Sunday, November 30, 2008

At Week's End

As this week ends, I need to acknowledge and give thanks to two bloggers who have recently linked to this Bigrimage blog.

One of these is Mattheus Mei of Leonardo's Notebook blog. I've added a link to Leonardo's Notebook to Bilgrimage. This is a blog new to me, but one that I have been visiting with a great deal of interest--crisp writing, a nicely eccentric slant on news that other bloggers overlook: in short, my kind of blog.

I also want to express profound gratitude to Sapphocrat at Lavender Newswire for recommending Bilgrimage as bookmarkable in a recent posting. This is another blog I intend to add to my list of recommended blogs. Just hope I can live up to the recommendations . . . .

I also can't let the week end without recommending a posting of my friend Colleen Baker at her Enlightened Catholicism blog earlier this week. Colleen imagines a Catholic church in which John Paul I had been permitted to remain pope longer than the brief time he had in that office: http://enlightenedcatholicism-colkoch.blogspot.com/2008/11/oh-what-might-have-been-had-john-paul-i.html.

I learned quite a bit from this posting, particularly about John Paul I's inclusive, affirming view regarding gay human beings. The aborted papacy of John Paul I was a tragedy for gay people around the world. Colleen is right to ask what might have been had he, and not John Paul II and Ratzinger, dominated the institutional life of Catholicism in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the Republican Captivity of American Catholicism

Interesting to see the emergence of a post-election discourse by right-leaning U.S. Catholics, which refuses to engage the culpability of Catholics who have sold the soul of American Catholicism to the Republican party. This shielding, dodging discourse also continues to refuse to engage the damage these Catholics and many of the U.S. bishops have done to Catholics who refused to participate in the Republican-Catholic political alliance of recent decades.

I have already discussed one facet of the new shielding, dodging discourse emerging from right-leaning Catholics who have been unable to imagine a political world in which Republicans did dominate and did not have Catholic support. I noted some weeks back John Allen’s wistful musings about the “homelessness” of “serious” Catholics in America today (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/10/bishops-throw-party-no-one-comes.html, http://ncrcafe.org/node/2220).

As that posting notes, while I welcome John Allen’s insight that the growing political divide among American Catholics represents a serious threat to the communion of the American Catholic church, many of us who did not endorse the Republican domination of American Catholicism have experienced the problems of broken communion and homelessness for some time now. We have virtually been read out of our church by many of our bishops and many of our co-religionists.

By bishops and co-religionists who take for granted that their view of the church and its relation to American political realities is the only possible view, “the” Catholic view . . . . For those of us who have questioned the capitulation of the American Catholic church to the Republican party and its ideology, the signal given us by many of our bishops and co-religionists has been quite clear: we do not belong. We are not adequately Catholic, not “serious” Catholics, to use Mr. Allen’s phrase.

Why is the problem of the homelessness of many American Catholics becoming evident to these right-leaning brothers and sisters only now—only now that the Republican dominance of American politics (and of the American Catholic church) has been broken? Where has the concern for broken communion been in these years in which many American Catholics with different political (and ecclesiological, and moral) views have been virtually expelled from communion by those who claim unilateral ownership of the label “Catholic”?

What kind of pastoral concern have bishops and fellow Catholics shown for those Catholics who have been implicitly and explicitly tagged as less than Catholic during the reign of Republican politics in American Catholicism, because their political and/or religious views differ from the “orthodoxy” being enforced by right-leaning Catholics? How is it possible for bona fide pastoral leaders to ignore the needs of millions of American Catholics who have refused to toe the party line and have been made homeless for decades now—both politically and ecclesially homeless?

I applaud John Allen’s recognition that broken communion may be a serious challenge in American Catholicism after the Obama election. I wonder why that recognition has been so long in coming, however—and what Mr. Allen and others who have not seen the deep damage inflicted on American Catholicism by its Republican captivity propose to do about all of us who have long been read out of communion.

On that theme of the Republican captivity of the American Catholic church, this past week’s issue of National Catholic Reporter carries a powerful reflection by Nicholas Cafardi (http://ncronline3.org/drupal/?q=node/2703). Cafardi is one of the big-name Catholics who broke ties with the Republican party in the last election. He’s a lawyer, both civil and canon, and teaches at Duquesne University’s School of Law.

Cafardi compares the captivity the American Catholic church endured during the decades of Republican dominance in the second half of the 20th century with other periods of captivity of the people of God, in which “civil authorities captured God’s people and used them for their own advantage.” These include the Babylonian Captivity, the Constantinian Captivity, the Carolingian Captivity, the Holy Roman Empire Captivity, and the Avignon Captivity.

As he notes, the recent meeting of the U.S. bishops underscores the damage the Republican captivity has done to American Catholicism. Cafardi proposes that the extreme statements some vocal bishops made at the Baltimore meeting against the administration made them “sound like Republican ward heelers.” He asks, “How did this happen? Why are these bishops acting like functionaries of the Republican Party?”

These are important questions to ask. They are necessary ones to ask for any of us who hope to see a viable future for American Catholicism in this period of national political realignment. They are unavoidable questions for those trying to assess the damage that many bishops’ one-issue politics and captivity to the Republican party have done to the American Catholic church. As Cafardi observes,

Every time in the past that the People of God have been held captive by civil power, it has benefitted civil power and hurt God’s people. This time is no different. It is time to end the Republican captivity of our church so that, no longer enthralled to one political party, our bishops can recapture their entire prophetic voice.

Unfortunately, those who continue to hanker nostalgically for alliance with the Republican party, these are unpalatable questions, ones not to be asked. To entertain these questions would be to admit that the mindless alliance with one party has done serious damage to American Catholicism. It would be to admit that the theological basis for any alliance of the church with a single party is shaky at best, and dangerously vapid at worst.

Pilgrim people seeking the reign of God as they move through history never idolize a single political option or bless a single political structure. To do so is to settle down in history as if the reign of God has already arrived. It is to sell the church and the vision of the reign of God that drives the church short.

Rather than asking the probing questions Nicholas Cafardi asks, some American Catholics now wish to ask in the post-election period whether anti-Catholicism is on the rise in America today. This is a question Mark Stricherz poses recently on the blog of the Jesuit journal America (http://americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&id=C6837242-1321-AEAA-D3A2FD5B116DC8E0).

Stricherz is a D.C.-based reporter and author of Why the Democrats Are Blue. He is a vocal critic of the left-leaning Catholicism of some post-Vatican II Catholics. A California native, he supported proposition 8 (banning gay marriage in California) (see e.g., http://americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&id=D6077204-1321-AEAA-D3D2F61351A49236) and blogs frequently at the America site about the need for Catholics to make overturning Roe v. Wade a priority

Stricherz is clearly unhappy about the turn of the American Catholic church from Republican dominance. His Why the Democrats Are Blue envisages the Democratic party as controlled by “secular liberals” who are antithetical to Catholicism (http://whydemocratsblue.com). The book, unfortunately, apparently did not foresee that in the 2008 election, a majority of American Catholics would break the alliance of the U.S. Catholic church with the Republican party.

In the wake of this significant 2008 political realignment of a majority of American Catholics, Mr. Stricherz now wonders if anti-Catholicism is on the rise. In my view, this is a diversionary question for Catholics who allied themselves with the Republican party in the recent past to ask. Asking that question won’t get us far down the road as we try to understand and cope with the new political alignment a majority of Catholics called for in the recent election.

There is a longstanding defensive rhetoric of persecution among American Catholics. Anti-Catholic prejudice has certainly been a fact of life of American Catholics. It is not, however, the overriding fact of life in contemporary American Catholics that right-leaning Catholics wish to make it.

Buried in these Catholics’ cries that the majority culture is anti-Catholic is the implicit assumption that only the kind of Catholicism endorsed by right-wing Catholics is real Catholicism. When the majority of Americans, including a majority of American Catholics, reject the political and/or moral views of the right-wing minority, we are not engaging in anti-Catholicism: we are simply taking another path, calling for an alternative understanding of Catholicism.

Among right-wing Catholics, the anti-Catholic war cry is a defensive call to return to the Catholic ghetto, to lock arms and shut the threatening godless world out. This is the battle cry of true believers who can envisage no future for an American Catholicism that is not dominated by the crusade-mentality of Catholic Republicanism, with its overweening focus on abortion and gay marriage as the most serious ethical challenges facing us today.

