaplains serve. They are virtually all remarkably brave and professionally trained bearers of weapons. One soldier, who may have misunderstood my position on the issue, made an emphatic point of telling me, “I’m trained to kill those that want to kill you. I don’t shoot to take life, I only shoot to save life.”
His was a poignant remark, and one I quickly came to fully appreciate as I talked with the men and women in uniform that serve our country at great risk to their own safety and that of their families. Though I’ve been around military people for a long time–and I’ve done plenty of funerals at Arlington Cemetery–for some reason this visit brought the whole thing home to me in a way I hadn’t seen it before.
First, I came to realize just how highly trained, rehearsed, and restrained our military professionals are in the use of lethal weapons. The ones I met were extraordinarily self-disciplined and conscious of the moral gravity of their task. In a conversation with their senior chaplain, I learned how the vetting process goes on whether or not to use lethal force, how it can be done with the least amount of civilian collateral damage. Chaplains advise on these literal life-and-death decisions because along the entire chain of command there is a serious commitment to neutralizing dangerous, life-threatening enemies while protecting innocent non-combatants.
The average Christian will never have to think about these things, let alone execute decisions that will take human lives, sometimes on a grand scale. Only a miniscule number of us will ever need to process in prayer the affect of the killing of a fellow human being on the soul. One chaplain told me a soldier that mistakenly identified a car on the battlefield as filled with terrorists, but instead he killed an innocent couple and their small children. The soldier was so deeply traumatized by the tragedy that he committed suicide.
These highly skilled, but overwhelmingly compassionate and goodhearted souls, must not only risk their lives, but their consciences and reputations as well. They do it by taking on an onerous responsibility most of us would rather pass on. They must risk incurring guilt, shame, and sin, being labeled baby killers, monsters, and invaders. Worse yet, they risk being ignored by those of us that can’t relate to the otherworldly experiences that have permanently altered their lives.
In my humble estimation, there is a HUGE difference between the men and women in uniform that train exhaustively, operate under strict command and regulation, expose themselves to both grave danger and severe reprimand and punishment because of the use or misuse of their weapons and the rank amateurs like me that may want to empower ourselves like soldiers, but shirk all the taxing demands they willingly endure–again and again–to earn the right to bear arms to protect us and our country.
Pardon me while I say it like it is: Taking on the power of life and death over other human beings with no corresponding demand on our souls, psyches, and mental and physical prowess, cheapens the commitment of the exceptional men and women I spent time with this week.
God bless our military for taking our safety so very, very seriously.
“[T]he one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” — Jesus (Luke 12:48c)
This past weekend was surrealistic for me. You may have heard I literally walked a red carpet at one of the best-known film events in the world, the Tribeca Film Festival. I never thought I’d walk a red carpet. “Celebrity” was not in my life-plan.
The reason I did the walk, though, was because it’s more or less required of the principals in the major films that debut at this showcase of new and seasoned talent. In my case, I was the subject of the feature-length documentary, The Armor of Light, (titled for a sermon I preached from Romans 13:12) and directed by award-winning filmmaker Abigail Disney. In the film, I ask hard questions of others, but mostly of myself, about Christians, guns, and deadly force. I do not suggest legislative or policy solutions to the problem, but I invite Christians, especially pastors and ministry leaders, into a prayerful, biblically informed conversation about what it means to completely pro-life.
Abby’s film includes several voices along with mine, but she chose to center the film around my search for answers, my discussions with Christians of every opinion, and on my preaching. I hope you won’t jump to any conclusions until you’ve seen it and talked with me about it. I plan to travel the country as the film is shown in churches, special events, and on Christian university and seminary campuses. My prayer is that people will take away from The Armor of Light an open invitation to join this important national discussion on a literal life-and-death subject. You’ll hear me say a lot about that in the film.
Please watch for The Armor of Light to come to a film festival, movie theater, or church fellowship hall near you. And, after you see it, please post your thoughts at our new discussion space, www.narrowtheroad.org. Every comment helps me see this difficult challenge more clearly.
BTW: You’ll see in our photo gallery my hangout with some folks from the very liberal-left. (What else exists in New York City?) You know I’ve never been one to preach to the choir. I like to mix it up—and this film project has given me a beautiful opportunity to do so. Keeping company with people of the opposite opinion not only keeps me sharp, but it also affords moments of very meaningful ministry and unusual friendship. You’ll see that I share my testimony of salvation clearly in the film, something I’m very surprised the editors chose to leave in!
If I had been blessed to live during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, I would have been there right alongside him when he was with the tax collectors and sinners. (Well, that’s overstating it: Abby and her gang have hardly been riff-raff–they’ve been more like godsends to me!)
