Friday, September 5, 2008

The Kind of Place from Which Hate Comes: Discerning the Spirit in Political Decisions

In a previous posting on this blog, I noted a brilliant observation of Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell from this year’s United Methodist General Conference ( At a panel discussion sponsored by Soulforce, Rev. Caldwell spoke about the interconnected –isms by which social groups (including churches) engineer the denigration and exclusion of despised outsiders.

Speaking of racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, and other –isms of denigration/exclusion, Rev. Caldwell said, “They all come from the same kind of place."

I’ve been thinking of Rev. Caldwell’s observation the past several days. I’m doing so in part because the latest UMC Reconciling Ministries Network newsletter reprises his General Conference presentation ( The RMN newsletter links Rev. Caldwell’s analysis of the interconnection of denigrating, excluding –isms to a prophetic 2005 document issued by United Methodists of Color entitled “Manifesto on the Costs of Heterosexism and Racism.”

Rev. Caldwell is an African-American United Methodist pastor who has written and spoken eloquently about his lifelong roots in the Methodist Church, where he has struggled for many years for equality for both people of color and LGBT persons. Unlike some African-American people of faith today who resist seeing links between the struggle for racial equality and the struggle of gay and lesbian persons for rights, Rev. Caldwell argues that neither struggle can succeed in isolation from the other. We are linked together, since the resistance to our rights (as well as to the rights of other despised minority groups, including women) all comes from the same kind of place.

I’m also meditating in recent days on Rev. Caldwell’s statement that denigrating, excluding –isms all come from the same kind of place because, in my view, this insight allows one to cut through the smokescreens of lies and rhetorical obfuscation that accompany any national political debate, and to discern the Spirit as one makes political choices. Using Rev. Caldwell’s observation about the kind of place from which heterosexism, racism, sexism, etc., arise, I’m asking myself the following questions about the choices confronting me as a voter this election:

▪ Which candidates and platform offer most opportunity for our culture to address redemptively the “kind of place” from which our denigrating and excluding—our hate-filled—tendencies arise?

▪ Which candidates and platform offer us the possibility to identify those places, to name them, to be honest about the anger-filled hate they spew out, and the effect of that hate on our society?

▪ Which candidates and platform are willing to entertain national debate about the kinds of places from which anger-filled hate arises in our culture?

▪ Which candidates and platform appear ready to create the conditions for such national dialogue about the kinds of places from which anger-filled hate arises in our culture?

▪ Which candidates and platform seem eager to invite to the table those who experience systemic social denigration and exclusion, and to permit those despised outsiders to speak of their social reality in their own voices?

▪ Which candidates and platform are more committed to creating the social conditions that make it harder for anyone to manipulate hatred of others for political gain?

▪ Which candidates and platform offer substantial, promising plans to reach out to the denigrated others on the margins and to draw them into participatory democracy?

As a person of faith who tries to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, I can’t do anything else—that is anything other than ask such questions. As a person of faith, I have to struggle to discern the Spirit amidst the conflicting claims of various candidates and parties. In a political climate in which there is always the possibility of mass distortion of the truth, of deliberate manipulation of the truth on the part of those who control the flow of information in our society, I have no other choice, since the Spirit is light, truth, and, above all, love. If I do not walk in the path of light, truth, and love in the political decisions I make, I am not walking in the path of the Spirit.

I ask such questions of discernment against the backdrop of a discussion within my own faith community, the Roman Catholic one, in which many of my brothers and sisters, as well as the majority of my pastoral leaders, tell me that the discernment process begins and ends with the question of abortion. One must be pro-life, or one has abandoned the way of the Spirit.

To which I have no choice except to respond, Of course one must be pro-life. But simply repeating a slogan mindlessly is not discernment. It is not formation of conscience. It is not an adequate guide to the complexities of living the Christian life in postmodern culture. It is not a helpful approach to discerning the Spirit in the complex arenas within which political choices are made by people of faith.

Telling people to vote pro-life is akin to telling teens just to say no to sexual activity. We all know that life is the ultimate value, and is to be preserved at all costs. We all know that it would be preferable for teens to refrain from sexual activity outside the bonds of matrimony.

