|Luke 5:13, Jesus's Healing of a Leper|
It's interesting to read the pastoral letter that the House of Bishops of the Church of England published today side by side with Pope Francis's homily this past Sunday to the consistory of cardinals gathered in Rome as the pope made twenty new cardinals. In significant ways, what the bishops of the Church of England are saying overlaps with what Francis says in his recent homily to cardinals.
The English bishops' pastoral letter notes the "growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers between people and nations" (§ 1) manifest in the political life of many nations at present. The document decries the "tribalism" of much contemporary political life, which results in a loss of wisdom, balance, and humility (§ 42).
It notes, too, that tribalistic politics deliberately seeks to stir up resentment against identifiable "others" who are then deliberately dehumanized by the social mainstream (§ 76). Jesus critiqued this attempt to scapegoat and other with his parable of the good Samaritan, the pastoral letter insists, a parable that defines being a good neighbor as not merely about doing for others, but also about "what we are willing to receive from those we fear, ignore or despise" (§ 102). The question confronting many societies today, the bishops note, is, "Are we a 'society of strangers,' or are we a 'community of communities'?" (§ 43).
And then there's religion, which the bishops admit plays an ambiguous role as various cultures seek to deal with these issues of scapegoating, othering, and tribalism. As the pastoral document points out, not all religion moves in the direction of building societies that are comprised of communities of communities. There's the phemomenon of "furious religion" (§ 9), in which the religious impulse is used to justify oppression and conflict.
And here's what the pope told the consistory of cardinals this past Sunday: there are two ways of thinking that run throughout the history of the church — "casting off and reintegrating." Some people within the Christian community have always been intent, over the course of the history of the church, on bolstering the tribal boundaries in such a way that some other members of the community are declared outsiders, the cast-off.
Jesus, by contrast, seems to have been preoccupied with the opposite impulse, Pope Francis observes:
Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!
He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.
Francis uses the gospel image of the leper to discuss Jesus's intent to abolish hard, fast boundaries that exclude and denigrate:
[L]epers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.
Jesus reaches out to touch the leper, to affirm her humanity, to bring him back into the circle of humanity — to heal. This impulse runs in precisely the opposite direction of the impulse of casting off, excluding, marginalizing.
As Francis DeBernardo notes in his commentary on this homily, the themes the pope develops here will be familiar to many LGBT people. To our ears, it will sound as if Francis is speaking in a quite direct way to us and about our experience with the Christian community, though the homily never mentions questions of sexual orientation.
I think Francis DeBernardo is right about that. As an openly gay Catholic theologian, I do hear Francis speaking in a very direct way to me and about my experience with the church in that homily. How can my ears not perk up when I hear about lepers that the righteous refuse to touch, whom the righteous want to cast out of community?
How is it possible for me to read the pastoral letter of the bishops of the Church of England as it speaks about the increased scapegoating and tribalism of many contemporary cultures and of much contemporary political life, and not think about what is being done to gay people in Russia, in Uganda — and in Alabama and in Arkansas? As I told someone last week the day after my state's legislature passed legislation permitting business owners to discriminate against me because I'm gay and forbidding my city from enacting ordinances to protect me against such discrimination, I went to bed on the day that legislation passed with fewer rights than I woke up with that morning.
I went to bed less of a person, less of a human being than I had been when I woke up in the morning, in the state in which I was born, in which I grew up, in which I live. My humanity was diminished with a single stroke of a legislative pen.
Above all, this happened to me and other gay citizens of my state last week quite precisely because of that "furious religion" critiqued by the bishops of the Church of England, religion that wants to use God to oppress, to set person against person, to set the holy against those identified as unrighteous. It happened to me quite precisely as a result of that impulse of casting out rather than gathering in that Pope Francis has just told the cardinals of the Catholic church runs throughout church history, even as it runs counter to what is the most fundamental impulse of Jesus himself . . . .
Much of the discussion (e.g., here) taking place in my own part of the world right now regarding gay people notes the direct, overt way in which religion not merely forms the basis for the oppression of gay citizens of my state, but is the engine driving the oppression. The impulse to scapegoat, to other, to marginalize, to treat gay citizens of my state with fear, loathing, and contempt and to deprive us of rights stems in the most direct way possible from religion.
It stems from religious groups with whom the bishops of my own church have deliberately allied my Catholic church in the U.S. My Catholic bishop has not spoken out against the unconstitutional legislation just passed by my state's legislature, which deliberately targets gay citizens of this state. I would be very surprised if he did speak out. The Catholic bishops of Arizona, after all, actively promoted similar legislation in that state last year, as did the Catholic bishops of Kansas.
Why would my local Catholic bishop speak out against legislation designed to foster discrimination against me and other gay people when he has just attended a conference sponsored by the Mormon church, whose sole purpose was to cement alliances between faith communities promoting such anti-gay discrimination in the name of defending religious freedom?
So from where I stand as an openly gay Catholic theologian, Francis DeBernardo is correct to say that Pope Francis's recent homily to the cardinals speaks in a very direct way to my experience as a gay Catholic. What I don't hear in that homily, however, or in the pastoral letter of the bishops of the Church of England, is a strong, overt acknowledgment of the extent to which the churches have long been responsible for the problems of scapegoating, othering, marginalizing, and excluding those who are gay.
What I don't hear is any real acknowledgment of the way in which the churches themselves have long permitted "furious religion" to drive the treatement of LGBT human beings as lepers to be shunned and cast out. What I don't hear from either the pope or the bishops' pastoral letter is any gospel promise that in any direct or effective way lifts from my shoulders or the shoulders of other gay people the kind of oppression we who are gay are now experiencing in places like Arkansas.
What I hear, to be honest, is a diluted "gospel" message that is far too little and far too late — especially when the bishops of Pope Francis's own church have, in the United States and elsewhere, promoted laws designed to make me and other human beings like me a leper and an outcast. Where is there any good news in such a church for people like me?