In the biblical recording of the Ten Commandments, God states “Thou shalt not take my name in vain.” (Elizabethan English reminiscent of the King James Version added for dramatic effect!). I think that is good advice for humans too. We should be very careful invoking someone’s name in a way that does not fit that person’s values and beliefs. If we may call that a “commandment” of sorts, then I think someone has recently broken it.
As many of you know, Phil Robertson, a leading cast member of the popular show Duck Dynasty, stirred up a fire storm of controversy over remarks that he made concerning the gay community and the African American community. He was temporarily removed from the show, and lots of people weighed in, some supporting Robertson and others angrily denouncing his comments. One of those who responded was Ian Bayne, a republican candidate for congress here in my home state of Illinois. In his comments supporting Robertson, he compared him to the iconic Rosa Parks. He stated: “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians. What Parks did was courageous. What Mr. Robertson did was courageous, too.”
Comparing Phil Robertson to Rosa Parks is like comparing night and day. Rosa Parks took a daring stand to liberate the oppressed. Her courageous act was to combat prejudice and to overturn societal discrimination. Whether he intended it or not, Phil Robertson did the exact opposite. He fostered prejudice and heightened societal discrimination. Yes, I suspect both Rosa Parks and Phil Robertson showed courage in their actions, but courage alone does not validate comparisons. Lots of people in history have shown courage, and a lot of damage has been done in misplaced courage.
This recent episode reminds me of something that happened in my own Presbyterian denomination that bothered me greatly. As our denomination debated issues related to gay ordination, the more conservative churches that strongly denounced gay rights formed an alliance and named it the “Confessing Church Movement”. Really??!! The real Confessing Church was a group of Christians in Nazi Germany, who dared to stand up against Nazi actions of oppression against several groups, including gay people. Comparing a modern movement that oppresses with a past movement that seeks to liberate is like comparing night to day. Once again, a name was taken in vain.
Courage alone does not make bedfellows. Before we compare ourselves to someone or something in the past, we need to look beyond their courage to see what they were willing to be courageous about. If we can honestly say that the values and purposes are aligned, then perhaps comparisons are in order. Phil Robertson is like a lot of people, but not like Rosa Parks. The conservative churches of my denomination are like lots of other religious groups throughout history, but not like the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany. In these cases, that amounts to taking a name in vain. I think Rosa Parks said it very well when she spoke about courage. She didn’t just say “you must never be fearful about what you are doing.” She said “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right“.