Coming to Grips with the Beast – I
The culmination of a 50 year struggle
News from the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church indicates that the church has edged ever closer to coming to grips with the beast of homophobia. In lopsided votes, the Convention approved a trial use of a rite to bless same sex unions and also voted to lift barriers to transgendered persons seeking ordination. While the beast of homophobia is hardly dead, particularly not in most of the dioceses of Florida whose representatives not surprisingly led the resistance to these measures, it has sustained some major, perhaps mortal, wounds within the Episcopal Church.
It has been a long road for the church from its initial study of homosexuality and alcoholism by the House of Bishops in 1962 from which came the magnanimous pronouncement that homosexuality was a mere “standard weakness” and not a mortal sin. In 1976, the General Convention took a giant step in resolving to offer "pastoral care" to those in same sex relationships and to oppose discrimination against the legal rights of gays and lesbians.
But the church itself continued to discriminate when it came to ordination until 1997 when the Convention would agree to ordain openly gay and lesbian priests. It would take another vote at Convention in 2009 to remove the last barrier to ordination of gay bishops to the episcopacy. And the recent convention voted to open the ordination process to transgendered persons.
The approval of a trial use of a same sex blessing rite thus comes at the end of a 50 year bitter struggle within the Episcopal Church over the question of whether its gay and lesbian members would be treated as first class citizens. Throughout its seemingly endless debate during which gay and lesbian Episcopalians have served as the subjects under the microscope of study after study, justice delayed has surely been justice denied for many loyal Episcopalians. And no small number of them could not endure the long wait and departed the ranks of its members.
For the injustice within its own ranks and the harm it has inflicted on its own members, the church must ultimately apologize to its victims to regain any semblance of integrity. But for its willingness to engage and persevere through such an extended struggle and ultimately to choose to do the right thing in the face of centuries of attitudes and practice to the contrary, the church deserves no small amount of credit.
It came by the beast honestly
In all fairness, the church came by the beast of homophobia honestly. Misanthropy has long marked the Christian tradition from its very beginnings. Read the commentaries about women and slavery in the letters attributed (probably erroneously) to Paul. Read the Hebrew Scripture’s rationalization of genocide committed against human beings in places with names like Jericho and Ai supposedly at the command of a deity called YHWH. The Christian tradition is definitely no stranger to misanthropy.
Of course, it’s hardly surprising that tribal, sectarian thinking would mark a tradition which would purport to hold the exclusive path to heaven, that path extended only to those within the circled wagons of the tribe. A generous supply of the damned has always been necessary to those who would construct themselves as the elect if nothing else than for marking tribal boundaries.
Where Christianity has always erred is in the attribution of its socially constructed distinctions to the mind of G-d, a move by which eternal, existential ramifications come to apply to temporally and culturally conditioned distinctions. As Annie Lamott observes, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
The Original Sin of Christianity
Homophobia is but one of many heads of the hydra of Christianity’s Original Sin, its dysfunction regarding anything remotely related to the human body, particularly its sexual expressions. Rooted in part in Greek dualism, the subordination of the body to the spirit has, over time developed into a decided antipathy toward the body. From this body-negative starting place, it’s not difficult to see how the experience of the majority - heterosexual feelings and behaviors - came to be seen as normative for everyone resulting in a comparatively benign heterosexism. But it is out of this matrix that a more malignant and virulent homophobia would ultimately arise.
As a common social prejudice, homophobia has tainted the thinking of many, perhaps most, cultures historically including those which produced the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Thus it should not be surprising to see that prejudice reflected in the scriptures those cultures produced. To make the prejudice even more difficult to confront, homophobia has long been the common sense default in western thought, seen as “normal” in both the statistically prevalent sense as well as in the self-serving moralism which arises from majorities who come to see their understandings as normative – and thus imperative - for everyone else.
The uphill struggle within Christianity to finally come to grips with this beast has in large part turned on the willingness of Christians to call this particular form of misanthropy, the primordial sin of failing to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves, what it really is - homophobia. And this has proven the major stumbling block for many Christians, Episcopalians included.
No darkness at all….
The reality is that no one wants to see themselves in less than socially acceptable terms. This becomes particularly pointed when one adds the values of purity and perfection to the self-constructions of most Christians.
The Episcopal hymn “Child of the Light” illustrates this well: “I want to walk like a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…In him there is no darkness at all…” The goal of imitating one in whom “there is no darkness of all” is particularly trying for imperfect human beings. It almost inevitably means that the contents of one’s shadow must be repressed into the unconscious. From there the shadow is readily projected onto socially powerless targets who become the designated scapegoats.
Personas constructed on the terms of this faith tradition demand that the good Christian be seen as unconditionally loving, respecting of the image of G-d on every human face. But such demands are ultimately irreconcilable with the base, common social prejudices of the surrounding culture and therefore cannot be allowed to come to consciousness.
Thus it becomes very difficult to even recognize the operation of such prejudices in one’s worldview, much less to confront them and confess them as sins. Little wonder many good Christian voters in California gave survey takers the expected halo effect response of opposing the deeply homophobic Proposition 8 – no one wants to out themselves as homophobes - only to go into the inner sanctum of the voting booth to cast ballots arising from their darkest prejudices.
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.
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