An Open Letter to Jesus, Apologizing for This RFRA Mess

By Derek Penwell

Dear Jesus,

I feel like I should apologize. I mean, for all the bad press you’ve been getting lately because of us. It must drive you nuts.

We’re a fallible lot, your followers. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We hurt one another. That’s true across the board. All of us.

But apart from the garden variety meanness in which all your followers engage, now you have to deal with a bunch of us enacting legislation that will allow us not just to behave like our ordinary screwed up selves when we hurt other people, but to commit that spitefulness in your name.

No. I’m not kidding. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) are springing up all over the place. These religious refusal ordinances allow people to ignore laws that they say are in conflict with their personal religious beliefs. The sponsors of these acts wink as they argue that this groundswell of religious legislation isn’t specifically targeting LGBTQ people. That same gender marriage is experiencing its own groundswell of support (both culturally and legislatively) is apparently only a coincidence. But everybody knows it’s about the gays. (It seems that the thought of baking LGBTQ people cakes and renting them tuxedos is more than any pious person ought to have to endure.)

“I shouldn’t have to serve anyone I don’t approve of,” is pretty much what it boils down to—which is bad enough. But then they baptize this bigotry, anoint it with oil, and send it out into the world as a herald announcing to everyone that this is what you’re all about, Jesus. So, it’s not just “I don’t approve of you,” but more importantly, “Jesus doesn’t approve of you. And if you don’t like it, too bad. You can just go buy your cake of abomination and lies from some other reprobate who doesn’t love Jesus as much as I do.”

So, I’m apologizing that some of my brothers and sisters have seen fit to act like toddlers who pout when they don’t get their way, sharing their marbles only with pre-approved playmates. Again, that kind of reaction is irritating enough. But what’s even more exasperating is the fairly common assumption that all your followers are simply waiting around trying to figure out against whom it is now permissible to discriminate.

Remember that church where the young teenage girl got pregnant? Then when she decided to keep the baby, some of us suggested that the church should throw her a baby shower, let her know that we loved her and were excited to welcome her child into our community? But there were a couple of people who grumbled, “If this church throws a party for her, it will be like I’m personally endorsing her pregnancy?” Remember that?

And then another young woman stood up and said, “Look, this isn’t about you and your endorsement. This is about a young woman who’s getting ready to face the most difficult time in her life. And we just want her to know that she doesn’t have to face it alone. She’s a follower of Jesus too. In fact, if I recall, Jesus always seemed to go out of his way to support those questionable folks all the religious people were busy not approving of.” You remember that, right?

We’re bad at this stuff sometimes, Jesus. Too often we privilege purity over faithfulness—which seems odd, since we claim to follow the guy who told the story about the Good Samaritan. Unfortunately, it seems that too many of us make a habit of passing by on the other side of the road in the name of not dirtying our consciences.

Unfortunately, we claim to invite everyone to your table, but we hang a big sign with asterisks on the front of that table, listing the kinds of people we reserve the right not to serve.

Unfortunately, too many of us are more concerned with being right than in getting it right.

And, Jesus, we’re hurting people in the process. Humiliating people. Telling folks that they’re somehow defective, somehow unloveable.

So, I apologize for those who call themselves by your name, but who commit acts of cruelty while brandishing that name like a weapon. Forgive us (myself included) when we act less lovingly than you expect. Grant us the courage to stand with those who, too often, find themselves standing alone.

Challenge us to be better than we are, to love more than we can imagine, and to seek a justice more expansive and inclusive than our wounded hearts can dream.

Love,

Derek

(A special shout out to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who have vowed not to hold its General Assembly in Indiana in 2017, because it's a state that just passed a version of RFRA!)