Monday, August 18, 2008

There's Forgiveness, and Then There's Forgiveness

This is not a particularly good time for me. Not complaining. Just explaining.

Explaining why I’m slow to blog, and why what I have to say today may be even less inspiring than usual.

There’s the aftermath of the funeral, the process of grief (which demands energy and readiness to go with the flow when it strikes): and in my case, all of this is more vicarious than otherwise, since I am living through this with Steve, who had not yet lost a parent. Having lost both of mine, I have an inkling of how it feels, though no one ever knows from the inside the pain of someone else.

There are also the end-of-summer blahs, which are especially trying for someone who hates hot weather, but who lives in Cairo with humidity. The last weeks of August, it sometimes feels as if summer won’t end, that we won’t have those crisp blasts of dry, cool air down across the plains, the spiraling leaves of oak and sweetgum, hickory and dogwood, with their resplendent autumn colors.

Most of all, though, there are the churches. I am, frankly, fed up. I could spend today’s blog commenting on the McCain-Obama debate at Rick Warren’s megachurch the other evening. But I won’t.

I won’t because I refused to watch it. I won’t because it strikes me as the grimmest possible commentary on our political process that we entrust the kingmaker’s role to a megachurch preacher.

I certainly understand all the reasons a presidential candidate absolutely has to court the evangelical vote, in this nation with the soul of a church. But that doesn’t mean I have to allow the influence of those kingmakers into my own heart and soul. They have enough influence on my life already, insofar as they wield great power in the decision-making process by which our culture chooses how to treat gay human beings.

My life is determined by the Rick Warrens of the world. And I’m not happy about that.

Nor am I surprised at all to discover today that, even as Rick Warren was reassuring his audience during the debate that Mr. McCain was in a “cone of silence,” this was not, in fact, true. And Rick Warren knew this, even as he spoke to his audience about the cone of silence.

Rick Warren lied, in other words. And I’m not surprised. I’m surprised only that some Americans still find it possible to be surprised that leaders of the religious right, whether in its draconian old incarnation or its kinder, gentler new one, will openly lie. And expect us all to forgive and forget.

Ask any garden-variety LGBT person in America if church leaders are willing to lie to us. And about us. All of them. I think you’ll get an earful.

We’re used to being lied to and lied about—which is to say, used to the assumption of a large number of church leaders and members that they have no obligation to treat us as anything but garbage. And we’re used to being lectured about our anger, and preached to about the need to forgive, as our faces are ground into the mud by folks holding bibles and crucifixes.

Lately, the forgiveness message is sticking in my craw, and I can’t get it out. I can’t work out what I really feel about that message: what my soul is saying to me beyond all the beguiling voices that are so quick to talk about forgiveness from within the church context.

On the one hand, I know that forgiveness is the substance of spiritual life, whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, a practitioner of native religions, or whatever. From a Christian standpoint, the obligation is always there: 70 x 70; forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us. It is an obligation that never ends, and the challenge to forgive engages us to the moment of our last breath.

Even so, I have come to think that there’s forgiveness and there’s forgiveness. There’s the forgiveness that the mighty, the rapacious, the cruel of the earth expect everyone else to practice, since it lets them off the hook. There’s the forgiveness that enables injustice and cruelty.

There’s the forgiveness that’s precipitous, since those engaging in cruelty and injustice demand it of us without confronting, acknowledging, and mending the effects of their cruelty and injustice. There’s the forgiveness that glosses over all injustice in the world.

And I find it rather hard to believe this is what Jesus means, when he calls us to forgiveness.

I’ve thought through these questions using the lens of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church. I have not been sexually abused by any cleric. I have, however, been abused by clerics and religious—as a gay person, as a lay person, as a theologian, as an employee in church-owned institutions. I cannot know what it is like to endure sexual abuse by a trusted religious authority figure when one is young. I can barely begin to imagine the horror of such an experience, the inroads it must make into the psyche.

I cannot and should not presume to extrapolate from my own experiences of being abused by clerics and religious, to the claim that I know what a survivor of clerical sexual abuse feels. I don’t. I can’t.

