This week, not one, not two, but three states attempted to pass legislation under the guise of religious freedom that would allow business people, police, doctors, restaurants, teachers, etc. to refuse service to anyone whose lifestyle offends their religious beliefs. In both Kansas and Idaho, these bills passed in their Houses of Representatives but were later derailed in their Senates due to wide spread public outcries. In Arizona, as of this morning, their bill had passed in both the House and the Senate and was awaiting the Governor’s signature, an action she has delayed as she was weighs the merits of the bill.
When I first read about these bills last week, I could not believe what read was really true. I had to ask, how anyone in 2014 could even think it was okay to legislate discrimination laws under the guise of religious freedom. This is what these laws amount to, a return to legislated bigotry in the name of religion. Every news source I read on this issue was unanimous in describing how these bills were being designed to get around the judicial breakdown of the Defense of Marriage Laws and were a back door attempt to allow discrimination against same- sex couples. Even worse, these laws, as written, go even further than this. If one felt any person’s lifestyle was contrary to their religious sensibility then they could refuse them service. The list of potential victims could include single mothers, perhaps eventually anyone who did not attend church or even attended the “wrong” church. These laws could potentially allow people to refuse service to anyone who did not share their religious beliefs in general.
As I thought about these attempts of draconian legislation, I had to ask myself, what kinds of laws could actually infringe on my religious freedoms. In light of today’s readings from both Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount, I realize the only laws which can infringe on my religious freedom as a Christian were any and all laws that would prevent me from being compassionate and caring of my neighbor.
The laws in Leviticus and commands from the Sermon on the Mount are the oldest recorded divine commands for both Judaism and Christianity and they both contain the command to love our neighbor as our selves. In fact, when Christ is asked what the greatest law is, Christ tells the Pharisee it is to love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. St. Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians that we are nothing without love.
But who is our neighbor? If we connect the dots from today’s Gospel, Jesus would say it is our enemy as much as it is our friends and family. When asked the question directly, Jesus responded with the following parable.
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
As we read this story, the behaviors of the Priest and Levite leave us scratching our heads and wondering why anyone could travel past a badly injured man and feel justified. However, both, for religious reasons, were perfectly justified in not tending to their injured brother. According to Torah, to touch a dead body caused physical defilement and would require the two to engage in a purification ritual before going on with their regular duties. Neither wished for, nor felt they were able to risk the time if they became defiled. The Samaritan had no worries about being defiled or who the man was. One of the many points Jesus makes with this parable is to say that no act of compassion or love towards another human being can in any way defile us. And, the way the parable is slanted, Jesus may actually be conveying that any act to avoid offering compassion to a fellow human in need can and does defile us in the eyes of God.
One of the many blessings I have received during my years as your rector was the opportunity to pastorally care for Tom and Pat Bassett in their final years. In their prime, both gave generously of their time to take care of those who were sick or injured. At Tom’s memorial, friends and family spoke of the physical risks he took when he was called as an EMT to an accident site. If the stories we heard that day are correct, for Tom, there was no risk to great when it came to saving the life of another.
As hospice volunteers, Tom and Pat took care of a great number of people, offering them care and companionship in their finals days on earth. However, the story that has taught me the most about what it means to love one’s neighbor is the story of Pat caring for a young woman with AIDs during the late 80’s.
Anyone who knew Tom and Pat, knew they were conservative in their world view. They both had a strict sense of what was right and wrong and lived with that clarity until the day they each died. But when it came to someone in need or who was dying, no matter what the reason, the only appropriate response was to love them. So when Pat and Tom were asked to care for a young woman dying of AIDs, at a time when most of America feared the AIDs virus like the plague, Pat and Tom thought nothing of going into this young woman’s home, tending to her needs, changing her sheets and washing them in their home.
When Tom first told me the story, I asked him and Pat how they had found the courage to do this. It was Pat who responded. “The courage was simple, she was my neighbor, and God wanted me to love her.”
I suspect if Pat and Tom were alive today they would be appalled by the laws that have been proposed in Kansas, Idaho and Arizona. Despite their conservative world views, they were always clear, being asked to care for and love those whose lifestyles are in discord with your own, does not in any way infringe upon one’s religious freedoms, but simply offers us opportunity to live in to God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
As I reflect on Christ’s call to love our neighbor or even our enemy as ourselves in light of the massive amount of social legislation that has gone before Congress, I now find myself asking, if the person this legislation is designed to serve were for my child or my parent or even myself, would I want that for them. If I find the answer is yes, then I know the legislation has merit, because I know if this is something I would want for a family member, then I know this is how I would want my neighbor to be treated. For there is no greater command than to love my neighbor as myself.