By the Power Vested in Me by the State of New York . . .

“‘We always treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love. But we just as strongly affirm that marriage is the joining of one man and one woman,’ the state’s Catholic Conference said in a statement.”   (From the Yahoo News story entitled “New York Governor Signs Law Approving Gay Marriage, 06/25/2011)

Can respect, dignity, and love be conditional?  The Catholic Church seems to think so.  And lest my Catholic friends think I’m picking on them, so does the Baptist church, the Mormon church, the Nazarene church, the Church of Christ, et. al.

But freedom of religion protects the rights of churches to be bigoted, judgmental, and small-minded.  I defend their right to believe they are morally superior to me.  (Just because they believe it, doesn’t make it so.)  But, I feel it fair to warn them that their contradictions are showing.  When you speak out of both sides of your mouth, people will eventually see your duplicity.  If the churches aren’t careful, their reputations will start to equal that of politicians or those poor abused used car salesmen.

Churches used to say what they really believed (some still do).  They used to say that gays and lesbians were going to hell.  They used to say that gays and lesbians were not allowed to be church members.  They used to liberally throw around the word “abomination” in reference to their “homosexual brothers and sisters.”  But slowly the social sand shifted and that position became seen as judgmental and unloving, especially by the younger generation.  The churches began to realize they turned more people away than they attracted by being antigay hardliners.  So they did what any political organization would do: they changed their message.

Now, lest you misunderstand me, the message from the Catholic church at the top of the page is an immense improvement over the casting-into-a-lake-of-fire messages of yore.  But the problem with trying to balance in the middle is that the attempt to appeal to both ends of the spectrum is transparent.   As a general rule, this gets little attention.  Churches have been carefully crafting their stances for maximum impact for years.

I won’t get into the definition-of-marriage argument, the marriage-is-a-civil-institution argument, or the Solomon-had-300-wives-and-700-concubines argument.  Those have been done, and you can find them for yourselves.  The simple fact remains that if you claim to respect, dignify, and love another then you must not use your religious position to minimize that person’s equal standing in society.  As many times as the church has done that already, against Native American Indians, African-Americans, and anyone else they had an interest in keeping subordinate, you’d think we would recognize the pattern.

Oh, well.  Catholic church or no Catholic church, marriage equality exists in New York today.  Three cheers for the rule of law.

Integrity Can Be Exhausting

The textbook actually uses gay marriage as the sample issue for discussion in the \”Definition\” chapter.  So every time I teach English 1020, this topic comes up.  One of the decisions I have to make is when to tell my class that I\’m gay.  Some of them are astute enough to have already figured it out, but those students are surprisingly rare.  Some of them are unlucky enough to have already made a homophobic remark before I tell them.  Most of them take it with a certain amount of equanimity.  But all of them look at me.    Without fail.  I get every pair of eyes in the room drilling right into me as if they\’ve never seen me before.

Except for Sylvia.

Sylvia was one of those who opened her mouth before I got a chance to.  She made a few terse comments through tight, angry lips about \”those people\” and how they were going to hell, how marriage ought to be defined by the bible \”the way it\’s always been.\”

I was quite taken aback for a few minutes.  Not because of what Sylvia said, but because she was the one who had said it.  Until that moment, I would have pegged Sylvia as the other gay person in the room.  Of course, this phenomenon doesn\’t come as a surprise to most gay people.  If falls into the catagory of \”methinks the lady doth protest too much.\”  But that still doesn\’t make it any easier to watch someone engage in what seems on a deeply intuitive level to be self-loathing.

I thought she might soften her position, as students often do, once she found out I was gay.  But, she didn\’t.  Not one bit.  In fact, I think she became even more entrenched in it.   The second I said I was gay, however, she looked away from me.  And I never caught her eye again the entire evening.

I did my song and dance for the next 45 minutes.  I usually keep this discussion as far away from the bible as I can since marriage is and always has been a civil issue in this nation.   But, I admit, Sylvia sucked me in just a little.  I tried to address some of her biblically-based statements with some gentle correction.  I tried to point out that if we went back to a definition of marriage as found in the bible, then men would have several wives and hundreds of concubines.    Of course, that was probably a waste of breath.  I carry no delusion that I can persuade someone like Sylvia into doing a 180 on an issue like this.

