Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

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I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Episcopal Pity

Call me naive. Really, I won’t mind. I’ll readily admit that I was raised in a conservative household that held a fundamentalist view of Christianity. But even though I grew and matured and eventually joined the Episcopal Church, I have always held consistency as one of the basic building blocks of any religious outlook. What’s fair for you ought to be fair for me. When I read that the Episcopal Church has been suspended, like the bad boy of the Anglican Communion, my mind went back to the consistency issue. The Anglican Communion, like many Christian bodies, is marked by strong membership from “conservative” constituencies. This was clearly felt while I was on the faculty of Nashotah House. As a conservative institution, we received many visits from diocesan leaders from more “traditional” cultures. They always expressed concern with America’s sinful, “liberal” culture. We should be more biblical, they opined. They didn’t, however, mind us paying the bill.

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The Episcopal Church is being kept after school because of its approval of homosexual marriage. This is a social justice issue that has the backing of many major Christian denominations. Cultures in the developing world, however, see it as sinful and claim marriage is one man, one woman. Well, most of the time. I’m no anthropologist, but I do pay attention to what people say. While at Nashotah House we had a student from Kenya. He was already a priest, but he was there to get some basic training. Naturally enough, his biblical understanding was quite literal. Once I asked him about his life back home. He had a wife, it turns out, and kids. They couldn’t be with him in Wisconsin, so I asked how they lived when he wasn’t there to support them. He told me his brother took her as wife while he was away. His brother was already married, but in his culture it was traditionally for brothers to act as husbands in the absence of the latter. He gave me to believe that “husband” was used in every conceivable sense of the word. He was, of course, against same-sex marriage.

Levirate marriage (a brother “taking over” a wife) is arguably biblical. The problem is that the Bible states the first brother must be dead for levirate marriage to take effect. My point is not to condemn the “traditional” marriage arrangements of the visiting priest’s culture, but to try to get some consistency here. There are a wide variety of “marriage” practices recognized in traditional cultures. They have two things in common: women are subservient to men and their needs, and males mate with females. Beyond that, variety, as the traditional saying goes, is the spice of life. There used to be another traditional saying about the inappropriateness of peering into other people’s bedrooms. So the naughty Episcopal Church has been sent to a corner with a dunce mitre on its head. Meanwhile the other boys, typical of those in middle school, sit around and talk about the girls they’d like to have. It’s tradition we uphold, after all.

Rainbow Disconnection

The scene can be quite dramatic. A zoom out from a dead or dying Christian martyr as the moving music swells. There’s a sense of poignant heaven in the air as a human being breathes his or her last, lapsing into the hands of an unseen, waiting father. That’s a kind of typical ending to the particular genre of a martyr movie. We’re left feeling sad but somewhat inspired that someone cared so much that they would give up their very life for their belief. I can see the scenes already building as Kim Davis goes to jail for contempt of court. Davis is the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Although her action violates federal law, she has her conscience for a pillow at night. All she has to do is spend a day in jail before she will become a martyr/cause célèbre for the religious right. I’m sure it’s already started.

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I don’t believe anyone should be made to go against their conscience. I also believe that if you’re an elected official being paid a tax-payer’s salary of $80,000 a year, that you should do your job. I’m sure the case isn’t so simple as all that, but as someone who’s never made anywhere near that much money, I could see myself easily stepping down if asked to do something that I just could not, in good faith, do. Most of us spend our lives compromising a bit here and there when our employment pushes us in directions we feel uncomfortable going. Nobody would consider us spineless for trying to hold onto tenuous jobs in an economy that seems to be endlessly faltering as the wealthy suck up more and more of the free cash. We do what we have to do. Go to confession at the end of the day and live to die another day. The evangelical, however, has a soft spot for martyrs.

Historians tell us that early Christians were probably not killed off as radically as the early records suggest. It seems the numbers might have been exaggerated to make a point. No doubt, many did die, and some in very gruesome ways, but they faced an unspeakable compromise—to deny the creator of the universe and burn in Hell forever. Issuing a license to a couple whose right to marry you question doesn’t seem to fall into the same category. Standing before the great golden throne your defense would easily be, “it was my job. I couldn’t quit because I needed all that money.” If there’s another viable source of income, the argument becomes spurious. I’m sure there are those in Rowan County who feel they’ve got a hero in their jail. The rest of us just get dressed and go to do the job we’re paid to do.