The inability of right-leaning Catholics who were sold on the Republican captivity of the church in recent decades to imagine a future beyond that captivity—a future in which Catholics positively engage secular culture and do not stand in constant combat with it—reflects a colossal failure of American Catholicism at the end of the 20th century. This is a failure of failure of imagination, of faith, and of hope. It is also a failure of pastoral leadership on the part of the American bishops, who worked hard to bring the American Catholic church into the dead end of Republican captivity.

When, I wonder, will those Catholics who so strongly allied themselves with the Republican party in recent years wake up to these realities, and stop trying to claim unilateral ownership of Catholicism and of the political future of the American Catholic church? When will they begin to pay attention to the millions of American Catholicism whom their “orthodoxy” has made political and ecclesially homeless for decades now, many of whom refused to toe the party line in the last election?

These strike me as far more important questions to ask than questions about anti-Catholicism in the wake of a Democratic victory . . . . That is, unless Mr. Stricherz wants to hear from millions of Catholics whose recent experience of anti-Catholicism has come primarily from our right-wing brothers and sisters, as they tell us we are not serious Catholics . . . .

Friday, November 28, 2008

Gay Rights Revolution: How Women Treat Their Children

“That's why I suspect the revolution will come not from the male church but from how women treat their children, and whether or not women are willing to reject their children.”

I’ve followed Richard Rodriguez’s work with great interest for some time now. I admire him for his ability to do what has come to seem well-nigh impossible to me: to hold together a religious commitment and an open, unashamed statement of his gay sexual orientation. Richard Rodriguez is a practicing Catholic. And he’s gay.

I like Rodriguez’s thinking because he refuses to let himself by boxed in, diminished, by ideological currents that dictate to him how he should think, feel, and act as a gay man. A gay Latino man. A gay Latino Catholic man.

It has always seemed to me that one of the most hideous things we permit to happen to ourselves in American culture—all of us, gay and straight, black and white, male and female—is to be labeled and put into our places by strong ideological currents that need to label and place (and use and dismiss). It is an act of political defiance—it is an act of humanity—to refuse to be used and dismissed in this way. To live successfully in our image-driven culture, we must insist on being more than we are told to be.

It is an act of humanity to insist that one’s humanity is more complex, varied, rich than any label can suggest. What Richard Rodriguez succeeds in doing, it seems to me, is to hold onto the richness beyond classification (and dismissal). To hold onto his own personal richness as a gay Catholic Latino man.

It certainly takes effort to live large and beyond the boundaries imposed on us. But that effort, with all the tension it comprises, is worth it. It provides those who live this way with perspectives that many of us, in our little boxes, need to see, because we can’t attain these perspectives inside the tiny prisons we have chosen at the dictate of the various ideological groups that need to place us.

I was delighted this past week to see Richard Rodriguez’s analysis of the proposition 8 battle gaining attention on many blogs. This analysis is found in an interview he did with Jeanne Carstensen at Salon: www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/11/25/proposition_8_religion.

Employing the multiplicity of critical perspectives that his multiplicity of commitments (as a gay Latino Catholic man) provides him, Rodriguez probes the “real issues” at stake in the battle over gay marriage—the issues that all too often get short shrift in analysis of this cultural battle. In his view, the attempt of some communities of faith to scapegoat and marginalize gay persons by removing rights from the gay community is the “last or continuing gasp of a male hierarchy in religion.”

Rodriguez notes that the religions of the book, all of which were born in the deserts of the Middle East—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—are uniquely male-centered, and uniquely hostile to women’s rights. Rodriguez links the emergence of gays onto the stage of history with the emergence of women onto that stage: the women’s movement and the gay movement are, in his analysis, crucially connected—particularly so, in the minds of male church leaders who resist critiques of their dominative power.

In resisting gay rights, the churches are resisting the rise of women to positions of power in cultures around the world. Gay marriage galvanizes male-dominant communities of faith because it becomes a last-ditch symbol for these communities, the final line these communities think they must draw in the sand, if they are going male-dominant forms that they have come to believe are part and parcel of their message to the world:

The possibility that a whole new generation of American males is being raised by women without men is very challenging for the churches. I think they want to reassert some sort of male authority over the order of things. I think the pro-Proposition 8 movement was really galvanized by an insecurity that churches are feeling now with the rise of women.

The fight against gay marriage serves a valuable utilitarian purpose in many communities of faith, then. It permits those communities to ignore the real threat to traditional marriage: the dissolution of traditional heterosexual marriages. And the role that male violence towards women plays in that dissolution:

But the real challenge to the family right now is male irresponsibility and misbehavior toward women. If the Hispanic Catholic and evangelical churches really wanted to protect the family, they should address the issue of wife beating in Hispanic families and the misbehaviors of the father against the mother. But no, they go after gay marriage. It doesn't take any brilliance to notice that this is hypocrisy of such magnitude that you blame the gay couple living next door for the fact that you've just beaten your wife.

The battle against gay human beings and gay marriage also permits churches to deflect attention from the ugly role they have played in bringing the nation to the socioeconomic crises it now faces at the end of the Bush administration. By targeting gays, the churches are “insisting on their own propriety” after that propriety has been radically called into question by their complicity in all that has taken place in the Bush administration for the past eight years:

To my knowledge, the churches have not accepted responsibility for the Bush catastrophe. Having claimed, in some cases, that Bush was divinely inspired and his election was the will of God, they have failed to explain why the last eight years have been so catastrophic for America. Now I think evangelicals are falling back on issues that have been reliable for them in the past.

Hope? Rodriguez sees hope in the continuing emergence of women to full personhood within faith communities and cultures around the world. In his view, the “revolution” in consciousness that will lead to the full acceptance of LGBT human beings “will come not from the male church but from how women treat their children, and whether or not women are willing to reject their children.”

Which implies, I think, that the male church must stop acting like a father intent on punishing errant children and more like a mother concerned to embrace them, if the church expects us to take its claims seriously. Mother Church cannot effectively proclaim its gospel message of God’s salvific love for all when it continues to act in ways that directly counter that message, as it fights to maintain male dominance in the name of God.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

On Giving, and Thanksgiving

Lewis Hyde, The Gift (NY: Random House, 1979), p. 26:

"What is given away feeds again and again, while what is kept feeds only once and leaves us hungry."

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Postprandial nibbles:

Steve's mother on her Thanksgiving plans: "I've put an extra box of wine in the fridge. It's for the nuns. If they don't drink it, I will. I think I'll need it."

"The nuns" are her sisters-in-law. Mary Ann doesn't do nuns. Her plan was to urge the wine on her sisters-in-law while having a glass or two herself, to make the hours slide past.

And from our meal with friends Bill and Gary, a long story of two of Bill's relatives (several generations back) in east Tennessee, both named Mary. Both had children who bore the mother's surname, indicating that they hadn't married the fathers of the children. The two Marys lived in adjoining counties.

With DNA testing, male descendants of all the sons of one of the two Marys have proven that they share the same male ancestor. Male descendants of the other Mary don't match these cousins, indicating that they have different fathers.

Bill suggested that if they want to determine their paternal ancestor, they should look at the farms adjoining the two Marys in the first half of the 19th century. If male descendants of the owners of those farms would agree to be tested, it would be interesting to see if the descendants of the two Marys match any of those men.

And so testing has been done. None of the male lines from farms adjoining one of the Marys match any of the sons of either Mary. However, the male descendants of this Mary perfectly match the line of a man, a Mr. Parrot, who lived beside her cousin Mary in the adjoining county. And the descendants of the sons of that Mary perfectly match the descendants of another farmer whose farm adjoined her.

She married Mr. Parrot, the evident father of her cousin Mary's son. Bill has informed a cousin of his who is a descendant of Mr. Parrot that he finally understands why she talks so much.

And so it goes, the table tales with which we amuse ourselves, anno Domini 2008. Through it all, the human comedy never fails to entertain, and we leave heritages that will one day baffle and tickle subsequent generations as much as those of previous generations amuse us now--giving away and feeding again, generation on generation.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Countdown to Thanksgiving: The Mellow Hours of Remembrance

Ah, those mellow hours one spends counting down to Thanksgiving. The turkey is in the icebox awaiting its dressing, then to be popped into the oven; the giblet gravy is simmering; the cranberry-orange relish is shimmering in its special cut-glass dish; and the pecan pies are cooling on the kitchen counter, imparting their heavenly nut-vanilla-butter scent to the air.

Thanksgiving. The quintessential family holiday. Mama and Papa and children around the table, heads bowed in thanks, Mama smiling and ladling, Papa slicing away, grateful rosy-cheeked children holding up plates with beaming faces, anticipating the feast.

My memories? Not so much.

I’ve been thinking about Thanksgivings past after having read Sara Robinson’s advice on Alternet today about how to survive political battles at the Thanksgiving dinner table (www.alternet.org/story/108638/worried_about_thanksgiving_fights_with_right-wing_family_members_/). That got me thinking: I recall absolutely no political battles at our Thanksgiving table. Battles yes—battles aplenty.

But political ones? None that I can recall, ever. We were all Democrats, after all. What was there to fight about?

We certainly knew that there were Southerners who had gone over to the party of wealthy economic elites in the Northeast, who had imposed Reconstruction on our forebears. We were not among these turncoats. As with most unpleasant realities, my family simply chose to pretend that they didn’t exist. We could imagine them in about the same way one can imagine, say, a lizard mating with a beautiful parrot.

The outcome is thinkable. But it is not something one chooses to think about.

We had even, God help us, heard of Christians who claimed that they could simultaneously be Republican. Lizard-parrot again. We resolutely chose to ignore that which can be imagined but is not worth notice outside the realm of the imaginary.

So no political battles at our Thanksgiving table, thank you very much. But battles aplenty, nonetheless. And battles for which no primer could prepare someone headed to our “celebration,” because they were the quintessence, the absolute perfect embodiment, of insanity. Of a very special kind of insanity that ensues when you get family members together. Add whiskey. Ignite. And va-voom!

Permit me to explain.

First you need to realize that Thanksgiving was not really our thing. We did the holiday because everyone around us did it. But we did it with a grudging suspicion that this was simply not our day. We were doing our duty, and an onerous one it was.

Christmas was the Southern day. Thanksgiving? Merely a day to be gotten through on the road to the real feast, the yule-log and eggnog day that pointed to the non-Puritan past. Puritans in top hats and black cloaks? Please. Our forebears in Virginia were doing Thanksgiving for years before those Johnny-come-latelys cornered the market and turned our cozy little dinner into their national myth.

And second, you have to understand that, as with any big family gathering, we did not do Mama, Papa, and all the children around the table. We did grandmother and grandfather and aunts and uncles and cousins and stray quasi-relatives and waifs who had no other table at holiday time.

And the children were banished to a small table in the breakfast room. We did not sit in the dining room until we had grown of age. Mercifully banished. Mercifully absent from the adults. And the whiskey that flowed like a river through the celebration. And the cacophony that began once drink had been taken.

My brother Philip and his wife Penny enjoy watching Eckart Tolle. They think that he looks like a cross between Steve and me. His mannerisms remind them of what one might get (lizard-parrot) if one shook parts of Steve and parts of me up in a jar and poured out the result. Scary.

And yet I can see what they mean when they say this. Maybe because of that association, or maybe because Tolle is simply wise and entertaining, we all particularly enjoy his comments on how Thanksgiving and Christmas produce some of the most explosive events in any family’s life, because at these occasions, our “pain bodies” find their way to the table and interact with the pain bodies of others.

We laugh. Because we know. That is precisely what happened at our family gatherings every Thanksgiving, every Christmas. Like clockwork. The script apparently sat waiting from the previous year, waiting to be re-enacted this year with perhaps a soupçon more bitterness here, a smidge more sarcasm there, a lot more hurt and cruelty throughout.

In some ways, the script never varied. In other ways, it was, each year, a fresh new hell. Somehow—in ways that far surpassed the ability of any of us children witnessing the annual debacles—it made absolutely no sense at all. Because, I have concluded as an adult, it was rooted in childhood experiences of the adult family members about which I knew nothing. Old wounds ripped open and showed around the table. Old scores to settle.

The amazing thing about every Thanksgiving dinner was the sweetness and light with which it began—the pre-whiskey sweetness and light. Admittedly, there was that high hum of tension all around the room as sister pecked sister’s cheek, as mama clucked her tongue at the sloppy table setting. That high hum of tension that attends any Southern gathering—the exhausting pretense and politeness, the litany of lies that form the foundation of polite society.

At the beginning of the day, all was sotto voce, so much so that (Philip, Cousin Greg, and I have compared notes: we agree on this point) we who were the mute witnesses of the day’s drama, we children, actually looked forward to the day! Assuming that this year the sweetness and light would pervade the entire afternoon!!

The way it did in Mayberry when Aunt Bea and Andy and Opie gathered to give thanks for their turkey and dressing. The way we assumed it did with all the other families gathered together that afternoon.

Then, one by one, the knives came out and got slapped on the table. Beside the tumblers of bourbon. You could count on Pauline to tear into Billie, as a way of poking at Billie’s husband Eddie. Some current of malice and/or jealousy deeper than I could ever fathom ran between the two—or from Pauline to Billie.

And Eddie was the catalyst, the willing catalyst. We all knew he had been diagnosed as schizophrenic. We knew he was an alcoholic, though what that term could possibly mean in our liquor-sodden family context, I have nary a clue.

And we knew to avoid him. Just as we knew we could not avoid him. He had that way, that sly, zingy way of spotting the chink in one’s armor. He’d slip his blade in, twist it, draw blood, long before you knew you’d been poinarded.

Pauline enjoyed the blood sport. She played back. Using Billie as her target. With Eddie as the intended target.

Billie then turned on Eddie, though not overtly. She knew better than to set herself up for the kind of punishment he was capable of delivering. Her attacks took the form of hot little digs about his German-speaking family, his mother and sister who, she was convinced, talked about her in German when she was at their family gatherings.

As that side of the table began its love-feast-gone-Hitchcock, the other side tuned up. There the script was equally murky, equally terrifying to us children who watched it play out. Kat would suddenly launch into an attack on Margaret. Sweet Kat, who took such tender care of us as children. Sweet Margaret, who would not hurt a fly.

Sweet Kat become shrewish monster, eyes flaming, lips pouring out accusations; sweet Margaret weeping and humming hymns the more viciously she was attacked. Stale old arguments about the ugly yellow naugahyde chairs and yellow formica table with bent aluminum legs Margaret had bought for the breakfast room, which Kat adamantly wanted out of her house.

Which was not her house. Not really. It belonged also to her mother with whom she lived, and her brother who had come back home after an abortive marriage, child in tow to be raised by Mama and Sister. Brother, who suddenly turned his wrath on Kat each Thanksgiving, accusing her of mishandling his child, of being incapable of raising children, as a single woman, an old-maid teacher.

Through it all, Margaret’s husband Bill sat placidly chewing the Smithfield ham he insisted on buying for the family gathering each year, sipping his Old Crow, lighting his cigars. Perhaps knowing, perhaps not ever realizing, that he was the real object of Kat’s wrath. He had taken Margaret away from home, after her first failed marriage.

After some unspoken agreement between Kat and her that she would thereafter live at home to care for Brother and Mother. An agreement she apparently broke by marrying Bill years after the first failed marriage, which had ended, I knew from a letter I had found in my grandmother’s dresser, letter from the first husband, was doomed from the start when Margaret discovered that s-e-x—something about which she knew nothing at all—was part of the marriage bargain.

And so it went, year after year, my mother jumping into the fray to lash out at me: “He thinks he’s so much better than us. Sitting there reading St. Teresa of Abalalala in the living room, watching every drink I take.” At which point Billie would chime in, “Oh, yes, a little birdie flew into his bedroom and told him to become Catholic” (pronounced with a huge emphasis on the –lick syllable, to make the very idea even more ridiculous).

Energized by the blood sport, Pauline would add, "No personality at all. Just like Susan. They'd rather be bumps on the log, swelled up old toads, than let their hair down and have a little fun."

Pauline who, I learned years later, had kept company with my father's brother Carlton before marrying Frank, strange, brooding Frank, Frank of the folders full of x-rays of every part of his body, Frank of the mystifying ailments who took his annual vacation at the Railroad Hospital in Texarkana, being x-rayed yet more. Though Pauline had never wanted Carlton, she disliked his wife, the daughter of her former minister at First Baptist Church in Pine Bluff. And by extension (in that twisted logic that governed family connections in my family), she resented me. For being a Lindsey. A son of the man she had introduced to my mother as she dumped Carlton for Frank.

