Acceptance Contingent on Conversion: The Politics of Religion

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But now we got weapons,

Of the chemical dust.

If fire them we’re forced to,

Then fire them we must.

One push of the button

And a shot the world wide,

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side.

Bob Dylan

I often travel around the United States and internationally present talks on numerous issues of social justice. A few years back, I gave a talk on the topic of heterosexism and cissexism at Pace University in New York City. I talked about my own experiences as the target of harassment and abuse growing up gay and differently gendered, and I discussed the thesis of my book, Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price. In the book I argue that everyone, regardless of one’s actual sexuality identity and gender identity and expression are hurt by sexuality and gender oppression, and, therefore, it is in everyone’s self-interest to work to reduce and ultimately eliminate these very real and insidious forms of oppression.
Following my presentation, two students came up to talk with me – one young woman and one young man – to continue the discussion. The young woman student began by telling me: “I’m really sad to hear about the abuse that you and others have received because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.”
“I am here to tell you,” she continued, “that I have a way to prevent that from ever happening to you again. I believe that Jesus Christ can help you. If you ask Jesus and pray hard, Jesus will save you from your homosexual feelings and your gender behavior, and He can help you to achieve the life that is meant for you, in his service, as a happy and healthy heterosexual. This will save you from the abuse you have suffered.”
I looked deeply into her eyes and inquired: “So, let me see if I understand you: If I accept Jesus in my life and ask him to help me become heterosexual and traditionally gendered, then I won’t suffer from the abuse any longer? So, to be supported in society, I have to change who I am and conform to the dominant standards of society? So, for people like yourself to truly accept and support me, I have to become like you?”
“This is what I am hearing you saying. While I understand that you are offering me, in your mind, a gift, do you not see how this in itself is a form of heterosexism and cissexism? Do you not see how this perpetuates oppression?”
She responded with surprise and claimed that she knew the “truth,” and that if I accepted “Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior,” He could grant me salvation and happiness, but if I continued to reject “the Lord,” this would result in continued earthly and eventual eternal torment.
This young woman’s words brought to mind something one of the students in my Multicultural Foundations in Schools and Society course wrote on his final essay for our course:

“[A]s a Christian I am called to not be tolerant. I am not called to be violent, but am called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). When I look through all of the information I have been given in my life….I come to the conclusion that America was founded as a Christian nation….Separation of church and state was created to keep the state out of changing the church, not to keep the church out of the state
– undergraduate male pre-service teacher education university student

The young woman and I at Pace university continued our dialogue for more than one hour, and we ended cordially. I thanked her for dialoguing with me, and she exited the auditorium with a smile.
All the while, the young man who had initially walked up to me at the close of my presentation had been closely looking on and listening to the young woman and my discussion. The young man then spoke to me.
He asked: “Professor Blumenfeld, you stated that you are a writer, that you had published a number of articles and books. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” I responded.
“Okay, then,” he continued. “You know that in the writing process, the first draft is never really complete or isn’t very good.”
“That’s often the case,” I agreed.
“Okay, then after you have had some time for reflection and you write your second draft, this is an improvement over the first draft, but still, it can be improved. So after further reflection and writing, your third version is great. Now you can send it to your publisher.”
I said to him, “Possibly, but I think I know where your analogy is taking us. Please don’t tell me that this is a metaphor for religious texts.”
“Yes, indeed,” he said with a smile. “The first draft is the Hebrew Bible – not so good. The second draft is the Christian scriptures – somewhat better, but not much. But the best version, the third, is the Quran: the real truth, the ultimate truth, the only truth.”
I responded to the young man:

“As we speak, we are standing a mere few blocks from the former World Trade Center towers. Utterances and understandings like yours and like the young woman I just spoke with, and by people of any faith, that there is one and only one ultimate religious truth, that there is only one way, this results in people taking it upon themselves, for example, to crash airplanes into buildings. Utterances like yours of people of any faith give people justification to kill in the name of their interpretation of ‘God.'”
“Why,” I argued, “cannot the young woman I just spoke with realize that her understanding of God, while valid and reliable for her, may simply not be valid and reliable for me or for you, too? And why cannot you realize that your understanding may be great for you, but not necessarily for me and for the Christian woman? How many must we humans kill before we realize that there are many ways toward the truth, not one way for everyone when it comes to religion and spirituality?”

That was then. Though this occurred a number of years ago, this discussion comes back to my memory giving me an insight I previously had not known: That “truth” is what the dominant group declares truth to be. “Knowledge” is anything the dominant group defines as “knowledge,” though “knowledge” itself is socially constructed and produced.
How many wars are we going to justify in the name of “God,” our “God” versus their so-called “false god(s)”?
Someone once said to me that throughout the ages, more people have been killed in the name of religion than all the people who have ever died of all diseases combined.
I don’t believe this to be the case, but I do think it highlights a vital point, that we continually kill others and others attempt to kill us over concepts that no one can ever prove.
Throughout history, Jews and Muslims have killed each other, Christians and Muslims have killed each other, Christians and Jews have killed each other, Hindus and Muslims have killed each other, Catholics and Protestants have killed each other, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims have killed each other, many faith communities have killed Atheists and Agnostics, and the killing persists.
In psychology, we have the notion that insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results. The insanity of the world continues because human beings do not know their history, do not understand that we are doing something over and over again while expecting different results, namely, we are expecting peace to break out.
Individuals and entire nations continue to believe that their reality fits all, and that it is proper and right to force their beliefs onto others “with God on our side.”