Monday, March 28, 2011

Presbyterian Minister Murray Richmond on How His Mind Changed re: Homosexuality: More on Misuse of the Bible to Attack Gays

When I blogged several days ago about the curious appeal of anti-gay biblical literalism for some contemporary American Catholics,  I concluded that people's ability to understand the radical injustice of many churches' attacks on gay folks depends to a great degree on whether people know and love someone who is gay.  Or whether they're gay themselves.

As I noted in the conclusion to that posting, some people will always take for granted the norms of their own culture, and will look for religious reinforcement for those norms--until they themselves or someone they love becomes the object of religious condemnation based on scripture texts that are twisted to provide a foundation for attacks on others.  And now I'm interested to hear a Presbyterian minister, Murray Richmond, making precisely these same points in an essay today at Salon about how he has changed his mind on the issue of homosexuality.  And on his understanding of what the bible says about homosexuality.

Richmond notes that when he first began his ministry in North Carolina in the late 1980s, he took for granted that the bible condemns homosexuality.  And he preached what he took for granted.  It even angered him that anyone wanted to raise questions about this moral issue and church teaching re: it, when, as a minister, he had signed on to feed the hungry, preach the gospel, comfort the afflicted, and effect racial reconciliation.

And then things began to change for him.  He began to know and correspond with gay people and those who loved gay people, and his eyes began to open to the real damage being done to gay lives by churches claiming to act on behalf of Christ as they inflicted pain.  And the biblical evidence itself became much less clear to him, particularly when he struggled through the breakdown of his own marriage.

Still, because Presbyterian congregations remained strongly divided over issues of gay acceptance and inclusion, he continued preaching on the topic--recognizing that if his and other churches began to be gay-inclusive, almost half of the members of many congregations would bolt, taking valuable economic resources away from the church.  And so, when a group of people in his church--all five of them divorced and remarried--demanded that he preach the "real" gospel about homosexuality to the church, he did so, noting to himself that if he had preached instead about what the gospels say about divorce and remarriage, these same folks would not have been the least bit pleased to hear the "real" gospel. 

And then he left parish ministry to do hospital chaplaincy work, and was able to start looking intensively at those six clobber texts on which the entire anti-gay industry in the churches is based.  And the scales began to fall from his eyes.  Here's what he saw:

With distance, I could see the mean-spirited nature of the anti-gay movement, and the naked way large Christian organizations used the "gay threat" to raise money. Free from the constraints of a congregation, I could spend more time actually looking at the biblical texts that deal with homosexuality, and I was surprised to find they were not as clear as I had supposed they were. At this point, I have done a 180 on the topic. And I believe it's a change for the good.

So why had we singled out homosexuality as a litmus test for True Christianity in the first place? Why had it become such a lightning rod for self-righteousness?

One reason, I think, is that it's easy to condemn homosexuality if you are not gay. It is much harder than condemning pride, or lust or greed, things that most practicing Christians have struggled with. It is all too easy to make homosexuality about "those people," and not me. If I were to judge someone for their inflated sense of pride, or their tendency to worship various cultural idols, I would feel some personal stake, some cringe of self-judgment. Not so with homosexuality. 

And, as I say, this confirms, I think, several points I made in my recent posting about the curious appeal of anti-gay biblical literalism for some American Catholics.  As I stressed in that posting, it's exceptionally strange that a handful of exegetically murky texts still seem foundational to some American Catholics, when they don't even come from a theological tradition based on biblical literalism.  While the huge weight of the bible--in the direction of love, justice, and mercy--receives far less emphasis among many otherwise literal-minded Christians, particularly in their dealings with their brothers and sisters who happen to be gay.

As Richmond points out, the current stance of the Presbyterian Church USA prohibits open, self-affirming gays and lesbians from being ordained to the ministry, unless they make a commitment to "chastity in singleness"--something that had never previously been demanded of unmarried heterosexual candidates for ministry until gays and lesbians began to request ordination.  And the former have the option to marry down the road.  As gay people do not have, under current PC USA regulations.

And yet (Richmond again), the PC USA has no regulations at all prohibiting the ordination of "a thief, a murderer, or an egotistical jerk."  And he has come to think that there's something radically awry in the decision of his and other churches to single out and attack gay and lesbian ministry candidates in loving, committed relationships, while it does not single out many other ministry candidates that, on the face of it, are far less suitable for ordination.

Everything depends in this debate, as he's come to see, on whether one actually knows and loves someone who is gay.  Or whether one is gay oneself.  Or on the ability of Christian churches and their members to begin to use their moral imaginations and place themselves in the shoes of those being singled out and attacked.

One of the things that troubles me most of all about the way in which the Catholic hierarchy deliberately targets those who are gay and lesbian, and asks lay Catholics to underwrite that targeting, is this: the business of pastoral leaders ought to be to teach us to be mature, reflective, adult moral agents.  And key to that teaching process is teaching us to imagine what it is like to live life in the skin of someone else--particularly the poor, downtrodden, oppressed.

In targeting their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and expecting lay Catholics to do the same, the bishops are deliberately undermining the very process of moral insight on which Christian moral life depends.  It is not to their credit, at this point in history, that they have expended massive resources on trying to make people less morally aware and morally sensitive believers.  And I think--I am certain of this--that not far down the road, history will begin to judge their behavior at this point in the history towards a beleaguered minority group as not merely morally insensitive, but morally atrocious.

When the business all Christian pastors ought to be in is educating those they lead to understand life from the point of view of those on the margins . . . . 

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