Friday, February 29, 2008

Week in Review: Equality Is a Moral Imperative

Another Friday. And wow. When I gathered material last night for my weekly Friday news round-up, little did I know how much the news sites and blogs would be popping this morning with fresh items worth mentioning.

Above all, the open letter Barack Obama issued yesterday to the LGBT community (and to all Americans, since we all suffer when any of us are oppressed) deserves attention. The full text may be found at today’s Bilerico Project Blog at

This statement is significant. It centers on one simple, stark claim: Equality is a moral imperative. The beloved community that constitutes America at its best is a community, rather than a collection of disparate individuals with competing interests, precisely because it regards equality as a moral imperative. The vision of American democracy at its best centers on the astonishing moral claim that all human beings are made equal by the hand of God and have an equal claim on the right to pursue their destiny without being fettered by the prejudice of others.

It’s interesting to me how this moral imperative seems to fall on deaf ears not merely among Americans to the right of the political spectrum, but also among Americans who identify as liberal. That is, it falls on deaf ears among liberals when the moral imperative involves LGBT Americans. It is still difficult for many liberals to hear the moral imperative to accord full human rights to gay human beings. It is still hard for many liberals to understand that standing in solidarity with LGBT Americans and working with us to eradicate the many barriers we experience to equality is a moral imperative involving all of us—not just gay people.

A case in point: the lively blog at my statewide “liberal” weekly newspaper the Arkansas Times. Yesterday, the paper’s editor Max Brantley excerpted Mr. Obama’s statement in a posting entitled “Today I Am an Obamaist": see The responses of bloggers to Obama’s statement have been astonishing. They’ve been deeply saddening.

There are, of course, the predictable wing-nut rantings and ravings: if you think Katrina was a disaster, just wait for what God will do to the nation when we let the mire and cess of queers rise to the top. What’s shocking to read, though, are not these predictable comments: what's shocking are the postings of self-professed liberals who say they had planned to vote Democratic in the coming election, no matter which candidate is chosen.

One poster says he will now change his vote to McCain. Many others chide Obama for having miscalculated politically. Some of these say that making this statement—that is, enunciating the clear moral imperative that binds us together as a beloved community—will drive centrist voters into the Republican fold.

The subtext of these comments is worrisome to me. For these "liberals," gay human beings are obviously still the Other. We who are gay are not the children, the brothers, the sisters of those who are content to see us still denied full human rights. We are clearly the poor unfortunates who should stand beside the table while they sit to feast, and be grateful when a crumb is dropped into our outstretched hands.

These “liberals” just haven’t yet gotten the message. They haven’t yet heard the moral imperative. The concerns—the lives—of gay human beings are somehow at a remove from their lives. Whereas they have no difficulty at all hearing the imperative for women or African Americans to be given a chance at a full human life, they have yet to hear that moral imperative when it comes to LGBT people.

And this in a state in which, a half century ago, most white people responded to the moral imperative to treat black citizens as fully human with the same timid truculence they now apply to that moral imperative in the case of their gay children, brothers, and sisters. Fifty years ago, it was politically unpopular—politically disastrous—to stand up and speak forthrightly about the full humanity of African Americans in Arkansas.

Today, we celebrate and admire those who had the courage to speak out. Those who vacillated, who sat on the fence, who calculated the political odds and did the expedient thing: their names are all but forgotten. They did not make the choice that moved our society closer to the vision of a beloved community. They deserve not to be remembered, frankly, because they obstructed rather than participated in history in the making, in the realization of the vision of the beloved community.

Speaking of remembering, a theme I have stressed repeatedly regarding gay youth like Lawrence King or Simmie Williams, whose lives were recently tragically cut short by hate crimes, this week’s Arkansas Times carries a story that has touched the depths of my soul. Leslie Newell Peacock’s “Stirring the Ashes” at discusses a horrendous event that occurred just outside Little Rock on 5 March 1959.

On that day, 21 African-American youth aged 13 to 16 died at a fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School. These teens were sleeping in a dormitory whose doors were padlocked on the outside. When a fire broke out in the adjacent chapel, they burned to death. Fourteen of the young men were so badly burnt that their bodies could not be recognized. They are buried together in an unmarked grave at a cemetery in Little Rock.

A number of these young men were placed in the Industrial School—a correctional institution for wayward black youth—on outrageously slim charges: e.g., for soaping windows at Halloween time, or for riding the bike of a white friend (with the friend’s permission). This story is a reminder of where we have come from in places such as Little Rock, when it comes to the rights of African Americans.

