To celebrate Holy Week and Easter, the United Church of Christ (UCC) produced an attention-grabbing television ad highlighting its inclusive policies. Viewers watch an “intolerant” church rejecting–or rather, literally ejecting–a black mother, a gay couple, an Arab, and a person using a walker. As each tries to sit in a church pew, he or she is sent flying by an ejector seat. The ad contrasts the inclusive UCC with the ejecting church: “The United Church of Christ: no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”
This is, in many ways, a wonderful message. It strikes a chord with us Americans in our conviction that all should be welcome, none rejected. The inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, penned by American poet Emma Lazarus in 1883, sums up American open-heartedness:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
More to the point, wasn’t it Christ himself who welcomed the “wretched refuse” of his time, associating with publicans and adulterers, lepers, prostitutes, and the whole offal of Palestine? He and his disciples were from the wrong side of the tracks, the Palestinian outback of Galilee–a powerful message for the rich and famous of his time and ours. He was fiercely criticized for fraternizing with outcasts, and disparagingly dubbed a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Isn’t this absolute inclusiveness essential to the Christian message?
Yet I suspect the UCC ad had a more specific criticism in mind. I am unaware of any church in America that turns away blacks, or that has a policy against Arabs or handicapped persons. There are, however, a number of Christian churches that consider homosexual behavior to be sinful. By sneaking the gay couple in between the African-American woman and the Arab-American, the UCC disingenuously equates racial discrimination with moral principle.
There is a difference between a church saying “We welcome all persons” and “We welcome all behavior.” After all, two things distinguish Christian belief: a body of doctrine and a moral code. Following Jesus entails both. Jesus welcomed prostitutes, but he never welcomed prostitution. He was soft on adulterers, but unyielding on adultery. After forgiving the adulterous woman, in fact, he adds: “Go and sin no more.” And the tax collector Zacchaeus, on encountering Jesus, promises to pay back all those he has cheated–fourfold. Jesus never welcomed cheating, but he did welcome reformed cheaters. This is not just a matter of semantic hair-splitting. Jesus came to call sinners but to condemn sin, much as a doctor heals sick people but eradicates sickness.
There is a problem with identifying people with their choices. Thieves are welcome in the church not as thieves, but as human persons. When Jesus tells the chief priests and elders that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31), he is not winking at thievery and prostitution. He is responding, rather, to their willingness to acknowledge their errors and to change.
The Church is absolutely inclusive toward persons (all are invited to enter) but not toward ideas or behavior. If our “inclusiveness” means that we are no longer able or willing to distinguish between good and bad behavior and to make universal moral judgments like “wife beating is bad,” then we have effectively abandoned morality.
The UCC might respond that homosexuality is genetically determined. Science is ambivalent on the subject, and studies contradict one another. Yet, regardless of the biological component to homosexuality, the UCC would be missing the point. The fact of the matter is, we all are teeming with inclinations and tendencies–some good, some bad. The whole idea of self-mastery and virtue is to sort through those tendencies and to harness them for good. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, but it beats throwing in the towel.
People have always looked for scapegoats for their wrongdoing. Justifications and rationalizations are part and parcel of human conduct. The difference is, where people in the past often blamed others, or their upbringing, now they blame their genes. Few today would join comedian Flip Wilson in saying “the devil made me do it,” but plenty seem ready to say, “My DNA made me do it.” Such abdication of personal responsibility crushes the transcendence of the human person.
Christianity is essentially inclusive. Christians believe that Jesus came to call sinners–all sinners–and to die for us so that we might have life. All are invited, none excluded. Yet he also taught about right and wrong, and distinguished between good behavior and bad. No one is in a position to throw stones, but in good conscience we cannot turn the Gospel’s moral message on its head.
–Father Thomas D. Williams, LC, is dean of the theology school at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University where he teaches Catholic Social Doctrine, and is a Vatican Analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.