Disciple: Seeking the Next Right Thing
By Bishop Sam Rodman
The last weeks of June were eventful this year in more ways than one. I returned from a three-month sabbatical. We held our annual Clergy Conference gathering at St. Paul’s in Winston Salem, this year led by Emily P. Freeman, writer, spiritual director and retreat leader who lives in Greensboro. She is the author of the book “The Next Right Thing.”
And during the final days of June, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a number of important decisions on cases centered around key issues. One involved a challenge to the practice of affirmative action and college admissions, with the University of North Carolina as a named party in the case. Another pertained to fairness in the drawing of districting lines to manipulate voter registration. The third involved the question of whether a vendor could refuse service to LGBTQ+ persons on the basis of the vendor’s religious beliefs and convictions.
Like most, I had immediate thoughts on each decision. But rather than try to respond, in the moment, to each of these three decisions that has a direct impact on the people we serve here in North Carolina, I decided to take time to reflect and pray before offering a response. It felt like, for me, the next right thing was to step back—not only to try and absorb the impact of these decisions but also to see if there were connections or a pattern that might bring clarity and light to the direction of the high court’s rulings. Where might these decisions lead our democracy, and how might they shape its ability to govern in a way that seems consistent with the gospel values of our church?
THE BRIDGE ACROSS THE SEPARATION
Some might say that in raising these questions I am slipping into the murky area of the separation of church and state. I understand the concern and the desire to keep those lines clear. Because of the distinct separation, every person in this country has the right to worship in the way they choose without fear of government reprisal.
But the separation does not prevent nor exempt those in faith communities from sharing their values as they relate to matters of government. The biblical precedent by which we live has always invited, and even demanded, that people of faith speak out on the actions of those who govern us—to offer support, and also critique—based on the values we believe are consistent with the teachings and example of the one we follow: Jesus.
Our values, and our commitment to seeing them upheld, provide the bridge between faith communities and government. One value we might consider as an example is the biblical value of justice, which is related to fairness. President Jimmy Carter once famously said, “There are many things in life that are not fair,” but the biblical witness is that God’s justice, and sometimes God’s mercy, help to redress injustices and inequities. In other words, unfairness.
The Supreme Court decision handed down on June 27 upheld the North Carolina Supreme Court decision that redistricting maps drawn by the state legislature were partisan and unfair. In addition, the high court affirmed that state constitutions can protect voting rights in federal elections, and state courts can enforce those provisions. The vote was 6-3.
Using the lens of fairness, this decision offers us hope that the checks and balances of our democratic system protect the voting rights of all its citizens, and that they uphold the power of the courts to ensure neither the legislative nor any other branch may manipulate access to or the outcome of the democratic process.
We can acknowledge that political parties that hold majorities between elections certainly work for the values of their parties. That is an expected part of the process and why we hold elections, casting our votes for those we hope will carry and reflect our own values in the halls of government. The hope is that even between those with opposing ideas or approaches, common ground and a way to work together can be found. Where it becomes a problem is when the exercise—or outright abuse—of partisan power compromises the fairness of any process or contributes to the oppression of any citizen. When that happens, it does not meet the standard of a healthy, functional democracy, let alone the equal opportunity and inclusivity of beloved community.
A second ruling that came down this summer addressed the relationship between affirmative action and college admissions. Named in the case were Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to dismantle affirmative action in college admissions overturned decades of court precedent, which held that race was a factor that could be considered in higher education admissions processes, in part to affirm the value of a diverse student population.
The majority opinion stated “many universities have for too long…concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin…our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
On first reading, this also sounds like an affirmation of fairness and a rejection of preferential treatment based on any skin color. But a closer look at our own history reveals an overwhelming preference for white students at our institutions of higher learning, up to and including denial of admission based on skin color (the University of North Carolina until the 1950s) and an admissions legacy policy (Harvard University) that allows preferential treatment for those whose family members graduated from the institution, the vast majority of whom are white. Affirmative action was designed to redress these historic and systemic inequities. To ignore this reality is not only unfair, it is unconscionable. To do so with wording that makes it sound as though the decision is championing equal access is deceptive, disingenuous and despicable.
Thankfully, there is some hope in the face of this injustice perpetrated by our justice system. Harvard University’s legacy policy is now being legally challenged, and Wesleyan University, among others, has voluntarily and proactively eliminated its legacy admissions policy, recognizing it has functioned as affirmative action for white students.
As Presiding Bishop Curry wrote in his statement in response to this decision, “Our mandate as followers of Jesus is clear: to create the Beloved Community by facing painful truths from our past, learning from them, and then turning and joining hands together to right wrongs and foster justice and healing…this is the work of love.”
The third Supreme Court decision concerned a case that pitted two constitutional principles against each other. On one side are laws that guarantee same-sex couples equal access to all businesses that offer their services to the public. On the other are business owners who see themselves as artists and don’t want to use their talents to express a message in which they don’t believe. Once again, the vote was 6-3 and ruled that the First Amendment bars Colorado from “forcing a website designer to create expressive designs speaking messages with which the designer disagrees.”
Again, at first pass, this seems to uphold a basic right that has long been a standard in matters of conscience, generally, and in American democracy in particular. However, a broader read calls us not simply to weigh the logic and ethics of a decision but also its impact. How is this message experienced by the LGBTQ+ community? Does it reflect the values of Jesus’ beloved community? We must ask ourselves the harder questions that Jesus asks or was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I say?” “What do you want me to do for you?” “Do you love me?”
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
How do we work to uphold our baptismal covenant to respect the dignity of every human being while the laws by which we live don’t always require we do so? Or when the rights of two or more individuals are at seemingly impassable odds, especially if the opposing beliefs each come from a place of faith?
Our hope for an answer to all of these questions is in the promises of Jesus: his unwavering and unconditional commitment to every beloved child of God, his offering of himself for the sake of love, and his invitation to us to do the same.
The Supreme Court decisions have been handed down. We must examine the questions they require we ask ourselves. What happens after that is up to us and is for each of us to discern. To quote our speaker from Clergy Conference, what is the next right thing—as a follower of Jesus, as a practitioner of beloved community, as a disciple making disciples and making a difference?
There are no easy answers here, but we have the path to follow—one of love for one another and a commitment to our journey of Becoming Beloved Community.
Bishop Sam Rodman is the XII bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple