Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Banning of Books

More memories, but this time from later periods of my life. I’m thinking of these in light of Banned Books Week. A blog attached to Arkansas Times—“A Chick Called Mick”—reports on that topic today (www.arktimes.com/blogs/mick/2008/09/post.aspx).

Mick notes that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by a school district in 1977 because it contained rough language. But my memories suggest to me that this book was a concern in some circles at an even earlier period.

When I was in 9th grade, our imposing (and skilled) English teacher Ida Cook assigned it. The entire class had to read, discuss, and write about it. This was in 1964-1965, the middle of the civil rights struggle. In a smallish south-Arkansas town that chose to integrate its schools “with all deliberate speed”—that is, a town that chose not to integrate until the courts forced integration three years after that.

As I look back, I can’t help thinking that Mrs. Cook was a very courageous woman, to assign a book that probed the roiling depths of small-town Southern racism in a period when such an educational choice could well have produced significant backlash. Her choice to have us read (and discuss, and write about, and write some more about, in keeping with her methods of teaching English) To Kill a Mockingbird in that time and place was a choice that required grit—of which she had an abundance.

Perhaps I was sheltered, but I recall only one, one tiny bit, of controversy when Mrs. Cook assigned this book to my 9th-grade class. A Mennonite family objected, and requested that their son be allowed to read something else. I remember this vividly, because (typical of her teaching methods) Mrs. Cook made the request the subject of a class discussion.

The objection of the family had to do with the fact that the book’s plot centers on a question of rape. Mennonites were few in my town. They were highly regarded, peaceable people who ran a nursing home and bothered no one. I can’t recall the objection ruffling many feathers in our class. We took for granted that Mennonites did things, well, differently. They were not allowed, for example, to participate in physical education classes, because of the immodesty of the dress required for gym. I envied them that opportunity to escape from the tortures of p.e.

Today, I suspect, choosing books to assign a class of 9th graders is much trickier business. Now, watchdog groups of parents who have designated themselves the guardians of the purity (and minds) of youth seem to be everywhere.

My first encounter with those groups was shortly after I finished college, in a year in which I taught English and religion to 8th graders in a Catholic grade school in New Orleans. When I took the job, I did not know that this was the sole white parish in the city that had managed to keep the enrollment of its parochial school all-white. It did so by forming ironclad neighborhood covenants to keep African-American families from moving into the parish. These covenants were apparently vigorously enforced, with threats of violence to those who dared to question them.

I entered the classroom of this school fresh out of college with not a clue in the world of any of these sociological realities bubbling in the background of parish life. Because the religious studies textbook used for students at my grade level recommended a unit on racism, and because it helpfully also suggested a video produced by a Catholic religious order that was available through the archdiocese, I chose to show the video to my students.

And all hell broke loose. The video told the story of a child from a white family in a Southern town who, because of a family crisis, was left overnight in the care of a black family. The night changed his life. He discovered that people he had previously considered other than himself in a demeaning way were people like himself, flesh of his flesh.

Parents would not have this kind of teaching. They stormed the principal’s office and the pastor’s office. I was whisked away to both offices to defend my choice of teaching materials inappropriate for the grade-level at which I was presenting this material.

To her credit, the principal, a nun, upheld my decision, noting that the unit of study and video were recommended by the textbook we were using in class, and that the video was available through the archdiocesan office of religious education. The pastor, however, took a dimmer view of my choice. And he called the shots in the parish, school and all, despite the fact that the nuns ran it and had degrees in the field of education, whereas he did not.

In the pastor’s judgment, I was introducing 8th-grade students to material beyond their ken. It was too early for students to learn about racism in the 8th grade. Let them learn how to say their prayers and to answer questions like why God made us. Racism—they could tackle that when they were adults.

I later learned that this pastor had come to the parish following a pastor who did, in fact, preach about racism. He called it a sin. He called those parishioners resisting segregation sinners who needed to wrestle with their consciences. When he preached in that vein, the parishioners repaid him by putting tiny chocolate babies instead of money in the collection basket. Brotherly love they would have preached. Applications of brotherly love that applied to them and the lives they lived they absolutely would not hear preached.

In a way, it did not surprise me when, later in the year, there was a similar uproar after I assigned The Diary of Anne Frank to my accelerated English class. Once again, visits to the principal, visits to the pastor. Once again, the principal upheld me, noting that I was assigning a book that, for God’s sake, was recommended for early adolescents in every credible list of books anyone could think of. Once again, the pastor hemmed and hawed and took the side of the angry parents.

Whose objection was that—I am not making this up—The Diary of Anne Frank was about Anne Frank’s incestuous relationship with her father. It had her sitting on the father’s lap, something that clearly connoted incest (in their twisted minds, that is). Their children were not to read those passages. Ludicrously, as we read the text aloud in class, I was to allow students to jump up and notify me when a passage was too offensive for ears to hear. If nothing else, this practice had the unintended effect of searing those forbidden passages into the minds of the students I was teaching.

The controversy over Anne Frank’s diary was, of course, payback for my choice to show the students a video about racial harmony. They loved the video, by the way, asked to see it again—another mark against me as a teacher.

I just don’t get the book-banning mentality. These parents were solidly middle-class and intent on seeing their children go off to good schools. And yet, they seemed to see no inconsistency between demanding that their children receive the best education possible in grade school and high school, and in censoring reading lists. They did not seem to recognize that, in suggesting to their children that The Diary of Anne Frank was a smutty book to be censored, they were hobbling their children’s minds, working against the educational process the children needed if they were, indeed, to be well-prepared for top-notch schools.

Maybe I don’t understand banning books, or rigorously controlling what children read, because my parents had no interest in censoring what any of their children read. Granted, I grew up in a time and place in which any kind of sexually explicit literature was well-nigh impossible to obtain, when one was a minor. All such books, including books with classical art that contained nudes, was held under lock and key at our public library, and the tall, forbidding elderly woman who held that key on a necklace around her neck was not someone with whom even a curious child willingly chose to deal.

Nonetheless, my parents had no qualms about allowing us to read anything else we wanted to read—adult novels or children’s books. It did not matter. Perhaps they didn’t care, as long as we were engrossed in a book and out of their hair. I suspect they also did not believe in supervising what their children read as long as the books we chose were clearly not suspect.

I’m glad, frankly, that I grew up in an environment in which I could read Victorian novels about dolls weeded from one of my teacher aunts’ school library, alongside Pilgrim’s Progress and Isaac Asimov, and, at a later date (in 9th grade) a mind-blowing history of world religions in our school library which taught me that all religions, Judaism and Christianity included, have historical roots that borrow from other world religions. Learning from this book that historians of religion see Yahweh as a mountain god whom the Hebrews elevated to the status of the single deity who made the world was, well, an earth-shattering discovery for a young adolescent whose sole religious education had come from Sunday School indoctrination.

And that led to Newman’s Apologia, a recommended book on my high-school reading list, and Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, also recommended—and this in a public high school in south Arkansas in the 1960s. I understood neither, not really, but I did learn to appreciate magnificent prose as I read Newman, and sharp argument and careful logic, as I struggled with Aquinas.

And Muriel Spark. And Tolkien. And Graham Greene. And Evelyn Waugh. Flannery O’Connor. Katherine Anne Porter. Theodore Dreiser. Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius. Goethe, Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, Li Po, Tu Fu, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Whitman, Thoreau, Dickinson, Emerson. All these, and many other writers, formed the framework of my coming to intellectual maturity in high school. I would give nothing in exchange for the hours I spent reading as a child and young man, and for the wide liberty I had to read.

Children should, in my view, be allowed to read widely. Adults should be allowed to read widely, for that matter, and should be encouraged to read widely. Who knows when the idea that will unlock many doors in our mind will pop up in a suspect book, an overlooked book, a despised book?

Unless, of course, the game plan of self-appointed censors is precisely to keep ideas that unlock doors from popping up in our minds?

On Leaders and the Lack Thereof

Interesting discussions everywhere now, amidst the current economic crisis, of the dearth of leaders to get us out of the mess we’re in. You’d think that this recognition—that we are not being led by capable leaders—would have preceded the crisis, and thus prevented it. Now, when we have let ourselves be led into morass, we want to talk about leadership? Now that we’re trying to slog our way out of the mire?

