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A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Ends with a Memo…

February 18, 2014

DOJ Seal

By Drew Griffin: Almost no one will remember where they were.  In fact few will even see the significance of what occurred this last week. There was a time and an era when the event that transpired on February 8th would have unleashed a firestorm of media coverage and unprecedented political repercussions.  In the past, entire political administrations have been engulfed with the fallout by merely suggesting, even hinting at what actually transpired. But what was once monumental is now but a momentary mention on the weekend evening newscast; soon replaced by celebrity gossip and Olympic coverage.  To what am I referring? Can you place it? Have I dropped enough hints?

I am of course referring to the announcement made, via memo, by US Attorney General Eric Holder of an extension of Federal protections and benefits to Same-Sex couples.  In particular, Gen. Holder specified that same-sex couples will receive equal treatment with opposite-sex couples when it comes to court filings, testimonies, and prison visits.

“In every courthouse, in every proceeding and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States, they will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages,”

Lest you think this represents a minor memorandum, think again. As was reported on February 9 in the New York Times, “The government estimates that more than 1,100 federal regulations, rights and laws touch on, or are affected by, marital status. With a memo on Monday, Mr. Holder plans to make several of those provisions apply equally to gay and straight couples.”  This represents a huge boost to the LGBTQ movement. It was hailed and celebrated by same-sex advocates, and yet the expected furor surrounding it has been remarkably muted.  There was a time in which the mere suggestion of such a memo would have caused a political firestorm.

Historical Context

For some historical distance and context we need to look no further than a mere twenty years ago, when a newly elected president let it slip to a reporter, in a rare unguarded moment, that he did intend to fulfill his campaign promise to lift the ban on gays in the military.

In 1993, Bill Clinton was beginning his first term of office, a fresh faced transplant to Washington straight from the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Young, liberal (for his day), and idealistic, dare we say it ‘naive’, this new president was intent on changing the landscape of America.  After one minor presidential event, Clinton was cornered by a reporter and asked the question of whether he would remain faithful to his campaign pledge to lift the ban on gay individuals serving openly in the military. Clinton, caught somewhat off guard, affirmed his pledge and lit the fuse of cultural and political outrage.  A long and protracted debate ensued throughout 1993.  He met resistance from conservatives, both democrats and republicans,  career military officers and even his own Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs Colin Powell.  Ultimately he settled on the politically unpopular compromise of “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” which took effect twenty years ago this month.   While DADT was an “advancement” for its time; it too, in due course, would be deemed restrictive, archaic and eventually would be repealed by Barack Obama in his first term in office in 2010.

So why the history lesson?  It is worth us considering and taking stock of the change in cultural temperature and political procedure. In 1993, the idea of broad-based acceptance of homosexuality and the legitimacy of the homosexual lifestyle seem untenable, undesirable and even implausible to many americans.  This fact represented a challenge for the LGBTQ community, a challenge they embraced.  A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, as the saying goes; and little by little, step by step, the movement began its journey.  Even if one does not share their goals, one has to admit their commitment is admirable, and their determined focus worthy of emulation.

Systematically, throughout the 90s and 00’s an aggregate group of celebrities, social advocates, politicians, and average citizens began to plan, rally, petition, sue, pray, and vote.  Their approach was varied and multifaceted.  Sadly the evangelical and broader Christian response, while often the truth, was all the more often singular and tone-deaf.  Christians were basking in the twilight glow of Christianity’s cultural prominence.  Moral majorities rarely see the need to guard their image and temper their message, after all, they are already in the majority,  in their eyes they have already won.  And yet, with dogged persistence and surprising success the LGBTQ movement was able in the span of twenty years to recast the debate and reframe the rhetoric.

Theirs was no longer a plea for sexual liberation, but a campaign for rights and tolerance which fit neatly into the country’s heritage of toleration, expanded freedom and opportunity.  They joined the journey of all those downtrodden and oppressed who had received liberty’s sweet gift of social equity earlier in the nineteenth and twentieth century. One by one the dominos fell, and the milestones passed. With each “victory” and each broken barrier the threshold of our cultural outrage increased.  And so, when the Attorney General of the United States wielded the weight of the department of Justice behind the values of a movement and claimed that same-sex legitimacy represents, one of “the defining civil rights challenges of our time,” it garnered far more acclaim than acrimony.  So what are we to do?

Reality, in light of the Gospel

As citizens and more importantly as believers we must continually assess the cultural landscape, and the only way that this assessment can be helpful is if it is both realistic and consciously related back to the gospel. The sober political reality is that Christians no longer represent the majority in this country, moral or otherwise.  Indeed many prominent Christian commentators and theologians have begun to sound the death knell of Cultural Christianity. While its prevailing influence on culture may be dead and its political influence waining, the message of Christianity is no less potent today than it was when death was defeated and Christ rose form the dead.

What is needed from this new generation of Christian believers, activists, voters, commentators and politicos, are humble hearts that boast in Christ rather than in polls.  Humble Hearts that inform our dialogue and sweeten our witness.  We may, for the foreseeable future, face further political losses; we should lament when cultures confuse equality with equity and choose death rather than life;  and we should labor to see laws upheld and freedoms protected.  But we must remember that those we once “opposed” “in the closet” have come out and are next door and in the next cubicle.  They have been welcomed into a culture which promises liberation but delivers damnation.  We are the ones called to love them with the overflow of God’s gracious love in us, and to invite them on a different journey than the one they are currently on.  We live to see them welcomed into a Kingdom where promises are delivered and liberation is all too real.


Drew Griffin is the Lead Pastor/church planter of Cross Church NYC in Manhattan, NY. He and his wife Emily are missionaries with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Drew serves as associate director of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Extension Center in NYC.  They reside with their daughter Charlotte and dog Griffie in Brooklyn, NY. @DG_NYC

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