Go figure. Family. And so it went. Our annal family love feast. And we were just warming up to the real feast, Christmas. When whiskey would flow like rivers through the house.

The turkey is in the icebox, the pies cooling on the counter. The mellow hours, the countdown. To the quintessential American family gathering. Which, if it’s anything like my family’s annual “celebration” in other households in the land, is just about as far from familial sweetness and light, from family joy, as a gathering can get.

But perhaps not that far at all from family. Truth be told.

On Giving

“The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation,” Lewis Hyde, The Gift (NY: Random House, 1979), p. xix.

I’m reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift with great interest these days, and thinking about the application of his insights to organized religion. When religions lose sight of the giftedness of everything—of all existence, which comes to us without our reckoning or beckoning—they depart from the root that gives life to the religious impulse.

Who we are, what we have, comes to us despite ourselves, from beyond ourselves. How we name the giver of the gift of existence, or whether we even think the giver should be personalized, is not my interest here. What attracts my attention instead is how everything we have, including “our”selves, is gift, something passing through our hands to be crafted into gifts for others, and then handed on.

Glimpsing this makes life profoundly different. It’s what communities of faith claim to glimpse when they induct people into their various mysteries, train them to live lives normed by faith, hope and love.

And yet how profoundly alien these insights about our inability to own or control anything, including “our”selves—ultimately to own or control anything—seem, from the religious vantage point of many churches in 21st-century America. We devote a single day a year to a maudlin, sentimental “remembrance” of our need to give thanks.

In the very act of giving thanks, we drive the wedge deeper between ourselves and those we imagine as the ungifted. We remind ourselves to give a turkey, a few cans of cranberry sauce.

And then we forget. For a year. We forget that we are implicated in the lives these others live. We are implicated in their homelessness, their lack of healthcare, their inability to find good educations and fulfilling, productive jobs.

We talk about being thankful and about giving, but we do not view our lives and all that passes through our hands as gift. And so we lose sight of our connectedness to others, and our responsibility for what others lack. Until we “remember” again the following Thanksgiving.

Only to forget as quickly as we have remembered.

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And a Thanksgiving poem:


I watch the philodendron leaf
Unfurl
As my heart
Lightgreedy and hungrylove.


What I really want to say
Is not my heart
But you, and you, and you.


Look for springing forth
As irontight buds disband
And fistclosed leaves let loose their clutch.


Yet not release from heartroot.


I gaze in as lightest lashes of a catseye
Because I tend to my own garden
Hoping that you may grow.


Look for my soil's greening.
Take my ferns' fronds,
And heartsease,


For your pallets,
Dear ones.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Travails of Aging Travelers, and More Weeping in Gethsemane

I spent yesterday in purgatory. Which is to say, we were flying—hither and yon on overheated airplanes whose seats grow smaller every time I fly. (I refuse to entertain the possibility that my posterior is growing larger . . . .)

And as we did so, I was struck by the aging of the flying population, yours truly included. I don’t know if the economic downturn has anything to do with this, or if it’s simply a demographic fact: the baby-boom generation is aging, and it’s noticeable as we travel.

First leg of our trip, it turned out that not one but multiple passengers ahead of us had chosen the wrong seats, causing a maddening comedy of errors as everyone tried to identify his/her correct seat and find it. All this was made more comic by the fact that these were all elderly Southern folk like me (headed to Atlanta, bien entendu), determined to out-polite everyone else. So first one and then another wrong-seater made offers to switch seats for the convenience of others, resulting in a down-the-rabbit-hole set of calculations about who should sit where, which not even an expert mathematician could have brought to an accurate conclusion.

All this as passengers waited patiently behind the politely haggling bunch to be seated, and the flight attendant bellowed over the microphone for people at least to stand inside their seating areas to let folks by until they had resolved the mess. Steve and I chuckled, but as we did so, I realized with a bit of shame: these folks are not so much older than I am. Where they walk today, I will walk tomorrow, God willing that I have tomorrow.

So it behooves me to muster a modicum of understanding.

And then the understanding I mustered just as quickly vanished, when a flight attendant who should have been at home with her feet up, bless her heart, served euphemistically named snacks and beverages. Her co-worker had announced that the scintillating array of beverages from which we might choose included spicy tomato juice.

I latched onto that choice, and repeated the alluring name proudly back to the attendant. Only to have her correct me by barking, “Bloody Mary mix.” Well, yes, I did know that was what the other attendant meant by spicy juice. But, good little boy that I am, I was only repeating what we had been told to ask for . . . .

Whereupon Steve asked for tomato juice (?!), and a can of it, if possible, only to be informed in another bark, “No tomato juice. Bloody Mary mix. And I can’t give you a can.” So when he muttered under his breath, “She should retire,” I could hardly disagree, attempts at understanding notwithstanding. I did wonder, watching the attendant dispense food and drink, how difficult it must be for any of us as we age to do this kind of work, especially in a tiny enclosed space hurtling through air at several hundred miles per hour.

I wouldn’t like to be doing such work, and I haven’t yet reached 60. If people have to continue shlepping beverages and snacks on airplanes after that age, surely it’s time for our society to offer our elders better work, better opportunities, in their aging years. And perhaps the airlines should be thinking about bigger posteriors, decrepit backs and legs, and muddled heads, as some of us age.

All of these reflections grew sharper as we sat next to a delightful elderly person on the next leg of the trip. I don’t believe she can have flown much recently, since she retained the manners of a bygone era of flyers, especially when offered that scintillating selection of euphemistically named snacks: peanuts or cinnamon cookies.

She responded to the choice with all the courtly dignity of a grande dame at a cordon bleu establishment: “And what do you recommend?” The flight attendant looked nonplussed, and well she might have: how often does she get a question like that? She hemmed and hawed and allowed as how she was partial to the biscuits.

Where our traveling companion sat yesterday, I may be in a year or so, hitting up the flight attendant for a recommendation regarding the “snack.” I hope that, if I do choose the package with three delicious peanuts in it, which invariably rips apart and sends said peanuts skittering, some kind soul might offer me an extra cinnamon biscuit—and perhaps a whole can of juice, wonder of wonders!, to wash down the wee dry snack.

+ + + + +

Because I’m so often critical of faith communities for their inability to welcome and affirm some of God’s children, I want to make a point of applauding an initiative of faith leaders in California in the wake of proposition 8. A report on Clerical Whispers blog yesterday noted that the California Council of Churches, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, and the Unitarian Universalist Church have filed a writ, along with Episcopal Bishops J. Jon Bruno and Marc Andrus, to seek an injunction blocking the implementation of proposition 8
(http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/11/bishops-in-bid-to-overturn-proposition.html).

These faith leaders stress that removing rights from a targeted group of citizens endangers the rights of everyone, faith groups included. Once the precedent is set whereby a majority of citizens can vote away the rights of any group of citizens, what is to stop the majority from targeting a religious body and removing its rights?

As Rev. Edwin Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, observes, “Standing for marriage equality is just another opportunity for us to live out the gospel”—an opportunity that puts faith communities “on the right side of history on this important civil rights issue.”

It seems to me very important to keep in mind that human rights are the central issue with proposition 8: allowing a majority vote to remove rights protected by the Constitution from any group of citizens is a dangerous precedent. And it’s a troubling precedent, when some faith communities played a large role in this battle to target a minority community and remove a right from that community. It’s a precedent that ought to concern all people of faith in our nation.

Being a believer is, at its best, about protecting those on the margins and drawing them in; it is not about savaging and excluding those on the margins. When communities of faith engage in such savaging and excluding, they court similar behavior towards themselves.

+ + + + +

And in the “Weeping in Gethsemane” category, another story from Clerical Whispers catches my eye. This one is astonishing. Clerical Whispers notes that the controversial Catholic bishop of Motherwell, Scotland, Joseph Devine, recently had his episcopal mansion bulldozed and has begun the erection of a new mansion to the tune of £650,000
(http://clericalwhispers.blogspot.com/2008/11/church-bulldoze-bishops-mansion-to-make.html).

Bishop Devine did not, it goes without saying, consult his flock before he made this decision (albeit the flock pay his bills): he informed them in a newsletter that his former mansion was eaten up with damp and required demolition, and that he’d decided to build a new one. The snazzy new place will have three separate living quarters with each bedroom complete with an en suite bathroom. It will also have a private chapel.

The flock are, in some cases, understandably perturbed. Some church members note that the previous house was itself stately, and that it comes as a surprise that it was suddenly so consumed with damp that it had to be demolished. These church members ask how the good bishop cannot have seen the damp before it became so bad that he had no choice except to demolish and rebuild.

This is not the first time that Bishop Devine has gotten bad press for capricious use of church funds, according to Clerical Whispers. In 2005, he received criticism for using church money on a fireworks display at Carfin Pilgrimage Centre in Lanarkshire, Scotland. And in 2000, the Sunday Mail reported that Devine had had a nose job with insurance paid for by his parishioners.

Why notice Bishop Devine’s dubious use of church funds? He belongs, after all, to a church (my church) in which bishops never have to account for their disposition of funds, and never have to consult those who donate those funds before making major financial decisions. He belongs to a church whose feudal system places absolute power in the hands of those at the top, who can use our donations to pay off and silence victims of clerical sexual abuse without informing us that this is how they choose to use our donations. Or who can use our donations to sponsor websites and publish ads that are thinly disguised advertisements for a particular political candidate or party, regardless of whether we approve of these political endorsements . . . .

I want to focus attention on Bishop Devine because he has taken it on himself several times in recent months to attach gay people. He has attracted international attention for his homophobic stands.

As a previous posting of mine notes, last March Bishop Devine informed the public that gay people have no right to regard ourselves as a persecuted minority or to ask for commemoration in Holocaust remembrance services—though gays were among the groups put into concentration camps and murdered in Nazi Germany (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/03/week-in-review-catholic-bishop-denies.html).

I am paying attention to Bishop Devine because we who are gay all too often have the experience of being lambasted by church figures whose moral foundation garments turn out to be rather akimbo, even as they ride moral high horses to denounce us. It often happens that faith leaders who make a name for themselves by targeting gay human beings turn out, on close inspection, to have houses that are not quite in order.

Perhaps if the churches are truly concerned about the moral fraying of our culture, they should be turning their attention to the Bishop Devines of the world and not to gay people. Perhaps they should be turning their attention to the shoddy stewardship of money donated by the faithful that has become so commonplace we are hardly shocked by it any longer. I suspect that wheeling and dealing with the donations of the faithful causes quite a bit more weeping in Gethsemane than do the lives of struggling gay human beings who are simply trying to live decently and uprightly in a world that places many obstacles in our way.

Some of us have been weeping in Gethsemane longer than Cardinal Stafford appears to realize (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/11/weeping-in-gethsemane-american-catholic.html).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

End of Week Roundup: Apocalpyse Now, Repenting Racism, Nurturing Black Gay Youth

Stalwart readers: I don’t usually post on Sunday. I’m doing so today because I will be out of pocket tomorrow, and want to upload a posting before I am away from my computer.

I’m finding news from some Vatican officials in reaction to Obama’s election fascinating. It’s clear that some of the high muckety-mucks in Rome are perturbed—and more: they’re prophesying—at the results of the recent U.S. elections.

Latest to add his two bits to the apocalyptic chorus: Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Laity. In his opening address to this Council’s 23rd annual gathering last week, Cardinal Rylko warned, "The idea of creating a new man completely uprooted from Judeo-Christian tradition and a new world order is gaining ground" (www.zenit.org/article-24256?l=english).

Echoing themes that have long bubbled through the American Christian right (and through its Catholic wings, in particular), the good cardinal denounced the growing "dictatorship of relativism" and "anti-Christian attitude" that characterize liberal Western culture today, and that "make attacks on Christians, and particular on Catholics, pass off as politically correct." He called for a resurgence of lay witness to counteract these trends.

Well. It is impossible to read these remarks without hearing them as commentary on the new American president. Rylko’s attack on Obama is in line with the take of that other Vatican official I discussed earlier in the week, Cardinal Stafford, who warns that the new president is “aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic” (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/11/weeping-in-gethsemane-american-catholic.html).

The emergence of the apocalyptic motif in Vatican rhetoric about Obama is particularly interesting. It’s explicit in Stafford’s remarks. It’s hidden, but only thinly, in Rylko’s. The “new world order” motif Rylko uses is outright apocalypticism: and it has been part and parcel of the rhetoric of the American Christian right for some time now, as Pat Robertson’s 1991 book with that title indicates.

In depicting the election of Mr. Obama in apocalyptic terms as part of the emergence of a sinister new world order that will attack Christians and impose a new ethic in Western culture, these Vatican officials are continuing the shameful alliance of the Catholic church with right-wing political and religious thinkers who have little to do with the Catholic tradition at its best. What they really fear is clearly not the demise of Christianity: it’s their own demise.

It’s the demise of clericalism that frightens Catholic church officials. It’s the waning of a church in which they exercise disproportionate power over others as the ordained that elicits their apocalyptic fantasies. It’s the thought of a world in which being Catholic may not mean being controlled by a male hierarchical elite with all power and privilege in its hands that pushes them to prophesy about the demise of Christianity.

And for many of us, the vision of the church that horrifies them is entirely welcome and entirely appropriate—a vision of the church in which no one lords it over another, and in which power is shared by the people of God and not hoarded at the top. Where the Staffords and the Rylkos see apocalypse now in the election results, many of us see hope for a better future.

And we do not have to be apocalyptic in our expectations about that hope. Many of us know that the political initiatives of the new president and Congress may well sell short our most cherished values. We know better than to expect the reign of God from politicians.

Still, we hope. Can anything be worse than what we have had for some years now—with the blessing of church officials? Can anything be more anti-Christian than the way the current administration has conducted business, as church leaders stood by in silence, never speaking out as they are now speaking out against Mr. Obama before he has even lifted his hand to make any changes at all?

(I am not persuaded, by the way, by John Allen’s apologetic argument on behalf of Cardinal Stafford in his weekly column in National Catholic Reporter [http://ncrcafe.org/node/2293]. I find Mr. Allen’s attempt to contextualize Stafford’s rhetoric and to suggest that the rhetoric is “less jarring” when viewed in context entirely unconvincing—as I have long found many of John Allen’s apologias for the Vatican, highly placed American clerics, and/or Republican leaders unconvincing.)

+ + + + +

And on the heart-warming front, far-right Bob Jones University in South Carolina last week apologized for its longstanding racism (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/11/21/national/main4625581.shtml). Doesn’t it do you good to hear this Christian institution repenting of its historic sin?

The Bob Jones statement repudiating its racist past states, “We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it.”

Well. Pshaw. You must please forgive me, stalwart readers, but I’m a tad bit cynical about this sudden change of heart on the part of the good folks at Bob Jones. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for repenting of racism; I applaud the school for taking this step.

But I still . . . wonder. Why now? Why make this statement now, following the election of Obama?

Here’s my suspicion: this is part and parcel of an ongoing movement on the part of Christians opposed to gay rights and gay human beings to discover a sudden new solidarity with people of color. I’ve seen this going on for some time now in various Christian churches.

It has been very obtrusive in both the Anglican and Methodist churches for some time now, where right-wing church officials are falling all over themselves to repent of racism and sexism, as they hold the line against gay folks. Where they are using people of color and women of color, in particular, as weapons, as battering rams, to demonstrate that they are not prejudiced, while they try to make their churches even more adamantly opposed to gay human beings.

This is a political tactic. And it’s a cynical one, an exceedingly cynical one. It plays one marginal group against another. It seeks to enshrine one demeaned group as the “good” marginal group, the one deserving of rights, the one endorsed by scripture, while repudiating the other marginal group as the “bad” group whose demands for respect by the churches are illicit and not grounded in scripture.

The religious right cannot successfully play people of color and gays against each other until it repents of its sin of racism. Look for a lot more of this down the road, from institutions like Bob Jones. And be convinced and heartwarmed, if you wish.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you about what’s really going on with this effusive rhetoric.

The stigmatization of gay human beings by Christians is every bit as much a collapse of Christian values to culture as racism is. Now that it is convenient and painless (and virtually meaningless) to repent of racism, we are hearing of how evil that particular collapse to culture was (and it was and is).

