Thursday, December 3, 2009

New York Senators Define Gay Humanity: Might Makes Right

So is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty (Isaiah 55:11).

Perhaps because I grew up in a family of talkers, I have always had the conviction—a bedrock one, as I think about it—that people’s words should not go forth and return to them empty. Discourse demands a response. Human discourse presupposes that we affirm or deny the humanity of others by how we receive their words. When the other speaks and we receive her words in silence, it is her humanity and not merely her words that we shun.

This is particularly true when the speaker is speaking from his depths—sharing heart and soul in word, putting flesh onto his spirit as he offers that spirit to us in speech. The evangelical tradition in which I grew up encouraged people to give testimony, to pour forth from the abundance of religious experience a moving account of the actions of grace in one’s soul, so that others could hear what God had accomplished and open their own inmost selves to divine transformation.

As I listened to those New York senators who argued passionately yesterday that offering gay citizens the right to civil marriage is the morally correct thing to do in a nation founded on the conviction that all are created equal, what struck me perhaps more than anything else was the silence of those who received this testimony and then chose to vote no. The stony silence. The adamant refusal to engage. The deliberate decision to treat an open discussion of a burning moral issue as if what is being discussed is of no consequence at all.

How do people choose to behave this way, I wonder? How do people who purport to be defending morality, to be exemplars of morality in a cultural debate, respond in this way when the issues about which they purportedly care deeply are under discussion? How do people sit mute while others pour out their hearts in testimony? How do those hearing such testimony close their hearts to this invitation to human encounter, to conversation, to the possibility of a truth transcending one side or the other, which will become apparent only when those debating an issue approach it collectively, in respectful dialogic interchange?

In my view, the most significant thing that happened in the New York Senate’s debate about gay marriage yesterday was not the final decision. That had long since been predetermined, I think. We—we who are gay, and those who stand in solidarity with us—are, and we must face this squarely, in a period of savage retrenchment in which we will see more and more of these symbolic gestures designed to let us know that we do not count. That we are less human than other humans, human in a way that symbolizes, for those who continue to claim that their lives represent normalcy and the pinnacle of moral rectitude, disorder and moral decay.

This is where things are now, and they are going to continue to be this way as long as those with the power to set a different example at the federal level choose to remain silent, and keep on playing political games with the humanity of gay citizens. The dead silence of the center invites the acting out of some of the noisiest, the basest and most hate-filled, political and religious groups in our midst, who want to displace the current center. Gay human beings happen to be a convenient tool right now for those whose ultimate goal is to shift the political status quo at a federal level. And we happen to be a convenient tool—notice my use of the word “tool,” which is deliberate: a tool is an object one uses to achieve some end—for those at the center, who want to calculate their political advantage and remain on the winning side as things shift.

And as the best demonstrate their lack of any conviction while the worst jack up the passionate intensity of their attacks on the humanity of their gay brothers and sisters, a majority of the good senators of New York chose yesterday to sit in stony silence while their colleagues poured out passionate testimony about a burning moral issue. About an issue which those keeping silence have themselves defined as preeminently moral—as their moral issue, one they own in an exclusive way.

There is a grand irony here, and that irony drives to the heart of what is wrong with American political culture in general right now. Imagine yesterday’s debate taking place on the floor of the New York Senate in the 19th century, as the pros and cons of slavery were discussed. It is impossible for me to imagine, in that period of intense engagement in which the future of the nation hinged on its willingness to accord full humanity to enslaved people of African descent, that, given the chance to discuss this issue and what it portended for the nation’s future, any elected representative of any political ilk would have sat in silence in such a debate.

But now we have silence. Silent moral rectitude. The pretense of moral rectitude accompanied by silence, by the refusal to engage, to debate, to reason together, to answer the arguments of even the most impassioned witnesses as they draw compelling parallels between the debate about the humanity and rights of gay persons and previous debates about the humanity and rights of others in our culture. Debates that implicated all of us, because denying humanity and rights to anyone debases all of us.

This is where we are. This is what we have come to. These are the people we are now. Those now defining morality for the rest of us do not even attempt to engage us as they hand down their adamant moral norms to the rest of us, to the mute objects being defined by mute authority figures whose authority purportedly increases, the more they refuse to engage any position besides their own. Their sole claim to moral authority is, for our current authority figures, authority itself. They have no need to justify that authority—they feel it is not incumbent on them to justify it—because might alone makes right. The ability to do something, to determine the humanity of others with a yea or a nay, is illustration enough of the moral superiority of those exercising that ability. Or so it would seem.

Building a society around these fallacious presuppositions about might and right is dangerous, indeed. It is a recipe for cultural decline. Let these assumptions into the door, and the next thing we may expect to see is the spectacle of religious authority figures ramping up their claim to the right to define morality for everyone else at the precise moment when revelations about the behavior of those authority figures have made their claim to authority most tenuous.

The less those authority figures have to say—the less they have any justifiable claim to speak convincingly to anyone at all about moral issues—the more we can expect them to assert their authority, in a culture in decline. And to go conveniently and ominously silent, when asked to defend their presuppositions and their right to define the humanity of despised others.