Thursday, April 30, 2009

Vatican Undercuts Catholics of the Far and Center Right on Obama

I’ve blogged a number of times in the past (see e.g. here) about how the center of American Catholicism moved so far to the right in the final decades of the 20th century, that political and religious positions once considered unthinkably far right are now considered close to the center.

It’s interesting to track this shift in the American Catholic center by noticing the difference between how President Obama has been received at the Vatican, and how he’s being received by some vocal American Catholics who consider themselves Vatican-devoted Catholics of the highest order. The Vatican’s response to the new president has been, on the whole, far more moderate than that of a significant minority of American Catholics, including many of the bishops of the American Catholic church.

The disjuncture between where the American Catholic church now finds itself after decades of leadership that has pushed it to the political and religious right, and where the Vatican itself is on some issues (e.g., capital punishment, rights of workers, the obligations of the rich, the preferential option for the poor, the war in Iraq, etc.) is apparent in the reaction of center right Catholics to a 29 April article about President Obama in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (here, H/T David Gibson—see below). L’Osservatore Romano finds President Obama not the radical threat many Catholics had feared. And American Catholics of the far and center right are not happy to hear that assessment.

My source for the preceding link to John Thavis’s Catholic News Service Report about the L’Osservatore Romano statement is a posting by David Gibson yesterday on the Commonweal blog (here). It’s fascinating to read the comments of many of my fellow Catholics of the center right posting in response to David Gibson (and L’Osservatore Romano).

For some decades now, these brother and sister Catholics have been wont to inform the rest of us that they alone stand with the Vatican, that their voice alone represents “the” Catholic voice—they occupy the center and the rest of us are outside the pale. Now, when the official Vatican newspaper refuses to rant and rave about the new president as they are doing, they suddenly find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being at odds with the Vatican. Though they’d like to claim that their Catholicity is purer and truer than that of the majority of American Catholics who voted for Mr. Obama—that it is the Catholic position of Rome itself—the Vatican newspaper itself, L’Osservatore, is undercutting that claim.

Will the Vatican’s refusal to condemn Obama as American Catholics of the far and center right want result in a new awareness that, in the theology and political views of people like Robert W. Finn and Thomas Euteneur (here), the center of American Catholicism has finally moved so far to the right that it’s headed off the charts of Catholicity? It’s hard to know.

It may well be that, as they observe the unhinged reaction of some American Catholics to the election of the new president, some Vatican officials are finally beginning to recognize the considerable downside of the rough beast they have nurtured in American Catholicism for far too long now. There are growing indicators that some groups within the Vatican recognize that Benedict himself has been for far too long (including in his years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) a polarizer and not a uniter of the church.

I have to wonder if the statement in L’Osservatore Romano represents the considered opinion of some Vatican officials that there is a greater need on the part of the church to dialogue with “enemies,” rather than to lambast and excommunicate them—that is, if the church expects its voice to be heard and if it expects to remain viable in the cultures of the 21st century. I also have to wonder if some Vatican officials are beginning to recognize that the apocalpytic, devil-infatuated, blood-and-gore Catholicism that is trying to claim the center of American Catholicism after Obama's election is, well, just plain crazy—and exceedingly dangerous.

I don't know for sure. I’m not a Vaticanologist, and I grow weary of those who claim to have the insider's viewpoint from episcopal palaces and the Vatican, just as I grow weary of those precious viewpoints themselves, since they hardly represent the viewpoint of the entire church. I don’t claim to speak with certainty about what is going on in Rome or any bishop's palace or chancery office. Leave the chancery to bury the chancery: that's long been my philosophy of Catholic life.

Of one thing, I’m certain, however: it’s nice to have the Vatican issue this reminder that Catholicism is a much broader (and, at its best, a more sensible and morally compelling) phenomenon than many more-Roman-than-Rome American Catholics of the far right and center right would have us believe. It’s nice to have the Vatican’s voice, for a change, undercutting the claims of the Virginia Foxxes, Erik Princes, Maggie Gallaghers, Bill Donohues, Charles Chaputs, and, now, Newt Gingriches of the world to represent “the” Vatican position on matters political and religious.

