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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Body Difference, Discrimination, a Seminary's Founding, and the Gospel

Today, March 16, the Moral Monday Rally convened between the Capitol and the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.  In the season of Pentecost, Rev. Barber said, "This is our political Pentecost."  People representing various communities gathered to say with one voice that discrimination against the smallest, least understood minorities is still wrong.  It's not clear whether the Legislators or Governor were among those with ears to hear in their own language.  House Bill #2 targets transgender people whose lives are often endangered by their simple need to use a restroom.  The Charlotte City Council, in the same pattern as Columbia and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, SC, sought to make life safer and fairer for them, but HB2 reversed that local ordinance.

There is much confusion and misinformation on this legislation.  Some of the confusion comes from the misrepresentation of the bill as primarily about bathrooms.  It is much farther reaching than that, affecting minimum wages and access to courts for those enduring discrimination.  It's easy to spread misinformation on a subject that most people know very little about and even fewer understand.  To be transgender is a complicated and often socially rejected existence that people would not choose on a whim.  Complex biological causes shape the lives of each of us from the earliest stages of gestation, and the timing and presence or absence of certain developmental processes can lead to a great variety of sexual variation and differences in brains and bodies.  But the implication that sexual predators are facilitated by protecting transgender persons, or that transgender persons should be classified as sexual predators, has no basis in fact.

At least one of my friends and fellow ministers brings to the conversation a deep concern for young women and girls, many of whom she has met in juvenile detention centers, whose lives have been marked by sexual and physical abuse from men, often men who should have been their protectors as family or friends.  She speaks of their fear of being in a private, vulnerable place such as a bathroom, when men might also be present.  She is not making this up, and we know that women, especially young women and girls, are also among the most victimized in our society.  These previously harmed women deserve friendship, love, and protection, not further harm.

Yet I do not believe that HB2, by preventing laws like the Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance, is making the world safer for girls and young women.  The statistics that we already know about rape and sexual abuse of women have come about before and without relevance to laws preventing discrimination against transgender persons.  Moreover, transgender women forced to use men's restrooms are among the most likely victims of sexual violence and assault.  The Charlotte ordinance aims to add protections for a vulnerable group.  Male sexual predators hoping to find victims by dressing as women to enter a women's bathroom will do so whether or not there is a law to protect transgender persons.  HB2 does not make life safer for any women, whether transgender or not.

So I was glad to have the opportunity on April 25 to be one of the parade of speakers against HB2 at the Moral Monday Rally.  I was one of about five clergy of various faiths--Muslim, Jewish, and Christian--to speak out for repeal of HB2.  There between the political buildings and the museums, we gathered to do our civic and moral duty to speak on behalf of those who face injustice at the hands of lawmakers, state power, and financial power.  Upholding the heritage of my institutional home, the oldest historically black college in the South, the oldest historically black theological school in the South, Shaw University Divinity School, I framed my remarks to faithfully represent that heritage.

Some of you may know from experience that public speaking to call public servants to accountability requires a certain kind of discipline.  I was told to keep my remarks to two minutes.  As one who often preaches more in the range of 45 to 50 minutes, I have had to learn to also develop the two, three, or four minute address when at public events.  My first draft ran about 2:55 as I practiced it, and that was without introducing myself and my institution, which adds another 15 to 20 seconds.  So I made some cuts and got it down to about 1:50 or so.  The actual delivery, with my nervousness, was a bit slower, and ran 2:40 or so.  I still think I gave the shortest speech of the day.

Below, I will type out the full draft of my remarks, which includes more than I actually said on that day.  Then I will include the video clip of my speech, with the version that was edited down to keep it shorter.  I know this is a controversial topic.  As one minister said before I spoke, the difference of convictions is not between a faith position and a non-faith position.  The difference is between more than one faith position, between more than one non-faith position.  Thus, within the faith conversation, we must seek the most compelling, authoritative, and convincing arguments for what we bear witness to as truth.  I pray that you will find reason to consider these remarks I make as you agree or disagree with my commitment to repealing HB2.

In 1865, Henry Martin Tupper, the founder of Shaw University, began offering the first Bible classes of that institution to formerly enslaved students.  They met in a hotel located right here where the North Carolina Museum of History now stands.  Tupper understood that society must not systematically shut out some of its members from education, a livelihood, or the basic goods of life because their bodies are different.  He was following in the tradition of prophetic faith passed on by Jesus, a poor, marginalized, Jewish rabbi under the domination of Rome. 

Shaw’s great scholar Albert W. Pegues, leader of the Theological Department which would become Shaw University Divinity School, himself said that the only path for North Carolinians to take out of their oppressive past must “put in practice principles of right and justice as taught in the Bible.”

       When Jesus stood up in the synagogue to announce his plans for ministry, he began by challenging the power structures that would count out some people as unworthy.  First he named the poor, who with all their struggles to live needed some good news.  He named those who had become wage slaves in a harsh economy.  He named prisoners warehoused in jails. 

But he also named those marginalized, ignored, cast aside, and thrown away because of differences in their bodies.  On that day it was the blind.  On other days he met the lame, the deaf, the chronically ill, people of different ethnicity, like Samaritans, even eunuchs who were people with genital differences. He met these people every day, sitting by the side of the road, placed downtown in a plaza with a pool of water, forced to live outside of town as unclean, shunned to their own place away from respectable society.

Too often, even the most holy-acting religious people despised and rejected others for their differences.  They even tried to boost their power by using labels to inspire fear, like “sinners.”  They classified those people whose bodies were different by claiming their bodies to be signs of God’s punishment. 

But the truth of God’s love for all creation is that in all our differences, we still come from one blood, one divinely beloved humanity.  HB2 plays on fears and hate of differences to divide us, to hurt us, to tempt us to turn away from the truth at the core of our faith.  But faculty and students of the fledgling Shaw University did not quit when faced with divisive hate, threats, bullets, and all manner of efforts to make them give up.  We still are not going to give up.  Repeal this unjust law!

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