We should have been doing so all along. Admitting that we have failed to define and expect good leadership in our culture is a necessary first step to resolving the dilemma in which we now find ourselves. We’ve been far too willing to allow people with demonstrable lack of character, integrity, and leadership ability to lead us. We’ve given ourselves as sheep to shepherds whose intent was not to preserve the flock, but to fleece it. We really do not have the right to lament, when it’s we ourselves who have anointed these shepherds. And it’s we who have made ourselves into unquestioning sheep demanding to be fleeced, in the name of God.

I’m intentionally using religiously loaded language as I talk about the political-economic crisis in which we find ourselves, because at the same time that there’s a lot of chatter about our need for good political leaders now, I’m also noticing similar discussion of the need for (and lack of) good pastoral leadership in the churches—especially in the American Catholic church.

In a 27 September interview with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops’ conference, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, stated that the Democratic party is in the process of transforming itself into “the party of death,” and declared that “pro-life” Democrats are “rare, unfortunately” (see Cindy Wooden, “Archbp. Burke Warns Democrats Becoming ‘Party of Death’,” http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/2054).

Burke’s Roman pronouncements unfortunately raise serious critical questions about the quality of leadership among American Catholic bishops at this point in history. As Wooden’s article notes, there has been talk among American Catholics that Burke got transferred to Rome this past June to remove him from his pastoral role in St. Louis. Where he did, in the estimation of many Catholics, a conspicuously poor job of leading his flock.

Burke’s leadership style in St. Louis was long on threats and short on, well, good shepherding. Like a gun-slinging cowboy of old West myth, he shot right and he shot left, excommunicating almost anybody who looked at him crosswise. In January, he sought to discipline the head basketball coach of Jesuit-run St. Louis University, Rick Majerus, after Majerus appeared at a Hilary Clinton campaign event and made statements in favor of stem-cell research and a pro-choice stance on abortion.

Burke’s last big act as archbishop of St. Louis (a downright mean and craven act, in my estimation) was to remove from ministry a highly regarded leader of the St. Louis church, Sr. Louise Lears. Burke moved against Lears because she had attended the ordination of several local women as priests.

To Catholics of the far right, Burke has become a hero. In the 2004 election, he was a leader of the minority of U.S. bishops who stated publicly that communion should be denied to any political leader affiliated with a party that, in their view, promotes abortion (read: Democratic political leaders). Burke has continued to promote this position in the 2008 campaign, and has been joined in this stance by several bishops who are seeking to use the power of the pulpit to coerce Catholics to vote “right” in the coming election.

Pastoral leadership? Leadership, period? In my view, the attempt of some Catholic pastoral “leaders” to coerce their flocks into good behavioir clearly demonstrates the lack of sound leadership among many U.S. bishops today—and provides an important lesson for anyone looking at what has gone wrong with leadership in the political sphere.

To put the point plainly, when Burke was challenged in St. Louis—and he was, frequently—he responded to the challenges by becoming belligerent. Belligerent: from Latin roots bellum and gerens—“war-bearing.” Rather than respond to valid questions with reason, dialogue, and meetings designed to get to the root of problems, in which everyone concerned had a voice, Burke took out his crozier, his shepherd’s staff, and shook it at the flock.

He fulminated. He threatened. He sought to coerce. He excommunicated. He did not behave like a pastoral leader, a good shepherd, intent on binding up wounds. He inflicted wounds, and those wounds will take a long time to heal in St. Louis.

The lessons Archbishop Burke teaches us about leadership (or, rather, its opposite) are not lost on contemporary American Catholics. In a blog thread commenting on the Cindy Wooden article cited above, lay commentator Dennis Porch, M.D., states, “I find Arch Bishop Burke’s comments to be a chilling reminder of the poor leadership in our church.”

The increasingly widespread lament that American Catholicism is dominated today by pastors who exhibit a significant lack of leadership ability is echoed in an interview with the retired president of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, in today’s Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122272143108887413.html?mod=googlenews_wsj). Hesburgh states,

The Catholic Church, like any other human organization, depends on leadership, and leadership depends on performance. If you look for leaders in a given group and you don't find them, something is wrong. When you had leaders, such as you just mentioned, a few decades ago, I have to say the Church seemed more vital to most people, even to people outside the church.

In Hesburgh’s view, the problem of leadership (that is, the problem of lack of sound leadership) in the American Catholic church today begins with education—with the system by which priests, and therefore bishops-to-be, are educated. In response to a question about the lack of leaders today of the caliber of John XXIII or Rev. Robert Drinan, Hesburgh notes that if we’re to deal with the leadership issue, we’re going to have to take a close look at “the educational system for clergy” and/or the kind of people we draw to the priesthood.

As an educator, I agree. Wholeheartedly. Moreover, I’m an educator whose own theological education occurred in part in a seminary setting, though I was pursuing a master’s degree in theology as a lay student rather than a seminarian. This experience gave me an eye-opening look at the kind of seminarian church leaders have cultivated as potential bishops for several decades now. My theological education allowed me, alas, the opportunity to have close contact with two people who eventually did get elevated to episcopal rank.

Based on this experience, I have long been convinced that what counts, when the church anoints a bishop nowadays is not pastoral skill. It’s not intelligence. It’s not education. It’s not strength of character.

It’s game-playing ability. It’s knowing how to say yes when saying yes is a timely thing to do. It’s having a healthy appetite for opportunistic self-advancement. It’s being willing to collect scalps for your superiors by destroying those designated as juicy little victims, scalps as evidence of your willingness to do anything you're told to do. It’s caring more about ecclesial ladder-climbing than pastoral leadership.

There is—I cannot overstate this point—a fundamental, lamentable stupidity about many of those who have been made bishops in recent years. A calculating stupidity, with game-playing intelligence galore, but without the wide base of information needed to make sound moral judgments, and thus to be a good pastoral leader. And the church is suffering as a result—suffering terribly.

As is our society, insofar as we have elected to leadership positions not the best and brightest, but the most venal and the most dim. To our shame, we seem to have come to a point in the history of our nation at which being venal and dim is actually a positive argument for getting elected. We want, after all, leaders with whom we can identify, with whom we can chew the fat as we down a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Not those frighteningly “elite” folks who have gone to ivy-league universities and who chew arugula leaves.

As an educator, I have to conclude that, when we have come to the point that we actually prefer dullness over intelligence, dim-witted cluelessness over education in those who lead us, the American educational system has failed. And disastrously so.

I’ve noted on this blog that one of my responsibilities in previous academic positions was to think, research, and write about the concept of transformative leadership. Both that assignment, and the opportunity my own placement in the structure of several universities provided me to study good (and bad) leadership at close hand, have convinced me that good leadership is about sound character and more.

The equation of leadership with character goes without saying, in my view—though I’d argue that liberal education today (in universities, where my experience lies) elides over that obvious connection. I’d argue that too few liberal arts programs give the concerted attention to values and character education that their course of studies promises—and we’re all paying the price for this elision. I’d also argue (and have done so, on this blog) that far too many educational “leaders” are nothing of the sort, but are skilled numbers crunchers who know how to spin good images, without knowing much at all about the process of education and the values that underlie a sound liberal arts education.

Here, though, I want to focus attention on something that should be equally obvious in any analysis of sound leadership, but is also often overlooked. This is that to do better, we have to know better. And we don’t learn to know better until we learn to know. Period. This is the “and more” that follows “sound character” in my penultimate paragraph.

People can’t learn to do better when they have no ideas at all in their heads. They can’t learn to do better when their heads are full of clueless pedestrian chatter about what they are told to believe, even when those beliefs are patently absurd and counterfactual. People can’t learn to do better when they are given educational diplomas professing that they are educated, while they cannot identify “the Iraq” on a map, or think that living close to Russia constitutes foreign-policy acumen, or profess that dinosaurs and human beings inhabited planet earth at the same time.

In leaders, lack of sound education is not merely a ludicrous soundbite for “Saturday Night” skits to exploit. It’s a damning flaw. It leads to misjudgments. It leads to bad moral calculations based on misinformation. It leads to hybris about what one knows, because when one knows all too little, one can assume that one knows much simply because the empty room of one’s mind has some furniture scattered about it.

When that mental furniture is a muddle of half-digested “biblical” truths, of half-memorized catechetical statements, of dummies’ guides to why evolution is wrong, and when the person carrying that furniture around in his or her head is making judgments that radically affect the future of the planet, then something is wrong. Isn’t it?

Or am I simply one of those elitists who still think that education and ideas should count? That answers to simple questions shouldn’t be spates of incomprehensible jargon. That leaders’ inability to model the virtues of the leadership they tout should be noted, made the subject of public discussion, and critically addressed.