Thought for the Day: James Baldwin on Our Connections, Helplessly and Forever

Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other.

James Baldwin, "Here Be Monsters, in, The Price of the Ticket (NY: St. Martin's, 1985)

An Open Letter to Virginia Foxx: Please Apologize for Denigrating Our Shared Faith

To build on what I posted yesterday about North Carolina Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (here): as my posting notes, on the House floor, with Matthew Shepard’s mother sitting across from her, this Catholic mother and grandmother stated that the claim that Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay is a hoax.

I wonder if Congresswoman Foxx has forgotten the circumstances of Matthew Shepard’s murder, how he was brutally pistol whipped, his facial bones cracked and his skull crushed, and then left to die hanging on a fence in the Wyoming countryside. It strikes me as strange that a woman serving in the United States Congress would not have read the abundant clear statements—including the testimony of Matthew Shepard’s murderers!—proving that Matthew Shepard was murdered in this atrocious way because he was gay.

I wonder, as well, how any mother and grandmother can be so conspicuously cruel in the face of the murder of someone else’s children—let alone a Catholic mother and grandmother who claims to value human life from the cradle to the grave.

For her statement on the House floor yesterday, Keith Olbermann awarded Virginia Foxx his Worst Person in the World award yesterday (here). An excerpt from his remarks:

There is no excuse for Congresswoman Foxx’s remarks. She is at best callous, insensitive, criminally misinformed. At worst she is a bald-faced liar, and if there is a spark of a human being in there somewhere, she should either immediately retract and apologize for her stupid and hurtful words, or she should resign her seat in the House. She is not worthy to represent this country nor any of its parties nor any of its peoples. She is our shame. And adding to our shame, she said all that as Matthew Shepard’s mother sat in the House gallery.

Is it fair to point to Virginia Foxx’s religious beliefs in a critique of her statement about Matthew Shepard’s murder? I think so.

Foxx herself has made a great deal of her Catholicism as the basis for her political viewpoints (though, in her heavily Baptist district of wester North Carolina, she has the reputation of being Baptist in North Carolina and Catholic in D.C.). Websites like One Nation Under God ("Proudly Bringing Faith Into the Public Square") tout Foxx’s Catholic identity and Catholic stands (here).

And Foxx has taken it on herself to lambast another Catholic member of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for (as Foxx believes) betraying authentic Catholic values. Last August, Foxx was one of several Catholic members of Congress who sent Nancy Pelosi a letter (here and here) stating,

On the Sunday, August 24th, broadcast of NBC’s Meet the Press, you stated “as an ardent, practicing Catholic, [abortion] is an issue that I have studied for a long time.” As fellow Catholics and legislators, we wish you would have made a more honest effort to lay out the authentic position of the Church on this core moral issue before attempting to address it with authority.

Foxx et al. upbraid Speaker Pelosi for “mangling” Catholic doctrine, and announce that they are compelled to refute Pelosi’s “error.” They note Catholic teaching that all human life is sacred from cradle to grave:

In the interview, Tom Brokaw reminded you that the Church professes the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being” (2274).

Foxx informs Speaker Pelosi that her “erroneous claim” about Catholic teaching on abortion “denigrates our common Faith.” She and her cohorts call on Speaker Pelosi to address the scandal they believed her to have caused, to correct her errors, and to apologize for misrepresenting church teaching and misleading fellow Catholics:

To reduce the scandal and consternation caused amongst the faithful by your remarks, we necessarily write you to correct the public record and affirm the Church’s actual and historical teaching that defends the sanctity of human life. We hope that you will rectify your errant claims and apologize for misrepresenting the Church’s doctrine and misleading fellow Catholics.

And since Virginia Foxx appears to think it important that Catholics correct other Catholics who misrepresent Catholic teaching and values in the public square, I’d like to apply the preceding observations to Foxx herself in the following open letter to Congresswoman Virginia Foxx:

Ms. Foxx: you are absolutely correct when you note that Catholic teaching emphasizes the sanctity of human lifeall human life—from conception to death. This means, of course, that the Matthew Shepards of the world have sacred worth: those children and grandchildren of someone else, about whose murder you can speak so callously, have sacred value. They are of inestimable worth in the eyes of God.

