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SALT LAKE CITY, UT: Playing the Grace Card

SALT LAKE CITY, UT: Playing the Grace Card
Systemic justice comes home to roost

By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu
Special to Virtueonline
June 26, 2015

All right, so it happened. The Supreme Court ruled, as most of us thought it would, in favor of marriage equality. General Convention will follow suit in a few days. In fact, it feels as if it already has, and I can tell that everyone here feels the same way. The only substantive decision before the Convention was, "do we do pass this now or do we wait?" That question has been taken off the table. The Court drew her an Advance to Go card. She jumps over the risky ground of potential debtors and skips directly to the high moral ground which, once again, has been cleared before her.

I know this is a big day for all of us one way or the other, and I'm a little disappointed that it strikes me no differently than hearing who won at Wimbledon. I think tennis is a great game, but I don't follow it, and I don't care who wins. I won't say that to my mother, a diehard fan, but nor do I feel I'm letting her down by not sharing her enthusiasm. While I know that's not a fair comparison, I'm nonetheless surprised by my indifference at today's announcement by the Court. I took it as inevitable.

We call it "prophetic" when the Church finally says what everybody else is saying. Our prophetic boldness consists in sticking a finger in the eye of fellow Episcopalians, sometimes a few, sometimes many. We risk the wrath of a local congregation or even a whole Diocese, each with no more power to retaliate than to overrule a national court.

Church members retaliate with their feet and their wallets, but at the level of the bureaucracy -- the local and national conventions -- it takes generations until this wrath is felt. Besides, the Church bureaucracy is insulated by its Byzantine "structure," as one Convention task force puts it. Here in Salt Lake City, an amateur bureaucracy passes layer upon layer of legislation designed, at least indirectly, to shore up its control and shield itself from dissent. Voluntary assessments become mandatory, assessed rates climb, and disciplinary canons include more and more language aimed at stigmatizing, if not destroying, the only ones vulnerable to the bureaucracy -- the clergy.

There is something I am very concerned about, and I return home with a tinge of fear. I no longer feel free to love my gay friends in the unconditional manner that characterizes Christian love, nor do I expect the atmosphere of this new equality to have a place for such love.

I imagine saying to my gay friends, "I don't agree with you on the marriage issue, and frankly I no longer care about it. I can think you're mistaken or dead wrong and find that irrelevant. I don't claim any high ground, and I know very well the absurdity of placing a debt of thirty talents alongside a debt of thirty-five with an air of superiority, but frankly I don't know what scale I'd look at in order to quantify our respective debts. For all I know my debt is fifty while yours is twenty-five.

"Here's what we have in common: we both owe a debt we can never repay, for we have neither the cash nor the currency to settle it. Some sort of righteous swindle is necessary for our respective books to be balanced. I think it's called Grace."

I'm afraid my gay friends will not be able to hear that, and maybe I didn't hear it years ago. But politics has ratcheted things up. The system now at play, to cite the lexicon of Convention, is that disagreement equals hatred. This is the logic of raw power. Whether you agree with it or not, marriage equality was not approved by virtue of its manifest truth and goodness so much as by label of "hate" attached to any who would reject it. By that logic "I love you anyway" has no place, but becomes a contemptuous duplicity and more of a threat to the system than outright rejection.

Grace has been replaced with the Grace Card. Unconditional love has been conditioned. "I love you in spite of differences and disagreements, sometimes sharp, painful, and personal" used to mean "I love you unconditionally." The logic of that equation has been turned on its head. I hope I'm wrong, but this is what I anticipate hearing:

"Your disagreement recalls the countless rejections and fears I have suffered over countless years just being who and what I am. Now you bear responsibility not to visit that pain on me again, even by your disagreement." This is a condition I'm powerless to fulfill. You will return my love only on condition that I demonstrate unconditional love defined as agreement. This I cannot do, so I am condemned to hate you even if I don't. That's not me or you. That's the system.

The Grace Card is systemic justice at its worst. Love -- which is always an expression of divine grace in that it can only be freely given and freely received, and can never be paid in response to a debt or a threat -- defies a system that must control love, ironically, to permit love greater freedom. Love has been politicized, certainly not for the first time, but its political currency is what powers the system that brought it about. While love cannot be traded as a commodity, it can be refused as a medium for spontaneous human exchange. If I don't agree with you, I don't love you, even if I do.

The Grace Card is refusing -- or worse, finding oneself powerless -- to give and receive love unconditionally except under the condition that you validate who I am on my terms. In other words, my friends no longer have the ability to receive love from me even if they want to, and they will always have the power to dismiss it as a false, perhaps an insidious love. Something greater than both of us has come between and chosen sides for us. As Thomas Becket said to King Henry on the frigid beaches of Normandy, "I'm afraid we must only do, absurdly, what it has been given to us to do, right to the end."

It's absurd to love one's neighbor to redeem oneself in that neighbor's eyes or to justify oneself before God. That is not how one loves God or oneself, and it is certainly unfit for a neighbor. To put it another way, love that is conditioned and controlled might better be called hate or fear -- a hate that plays its hand carefully, melting into the crowd, posing as human in order to maintain invisibility.

The Grace Card is absurdity itself. The words don't add up. I can only accept your unconditional love on the condition that I find it acceptable.

Tilt. Game over.

The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando, Florida, and completing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Central Florida

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