Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Moral Right to Exclude as Acid That Erases People

And as a complement to the reflection I just posted about the moral right to exclude, I offer the following excerpt from my journals. It’s dated 25 August 1994.

I don’t normally read journals I’ve finished. They bore me (been there, done that). And they depress me. I use journals to work through unfinished life business, and the themes about which I reflect—the struggles I encounter on my life journey—are depressingly the same, year after year.

When one struggles against systemic injustice, one’s life business can’t be finished until those systems have been displaced and brought to accountability by justice. And I haven’t seen that happen yet, not in my small lifetime . . . .

The reason I’m at least leafing through my journals lately is to mine them for travel accounts for my other blog, Never in Paradise. It was in doing this the past several days that I ran across the passage below, which, to my ear at least, sounds uncannily like a response to Charles Moskos’s theory that straight people have a moral right to exclude gay people.

A bit of context is necessary to give the passage meaning. I wrote it in the months following my expulsion from a Catholic college in North Carolina. Steve and I were living in North Carolina as I wrote this. Steve was still teaching at the college, though he was to be booted, too, not far down the road. We taught theology at the college. And we were told that we were not wanted.

This left both of us with excruciating questions about what our vocation as Catholic theologians might mean, in a church that did not want us, and that was willing to behave brutally and in grossly unethical ways to let us know that we weren’t wanted. Our experience as Catholic theologians who found ourselves definitively excluded (we have never been able to find jobs as theologians again) in the early 1990s left us in a crisis of faith that was, for both of us, profound.

The experience of brutal, demeaning exclusion, attended by lies to us and lies about us, has left us unable to partake of the Eucharistic life of the community. I’ve written about that elsewhere (here) and won’t belabor the point again here. But I do need to sketch these points in as background to the passage below, to make its significance clear.

My journals remind me that, as I was working through these experiences (which were ongoing: Steve had just returned to teach at the college, and my journal chronicles what he was telling me of that gruesome experience), I was also re-reading Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. From which I had gleaned the not too consoling lines that follow:

Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout (Angels in America: Millennium Approaches [NY: Theater Communications Group, 1992], p. 45); and

What AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred (ibid., p. 90).

And so the following passage written on 25 August 1994, preceded by embarrassing, anguished statements about the sense of absolute worthlessness with which we had been left by our experience of being treated as subhuman by fellow Christians, the sense of abandonment by God, the sense that the acids of oppression had not just eaten into our souls but eaten through them:

The structures of submission and dominance that form the skeleton of patriarchal societies, including military, church, academy, and business elites—and the rituals that enact and legitimize these structures—protect hierarchy. They do so by assuring that males being trained to wield power learn to endure humiliation, both so that they may in turn wield power via subordinating the weak, and so that they will unflinchingly obey the command of their “superior.”

By its very nature, such a system fosters conformity and resistance to change. Church and academy delude themselves if they believe that the top-down hierarchical system that is their skeleton does anything else.

The most fundamental gesture of rebellion one can make to such a system is to pretend that it is beside the point, for oneself and those one admires. Such systems of dominance and submission must make these gestures of defiance unthinkable, by wooing the refractory one into the structures, or by simply murdering the one who refuses to submit.

Murder can take many forms. It can be literal, as in shooting the defiant one. Or it can be non-literal, as when the rebellious one is made to appear immoral, defective, or malicious. The very expulsion the defiant one undergoes is designed to make him or her appear all those things. Particularly if the one expelled is a man, the rituals of expulsion are designed to show that he is weak enough to deserve expulsion. After all, this wouldn’t be able to happen to him if he hadn’t in some way deserved it, would it—and anyone weak enough to be ritually abused and have no power to stop the abuse ipso facto deserved this abuse, in such hierarchical structures.

Jesus courted murder by his gesture of defiance to such systems. In his wandering-about life with friends, in his breathtakingly insolent, breathtakingly guileless and sincere, rituals of inclusion of public sinners, such as his table fellowship with sinners, in his “feminine” celebrations of flowers, grass, rain, bread, wine—in all these ways, he said that the structures of dominance-submission were, quite simply, beside the point for him and his friends. Such statements make it possible for people to think that the structures of dominance-submission are changeable. If all those who are kept in their place by such structures see this man and his friends engaging in such gestures of defiance, then what might they do?

Jesus had to be murdered. It’s not difficult for me to understand that. What’s difficult for me to understand is what Christians claim happened after this, as its divine overturning. Resurrection. What’s that? Who? Where? How? What does it mean, in a world that acts, over and over again, like the world that put Jesus to death, that crucifies him again—every day, in the lives of street people, black people, gay and lesbian people, women?

And by the way, that little Catholic college in North Carolina that demeaned and expelled us? They are now the poster boy of the Catholic right, featured in the literature of Cardinal Newman Society and other groups connected to that Society. Plus ça change . . . .