But while there’s still a price to pay for making solidarity with bruised and battered gay human beings, isn’t it interesting that the same Christians rushing to repent of racism or sexism have nary word to say about their homophobia? (For a hilarious take on this “Christian” attitude, check out Janet Cosgrove’s “I’m Not One of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians in the Onion last week, www.theonion.com/content/opinion/im_not_one_of_those_love_thy—hat tip to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog for this link).

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

+ + + + +

And speaking of Andrew Sullivan’s blog: this is grim news (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/online-suicide.html). Many of you will have seen recent news reports of the online suicide of a Florida youth, Abraham Biggs of Pembroke Pines, Florida. The 19-year old youth committed suicide last week as viewers watched on a webcam, in some cases egging him on. No one watching notified police until Biggs had died.

According to Andrew Sullivan, among those watching and goading Mr. Biggs were viewers who taunted him with the word “faggot.” Check out the thread to which Andrew Sullivan’s posting links—at Justin.tv—and you’ll see even among those responding to the report of the suicide some respondents slinging around that hateful f- word. (I have seen this report about the use of the term "f----t" only on Andrew Sullivan's blog—a reminder of how the mainstream media ignore homophobia in reporting on such events).

This is too much. And it connects too painfully with themes about which I have posted on this blog before—about recent spikes in homophobic violence in the state of Florida, and about the need of young gay people of color to have positive role models within the African-American community. Abraham Biggs was black.

Please note: I am not saying Abraham Biggs was gay. His MySpace site featured pictures of him with young women. What I am saying is that something is very much awry when a troubled youth of any color is taunted with anti-gay slurs like “f----t.” What I am saying is that, for any youth struggling with issues of self-esteem—and this is true of all gay youths in our homophobic culture—taunts like this are enough to push someone over the edge.

Someone needs to start caring about these youth. I need to start caring. We all need to start caring. Within the black community, the conspiracy of silence about homophobia needs to be broken, for the sake of the many young people of color who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation.

Black gay youth need their own community to care. They need their church leaders and leaders of educational institutions to break silence and speak out, to take responsibility for the future of their youth, to nurture and cherish gay youth as they nurture and cherish other youth.

One avoidable death of a young person is too many.

+ + + + +

Finally, a heartfelt word of thanks to Waldo Lydecker for recommending this blog yesterday (http://waldolydeckersjournal.blogspot.com/2008/11/how-and-why-we-change-things-around.html). I’m honored, and I’m surprised.

Waldo is not unaware of my faults. He notes that I blab on and on (well, he says, “His posts tend to be long, by blogging standards . . . ”). But he puts up with the verbosity for the sake of what he thinks may be well-reasoned and well-documented postings, at times.

I have to smile at Waldo’s recommendation, since I first discovered his blog when a South Carolina friend (Waldo’s blog has a SC focus, but is not confined to tthat focus) told me about it. As he did so, he said, “Read Waldo Lydecker. I read him daily. You write too much for me to read. And Waldo is witty.”

Waldo Lydecker is, indeed, witty, insightful, able to cast a cold eye on nonsense that begs to be viewed by a cold eye. I wish I could be as succinct, and even half as witty, as Waldo is. And I’m proud to have him recommend this blog.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

End of Week News: National Conversation on Human Rights

Unusually cold weather here today, with overcast skies that look almost snow-laden—though snow this early in the season would be out of the ordinary. Steve and I are making chow chow. Steve happened to notice that our neighbors’ tomato vines, which overhang the little old-fashioned wire fence between our back yards, were laden with green tomatoes as the frost neared.

Since the neighbors had kindly offered for us to pick tomatoes on our side of the fence, and since these end-of-garden stragglers were going to waste, Steve retrieved them. And now we’re commemorating my mother’s birthday by canning a relish she loved and always made this time of year during my childhood, chow chow.

As I mind the pot of vinegar and pickling spices, a quick scan of the news. Two articles today pick up on themes about which I’ve blogged in recent days.

In “Don’t Give African Americans a Pass for Homophobia,” Clay Cane addresses Jasmyne Cannick’s recent LA Times opinion piece about gay marriage
(www.alternet.org/sex/108137). I blogged about Cannick’s views a week ago (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/11/finding-common-ground-gay-and-african.html).

Some key quotes from Cane:

As a black gay man who has endured the words "n****r" and "f****t", who lives in this duality of gayness and blackness, I have a vested interest in both inequalities.

+ + + + +
Homophobia in the black community equals a "real man." Sadly, homophobia is a conversation that we, as the black community, are absolutely refusing to have.

On the issue of civil rights, some black leaders say, "Gays need to stop comparing their struggle to blacks!" Sadly, it's the ruling class that wants these two minority groups to engage in comparisons of victimology. What it really says is, "Don't you n****rs let those f****ts think they have it worse than you!"

From my years of working in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cane is correct when he says, “Sadly, homophobia is a conversation that we, as the black community, are absolutely refusing to have.” There is a conspiracy of silence within the African-American community as a whole about homophobia.

And the community is paying a steep price for that silence. Because the myth that gayness is a white boys’ disease persists in the black community, women of color are being infected with HIV at a much higher rate than the population as a whole by men who sleep with men while maintaining a façade of heterosexuality.

Silence equals death. Until African-American leaders—particularly educational and church leaders—call for open nationwide conversation among people of color about the damage that homophobia does to people of color themselves, black women will continue to contract HIV at a much higher rate than that of other demographic groups; young gay people of color will live in shame and court self-destructive behaviors, because they are not allowed positive role models in their communities and churches; and energy for change that could positively affect the nation as a whole, if one demeaned minority group did not permit itself to be played against another, will continue to be siphoned off in enervating in-fighting.

It is for these reasons that I have called repeatedly on this blog for church-sponsored HBCUs to open spaces for honest, wide-ranging conversation about these social problems (see, e.g., http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/06/and-pilgrimage-continues_03.html). The historic cultural breakthrough represented by the election of the first African-American president in American history should become a backdrop for such probing conversation of homophobia within communities of color—even more so, because of the high percentage of African-American voters in California who simultaneously supported Mr. Obama and proposition 8.

These are not simply gay issues. Nor are they simply issues for the black community. They are human rights issues that drive to the heart of what democracy is all about. Though I suspect the new administration will do all it can to dodge these issues in the name of political expediency and centrist governance, I think that it would be a mistake for the Obama administration not to call for educational initiatives about human rights, homophobia, and the role of religion in pluralistic democracy, in light of what happened with the recent anti-gay initiatives.

The second news item that catches my eye today is Waymon Hudson’s “Domestic Partnership Benefits? They Are after Those, Too.” Pam Spaulding has linked to this article from the Bilerico blog (www.pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do;jsessionid=9B4E72CF65BC6F88AFBF6F2B8A4B7C50?diaryId=8355).

Hudson reports alarming, but not unexpected, news from the the Florida Family Association, one of the groups that led the fight for amendment 2 outlawing gay marriage, in Florida. Hudson notes that David Caton, executive director of FFA, recently informed the Miami Herald,

We're going to use the momentum from the marriage amendment to speak to the fact that most people in this state don't want a recognition of that type of relationship. At this time of economic stress, our government should not be providing benefits to nonemployees on the basis of their sexual relationships.

As Hudson points out, during the months leading up to the vote in Florida, FFA and other groups advocating for a ban on gay marriage in the state claimed that they were not trying to abolish health benefits and hospital visitation rights for gay couples. Now, as he says, “the truth comes out.” The goal of these initiatives against gay marriage is to roll back as many rights as possible from gay citizens.

We who are gay would be foolish in the extreme if we did not recognize that this is the game plan of those using gay lives and gay human beings to make political points. “[M]ost people in this state don't want a recognition of that type of relationship”: the ultimate objective of those using gay persons in these ugly political battles is to tell us that we are unwelcome, and should return to the closet in order to make our fellow citizens comfortable.

If we do not intend to do that—and I, for one, don’t—then we need to push for the kind of national conversation for which I’m advocating under the new administration. If the Obama administration does not make human rights—and, in particular, gay rights, because it is in the lives of gay citizens that human rights are most threatened in American society today—a centerpiece of its program of change, then the change promised us is not going to accomplish what we expect. Not for gay citizens. Not for the nation as a whole.

