Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Question for the Episcopal Church:
Can we face up to the truth of our misanthropy?

[N.B. - On the Episcopal Voices of Central Florida list (a list devoted to those resisting the seemingly pending fundamentalist led schism of the diocese from the national church), the unavoidable issues surrounding the place of gay and lesbians in the church have arisen. I've attempted to dialogue with the list on these issues with little success. Frankly, I sense that the chances of the Diocese of Central Florida joining the late 20th CE - much less the 21st CE - anytime soon are remote, even in a faithful remnant diocese that might result from schism of the more rabid conservatives here. This posting is the third in a series of modified versions of an exchange on the list with a very nice and I believe well intentioned Episcopalian here in Central Florida.]

RE: The perennial objection by those holding homophobic attitudes toward having them identified as such

We Need Everyone

First, let me make clear that it is not my desire that anyone leave the Episcopal Church. I believe we need each other, that diversity of experience and resulting understandings are healthy and that without them, we end up essentially engaging in the intellectual incest of the like-minded and like-situated. When perspectives outside those of the likeminded are unable to break through, the distorted results of the groupthink within the circle are not terribly different from those of the limited gene pools of familial and tribal incest.

My goal is not to exclude anyone. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite - to include everyone, fully include them as first class citizens. The only thing I see as worse than sectarian tendencies to circle the theological wagons to define insiders and demonize outsiders is the tendency within a self-proclaimed inclusive institution to create hierarchies of status built on highly arbitrary socially constructed bases. I want everyone to belong. I want everyone to count. And I want everyone to have equal access to the rights and privileges of our church, regardless of any innate or socially constructed status. And I see anything less than that as inconsistent with Jesus' vision of the kingdom of G-d.

Like a cancer deeply buried within

I also recognize that overcoming long held, generally unexamined prejudices is difficult. Straight people hardly need to tell LBGT persons about how difficult it is to come to grips with homophobia. Most of us have wrestled with its most virulent strain, internalized homophobia, most of our lives with the predictable results any socially imposed self-deprecation would generate. The lives of Jim McGreevey, former governor of New Jersey and Ted Haggard, the self-loathing evangelical pastor, are current examples of the self-destructiveness of internalized homophobia. Roy Cohn, the gay-baiting Red Scare conductor of witch hunts who later died in pain and self-loathing in the first wave of the HIV pandemic, is a good example of how destructive pathological internalized homophobia can prove to a society generally.

That is precisely why it is important to engage in the painful truth telling process of self-confrontation in getting at this social disease of homophobia. No one wants to see themselves in misanthropic terms. I cannot name one of my relatives or friends in 1960s segregated Central Florida who were willing to recognize that their understandings and values were racist. But they were. And it was only when we were forced to confront that reality, almost entirely after integration was a fait accompli, that it began to change. I dare say that we who grew up in an overtly racist culture will spend the rest of our lives confronting the subtle but indelible lines it has drawn upon our lives.

The Problem of Reductionism

That being said, I think you raise a good point when you object to the implicit reductionism in the common use of the term homophobia. At some level, we all have a tendency to reduce the complex reality of the other to the lowest common denominator when we call them on their misanthropic thinking. Thus it is not surprising that a person who holds largely unconscious racist understandings, for example, resists confronting those understandings because at a basic level they fear being reduced to that single malevolent aspect of themselves: "just a racist." Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, makes a powerful point when, speaking of capital felons, she says "[P]eople are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives."

That the products of a historically homophobic culture hold homophobic attitudes is not surprising. But that does not mean they can be reduced to a single trait caricature: "just a homophobe." And those who would do so are not terribly interested in either helping the other confront that misanthropic attitude or in social change; they are interested in self-righteousness at the expense of the dignity of the other. It is one thing to recognize an attitude and pattern of behaviors as the products of a socially constructed misanthropy and thus capable of change. It is quite another to dismiss the other as "just a homophobe," less than fully human and thus unworthy of one's time and energies.

Clearly, it requires the ability to think critically to distinguish the criticism of an attitude from the demonization for purposes of dismissal of the human being who holds that attitude. It is hard work. But it is the work to which the Way of Jesus calls those who would seek ever closer approximations to the Kingdom of G-d here and now, as Jesus taught us. And it is the work of those who recognize that an unjust institution is the explicit rejection of our highest ideals as both followers of Jesus as well as Americans.

That work begins with truth telling, painful as it almost always is. The fact it is painful does not excuse us from engaging it. But if we believe what we say in our Baptismal Covenant, we are not alone in this task, we simply have to be willing to do our part: "I will with God's help."


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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