Monday, August 24, 2009

The Media, the Churches, and the Arc of the Moral Universe: The Civil Rights Struggle Redux

Yesterday’s discussion of the role the mainstream media continue to play in distorting stories about churches and gay people and spreading disinformation about this topic has connected me to two new blogs that I highly recommend. I've added both to the blog list on Bilgrimage.

I cited one of these, Drew Tatusko’s Notes from Off Center blog, yesterday. Drew is a theologian with a ministry degree from Princeton who is working at Mount Aloysius College in Pennsylvania and completing a doctorate in education at Seton Hall University.

Through Drew, I’ve also learned of John Shuck’s blog Shuck and Jive. John’s a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. I’m grateful to both Drew and John for linking to my posting about the media's distortion of the ELCA story, but even more grateful to know of their blogs and their solidarity with those calling the churches to accountability for abuse of LGBT persons.

As I continue to think about these struggles within the churches today (and the role the media play in them), I’m reminded once again how much the civil rights movement of the 1960s forms the backdrop to my thinking about these issues. I’ve talked about this repeatedly on Bilgrimage. and I've discussed this issue with Terry Weldon on his outstanding Queering the Church blog, where it strikes me that Terry's formative years during the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa have given him a moral perspective on church issues that is very close to mine.

As I’ve noted, I am reading—studying is a more accurate word—Grif Stockley’s recent overview of the history of racial relations in Arkansas, Ruled by Race. I noted in a previous posting what happened in 1964 when Rev. Edward W. Harris preached a sermon at First Methodist Church in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, calling for the church doors to be open to anyone.

He and his wife were run out of town on a rail, metaphorically speaking. With the active complicity of a Methodist bishop they had expected to support them.

Run out of town by good church people in a heavily churched region for daring to proclaim that the gospels demand that the doors of churches be open to everyone.

If that doesn’t remind you just a little bit of what is happening as churches today split over the question of whether church doors can possibly be open to gays and lesbians, then I encourage you to delve into the history of the Civil Rights struggle and the role many white churches played in that struggle in the American South during the 1950s and 1960s, a role many of those churches are now repenting and confessing as sinful. And as you undertake that study, pay attention to the role the mainstream media often played in supporting churches resisting racial justice in that time frame. It's a role very similar to the role many media folks are playing today as some churches hold doors shut against gay people.

I’ve been thinking today about another incident Stockley recounts from the same Deep South part of Arkansas in the same time frame. He notes that David McDonald, the son of a Methodist minister in DeWitt, reports that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, a boy in his school walked up and down the school hall celebrating, shouting, “They finally got that n----r lover” (p. 338). McDonald was in 8th grade at the time. McDonald’s brother remembers that some of his classmates cheered when the announcement came over the school loudspeaker that Kennedy had been assassinated.

These stories hit home for a number of reasons. I, too, was in 8th grade in south Arkansas when Kennedy was assassinated. And I, too, remember the jubilation of several classmates when that announcement came over the loudspeaker. Several boys in my class cheered and clapped. I can see their faces in my mind’s eye as clear as day, after all these years, along with the face of a classmate who broke into tears and whom the teacher rushed to comfort. I remember each of their names. The memory is seared into my brain.

And for years after that took place, I sought unsuccessfully to correct an erroneous statement that a reporter in our statewide paper the Democrat-Gazette made over and over in op ed columns remembering Kennedy’s assassination. The reporter repeatedly wrote that though he had been told there were places in the country where students cheered in schools when Kennedy was assassinated, he did not believe this happened. He had not heard any credible report of such events.

Each time the reporter wrote this, I politely sent him a letter informing him that he was wrong. I told him the names of those in my own class who had cheered. I offered to gather information on other such incidents I had heard about.

The reporter never acknowledged any of these letters. And he kept on reporting that he had heard no credible evidence of such events, despite my letters to him. My feeble attempt to call to accountability a member of the media spreading disinformation fell on deaf ears.

Stockley goes on to tell a story about what happened when David McDonald’s father preached about what it means for a church to be a church at DeWitt Methodist Church on 24 May 1964. As McDonald notes, “Several times he [David’s father] repeated his belief that Jesus would welcome all people into any place of worship” (p. 338). Rev. McDonald focused his sermon on his “profound belief” that the church was “for all people” (ibid.).

And then when the sermon was over, he rushed out of church and headed to his study, where his family found him supporting himself against a desk. He confessed that he was terrified. As Grif Stockley notes,

For a white Arkansan the act of personally and publicly confronting the immorality of racism in the 1960s was simply overwhelming, for it meant not only going against much of one’s previous identity but often against the present values and beliefs of one’s family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, not to mention it could end one’s employment.

Note what Stockley is saying here. Choosing to do the right thing when one's family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are all dead certain that they have right on their side can be extremely difficult. And it becomes even more difficult when all those who are so dead certain believe that their religion backs them up. And when the media collude in creating hermeneutic structures that prevent those believers from examining discrepancies between their worldview of exclusion and injustice and the gospel they preach.

As I said yesterday, I can understand the grief of Lutherans who reported at the recent ELCA assembly how pained they and their families and friends are as the church opens wide its doors to gay people. I understand because I’ve seen that grief before, just as I’ve seen at close hand all the powerful social forces—and media disinformation—that allow people to remain not merely comfortable at the thought of excluding others from “their” church, but righteous in their assumption that God is on their side as they slam the church door.

And, as the arc of the moral universe bent inevitably to justice, as it is wont to do, I saw those folks and their descendants move on to the next battles, the ones to keep women and gays in their places. With the same defiant, righteous certainty that exclusion rather than welcome is what the gospel is all about. And with the same active, malicious support of mainstream media intent on helping people resist rather than pursue justice.

It’s this history that convinces me that the battle for justice is worth fighting, and that the moral arc of the universe often does bend towards justice, no matter how strong and determined the forces to keep justice at bay are. And it’s this history that forces me—it will not allow me to do otherwise—to frame these battles in a moral light radically different from the one that those resisting justice for gay people in the churches today wish to shine on these controversies.