As with any murder, their murders cry out to God, who calls on us to build a world in which the sacred worth of every individual can be respected. In either lying about or unintentionally distorting what happened with the murder of this child of God, you have caused me and other Catholics “scandal and consternation.”

Will you please now “correct the public record” and “affirm the Church’s actual and historical teaching” about the sacred worth of every human being—yes, including
gay and lesbian human beings? Will you also please “apologize for misrepresenting the Church’s doctrine and misleading fellow Catholics” in what you said on the House floor yesterday?

Please do not claim to have been misinterpreted or to have misstated your point. You have represented yourself as an exemplar of Catholic values and Catholic truth.
What you said yesterday on the House floor “denigrates our common faith.” I am asking you specifically to address your betrayal of authentic Catholic teaching about the sanctity of all human life, in your remarks about Matthew Shepard’s murder.

Thank you for listening to my appeal to you as a fellow Catholic interested in what Catholics have to contribute to the public square. I feel sure that your financial backers with business connections—e.g., representatives of Anheuser-Busch brewing company (
here)—some of whom are also fellow Catholics, will be happy to have you correct your misrepresentation of Catholic teaching and apologize for the scandal and confusion your remarks have caused.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Virginia Foxx as a Representative of Catholic Values: Porcine Moral Reasoning

In a posting several days ago (here), I noted that when I look at the gap between what George W. Bush did in setting a system of torture in place, and what the United Methodist Church teaches about issues of justice and peace, I am deeply troubled. I also noted the discrepancy between what the United Methodist Church teaches about homophobia and heterosexism, and the behavior of some of its own institutions and members.

I ended that posting by noting that as I call on my Methodist brothers and sisters to hold their co-religionists accountable for the gap between their rhetoric and the reality of many Methodist lives, I also pledge myself to hold my Catholic brothers and sisters similarly accountable.

This posting is about Catholic accountability. Today on the floor of the U.S. House, North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx, a Catholic, stated that the claim that Matthew Shepard was killed because he was gay is a "hoax" (here).

Catholic mother and grandmother Virginia Foxx made this statement while Matthew Shepard's mother sat in the House gallery listening. As Michael Rowe notes in the Huffington Post article to which I have just linked,

I'd like to imagine the feelings of Judy Shepard as the hate crimes bill named after her murdered son passed the House in the presence of the woman whose contribution to the passage of that law was to attempt to besmirch his memory with ugly distortions.

But judging by Congresswoman Foxx's preposterous comments earlier in the day, I doubt she felt much besides a peevish sense that her side lost one more battle in what they like to call "the culture war." I rather suspect that calling bigotry and hate by their proper names is still news in Mrs. Foxx's private, personal, dark corner of North Carolina, where it's clearly still a cold October night in Laramie in 1998.

Virginia Foxx exemplifies what the American Catholic tradition has become in its most "morally porcine" variants, to use another of Rowe's phrases: willing to lie in order to defend "moral" points; eager to defend hate and violence when these are practiced against our "enemies"; and gleefully capable of claiming to defend family values while attacking someone else's children, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles.

It matters to me that Virginia Foxx is Catholic, and, as a Catholic, is capable of making such an atrociously false and morally obtuse statement about Matthew Shepard's murder. It matters even more that she defends hate while claiming to represent my religious community and its values. In just about every way I can think of, Virginia Foxx's consistent defense of big business and militarism, and her attacks on gay and lesbian persons, represent the antithesis of authentic Catholic values.

Update on Arkansas Anti-Gay Adoption Signatory Database: Threats from Family Council of Arkansas

An update to my posting yesterday (here) about the database that Know Thy Neighbor has placed online--names of those who signed a petition to place an anti-gay adoption act on the ballot in Arkansas during our last statewide election.

