Earlier this week, I saw a news segment on High School Senior, Maddi Runkles, being banned from walking at her graduation because she is pregnant. Check the story out here. Maddie attends a Christian private school in Maryland. Heritage Academy principal David Hobbs sent a letter to parents, as well as published the letter on the school homepage declaring that the best thing they could do for Maddi was to “hold her accountable for her morality.” He noted that she was not being disciplined for being pregnant, but for being immoral.
My heart broke and I must believe Jesus’s did as well.
I am unapologetically pro-life. I believe life begins at conception, and the creation and preservation of life, in and outside the womb, is one of the most sacred acts that humanity is privileged to participate in. And yet, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how excluding a young girl from her graduation sends a message of Christian love for life.
How far we have come from the days of the Early Church met in houses! Surrounded by the pagan Greco-Roman world, churches were known by their neighbors as a place of refuge for whom society had written off, demonized, and marginalized. The Early Church took in un-wed pregnant mothers and called them sisters, and orphans were welcomed with open arms. The surrounding culture could not understand such love. It baffled them and was unfamiliar. Why would these followers of Christ, welcome the “immoral”, outcasts, and societies forgotten and overlooked?
Why? Because the early church was governed by different set of morals. They lived by the morality of Jesus.
So here we have a Christian school, proclaiming an allegiance to the Christ who ate with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. The Christ who sat with a woman at the well, and did not scold her, but told her about living water. The Christ who pardoned a criminal on the cross, rather than lecturing him about accountability and morality. And yet, they exclude a young, impressionable, vulnerable, soon-to-be-mother from her passage into adulthood.
Perhaps Heritage Academy needs to return to their heritage of Christian hospitality.
I wonder, is it worth it? Is Heritage Academy’s moral stance worth more than their message of grace? For them, it seems so. For me, I think they’ve missed a larger issue than a young, pregnant student.
The underlying issue with this story is that when our moral positions become an idol, or when our need to be right gets in the way of authentic love, we have lost sight of what mercy, compassion, and grace are all about. When we bow at the throne of morality, as important as morals are, we fail to see the opportunities God places before us to be Good News to broken people. When our morality becomes a tool of exclusion, we have botched what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Morality must always be looked at through the lens of Jesus. This is clear in John 8. A woman who was caught in adultery (Speaking of morality, where’s the man who committed adultery?) was brought before Jesus by the religious folk. They declared that the Law of Moses commanded them to stone her. It was their moral imperative. They were right. The Law commanded such an act. Yet, Jesus, who is the fulfillment of the Law, bent low, wrote in the sand and flipped morality upside down by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the crowd retreated leaving Jesus and the woman alone. Jesus then said the most merciful words one could say—“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” He didn’t let her off scot-free. Do not sin again. The sin was named before Jesus and the woman. Yet, despite her sin, Jesus showed her absolute mercy.
The morality of Jesus is a morality of mercy, not condemnation.
Now, please don’t mistake me as saying accountability and consequences are not important. They are. Grace without accountability isn’t grace at all. But hasn’t this young lady already experienced the consequences of her actions? Her scarlet letter story has been thrust into the national limelight. She will be a young, single mother in a world where single mothers have an uphill battle staged against them. My understanding of the story is that she did acknowledge her wrong, and asked the school for forgiveness. How has she not already understood and lived into accountability? How has she not followed the path of faith—confess and be made righteous (1 John 1:9)?
A greater lesson to teach the student body is that people make mistakes. We are all “prone to wander,” as the great hymn says. We are all in need of mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and part of our faith is to acknowledge poor choices, all the while being “merciful, as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
I wonder, what if the student body threw this young mother a baby shower? What if the mothers in the community taught her how to mother? She’ll need help. What if instead of a moral exclusion, the community ran to her like the father ran to is prodigal son with open arms and said, “Welcome home. You belong?”
I understand the school’s fear. I was raised in a similar tradition. They fear that if they wrap their arms around this mother, it sends a message that pre-marital sex is OK. They believe that other young boys and girls will embark on similar ventures. I think the opposite is true. If this religious community wrapped their arms around this mother, the students will see firsthand the challenges of being a single parent. Maddi’s story can be a blessing to the community, not a story to be shamed, shunned, and silenced.
The world is watching us. They are writing about us as they did in the infancy of the church. What heritage will future Christians receive from us? Will it be a heritage of exclusion for the sake of our morality? Or will it be a church that welcomes, embraces, and claims as our own the one’s society has written off?
If the church is to be known for any position, it is the position of humility, grace, and forgiveness. May it be so.