And that educational “leaders” such as myself need to be held accountable for offering our nation “leaders” of the ilk we’ve seen in recent years. Who have gotten us into the economic mess in which we now find ourselves.

P.S. It occurs to me to add that I have long agreed with Alfred North Whitehead's observation that some of the most educated folks in America do not have college degrees. Whitehead noted this as he traveled around the nation giving lectures, and encountered women who were stay-at-home mothers who found time, in the midst of their busy days, to read. And to read widely. Whitehead said that, after speaking with many women of that sort as he lectured, he had come to the conclusion that one could sometimes educate oneself more deeply and more widely through careful reading than through higher education.

After working in higher education and noting the inability of quite a few educational "leaders" with whom I worked to construct simple sentences, to write cogent paragraphs, to read college-level texts, to think critically about complex issues, I have become convinced that Whitehead is on to something. After hearing abysmally educated and semi-literate educational "leaders" talk about how the "jewelry" is still out, or about how this or that will not happen on their "clock" (for "not on my watch," with no awareness that the "watch" in that phrase is not a timepiece), I find much to praise in Whitehead's argument.

In the anti-intellectual cultural context of American life, I do think that seeking as much education as one can find is a virtue, and I am concerned that Whitehead's argument can too easily translate into attacks on higher education per se. I continue to hope that it is possible to be exposed to a wide range of ideas and texts in American higher education. But I also recognize that many educated people have never had the opportunity to attend college, and may have educated themselves just as well if not better without the benefit of college classes.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bread and Circuses: Reflections on the Chicanery of Threatened "Leaders"

Pundits are already speculating on some of the “October surprise” tricks that may soon be employed to try to convince us to re-elect those now in power, come November (see www.huffingtonpost.com/patt-morrison/heres-my-october-surprise_b_130016.html). As with previous elections, a sudden drop in the price of gasoline? New terrorist threats?

The blatant chicanery of some of these maneuvers in the recent past has me thinking about what leaders are. Or, more to the point, what they aren’t. As someone who has worked in middle management in academic life (not to mention as a human being who tries to use his head), I’ve had the opportunity to see similar maneuvers first-hand. And to be surprised at the boldness of them, and their implication that educated folks are too unintelligent to see that they are being manipulated.

As I watch the election process unfold, I’m watching for the following typical tricks of “leaders” who are in over their heads, but unwilling to admit this—leaders who lack the moral force and depth of conviction and intelligence to command respect because of who they are, and not because of their ability to play games:

1. When the going gets rough, change the subject. When you’re questioned about the real problem, invent another one and respond to that question, rather than to the one you’ve been asked.

2. Simply ignore questions. Create a shield around yourself when you’re asked to answer questions. Characterize those asking questions as disrespectful. Make yourself inaccessible. Speak through mouthpieces.

3. Reassert your right to rule. Use God, if necessary, to back up that right.

4. Go on the attack and vilify those asking you to be accountable, transparent, thoughtful, respectful. Turn the tables. Claim that they are the problem, not you. Become the offended party even when you yourself have doled out misery to those asking you to account for your injustice and cruelty.

5. Cook the books. Make it look as if you are doing a bang-up job. If necessary, transfer money all over the place to show a huge increase in income.

6. Cook up lots of nifty colored charts with bright lines showing increases in good areas and decreases in negative ones. Provide so much clever paperwork for those who supervise you or for the electorate that they will be transfixed by the paperwork and will not likely ask inconvenient questions.

7. For meetings at which you are to answer questions from your supervisors or the electorate, engineer things such that any subordinate who might be inclined to speak truth or to say more than the canned speech you have provided him/her will not be present.

8. Circulate disinformation (aka lies) about critics, to disempower them in advance of any meeting at which you have to account for your leadership to a governing body or the electorate.

9. Seek to manipulate media coverage, especially through a flurry of disinformation pieces about the bang-up job you’ve been doing, right before a meeting of your supervisors or an election.

10. Give gifts. Make promises, lavish ones, even when it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that you can never fulfill these. Bread and circuses are always useful at distracting folks’ attention.

I’ve seen “leaders” of various sorts—in churches, in the academy, in political life—employ all of these cheap tricks. Some “leaders” do so routinely when the heat is on, right before an evaluation process, a meeting at which they have to account to those with supervisory authority over them, or an election.

The shock is that these “leaders” apparently think we can’t see how we’re being grossly manipulated. And even more shocking, perhaps they’re right, after all. If they weren’t right, then how could these bogus “leaders” continue in power?

Bread and circuses worked wondrously well for the Roman emperors. Which says as much about those they ruled as it does about the emperors employing such cheap tricks.

The fact that bread and circuses seem to work well for us today—and that we tolerate "leaders" as ill-suited to lead as many Roman emperors were—says a great deal about the state to which we have brought ourselves through our lack of critical acumen, our willingness to be manipulated by those claiming to represent God, our cravenness, and, perhaps most of all, our sheer indolent greed. We do ultimately get the leaders we deserve.

"Caring Communiy" + Silence about Gays?!: I Think Not

Some of my earliest sharp memories date from when I was three years old. We lived at the time in Mississippi—Columbus, Mississippi. I remember playing, of course, the unspecific and yet finely etched memories any child has of a sunny day, a scent of magnolia on the air, the thatch of white cumulus clouds so low one had only to reach a bit higher to pull away a wisp from them.

I remember going with my brother Simpson to the drainage grate near our house, at a corner of the street, to shout down inside at the muddy devil that lived in it. It was our duty to remind him periodically that he had no claim on anyone in the neighborhood. We taunted him, threatened him with punishment if he disturbed us, knowing as we did so that he could at any moment pull us down to live with him forever. The thrill of the forbidden overlaid with pious rectitude: a very adult experience . . . .

I remember, too, a day on which I canvassed the neighborhood for a banana. My needs were specific: a banana, and only a banana. I recall going to the house of a neighbor who offered me a slice of bread instead—and the frustration, the pique, the downright rage that any adult could possibly think a piece of Wonder bread would satisfy a child’s hunger for a ripe banana.

I can vividly bring back to mind a scene in the kitchen of a neighbor, Sallie Mock, a nurse, whose children (she said) counted the very peas on their plates to be sure one had no more than the other. She had just bought a set of the new Melmac dishes coming on the market then. To show my mother how indestructible they were, she took one from the kitchen table and flung it across the room. It hit the wall with a clatter, fell to the floor unbroken. And I was enthralled—at the sheer daring of the act, at the thought that one could fling dishes across the room with impunity, at the flash of recognition that an adult could gloriously misbehave. With one insouciant gesture, she had me in her camp for life, an acolyte who would follow her to the ends of the earth.

Why these memories (and there are others: a day of being locked into my bedroom for some bad deed long forgotten, where I had to watch through the slats of the Venetian blinds as the ice cream truck arrived and my brother ran with friends to buy a cone; an incident in which an older child did not see me as I stood in the street and ran me down with a bike)? Why these and not others?

And why now? Why drag them out of the murky bottoms of memory? Now, as I near 60, broken down, promise evaporated, a sorry failed lump of humanity?

I’m not sure, really. Perhaps because they are not merely a part of me: they are me, and “me” seems to vanish more and more, in the eyes of those who claim the right to define others, to allocate salaries and healthcare benefits, to withhold these essentials of human existence from the unworthy.

Remembering in such a world is an act of self-assertion—a necessary act, a defiant one, a claim that one’s human life does count in the final analysis, even if no one wishes to agree. To a great extent, memories—specific memories, our own memories—constitute us, make us unique. Holding onto our memories, asserting our right to remember, is an act of defiant self-assertion against those who claim the right to obliterate us.

Specifically, for those of us who are gay and who refuse to deny ourselves, remembering is a way of combating the silence of the churches. Memory and silence will always constitute opposite poles of the spectrum of human possibility. When we head into silence—the kind of silence in which memory is obliterated—we head to death.

Throughout history, the churches have been capable of atrocious cruelty towards gay persons (and women, people of color, “heretics” and non-believers, Jews, the earth). And yet, in the final analysis, I think no manifestation of homophobic hatred is quite so cruel as the churches’ contemporary silence about gay people—not, you understand, the respectful silence of moral deliberation, the kind that refuses to judge, but silence used as a weapon, to obliterate others.

As social norms mandate increasing acceptance of LGBT persons and our claims to full humanity and full personhood, churches are now growing silent. As society moves towards inclusion, churches are slowly abandoning their former open disdain and their former statements of non-acceptance of gay people.

