Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rowan Williams on Uganda

Tepid, timorous, cynical

In the news today there are reports that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has reiterated his statement of 2009 regarding the pending legislation in Uganda which would make being gay a capital crime and failing to turn in gay people a felony. Williams, in his usual tepid, timorous manner, says the following:

"Overall, the proposed legislation is of shocking severity and I can't see how it could be supported by any Anglican who is committed to what the Communion has said in recent decades. Apart from invoking the death penalty, it makes pastoral care impossible - it seeks to turn pastors into informers."

That such a bold statement could come from the leader of a worldwide tradition whose fundamental understanding about religion is that salvation comes through the exercise of good manners is astounding. What is striking in this statement, however, is what it does not say.

The Problem is not severity

The first problem is that Mr. Williams appears to confuse degree of harm with harm itself. The problem with the Ugandan legislation is not its severity. Clearly, as someone who has represented juveniles facing Florida’s electric chair and who opposes state killing in any of its forms, I agree that the criminalization of being homosexual as a capital crime is severe. But even a misdemeanor or fine for simply being homosexual would be too severe.

The problem is not the severity of the penalty, it’s the very substance of the legislation. Criminalizing an ascriptive factor such as sexual orientation is not only logically indefensible, as the absurdity of criminalizing being heterosexual readily reveals, it is barbaric. Ask anyone who grew up Jewish in Hitler’s Third Reich or black in the Jim Crow South.

What Mr. Williams fails to say here is also telling. This bill is not simply logically and legally problematic. It is morally and theologically bankrupt. What Mr. Williams refuses to confess here is obvious to anyone outside his communion and many within it: misanthropic laws based in social prejudices are sinful. Homophobia, which clearly animates this legislation, is the failure if not the refusal to honor the image of G-d in the other, to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Mr. Williams and all of us who follow a religious tradition based in the way of Jesus – a consummate truth teller and fearless confronter of pathological social norms - need to be honest enough with ourselves to call this legislation what it is: sin incarnate. Of course, that does require the willingness to violate the prime directive of Anglicanism – salvation through good manners (as defined by the white upper middle class). It also means being willing to speak the truth plainly, something Mr. Williams has found increasingly difficult since, according to the tired joke within Anglicansim about bishops, his spine was apparently removed during his consecration to the archbishopric.

Entirely Consistent with Anglicanism

Perhaps more troubling is his assertion that any Anglican “committed to what the Communion has said in recent decades” would be unable to support this bill. Given Uganda’s strong Anglican history, that is a shorthand plea to Anglican legislators to vote against the bill. At some level, that is admirable. But it is also problematic in its own right.

Truth is, this bill which would allow Ugandans to kill queers legally is merely the logical extension of the attitudes and policies enacted by the Anglican Communion over the past two decades. The 1998 Lambeth Conference resolved that any kind of gay sexual activity was “incompatible with scripture” and voted to ban gay ordinations and marriages. The conference was marked by bishops making statements from the conference floor comparing homosexual unions to bestiality, by physical assaults on bishops in an attempt to “exorcise them of their demons” and even the call by one bishop to kill another bishop who had the temerity to support gay rights, suggesting that he ought to be blown up by a landmine. This from folks who become morally indignant over being seen as savages.

Since 1998, the Communion has been marked by repeated threats by bishops, primarily from the southern hemisphere in which the majority of Anglicans now live, to shatter the Communion over the issue of gays and lesbians. Homophobia has become the ultimate litmus test of orthodoxy for many within Anglicanism.

Thus, it’s not too difficult to see how the Ugandan kill the queers bill is merely the extreme case extension of that logic. These bishops and their counterparts in the Ugandan parliament operate under the presumption that G-d shares their prejudices. And if G-d doesn’t care for the lives and souls of these less than human beings, what obligations should human institutions - religious or political - have to them?

Deadly Precedents

There are precedents for this. When German theologian Martin Luther began his ultimately successful protest against Roman Catholicism in the 16th CE, he believed that once Catholicism had become purified of its corruptions accreted over a millennium and a half of Roman domination, the world would see the light of Christianity and embrace it. That included the Jews, of whom he initially spoke warmly as brothers within a shared tradition.