Abby has helped me and I’ve helped her to get an important message to two places that rarely, if ever, talk to each other. That’s when a message is needed—and often appreciated—the most!
Let’s stay in touch!
Rev. Rob Schenck +
Maybe you saw the adventure comedy-drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty staring Ben Stiller. It’s the fun story of a very ordinary guy that works for Life Magazine and goes on an unlikely, action-packed, thrill-seeking quest to find a lost film negative he thinks will make the perfect cover photo for the last printed issue of the beloved journal. I watched the movie two weeks ago to kill some time on my 10-hour flight to Istanbul, Turkey for my first visit to that country. How apropos, really, because this trip was my own secret adventure.
You probably know me only for my work as a missionary to government officials in Washington, DC (which has been my most important ministry endeavor for the last 20 years), but there’s a whole other side to what I do. I’ve actually been to more than 40 countries since I was ordained 32 years ago. Most of this travel was for preaching ministry or to supervise Christian humanitarian efforts, but some of it was also to investigate and report on religious freedom crises around the world.
My first forays on the religious freedom front came some 10 years ago with my board membership at the Institute for Religion and Public Policy (IRPP), founded by my long-time friend Joseph Grieboski. Joe got me involved in a dialogue between American Evangelical leaders and Moroccan Muslim leaders that would last five years and become one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Joe also talked me into going with him to Sudan to investigate the state of religious freedom in that country, which turned out to be one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever done!
It was another long-time friend and colleague, though, Jay Sekulow, that got me to go to Turkey. I must admit, Turkey was not on my radar screen until Jay brought it to my attention. It happened in conjunction with my acceptance of his invitation to serve as a senior research fellow with the newly established Oxford Centre** for the Study of Law and Public Policy (**British spelling), located at Harris Manchester College, a school of Oxford University in England. My first assignment was to undertake an investigation of religious freedom in Turkey, particularly as it affects Evangelical Christians.
To stick with the “secret life” theme of this blog, my assignment had to do with my other “secret” post as chairman of the Evangelical Church Alliance International, one of the oldest associations of Evangelical ministers, missionaries, and chaplains here in the U.S. and around the world. This leadership position, along with my doctoral work on Evangelicals at Faith Evangelical College and Seminary, qualified me as an “expert,” and, thus, as a candidate for the Oxford fellowship.
Taking on an investigation of this nature is a serious matter. To assist me in gathering data, I recruited three professional researchers. (Two Americans and one Turk doing graduate work here in Washington.) The two Americans traveled to Turkey ahead of me and conducted interviews with 24 subjects spread across the country, including on the Syrian border where they encountered gunfire. I interviewed five church leaders (mostly Turkish of Muslim background) and four government officials, two at the Turkish embassy here in Washington and two in the Turkish capital of Ankara. I submitted a 20-page academic paper to the Oxford Centre before traveling to Turkey, then gave an oral report and defense to the symposium at Harris Manchester College that included the findings of my field research. More than a dozen presentations were made at Oxford on a variety of subjects related to Turkey, so I learned a lot about the country and its culture in the process.
We cannot ignore Turkey or take it for granted. It is hugely consequential both to the stability of the region and to much of the world. Until recently, Turkey was known as perhaps the most moderate of Muslim majority countries. It is officially “secular,” with no singular state religion, but Islam is favored in just about every way and without apology.
What I found surprising was that Christian churches do meet openly throughout Turkey, there are Christian radio and television stations, active Christian social media pages and websites, and Bibles in Turkish are readily available to those that want them. Compared to other Muslim majority countries, the situation in Turkey is remarkably free and open. Still, there are grave problems. Christians do suffer social discrimination and they do not not have confidence that the current government will protect them against acts of prejudice, including violence.
For the next several years, I will be continue my study of Turkey, and will pursue advocacy for Christians there, as well as work for greater U.S. attention to Turkey over all. As the literal bridge between east and west (the country straddles Europe and Asia), and the freest of all Muslim majority nations, not to mention it’s long, albeit stormy, role as an ally to Europe and the U.S., Turkey is a terribly important player on the world stage. It is sophisticated, in many ways exotic, and somewhat socially progressive, but the government’s recent turn towards an Islamist orientation threatens religious minorities and portends its possible global realignment. Please pray for Turkey and its people, especially its relatively few Christian inhabitants.
Before I close, I want to thank Dr. Jay Sekulow and the board of trustees of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy for their confidence in me. As a senior fellow, I am honored to be in their company. I also want to thank the Reverend Dr. Ralph Waller, principal of Harris Manchester College, Director of the Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, and Pro-Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, for his warm embrace of the Oxford Centre fellows.
This (now not-so-secret) adventure continues–watch for updates. There will also be another installment in the Secret Life of Rob Schenck next week. It may be an even bigger surprise, so, do watch for it!