Friday, March 13, 2009

A Reader Writes: Vilification Never Stops with One Group

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me to add an important (to me, at least) addendum to what I wrote earlier today (the text below). This is a note about what people who make solidarity with gay human beings can expect today.

In a world in which those who are gay are still treated as despised objects rather than human persons, as bargaining chips in political power games that don't really have anything to do with us, except that we are here, and useful, and relatively powerless to defend ourselves, expect to share our fate, if you make solidarity with us.

Expect to find yourself demeaned and used, in turn. Don't expect rewards--that is, unless you choose to sell yourself to the many powerful figures in church and society who still need gay people as demonic figures in their power games. Then, you can certainly expect the titles, honors, appointments to roll in, if you can live with yourself, and if that pelf is worth something to you.

If you make solidarity with gay folks at this point in history, expect to be treated as Jesus was treated when he ate with outcasts. He was treated like one of them. And he ended up sharing their fate. But in doing so, he changed the world decisively--in ways that those who sell themselves to draconian and unjust power structures are absolutely incapable of doing. And my original text follows:

A reader of Bilgrimage left an astute observation about my posting yesterday (here) describing how a former employer finds it useful to continue attacking me (and my partner Steve) down the road from when we left her employment--because we are gay. And because she can get away with doing so. In a church-owned school that has no stated policies forbidding discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation. And in a cultural climate in which it is very easy to smear gay folks with all kinds of dirt, in order to deflect attention from one's own shortcomings and shore up one's faltering power.

I'm impressed by Carl's response, because he really gets what's going on. This is a scapegoating process (a vilification process, to use his phrase) that should concern everyone, because it involves everyone. It opens the door to vilification of others who cannot easily defend themselves from this process of ritual humiliation, abuse, and expulsion designed to protect (and cover over the sins of) those engineering the abuse.

As Carl points out, once innocent bystanders allow this to happen to anyone, they allow it to happen to everyone--including, ultimately, themselves. Carl writes,

What bothers me the most about vilification of a group of people, is the history of the human race. Historically, once a societal authority starts vilification, that process develops a life of its own and never stops.

Whether it is a country, a political party or a congregation is irrelevant. The process is the same and the ultimate outcome is predictable. Once the process starts, it never stops at one group. Once the first group is "vanquished", then the vilification is given to another group. And another, and another ad infinitim.

In the catholic church we are now seeing vilification of those who are not antiabortion, those who are not faithful orthodox, those who disagree with the leadership, those who are calling for greater accountability, women, protestants, muslims, buddhists, yoga practitioners and I'm sure we could find more that are now being vilified by the faithful orthodox of the catholic church (and other churches). . . .

And that is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of vilification - dialogue is impossible. Historically, the application of force and violence has been required to make the change. Let us pray that this time it will be different.

And here's my response: Carl, these are outstanding reflections, which set the issue in a broader context--the choice of human communities throughout history to demonize one group or another at any given moment in time.

You're right, that process should concern everyone, since it never stops with the targeted group. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously noted in the Nazi period, we stand by in silence as they round up the Jews and the political dissidents. And then when they come to round us up, no one is left. And as others have noted, Niemöller's statement could equally have included those with physical and mental challenges, ethnic minorities like the Slavs or Gypsies, and gays and lesbians, all of whom were also rounded up and placed in concentration camps (and murdered) in Nazi Germany.

This process is, precisely as you say, sadly predictable. It goes on and on throughout history. And as you also note, once it is underway, it never stops with the group it orginally targets: it keeps working to draw in more and more people as victims to demonstrate the power and purity of those mounting the purge, because power built on dominating others is always insecure, and has no claim at all to purity.

What varies throughout history is the group targeted. And at this point in history, I think it's safe to say that among the groups most persistently and easily targeted are gay and lesbian human beings. The book of John McNeill's that I have just finished, Sex as God Intended, is magnificently hopeful about the possibility for human beings, under the guidance of the Spirit, to move to a new stage of consciousness about issues of gender and sexuality. McNeill thinks that this will happen as we recognize the terrible ravages that heterosexual male domination and its system of patriarchy have wreaked on all of us.

McNeill notes, however, that the more we approach the breakthrough point at which we begin to recognize and repudiate those ravages--as a human community, as a body of people slowly coming to awareness together--the stronger will be the backlash against gay and lesbian human beings. The more the human community becomes aware of the existence of LGBT people everywhere, and of the gifts LGBT people bring to the human community, the more likely it is that those same people will be targeted in ugly public rituals of humiliation, abuse, and expulsion.

Ironic, isn't it? And yet McNeill seems to be right. The story I've been telling of our latest job experience--and this is part of an ongoing story of Steve's and my reception as academic leaders in church-owned schools--is a story of such public humiliation, abuse, and expulsion. It is related to the churches that own the schools in which we have worked. They need us as victims whom they can humiliate, abuse, and expel in order to vindicate their power, might, and purity.

People are willing to believe almost anything of a person who is gay, simply because that person is gay. People overlook the shortcomings of the anti-gay messenger whose own life may shockingly belie the sexual norms he or she seeks to enforce by targeting gay people. People are willing to believe that, simply because a person is gay or lesbian, he may steal, lie, stab others in the back--engage in all sorts of sordid behavior--when there is absolutely no evidence of that gay person's lack of integrity. Indeed, when the record shows that the person being smeared in that way has lived with honor and generosity, and in no way deserves his or her vilification . . . .

As you so clearly describe, the process of vilification isn't about thought or truth or dialogue at all (and that's part of what makes it so scandalous when it takes place in academic institutions, which are dedicated to the pursuit of truth and to thinking and dialogue). It's about the susceptibilty of a particular group at a particular time to vilification. It's about the fact that can conveniently and easily use that group of human beings at this time; we can get away with it and pay a price for doing so.

It's about our ability to "tag" that group. They're dirty child-molesting homos. They're baby killers. They're socialists giving away my money. They're ragheads and gooks. They're (in my youth) n----r lovers.

They're whatever dirt we need to throw right now, at someone on whom we know that dirt will stick. Because it makes us feel clean to take our dirt and throw it onto someone else. Then we don't have to examine our own dirt or open our lives for inspection to those whom we claim to be leading, as a transformative, morally-grounded leader.

Because we consolidate our power when we can make it appear that our lapses in moral authority or in leadership are due to them, to their conniving ways, always worming their way into the structures of good, upright society and good, upright Christian institutions and undermining from within.

These are mechanisms of abuse that have a long genealogy. They have been used by Christians against Jews for millennia. They are used by men against women. They continue to play out in how white people treat people of color. And they are very much in evidence today--in a shocking way impossible to avoid, particularly if one is concerned about building a humane society--in how we who are gay and lesbian continue to be treated right to the present.

One would expect churches to be challenging this, wouldn't one? If one has that expectation, one will be sorely disappointed. Churches are at the forefront of the process of gay vilification--for one reason, primarily: the churches have foolishly (and sinfully) staked their future on the persistence of patriarchy, of the continued domination of everything by heterosexual males. Gay people threaten that ideology and that control in a profound way. We threaten it by our very existence, just by living and raising uncomfortable questions, through our lives, about the hard-fast allocation of power on the basis of gender in patriarchal societies. We have to be killed, literally or metaphorically, to permit that patriarchal system to remain in place.

I've been thinking through these struggles as I read about what is happening with that legislation to alter parish governance in Connecticut. I'm accumulating quite a bit of evidence to show that we're seeing, right now, in that event the outburst of a new round of very ugly homophobia, with some Catholic bishops--notably Chaput in Denver--right there at the head of the troops, spearheading it all. As usual, with her quick way of seeing right to the heart of what's going on in the Catholic world, Colleen Kolchivar-Baker has already blogged about this at Enlightened Catholicism a few days ago.

And so my latest troubles at a Methodist school, where the state's Methodist bishop has a national reputation for opposing more humane, more Christian treatment of gay and lesbian human beings, is indeed part of a larger story. I appreciate your reflections on this very much, Carl. They help me contextualize my own personal struggle, which has been intense these days and is likely to grow more intense.