by Barry Friedman
(First Appeared in The Tulsa Voice)
Just when we think we’re out, they pull us back in. But it wasn’t politics this time; it was faith. Two stories before we begin.
1) What seems like a million years ago, I was flipping through the cable channels and heard Jim Bakker—yes, that Jim Bakker—preaching about a Baptist pastor who had humiliated a young girl for dancing.
He was incensed.
Fundamentalist Baptists frown on such things, something Bakker wasn’t backing away from; yet, this incident bothered him because the pastor had the girl in tears.
“If that’s Christ,” screamed Bakker, “I don’t want Him!”
2) In a homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1998, The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor said, “I categorically denounce the hypothesis that to kill an abortionist is justifiable in order to save babies. I have consistently denounced violence against persons based on their sexual orientation.”
Later, he told a New York City newspaper, “Let me make this clear: if anyone feels the need to kill an abortion doctor, kill me first.”
If that’s Christ…
Why bring this up?
As much as anything, what happened in Indiana last month—what is still happening there (and in other states, including Oklahoma)—is a battle for the parameters, language and meme of Christianity in America. Remember that pizza place at the center of the controversy?
“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Memories Pizza’s Crystal O’Connor said.
“We are a Christian establishment.”
“That lifestyle is something they choose. I choose to be heterosexual. They choose to be homosexual. Why should I be beat over the head to go along with something they choose?”
Let Elizabeth Loring of The Ripple Effect, a choir dedicated to bridging differences, pick up the story. When she first heard about Memories Pizza, Loring believed the O’Connors were cultural stereotypes, almost “cartoon characters,” she said.
“I like Rosie O’Donnell’s remark that even lesbians wouldn’t have pizza at a wedding—chili, maybe.”
Any other time, any other place, that’s funny.
The Ripple Effect founder Sherry Klinedinst—a church pianist at Southside Christian Church in South Bend, Indiana—decided, instead, the choir should go to Memories Pizza.
“I’ve been up all night thinking about these people,” Klinedinst wrote members, “and my heart goes out to them. Bottom line is that if we say we celebrate diversity and embrace our differences, then we should show them our support by showing them love. Who’s in?”
“My heart goes out to them”—? The group was in, including Loring, even after this news:
Fund Raises $840,000 for Memories Pizza After Attacks Over Gay Marriage Views
“My heart is slightly less heavy now,” Loring wrote Klinedinst. “I’m pretty sure they can stay in business if they choose to.”
“I can understand how you would feel that way,” Klinedinst responded. “I do, too. But if everyone could see the horror of the barrage of FB posts, it would be easier to see that those people would truly benefit from being shown that hate must be met with love. What would Jesus have done?”
The group went. Though the O’Connors weren’t there and Memories had closed down, the choir sang out front—hymns including, “In Christ There is No East or West” and, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” A trucker drove by and yelled “God Bless America;” a retiree told them, “Get a job!” After about an hour, they headed back to South Bend for Good Friday services.
“By the time we got to town,” Loring said, “the hateful comments were starting to pile up.”
From every side.
“Most of them were initially from the right, thinking we were protesting,” she said. “Later, we also got angry comments from people from the left, incensed we would show sympathy to the restaurant owners.”
If it seems that no good deed goes unpunished, it might also ring true that no bad one goes unrewarded.
All told, Memories Pizza received almost $1 million in contributions; The Ripple Effect received this:
“Now I’m getting gay fatigue to go along with my race fatigue.”
“Everyone of these gay ‘Christian’ choir members are liars.”
“The place is shutdown because of death threats from gay Nazis. How about these idiots go sing to them?”
If that's Christ ...
Garrett Epps—author of To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, and Supreme Court correspondent for The Atlantic, warns about oversimplifying:
“Listen, for heaven’s sake, let’s not fall for the hokum that ‘Christians’ are homophobes or that ‘Christians’ support discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, because you must know, if you think it through, how many Christians have taken risks and pushed their denominations in the name of equality for LGBT,” Epps said in email. “The claim that immunity from civil rights laws is ‘Christian’ is a trap, because the corollary is that favoring legal equality is ‘anti-Chrisitan.’ Don’t fall into it.”
“It’s the fall that’ll kill you”—Butch Cassidy
Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at Tulsa’s All Souls Unitarian Church, also sees the rhetorical traps.
“Who gets to define Christianity?” Lavanhar said. “That’s been a question for 2000 years. If someone were to say, ‘Christians or Christianity rejects LGBT people or lifestyles,’ they would have to explain why Evangelical Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and a number of other smaller Christian denominations accept them.”
Last year, after Gov. Mary Fallin said Oklahomans are religious and do not want gay marriage, All Souls hosted an engagement party of sorts.
“Twenty-seven clergy (Christian, Jewish and Unitarian) publicly stood with our LGBT neighbors,” Lavanhar said. “These kinds of efforts are needed to remind the country and those who think they define Christianity that theirs is not a Christian consensus on LGBT issues and ethics.”
Loring says victory is incremental.
“We can’t change every heart, so why should we try?” she said. “The whole idea was to try to create a small space where there are no sides. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’”
Memories Pizza has reopened, and the O’Connors say they will remodel and give the rest to charity.
There’s a story: Walking on a beach, a man and his grandson discover hundreds of starfish beached and dying. The boy starts throwing them back into the water, one by one. The man says gently, “You can’t save them all. There are just too many. You can’t throw enough back to make any difference.” But the boy continues, saying, “But grandpa, it makes a difference to this one, and this one, and this one.”