A Space of Grace For All

Professor Jonathan L. Walton in Appleton Chapel

Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, speaks on events of the past week during the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



It's been a wild and crazy week. It's been a rough and heartbreaking week in many ways. To have to endure another week of mass tragedy, young people going to school and leaving in body bags says something about the pathological nature of this country and the state that we're in, the fact that it happens with such regularity. There will be some who would say, "Well, this is not the time to politicize this." Well, of course, the fact that it happens every couple of weeks, it's never the time, and that's the way that those who profit off of the gun industry would want it.

There will be those who would want to silence us by telling us to pray, to hold a candle-lighting service, to hold another vigil. Many of you heard me say after Vegas, "I'm done holding vigils. I'm done with these sorts of ritualized prayer services because they've become so anemic and empty." But I still do believe in the power of prayer, but I also know the hands that serve and labor are as important as lips that pray. Just like the abolitionists, just like those who fought for women's right to vote, just like civil rights marchers and protestors, they got down on their knees in prayer, and then they got up, and they marched and protested for change, and that is what I'm encouraging everybody here. We will pray for victims and their families, but like those courageous young people from that high school in Florida, we also have to get up and raise our voices. We have to call this country to account.

That's not the only thing that happened on campus this week. I told you that it was an eventful week. There was another group on campus that invited a speaker on Friday night that called students who have a same-gender attraction to deny themselves to serve God.  They will then be delivered by the power of God, according to this speaker.  It may go without saying here at the Memorial Church...but it shouldn't because we should never take our own language of grace, love, and acceptance for granted.

We should make clear for every freshman, for every incoming graduate student, for everybody who walks in this door for the first time, we always have to make clear and we should do it not just from the pulpit, not just from me, but from all of us what we mean when we say that we're a space of grace at the center of Harvard Yard. We come in here, it doesn't matter where you came from, it doesn't matter our differences, racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, sexual orientation — we're all products of God's grace, and we believe that the love of God and the love of one another is the same love.

Unfortunately, we know that the Christian church in the name of holiness has for too long, for centuries, taught self-hatred. Some of us were taught to hate ourselves because theologians said that we were descendants of Ham, cursed to serve our brothers. And our dark skin and kinky hair is a sign of our enslavement and servitude. And just like Paul sent Onesimus back to his slaveholder, Philemon, we should enforce the system of slavery because that's what "the Bible says."  That was a "biblical worldview!"

Or whether it was, as a South Carolina lawmaker said recently, that woman was taken from the rib of man, and that rib is a "lesser cut of meat," so thus, women are secondary to men and, therefore, must complement men rather than serve alongside men. Or that because you fall in love with somebody of the same gender that you are an abomination because, like the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the city was punished because the men wanted to have sex with a male angel.  Of course, this interpretation ignores the fact that the story is about gang rape and that Lot then proposed, "Take my two daughters instead." Is that a biblical worldview?

Self-hatred is a hell of a drug, particularly when we combine theological ignorance with hate. That's not who we are at the Memorial Church. Too many young people, particularly young people who have same-gender attraction and who have been alienated by their communities and communities of faith, are eight times more likely to attempt their own life. They're five times more likely to suffer from depression. They're three times more likely to participate in illegal drug use.

Even if your twisted theology has taught you to believe that something is wrong with same-gender-loving people, are such statistics worth your theological certainty? Here at the Memorial Church, we say no. We say we love everybody who comes through this door, not in spite of who you are, but also because of who you are.  Kinky locks and dark complexion cannot forfeit nature's claim. Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black, red, yellow, white, gay, straight, all the same.

Spread that word. Let anybody on this campus know that if they ever feel alienated, if they ever feel anxious, if they ever feel that they're being excluded because of any part of their identity, you grab them by the hands and you bring them here. It's in that spirit that we embrace one another, because how can we say we love the Lord, who we've never, ever seen before, and then we forget to say we love the one who we walk beside every day. I'm not talking about an empty love here. I'm talking about loving every aspect of that person because it's your diversity, it's your distinctiveness, it's your beautiful personality that adds to the richness of this community. That's what we embrace. That is what we love.