With liberty and justice for all?

By Dr. Marvin A. McMickle

In his second inaugural address delivered in 2013, President Barack Obama mentioned Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall, when talking about the history of America’s struggle for justice for all of its citizens. He was referring to three of the major struggles for human rights and uplifting equality of all persons.

Seneca Falls was a reference to the decades-long struggle for women’s rights — especially their right to vote. That movement — also known as the Women’s Suffrage Movement — began in 1848 with the first Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

Selma referred to the dramatic march in Alabama on March 7, 1965, which has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” That was the day marchers attempted to journey to Montgomery by crossing Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were met by Alabama state troopers who used tear gas, electric cattle prods and barbed wire-wrapped billy clubs to beat and brutalize them. The march resumed several days later under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the result was the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Stonewall referred to the resistance movement led by members of the LGBTQ community that began on June 28, 1969, in reaction to a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a nightclub in New York City’s Greenwich Village. That event — variously called “riots,” an “uprising” or a “rebellion” — launched the movement toward full citizenship and human rights for LGBTQ persons in the United States. Stonewall was the first step toward such human rights as marriage equality and other expressions of the legitimacy of same-gender relationships.

If President Obama had given that speech in 2017, I have no doubt that he would have added a fourth location and a fourth struggle to his speech. He would likely have mentioned Standing Rock, a Sioux reservation near Bismarck, N.D., where Native Americans and their supporters resisted an attempt to run an oil pipeline that could damage the water supply to at least eight neighboring states. Standing Rock is a reminder of the struggle of indigenous populations that were uprooted, relocated and, in many cases, simply exterminated as part of America’s quest for Manifest Destiny.

For people who are interested in the struggle for human rights in this country, an important question must be answered: Can an individual be committed to one aspect of human rights, while resisting or openly opposing that struggle in other forms that involve other groups? For instance, can African-Americans advocate for their human right to live free of racial bigotry and the many forms of white privilege, while at the same time resisting or opposing equal rights both inside the church and beyond for women and LGBTQ persons? Can someone advocate for the womanist or feminist movement while being indifferent to the plight and conditions of Native Americans on whose ancestral lands we live today?

I think about Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3:28: In the church of Jesus Christ, there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile. Paul was pointing to the three most deeply entrenched societal divisions of the Greco-Roman world: gender, class and ethnicity. This passage cannot be approached on a multiple-choice basis, in which persons can select the issue with which they agree, while ignoring the rest. In Christ, there is no place for discrimination, exploitation or personal resignation to the unjust treatment of any persons based upon sex, gender or ethnicity.

I can already hear some readers seeking to make the case that, in Romans 1:24–28, Paul seems to withhold equal protection from discrimination to persons in the LGBTQ community. It is amusing to hear people that I know are guilty of adultery going out of their way to bash homosexuality, as if one is free to condemn those practices in which one is not personally engaged. Intriguing about the approach to scripture that focuses intently on verses 24–28 is that readers choose not to read on to verses 29–31, where God condemns those guilty of “every kind of wickedness” that includes greed, envy, malice, gossip, arrogance, boasting and failure to display love and mercy. Here again, this is not a multiple-choice exam. People who are personally struggling with matters dealt with in verses 29–31 have no right to bash people who may be the focus of verses 24–28.

The issue extends beyond what our behavior should be within the circle of our faith communities. The issue extends to every citizen of the United States of America. Are there some persons who deserve rights and protections that are not offered to other citizens because of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or income group? Obviously, some people in every society believe they are more important and of greater value than others.

All of us would do well to think about our country through the broad lens used in Obama’s second inaugural address. We, as a nation, are on a quest to achieve what the preamble of the U.S. Constitution calls “a more perfect union.” The path to that goal runs through Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall and Standing Rock. The journey will end when all Americans can say without hesitation that in the United States of America there really is “liberty and justice for all.”

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.