Our statewide free paper Arkansas Times is now reporting (here) that the Family Council of Arkansas, which sponsored this bill that has made it much harder for adoptive children in Arkansas to find homes, is protesting. Family Council wants to block the public's access to this database of names, and is (dishonestly) suggesting that Know Thy Neighbor may have broken unspecified laws in placing the database online.

These names are, of course, a matter of public record. No laws have been broken in placing them online. Family Council is well aware of that, and its talk of laws that may possibly have been broken is disingenuous. Family Council also threatens to have the legislature pass a law that prohibits the public from access to the names of signatories to any petitions to place acts on the ballot.

A reminder, by the way, that Family Council of Arkansas is an umbrella of Focus on the Family. This group and its activities in Arkansas are part of a well-orchestrated nationwide campaign of the political and religious right to use gay human beings as cannon fodder in political battles designed to garner Republican votes. This is a cynical game that counts on ill-informed and prejudiced people in states like Arkansas to vote "right" when the rainbow flag is waved in front of them.

Interestingly enough, one of the threads of discussion that has emerged at Arkansas Times about this petition centers on the claim of some signatories that they didn't really intend to sign the act, or didn't sign it, though their name is right there on the list for the world to see. One reason that laws protect public disclosure of the names of signatories to such petitions public is precisely to permit the public to verify that people actually did sign the petitions, and that no hanky-panky has gone on in getting a petition onto the ballot. It is strangely inconsistent to argue both that many names on such a petition are incorrect signatures, and that the public should not have access to the names.

The discussion of this matter on the Arkansas Times blog is fascinating and full of such ludicrous inconsistencies and lapses in logic. A strong contingent of folks posting want to depict those who signed the anti-gay adoption petition as victims.

Though their intent was to victimize gay citizens (and though they've ended up victimizing children in need of foster and adoptive homes), they're the victims all of a sudden. They didn't know what they were signing. Some mean person made them do it. Their church told them to do it. They just wanted to see democracy in action, to give everyone a chance to vote on this petition.

Please. It is absurd and not morally admirable to try to disclaim responsibility for our ugly acts only when they've come to light. A huge percentage of those supporting this gay-bashing bill are bible-believing Christians. Have they never read the gospel passage in which Jesus tells his followers that what they whisper in the dark will one day be shouted from the rooftops?

Why the shame, the disclaimers, and the dissembling? I had thought that the point of the moral crusade against gay brothers and sisters was precisely to be defiantly proud of one's fidelity to the scriptures, and of one's countercultural stance. And I had thought that those who take these defiant countercultural but oh-so-moral stands were also defiantly happy to pay a price for taking the moral high road.

The argument that I've done something ugly because my church told me to do so, and I now regret the ugliness because it's been made public: that argument is just pitiful. People who victimize others seek to claim victim status for themselves, when they've been exposed, with very ill grace.

Thought for the Day: Two Religious Traditions, Same Vision of Spiritual Life

Work more with a desire than with futile strength. . . . It is not what you are, and not what you have been, but what you wish to be that God considers with his merciful eyes.

The Cloud of Unknowing

Solomon’s mosque beyond matter is one that each of us must build. There’s no way to say how it will look, constructed as it is of what we intend and compassionate action.

Rumi, "Masnavi," in The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, trans. Coleman Barks (NY Harper, 2002), p. 283.

Bishop Finn Declares War: The Devil We Know

Most Americans may be unaware of this, but a U.S. Catholic bishop recently declared war (here) . . . on, well, just about everybody but himself and the religious right.

Speaking at the 2009 Gospel of Life Convention in Overland Park, Kansas, on the theme "Warriors for the Victory of Life,” Kansas City bishop Robert W. Finn announced, “We are at war.” Bishop Finn’s speech, which is going viral on websites of the political and religious right, is a rousing, rootin’, tootin’ call to the troops to gird on their armor and do battle with the enemy.

We: the enemy: war. Bishop Finn’s analysis of where “we” find ourselves today and who "our" enemy is enfolds a lot of hidden presuppositions that are never quite spelled out. “We” are clearly all Catholics, all good and faithful Catholics. Bishop Finn appears oblivious to (or does not seem willing to acknowledge) the fact that a majority of American Catholics rejected his call last November to vote against Mr. Obama, or that the large majority of American Catholics accept neither his analysis of abortion nor his political recommendations for dealing with the abortion issue.

