Graduation night for Campbell University Divinity School carried an extra frisson of excitement this year: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was our first in-person graduation since 2019.
All faculty members play some role in the ceremony, and this year it was my turn to carry the mace, a heavy silver-plated ornamental staff symbolic of the university.
The actual value of the mace appears to be classified, but when it and the president’s chain of office are not locked in a big safe, they are always accompanied by an armed security guard.
As the mace bearer, my job was to lead the procession of faculty and graduates into the auditorium, make my way to the stage, and hold the mace aloft until everyone has filed in.
At that point, I was to carefully insert the mace into a heavy wooden stand and proceed to my seat.
All went according to plan as I marched in, ascended the steps to the stage with as much dignity as I could manage, and I went to stand beside the podium and the stand for the mace.
The stand was nowhere to be seen. One detail had been forgotten. Wearing a heavy robe and cap, I was already sweating, but then I had even more reason. What to do?
I couldn’t just prop the mace against the podium or lay it across the top of it. I couldn’t very well carry it back to my seat and then hand it off when it came my turn to hood a DMin student.
I looked down at Campbell’s photographer, who also noticed the stand was missing. He made a walking motion with his fingers to suggest that I just carry it off the stage.
With no better option in view, as a student stepped forward to lead the invocation, I took a cue from Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss and decided to “Exit, stage right.”
I found the security guard and remanded the mace to his custody, circled behind the stage, and made it to my assigned seat during the opening hymn. Later, I slipped out during a closing choral prayer, retrieved the mace, and returned to the stage as everyone marched out.
What’s the point of telling you this story? It’s just a reminder that sometimes things change, and when they do a different response is appropriate.
As a temporary glitch rather than a constant shift, it’s not the best analogy, but like many people, I’ve been reflecting on the recent leak showing that a slim majority of the Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees a woman’s right to control her own body when it comes to managing pregnancies, at least in the first trimester, or when her own health is threatened.
“Originalists” on the Supreme Court are the equivalent of “inerrantists” in religious life. Inerrantists believe every word in the Bible applies for all time, at least with regard to the customs or rules that they like.
Originalists think every legal decision must reflect the intentions of the “founders” who wrote the U.S. Constitution around 240 years ago, along with the “original intent” of the various amendments, many of which are nearly as old.
But the world has changed dramatically since biblical days, and nearly as much since the 18th century.
In the biblical world, women were largely considered to be men’s property. A man who had sex with a woman to whom he was not married was guilty of offending the woman’s husband or father, not the woman herself. Women couldn’t make a vow to God without their husband’s or father’s consent.
Biblical inerrantists generally think women should continue to remain subordinate to their husbands or fathers, rather than having the right to fully independent lives of their own.
When the Constitution was written, men made every important decision in public life. Women were not allowed to vote. Slaves were counted as just three-fifths of a person for census purposes.
Things have changed since then. The 14th amendment in 1868 allowed former slaves to be citizens, and the 15th amendment of 1870 allowed Black men to vote.
Women weren’t granted the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified.
None of that has kept conservative white men from doing everything in their power to hold on to said power by limiting both rights and opportunities for women and minorities.
That has been true in the church, where women in many denominations are not allowed to teach men or serve as pastors, and it has been true in the nation, where Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration for minor crimes have limited opportunities for Blacks, and where women still struggle for respect and control of their bodies.
Questions related to pregnancy and abortion are complicated, and I acknowledge that – but we have to acknowledge that our culture and attitudes have changed, not just in the past 2,000 years, but in the past 200 years. That was acknowledged in the Roe vs. Wade decision some 50 years ago.
A recent CNN poll showed that 66% of Americans believe the Roe vs. Wade decision should stand, giving women a constitutional right to abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy, but now a majority of the Supreme Court, stacked with “originalist” justices, wants to go back in time.
Appealing to the “original intent” of documents from a long-gone era is not overly helpful when we live in a different time.
Things have changed, and it’s time for a different response.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.