Reverend Pastor Floyd H. Flake, D. Min.
The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York
110-31 Merrick Boulevard
Jamaica, New York 11433
Hon. "Reverend" State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr.
307 Legislative Office Building
Albany, New York 12247
Hon. State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith
250 Broadway, Suite 1930
New York, NY 10007
Re: Separating Christ from Caesar
Recently I published an open letter in my blog addressed to New York’s new Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan, in which I was critical of some misstatements he made in an interview made just prior to his installation.
On this eve of tomorrow’s Equality and Justice Day in New York, I think it’s appropriate to respond to the report in the April 26, 2009 Sunday New York Times about Reverend Floyd Flake’s negative preaching from the pulpit about the marriage issue (“Marriage Bill Poses A Test Of Loyalties: Church vs. State” by Jeremy W. Peters), and “Reverend” State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr.’s macho negative fixation on this issue that spills over from his church to his politics. I am also writing to commend State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith for his understanding of the line between his commitment to equal rights for all, and his personal religious beliefs.
I would only wish that Reverend Floyd Flake and “Reverend” State Senator Diaz would be able to learn to separate their religious beliefs from their understanding of equal rights.
Unlike the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that only the Church hierarchy has the right to interpret sacred scripture for the benefit of Roman Catholics, it has always been a cardinal rule of Protestants that each person can understand and interpret scripture on their own, with the grace of God. And various Protestant traditions do exactly that, disagreeing on many different doctrinal issues. So, unlike the situation with Archbishop Dolan, I don’t need to go so far as to consider Reverend Flake or “Reverend” State Senator Diaz to be apostates or heretics for having biblical interpretations on the issue of marriage rights that diverge from mine. All I need do is disagree with their interpretation of Scripture.
Among the founding principles of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights are the two provisions in the First Amendment that deal, first with the relationship between the government and religion, and then with the rights of individual people. The first, called the “establishment clause,” prohibits the government from imposing particular religious beliefs on the people. The second, called the “free exercise clause” guarantees every American the right to freely exercise their own religious beliefs.
That free exercise clause is not totally untrammeled, however. Just because there are verses in sacred scripture that authorize believers to stone adulterers or gays to death, does not mean that the “free exercise clause” provides for the right to have such public stonings.
I am familiar with this particular aspect of the free exercise clause, because in my law practice some years ago, I was with a firm that represented a local hospital, and we had several “Jehovah Witness Baby Transfusion” cases. Jehovah Witnesses believe that a biblical verse that prohibits the eating of blood also forbids blood transfusions. Adults are free to refuse life-saving medical treatment for themselves on a religious basis, but there is a conflict when it comes to the rights of their infant children, in whom the state has a legitimate interest. Thus, in cases where an infant is born with a serious bilirubin issue that requires a blood transfusion for the child to live, and the parents cannot consent because of their religion, the physician and the hospital must obtain an immediate court order authorizing the transfusion.
The fact that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, Reverend Flake, “Reverend” State Senator Diaz and other religious leaders interpret the Bible in such a way so as to see a prohibition of same sex marriage, does not mean that the government should impose their particular religious interpretation on everyone who does not share that belief.
First, from a purely religious point of view, there is the same sex marriage of David and Jonathan that is found in 1 Samuel 18, confirmed in the latter part of the chapter as an actual marriage when King Saul declares that when David also married Saul’s daughter Michal, David became Saul’s son-in-law a second time. (Look to Darby or ASV for this translation of original Aramaic and Greek sources – St. Jerome fudged this in the Latin Vulgate, leading Douay-Rheims, King James and other Vulgate-based translations to have an error in this.)
Reverend Flake and “Reverend” State Senator Diaz can choose to interpret scripture differently – but they cannot claim that their interpretation is any better than Darby’s, or mine, or that of some ministers of the United Church of Christ, Quakers or Unitarians and others who wish to sacramentally recognize same sex marriages in the same way they recognize opposite-sex unions. This willingness to endorse marriage equality by some Christians and members of other religions is a free exercise issue that is not like stonings, baby blood transfusions or even handling poisonous snakes.
Reverend Flake, especially, should be mindful of the preachings of many earnest white Protestant ministers in the 19th century who railed from the pulpit that the involuntary servitude of African Americans was biblically justified, referring to the slaves as “Children of Ham” and referring to the Genesis 9:20-27 story in which Ham’s descendants (Canaan and his children) are punished by God – to be the servants of the children of Shem and Japeth.
Yes, those white ministers of religion believed that Christianity endorses slavery - and it was not limited to the teaching of St. Paul abjuring slaves to be obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6:5, Titus 2:9).
In the 1830’s and 1840’s and beyond, many ministers of religion opposed basic human rights for women, particularly married women, because altering the laws relating to marriage by giving women control over their own inheritances, or wages, or allowing women to vote, would destroy the sacred institution of marriage. After all, just as slaves were told by St. Paul to be obedient to their masters (see Ephesians and Titus citations above), wives were told to be obedient to their husbands (Titus 2:5).
The Times article closes with the following paragraph:
Ultimately, Mr. Flake said, the decision to support same-sex marriage and the consequences that decision may produce belong to Mr. Smith. “I told him he has to live with his conscience,” Mr. Flake said.
I really think that Reverend Flake should consider his own advice, and learn from his protégé State Senate Majority Leader Smith – while Reverend Flake has every right to interpret sacred scripture in the way that he does, and to decide to not perform a same-sex wedding in his church, he must live with his own conscience over his preaching from the pulpit that his belief must be imposed legally on everyone who doesn’t agree with his interpretation of the Bible, or, for that matter, whose religion or non-religion doesn’t recognize the Bible as the source of their beliefs.
Reverend Flake and “Reverend” State Senator Diaz really should be American enough to be able to separate their own personal religious beliefs from their political views.
After all, if they are not willing to speak up in favor of oppressed minorities like LGBT people, who will speak up for them when right wing Christianists and neo-cons seek to roll back the interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the 1870’s when the Supreme Court held it applied only to the federal government and not to the states. If equal rights for all are not cherished on the secular level in support of the bedrock principles under which the nation was founded and as they have evolved to improve over the years, how long will it be before African-American men are once again counted for census purposes as 3/5ths of a man, and women of any race are not counted at all. How long will it be before women are denied control over their own reproductive rights, and how soon will secular marriage be restored to the sort of thing it was in America before 1848 – a union in which the two become one, and that one is the husband – relegating the wife to the equivalent of the civil death imposed on convicted felons with life terms.
It is one thing to teach the members of one’s own congregation your interpretation of scripture for their religious education, and quite another when you use the pulpit to preach politically that your interpretation of a religious writing must serve as the source for the law that applies to everyone.
I am joining with over 2,000 New Yorkers tomorrow in Albany – our voices will be heard in favor of passage of the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), and the Marriage Equality bill. I would like nothing better than for Reverend Flake and “Reverend” State Senator Diaz to have a revelation to see the light and support civil rights under the secular law, even if they continue to interpret scripture the way they do. I invite both of you to join with us tomorrow.
In peace and with a deep regard to both human rights, I remain,
Joann Marie Prinzivalli
Serva Servarum Deae