Coming to Grips with the Beast – II
A familiar tune
For some of us, this phenomenon is a bit easier to see than for others simply because we’ve heard this tune before. As a Southerner, born the year before the Brown v. the Board decision and attending schools that were desegregated in the late 1960s, the argumentation pattern that we hear from the defenders of homophobia today is very, very familiar: it’s not normal, it’s not natural, it’s always been this way, the majority doesn’t want it, and, when desperate enough, the Bible and thus “God himself” (sic) prohibits it.
Of course, none of these arguments are particularly original. They were the source material for most of the arguments against ending slavery. Indeed, the primary place pro-slavery arguments were heard prior to the Civil War was in Protestant pulpits (and not just in Southern churches).
Mark Noll’s fine work, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press (2006), documents the arguments of pro-slavery forces which almost exclusively cited proof-texted scripture, inevitably out of context, as support for their reluctance to end the inhuman practice of human bondage. The gravamen of their resistance to abolition was that they had no choice but to oppose it because the Bible – and thus G-d – appeared to speak in favor of slavery.
Their abolitionist foes employed a much more nuanced approach to scripture and theology which appealed more to principle than to the letter of the text, arguments which pointed out the obvious contradiction between fundamental beliefs such as the Golden Rule and the practice of slavery. Who would really be willing to be treated as a slave?
In many ways this was a classic example of Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning talking past each other, the post-conventional appeal to justice and love of neighbor as oneself (Stage 5) largely escaping the literalist conventional reasoning (Stage 3-4) which pointed to the divine law of the received tradition as the beginning and ending of the discussion: G-d said it, I believe it, that settles it. Indeed, Southerners claimed that the principled approach urged by the abolitionists would actually “lead to the overthrow of the Bible…,” (Noll 94) which then as today serves as the foundation for most Southern Protestant religion - if not its primary idol.
The patterns of argumentation Noll details in his book will be very familiar to any child of the South who lived through the desegregation of public schools. The sense of déjà vu for many of us hearing these same arguments, today made in reference to ending discrimination against gays and lesbians, is overwhelming.
The arguments that one has no choice but to hold onto homophobic understandings because the Bible - and thus G-d himself - commands it ring as hollow in the case of same sex rights questions as they were in the cases of slavery and segregation. Unless we are presuming that G-d somehow shares our homophobia, the notion that G-d would command homophobic behaviors is simply indefensible.
Noll dryly notes that ultimately it would be the Union Army and not the superior Christian theology which would determine the outcome of the question of slavery. Similarly, in the slaying of the beast of homophobia, it appears that it will be the appeal to science and reason of the larger society which eventually ends the current controversy, not the dueling theologians.
Of course, misanthropy is itself a multi-headed hydra and it should not be surprising that the same arguments will be continually recycled to be arrayed against new perceived threats arising out of the prejudices du jour. But when such arguments continue to be made in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this suggests there is something beyond faith - or even reason - at work here.
The loss of the luxury of naîveté
I am currently reading moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics. Random House. NY. (2012). In it he argues that most moral decision making begins as moral intuition, much as philosopher David Hume posited 400 years ago. The rationalization process is post-hoc, Haidt says, and dedicated to making what may well be irrational appear to be reasonable.
According to Haidt, while the rare human being may engage in critical reflection sufficient to change their mind, the average human being does so only when they encounter the views of others. Of course, that human beings tend to be tribal, surrounding themselves with like-minded fellow travelers makes it difficult for the contrary word to works its way in edge-wise.
While I find some of Haidt’s conclusions lacking, I do think he is onto something here.
Where this explanation begins to come apart, however, is when the element of the electronic media is added to the equation.
It is true that the proliferation of media sources has provided the means to surround oneself with confirmation bias media (think “dittoheads”). All one has to do is visit their elderly parents (or their parents’ doctors’ waiting rooms) where the TV blares All Faux, All the Time. But even in such intellectual cesspools, it is simply impossible to totally escape the overwhelming weight of disconfirming evidence from science that unmasks homophobia for what it is – a socially constructed prejudice whose holders seek to rationalize it any way they can.
Indeed, it is precisely in the intentional avoidance of any forum where any disconfirming understandings might possibly be heard that the recognition of the problems these understandings pose is evidenced. One may have the nominal ability to say with a modicum of “truthiness” (thanks, Stephen Colbert), “I simply didn’t know” that one is attempting to rationalize a social prejudice which modern science and reasoned argument disconfirms. But at the moment one begins to avoid even hearing the disconfirming evidence, the luxury of naîveté – and thus good faith in such arguments - is simply no longer available to them.
Of course, the very act of rationalization evidences the fact that the understanding or behavior seeking justification has been realized at some level of consciousness as not consistent with reason. One never needs to rationalize thought or conduct which is already reasonable.
