Thursday, March 31, 2011

More on the Controversy at Arkansas' Harding University about Gay Campus Members: Harding Alum Speaks Out

At the beginning of this month, I blogged about a controversy that had just developed at a university in my home state of Arkansas, Harding University, when a group of gay students and alumni launched a website and e-zine calling for open discussion of the status of gay and lesbian students, faculty, and staff at their Church of Christ university.  The response of the university to the new website and its call for dialogue was to censor the site and its e-zine, by blocking access to it from the campus computer network.

Today, Religion Dispatches has published an outstanding essay by Ed Madden, a Harding alum and poet who now teaches English at the University of South Carolina.  I highly recommend Madden's commentary about what's happening at Harding and many other conservative Christian colleges and universities, as more and more students and other campus members press for honest dialogue about how LGBT people continue to be treated on many faith-based campuses.

Madden talks about his own exceptionally painful struggle to come to terms with his growing awareness that he was gay when he was at Harding, a university strongly affiliated with the political and religious right, which insists that gay people be invisible--since they simply do not and cannot exist in the world of the political and religious right.  Not unless they are closeted and self-hating.

As Madden notes, he had to run as hard as he could from that confining, twisted and dehumanizing worldview in order to find himself as a gay man loved by God.  He had to run away from his own Church of Christ, with its refusal to accept and affirm those who are gay, in order to find some church elsewhere that would offer him grace and love:

It’s a tradition I had to leave to survive. I recall the grace I felt as a graduate student in Austin, Texas, when I first turned to a little neighborhood Methodist church. Finding that church saved my life. The first time I took communion there as an openly gay man was the most profound religious experience of my life, much more than my baptism as a boy—that dunk in the cold baptistery during a gospel revival was more a flight from hell and from my growing sense of sexual difference than a spiritual conviction. After taking the bread and wine that Sunday at Hyde Park Methodist Church, I couldn’t get up. I knelt at the altar rail and wept, shaking, still not believing in a God or a community that would accept me just as I am, rather than just how others wanted and expected and demanded I be.

All of this came back to me last week as I read those two emails and as my Facebook page and mailbox filled over the next few days with the controversy about the webzine and the university administration’s response—including stories on The Huffington Post and on the New Yorker blog.

Madden articulates the experience of many gay people of faith, as they come of age within churches and church institutions that seek to make gay folks completely invisible, because the cognitive dissonance gay and lesbian persons create for these communities of faith simply by existing, simply by being, is too great.  It's too great for these faith communities to continue with their comfortable, pious platitudes, while confronting the real-life complexity of the diverse world God has created.

In the Catholic context, one of the most controversial passages of the 1986 document on the pastoral care of homosexual persons issued by Cardinal Ratzinger, the present pope, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a passage which says that, though the Catholic church deplores violence against gay persons, no one should be surprised if violence ensues when gay folks claim they are not "disordered."  And when civil laws begin to offer protection for people on grounds of sexual orientation.  The 1986 pastoral letter introduced into Catholic magisterial teaching a fateful new notion that gay and lesbian persons are intrinsically disordered--disordered in their very nature and human make-up.

As many theologians, social workers, and therapists noted when the 1986 document was issued, it is implicitly arguing that when gay people come out of the closet, they merit the violence directed against them for coming out of the closet.  This is an argument that the leaders of the Catholic church are still pushing even today, as recently as last week, when the Vatican representative to the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, voiced the Vatican's opposition to a UN declaration condemning anti-gay violence around the world.  Tomasi argued, precisely as the 1986 "pastoral" document does, that gay and lesbian human beings have no right to be gay, to make their sexual orientations publicly known, to claim their identity as gay persons in a public way.

And therefore they have no right to legal protection from discrimination, and even violence, when they come out of the closet.  Though conservative Catholics who customarily take every statement of the magisterium literally are now trying to deny that this is what magisterial teaching says, official Catholic teaching continues to hold that those who are gay and lesbian are intrinsically disordered in their very personhood and natures, and that if they expect to be tolerated and not subjected to violence, they need to keep their disordered nature to themselves.

The price that repressive faith communities pay--the price they insist that gays and lesbians pay--in order to keep simplistic teachings about gender identity and sexuality in place is a steep price.  It is a price of self-denial and invisibility.

This is a price increasing numbers of gay and lesbian persons refuse any longer to pay, because we recognize that nothing is more inhumane and unholy than asking another human being to pretend not to be there. Not to exist.  So that your tiny world can remain comfortable, and your preposterous assumptions about who God is, and the kind of world God has made, can remain securely in place, untroubled by facts you cannot control.  

Untroubled by the real world, which is full of rich diversity that the simplistic notions of some believers find it impossible to recognize or incorporate into their theological universes.  Theological universes that grow smaller and smaller all the time, as the condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's work about which I've just blogged indicates.

Which have no option except to grow smaller and smaller, because they have decided to hinge their future and the future of their faith communities on literalistic interpretations of scripture or church teaching, which privilege the heterosexual males for whom these theological universes have been constructed.  While ignoring and denigrating the faith experience of everyone else--notably women and gay and lesbian persons.

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