More Rainbows

There’s been a lot of rain this June. In between there have been some glimpses of sunshine. When the rain and sun combine, I always look for rainbows. Yesterday there were rainbows. You see, I didn’t realize until physics class that the sun has to be behind you to see a rainbow. It stands to reason, of course, because the light has to be refracted before it can break into its beautiful constituent colors. If any of the colors were missing, true light wouldn’t exist. Even with many of the religious grumbling, the United States took a fumbling step toward justice yesterday. Justice is something that always comes as a bit of a surprise these days. I’m not sure that we can always trust those that money puts into power. Nevertheless, gay marriage is so in the spirit of America that I wonder it has taken so long to become legal.

I’m heterosexual and I’ve been married for over a quarter century. I know the benefits of married life, so why should they be denied any couple that love each other? Raised on conservative Christian literature that taught me homosexuality was evil, it took some intensive education to unlearn what I’d been told. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality, and in each instance where it does there are extenuating circumstances that must be considered. The Bible, which hasn’t become authoritative for stoning adulterers (heterosexuals all) had somehow been the final word to oppress those whom nature has oriented to the same gender. I had been told “no animals are homosexual.” That is wrong. Documented cases time and again show that homosexuality is as natural as rain. Just ask the bonobos. For literalists that’s a problem because we’re not even, from their point of view, evolutionarily related.

So although it is a cloudy, rainy Saturday morning, I’m strangely optimistic. There may be rainbows today. Now if only we could spread the message wider, raise our voices louder, and maybe join in singing “Amazing Grace.” Maybe we could dare to dream that races and genders should be treated equally. Will our Supreme Court ever make true equality the law of the land? Yesterday brought us over a major hurdle. I don’t want to rain on this parade. Still, justice demands that more work be done. I rejoice with all loving humans that marriage is open to all. Charleston is still on my mind. And if some rain does fall today I can always keep what sun there is to my back and hope that there will be more rainbows.

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Frozen Few

It’s that time of year, neither winter nor spring, when ambivalence is in the air. Gray skies with just the first damp aromas of a change in the season, followed by another snow storm and icy winds custom-made in the arctic. So we turn to movies. Frozen is continuing to make headlines and break records. And although the critics voice strong opinions, ambivalence about a powerful message still rocks a society that can’t decide if a woman director having success is an anomaly or an idea far past its time. Stories about the animated feature crop up on the internet on a daily basis, five months after its theatrical release. Some claim it is the most Christian movie in years while others claim it has homosexual marriage at its core. The queen doesn’t need a man and the world’s most conservative, progressive society is in a muddle.

Perhaps I’m just showing my age, but I noticed what I thought was an older child in the sauna when Anna first meets Kristoff. The movie didn’t give me any clues as to his being a gay partner to the shopkeeper, although it’s none of my business if he is. Disney movies have had subtle clues to a kind of radical equality that I’ve noticed over the years, from Edgar’s license plate that reads RU-1 in The Aristocats to two masculine creatures sharing a pad in Monsters Inc. I even remember some people staring suspiciously at Ernie and Bert while the insanely ambiguous Teletubbies were faulted for carrying purses and dressing in primary colors. (Even Judas Iscariot kept a purse, according to the Bible.) A good, empowering story is suspect if we think something more is going on when the lights go out in cartoon-land. Our culture can seem to think of little else beyond mores and how to enforce them.

Globalization has repeatedly demonstrated that there are many different ways of being in the world. And yet, when worlds collide the more conservative culture inevitably makes claims on its more “progressive” neighbor. We see this happening as the church in Africa, now larger than the church in America, drives social policy through denominations that somehow feel guilt at promoting equality. Perhaps proselytization is, at the core, of our fear of difference. What if the other guy is right and we are wrong? Read that back into all our misguided ancestors and we feel chilled indeed. How far do we really trust objective truth? My guess is that ice ages have come and gone that have forged the truth of the moment. Only when the cold faces us do we really admit just how slippery truth might be.