For silence. A silence that lasts even in the face of increasing claims of churches to want to create “caring communities.” An ominous silence that, when measured against the claim to care, can mean only this: the claim of churches to be interested in creating “caring communities,” while these same churches remain silent about the rightful claims of LGBT persons to justice, means that the churches have simply disappeared gay persons from their midst.

They have wiped us from the list of those who have any claim to justice—who have any claim to life, since those who do not exist for a community that proclaims an ethos of universal care cannot exist at all. Social existence is not just an extension of existence: it is existence. To be human is to exist in a complex network of social connections.

By denying the presence of gay persons in the human community, along with our claims to just treatment, even as they trumpet their concern to form “caring communities,” churches erase gay people from the face of the earth. They accomplish, within the context of a mendacious ethic of “care,” what not even the most right-wing political thinkers have sought to do but have not yet accomplished: the elimination of gay human beings from the human community.

Ultimately, there is no cruelty greater than to proclaim that one “cares”—that the community one represents “cares”—while one simply ignores the presence of an invisibilized group of people in one’s midst. While one ignores the claims of that group to just treatment. While one proceeds as if no such claims exist, as if those making the claims are ghosts without any substance, whose voices cannot reach the ears of the living. While one refuses to admit guilt for one’s own complicity in acts of injustice towards the group one wishes to invisibilize.

The stance I am describing here is not a stance of the churches at their worst today: it is a stance of the churches at their best. It is the typical stance of the liberal church, of the church of self-professed “care,” the church intent on creating “caring communities” in the world.

It is the church intent on proclaiming itself inclusive—as long as the community to be included is female or black or poor or anything but a sexual minority. It is the church determined to place itself on the side of justice—as long as the one asking for justice is not gay. It is the church proud of its ability to create inclusive spaces for dialogue—as long as those asking for a voice in the conversation are not LGBT.

This is the best the churches of Main Street USA have to offer gay people today. And it is a shameful, utterly cruel best. It is a best that simply ignores the humanity of gay persons and our claims to be treated justly because we are human and our humanity is equal to that of other human beings.

It is a church that undercuts its claims to mediate God to the world. It is a church that fails not merely in some incidental aspect of its mission, but in its core proclamation to the world. It is a church that fails, quite simply, to be church.

I have grown so sick of this church—so sick in my heart and soul from attending to its words and watching its representatives for any sign of salvific care for me and my sisters and brothers—that, God help me, I find it almost impossible to hear the name of God anymore without wanting to run away.

God? This monolith of silence that can be counted on to stand with those in its community who abuse gay human beings, this community represents God? Has the right to speak about God? This monolith of silence that protects those who abuse gay human beings and participates in campaigns of vilification of demeaned and expelled gay human beings mounted by those abusers?

I am struggling these days. I am struggling with the very thought of God. In a world in which the rapacious and the arrogant and those whose tongues drip poisonous lies can be counted on to claim the mantle of the Christian God, I find myself profoundly alienated from the very thought of that God. In a world in which church members will not call to accountability those in their midst who continue to lacerate gay persons, I do not want to hear churches talk to me about God.

I prefer my memories. At least, I know they are true. And in them, I find more salvation—by far—than I do in almost any church today.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The World Stands on Truth, Justice, and Peace

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel tells us that the world stands upon three things: truth, justice, and peace (Pirkei Avot, 1:18). In Jewish thought, these three qualities are not ideals: they are the precondition for all social life.

Unless people relate to one another with the intent to tell each other the truth (and the belief that truth is being spoken to us), then social life is impossible. It is impossible because the belief that others are speaking truth to us is what binds us together in civil society. Without that belief, we cannot have the confidence that is indispensable to building anything together, to collaboration in any social project.

When lying becomes endemic, when people of the lie prevail, when we expect to be lied to and when we lie to others with no compunction, things fall apart. A society founded on lies is founded on sand, and the sand covers a fathomless pit. Once it gives way—once the accumulated weight of lie upon lie causes the foundations to collapse and all that is built on sand to fall—nothing is left except the pit, which swallows up the mass of corruption riddled by lies.

Justice and truth are closely connected in the social contract. When we live seeking truth, we constantly recognize that, just as our society comprises lies that we are obliged to combat and expose, it also comprises taken-for-granted injustice that troubles all of us, since there cannot be justice at all if injustice is allowed to thrive anywhere.

The taken-for-granted injustice with which we all too often live is founded on lies, on the big lie. It is founded on the lie that we live separate from each other, that I can ignore the burning of my neighbor’s house because surely the burning of his house will never become the burning of my own house, that my salvation is independent of the salvation of everyone else, since I exist apart from them and have no connection to them.

Social injustice is founded on the lie that they are not like me, that their humanity is somehow less than mine, that they do not feel pain as I would feel it if lied to and denied justice, that they do not understand that they are being demeaned as I would understand I was being demeaned when lied to and denied justice. Social injustice rests on the big lie that some of us deserve more in life than others do: more respect, more humanity, more deference, more security, more consideration, more justice and truth.

In the thought of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, truth and justice are practical virtues rather than ideal ones: they are virtues we are obliged to live daily, in every interaction we have with others, precisely because we have an investment in keeping civil society alive for everyone, including ourselves. The healing of the world is not an obligation imposed on sombobody else, in Jewish thought: it is an obligation imposed on me, and it is imposed daily, everytime I invoke the name of God. Truth, justice, and peace are not ideals to achieve at the end of history, when we have reached the goal of human striving. They are necessary to the maintenance of any society here and now.

Without truth and justice there can be no peace. Peace is not the absence of war. It is the condition that happens between human beings and in society at large when truth prevails and people are accorded justice—when we accord justice to others because we desire to live in fidelity to the truth that they are just like us, that they deserve justice every bit as much as we do, that their humanity is no less than ours. Peace flows naturally when people strive to embody truth and justice in their dealings with each other; strife and discord prevail when we refuse to deal honestly with others and to accord others justice.

For years, everywhere I have worked, I have had in my office a poster depicting a table/altar with bread on it. Since Steve is working full-time now and I am not (well, since he is gainfully employed and I am not, and he has an official office), it now hangs in his office.

The inscription on the poster reads, “At the table of peace will be bread and justice.” I have always kept this poster in my workplace because it serves as a daily reminder to me that providing people bread and not stones—that is to say, giving them justice rather than injustice—is daily business. It is as daily as bread. It is as necessary to everyday life as eating is.

If I expect to eat daily bread, then I must also expect to deal truly and justly with each person I meet, every time I encounter another person. There are no exceptions, no moral clauses that permit me to practice quasi-truth or quasi-justice in dealing with others, precisely because there is no such thing as quasi-peace (or quasi-bread). The only peace worth having in life, the kind that makes forward movement together possible, the kind that makes us confident we can build for the future because we are building on solid ground, is the peace that comes from truth and justice lived daily.

I like the poster and the reminder it gives me because it reminds me, too, that religious observance is never sequestered. It never occurs in isolation from the daily. When we try to cloister our religious observance, to pretend that the sacred is detached from the secular, we forget that daily bread and Bread of Life are one and the same. We cannot hunger for the Bread of Life if we refuse to provide daily bread for those around us, those in whose lives our decisions make a difference.

We cannot commune with the Lord at the table the Lord sets when we refuse to commune with our brothers and sisters, by acknowledging the truth that “we are all care of one another,” that we are connected, that what I do affects you. We cannot commune with the Lord when we refuse justice to others by refusing to acknowledge our interconnection, the truth that my decisions affect your life, and when we permit ourselves to be implicated in decisions that deprive others of their daily bread.

As Pope Paul VI put the point, “If you want peace, work for justice.” In our political life, in the workplace, in our family life, in society at large, every decision we make, every encounter with each other, has the potential either to build a better (a more peaceful) society, insofar as we embody truth and justice in our dealings with others. Or it has the potential to do the opposite, insofar as we betray truth and withhold justice.

No decision we make—including our decision about how to cast our ballots—is removed from these considerations about the practical, foundational virtues of truth, justice, and peace. We cannot lament the absence of peace from our troubled society without recognizing the role we play in creating that absence, by our failure to live truthfully and justly in each and every encounter we have with others, each and every day. And we cannot claim to be values voters if we ignore the indispensable foundational practical virtues of truth, justice, and peace in our everyday lives.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sarah Palin and Women's Rights: Wake Up and Smell the Fire

So. I awoke this morning thinking of Sarah Palin. And coverture.

