Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday Meditation: Hearing the Gospel from Lips of a Gay Buddhist Actor (But Not from the Leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church)

Some Good Friday meditation points for you, from a Buddhist who happens to be gay. The graphic above is from MSNBC's Facebook feed, pointing to a statement George Takei published several days ago about the hateful no-cake-for-queers laws popping up all over the U.S. of late, to assure that LGBT citizens of the U.S. remain in no doubt that they are not welcome or wanted in many parts of the nation — not wanted specifically by people who claim Jesus as their lord and savior. Takei states,

I myself am a Buddhist, not a Christian. But I cannot help but think that if Christ ran a public establishment, it would be open to all, and He would be the last to refuse service to anyone. It is, simply put, the most un-Christian of notions.

George Takei understands this "Christian" nation, the nation with the soul of a church, very well. He does so because, as a Japanese-American gay man, he is an outsider at a number of different levels, and he has had to see the world around him with the clear eyes of the unwelcome outsider, if only to protect himself from attack. 

Takei understands the heart of this "Christian" nation, its bible belt, very well because, as a boy, he was relocated along with his parents, all citizens of the U.S., to an internment camp in Arkansas. In the WWII Rohwer internment camp for Japanase Americans, Takei saw at close hand how things work in the very heart of the "Christian" nation with the soul of a church. As he points out yesterday in an essay entitled "Let Us Eat Cake," it's very clear to him that the no-cake-for-queer laws being pushed by "Christians" in many places in the U.S. right now are all about a very specific form of spitefulness: 

"Federal law may say your marriages are equal, but the good, pious people of this state think otherwise, and so we should not have to bend so much as a finger for you." Especially in small towns across the country, that message sometimes translates into one of open hostility: Go ahead and have your gay marriage; you may not find anyone here willing to help you with it. 
In many ways, then, modern day RFRA truly are "sore loser" laws designed to make as hollow as possible the fruits of marriage equality. That the state would sanction this type of law, which effectively gives shopkeepers and proprietors the right to turn-out-the-gays, feeds into a general unwelcoming atmosphere where LGBTs cannot feel accepted or at peace, precisely because they never know when or from whom the next indignity will come.

This very specific, very "Christian," form of spitefulness is something he saw on full display in the 20th century, he tells us, in the heart of our "Christian" nation, the bible belt: it's there, in the part of the nation that resisted the abolition of slavery and then racial integration, citing the bible all the while, that the spiteful "Christian" techniques now being employed to send messages to unwelcome outsiders that they are and will remain despised second-class citizens (in Jesus's name, of course) were perfected:

Perhaps it is my nearly eighty years of perspective, but I cannot help but think we have seen this before on a more serious and deadly level—down in the South, when African Americans fought for the right to vote. Many in state government there did not like the trend toward greater participation by minorities in elections, and so even though the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, they put measures in place to undercut that right; poll taxes, literacy tests, and the constant threat of violence kept black voters away on election day. Even after the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, its enforcement was weak. States did not like what the politicians and judges in Washington had decided, so they decided not to play along. Instead, they did what they could to make it painful for anyone to enjoy the fruits of a civil rights victory. The law may have said “equal,” but these states still wanted “separate.”

As you read Takei's commentary and think about how his insights arise from his experience of being placed in an internment camp in Arkansas as a boy, keep in mind the recent findings of the Pew Forum about who supports and who does not support "religious freedom" laws that seek to withhold cake from queers in Jesus's name: as Michael Lipka reports for Pew,

A strong majority of white evangelical Protestants (71%) support businesses’ right to refuse service on religious grounds, while majorities of black Protestants (59%), Catholics (57%) and people with no religious affiliation (61%) say that wedding-related businesses should be required to serve all customers. 
Republicans are about twice as likely as Democrats to say that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to same-sex couples (68% vs. 33%), with political independents in between the two parties (45%).

White evangelical Protestants, the Christian group dominating the heart of the nation, its bible belt, are strongly in favor of no-cake-for-queers laws. Black Protestants, who do not support same-sex marriage, also do not support discriminatory treatment of another minority group, and so they oppose denying cake to queers in Jesus's name.