So an important preliminary point to note about Bishop Finn’s call to “us” to gird our loins for war is that his “we” refers to his church and not necessarily ours—the tiny church of the pure and true believer, and not the large church of sinners and the unwashed. The “we” who are at war are a group of Christian warriors with a hidden gnosis, a peculiar vocabulary and eccentric worldview known only to the true believer, from which the rough masses are shut out.

That peculiar vocabulary and eccentric worldview revolve around images of battle, militancy, blood, and, above all, Satan. Yes, Satan—in all his scary-alluring glamor; Satan, the old deceiver and father of lies, who constantly tries to weave his snares around our feet and claim us for the kingdom of darkness. Satan, who can, the good bishop warns, lay claim to us without our knowing we’ve been so claimed: “So let’s be clear: Human beings are not Satan, but certainly they can come under his power, even without their fully realizing it.”

Bishop Finn’s brief lecture employs the name Satan five times, that of Jesus six times.

And that pretty much says it all to me, where this apocalyptic worldview of Satanic possession of people who don’t know they’re possessed, with its lurid imagery of war and bloodshed and its gnostic vocabulary and worldview, is headed. It’s headed way off the charts of Christian orthodoxy, as every other gnostic and apocalyptic form of Christianity has done in the past.

With its virtual equation of Jesus and Satan—Savior matched with Arch-Enemy—this is a worldview and theological system long ago condemned by most Christian churches, one that makes the devil as powerful as God. It’s a worldview and theological system that spectacularly miss the central point of the gospel proclamation: that Christ has died and is risen, and in this paschal event, the powers of evil have once and for all been decisively defeated.

Certainly in this already-but-not-yet time in which we move towards the eschatological consummation of that victory, we live amidst struggle. And certainly we struggle to make our voices heard in the public square, as pilgrim people who have no lasting place in history, but who are walking towards a New Jerusalem that totally transcends all that will be built in history. And without a doubt, we struggle against powers and principalities—though those demonic forces, in my view, have faces entirely different from those that occupy Bishop Finn’s fantasy, and they do not take control of my heart and mind without my desire to yield control to them.

But as we walk on that pilgrimage to a goal we can already glimpse, as we read the gospels and place ourselves on the way of discipleship in response to the gospels, we live in hope. We are a people of hope because the battle has already been won. Satan is defeated. With all others seeking a better world, with all those who, whether they believe or not or are Christian or not, glimpse that same eschatological vision of the possibility of history that we glimpse: with them, we build, we share, we make common cause.

We do not construe the majority of people in the world as our enemies because they are not our enemies. They are fellow pilgrims towards the reign of God. We do not rule the majority of our brothers and sisters out of the church because, if we did that, we would evacuate the term “catholicity” of its core meaning, and we would establish a church that is not church at all, not a home for all sinners in the world, but a counter-sign to the gospel’s invitation to all sinners to find a welcoming place among the community of those following Jesus.

With the election of Barack Obama, with the decisive checkmate of their lurid theocratic imaginings centered on domination and coercion, with the waning power of the political party to which they have uncritically given idolatrous status, Catholics of the right are boiling mad. They’re on the warpath. And they’re spinning off into theological never-neverland as they plot their strategies of war.

I had not intended to give any notice on this blog to an exceedingly strange Good Friday homily one member of the Catholic right placed on the web earlier this month. I don’t like helping to circulate the dangerous balderdash of the lunatic fringe of the religious right.

Now, however, I feel compelled to draw attention to this sermon, because it is a counterpoint to what Bishop Finn has recently stated about the church militant, Satan, and “our” need to be at war. To appreciate where Finn is coming from and what he’s getting at, it’s important to place his words against the backdrop of  the Good Friday homily of another clerical leader of the Catholic right, Rev. Thomas Euteneuer of Human Life International.