A nightmare, you ask? Well, come to think of it, yes—a bit of one.

Coverture may have been on my mind because of what I wrote yesterday about my grandmother and Southern women. Few women voters in the South today seem to spend much time thinking about the situation of legal enslavement to men that bound women until, well, fairly recently. Or about how Sarah Palin’s election as vice-president and the victory of a theocratic polity could quickly return women to that status of legal enslavement.

Is this what women voting for Palin want?

A Wikipedia article about coverture notes that it “is the legal concept that a woman's legal rights were merged with those of her husband, part of the common law of England and the United States throughout most of the 1800s” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coverture). The article notes that William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England defined this longstanding common-law practice of female subordination to women in the late 1700s.

The article appends Blackstone’s definition of coverture:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage (emphasis added).

So. Under English common law, which is the basis of American common law, the concept of coverture “suspended” the “very being or legal existence” of a woman as long as she was married: her “very being or legal existence” was “incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband.”

Lest we think this was some bizarre practice of female subordination that obtained, say, in the Dark Ages, the Wikipedia article notes that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld coverture as legally binding for American women as late as 1873, in the case of Bradwell vs. State of Illinois. When I click on the wiki link to that case, I learn that it involved an application of an Illinois woman, Myra Bradwell, to be admitted to the Illinois bar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradwell_v._Illinois).

In upholding the state’s denial of her request, the U.S. Supreme Court stated,

The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life... The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.

As the Wikipedia article on Bradwell notes, it took another hundred years (after 1873, that is) for the U.S. Supreme Court to begin upholding the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in a way that overturned the legal subordination of women to their husbands.

As I’ve said, I may have awoken thinking of coverture because of what I wrote on this blog yesterday about Southern women. In the American South, the system of coverture was ironclad. It was the only way in which men permitted women to live and move and have their being, legally. As Thomas E. Buckely notes in an article entitled "‘Placed in the Power of Violence’: The Divorce Petition of Evelina Gregory Roane, 1824," "Once married, a woman was ‘under coverture’—her husband controlled her person, property, and children" (VA Mag. Hist. and Biog. 100-1 [Jan. 1992], 32).

“Her husband controlled her person, property, and children”: that was how Southern men wanted it. And that was how they got it—for generations, from the colonial period up to the latter half of the twentieth century. Moreover, there is strong evidence that, until fairly recently, not only married women were expected to live under coverture in the American South: single women were required to submit to that same coverture, to the control of their fathers or brothers up to the time they married, and to the continued control of those same men if they never married.

That Simpson family I mentioned in my blog yesterday: the gentleman sitting beside his wife Hattie is my grandfather Wm. Z. Simpson. When his grandparents Zachariah Simms Simpson and Elizabeth Pryor died in Alabama in 1869, Wm. Z. Simpson’s father Mannen Clements Simpson was the administrator of his parents’ estate.

At the estate sale, Mannen’s sister Mary L.—his unmarried sister, whose beau disappeared in the Civil War and who never married after this happened—bought the family’s house and home tract of 289 acres. In response, Mannen had the sale declared invalid, and re-sold the land. A single woman, acting independently of her father or brothers, could not own land in the South of this period—not if the men of her family had any say in the matter, and they almost always did. Mary’s independence was so problematic to her brother that, in a tradition handed down in my family, he declared she had to be insane: no sane single woman would want to act independently of those who knew how to do business and manage property better than any woman could.

Mannen was simply carrying on tradition, long tradition enshrined in the law of the land, in insisting that his unmarried sister defer to his wishes about the disposition of property. In his 1851 will, Mannen’s grandfather Joseph Pryor explicitly states that his second wife Catherine Hughes was to inherit precisely half of the quilts and coverlets she had made while married to him. Catherine made the bedclothing. But they belonged to Joseph, to dispose of as he wished.

Is this what women supporting Sarah Palin want to go back to? Is this what the abundance of Southern women, good God-fearing white evangelical women, who support Palin want to go back to?

'Fraid so. What else do they think the female subordination doctrine of the religious right is all about? Do they think subordinating women to men is some kind of nifty little religious game that has no implications for what women do with their lives, their property, their bodies: with women’s rights to make decisions about their future, to dispose of their property as they wish, to decide whether or not they want to bear children?

A few days ago, an Alaska citizen AKMuckraker published an article on Huffington Post recounting what happened when he mounted a one-man protest against Palin’s candidacy in Juneau. During the day in which he stood with an anti-Palin sign on the Juneau docks, a crew of sweet, drawling 60-something Southern women came up to chastise him (www.huffingtonpost.com/akmuckraker/akspalin-lies-one-mans-pr_b_127914.html).

They shook their fingers at him, telling him Obama is a socialist, insisting that healthcare “for all” is impossible, that Obama would return us to the days of Jimmy Carter. Their husbands joined them to echo the chastisement.

I know those women. I know what makes them tick. I know their propensity to drawl sweetly to your face and knife you in the back, smiling sweetly all the time.

I also know what drove them into the Republican fold, and what keeps them there: race, pure and simple. White Southerners left the Democratic party in droves after the Civil Rights act of the 1960s, and have stayed in the Republican party, which enticed them with racist promises. Racism is the dirty little secret at the heart of Republican domination of the political life of the U.S. for several decades now.

Religion is merely the icing on the racist cake, for the Southern women who chastised Palin's detractor. Don’t get me wrong: they do believe (or they think they believe) in the subordination of women to men. And they even practice it, if by practicing, we mean that these cooing and drawling women always find methods to get their way while pretending to defer to blustering macho males who only think they are the lords of creation.

But in promoting Palin, they’re playing with fire. This is a woman who, I’m afraid, actually believes in that theocratic platform that many evangelical Southern women only like to toy with.

Elect her, and women may find themselves headed back—say a few hundred years or so? Back to a legal situation in which their “very being or legal existence” is “suspended” and “incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”

Back to a legal situation, that is, in which a woman does not even exist apart from a man: in which she exists only in and through the man who “covers” her.

Not what you want? Then you’d better start thinking about the consequences—the real, legal consequences—of theocracy. With Sarah Palin in the White House it won’t just be playing anymore. It will be for real. And it may turn out to be fire we’ve been playing with all along.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Speaking of Names

Ah! The wonders googling can uncover. I've found a website with valuable (and seemingly trustworthy) information on the origin of unusual names. This says that the name Paralee (see my posting of earlier today is no doubt derived from the plant Perilla.

That makes sense to me for a number of reasons. First, I know that perilla made its way to North American gardens in the colonial period and has naturalized itself in the states of the Southeast, where it was evidently grown as an ornamental (and also a potherb) in its purple ruffled form. I often saw it in the North Carolina Piedmont, growing as a weed when I lived there. I also find it frequently as a weed in Arkansas, mostly in the bronze-green form. I have known it all my life, because of the distinct herbaceous smell of its leaves, though I didn't know it was edible or originated in the mountains of China until Vietnamese friends told me this in the 1970s.

In addition, the old Southern way of pronouncing "perilla" would definitely have accented the first syllable. All names were accented on the first syllable, in traditional Southern pronunciation. And names ending in -a were always pronounced as if the -a sounded like a long e.

Where have all those euphonious names Southern families used to give daughters gone? In my family history, I run into plenty of them: Camilla. Tranquilla. Lucretia. Aletha. Augusta. Lela. Lula. Arabella. Clarissa. Samantha. Carolina. Narcissa. Letitia. Alicia. Philadelphia. Louvenia. Musa. Minerva. Elika.

Or, for that matter, the old Puritan names I also frequently find: Mourning. Unity. Temperance. Patience. Prudence. All gone, it seems, along with the Paralees and their ilk, or the women with men's names feminized, the Georginas, Harriets/Henriettas/Hatties, Robertas, Wilheminas, and the like.

+ + + + +

And, speaking of names, I'd be remiss if I let this day pass without remembering to wish a happy birthday to one of the people I love best in the world. Her middle name is Hutchinson, after a grandmama. But when her artist-mother had invitations engraved for her graduation from college, she rendered the middle name as Helen.

When queried about her failure to remember her daughter's middle name, Artist-Mama said, "Oh, I've had so many children. How can I be expected to remember all their middle names?"

To Mary Hutchinson/Helen R., a very happy birthday with many happy returns.

