Should women be allowed to go to college?
Are people property to be bought and sold?
If native peoples resist the advance of civilization, should they be killed?
Should young children earn their keep by working in factories?
Are Negroes human beings?
In the year 2003, these are easy questions to answer. In fact, the questions themselves are shocking.
But these questions were burning issues in this country in the 19th century. At the dawn of that century, when Lewis and Clark were setting out on their journey, very few people spoke for women, children, Native Americans or slaves. Those who did were vilified. Some who did were murdered.
So what has happened in the last two hundred years to change so many hearts that our whole society had to change...
that slavery had to end?
That children had to be rescued from sweatshops?
That women had to be given the right to vote and to go to school?
that Native Americans were at last granted citizenship in their own country?
What happened to completely reverse public consensus, and to reach a new consensus so firm that we can hardly comprehend the beliefs that allowed such inhumanity to exist?
We can point to dramatic moments in nineteenth century history that changed peoples' hearts... The publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin... The first speaking tour of runaway slave Frederick Douglass... The Declaration of the Rights of Women read in a small voice by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls... John Brown's apocalyptic writings in the days before he was led to the gallows... A bloody Civil War which killed more people than all our other wars put together... Chief JosephÕs surrender speech, "I will fight no more forever".... The poignant death of Susan B. Anthony, a woman who had crisscrossed the country in her red shawl asking that women be allowed to vote, dying in her nineties without seeing her goal achieved.
These emotional events changed hearts, so many hearts that the world could never be the same.
But if you look closely at these great shifts in public opinion and public morality, it becomes plain that change was very slow, that each generation took a small step towards reframing the questions and searching for answers, and that the process was painful, circuitous, sometimes violent, sometimes hopelessly bogged down.
When we read history, we have a record of the great dramas that helped move people toward a new consensus, that shone a bright light on complex moral struggles and led the nation in a new direction. But I firmly believe that the real story is one of thousands and thousands of ordinary people like ourselves searching their hearts for the truth. I deeply believe that each thought, each prayer, each line we write, each word we say, each action we take could be part of humanity moving to better place. The momentous changes are so slow that we may not ever know how the things we did in this life mattered. But some of us are blessed to live long enough to see generations of struggle come together.
I was born in 1951 in the Jim Crow South and I saw that world change forever. I saw that by the time people watched Bull Connor's police turn the hoses and dogs on peaceful Blacks in Birmingham, too many hearts had changed to support that society any longer.
I grew up with the War in Viet Nam. When I was old enough, I went to rallies and marched in the streets. In the days right after the murder of four students at Kent State, an event that took place 50 miles from my college, I went to the state capitol for a march that we were warned not to attend. More kids are going to be killed, we were told. If you go, you are risking your life. But I went that day, ready to die. Yes, I believe that decision, in some small way, helped bring about the end of the war.
The question I often ask myself is this: What are we doing right now which will shock people 200 years from now? What silent consent are we giving to moral evil? What great wrong is so much a commonplace in our lives that we do not even know it is there? What is our blindness keeping us from seeing? How can we see what it is that we cannot see?
One way I work at knowing the answer is to imagine the world as I would like it to be and then to reflect on the way it is. I keep feeling that God wants me to speak out for gay and lesbian people, who are at the center of the most divisive struggle in Christendom. I don't like the way the world treats these folks, who are among us, and are part of every day that we live.
I hear scriptural arguments, Congressional debates, ballot measures, political speeches. Martyrs and villains emerge.... Churches split, families quarrel... People struggle to cloak their views in righteousness... Very fine distinctions become huge points of contention. This issue has all the hallmarks of the debates about slavery - acrimony, moral confusion, fierce conviction, even violence.
Obviously, society is trying to move from the days when gays had no rights, were openly persecuted, and were forced to stay in the closet to protect their physical safety. But we are not yet moving together. A new consensus is a long way off.
I believe that God is clearly asking us to search our hearts on the question of how we will receive gay and lesbian people into the human family. It is painful to be at this point in the process of social change, when there is so much disagreement. I am comforted by my belief that each small gesture matters, that these humble words of mine today asking that love be given unconditionally to these our brothers and sisters, will make a difference in some way I may never know.
Whether we are ready or not, God has put this issue on the table. People of faith all over the country are searching their hearts, alone and in community, sometimes at great cost. I hope that we will search our hearts, and that we will ask God to lead us where we should go.