Wednesday, May 9, 2012

When Christian People Celebrate Humiliation of Others: Dealing with the Ugly

Something that Maurice Sendak tells Bill Moyers in this interview rings in my head as I listen.  It does so, in part, because it's so pertinent to what's happening in my church and nation today, as I open the morning paper (metaphorically speaking) to read of 1) the fervor being worked up (and money spent) by Catholic dioceses in Minnesota determined to amend that state's constitution to outlaw marriage equality, 2) the insistence of a Catholic bishop in Iowa that the Matthew Shepard foundation may not present a $40,000 scholarship award to an openly gay student of a Catholic school, 3) and the vote yesterday to amend the constitution of the state of North Carolina to prohibit marriage equality, even though the state already had a law banning same-sex marriage.

A vote that one North Carolina reader of Candace Chellew-Hodge's article at Religion Dispatches this morning helpfully spells out as follows: we're good.  You're evil.  You're not welcome among us good Christians.  Leave our state!  And then he or she invites the "evil people who are ruining our country" to commit suicide.  All with evident Christian charity bubbling over, while other good Christian people in North Carolina celebrate their victory by eating cakes topped with little man-little woman toppers.

As the bible instructs good Christian people always to do, it goes without saying, in that passage declaring, "It would be better for you to eat cake than to cause one of these little ones around whose necks you've tied a millstone to falter."  Or something like that, I seem to recall.

It's an ugly time in the U.S.  Or am I repeating myself?  It's one of those times in our history when religious people are on holy crusade to inform their enemies that said enemies don't count, aren't wanted, should shut up and leave.  Or, if all else fails, should kill themselves.  

It's a time in which the men who lead the Catholic church in the U.S. can't open their mouths to say a single word about the alarming phenomenon of suicides of gay teens, but in which one of their members can target a single gay teen  in a Catholic school in Iowa, who has struggled to find his way through school and has earned a scholarship, and can publicly humiliate him.  And can call this action of public humiliation of a hard-working and intelligent young man who already struggles against prejudice and discrimination good and holy.

It's a time when it's perhaps more embarrassing and humiliating than ever to call oneself Catholic in the U.S.  And so Maurice Sendak, who tells Bill Moyers in the interview to which I've linked,

All the idiots that keep coming into the world and wrecking people's lives.  And it is such an abundance of idiocy that you lose courage, okay?  That you lose hope.  I don't want to lose hope.  I get through every day.  I work, I sleep, I sing, I walk.  But I'm losing hope.

I'm with Maurice Sendak.  

And as I think about these statements from someone many of whose family members (I'm now learning) died in the Holocaust--an event of mass murder planned and carried out, after all, by good Christian people in the middle of the 20th century--I'm also thinking about what Paul Brandeis Raushenbush wrote yesterday at Huffington Post.  

Raushenbush notes that history shows that those treated as despised, humiliated others by church folks often, over the course of time, begin to appear to their tormentors as human beings worthy of human respect.  And when that happens, churches tend to go through predictable ritual cycles of repentance, in which they issue apologies to the group they've just savaged (and, in some cases, actually slaughtered):

We're so sorry.  Didn't have a clue in the world we were inflicting such pain.  We had imagined you don't feel pain as we feel pain.  We had thought that excluding you, telling you you're unwelcome, that you and all your people are backwards and ignorant, wouldn't hurt you in the same way it might hurt us if we were treated this way.

We're sorry.  We didn't mean it.  We're Christians, after all.  We're good folks.  We intend to learn from this experience not to do anything like this ever again, to another group.

Yet as Raushenbush notes, only a few days ago, the United Methodist church voted to retain in its Book of Discipline language that singles out gay and lesbian human beings in a singularly ugly way, noting that homosexuality is "incompatible" with the practice of Christian faith--while the same UMC folks voting to target the gays in this way apologized in the very same breath for having done precisely the same thing to people of color in the past!  Take a map and mark on that map those Methodist conferences that voted to split the Methodist church in the 19th century over the issue of slavery, and you'll find that the map you draw is almost exactly the same map as you draw when you mark on a map the UMC conferences that are fighting today to inform LGBT folks that their lives are incompatible with Christian faith--and that they're not welcome.

We don't seem to learn from history.  Sendak appears to be right: idiots keep coming into the world and ruining the lives of others, and those broken lives can't ever be put back together once they've been broken.  While "good" people with heads on their shoulders and the power to change things by speaking out keep standing by in absolute complicit silence, as if the breaking of someone else's life by malicious idiots has nothing to do with them.

Raushenbush's advice to the churches that keep getting themselves caught in the oppression-repentance cycle: how about just breaking the cycle?  Why not just stop, once and for all, oppressing targeted minorities in the name of a Jesus who stands absolutely against such behavior, and whom you ludicrously misrepresent when you break the lives of those you define as evil by nature and constitution in order to make yourself feel better about yourself--in order to earn a big sweet cake of self-righteous celebration of yourself and those akin to you:

Here's an idea. Why don't we just skip the "more oppression" part and move straight to the reconciliation and full communion? Saying that gay people can't be Christian (or really anything we want to be) isn't going to work much longer anyway. 
People aren't buying the anti-gay rhetoric any more and the younger the person; the more likely they are to support full equality of gay and lesbian people. The problem with the anti-gay position is that people actually know gay people and recognize the fully humanity in their friend, brother, sister, mother, cousin and co-worker. Straight people aren't going to listen to anti-gay lies for much longer. 
And now that LGBT people have tasted a tiny bit of what it means to be recognized as a full human being, we will never go back. No matter how much the preacher rails or the psychologist explains, LGBT people today will refuse to be described as sick or sinners because of our sexual or gender orientation. The more any LGBT person understands deep in their soul that they are wonderfully and beautifully made; the more untenable it will be for them to accept people preaching or teaching against them. 
Once a soul and mind are freed, they can never be caged, or put back into the closet again.

I'm with Raushenbush, just as I'm with Sendak.  But as I read both of these outstanding human beings offering us wise and outstanding advice, I can't help thinking of all the lives that have already been broken by the brutality of people of faith claiming they're acting in the name of God, as they rip open hearts and souls and inflict misery designed to tell targeted minorities they're subhuman, that they're human dirt with backwards, ignorant forebears who don't deserve to be admitted to the company of the good and holy.

Once broken, how can they be put together again?  And who will put the broken lives back together, when it's Christians who are called to heal the world and exemplify God's all-embracing love for all who are, quite frequently, the very ones doing the smashing, tearing, ripping, and excluding?

Thanks to Dennis Coday at NCR for the link to the Minnesota story, at his "Morning Briefing" column today.

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