George Washington Bridge (photo: Hist. Am. Engineering Record collection)
Dear Dr. Mohler,
You began your open letter, “Between the Boy and the Bridge: A Haunting Question” with a pained query about whether there was anyone who might have stood between the young gay man Tyler Clementi and the George Washington Bridge. I’d like to begin my answer with a scripture passage.
Mark 3:1-6: Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they mightaccuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Was Jesus being a bad Jew here? That depends on your definition. If one must adhere scrupulously to the letter of the law, Jesus didn’t. But why didn’t he adhere scrupulously to the letter of the law? Because it was more important to contribute to the man’s well-being than it was to follow laws that could not possibly have been able to predict every single situation to which they would be applied long after they were written. Indeed, Jews know this, which is why there have been commentaries and debates about the interpretation of the commandments for centuries.
The above passage from Mark seems to me entirely relevant to the situation of Tyler Clementi and the hundreds of other lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who have killed themselves because the messages they received from society (and especially from conservative religion) about their sexuality were life-destroying.
Rainbow Flag (photo by dbking)
It’s been a tough stretch for LGBT folks in the US. After watching all those young men kill themselves, we find out that two gay teens and a gay adult were tortured and sodomized with plungers and a miniature baseball bat in the Bronx. This follows the verbal abuse, robbery and beating of a man in the Stonewall Inn, a historic gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Homophobia and heterosexism are alive and well. What can we do? Today, as we celebrate National Coming Out Day 2010, I’d like to consider a certain kind of progressive LGBT faith perspective that we might keep in mind to steady us through this period.
Pride has been one of our watchwords for years, and in a society where some organized religions preach, teach, and practice violent homophobia, where Fred Phelps and his gang show up with their signs celebrating hate, where federal law prohibits same-sex marriage and somehow “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has not yet been overturned (punishing poor and working-class LGBT folks who need the military when there’s no other work around), pride is more necessary than ever. Pride is a rejection of religious homophobia, legal homophobia, and interpersonal homophobia. Perhaps most importantly for youth coming out in homophobic parts of the country, pride is a rejection of internalized homophobia. Pride is the ability to stand up tall and say that who we fall in love with, who we find sexually attractive, and how we experience our gender identity are organic parts of ourselves, not sin, not sickness. Pride is the ability to be ourselves without issue.
Interestingly, though, in organized religions of the west, pride is a problem. We learn that “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18), that pride is linked to “arrogance of heart” (Isaiah 9:9), that pride is an “evil intention” (Mark 7:22). The gospels are full of characters that just don’t get it, not least because of their pride. Does this kind of pride have anything to do with LGBT pride? I’m sure plenty of people who disapprove of homosexuality and the LGBT rights movement would say so. I’m sure they would say that what I describe as LGBT pride is really narcissism, arrogance, even idolatry: a rejection of God the better to worship human beings.
Young man at NYC Pride, 2007 (photo by See-ming Lee)
A recent commentary called September 2010 “one of the [most challenging months] in recent memory for the gay community,” pointing to the five suicides (within one week) of young men or boys who had faced unbearable harassment and bullying because they identified as gay or were thought to be so. The stories are horrifying, even more so in light of the tweeted comment of rapper 50 Cent that “the world [would] be a better place” if gay men killed themselves. While it is encouraging that an anti-bullying movement is arising among heterosexual allies, there is no replacing the lives ended, or calling back the deep grief of those who have lost friends and loved ones.
Those of us who care about human flourishing have to be prepared to take a strong stand here. We must understand the relationship between homophobic dehumanization and devaluation and “death by bullying.” It’s not that those of us who mourn these boys and young men are one-issue activists or are part of a “special interest group;” it’s that we refuse to join the bullies in treating such people as less valuable than other people. In 1964, civil rights activist Ella Baker notably said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son” the movement shall not rest; today, we echo her words in decrying racism and sexism and anti-immigrant fervor – and homophobia. All lives must matter to us. Every last one of us is precious, and there is no calculating the cost of a single life ended by bullycide.
Antiracist Rally, Sydney, 2005 (no attribution)
I’ve been reflecting on Theodore Parker recently, the 19th century Unitarian minister who came to his social justice work (abolition in particular) through his liberal Christian beliefs. Since 2010 is Parker’s 200th birthday, it’s not a bad time to think about him or the work he did. But there’s another reason Parker is on my mind, which is that it is just as possible to come to spirituality through social action as it is to come to social action through spirituality. And here, I am thinking about the spirituality of ally work.
Ally work can range from donating money, to moving into a neighborhood where your presence will support people in need, to leading workshops for other potential allies to practice daily the art of interrupting violent comments and demeaning jokes. There are many ways to be a good ally, some of them noted by Tim Wise, Paul Kivel, Allan Johnson, Meredith Maran, and others. All it takes is a serious commitment to the dignity, well-being, and empowerment of those in a social group to which you don’t belong, those who suffer from a form of inequality in which you are on the privileged end of things.