Family Values: Remembering the Grandmother's House

In a posting at Huffington Post this morning, Arianna Huffington makes points I made yesterday—our willingness to prescind from ethical analysis of our economic life, because the hidden hand of the unfettered free market will dispense its gifts accurately and wisely, and where that willingness to elide ethics has gotten us:

Over the past 30 years, Americans have been bombarded with sermons evangelizing for the free market religion of the Right, and the supposed correlation between unregulated markets and progress . . . . In the course of selling us on buying, the market-worshippers shredded the modern social contract, the hard-fought consensus that had emerged since the New Deal, which ordered our political priorities, and expressed both our communal concern for the most vulnerable members of society and our disapproval of huge inequalities. We were now supposed to believe that all could be left up to the soulless, self-correcting calculus of supply and demand. Government involvement was an anachronism, regulatory oversight an impediment.
The last few weeks have demolished that notion. In the battle over the proper role of government, the forces of the Right, the high priests of the church of the Free Market -- including Bush, Paulson, and the Masters of Wall Street -- have suffered a monumental defeat. So why are we allowing them to dictate the terms of their surrender? (www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/the-bailout-plan-welcome_b_128450.html).

My answer to Huffington’s question, Why are we allowing them to dictate the terms of their surrender? Because we have colluded. Because we’ve been willing to accept the “soulless, self-correcting calculus of supply and demand” and to ignore workplace ethics.

Because we let the lords who rule us, who have make-or-break power over us, posture as agents of the divine will when they are clearly anything but. Because we let them rake in huge salaries while driving us into penurious servitude. Because we bail them out and reward their malfeasance and greed with large severance deals when they run things into the ground.

My answer to Huffington’s question? We are as much part of the problem as Wall Street is. We have stood by and willingly permitted the religious right to dumb down religious and ethical discourse in this nation, to reduce that discourse to hateful slogans, to narrow the focus of what is moral to the pelvic area.

And we are now reaping the rewards for our ethical and intellectual laziness. Nothing will change unless we ourselves change. Nothing will change until we demand better from our political and religious leaders, and above all, from ourselves.

+ + + + +

Today would be my grandmother’s 120th birthday, if she were still living. My maternal grandmother, Hattie Paralee Batchelor Simpson. She would not be pleased that I am using her middle name in this posting. She hated it, regarded it as country and old-fashioned, sought to live it down.

When I try to find the origin of that unusual name, I hit a dead-end. The most I can find is that it seems to have appeared in the American South around 1830, and is perhaps related to the word “pearl.” My grandmother received the name from an aunt by marriage, the second wife of her uncle Edward Eli Batchelor, Mary Paralee Bagley.

I loved my grandmother to distraction. This is a small bone of contention now between my brother Philip and me. His memories of her are less rose-colored. Where I found her nurturing though certain in her demands, he found her overbearing. I have no memory of having ever been corrected by her. Philip remembers threats of spankings for jumping on her beds or roiling her nerves as she watched her daily “shows,” soaps she never missed—“Days of Our Lives,” “As the World Turns."

My grandmother watched her shows not only with avid interest: she watched interactively, punching the air and shaking her fist at the folly of the characters. She was especially perturbed by the willingness of the ever-fatuous male characters to fall for one old hussy (she pronounced the word to rhyme with "fuzzy") after another. Fallen women did not earn her pity. A spineless man was distasteful; but a spoiled woman was unthinkable, the worst force in the universe.

Our different memories no doubt have much to do with our place in the family ordering, and the different roles that place scripted for us. As the oldest son in my family and the first male grandson, I inherited Obligations and Privileges. In time-honored Southern fashion, I received the names of my grandfathers, William and Dennis. (Thankfully, my parents avoided the other possibility, Benjamin Zachariah).

Because I was the Bearer of Tradition, the grandson who was expected somehow to incarnate my grandfather William Z. Simpson, who had died no less than twenty years before I was born, I was the one my grandmother took under her wing. I was the one to be told family stories, to be permitted to “ramble,” as she put it, to pore over the old letters, diaries, quilt scraps (and false teeth and discarded eyeglasses and hanks of hair) in the old trunks in the attic. I was the one entrusted with my grandfather’s pocket watch when I turned 18.

I’ve now given it to my nephew Luke, also a William and the oldest son in his family. What else can the Bearer of Tradition do except cherish for a while and then hand on what has been entrusted?

No child can resist being made to feel special. And my grandmother was good at making children feel special—well, perhaps any that were not her own. I have a letter from a woman who grew up in my grandmother’s town, telling me how much she relished seeing my grandmother when she was a girl, because my grandmother always greeted her with a big smile and talked to her as if she were an adult, showing a keen interest in everything the little girl did and said.

It was that same interest that annoyed Philip, who, as the youngest boy and the hellion of the family, was fated to jump on beds and test boundaries. He did not welcome any hedge. When he first heard the song “Don’t Fence Me In,” it captivated his imagination and became his theme song. He acted it out for several years, miming open spaces and galloping horses. My grandmother often woke from dreams in which she said she had seen Philip covered in blood, in the penitentiary. She loved to repeat something a family friend once said—that if Philip did not land in prison by the time he grew up, he’d surely find himself in the White House, with all that drive and willingness to shove against rough fate.

As I think about my grandmother on her birthday, I realize it was not so much the special attention she showed me that meant so much to me in my childhood and adolescence. It was the fact that she was there. Always there. In a house that never altered, with her unmarried oldest daughter Kat and her unmarried son Dub (W.Z., or just plain Brother to his family).

Always there, as my family knocked about hither and yon, when my father’s fortunes would soar or crash as his propensity to drink (and gamble and wench) receded or reasserted itself. If I needed a place to get away, to sleep on cold nights on old, swaybacked feather ticks under quilts sewn by great-grandmothers, if I needed to walk in a rose garden or sit under a fig tree, if I needed to hear once again family stories I had memorized years ago, I could always go to her house.

I could go home. In the last analysis, that was the single, the definitive gift my grandmother provided all of her grandchildren: home. To be sure, it was home on her terms. There was to be no waste of food, no sassing of elders, no bed wallowing and no noonday napping, since idleness is the devil’s workshop. Lies or thieving were so much not allowed as to be unthinkable; they’d land us in hell or reform school or both faster than we could say pea turkey. We were please to remember we had Simpson blood and were as good as the best and better than the rest.

Everybody needs a home. Children need a sense of belonging, a place in which they can be made to feel special and have their talents (and obligations) pointed out to them. And those who provide home are, to my way of seeing things, growing fewer in our culture these days. And those who provide home deserve commendation for the hard work of just being there, day in and day out, in sickness and in health.

As my grandmother was.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Church Employers and Firing of Gay Employees: It Does Continue to Happen

Sometimes real-life occurrences intersect with what people write about with uncanny synchronicity.

After posting today on workers’ rights and ethical guidelines for the workplace, I clicked on Pam Spaulding’s House Blend Blog to read a sickening story that perfectly illustrates points I made in my previous posting. And in other previous postings.

Pam’s story concerns Charles Philyaw, an openly gay organist at St. Andrew Catholic church in Verona, WI (www.pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=7126). That is, Philyaw was the organist at St. Andrew until this past June.

When he found himself fired. Because he’s openly gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. Which the priest who hired him in 2004 knew. Because Philyaw told him this when the priest hired him.

This is a story whose contours I know all too well. I know it both from harsh personal experience, and from having seen it play out in the lives of others.

In fact, I happen to know two church organists who are openly gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. I haven’t been in close contact with them for a few years, but during the period in which we were in touch, one worked as an organist for a Catholic church, and the other for an Episcopalian church.

Both informed their employers at the time of their hire that they were gay and living in a long-term committed relationship. The one who is an organist at a Catholic church tells me that, when he told the hiring committee this, the pastor turned to the rest of the committee and said, “You do understand what he’s telling us?” They nodded, and he was hired. To the best of my knowledge, he has not had any problems.

Unfortunately, his partner ran afoul of the Episcopal church in which he played the organ when a new pastor was appointed. Suddenly, he found that his selection of music for Sunday was always at odds with the choice of the pastor. Though he played anything he was told to play, the pastor eventually told him that the two had irreconcilable “artistic differences,” and fired him.

No evaluation. No notice. No forewarning. No provision for his future. Just fired him. As churches can do, and as they often choose to do, despite their moral teaching that workers are persons and not things, and are never to be treated as things.

It happens that Steve and I taught at a Catholic college in the same diocese in which this story took place. We did not tell the college we were gay when we were hired, though we knew that they knew this, because a cousin of Steve’s, who is a monk, told us that he had informed the monk who was administering the monastery that owns the college about our relationship when we were hired. We naively believed that, if we did our jobs well, kept our private lives private, as we had seen divorced people who were dating or unmarried straight couples living together doing while teaching at Catholic colleges, we’d survive.

