Saturday, October 30, 2010

Righteous Christians and Unrighteous Gays: The Educational Challenge Facing Churches Today

An update to the story about which I blogged Thursday, a story unfolding in my own state the past several days: Clint McCance, the vice-president of a school board in northeast Arkansas, who recently posted offensive anti-gay comments and horrific taunting statements about suicide of gay teens on his Facebook page, told Anderson Cooper on CNN Thursday night that he will resign his school board position.  He has not yet submitted a letter of resignation, however, and various watchdog groups continue to monitor this situation.

McCance’s resignation is a good and necessary outcome, it seems to me.  But in my view, it’s only a first step in a process that now needs to take place with communities of faith in my state and elsewhere.  Yesterday,  some religious leaders from around Arkansas gathered at an Episcopal church in Little Rock to make a public statement condemning bullying of gay youth.

Obviously, much work remains to be done—educational work, ongoing educational work in faith communities.  As I have noted previously, recent research undertaken by the Public Religion Research Institute  shows fewer than one in five Americans reporting that communities of faith in the U.S. are doing an adequate job of relating to gay and lesbian human beings.  The same poll reports two-thirds of members of religious groups reporting that statements and attitudes of communities of faith are implicated in suicides of gay youth.

These are shocking findings.  In the face of such findings, the fact that religious leaders and communities of faith continue to be timid about speaking out to challenge bullying of gay youth is incomprehensible.  It is incomprehensible that religious communities have not yet, on the whole, recognized that they have been living through the greatest civil rights challenge of our times in recent years with the movement for gay rights, and they have simply missed the boat.  At best, they have been silent.  At worst, they are at the very center of the problem that must be overcome if gay people are to be treated as full human beings in our culture.

In my own Catholic community—where tremendous work needs to be done and where not a single top pastoral leader has uttered a single word about bullying of gay youth, even as the leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does so—a third of respondents to the Public Religion Research Institute study indicate that the leaders of the Catholic church deserve a grade of D or F for their treatment of gay and lesbian persons.  Catholics gave a lower grade to their church’s leadership when it comes to treatment of gays than members of any other church did.  And this is in the face of claims by many apologists who want to argue that the Catholic church is exemplary in its charitable outreach to those in need . . . .

Clearly, a central challenge for those who want to deal with the hatred of and discrimination against gays and lesbians fostered by religious communities is that many religious adherents are poorly educated regarding what their own churches teach, at a fundamental level.  Huge numbers of people of faith are poorly educated about how the notion of practical compassion is, as scholar of religion Karen Armstrong notes, at the very center of all world religious traditions.

In her book The Spiral Staircase (New York: Knopf, 2004), Armstrong writes:

The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.

This September, the Pew Forum released results of a study of religious knowledge in the U.S.   The results of this study are astonishing and embarrassing; they indicate how far communities of faith in the U.S. have to go to educate their adherents in even the most basic ways about what their faith and the faith of others means.

The Pew religious knowledge study shows that Americans can, on the whole, answer only half of 32 simple questions about world religions.  Atheists (along with Jews and Mormons) score higher than other groups on this test.  Half of those polled in this study report that they never read any books or articles about their own religions, and 70% of those polled never read any books or articles about any religion other than their own.  Religious knowledge is particularly low in the bible belt states of the Southeast, including my own state of Arkansas, which have high levels of religious adherents—the same states in which many believers profess to be most profoundly convinced that the bible informs them that gay and lesbian people are grave sinners headed to damnation.

There is, in short, a serious educational challenge facing communities of faith today, in the area of dealing with gay and lesbian human beings.  In my view, that challenge needs to focus in particular on the way in which communities of faith misuse their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters nowadays to demonstrate their own (false) righteousness to the world.

There's a perennial tendency of communities of faith to define themselves over against some despised Other.  This has been a strong, evil tendency within Christian faith communities over the course of Christian history.  Over the course of Christian history, Christians have at various points turned the following groups into demonized Others to demonstrate the righteousness of Christians: 1) women; 2) witches; 3) Jews; 4) heretics; 5) Muslims; 6) people of color; 7) non-European indigenous peoples; 8) Communists.

Today, the demeaned, hated, stigmatized Other happens frequently to be, for Christians, gay and lesbian people (and, of course, it continues to be Muslims).

The question I would encourage anyone working with and in faith communities, anyone with a position of pastoral responsibility in Christian faith communities, to pose to these communities is this: why is it necessary to define one's own righteousness over against and at the expense of some demeaned and demonized Other?  Why do people of faith seem to have this perennial thirst to build their own righteousness across the backs of a despised group that they define as unrighteous, and then exclude and oppress--and often kill?

What kind of righteousness needs demonized Others to demonstrate that it is righteous? Why are people of faith not hearing the call of their scriptures to tend to their own righteousness and refrain from judging and condemning others, since judging others is God's work alone?

I can't find the righteousness of many people of faith today who build that righteousness across the backs of their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters very convincing or attractive. It seems anything but righteous, and the force driving this unrighteous behavior seems downright demonic. 

The righteousness that many Christians today claim by turning their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters into demonic symbols of unrighteousness is precisely what the Christian tradition calls self-righteouness. It is our own defiant (and false) declaration of ourselves as righteous.  It does not depend on or wait for God’s declaration of us as righteous.

That dependence and waiting on God to define us as righteous or unrighteous people demands a humility that is nowhere on display in the treatment many Christians dish out to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  The treatment many Christians dish out to those who are gay is premised on their belief that they are automatically righteous and their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters are automatically unrighteous, simply because they are gay.  (And Christians are automatically righteous simply because they are not gay.)

This attitude is difficult to comprehend from the standpoint of the scriptures of the world religions, which persistently challenge the presupposition that we can build our own righteousness by declaring others unrighteous—dirty, sinful, sordid, headed for hell, a problem for us, the righteous, to solve and overcome.   The Christian gospels persistently call into question the cheap grace of those who presume to know that they are the righteous, when they project unrighteousness onto some other despised group with a smugness and complacency that have nothing to do with authentic spirituality in any of the world’s religious traditions.

Communities of faith are going to have to begin facing the significant way in which their ugly treatment of gay and lesbian human beings, driven by self-righteousness and cheap grace, is profoundly undercutting their claims to be all about salvation and love.  As I noted Thursday, Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s new book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us shows that the primary reason young people are walking away from the churches today in droves is the ill treatment of gay and lesbian persons by the churches. 

It is increasingly impossible for communities of faith to convince people that they are all about love and salvation when they continue to engage in malicious behavior towards gay or lesbian human beings that is driving younger gay and lesbian persons to suicide.  It is high time for the people of faith to face what they are doing as they continue to energize hatred of and discrimination towards those who happen to be gay—and what they are doing to their own fundamental proclamations about themselves, as well, as they keep walking down this unrighteous path.

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