Tuesday, April 5, 2011

John Aravosis and Mark Jordan: A Debate about How to Approach the Role of the Bible in Gay Bashing

I agree with John Aravosis here.  When I linked several days ago to Mark Jordan's essay on which Aravosis is commenting (I linked to an earlier version at Religion Dispatches, while Aravosis is linking to it at the Alternet site), I did so to point to a problem that needs to be addressed in the American cultural and political discussion of homosexuality.  This is that many people talk about what "the bible says" without having a clue about what it actually says.

In the American political and cultural context, people speak about the Jewish and Christian scriptures with supreme confidence that the bible condemns homosexuality--and that supreme confidence is usually in direct proportion to their ignorance of what the scriptures actually say about anything at all.  Because I thought Jordan made that point well, and his call for educating ourselves (and the public at large) re: these issues seems on target, I linked to his essay.

At the same time, I did know, of course, that he was responding to John Aravosis on these points.  But my posting didn't mention that, because, to be honest, I thought Jordan had misunderstood Aravosis's primary point about how the bible is used to support gay-bashing in the U.S.  And so my references to Jordan's essay didn't mention Aravosis at all, since I didn't want to reinforce the critique of John Aravosis.

Now that Aravosis has reiterated his point--and I'm very glad he has done so--I want to address the debate between him and Jordan, and others who have also been criticizing John Aravosis re: how the bible is understood and used in American culture to lambast gays.  I think this criticism has been unfair.  The primary point I understand John Aravosis to be making--and it's an extremely important one--is this: regardless of whether the Jewish and Christian scriptures actually do condemn homosexuality, and regardless of what they really say about "homosexuality," the bible is constantly used in the American cultural and political context as a basis for discrimination and violence against those who are gay and lesbian.

And we have to acknowledge and deal with that fact if we hope to get anywhere with movements to combat anti-gay oppression and secure gay rights.  There's a double challenge in the American cultural context, vis-a-vis gay bashing and the bible, and Jordan and Aravosis are identifying two different facets of that challenge, it seems to me.

On the one hand, the persistent, serious challenge faced by anyone struggling for recognition of the human rights of gay persons in American culture is to face the fact that, for millions of Americans, the bible is an obvious and unquestioned source of anti-gay teaching.  And that uninformed, widespread cultural assumption is going to continue to be there, and to continue to be strongly persuasive for a large sector of the population, regardless of what scholars say about the biblical texts. 

On the other hand, for the last several decades, there has been significant scholarly discussion about the six clobber texts to which homophobic groups persistently return, which strongly refutes the widespread cultural belief that "the bible condemns homosexuality."  And it's important to educate ourselves and others about that biblical scholarship.  It's particularly important, I'd maintain, for people of faith committed to gay rights to begin to assure that this scholarship impacts what the churches say, think, and do about gay people and gay issues.

The role of the churches in challenging cultural misappropriation of the bible to attack gay people could, if the churches ever dared to do the work they claim they are about, be considerable.  And that correction of cultural misapplications of the scriptures needs to begin in the churches themselves, if communities of faith are to make a dent in the prevailing cultural norms.

Here's why I think John Aravosis's point is undeniable and important: no matter how wrong or misguided they are in thinking so, many Americans, whether churched or unchurched, take for granted that the bible instructs them to despise and marginalize those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered.  I cannot think of a single other minority group in this country right now that is routinely subject to violent attacks by people spouting bible verses.  I don't know of any other group of citizens we can point to, where someone still takes for granted that he or she has the right to fill a sock with stones and beat a man to death because the bible tells us to stone homosexuals.  Or where someone defending the savage beating of a gay man comes out to defend that action displaying a tattoo quoting the Leviticus verse that, as we all know, condemns "homosexuality" and calls for the stoning of gays.

Or where this kind of ugly hate speech, which is in the news today at the Box Turtle Bulletin site, pours out of the mouth of someone attacking a minority group, who repeatedly cites the bible as the source for his hatred--and for his right to attack.  We have a problem in American culture, and it is, to some degree, unique to our culture.

That problem is the taken-for-granted, casual belief that the bible supports hatred of those who are LGBT, and that those engaged in activities to demean and deny rights to gay people are doing a holy thing, something commanded by God--whether they themselves happen to be churchgoers or not, or whether they've even read the bible (and noticed how predominant its insistence on love, justice, and mercy is--and not on those six exegetically murky clobber texts).  In American culture, those working for gay and lesbian rights have a volatile combination of factors to contend with unique to American culture and politics: biblical literalism (undergirded by ignorance) runs throughout our cultural and political lives, whether people are churched or not; and because we are a nation with the soul of a church in which people, whether churched or unchurched, take for granted that the bible is the foundation of our unique city on a hill, ignorant biblical literalism wields enormous influence in our culture and political sphere.

