Friday, July 22, 2016

Contextual Homophobia: What Comes Out of the Heart

In the days following the Orlando massacre in which 49 persons were slaughtered at the Pulse Nightclub before the shooter was himself finally killed, a number of statements were issued by representatives of faith traditions around the world. Many of us in Orlando could feel the powerful support of the prayers offered on our behalf as we sought to come to grips with the unimaginable, a slaughter in a public venue using weapons of war which indiscriminately took the lives of young and old, gay and straight and persons of all colors alike. 

The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida quickly issued a statement which began with a recognition that “Words of condolence have little value in the face of this carnage.” This was a particularly insightful statement that, to his credit, recognized both the enormity of the tragedy at hand as well as the limitations that any words of condolence could offer in the face of that tragedy.

Words are often inadequate when it comes to dealing with occurrences which transcend day-to-day realities, particularly one as horrific as the massacre at Pulse. What people come to recognize immediately in such cases is that symbolic actions become essential, playing roles that are larger than life. Flickering candles, flowers, silent vigils, mournful processions, spontaneous displays of art all play a role in processing a grief that is too deep for words to convey and beginning down the long road to healing. 

When words are spoken in such contexts, they are routinely judged by the actions which occur in the wake of their utterance. Not only do “words of condolence have little value in the face of…carnage,” words generally prove to be pretty cheap when they do not match the actions which ensue.

Words spoken in contexts such as the Orlando Massacre are always subject to high levels of scrutiny and can create liabilities for their speakers should the tenor of their actions fail to match the words they have spoken. To be seen as authentic, all statements must evidence awareness of the context which gave rise to the events that are mourned.

“Homophobic Rage” – Confronting Inner Demons

Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.Matthew 15:17-19

In the days that followed the shooting, most immediate knee jerk assessments of the Orlando shooter constructed him as simply another agent of ISIS terrorism. These assessments, aimed as much at relieving us of looking at this event in all its complexity – much less our own complicity - as solving a crime, have largely come apart. The FBI found Omar Mateen’s connections to ISIS prior to the shooting were largely the stuff of random internet searches. No real contact between ISIS and Mateen was ever established.

What did emerge, however, was the picture of a mentally unstable man with a life history of abuse in a highly pressurized family. Omar was often shamed by his very demanding father using homophobic epithets. No doubt his father intuitively sensed what Omar’s first wife readily reported: Omar was gay. And a number of reports of Mateen’s online search for gay sex and his regular presence at the club he eventually destroyed suggest that Omar Mateen was a rather classic case of internalized homophobia.

His quest to destroy that outside of him which he could not root out within his own being took a deadly form at the Pulse nightclub the night of June 12, 2016. Omar is reported to have been rejected by several Latin men which helped hone his homicidal calculations to be carried out on Latin Night at the club.

From the outside, it’s easy to dismiss this event as a “homophobic rage,” the description used by the bishop in his press release to the Episcopal News Service: “There will be time later raise questions about security, gun violence, and homophobic rage. There is no justification for this atrocity. I categorically condemn what has happened.”

Clearly the events of that night did take the form of a “homophobic rage.” But for Omar Mateen that rage arose in the context of a hellacious life in which the homophobia endured during this young man’s development was ultimately internalized, becoming a silent but deadly cancer of the soul.

Mateen’s actions are highly consistent with a wealth of psychological studies which have found that externalized homophobia often arises from a profound fear on the part of the individual of their own homosexual tendencies. For many homophobic men, it’s easier to confront the homosexuality experienced outside oneself than to deal with the homosexuality within that can never be expressed. The more virulent the homophobia, the greater the internal fear.

Of course, this is hardly difficult for most LBGTQ people to grasp. Many of us, particularly those of us who are in our second half of life, know only too well the soul-draining suffocation of the closet and the exteriorized desire to rid ourselves of those aspects of our very being which made us different and, in a deeply homophobic culture such as our own, unacceptable. Indeed, we know first-hand a bit of what Omar’s rage felt like. In many ways, such rage is little more than the logical extreme to which any internalized homophobia can easily go.

In the wake of the atrocity at the Pulse nightclub, it is hard to imagine what Omar Mateen must have been like as a newborn. My guess is that he was a beautiful baby, full of curiosity and energy, just beginning a far too brief life that would bring him to such an unpredictable blood-drenched ending.

Baby Omar did not come pre-programmed with the homophobia that would ultimately consume him. He learned that from his life context both within his own dysfunctional family and within the broader societal context into which he was born. He grew up in a United States that has long been a deeply homophobic culture, particularly in its more religious sectors. 

In the end, Omar proved an apt pupil.

“Homophobic Rage” – Arising from a Context

I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context. Gordon B. Hinckley

I do not like your Bible verse, It makes no sense, it is too terse, It is devoid of all context, What will your Holy Book say next? I do not like your Bible verse, it seems to go from bad to worse.Niall McAuley

The chief progenitor, promoter and preserver of the common social prejudice of homophobia in the West has historically been the Christian religious tradition. It arose in a first century middle eastern culture in which heteronormative understandings were seen as self-evident and thus provided the worldview which would shape its scripture.

While many critics of Christianity point to the scriptures and the resulting theology as themselves the source of homophobia, it was in fact the latent homophobia as a cultural value held by the writers of scripture which would ultimately express itself in those writings. In this case, the chicken (culture) clearly precedes the egg (scripture).

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the scriptures could have been written without reflecting the prejudices of its writers any more than any of us writing in our own time could escape our own culture. Historically Christians have been forced to come to begrudging recognitions that the slavery, racism, sexism and a blind anthropocentrism that today threatens G-d’s good creation itself can all be validated through a superficial reading of scripture. Such readings require their readers to uncritically adopt the values of a culture which is not our own.

When those of us who would seriously appropriate scripture are being honest with ourselves, we know that whatever spiritual truths can be found in scripture must be ferreted out through diligent study, critical reason and compassionate application. Intellectual honesty with ourselves and others requires that scripture of any tradition must always be read in context to actually be understood. Of course, this presumes that understanding is our ultimate goal in such reading.

Many Christians rightfully object to being summed up as mere homophobes. As Sister Helen Prejean has so thoughtfully pointed out in her work with the people held in our nation’s human slaughterhouses, none of us can ever be adequately summed up by the worst thing we ever did. Even so, our common social prejudices have consequences in our own lives, the lives of others and our common life together.

There is no shortage of scholarship from rigorous academic work to easily accessible theological writings on how and why this misanthropic cultural value arose, how it is at odds with the spiritual truths of our tradition and how it negatively impacts human beings. It is when such work goes largely unread and unconsidered that we begin to talk about the irrationality that drives the holders of this common prejudice to so tenaciously cling to it. Indeed, it is precisely at that moment that we move from a garden variety heterosexism presuming the dominant experience of the majority to be normative for everyone to a more pathological expression called homophobia.

Religiously driven homophobia finds many creative ways to reveal itself. The same bishop who so candidly recognizes the minimal value of words of condolence in the face of carnage withdraws into a cocoon of brittle legalism when it comes to examination of the subtle homophobia marking much evangelical thought including his own. When asked to reconsider his ban on same sex marriages in parishes wishing to conduct the same within his diocese, the bishop responds “[I]f I felt that the Scriptures gave me permission to take such a stance, I would happily do so.”

Such words echo the even less thoughtful arguments of fundamentalist preacher Ted Swanson at the National Religious Life Conference which several Republican presidential candidates attended seeking support for their candidacies. Dancing across the conference stage, Swanson shouted, “Romans Chapter 1 verse 32 the Apostle Paul does say that homosexuals are worthy of death. His words not mine! And I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! And I am not ashamed of the truth of the word of God. And I am willing to go to jail…”

In both cases there is an uncritical appropriation of content as well as a rather naive anthropomorphizing of the scriptures. Whatever else the Christian Bible might be, it is not a parental figure who must give human children permission to think. The Bible is a human artifact, crafted by human wordsmiths and reflecting the often unrecognized worldview and values of the culture which produced them. Bibles don’t speak, teach or permit. Those are human activities. And neither St. Paul – much less G-d - are somehow trapped within their pages.

To consistently defer to a selectively superficial reading of scripture outside of any critical context when one is aware of its existence is childish. But to do so with an awareness of its deleterious impact on one’s fellow children of G_d suggests more is going on than a mere naïveté. Such behaviors are neither intellectually honest nor worthy of respect. Indeed, it is simply impossible to reconcile them with the Prime Directive of the Christian tradition: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Homophobic Rage” – Deadly Subtlety

“It is impossible for a Christian to pray for the salvation of a man's soul and, at the same moment, seek to kill him. This seems obvious. But that which seems so evident in any other context somehow becomes obscured in times of war.” Jeffrey Bryant (American b.1965)

Homophobia does not have to be expressed as rage for it to be deadly. Indeed, it is precisely the subtle expressions of homophobia that set the context for deadly actions which eventually do arise out of rage. Arguments that one has no choice but to hold to homophobic understandings and policies attempt to provide the deniability that all holders of social prejudices wishing to be seen in a positive social light so desperately seek. They also seek to provide a means of avoiding confrontation over those same prejudices, confrontations at which they likely know that their position cannot prevail.

What they cannot provide their makers is honesty with themselves and with others. The reality is that policies which actively discriminate against LBGTQ people not only send a message to those affected by these policies but to the larger culture as well that such discrimination is somehow socially acceptable. It should hardly be surprising when actual expressions of homophobic rage erupt out of such contexts.

Einstein’s observation about war is helpful for understanding the events of Orlando this deadly summer. In the current context, it would seem obvious that it is impossible to continue to hold homophobic understandings and practice homophobic policies and simultaneously prevent harm to those who bear the very image of G-d and discern themselves to be LBGTQ.  Symbolic actions are larger than life. When you plunge down the slippery slope of refusing to recognize the full humanity of another, anything is possible. Indeed, atrocity will always be a possibility.

We are now some six weeks out from the events of the Pulse nightclub. If it is true that “[t]here will be time to later raise questions about security, gun violence, and homophobic rage,” that time has now come. Whether honest discourse will occur remains to be seen. But until we are able to talk about the elephant in the room with us of contextual homophobia, that talk will remain pretty cheap. In the words of the priest leaving the vigil for one of the Pulse  victims at an Episcopal Cathedral which only a year ago initially denied baptism to the child of a married gay couple , “Actions always speak louder than words.”

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


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