Remembering Mothers




















Today would be my mother's 86th birthday, if she were living. To commemorate the occasion, two poems:


When my mother saw me last (then left me)
Looking back in the cold high airport,
Lines straggling here, there, nowhere,
I saw her eyes, her eyes alone:


Trapped birds, bright with promise
Of the sun that lured them to the glade,
And then refused to shine as evening fell
And trees encircling turned to prison bars.


She stayed her customary summer week:
Each forgave the other in that bitter back and forth
We walk in lieu of love.


But when she left,
Her eyes!

+ + + + +

If that sole dark cedar
Did not relieve the vista to this hill,
The brown and gray of winter
Would creep interminably,
Triumphantly on,
Until ice had claimed
The summit's very crown,
The crest from which sun leaps
Each day into the cold, astonished sky.

But there the cedar lurks,
Huddled and shaggy
As a bag lady on a city grate,
Crazy-wise and sovereign,
All the world's wants
Twisted in her gnarled old hair.

Without her, sun could not come up,
Moon not pour dreams upon the stillborn earth.

But for this cedar, the hill's feet would crumble into dust,
For this tree alone holds death at bay,
Bent within the branches of its head,
Where birds find respite from the wind,
And peace sleeps like a cradled babe,
Waiting for the day when lords and masters meet
The mothers they have driven to the streets,
Nursing life itself inside their frost-torn hands.

Friday, November 21, 2008

What about the Walls? Confronting Obstinate Prejudice

I haven’t posted today until now because I am frankly rather worn out. Downhearted.

Part of it is, I’m sure, the sense of weariness many of us feel now that the elections are over. So much rode on them. We’re relieved. And we’re also tired, with that good sense of weariness that comes from long struggle and a goal achieved.

And, as I’ve stated before, there’s that mix of elation at the election results, and dismay at what happened in my own state with the adoption initiative, and in California, Florida, and Arizona. And that’s where I continue to feel pulled down.

When you’ve struggled long and hard for the right to live honorably (according to your lights), peaceably, and decently, it’s hard not to feel torn down by voter initiatives designed to target you—specifically, as a class of people. As a despised group of citizens.

I do sometimes grow weary of fighting, and I have to let myself admit that and feel the weariness. Let it wash over me while I watch the lambent golden light of late fall catch bronze, yellow, and red leaves to fire in the evening sun. While I remember a hymn we used to sing in chapel in college, in which we asked God to cause us to come to the rivers, to cause us to drink from the rivers, to cause us to live at the rivers.

Two specific things have me despondent now. One is an exchange that has been going on for some time now between another blogger and me on the discussion café at the National Catholic Reporter website. I may have mentioned in a previous posting that this blogger accused me of spreading falsehoods, when I first posted information about hate speech at Palin rallies on that blog.

He cited the Secret Service, and informed me that they had announced there was no hate speech at Palin rallies. Later, when the Secret Service released information after Obama was elected about just how fierce the hate speech was at those rallies, and how threats against Obama’s life had spiked after Palin began to stir hate, I posted this information to the blogger. Before I did so, a friend had also posted this information to the blogger.

Only to have him ignore it, and try to turn the subject to mythical reports that Palin has been verbally attacked by gay activists, and reports that gay activists are now inciting hate by protesting proposition 8. I have to admit, I’m undone by such a response—by the ungraciousness of someone who cannot admit when (s)he has been wrong, by the inversion of the discussion such that those noting he was disseminating wrong information are themselves the wrongdoers.

What this says to me is that there are people affiliated with movements of faith in our nation who will simply deny that red is red, and will persist in trying to paint red green, no matter what evidence stares them in the face. The blogger in question cavalierly dismisses all studies showing that reparative therapy to change people’s sexual orientation is damaging and unsuccessful.

He wants to hold the long-discarded theory of homosexuality as a psychological aberration. He will hear nothing of hate speech at Palin rallies. He is focused solely on what he believes are credible reports of gay mobs rampaging and threatening people of faith.

I realize I will never change this man’s mind. I don’t really want to do that. I want simply to set the record straight, when he spreads disinformation. And that’s where I feel defeated: despite his repeated protests that he lives for nothing but the truth, he will not even admit that his own source for information about hate speech at Palin rallies, the Secret Service, contradicts his beliefs.

When religion has such toxic presence in people’s lives, and in our culture through the many citizens that hold onto destructive myths in the face of abundant evidence contradicting those myths, I don’t quite know what to do. The election of Obama, along with the various anti-gay initiatives, says to me that, even if we feel we have made some progress, we still have a long way to go in our culture.

There are still people willing to cling to malicious beliefs that target one group of citizens—that target me—no matter how much evidence to the contrary challenges their malicious beliefs. These groups will continue to try to force faith communities to dance to their tune. They have disproportionate influence on the churches. The churches are, in too many respects, enemies rather than allies of a group of citizens who are subject to baffling prejudice in our society, and to outright violence.

The other catalyst for my depression right now is the article by Tara Wall to which I linked yesterday. Wall’s argument that black civil rights are bona fide, and gay rights are bogus, truly doesn’t deserve consideration. It roils with prejudice. It is a broadside attack on the gay community.

Wall flatly denies that marriage is a civil right—flying in the face of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, which regards marriage as a fundamental human right, and in the face of the Supreme Court decision in California that reiterates that marriage is a civil right. She speaks as if all African Americans and all African-American religious leaders are resolute in opposing gay rights—ignoring the abundant evidence that many African Americans think differently than she does about these issues, and that many African-American religious leaders have spoken out in favor of gay rights, including the right to marry.

Again, what to do with such stubborn prejudice? And with the malicious attempt to depict all gay people as privileged racists who have no understanding of the struggle of people of color for civil rights? What to make of this ugly attempt of a woman of color who, one would hope, understands what it feels like to be demeaned and lied about, to discount gay suffering and play it against black suffering—rather than deploring unmerited imposed suffering wherever it occurs?

When I do a bit of research about Wall, I begin to understand. She is Director of the Office of Public Affairs for the Administration of Children and Families. A Bush appointee—an appointee of our current president George W. Bush. She was formerly Senior Advisor and Director of Outreach Communications for the Republican National Committee (RNC). Her bio at the website of the Office of Public Affairs states,

The Outreach Communications team worked to bring a compassionate conservative message into every community and to ensure that specialty and mainstream press were informed of the RNC’s coalition efforts, President Bush’s record of achievement and how the Administration’s policies empower people of color (http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orgs/bios/twall.html).

I read that, and I feel like my paternal grandmother whenever she heard news that she couldn’t quite believe, and which she wanted to discount. She would wave her fingers dismissively and exclaim, “Ah, pshaw.” Compassionate conservatism for people of color, and a Republican coalition with people of color: pshaw. You don’t say.

I do understand the dynamics here. I have met Tara Walls before. There are people within any marginal community who know how to market themselves for the culture that has power and perks to hand out—and who are willing to do so even when that culture despises them. There are, after all, gay Republicans, the Log Cabin set. And there were even some German Jews who welcomed Hitler when he rose to power.

But saying these folks exist doesn’t mean I know what to make of them. Pshaw. There they are, chumming up to the very people least inclined to care about them, people obviously eager to use them, but not to embrace them as equals. Curling up with poisonous snakes and expecting not to be bitten.

But understanding the dynamics that produce such folks still doesn’t help me know what to do with the disinformation they are willing to spread in the name of the ideology they serve, or the damage they are willing to do to hurting human beings in the name of that ideology. Understanding doesn’t help me deal with the way these people bandy about the name of God, and use God as a weapon to bash others with.

So, I end this week tired, downhearted, wondering what to make of walls of prejudice that just don’t seem to tumble. Wondering how to carry on when those walls close in. Wondering how much more struggle is on the horizon for the gay citizens of this nation, even after an election that brought many of us considerable joy.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Gay Rights and Black Rights as Essentially Different: New Neocon Meme

Ali Frick reports today on Alternet re: the “newly popular conservative trope” echoed by Rev. Mike Huckabee, Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, on “The View” (ABC) earlier this week (www.alternet.org/blogs/video/107698). As Frick notes, when asked about gay rights, Huckabee stated that gay rights are a different set of rights—that is, a different set from the bona fide civil rights of African Americans.