Just as we should not forget the names and lives of Lawrence King or Matthew Shepard or Simmie Williams, we must challenge ourselves to remember the names of Lindsey Cross, Charles L. Thomas, William Loyd Piggee, and the other young men who died in this horrible fire in 1959. The Arkansas Times article prints those names, and I, for one, will do my best to keep them in memory, as a reminder that the life of every human being counts, that the life of no one who dies tragically young due to prejudice deserves to fall into the darkness of forgetting: Equality is a moral imperative.

As I read this article side by side with the Arkansas Times blog regarding Mr. Obama’s statement yesterday—with the Cassandra-like moanings of liberals because Mr. Obama has chosen to do what is right if not politically expedient—I call to mind the Pete Seeger commemorative that Steve and I watched this past week on PBS. Since that special aired, we’ve been playing Pete Seeger’s protest songs over and over.

In a Carnegie Hall performance of that stirring anthem of the Civil Rights movement, “We Shall Overcome,” Seeger noted how much the youth of the Civil Rights struggle taught their elders. He notes that the verse, “We are not afraid,” was inspired by youths’ willingness to demonstrate fearlessly for equal rights, when their elders, both white and black, cautioned prudence and political calculation.

PBS’s choice to air this special now strikes me as fortuitous. We are at a similar turning point in our history today, with regard to the fundamental direction our nation will take. We are at a crossroads at which we must either choose to accord fundamental rights to LGBT Americans, or frankly admit that we have given up on the vision of a beloved community.

What I wish desperately to say to my “liberal” fellow citizens who are now wringing their hands about the unwisdom of Mr. Obama’s statement yesterday is, Equality is a moral imperative. I want to tell these fellow citizens that another death of any gay youth—the killing of a single other gay youth because he or she is gay—is unacceptable. We must make this a nation in which such deaths are no longer thinkable. These youth are not just the children of the biological parents who gave birth to them: they are all of our children; they are the children of you liberals who still hear the call to equality for LGBT citizens with deaf ears.

Today’s Towleroad blog contains a posting entitled “Ellen Degeneres on Lawrence King: We Must Change Our Country”: see This posting notes that on her show today, Ellen will issue an appeal for us to remember Lawrence King and to make what happened to this youth unthinkable in our nation in the future. Ellen will appeal to us to vote in the coming elections with this moral imperative in mind. The posting links to a clip of that segment of today’s “Ellen.”

And finally, I want to leave readers with a thought-provoking quote from today’s Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor carries an editorial today entitled, “What Is ‘Good Theology?’ ” The editorial excerpts a statement from Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, in which Armstrong defines what constitutes authentic theology in the religious traditions of the world. Armstrong states:

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.

The one and only test of a valid religious idea . . . is that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If only all of us could hear that moral imperative today. And, in particular, would it not be inspiring if the churches examined themselves on this point, and asked whether their proclamations about LGBT human beings lead directly to practical compassion. If they lead in some other direction—if, for instance, they foster ignorance or distortion of the real lives of gay persons, or if they fuel violence in any form towards LGBT persons—it seems the conclusion is inescapable: the churches are misrepresenting the authentic Christian tradition, when they use it to support callous or destructive attitudes towards gay human beings.


colkoch said...

I was impressed with Obama's statement. The fact is, equality is a moral imperative, and diversity is a biological imperative. Bucking these two truths have been truly hideous in their consequences. What a quote from Karen Armstrong. Best definition of theology I have ever read.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, it's good to hear from you. Feeling somewhat down today. I, too, think that Karen Armstrong's definition of good theology is outstanding. If all the world religious used that simple formulation--practical compassion--as the compass point for judging authentic theology, think how different things could be. When I read it, I thought immediately of some of the conversations we've been in at the NCR site, in which I keep arguing that the truth claims of doctrine have to be judged in part on the basis of how they affect the real lives of real people. The churches cannot preach "tolerance," "welcome," and "compassion" when their teachings about gay people involve anything but practical compassion. It's mind-boggling to me to read about what is going on in Florida now, and to remember what happened to Steve and me there. It's very clear to me in that state (as in most others) that the church plays a very key role in creating the conditions for homophobic violence. When I think that a United Methodist college with a strong tradition of civic engagement would try to silence us and then dump us because we simply tried to fulfill our charge to build civic engagement, I really do wonder. How long do the churches think they can keep bashing gay folks while preaching tolerance, compassion, and acceptance? And how can they convince society that they want to heal social wounds when they do all they can to hobble the people they charge to address those wounds? If ever is a time that church-based institutions in FL need skilled voices willing to address homophobic violence, it's now. But good luck finding those voices, when the churches and their institutions have done all they can to silence them.