Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chicago Priest Burns Rainbow Flag with Easter Fire: Dangerous Weaponization of Catholic Symbols to Attack Queer People

Lighting of Easter Fire by Benedictines in Morristown, NJ, in 2009 

The Catholic priest in Chicago who had announced his intent to burn a rainbow flag to "exorcise" his parish did carry through with his plans, as I think many of you will already know (and Chris Morley helpfully posted a report about this in a comment here several days ago). Though archdiocesan officials had told Father Paul Kalchik not to do so, he went ahead and burned the flag, with parishioners assisting him. Robert Shine reported about this for New Ways Ministry this past week.

As he states, Father Kalchik told NBC news:

So in a quiet way we took matters into our own hands and said a prayer of exorcism over this thing. It was cut into seven pieces, so it was burned over stages in the same fire pit that we used for the Easter vigil mass.

Shine writes, 

Kalchik told NBC News that he interpreted biblical passages traditionally associated with homosexuality in a "quite literal" way.
The Chicago Sun/Times's report also revealed Kalchik had taken steps beyond the flag burning to erase a history of what he described as "bad priests" who were "big in promoting the gay lifestyle." Upon arriving at Resurrection Church, the priest destroyed rainbow liturgical items, including vestments. 

Father James Martin responds to Father Kalchik's actions and statements:

I cannot imagine a more homophobic action by Catholics, short of beating up an LGBT person in the church parking lot. Note that the pastor defied the archdiocese and took part, with some of his parishioners, in the "exorcism." And connecting it in any way, as the pastor did, to the Easter Vigil is a scandal: Easter is about love; this is about hate. This malign act helps to shed light on the kind of homophobia that many good people doubt still occurs in the church, but that many LGBT Catholics experience. What the pastor and some of his parishioners did shows the kind of hatred that LGBT Catholics still face–in their own church.

In Malta on the weekend before Father Kalchik organized his rainbow flag burning-cum-"exorcism,"  while some Catholics took part in pride celebrations and supported them, a Catholic group called pro-Malta Christiana held a "rosary rally for reparation against Malta Pride and the LGBT agenda."

What needs to be noted about this string of activities is how they very deliberately weaponize Catholic religious symbols and rituals to demonize and attack a targeted minority group — LGBTQ people. In the "exorcism" of a church by the burning of a rainbow flag, there are strong, clear echoes of the use of fire to "purify" Christian communities in the past by the burning of "witches" and "heretics" and Jews.

Fire has holy implications in Catholic churches because of the Easter fire, and Father Kalchik deliberately connected his ritual burning of a queer symbol — an "exorcism" of queer people — to the Easter fire. In these actions demonizing LGBTQ people, fire is being put to a weaponized use, to imply that queer human beings are demonic and deserve to be attacked and even extinguished. As Diarmaid MacCulloch notes in his book Silence: A Christian History (NY: Penguin, 2013), fire was frequently used in the past as a "purifying" agent in Christian cultures as targeted others were put to death — witches, Jews, heretics — because the use of purifying fire instead of shedding blood to execute a targeted other has been seen as conformity to biblical injunctions prohibiting bloodshed:  

The great advantage of burning a human being to death is that it does not infringe ancient prohibitions on churchmen shedding blood (p. 164).

Burning people alive, torturing them with fire before hanging them and cutting their bodies into pieces as grisly souvenirs, was a frequent feature of lynchings in the American South during the Jim Crow era. 

Rosary processions "against" queer people are weaponizing other Catholic holy symbols — the rosary, litanies, public religious processions — to energize hate of a targeted minority community. At previous points in Catholic history, such processions, with the rosary playing a large role in them, have been used to announce the "purification" of the church from perceived enemies like "witches" and "heretics." As witches and heretics and Jews were led to the stake in Christian cultures in the past, religious reciting the rosary often followed the procession to the stake, ritually sanctioning the "purification" of a Christian community by burning a member of a targeted minority community to death.

What has often followed in Catholic history with the weaponization of the rosary, of processions, of holy fire is eventually the actual targeting of demonized others with acts of real violence that often end in death for those demonized others — as the "holy" community imagines it has expelled an evil presence, "exorcised" it, and demonstrated its holiness in doing so.

Read Tom Gjelten's NPR report this week about the drive in influential Catholic circles to bash gay priests as the cause of the abuse crisis, and words that will leap out at as you do so are words like "purified" and "purge": Gjelten cites Cardinal Burke saying that he wants to see the church "purified at the root" and he quotes theologian Janet Smith announcing that she wishes to see a "purge" of gay priests. Both are claiming that there is a gay cabal in the hierarchy that is at the root of the abuse crisis.

