Three-letter word

Anna Quindlen

August 28, 1991|By Anna Quindlen | Anna Quindlen,New York Times

STROUDSBURG, PA. — THEY WERE married a week ago. Her dress was white lace; he wore his Army uniform. They met last year, when her best friend was dating his. In the wedding pictures, they are both handsome people.

She is white; he is black. Those facts seemed unimportant to both of them until the week before the wedding. After the minister met the groom he told them that, no matter what the invitations said, they would not be wed at the Wesleyan Church.

"He said it was nothing personal with Brian," said the former Angie Harms, who became Angie Storm after the couple found an eleventh-hour clergyman. "He just said he would never perform an inter-racial marriage. He said, 'Angie didn't tell me what the situation was.' I didn't think there was a situation."

The Rev. Samuel Butler hasn't talked publicly about this since he told the Pocono Record that he had personal and scriptural reasons for his action, so I don't know what section of scriptures, if any, forbids inter-racial marriage.

The head of the national Wesleyan Church, a conservative branch of Methodism, says there is no policy against the practice. And I've hunted through the Bible, from Genesis to Apocalypse, and come up cold.

A number of ministers here in town were puzzled, too, although the president of the county clergy association stood up for Butler, blaming the young couple for making their complaint public and noting that clergy are under no obligation to marry anyone.

If a restaurant owner told Brian and Angie that it was nothing personal, but that he did not serve inter-racial couples, or a real estate agent said it was nothing personal, but she didn't show houses to inter-racial couples, we'd talk lawsuit.

But Butler is supposed to represent the word of God, and that makes all the difference.

The word of God: it is a sure way of lending a powerful imprimatur to a stand, opinion, even prejudice.

Opponents of abortion in Wichita have said that they represent a law of God that overrides the laws of man, that they are spiritually obliged to block clinic entrances and harass staff members.

Those horrified by homosexuality sometimes give chapter and verse on why gay people are sinners -- the chapter is Leviticus 18, and the verse is 22. Leviticus 19:19 forbids wearing garments woven with two different kinds of thread, but so far there's no organized opposition to poly-cotton blends.

There's a certain selectivity sometimes about how God's words are chosen.

There are Catholics who say it is God's will that women not be priests, and Episcopalians who believe it is God's will that women be permitted to enter their priesthood.

It is not uncommon today to have dueling world views, with each claiming that God is on its side. It's gilt by association and it can bring discussion to a screeching halt.

There are also the quiet people, the ones who rarely speak of their inspiration and who use it only to guide their own behavior, not to control that of others.

There are the nuns ministering to families with no homes who don't make a big deal out of it, but who will say when asked that they're following a call from God. There are the ministers who run soup kitchens and small shelters because the word of God they follow calls for charity.

It is extraordinarily potent, that three-letter word, which appears in our courtrooms, on our currency, and of course in our churches.

Freedom of religion provides those who earn their living by it with certain protections; they are not imagined to be above the law, but beyond it, inclined by profession to do the right thing. That's the theory.

Butler can refuse to marry anyone, according to the letter of the law. According to the spirit, he should have a very good reason, having to do with the soul, not the skin. He turned what should have been a happy day into something shadowed. He taught bigots that their bigotry was sanctified.

In cases like these, when God and good seem much farther apart than a single "o," you must wonder whether human beings are hiding their own opinions -- and prejudice -- beneath an omnipotent mask.

There is chapter and verse about taking God's name in vain; it used to be applied mostly to swearing, but sometimes these days I think it should have another meaning. To err is human.

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