However, when the Jews proved to be disinterested in becoming Christians some 20 years into the Reformation, Luther’s tone and his words changed. In one of the more violent polemics ever emerging from a Christianity with a very bloody history, Luther said this of the disaffirming other in his midst:

“The sun has never shone on a more bloodthirsty and vengeful people than they are who imagine that they are God's people…They are a base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth….full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine…

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy….

"First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians…Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies…Fifth, I advise that safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like." (Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543)

Given the authority afforded Luther in Protestant circles generally and Germany in particular, it should not be terribly surprising that 400 years later the German descendants of Luther dressed themselves in brown shirts and spilled out of Germany’s beer parlors into the streets of Berlin on November 9, 1939, and did precisely what Luther had told them to do. Destroying synagogues, homes and businesses alike, the true believers in Aryan superiority were protected in their murderous rampage by anti-Semitic attitudes which would soon become laws passed by the Third Reich, laws which would ultimately oversee the deportation and systematic annihilation of Jews all over Europe.

Contrary to the nursery rhyme, words can hurt people. Indeed, they ultimately have the power to kill.

The themes that one hears in Luther’s words ought to sound eerily familiar in light of this discussion. At Lambeth, gays and lesbians were compared to participants in bestiality, thus less than fully human. They were constructed as demonic beings requiring exorcism. The conference asserted that homosexuals are rejected by G-d and refused to treat gay and lesbian coreligionists with dignity and respect, much less as first class citizens. Since that time, its members have sought ways to enforce those understandings through legal strictures and threatened schism should they not be successful. And at least one of its members has publicly urged the murder of those who would even question such attitudes.

What the Ugandan parliament is poised to do is ultimately little more than actualizing the homophobia repeatedly expressed by the Anglican Communion. Contrary to what Mr. Williams asserts, not only can the kill the queers bill be supported by Anglicans, if they are taking seriously what the Communion has said and done over the past two decades, they probably have no other choice.

Who Saves Us from the Pastors?

That’s why Mr. William’s comments on the law’s making pastoral care “impossible” ring so incredibly cynical. Pastoral care meets very human needs for nurturing, for marking the rites of passage in life. Pastoral care deals with the most intimate aspects of human existence, much of it centered around intimate relationships.

Mr. William’s failure to speak the truth about homophobia not only makes pastoral care impossible, it contributes to the very conditions by which pastoral care becomes needed. It fails to treat gay and lesbian Anglicans as fully human much less nurture them. It fails to honor the very human need for relationship. And it fails to speak the truth when the demand for truthfulness is urgent.

Homophobia injures everyone. It injures its targets, telling them they are less than fully human, unloved by G-d, unwanted by their fellow citizens. It also injures its agents, requiring them to buy into lies about human existence, to treat other humans in ways they would never consent to being treated themselves and then to compound that misanthropy with yet another lie that would seek to legitimate it with divine approbation.

So who provides pastoral care to those whose injuries are inflicted by the pastors?

I long ago lost any respect for Rowan Williams. His pusillanimity in dealing with the conservatives of his communion rivals the appeasement of Hitler by Lord Chamberlain in the run-up to WWII. In the end, I suspect it will have much the same result - destruction of the very things the appeasement sought to protect. His obsession with holding the Anglican Communion together even as it has steadily lost any kind of integrity - and thus credibility with the world outside its parish doors - is saddening and will ultimately come back to haunt all of us who call ourselves Anglicans.

What makes that even sadder is that many of us had such fond hopes for him when he was appointed. Unlike his predecessor, George Cary (often called “Margaret Thatcher’s Revenge”), Williams is intelligent and in his earlier days as Oxbridge don showed signs of thoughtfulness. At a very basic level, it is not unfair to say of Rowan Williams that he knows better than the line of cynical pabulum that he purveys these days.

My guess is that William’s reiteration of his earlier statement will make little difference in Uganda. That decision will likely be driven by the homage paid to a very different kind of god, the god of American evangelical money funneled through the Family at C Street. There is a reason “In God We Trust” appears on American currency. In a global corporate world whose true religion is free market fundamentalism, money is, in fact, the god we actually trust.

But evangelical money comes with strings attached. In this case, those strings are a committment to a well-oiled and well-funded anti-homosexual agenda being pursued around the world. And that is why before the night is over, Uganda will probably sell its soul and descend into the depravity of the middle ages.

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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