My grandmother, Mama Irene, possessed that South Carolina wisdom we called Mother Wit, and she loved to share her rich wisdom with her grandchildren.
I remember the time when she let me know in no uncertain terms that a man and woman living together without benefit of marriage were "living in sin." But then she said, "There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it doesn't behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us."
Mama Irene was our family's Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis during WWII. In his book, Life Together, he was clear that "we are, in fact, sinners." However, the reason Bonhoeffer and Mama Irene knew that everyone was a sinner was because they had witnessed the horrible discrimination and violence human beings are capable of—and none are innocent.
But that is different from the "wink, wink" of those who say that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is simply another sin. I remember, as I grew up in North Carolina and Texas, that some people looked down on those of us who were black and said, "We are all children of God"—"wink, wink." When I hear Christians talk about LGBT people and say they "love the sinner, but hate the sin," I know I am face-to-face with a same old judgmental attitude that harms everyone in its path, and has a kind of spiritual arrogance about it.
Sadly, this bad judgment is often bolstered by references to the Bible: "Look, it says right here…" Many of us in the church are deeply concerned when the Bible is used to declare that some persons are to be treated differently or called "sinner" because of who they are. We remember that the so-called "Noah's curse" or "curse of Ham" was used to demean and dehumanize persons of African descent. The enslavement of Africans and the segregation of African Americans were justified by persons who claimed that they were Bible-believing as they said, "The Bible says black people sinned and are now cursed to be servants and slaves."
Mama Irene's wisdom makes me cautious about a person who justifies his or her beliefs about discrimination of any kind by beginning a sentence with "The Bible says…" The bans on ordaining women, dancing, playing cards, going to the movies on Sunday, drinking alcohol, etc., at one time or another have been justified by a narrow interpretation of scripture. And, although some Christians still deny ordination to women, most of those prohibitions have been discontinued, even though the Bible has not changed.
I believe the love of God is profound and inclusive. The love of same gender couples I have known is as authentically an expression of the creative love of God, as any love I have seen or known.
A day is coming when same-gender-loving couples who are created by God will not be asked to deny who they are in the church, the military and other institutions by "passing" as someone they are not. Paul Laurence Dunbar writes of black people; "We wear the mask that grins and lies. It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes." No one should be asked to wear a mask.
African Americans are now taking off another mask—the mask of silence in the face of injustice directed at same-gender-loving persons. Although some Christians of African descent still call same-gender-loving persons sinners, a growing number of African-American faithful are standing up for human dignity, freedom and rights, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ministers, theologians and church members in the future will look back and say, "That was the era when we learned to simply ask, "What's love got to do with it?"
Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell is a retired African-American United Methodist minister, a board member of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and founding partner of Truth in Progress.