Huckabee goes on (astonishing move on his part, about which more in a moment) to endorse some civil rights for gay Americans, while setting those rights aside as special rights essentially different from the rights enjoyed by African Americans. Gay rights are different, he argues, because they involve a request to redefine a social institution, the institution of marriage:

People who are homosexuals should have every right in terms of their civil rights, to be employed, to do anything they want. But that’s not really the issue. I know you talked about it and I think you got into it a little bit early on. But when we’re talking about a redefinition of an institution, that’s different than individual civil rights.

When Pat Behar responds that segregation was, after all, also a social institution, one that had to be redefined by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Huckabee responds that there is still an essential difference between gay civil rights and the rights of African Americans. He locates that difference in a violence test: gay Americans have not endured the same levels of violence that African Americans have withstood:

But here is the difference. Bull Connor was hosing people down in the streets of Alabama. John Lewis got his skull cracked on the Selma bridge.

As Frick notes (and as I’ve been predicting on this blog), this hateful gay-vs.-blacks argument is in line to become the new neoconservative meme following the recent elections. Republicans are working fast and furious to reposition themselves as the party advocating for people of color vs. gay Americans, hoping to drive a wedge between the two minority groups and recapture the loyalty of American swing voters in the process.

Frick notes (as I have done) how quickly right-wing Christian Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has jumped on the blacks-vs.-gays bandwagon, maintaining that the rights of the two groups are “totally different.” As has African-American journalist Tara Wall, who maintains in an op-ed piece in the Washington Times on 18 Nov. that “[t]here is no comparison” between the struggle of the two communities for rights, because gay Americans have not endured stoning and lynching, and have always had a seat at the table if they are white (http://washingtontimes.com/news/2008/nov/18/a-marriage-mandate).

As Brent Hartinger notes today on Afterelton.com, gay bashing is essentially all the Republican party has left, following the recent elections (www.afterelton.com/biggaypicture/11-20-2008). Hartinger identifies compelling parallels between the GOP’s rapidly developing cynical strategy of targeting gay citizens to regain heartland voter loyalty, and the Southern Strategy by which the Republican party captured white Southerners from Nixon forward.

As he points out, the Southern Strategy deliberately capitalized on seething discontent among white Southerners as African Americans claimed rights in the 1950s and 1960s. South Carolina political activist Lee Atwater, the primary architect of the Southern Strategy, explicitly notes this as he describes the ongoing strategy used to gain white Southern GOP loyalty:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*gger, n*gger, n*gger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘n*gger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights, and all that stuff (as cited by Hartinger).

As Hartinger notes, “Just as with the Southern Strategy, the Republicans will be completely disingenuous on the issue.” Completely disingenuous: Hartinger is absolutely correct.

Rev. Huckabee’s argument could not be more disingenuous. It incorporates layer after layer of duplicity. It is designed to mislead. It is designed to distort the real situation in which gay Americans live today. It is cynically fashioned to capitalize on resentment of people of color against their gay brothers and sisters—to manipulate African-American voters by using social resentment in precisely the way the Southern Strategy exploited white resentment of black people.

Astonishingly, people who a half century ago flocked en masse to the Republican party because of their resentment against African Americans now wish to paint themselves as the allies of African Americans, as they play people of color against gay people. And as they do so, using duplicitous arguments such as the following:

§ Huckabee states: People who are homosexuals should have every right in terms of their civil rights, to be employed, to do anything they want.

The truth is: gay citizens of Arkansas have no legal protection against discrimination in areas such as housing, unemployment, healthcare, estate benefits, hospital visitation rights, etc. In this respect, they are like millions of other gay Americans in similar places throughout the land.

As governor of Arkansas, Rev. Huckabee did nothing to promote or protect the civil rights of gay Arkansans. To the extent that he could, he combated those civil rights in every way possible. And he did so in collaboration with his political party, which has followed a path of resistance to gay rights consistently for decades now.

It is disingenuous in the extreme for Rev. Huckabee to claim now, when he and his allies want to remove the right of marriage from gay Americans, that he suddenly supports “every right” of gay Americans “in terms of their civil rights.” Those resisting gay marriage also oppose every other civil right for gay citizens, when it is possible for them to do so. Their strategy is to continue using gay marriage as the focal point of a movement of resistance to every right possible for gay citizens, and to use gay human beings in cynical battles to consolidate their political power.

§ Huckabee states: But when we’re talking about a redefinition of an institution, that’s different than individual civil rights.

The truth is: the civil rights of African Americans were gained only at the cost of redefining numerous social institutions, including slavery itself. The extension of civil rights in our nation has demanded the redefinition of institutions that actively thwarted the extension of rights to various marginalized groups.

Opponents of gay marriage like to maintain (falsely) that marriage is a social institution from time immemorial, which has always involved marriage of one man to one woman, and which has never changed. Slavery itself was, until its abolition, a social institution from time immemorial.

It had biblical sanction. Apologists for slavery in the South consistently argued that those trying to abolish slavery were undermining the authority of the bible, attacking biblical institutions and biblical morality. The bible (and religion) were used as long as possible to bolster the enslavement of people of color in the United States. A war had to be fought to redefine our institutions in order to prevent this malicious misuse of longstanding social tradition and of religion to support the denial of human rights to a whole group of citizens.

What is different—essentially different, as Rev. Huckabee maintains—about the situation of gay human beings today? About the use of religion and the bible? About illicit use of “venerable” tradition? About the application of misleading slippery-slope arguments which declare that if you depart from the bible and tradition in this area, all hell will break loose in other areas?

§ Huckabee states: But here is the difference. Bull Connor was hosing people down in the streets of Alabama. John Lewis got his skull cracked on the Selma bridge.

The truth is: As Ali Frick notes, “To suggest that a civil rights movement must meet some sort of violence threshold is an incredibly dangerous argument — not to mention blind to the serious violence gay people have already suffered” (my emphases). Frick notes that FBI reports for last year indicate 16.6% of hate crimes in the U.S. were due to sexual orientation, and a study by University of California (Davis) in the same year found that 4 of 10 LGB Americans reported violence or crimes against their property due to their sexual orientation.

John Lewis got his skull cracked: has Rev. Huckabee really never seen a documentary about the murder of Matthew Shepard a decade ago? Has he read no news reports about this murder? If he had, surely he would have thought twice about using the skull-cracking argument, when Matthew Shepard’s skull was so badly crushed from repeated blows that doctors were unable to operate on him, as he died from injuries to his brain and brain stem from the smashing of his skull.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, there’s plenty of suffering to go around. Tragically, enough LGBT Americans are assaulted every year—solely because they are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered—that one could easily mail Rev. Huckabee a picture a week of these battered and murdered citizens and still have plenty to dispense, if he wanted to educate himself about violence to gay citizens.

As someone who grew up in Arkansas at the same time I did, he should know that the mainstream media always underreported—and, often, covered up—acts of violence against black citizens. This has been a longstanding practice of the media throughout the South, and in much of the rest of the nation, as well. There is still a troubling inequity in how the media cover, say, the disappearance of a little girl from a white family of means, and the disappearance of an African-American girl from a family without means.

And it is no different with gay citizens. Our situation is exactly like that of people of color, in this regard. Citizens like Rev. Huckabee can profess ignorance of the numerous acts of violence perpetrated against LGBT Americans only because they do not trouble to educate themselves by going beyond mainstream media reports to sources that care to report these crimes.

In the final analysis, what Rev. Huckabee is doing is so draconian—so anti-Christian—because it seeks to elicit anger on the part of people of color by playing horrendous violence done to one group of citizens against horrendous violence done to another group of citizens—in both cases, due to inborn characteristics that ought not to set the groups apart as stigmatized others. Violence is violence, whether it is done to people of color or to gay Americans.

There is violence aplenty in our society to go around. The authentic response of people of faith to unmerited violence imposed on a stigmatized social group is to challenge and seek to halt such violence. Not to play the violence of a “moral and deserving" group against an “immoral and undeserving" one. Not to stir ugly social resentments based on unfounded stereotypes.

Mildred Loving had it right when she noted, not long before her death:

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don't think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the "wrong kind of person" for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people's religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people's civil rights.

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard's and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That's what Loving, and loving, are all about (my emphases).

One would expect Rev. Huckabee as a minister of the gospel to be preoccupied with loving. And to listen to Mildred Loving, an African-American who, out of the crucible of her own struggle for civil rights—for the human right to marry—intuitively recognized the equivalence of her struggle for human and civil rights, and that of gay Americans.