I ended with the final argument I could make.  I told the class that I had no intention of changing their minds and certainly not their belief systems.  But, I did ask them to remember one thing — these were people we were talking about.   These were sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, and, yes, mothers and fathers.  This was not some amorphous \”them.\”  This was the human experience, every bit as much as theirs was.

I dismissed the class.  Sylvia walked out without a comment and still not looking at me.

Some classes are easy and some are . . . less so.  This one made me feel like I\’d been hit by a truck.   I will not pretend to be something I\’m not.  I haven\’t done that since my freshman year at a religious college.   But, I have to admit, there are times when it is tempting.

Every time I teach this class, I think that maybe there is one person who really needs to hear this.  Maybe something I say will give validity to someone who feels very alone or help someone heal a relationship or at least make someone think.   On nights like this, I come home feeling like there might be a chance I\’ve done some really important work.

And, I admit, I come home exhausted.

The Bully Pulpit

My dad knew Jim Jones.  Well, not really knew him; just sort of in a passing acquaintance kind of way.  After the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana 30 years ago where 900 of “Rev.” Jones followers committed mass suicide by drinking poison-laced Kool-Aid on his command, my dad told me the story.  They had both been young preachers in Indianapolis in the late 60s before Jones moved his congregation to California and then ultimately to South America.   Apparently there had been some sort of monthly interdenominational prayer breakfast thingy for ministers and it was there my dad met Jim Jones.  According to my memory of what my dad told me all those years ago, Rev. Jones was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved member of the ministerial community.

My dad was a dynamic, charismatic, revered and well-loved minister as well.  He left the ministry in 1978 under a bit of a scandal which is not the subject of today’s blog.   I once had the opportunity to talk with a woman who had been a member of my dad’s church a few years before.  She said, “When I found out about your dad, I almost left the church completely.”

Now, it makes me no nevermind whether people leave a church or stay in it.  I’m not especially fond of organized religion in general.  But, the bigger point to me was that someone’s faith, their very spiritual compass, would be so completely contained in one other person.  My dad didn’t become a paranoid, megalomaniacal, murdering lunatic like Jim Jones, but there were several people who pretty much considered him the assistant Messiah.   There is an inherent danger in living from a pulpit.  People start to believe anything you say as the direct word of God, . . . and then sometimes you start to believe it yourself.

With the recent passage of Proposition 8 in California which banned gay marriage, I’ve heard something a lot recently which I’ve heard at least a jillion times before.  “I’m against gay marriage because the bible says marriage is between a man and a woman.”  Like a hit song on the radio that you’ve hummed with a thousand times and then that thousand and first time you hear a lyric you’d never really heard before, it suddenly dawned on me just this week . . . no, it doesn’t.  The bible doesn’t say that.  The bible says a few things about marriage (including Paul’s admonition that it’s better not to marry at all and Jesus’ prophesy that one day there would be no marriage), but it never says that marriages are to be restricted to only those between a man and a woman.   It just simply doesn’t say that.

Jerry Falwell has said it.  Pat Robertson has said it.  James Dobson has said it.  Rick Warren has said it.  But I have yet to see any of their books included in the scriptural canon.   So, I’m skipping right past my old argument of “Who cares what the bible says; this is a civil issue” and pressing right on to my new one, “If you care what the bible says, then take the time to know what the bible says . . . and doesn’t say.”  And be sure to draw a clear line between what your Holy Scriptures say and what your preacher says they say.

Ministers have an immense amount of power.  The fact that 900 people would drink Kool-Aid they knew had poison in it is an extreme example.  But, people drink the Kool-Aid every day.  And they are poisoned by half-truths, misinformation, and downright lies.  Jesus didn’t have to stretch the “facts” to draw 5,000 listeners at the Sermon on the Mount.  He just spoke Truth and blessed everybody: the poor in spirit, the meek, and the merciful.

He also said these words that day: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

Or because they somehow think he wants them to.