My point in posting about these themes several days ago, as I cited Jordan's essay, was to note that this kind of biblical literalism is now affecting many American Catholics, too, despite the skepticism of traditional Catholic theology and teaching re: biblical literalism.  Listen again to those video clips of Fr. John Hollowell indoctrinating Catholic high school students in Indianapolis about their gay brothers and sisters, to which I linked several days back, and you'll hear the surprising claim that there are "multiple" bible passages condemning homosexuality, which see homosexuality as an "abomination" and "grave offense" against God, and if we question any one of these, the whole bible will become "completely useless."

These are not in the least traditional Catholic arguments.  They're not how Catholics do theology at all, including moral theology.  They're not how Catholics would approach any other moral issue today.

There's something unique about how contemporary Catholics have decided to deal with the issue of gay and lesbian people and rights, and, as I noted in my previous posting about this matter, that uniqueness begins with the 1986 letter of the current pope on the "pastoral" care of homosexual persons, which was roundly criticized by biblical exegetes and theologians when it was issued precisely because it adopts a fundamentalist approach, and pulls biblical proof texts out of context to insert into its argument, without grappling at all with the core meaning, the real meaning, of the scriptures to which it points.

The Catholic magisterium has made a calculated decision at this point in history to do, in the case of gay persons, what it refuses to do in the case of any other moral or theological issue.  The Catholic church has decided, in the case of the discussion of gay and lesbian people, to adopt a biblical literalist approach that is far more characteristic of Protestant fundamentalism than of traditional Catholicism.

To me, the reason for that calculated decision is obvious: it's a politically driven decision motivated by the desire of the leaders of the Catholic church at present to make common cause with the religious right, particularly in the United States, but also in developing parts of the world such as Africa where American-style religion has made huge inroads, to combat gay people and gay rights.  The price of this calculated decision and the coalition it forms is that Catholics are encouraged, in the single area of combating gay rights, to adopt a biblical literalism alien to traditional Catholic theology.

And this has proven to be effective.  As I've noted, I'm suspicious of the way in which the Catholics-promote-gay-rights story has gotten shopped around in recent weeks.  I'm suspicious about that story not because I doubt that an increasing number of Catholics in the U.S. do reject the politics of the hierarchy and endorse gay rights, nor because I doubt that this is a very positive development.

I'm suspicious because I think the growing meme about this development overlooks (and even masks) the very real and very powerful continued ability of some influential, highly placed, and well-funded Catholics in the U.S. to keep on doing serious damage to their gay brothers and sisters.  Anywhere that there are battles for gay rights underway in this nation, Maggie Gallagher and the National Organization of Marriage are there, with tons of money flowing their way from donors whose names they refuse to disclose, with expensive, slick videos pouring hateful disinformation into people's minds.

Anywhere there are struggles for the rights of gay and lesbian folks in the U.S. now, the Knights of Columbus are on the scene, funneling large sums of money that this organization used to give to the homeless and the hungry into the anti-gay cause, colluding with other religious groups, many of them fundamentalist ones, to block gay rights or remove rights from gay people.  And then there's the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, Timothy Dolan, who went on national television recently to inform America--and he was speaking as head  of the USCCB, as the spokesman of all American Catholic bishops--that same-sex marriage is equivalent to incest, that it would be equivalent to his wanting to marry his mother (for more on this, see the link at the end of this posting).

The bishops, the Vatican, Maggie and the Knights: they know very well what they're doing when they make outrageous, incendiary statements like this.  They're playing to deep-rooted prejudice, prejudice fueled by misappropriation and misunderstanding of biblical texts--precisely the kind of misappropriation and misunderstanding these Catholic leaders now deliberately seek to foster as they attack gay and lesbian people in concert with religious groups used to biblical literalism.

The bishops, the Vatican, Maggie and the Knights know what they're doing and why they're doing it, why they have allied themselves with fundamentalists of the religious right and why they're adopting the tactic of biblical literalism exclusively against the gays: they're doing what they're doing because they intend to keep on bashing gays.  And the bible--the culturally deformed version of the bible that circulates through American political networks of the right--is a useful tool in this battle.  It's one of the most useful tools they have.

For that reason, we need to keep listening (I think) to what John Aravosis has to say on these points, even as we also listen to Mark Jordan when he encourages us to educate ourselves and others about how these cultural misuses of the scriptures misrepresent what the bible actually says.  And we need--I would also argue--to push back.

If you want to push back against Timothy Dolan and what the U.S. Catholic bishops are doing to their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters right now, here's one way you can do so: the Care2 site has a petition now underway calling on Dolan to apologize for his incendiary remarks equating gay marriage with incest.   I encourage readers to log in and sign this petition.

The hate-mongering needs to stop.

No comments: