Thursday, November 1, 2012

Droppings from the Catholic Birdcage: "Do We Need to 'Affirm' Mass Murder, Megalomania, Necrophilia etc. in Order to Love These People?"

I've told this story on this blog before.  I want to do so again now, at the risk of boring readers, because it has a helpful and pointed application to a comment a reader left here yesterday.  Here's the story:

The annual gathering of the American Academy of Religion is in many ways a free-wheeling circus in which people of every sort of faith background from all over the world, or with no faith affiliation at all, interact for several days.  To talk about everything under the sun.

Scholars from around the world talking about everything under the sun.  Being very careful not to pass judgment on each other and the many faith traditions (or the non-religious stances adopted by many conference participants) represented at the conference.  Being careful not to pass judgment, period, since the conference is designed for listening and learning, not preaching.  These are scholars of religion gathering to talk about religion, not to convert each other.

And so this incident stands out all the more in my memory, as I think back over the several decades in which I attended the annual AAR meeting and heard paper after paper about the multifaceted dimensions of religious life around the globe, all calling on conference participants to listen sympathetically to the experience of the Other and suspend judgment until one had grappled to understand:

I'm attending a session of the AAR gay and lesbian studies workgroup.  It's a big step for me to go to these sessions, because I'm teaching theology in a Catholic university, and there's always the definite possibility I'll be seen and reported.  For simply showing my face at a workgroup session which implies I myself am gay and am not there simply to learn and study.  (And what business does a Catholic have going to a workshop to learn and study something about which the magisterium has made declarations that close the door to learning and studying, anyway?)

The session on this particular day is a panel of noted lesbian-feminist scholars discussing various issues.  It's a rarely good session, unlike the somewhat clownish sessions often offered at AAR, at which graduate students present papers on abstruse topics as they place themselves on what many of us call the "meat market," the tight, competitive job market for teaching positions in the field of religion or theology at the university level.  It's a far more illuminating session than the many presided over by the big talking heads of the American Academy of Religion, who are disproportionately ponderous, bearded men wearing tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows--all married heterosexual men.*  The kind of men used to running things.  And to being listened to.

Men who all look exactly alike.  Who behave exactly alike.  Who have only now accorded grudging space (these big bearded and tweeded men run AAR) to LGBT groups and women's groups, in contrast to other international academic societies, some of whose annual meetings I also attend (e.g., in the field of literature) which have long since recognized the need to begin including the voices of openly gay and feminist scholars.

The lesbian-feminist scholars on the panel close their presentation and open the floor for comments and discussion.  Immediately, at the back of the room, a man stands up.  He's in tweed.  He has a beard.  He begins to rant.  He begins to preach.

The gist of his sermon: repent.  All of you.  Now.  You're headed to hell.  You're talking about these issues--homosexuality, the place of women in church and society--as if they're not issues fraught with implications for your salvation.  You're sinners, and God wants each of you to face your sin, stop discussing these issues as if they're academic issues.  Repent, for God's sake!  What you're approving (and what many of you are doing) is every bit as evil as mass murder or alcoholism.  You can't condone your behavior using the bible any more than you can use the bible to condone mass murder or alcoholism.

The room is stunned.  This kind of thing never happens at AAR.  No one is prepared for it.  It's a large room full of people, one of the largest workgroup sessions I've ever attended at AAR.  Many of us clearly hunger and thirst for the kind of discussion in which we've been engaged in this room on this day.  For companionship with others who share our particular human nature.  

Then a woman gets up several rows ahead of me.  She turns around, looks Mr. Tweed-Beard in the eye, and says calmly, "I'm not a mass murderer.  I'm not an alcoholic.  And I frankly resent being compared to mass murderers and alcoholics."  And then she sits down.

And so yesterday, when I posted a number of excerpts from Margaret Farley's book Just Love which stress that just love does not falsify or miss the reality of the person loved but affirms her according to her concrete reality, actual and potential, a reader, Malleus Mures, logged in here to leave the following comment:

"Persons and groups of persons ought to be affirmed according to their concrete reality, actual and potential." 
And what is the concrete reality, actual and potential of Pol Pot, Ted Bundy and pedophiles? 
Do we need to 'affirm' mass murder, megalomania, necrophilia etc. in order to love these people? 
Was Our Lord setting an example when He saved the adulteress and rejected adultery? (John 8:3-11).

Malleus ("Hammer," in Latin) takes precisely the same tack that Mr. Tweed-Beard took all those years ago, over two decades now, at the AAR: tell me to learn to understand the concrete reality of a fellow human being who's gay or lesbian, and I'll meet your appeal for understanding and compassion with talk about mass murderers, necrophiliacs, and pedophiles.  There's an equivalency between being gay or lesbian, and being a mass murderer, necrophiliac, or pedophile.

Because I say so.

And because my word counts, since it has always counted when these issues are discussed--since I'm a heterosexual man--I don't have any obligation to listen carefully when a noted scholar of ethics, Margaret Farley, uses the qualifying phrase "according to" as she tells me that I need to decide how, when, where to affirm persons or groups of persons: "Persons and groups of persons ought to be affirmed according to their concrete reality, actual and potential." 

I don't have to listen to what is clearly a carefully considered argument for understanding people and deciding what response people merit according to their concrete behavior--according to what they do, who they are, the effect they have on others--because I've decided in advance that the effects of openly LGBT human beings in any society are similar to the effects of mass murderers, necrophiliacs, or pedophiles.  I can pretend that Margaret Farley is calling for us to affirm any and all kinds of behaviors--I can pretend that her all-important qualifying phrase "according to" is simply not there--because I intend at all costs to keep alive this stigmatizing rhetoric about gay people as equivalent to mass murderers, pedophiles, etc.

It has worked so well for so long.  It has proven exceedingly effective in keeping gay and lesbian human beings relegated to the shadows, demeaned, deprived of human rights, hated and subjected to violence.

I'm not ready to give it up.  Not even at a moment in history at which more and more people throughout the developed sectors of the world challenge me with increasing urgency to produce some evidence--any credible evidence at all--that it's fair (not to mention just and loving!) to compare gay people with mass murderers and pedophiles.

I don't intend to give up my rhetorical slurs against my LGBT brothers and sisters even when I can't produce a single scrap of bona fide evidence that permitting gay people to live open, self-affirming gay lives and enjoy the full range of human rights threatens anyone at all.  Or has any ill effect on society at all.

I say it.  And it's right because I say it.  Because I have always had the exclusive right to define these demeaned fellow human beings as less than human, since I am a heterosexual male.   And I do not intend to give up my right to determine the lives of those different from (and less than) myself.  My self-worth is invested, after all, in enjoying the power and privilege to relegate others to positions beneath me and subservient to me.

Hammer's argument proves in spades Margaret Farley's thesis, doesn't it?  It proves eloquently Margaret Farley's thesis that people can talk about love and intend precisely the opposite when they use the language of love, doesn't it?

It proves that people can even completely invert the life and teaching of Jesus to justify behavior that absolutely overturns everything Jesus stood for, taught, and did.  It proves that, under the guise of loving, Christians can actually foster hate against targeted minority groups, and claim that they are acting in persona Christi as they subject a selected group of fellow human beings to brutal, demeaning treatment that results in all kinds of violence against the stigmatized group.

When I read what Hammer wrote yesterday, or when I listen to one U.S. Catholic bishop after another scream right now that society is headed to the dogs as it opens the door to affirming the full humanity of LGBT human beings, I can only conclude, all over again, that the old African-American spiritual has it precisely right: "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't goin' there."

* I have nothing against beards.  Or tweed.  Or leather patches, for that matter.  I wore a beard during graduate school.  And have a number of old tweed jackets I would part with as if parting with longtime friends.  I'm pointing here to the sameness of the men--all predictably heterosexual or heterosexual-posturing--who ran things at AAR in the years I attended the society's annual meeting.

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