Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fields and Floods, Rocks, Hills, and Plains: Benedict Defends the Environment (But Not the LGBT Citizens of Uganda)

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

I’m happy that Benedict has spoken out about the environment, reminding us that human beings have an obligation to “care for and cultivate” the created world.

I’m afraid, however, that as strongly as I am committed to movements to halt ecological destruction, I have no choice except to hear the pope’s message about the environment with deaf ears. I can’t hear the message, because Benedict has yet to issue an equally forceful statement about our need to “care for and cultivate” our endangered gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Uganda. Or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.

About the real and present danger LGBT people face in almost all societies in the world—and the horrendous dangers we now face in the nation of Uganda—the pope has been and remains absolutely silent.

As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog, I remain skeptical that the leaders of the Catholic church are really committed to the pro-life ethic they promote vigorously nowadays. I remain skeptical because I see contradictory evidence regarding that commitment.

It is exceptionally difficult to convince me that you defend life when you ignore impending laws that may permit the execution of people simply because they are born gay. It is well-nigh impossible to convince me that you are all about respect for life when your ethic of respect for life is riddled with such obvious contradictions that many people hear your real stance on those who are born “intrinsically disordered” as a tacit call for persecution of and violence against these subhuman brothers and sisters.

It is not immediately apparent to me that fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains have an ontological status that supersedes that of LGBT human beings. I cherish fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, and I am willing to be persuaded that more of the created world is sentient and deserving of the respect we accord to persons, than we have yet recognized (though I don’t think Benedict’s argument for environmental concern trends in that direction).

Even so, even with my own deeply held belief that the grace at work in the world to bring the world into God’s divine embrace extends to all of the created world and not merely to humans, I find it incomprehensible that Benedict expects to be taken seriously when he defends fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, and not the clearly sentient, flesh-and-blood, ensouled gay citizens of Uganda. Or of all the nations in the world, where we remain daily susceptible to both outright and to socially embedded violence.

I’ll go further: I sense a certain cynical game-playing in the willingness of some religious leaders to voice ecological concerns these days, while remaining silent about (and tacitly approving of) violence against those who are gay and lesbian. I noted earlier today that my last two academic appointments in United Methodist institutions were eye-opening, insofar as they taught me how homophobia works not only in my own notably homophobic (institutionally speaking) Catholic church and in the churches of the religious right, but in mainline Protestant churches, as well.

I’ve noted in various postings here that the United Methodist bishop under whose pastoral direction the last school at which I worked found itself, is notably homophobic. This is well-known and openly discussed.

This bishop works actively in collaboration with those anti-gay movements in the UMC I discussed earlier today, which keep pointing to the homophobia of some African Christians to justify their opposition to inclusion of and respect for gay believers in the UMC of the United States. At the last General Conference, he gave strong support to one of the most virulently anti-gay leaders of the UMC in the United States, who is deeply tied to the anti-gay movement in Africa.

At the same time that this bishop promotes homophobia within the United Methodist church of the United States, he is a strong advocate of ecological concern. He writes passionately about the need to preserve the environment. He built the last United Methodist statewide meeting in his state around that theme. At that conference, though many documents urged the states United Methodists to care for the created world, not a single documents I've seen expressed similar concern about the need for United Methodists to care for their LGBT brothers and sisters, in a state in which there have been a number of horrific acts of violence against LGBT people in recent years.

I applaud the ecological concern. I’m willing to lend a hand to assist. But I remain suspicious of the depth of that concern—of the consistency of the ethic of life lying behind that concern—when church leaders calling on us to respect fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains have no respect at all for their LGBT brothers and sisters. And when they are, indeed, active promoters of movements whose intent is to stigmatize us, push us to the social margins, and make us even more susceptible to violence than we already are.

There seems—I have to say this bluntly—to be an element of cheap grace about the call of some Christian leaders to save the environment, when those same leaders are unable to say a single word to defend their LGBT brothers and sisters in places like Uganda. I have the strong impression that Christian leaders who urge us to be more ecologically aware seldom pay a price for sounding that concern.

I know that they pay a price, though, when they speak out about the dangers confronting their LGBT brothers and sisters. That price is likely to come to them in the form of sharp economic pressures applied by the right-leaning businessmen on whom they rely for support as they build churches, pay salaries, and vie for power in the political arena.

My first-ever teaching assignment, when I finished my undergraduate studies, was in a Catholic junior high school in a parish in New Orleans that had managed to remain all-white (and to keep its school all-white) through the years of integration. I did not know this at the time I took a job in the school. I learned it to my chagrin when I followed the lesson plans of the school’s religion text and showed students a film produced by the Franciscans, which was designed to teach Catholic young people respect for those who are racially different.

As I coped with the strong backlash of parents who protested their children’s exposure to that film (and to its message of love across racial boundaries), and with the pastor’s (but not the principal’s—a religious sister) pressure to appease the parents, I learned that the parish had a history of protesting every time the previous pastor preached about integration, during the Civil Rights struggle.

As long as the pastor told his parishioners to love one another on Sundays, there was not a peep of protest. When he went the necessary step further and noted that the call to brotherly love means that we have to give up our racial prejudices and work actively against such prejudice in social institutions, many parishioners protested by dropping small chocolate candies in the shape of babies in the collection basket, rather than money.

Preaching about brotherly love or concern for the environment in an abstract way: cheap grace. Preaching about how brotherly love requires us to eschew prejudice and show active concern for specific marginalized groups: costly grace.

Sadly, I’m putting Benedict’s environmental statement on the cheap grace side of the ledger, along with the similar statements of the United Methodist bishop I discuss above. When I hear Benedict speak out with equal vigor to defend the LGBT citizens of Uganda, I may well change my mind and move the noble words about the environment to the other side of the ledger.

But not before then.