We didn’t. Our being gay made a huge difference—the ultimate difference. When I suddenly got a one-year terminal contract with no explanation attached, I was informed by a colleague who had been on the committee that hired us that theologians have to be held to different moral standards than anyone else. She herself was, after all, divorced and dating a divorced Catholic man, who was also on the faculty, at the time—but that was apparently not scandalous, though (or because?) the two were staunch right-wing Catholics.

Double standards. Huge double standards. Ones that rest solely on homophobia. Ones that prove the real problem for church institutions is not violations of sexual morality in general, but gay violations of sexual morality.

And the double standards really don't go away even if, like Philyaw, you tell the church-owned workplace that you are openly gay when you are hired. In the absence of laws that protect you from termination simply because you are gay (or for any reason at all, in many states, with no explanation necessary), honesty will not protect you, we have found.

Nor will the belief that good church folks would never make promises and then retract them, or lie to you or about you, or mount smear campaigns about you. Or try to present themselves as the aggrieved party when they have cushy jobs and salaries after they have kicked you to the curb like human garbage. Or use the law—the homophobic law, the employer-weighted law—against you, violating all the ethical teachings of their churches, when it is expedient to do so.

In Charles Philyaw’s case, it appears five parishioners complained to the bishop about the church having an openly gay organist, and his termination was the outcome. In a rare show of candor, one of those parishioners, Jo Ellen Kilkenny, admits that "absolutely, Chuck lost his job because he's openly gay” (www.twincities.com/ci_10469058?IADID=Search-www.twincities.com-www.twincities.com).

Kilkenny says she is sorry about the loss to the church and the pain inflicted on Philyaw and his partner. But she maintains that he was a leader in the church and that leaders must be held to different standards.

Her involvement in the case began when she received communion from Philaw's partner James Mulder and felt “uncomfortable.” It appears that a factor in the “uncomfortableness” of Kilkenny and the four other parishioners who complained was that he and Mulder, both adult converts to the Catholic church, did not hide their identity as a couple. They attended parish events together and took a very active role in the life of the parish.

(Note: had they hidden their relationship, despite having told the pastor they were a gay couple, when the bishop turned on the heat, Philyaw might well have been fired for having been inactive in the parish. Openly gay couples working in church institutions routinely find themselves in double binds, in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations where their lack of presence can be held against them as disinterest in their job, but where appearing together can be called “getting in the face” of the community.)

Do Philyaw and Mulder have any recourse? Nope. As an article by Doug Erikson entitled “Wisconsin Church Music Director Fired for Openly Gay Life” (url provided above) states,

Wisconsin added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination statutes in 1982. However, churches are allowed to hire or fire without regard to discrimination laws if an employee's main duties are ecclesiastical or ministerial, said Tamara Packard, a Madison lawyer whose primary area of practice is employment law.

Philyaw now works a part-time temp job without benefits. He and Mulder face foreclosure in two months unless he can land a full-time job soon.

And this from a church that teaches workers should be treated as persons and not things. And from a church that teaches that everyone has a right to work at a living wage. And from a church that teaches that everyone has a right to basic health coverage. From a church that teaches that we should show justice and mercy to everyone with whom we deal. And from a church that teaches that anyone who approaches the communion rail is a sinner in need of God’s mercy, who is being invited there by a Christ who invites all sinners to the table.

Philyaw and Mulder say that their faith is now shaken, but they have not given up. They have found a welcoming community in a nearby United Church of Christ.

An old story. A tragically sad old story—sad most of all because two human lives are being so disrupted, and their relationship put through fire simply because of who they were made by God.

But sad, too, because so common that people are tempted to shake their heads at this behavior on the part of churches and church institutions, and do nothing to challenge it. When Steve and I first encountered such treatment and I naively believed that the media would take an interest in the story and colleagues would be up in arms at the injustice, I met a stone wall. A national Catholic newspaper told me that such stories of injustice to gay employees are so common in church institutions that they are not newsworthy.

Which is one reason I keep telling them. If I don’t, if citizen bloggers like Pam Spaulding don’t, who will? Those of us in the gay community who continue trying to interact with the churches often meet scorn from other gay people who think we are foolish or masochistic to keep trying.

But if we who are gay and encounter injustice first-hand from churches and the institutions they sponsor don’t try to hold the churches accountable, who will? And in a nation with the soul of a church, where what the churches do and think affects our entire political process, shouldn’t the churches be called on to walk the walk that they talk?

Moreover, if injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, those who see an injustice done in their midst and walk by without raising their voice court the possibility of being the next victim of the bullies. If the bullies start with the gays, where will they turn next?

Those who stand by in silence have a way of finding themselves on the bullies’ hit list eventually.

Economic Crisis and Workers' Rights: Ethical Reflections

*The current economic crisis positively begs for ethical analysis. And yet, if that analysis had been part and parcel of our approach to economic life all along, we wouldn’t be finding ourselves in the mess we’re in now.

To note this is to point to one of the glaring shortcomings of American religious and cultural life: we tend to regard economic life as somehow outside the purview of moral analysis. When people talk about morality—when churches and politicians lament moral decline—they frequently focus mono-maniacally on personal morality, above all on pelvic morality.

It’s as if one of the most significant areas of all of our lives—the workplace, the work world, the economic sector—is value-free.

Much ink has been spilt in analyzing why this is so, why we make such a bizarre assumption about economic life. At heart, much has to do, I suspect, with Adam Smith’s hidden hand: with the belief (and that’s what it is, every bit as mystical and counterintuitive as any religious belief) that, left to itself, the market sorts things out.

Those who deserve to prosper will prosper. Those who deserve to fall by the wayside will fall. The go-getter will prevail. The slacker will fail.

These are not faith-based assumptions. They are assumptions that fall short of even the threshold of morality as articulated by all the world’s religions. And yet they are deeply woven into our cultural perspectives on economic life. When it comes to economics, we—this nation with the soul of a church—are radical individualists who not only gleefully watch many of our brothers and sisters fall to the bottom of our society, but who actively justify their demise by attributing to them moral shortcomings, lack of a sound work ethic, dissolute habits, extravagant tastes, lack of intellect and will to defer pleasure in the present in order to reap future rewards.

In the workplace, the assumption that the hidden hand somehow magically works things out so that greed becomes righteousness and callousness to our fellow human beings becomes virtue translates into the lordship of the employer and the servitude of the employee. In our attitudes towards workers’ rights, we are positively feudal, and have been moving even more in that direction in the past several decades of neoconservative political domination.

As someone who spent his academic career in what might be called the middle-management sector of academic life—as a department chair and academic dean/v-p in a number of different institutions—I have been able to see both sides of this lord-servant dynamic. The person in the middle has to interact with those at the top, in whose hands make-or-break power ultimately resides: the president and trustees of universities. She also is a faculty member, an employee, who mediates between the lords at the top and those who do the actual work of teaching, and who are seldom rewarded as they deserve for their hard work. Deans are doubly servants: the English word derives from the Greek word diakonos, which means “servant.”

This is an unenviable position to be in—a middle-management servant—a crucifying one, frankly. If you try to do your job right, you will always be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Defend faculty members’ rights, and you may well find yourself slapped hard by the lords in whose hands make-or-break power ultimately resides. And yet, merely because you work with those lords, you are often accused by faculty members of being anti-faculty, a traitor to the workers’ cause.

(An illustration of the crucifying reality of being put in the middle: at one school at which I was academic dean, I fought for a raise for a faculty member who alleged that he was discriminated against, and denied a raise, because of his race-ethnicity. I could not find sound evidence of the discrimination. On the other hand, I did find that he had not received a raise for many years when other members of his department got one. I made a value judgment based on the principle of doing no harm, and against the will of his department and division chairs, I put through a raise for him, which the president approved.

After I left this school, I happened to see this faculty member on the street. This was in a period in which Steve was suffering severe deterioration of his hip, such that he could hardly walk. With the kind assistance of a friend who owned a car dealership, and with a bit of money my aunt had just left us in her will, we bought a used car that was nicer than any we had ever owned—one whose carriage was high enough for Steve to sit in it with relative comfort, and one that did not bump around as we drove.

The faculty member saw the car when I encountered him on the street. Now that I was gone from the college and its dean’s office, he could slap at me with impunity. And slap he did. He said with a sneer, “Deans must make good money for you to buy a car like that.” I told him I was no longer a dean. I felt I had no obligation to tell him how we had acquired the car. He repeated the slur, to make sure I knew that he had no respect for me. Whether he knew how hard I had fought for his raise, and what slaps I endured from others to obtain it for him, I did not know and probably will not ever know.)

Though being in this uncomfortable middle place is sometimes crucifying, it’s a place that yields valuable insights into the dynamics and moral implications of how workers are treated. In what follows, I want to take some of my experiences trying to work as a middle-manager in one kind of workplace—an academic one—and make some ethical observations about workplaces in general. Because my experiences have been generally within academic life, I will make some observations that specifically refer to the unique needs of the academy. Nonetheless, I believe that, as ethical principles, the following principles apply to workplaces in general.

And I’d go further: I’d say that if we are ever to find our way out of the economic mess we are now in, we have to engage in ethical analysis akin to this, re: our economic life in general. We have to find ways to implement ethical principles in economic life—that is, if we want out of the mess and don’t want simply to accept that we now have a quasi-feudal economic system in which lords have make-or-break power over those of us who have been reduced to economic servitude.

And so two fundamental principles for ethical analysis of economic life, drawn from my own work experience:

1. Workers are human beings and not things.

This is an absolutely fundamental principle. And yet, it’s one almost totally overlooked in how we actually do economic life in this country. Almost everywhere, our laws are radically loaded on the side of the employer/lords, allowing them to do whatever they want to and with workers: allowing them precisely to treat workers as things and not as persons.

No major religion of the world is comfortable with the assumption that people should ever be treated as things and not as persons. Most world religions, and many churches in the U.S., have made glowing statements about the rights of workers to be treated with personal dignity. Few of these statements ever translate into practice in workplaces, including (and perhaps especially) workplaces owned by churches—e.g., colleges or universities sponsored by churches.

2. Because workers are human beings and not things, their personal dignity and human rights must always be safeguarded in hiring and firing decisions, and in evaluation procedures.

In any workplace that wants to reach even the threshold of ethical behavior, workers can never be dismissed at the will of the employer, even when local laws permit at-will termination. The most rudimentary moral principles of all faith communities require the following:

▪ Ongoing evaluation in which the supervisor apprises the worker, preferably in writing, of her or his strengths and weaknesses, giving the worker the right to respond (preferably in writing);

▪ In cases in which a worker is failing to meet the mark, a set of remedial guidelines (preferably in writing), with clear goals and a timeline for the guidelines to be accomplished;

▪ Feedback (preferably written) by the supervisor as the employee seeks to meet the goals and timeline provided for remediation, with the right of the employee to respond to the feedback (preferably in writing);

▪ In cases in which a worker fails, after the remedial period, to meet the mark, a final written evaluation noting the worker’s failure as measured by the remedial plan, with the worker’s right to respond in writing;

▪ In cases in which the worker contests the final written evaluation, the right of the worker to appeal to a grievance committee that is not dominated by or answerable to the same supervisor who issued the final evaluation pointing to termination;

▪ Termination only when the above conditions have been met.

Interestingly enough, faith-based workplaces lack the preceding guidelines far more frequently than do secular ones. There are a number of reasons for the absence of such basic moral procedures in church-related institutions.

Among these are an unexamined assumption on the part of many leaders in church-related institutions (and this is often shared by society at large) that anything a church-affiliated leader does is automatically ethical. This assumption persists in the face of massive amounts of evidence that church affiliation does not necessarily or automatically translate into ethical behavior.

In some cultural settings, leaders of faith-based institutions even enjoy quasi-theocratic status. I have worked in faith-based institutions in which the leader of the institution routinely uses religious language to bolster his/her claim that he/she is divinely appointed to lead the institution, and in which the community colludes in this theological interpretation of the leader's role (at least on the surface, since who can resist a divinely appointed tyrant with impunity?).

Faith-based communities also often actively resist any curbs on the right of the employer to fire at will when prejudicial beliefs of the churches are at stake—and the right of churches to act on these beliefs has often been upheld by courts, so that faith-based institutions are emboldened to use the court system to reinforce their right to discriminate. For instance, many religious institutions that condemn homosexuality fight for the right to refuse to hire openly gay employees, and/or to fire gay employees at will, either simply because they are gay, or while offering specious reasons that disguise the fact that the real reason for the termination is sexual orientation.

Alternatively, church-based institutions may choose to fire openly gay employees because they have decided that these employees are undesirable for some other reason, but easy targets for at-will termination in areas where their rights are not guaranteed, precisely because they are gay.

The official policies of many faith-based institutions resist even the most basic description of the human rights of workers (unless these descriptions are imposed by federal or local law), because they want to reserve the right to fight court battles to permit the faith-based institution to continue discriminating in cases in which its religious beliefs permit or encourage such discrimination. In cases in which churches’ professions of ethical principles for the workplace conflict with the churches’ wish to control workers—in cases in which money and/or the image of the institution are at stake—ethical principles often take a back seat to the legally defended right to discriminate and to fire at will.

In academic life, of course, there is an added layer of reasoning to support the evaluation procedures I have outlined above, as a prerequisite to any termination of those who hold faculty status. This is to safeguard academic freedom.

In the U.S., all accrediting bodies for institutions of higher learning require that colleges/universities safeguard the academic freedom of faculty. Accrediting bodies also require, as a fundamental safeguard for academic freedom, clear guidelines for evaluation of faculty, use of those guidelines in ongoing evaluation of faculty, and demonstration that those guidelines have been followed when anyone with faculty status is terminated.

Failure to follow such guidelines in terminating anyone with faculty status is regarded by accrediting bodies as serious business, because at-will termination of faculty places in the hands of those with make-or-break-power the power to terminate those who have stated or published opinions or research that the make-or-break-power may wish to suppress.

For those outside academic life today, it is difficult to appreciate the extent to which governing boards of colleges and universities often fail to understand this basic principle of academic freedom, which is the lifeblood of academic life. Without it, scholars are intimidated into hiding research that is not flattering to received opinion, or that exposes powerful people to critical analysis. Without it, there is no way to teach critical thinking to students. Critical thinking can develop only in a context of free inquiry in which no question is off limits, no authority figure beyond criticism, no idea beyond careful analysis and discussion.

Because the governing boards of many institutions of higher learning are increasingly from the business sector, and because they often choose presidents for whom the bottom line is money (and image management), many governing boards are weak in defending academic freedom, if not downright antithetical to academic freedom. If they had their way, many governing boards would abolish all safeguards to academic freedom and would permit at-will termination by the president, with no evaluation process at all prior to termination.

I know this, because I have sat with governing boards to defend academic freedom for faculty. I know it, because I have fought to develop clear faculty-generated guidelines for faculty evaluation that permit faculty to respond to supervisors’ evaluations of them. I know it because I have been punished for fighting for such evaluation procedures, and for involving faculty in the development of the guidelines by which they are evaluated.

I have fought for such guidelines because my conscience tells me I must. I have fought for these guidelines because I believe in academic freedom and in the fragile possibility that the academy can keep thought and critical discourse alive in our culture.

Why should those who are not in academic life care about these issues? Because we live in a society in which it is all too easy to suppress free discourse. Because we live in a society in which there are powerful forces at work to make us all think and act one and only one way. Because we live in a society in which there are powerful forces at work to make us stop thinking and stop acting, to turn us into passive drones.

The academy is one among several imperfect institutions in our culture that hold out against increasingly powerful forces to protect open discourse and respectful analysis of differing ideas and opinions. Certainly the academy often sells out. It often fails to hold up its end of the civil contract universities have made with the culture at large.

But when it works, it performs an invaluable service to society at large, in keeping thought and critical thinking alive. We all have a vested interest in seeing that the academy does what it claims it wants to do. Now, above all, when our social problems are so complex, and we’re being offered buffoons and knaves as the “solution” to those problems, what else can we do?

*A note about the narrative I had begun on this blog last Thursday: in my open letter to Mr. Obama on Friday, I said pretty much what I had intended to say in the last part of that narrative. The proviso with which I opened the posting on Thursday, re: strong or offensive language, had to do with the fact that I was going to discuss m-o-n-e-y in explicit terms, something I was brought up never to do. As I did in my open letter to Mr. Obama . . . . Re: that letter, profound thanks to all those who contacted me to offer suggestions about how to disseminate it, and/or who helped me see that it got circulated. I made some very valuable contacts through networking with the assistance of blog readers, and am deeply grateful for the assistance.