But there’s a huge gap between telling people to make pro-life choices or to abstain from sex outside marriage, and accomplishing what we believe those rhetorical prohibitions entail. And in that gap, people have to use their heads, to come up with policies and plans that move towards accomplishing the goal represented by the rhetorical prohibition.

I am frankly weary of—and, frankly, more than a little disgusted with—the tired old rhetoric of many of my co-religionists and of my bishops about voting pro-life. If that rhetoric and the political decisions it has led to had accomplished anything substantively pro-life in recent decades, then perhaps I could hear it with less jaded ears.

But when one puts the actual record of those we’ve been told to elect side by side with the pro-life rhetoric on the basis of which we’re asked to cast our votes, one would have to be a fool to conclude that we’ve been electing pro-life leaders. I believe the American Catholic bishops know this. I believe that they can see as plainly as others that their cul-de-sac pro-life politics has been a total failure.

And so I have come to the conclusion that the bishops are sinful—yes, downright, actively sinful—in their continued promotion of political candidates and platforms that work against the most fundamental ethical tenets of Christian faith, and, in particular, against the philosophy of the common good that forms the fundamental framework of all Catholic social ethics. It is sinful to ask us to elect leaders who, in the name of preserving life, not only do not preserve life, but begin unjust wars, allow thousands of poor people to go without medicine and food when a hurricane strikes their city, encourage the rich to rob the poor, vote and work against the provision of health coverage for all citizens including babies and children of unwed mothers, promote abstinence education when it clearly does not work and then penalize poor teen mothers who have babies without benefit of marriage, destroy the environment, stir up social hatreds that make life miserable for people of color, gay persons, and so on.

It’s time to stop the politics of hate, bishops. Yes, that is what it is. And yes, you are implicated. This is the politics you have been fostering through your abdication of pastoral responsibility in the American Catholic church.

And you are doing this at a time, I must remind you, when you have hardly distinguished yourselves by lying about the sexual abuse crisis, by hiding and transferring pedophile priests, by using big money and legal clout to attack survivors of sexual abuse who try to obtain healing and a hearing, by taking the hard-earned dollars of American Catholics and using them for dirty cover-up operations.

Your ability to lead people morally is already deeply compromised.

Please do not disgrace yourselves further this election cycle by playing the abortion card as though it is the only card in the deck, as we make ethical decisions in the political arena. Stop using abortion as if it is the final and only answer to all ethical problems, as if it is the ethical concern that norms all other concerns.

The moment you speak of being pro-life, you introduce a spectrum of issues related to life, all of which demand attention and concern. Your use of the baby-killing-is-always-wrong argument to stop all nuanced discussion in every possible area of ethical analysis is reprehensible. It is despicable. It panders to the basest instincts of the faithful. It succeeds in dumbing down those you lead, not helping us make complex moral decisions in a complex moral universe.

What kind of place do you want us to live in, bishops? What kind of society have you been helping to build these years, with your monomaniacal focus on abortion as the sole, the constantly and only framing moral issue? Do we now have a better society, with fewer places from which hate spews forth, because we have voted as you have told us to? Or do we have a worse one?

And if the latter, do you not sometimes wonder how history will judge you for the pastoral leadership you have given (or not given) the church entrusted to your hands? Will you one day be pointed to as the German and Austrian bishops of pre-Nazi Germany are now pointed to in childrens' textbooks—as examples of what happens when Christian leaders abandon their pastoral responsibility in the face of rising fascism?

Yes, that is precisely the brink on which our society is teetering at this very time, and you have to know this. We can continue making the dark places from which hate spews forth more numerous, claiming, as we do so, that we have no other option, because we are, after all, concerned with the ultimate moral issue, and that is life.

Or we can admit that our own rhetoric about life, and the ugly political games we have played with that rhetoric, are not only failing to contribute to the formation of an ethic of respect for life in our society, but are actively fostering much of the hate spewing forth from those dark places.

Which will it be, bishops? The time for choosing is at hand. Our culture cannot sustain more assaults from the forces that are shutting democracy down, and with it, respectful, meaningful dialogue about all the issues you claim to care about in your ethic of life.

What does the Spirit say to the churches today? And are you listening?