Even so, I can understand enough about what any form of unmerited abuse must feel like—based on my own experiences of such abuse—to seek solidarity with those who are experiencing or have experienced abuse. Ever since the abuse crisis “broke” in the Catholic church, I have sought solidarity with the community of survivors.

For a number of years, I actively participated in the ongoing forum about these issues at the website of the Survivors Network of Abuse by Priests (SNAP). I eventually stopped taking part in that forum, since I came to believe I had had my say there, and needed to find other forums in which to keep talking about these significant theological issues.

But my solidarity with survivors remains as strong as ever, as does my commitment to do anything I can to challenge the churches—and my own church, the Catholic church, in particular—to try to assure that no minor is ever again abused by a cleric or religious. I owe much to survivors who have shared their stories with me, both on the SNAP website and in other contexts. I have learned much from survivors and the dialogue with them. I continue to do so.

I stand in solidarity with survivors who actively resist—who repudiate—the message of church leaders to them to forgive and forget. Before the church leaders have acknowledged what they have done. Before they admit that many priests have sexually abused minors, that bishops on the whole covered up this abuse and used money and legal threats to silence survivors, that bishops have lied about what they knew when, that bishops are still playing legal games to hide the extent of what has gone on. And that the Vatican knew and colluded as well.

Like survivors of clerical sexual abuse, I have come to a point in my life when it is actively painful for me to go to church. I went to Steve’s father’s funeral because, well, what else could or should I have done? If one cannot endure a trifling few moments of pain on behalf of those one loves, what is love about?

That doesn’t mean I was content with being in church, with participating in rituals and partaking of words that no longer have the same meaning for me that they once did, after I discovered the glib abandon with which church people can treat me as an openly gay believer. I was surely unhappy to sit in the church and see some of the hateful glances—the sneers, the whispers—all from “straight” men, directed at me, even as these men digested the Eucharist they had just received.

I feel I have had all I can take of this. And I don’t know how to forgive. I don’t know how to forgive, because I don’t see any of the folks who inhabit the churches and feel free to vent hate right within their sacred spaces changing anytime soon. In such a context, my forgiveness—as a formal act—would only enable and deepen the abuse the churches practice towards gay human beings.

As I have said in my reflections on Steve’s father’s funeral, I do think change will eventually come, as people of faith, courage, and compassion such as his father live beyond and around the walls by which we gay brothers and sisters find ourselves shut out. But that’s a process that is going to take time, and there’s a meantime.

For us who are gay, the meantime is the time in which we are living now, trying to nourish within ourselves the flame of hope and love, while the churches do everything in their power to extinguish that flame on a daily basis. The meantime is our lives. We are given only one life.

Concretely, many of us are faced with the challenge of either forgiving daily and submitting ourselves to grueling experiences every time we encounter “Christians,” or simply chucking it all and looking for a spiritual life somewhere else. We need spirituality, all of us. Most of us who are gay feel that need as acutely as anyone else does.

We need community. We actively seek it.

And the churches aren’t in the business of offering either community or spirituality to us, at the moment we need it: in our own lifetimes, in the meantime in which we are living now. Instead, in my case, there has been the exceedingly painful abuse again and again of working for church-sponsored institutions, only to find myself lied to and about, and then expelled in ugly rituals of abuse.

Since the funeral, some of those wounds have been rubbed raw by the experience of grief, the struggle to live through the aftermath of loss. The memories of those who engaged in this ugly behavior are, these days, fresh, as when a scab is suddenly pulled from a wound and the wound bleeds.

And I write all this against the backdrop of the recent shooting of the Democratic party chair in Little Rock—an event still murky. Bill Gwatney's funeral is today. Fred Phelps and his crew will be there. It’s just up the street from me. They’re jubilant that their God has shot down another Democrat. Their website statement about the shooting, to which the Arkansas Times blog has linked today, is obscene.

And, though many church folks profess to deplore the Phelpses of the world, is their ultimate position regarding me and my life, my brothers and sisters and their lives, all that different from the position of the Phelps family—in its effect on us? And in what they actually believe and say about us? And how they treat us?

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