Ally work is important because all hands are needed on deck to heal the world. But ally work can have an important “side effect” if we let it: it can become a form of spiritual discipline as profound as prayer or meditation. Here are three spiritual elements of ally work that I have experienced:
Judge Vaughn Walker (photo by Mike Linksvayer)
Since Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, much has been made of Walker’s sexual orientation and what Proposition 8 supporters see as his inevitable bias as a gay man. Never mind Walker’s conservative credentials, or the arguably weak case made by Proposition 8’s defense team. It’s a matter of simple pro-homosexual bias and therefore a morally wrong outcome.
Some progressive bloggers have retorted that the bias claim is ridiculous, and that a religiously conservative heterosexual judge would have been just as biased. Most of us progressives would likely agree, but by moving so quickly to this retort we are missing an opportunity for public discussion of a key way that social inequality of all sorts works: by pegging members of “special interest groups” as inevitably biased, while “individuals” who don’t belong to such groups get to view reality as though they were inevitably impartial. Those in power get the “view from nowhere in particular;” those who are disadvantaged are immediately particularized and “socially located.” Like dehumanization and devaluation more generally, this is a moral issue and spiritual progressives should take it up.
by: Amanda Udis-Kessler on August 8th, 2010 | Comments Off
Homeless man (photo by Matthew Woitunski)
In carrying out one of my first writing assignments for seminary (which has been going on for a week and which is just awesome), I began thinking about what for me is a somewhat new approach to the connection between spirituality and politics. These ideas are still in process, but perhaps they might be of value to some spiritual progressives.
Most writings on social inequality (racism, sexism, class inequality, homophobia, and ableism, among other types) that I have read have a particular focus. They pay attention to the financial penalties of being in a disadvantaged group, or the threat of physical violence that goes with such a group membership. Certainly, most such writings document the externally limited life opportunities of being a person of color, or poor, or female (for example). These are critically important aspects of inequality, but devaluation and dehumanization are equally important – and equally present – in any form of inequality that has both structural and cultural elements. And devaluation and dehumanization have profound spiritual implications for how social inequality works.
Donkey (photo by Antoine Moreau)
You’ve got to admire the creativity of the Jerusalem municipal official who tried to have a “donkey pride” run alongside Jerusalem’s gay pride parade this past week. He clearly loves the animals so much that he would honor them by inviting them to join Jerusalem’s much-beloved gay community in celebration. Oops, cancel that. He was attempting to put together a parallel donkey parade in order to illustrate the “bestial nature” of gays. And I thought it was a donkey-rights thing! (I guess if donkeys get rights, everyone will want them.)
Seriously, though, this homophobic action speaks volumes about at least one aspect of the nature of homophobia: the practice of reducing LGBT people to our bodies and denying us our souls. Calling someone a beast, after all, really says that all they have is brute physicality. No sensitivity. No yearnings. No pain. No God.
Reducing LGBT people to our bodies is morally wrong for many reasons, reasons that involve both justice and the spirit. I’ll stick with three such reasons in this post.
Gay-friendly church (photo by Drama Queen)
Once every few weeks, rather than writing a standard blog post, I will use my space to catch readers up on some of the national and global news about faith and LGBT issues.
Read about the seven Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastors, previously barred from serving but now welcome, here.
Read about the decision of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to send its presbyteries a proposal to allow LGBT clergy here.
LGBT rainbow flag (photo by theodoranian)
It would have sufficed if there had been LGBT people in Colorado Springs, home of fervently anti-gay Focus on the Family and New Life Church.
It would have sufficed if there had been some LGBT organizations in the Springs – maybe a pride center, a gay men’s chorus, a bar or two.
It would have sufficed if there had been a single religious organization in the Springs – a church, a synagogue – that openly welcomed and supported LGBT people just as we are.
It would have sufficed if there had been a pride parade in the Springs some year or other.
It would have sufficed if a single church or synagogue had a contingent marching in the pride parade.
But now all these things have come to be, and many more. This past Sunday, the city known for years as the homophobic center of the “Hate State” (so called for once passing a statewide measure systematically denying LGBT rights) held its 20th annual Pride Parade and PrideFest. Ordained ministers from various denominations held a commitment ceremony for same-sex couples while hundreds of people wandered from booth to booth in the rain, buying rainbow gear and signing petitions.
St. Peter's Basilica; photo by Myrabella
As part of its announcement about new laws disciplining child-abuser priests, the Vatican revealed yesterday that it would treat child abuse by priests and the ordination of women to the priesthood as equally grievous offenses against the Catholic Church. Also included in the list of offenses at this level, by the way, are heresy, apostasy and schism.
Moreover, survivor advocate groups have indicated that the new laws on disciplining pedophile priests are not substantial enough to address the problem at its root, that they are a “tweaking” rather than the deep change truly needed.
Spiritual and religious progressives may well find both of these outcomes disturbing, heartbreaking, and infuriating. For feminists and others who support women in the priesthood, the cause for pain and anger is clear; similarly so for survivors of priestly pedophilia. But I think we can go even farther and say that both the Vatican’s refusal to overhaul the disciplinary rules and its comparison of pedophilia to women priests share a common moral failing: neither outcome is based on a pro-lives ethic.