The Supreme Court sounded cranky. Given the age of most justices and the depth of challenge that comes with the cases reaching the last court of appeals, this is not strange. Yet, their crankiness was tinged with fear and this was surprising.
The fears seemed twofold. The first fear: What will happen if we decide on gay marriage? The second fear: What will happen if we do not? One justice complained that they are being asked to look into the future; another suggested the speed of change being called for is worthy itself of pause.
Some might suggest that such is the role of the Supreme Court. It should be discerning a way forward, untying the knots that will allow us to move ahead. Listening to the justices questions about the two cases now under deliberation (the Defense of Marriage Act challenge from New York and the challenge of Proposition 8 from California), listening to their frustration and questions about their own role, I was led to wonder if they are more concerned with the past than with the future.
In the two most significant decisions of the Supreme Court in the 20th Century there were deep flaws and terrible, unintended consequences. They know it was haste on the part of the judges to respond to the passion of the times as well as the cries for justice that led them down a path where the future seemed simple, but proved otherwise.
It was simple in the 1950s that integration must happen. Separate but equal was untenable, and the palaces of white education exposed the inequality. Brown v. the Board of Education changed America. It was a bold act. The decision emerged in a time of growing disdain for the racist and the bigot. How could such a decision be delayed?
Although it may have been inevitable, the desegregation and the bussing that followed had unintended consequences. Children were freed from an educational ghetto, true; black professionals, once community leaders, now entered a ghetto of their own, also true. Communities and churches the strength of culture that gave rise to the civil rights movement faded quickly once desegregation made everything equal.
The greatest example, and perhaps the real trepidation of the judges, must be Roe v Wade. Whatever the preference or political frame of each justice, none would want to create the 40 years of sustained debate and division fostered in this decision. The justices know the primary motivation, the forceful argument that held sway in the early 1970s (abortion will free women from lives of poverty) proved utterly false. It must be a moment of pause to consider Am I being swayed by such arguments today?
Then, as is now, any posture of reflection or discernment is seen as bigotry and indifference. If you are not for helping the oppressed, you are the oppressor. Unfortunately this type of rhetoric cannot hear contradiction. Yet, and this is important, we are always wrong. Our laws, our ways, our mores, our systems and beliefs are always emerging and stumbling toward a goal of life, liberty and happiness. We are always moving forward and backward. Nothing is more certain of danger than great certainty.
No matter our view or conviction here, as a citizen of the time our role and voice must be to call for humility and patience and compassion. We will always err, but will we err on the side of justice or mercy? It is right for the justices to pause as they consider what may be a watershed moment for America. If they stumble to one side, their act may foster decades more of debate; if they stumble to the other side, we may find victory a great loss.
No matter your political vantage, pray that those who are given such a great burden would be humble, patient and compassionate to all.
The writer is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Watertown.