The Rev. James Lawson is out of step with modern Christianity.
Take gay marriage. Speaking in support of a proposed state constitutional ban on same sex unions in Florida, one Rev. Hayes Wicker of First Baptist Church in Naples, Fla., was recently quoted by the Naples Daily News as saying, "This is a tremendous social crisis, greater even than the issue of slavery."
As asinine as that remark is, it is perfectly in step with much of modern Christianity, which has spent years demonizing gay men and lesbians. And then there's Mr. Lawson, who spoke last weekend at the 10th anniversary conference of Soulforce, a group that fights church-based homophobia. Few things could be more "out" of step. Mr. Lawson, you may know, is an icon of the civil rights movement; it was he who invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis to support the striking sanitation workers. He sees his longtime involvement with Soulforce as part of the same struggle. "The human rights issue is not a single issue," he told me recently. "It is about all humankind. And all humankind has been endowed with certain inalienable rights."
My interview with Mr. Lawson was set before Mr. Wicker's remark, but I leapt at the chance to ask him about it. "Obviously," said Mr. Lawson, "he does not know anything about the 250 years of slavery or the 143 years since slavery as the nation has largely failed to deal with the issue of slavery and its consequences. ... And he knows even less about the gospel of Jesus. ... Jesus broke all the social etiquette in terms of relating to people and bringing people into relationship with himself. He acknowledged no barriers or human divisions ... no category of sinners from who he would isolate himself."
Sadly, Mr. Wicker's brand of intolerance cloaked in faith has lately made inroads in black America. Dr. King's daughter, Bernice, has marched against gay rights. Others have peevishly rejected the idea that there are parallels between the black struggle and the gay one.
Mr. Lawson finds the antipathy appalling. "To unite with white Christian fundamentalism like Pat Robertson is an absolute disgrace. For black people to pretend that kind of Christian fundamentalism, which justified slavery and justifies racism, is a colleague in anything is to be blind to the realities that we're facing. We who have suffered and do suffer should be the most sensitive to the suffering of others. We don't want this undeserved suffering put on us, and we should therefore, clearly, not participate in putting such suffering on others. We ought to know better."
Mr. Lawson knows his brand of Christianity is not the kind that nowadays dominates political discourse. Does it trouble him to be out of step?
"No. A part of the religion of Jesus is to be on the right side of history and the right side of God, especially when others are on the wrong side."
Those who preach intolerance "are the ones out of step. You have to be patient, and they'll catch up. Many of the black pastors were outraged when King, in '67, declared against the Vietnam War. Well, now, great numbers of the clergy are aware that war is a violation of the gospel of Jesus, and they are opposed to the Iraq war. They caught up."
Some did, at least. Ours is still an era wherein war, hatred and intolerance often wear a clerical collar. As Mr. Lawson puts it, "Much of Christianity in the United States has been more influenced by violence and sexism and racism and greed than by the teachings of Jesus."
If that seems a radical thing to say, well, Mr. Lawson has no apologies. "I am a follower of Jesus," he explains. "That's what I've called myself for decades. And that is a radical faith that refuses to define any human being or group of human beings as being outside God's grace."
James Lawson is out of step with modern Christianity.
Thank God someone is.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.