The words "purification" and "purge," used in this context, should have an ominous ring for anyone who knows much history at all, including church history. They should ring alarm bells for those who know from history what happens when powerful, hateful, unscrupulous religious leaders call for "purifying" and "purging" social groups including churches by targeting vulnerable, despised minority groups.

Throughout the marriage equality and other LGBT civil rights debates, bishops and church officials have used terms like "defeat for humanity," "nuclear arms," "gay dictatorship," "ideological colonization," "totalitarian system," "demonic, poison," "murderers," and "Nazi-fascism and communism." And, of course, there's the language of official church doctrine "objective disorder" and "intrinsically evil." The speakers of these words need to take responsibility for the potential violent initiatives their rhetoric can inspire. 
But in addition to church leaders using harmful language, the problem also extends to the language that they do not use. Church leaders have been extremely vocal denouncing any initiative which recognizes same-sex relationships or transgender equality. They justify these messages by saying they are upholding church teaching. Yet, our church also teaches that we must respect the human dignity of LGBT people and we must include them in the Christian community. Unfortunately, our leaders are much less likely to promote these teachings than they are the teachings that involve sex and gender. I will grant that some leaders have recently been adding a reminder about the teaching on accepting LGBT people to their statements condemning same-sex relationships or gender identity. Yet, why is this teaching so rarely ever the primary message? Why haven't the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established a Committee on the Defense of Sexual and Gender Minorities the way they have done for heterosexual marriage? Why don't church leaders ever mention the many positive contributions that LGBT people have made to the church and society? 
Allow me to tell a little story about a phone conversation that I had recently. A Catholic pastor called New Ways Ministry demanding that his parish be taken off our list of LGBT-friendly faith communities. "We uphold the teaching of the Church," he told me emphatically. He told me that a welcome to LGBT people had existed under the former pastor of the parish, but that he was not continuing that approach. To be certain, I asked him, "Are LGBT people welcome in your parish?" His response: "No, they are not." How does such a response uphold church teaching on respect and pastoral welcome? (I immediately deleted the parish from our list.)

We would be missing the whole picture here if we ignored Father Kalchik's connection to a larger and very powerful network of right-wing Catholics who have not scrupled to weaponize religious symbols like the rosary in attacks on organizations like the National Organization of Women. Kalchik is closely associated with Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League, who was at the center of a notorious case in which he was accused of violating the RICO act to attack abortion providers. NOW's case specifically stated that Scheidler and others associated with him use coercive and violent tactics to attack women seeking abortions and facilities providing them. The rosary has long been used as a holy weapon in these attacks — and a much larger network of influential far-right Catholics is involved in Kalchik's flag-burning stunt than many media folks have yet to recognize.

As we think about Kalchik's hateful stunt, we'd also be foolish to forget the weaponization of the rosary by the Catholic church in Poland last year, in collaboration with xenophobic white supremacists, as Poles were encouraged to go to the nation's borders and form a human chain praying the rosary on those borders, to pray immigrants away from the country. To keep it white and Christian….

We will see much more of this in days to come. We'll see more public processions featuring the rosary in which Catholics are led by bishops to assert the need to "purify" the church — as has just happened in the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina, a diocese with a dismal track record when it comes to LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ people, so that we'd be naive to imagine that the rhetoric about purification and the weaponized rosary procession that has just taken place there do not have a loud, strong anti-LGBTQ subtext.

The "purifying" of the church being spoken of by Catholics engaging in these demonstrations is all about targeting, attacking, marginalizing, and excluding queer human beings. The church we see in the revved-up weaponized demonstrations of Catholic power going on around us right now is not the church that binds up wounds, heals the tears in the world, assures that the bruised reed is not broken and the smoldering wick is not quenched. It is not the church that is a field hospital dispensing mercy to hurting human beings. Nor is it the church of "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

The church we encounter in these dangerous and burgeoning social-ecclesial developments, in which holy symbols and rituals are weaponized to attack members of a vulnerable marginalized minority community, is a church militant. It wants and needs to inflict wounds. It exists to do just that.

(Please see this subsequent posting with further reflections on the story told above.)

The graphic, a photo of Benedictine monks lighting the Easter fire in Morristown, New Jersey, in April 2009, was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by a user with the username Boston for online sharing, and was taken by John Stephen Dwyer of Boston.

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