The beauty of ice.

The beauty of ice.

Love, Factually

Whet has Jerusalem to do with Trenton? As marriage equality is debated in New Jersey—with a governor as compassionate and reasoning as Captain Ahab determined to stop it—three local religious leaders have the courage to lay their cards on the table. When Bishop Beckwith (Episcopal, Newark), Bishop Riley (ELCA, New Jersey), and Rabbi Gewirtz (Millburn) penned a piece entitled “Religion shouldn’t sway Trenton in this debate” in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, it almost restored my faith in religion being capable of some good. The three leaders, from different theological perspectives, agree that the Bible can’t be used for a one-to-one correspondence to modern society on this issue. They correctly point out that theologians disagree and that the remit of the government is not to uphold the view of any one of those traditions. When church leaders start making sense, I begin to tremble.

Politicians are never among the most astute of theological thinkers—and I would include those clergy elected to public office in that number. The rare public official who is qualified to think about such things intelligently frequently has trouble swaying his (almost always his) colleagues who have visions of pork barrels dancing in their heads. Marriage is about commitment, not sexuality. Studies have indicated many sexless marriages exist, yet we applaud them for their consistency. For those with a different orientation, we outlaw formal recognition and call them sinners. In the name of a government sworn not to uphold any one religion. It is time our legislators awake from their snoozes and realize that many mainstream religions have gotten over homophobia, and their religion is discriminated against by such petty power plays.

I applaud the efforts of religious leaders to point this out to a governor who has gone on record saying he’s not one “who changes positions with the grace of a ballerina” (propriety forbids me from finishing that thought). If that chunky ballerina, however, has ended his twirl facing the wrong direction, doesn’t the audience expect him to hike up his tutu and correct his error? I note that our Roman Catholic compatriots did not sign the letter. If ever a church showed the signs of centuries of sexual neuroses, would we trust it to make informed decisions on who might sleep with whom? Is that what marriage has been reduced to in the minds of the celibate clergy? It’s all about sex? Maybe if politicians and unenlightened theologians could pry their minds out of other people’s bedrooms and learn to treat them as complex, descent human beings we might actually see New Jersey leading the world in the right direction for once.

What's love got to do with it?

Defining Humanity

Positions of power replicate themselves. In a sense this is understandable as power is the most addictive substance on the planet. Once superiority is asserted, it will never allow itself to be uprooted. With the recognition of homosexual marriage in New York, many heated reactions sprouted from the position of power man-plus-woman (always in that order) camp. Such a response was predictable and anticipated. I suspect it is largely based on fear. I have many friends with differing sexual orientations than mine. Raised to castigate such individuals, that outlook became increasingly difficult to uphold once I got to know my gay friends as people. I count them among my most loyal friends. People are people.

The problem lies in labels. Humans are natural categorizers: bird, fish, or mammal? Predator or prey? Religious or secular? We want our world to stay true to categories we devise. People, however, are seldom easily classified. Still, we try: skin color, ethnic ancestry, religious heritage, sexual orientation. People are people. The world of trite classification is ending, and those in positions of power tremble. Anything that is different might upset the economic balance that keeps those on top in their positions. (My own amateur observation, however, is that the economic balance is naturally top-heavy and readily upsets itself. It seems to have been that way since before this blog began.) Would we not do better to try to understand those who are different than ourselves?

As an exercise in this direction, I recently read Alvin Orloff’s smart satire, I Married an Earthling. As my long-term readers know, I have a slight soft-spot for aliens, and this story of a gay man finding nothing but rejection on earth and eventually marrying an alien seemed quite fitting in the present climate. Not part of the gay subculture, many aspects of the story were foreign to me, but what was painfully clear throughout is that people are people. Some are accepting, others are not. When reality offers so few options that he must flee his own planet, Chester, one of the protagonists, takes to the stars. At a couple points before his exodus, he notes the role that religion played in his antagonists’ outlooks. The book is lighthearted and funny overall, but the serious issue remains. Those in power tend to horde privilege. When that happens, economies—material and spiritual—collapse.