Catholics, who have historically been subject to similar ill-treatment by the white conservative evangelical establishment with whom their bishops have now formed a strong alliance, stand alongside black Protestants in their distaste for discrimination against targeted minority groups.* Lay Catholics stand opposed to such discrimination, though the leaders of the Catholic church, including its bishops and its powerful "liberal" academic and media spokespersons who have significant control over the conversation defining Catholic identity in the public square, actively promote the no-cake-for-queers laws. Because "religious freedom." 

And this surely presents (or should present) American lay Catholics with a problem, since the leaders of our church have been phenomenally successful at branding us in the public square as a pro-discrimination, no-cake-for-queers church. Here are Monica Davey and Laurie Goodstein in the New York Times just this morning: 

Roman Catholic nuns and brothers in robes along with conservative activists and lawmakers, all surrounded Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana last week as he signed what was billed as a religious freedom law. Smiling and proud, some of them had cheered the bill as a way to protect religious business owners from having to provide cakes and flowers to same-sex weddings. 
But on Thursday, as the state’s top Republican legislative leaders here announced they were changing the law to specify that it will not authorize discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, a far different cast stood behind them, including a prominent gay businessman and corporate leaders from Eli Lilly, the Indiana Pacers and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

There's the face that the bishops and their powerful "liberal" supporters in the Catholic academy and media have succeeded in showing to the world with their anti-gay "religious freedom" campaign: "Roman Catholic nuns and brothers in robes [stand] along with conservative activists and lawmakers." More precisely: those nuns and brothers and robes were standing alongside well-known anti-gay hate-mongers in the ceremony in which Governor Pence signed the initial draft of his ill-fated "religious freedom" legislation into law.

And here's Valerie Tarico writing this morning at Alternet in an essay arguing that "brutal Christianity" is going to gin up yet more hate legislation like the laws recently "fixed" in Indiana and Arkansas:

Yes, these laws do condone bigotry, and misogyny, and other ugly prejudices. But the photo of those present at the signing of Indiana’s bill—its major proponents—is telling. It mixes white male politicians in suits with a proud array of Catholic nuns in habits, monks in cassocks and an orthodox Jew in a top hat. Like many of those advocating segregation during the Civil Rights Movement, the advocates of this bill are genuinely motivated by devout religious beliefs.

There's the brand the leaders of the U.S. Catholic church have succeeded in fixing in the public eye in recent years, and notably in the past several weeks, as the Indiana bishops pushed hard for legislation that was eventually exposed as discriminatory legislation targeting a minority group, and as the best and brightest of the American Catholic academic and media establishment, folks like Peter Steinfels at Commonweal, sought, as they have long done, to give the bishops cover as they mount their attacks on LGBT human beings. Because "religious freedom."

Bill Gafjken, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, asks,

Is religious freedom the unmitigated permission to impose our own moral codes on others and to keep them at a distance so our own moral purity won’t be compromised? Not according to the Christian scriptures, the very scriptures invoked by some supporters of the misguided and so-called religious freedom legislation.

The good news is that, while this legislation may be popular among a small group of people, the general trend shows that Americans are increasingly against this sort of discrimination. This means that, like slavery, interracial marriage, and women's equality before it, those who are using the bible as justification for their prejudice against the LGBT community will soon find themselves on the wrong side of history as well as the law.

Meanwhile, American Catholics have quite a leadership problem, both at the level of our bishops and our intellectual and media establishment, since neither group is willing to stand unambiguously on the side of non-discrimination, of ceasing the attacks on the LGBT community in Jesus's name. Which leaves many of us Catholics this Good Friday, I suspect, far more eager to hear from the lips of a gay Buddhist actor the telling of the clear, unambiguous, merciful, and inclusive gospel story from which our faith springs than from the lips of any of our pastoral or intellectual leaders.

*Note the Pew finding that, while 53% of white Catholics oppose no-cake-for-queers laws, 64% of Hispanic Catholics do so. The 57% of U.S. Catholics who oppose these laws is a composite figure, with white Catholics — that is, the demographic now voting Republican — least inclined among U.S. Catholics to oppose anti-gay discrimination.

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