And this is precisely where homophobia comes into the picture. Leaving aside the aspects of psychological pathology, homophobia in very basic terms is simply an irrational response to the historically consistent but statistically subordinate presence of homosexual feelings, attractions and behaviors among human animals and throughout the animal kingdom. That is what the scientific evidence tells us. How we construct that evidence ultimately says more about us than that which we would construct.
A long history of human sacrifice
Homophobia poses an enormous challenge to the Christian tradition in much the same way its history of legitimating slavery, blessing the conquest of a New World that proved genocidal for Native Americans, burning women as witches and providing the raw materials for an anti-Semitism that would blossom into a Holocaust have challenged it. In every case where the tradition has required involuntary human sacrifices of designated scapegoats, these attitudes and behaviors have run solidly against the prime directive of Christianity: Love your neighbor as yourself. Period. No exceptions. Indeed, it is the impossibility of reconciling that prime directive with this bloody history that has caused many historically to wonder aloud if Christianity is not itself intrinsically pathogenic when it comes to the human race.
In all fairness, I find such judgments simplistic at best. Because while Christian attitudes and behaviors have, indeed, proven pathogenic at various points in human history, the tradition has also provided the raw materials for brave men and women to confront their own faith traditions with their failures and the harm they have caused. A staple within Christian theology is its call for all its members to reflection, confession, repentance and a resulting action to right those wrongs. And names like Bartolome de las Casas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa and Oscar Romero remind us that it can be done.
Little wonder, then, it has proven so difficult for the Episcopal Church and its fellow Christian traditions to come to grips with the beast of homophobia. It requires not only the revisiting of the default understandings of Christians from the first century to the present, understandings that were considered to be settled if not self-evident. It also requires the willingness to admit that these understandings have been harmful to others, that they have failed to evidence the love of neighbor as oneself, and thus, that they are…gulp, sinful.
As a Southerner who came of age during desegregation, I know how difficult that can be. It means recognizing the truth of what appears on its face to be totally counterintuitive, a violation of the common sense “everybody knows.” It means an implicit betrayal of the significant others who taught you those understandings which have been revealed to be sinful and an explicit rejection of the values those understandings reflect. It means realizing that your own attitudes and behaviors have been harmful to others and that the legacy of understandings you have held since childhood will entail a lifetime of trying to bring their lingering impact on your thinking to consciousness.
This is not a path for the spiritually lazy. But I am absolutely convinced it is the part and parcel of the Way of Jesus.
Finding one’s voice to name the evil
Clearly some find the way to follow that path, even among the representatives of the institutional church itself. Here’s an example:
On Trinity Sunday, a preacher in the Diocese of Southeast Florida gave a sermon in which the evil of Sinistralism was assailed from the pulpit. The preacher went on to elaborate on the history of this modern threat to church doctrine which would dare to permit left handed people to use their left hand – the hand designated for toilet functions in Jesus’ day - just as right handed persons - without penalty! The preacher noted that the very word for left in Greek, the language of the Christian scriptures, is sinister. He noted that rumor has it that up to 10% of all human beings are secretly afflicted with this disease and that even five of the last six US Presidents may have been closet southpaws.
Of course, by the middle of the sermon, the subtext had become clear. And if it weren’t, the preacher blew away all subterfuge with the following: “For me, one of the dangers that we face as a church is when selected Bible verses are used out of context to demonize others. The real abomination lies in using the Bible to justify homophobia much in the same way that some still use selected passages from the Bible to justify slavery, racial discrimination, xenophobia and misogynist ideas.”
The preacher? The Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, Bishop of the Diocese of Southeast Florida. Having known the good bishop for several decades now, I know this is not where he began on this issue. But I also know this is a man who has been willing to engage others, to listen to views that drew his initial moral intuitions and subsequent rationalizations into question. He has been willing to do the hard work that growth and development always entail. And his courage provides a fine example for his fellow Christians who still wrestle with the beast of homophobia.
What is remarkable about this sermon is that a bishop has been willing to name the evil of homophobia and call it what it is – sin. And I believe it is no accident that it is only in the wake of courageous and forthright sermons like this one that the changes at General Convention could ever have been realized. It is only when one has the courage to name any evil, to call it a sin, to recognize its harmfulness and thus the need to repent of the attitudes and understandings which gave rise to it that any of us can change our ways of being human.
It can be done. But until that happens, the beast continues to dominate us.
It is precisely because of brave men like Leo Frade that the Episcopal Church has begun to find its way back to being the church its highest self has always called it to be. And while I do not anticipate that this repentance and change of life will soon uniformly mark the attitudes and behaviours of Episcopalians everywhere, this day we are one small step closer to that reality than before. For that, I offer my most heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving.
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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