Euteneuer’s sermon, entitled “Good Friday: The World’s First Exorcism,” is the strangest Good Friday homily I have ever had the misfortune to read. It opens—wham, bam—right in the middle of apocalypse, with the Book of Revelation, the ravenous dragon seeking to devour the new-born baby of the woman clothed with the sun.

Yes, a Good Friday homily. Yes, an apocalyptic homily on the day set aside for liturgical remembrance of Jesus’s passion and crucifixion. Yes, on that day, a homily centered on the devil. Rev. Euteneuer’s homily uses the term “devil” ten times, the word “Jesus” twice.

This is a sermon about Jesus and his death that almost completely ignores Jesus and his death, except insofar as the latter is an adjunct to an elaborate gnostic system preoccupied instead with demonic possession and exorcism, with blood as a magic purifying substance in battles with demonic forces. No mention at all is made of how Jesus lived, of his constant preaching about love as the center of the life of discipleship, of how his death sums up that constant preaching in a definitive way.

In this sermon, Jesus is divorced—the life of Jesus, his words, are divorced—from Jesus’s blood, which is everywhere in the sermon. A magical, mystical substance that believers can somehow “call down” on their enemies and benighted family members who live outside gnostic certainty, including those “mired in an immoral lifestyle”—blood as weapon, as thaumaturgic object accessible only to true believers and withheld from those outside the tight circle of those believers:

The Blood of Christ is also our greatest weapon against the evil that afflicts those we love. Do you have a loved one that is pierced by an addiction? Call Christ's Blood down upon him daily. Pray that the shed Blood will penetrate all the demonic bonds on his soul and break their grip. Do you have a family member or friend mired in an immoral lifestyle? Immerse her in Christ's Blood and symbolically bring her in prayer to Calvary to stand with Mary at the only place in the world the devil will not go.

While using the term “Jesus” only twice in his homily, Euteneuer uses the word “blood” ten times. With Euteneuer as backdrop, do you see where Finn is headed with his call to true Catholics to do battle with Satan?

Battle with Satan in the America headed by Barack Obama, it goes without saying. One cannot understand the significance of this truly crazy theology without placing that theology in the context of the America of Barack Obama. When Bishop Finn insists on informing us that the devil is everywhere and can grab hold of our minds and hearts even if we are unaware of his diabolical influence, he wants us to think of Barack Obama, of Notre Dame University, of the millions of American Catholics who voted for and continue to support the new president.

He wants us to project onto the living, breathing human beings all around us—including those kneeling in church right beside us—the suspicion of demonic possession. He wants us to widen the circle of our enmity, not of our compassion.

Reading Finn and Euteneuer, you can understand, can’t you, why I concluded  a posting two days ago with the observation that we’ve worked long and hard to place ourselves, we American Catholics, in a “curious, irrelevant ghetto position when it comes to many of the most significant moral and political discussions of the day,” and that we now richly deserve to be dismissed by people of good sense and good will?

Blood and battle and the smoke of Satan, when people want to hear about hope and peace and fulfillment. About assurance that they and their loved ones will have adequate health coverage. About the possibility that they and their loved ones can find fulfilling work at a good wage. About access to good educations and freedom from discrimination.

Instead, we offer them in the name of Christ wild chatter about blood and battle and the wily old devil with whom we seem altogether more familiar than with Jesus. Yes: we do deserve to be marginalized by people of good will and good sense today.

Apocalyptic rants just won’t do the trick, if we expect to convince the general public that we have something of importance to offer. The louder we shout about the devil, the less convincing we can expect to be. These are arguments from weakness and not from strength—the kind of argument people of faith offer when they sense that they have lost or are about to lose a battle for which they were ill-prepared in the first place, because they were off-base in their analysis of the situation they were addressing.

People want hope, a better life, a chance to collaborate in building a better world, and what do we offer them: rants about Satan and magic blood we “call down” on the world and warfare in which we take barely concealed, shameful delight, as if shedding of blood somehow satisfies us. When people begin nattering on about the devil, I long ago decided to stop listening, because I recognize that they have lost connection with what is truly important in the spiritual life.

And I suspect that's going to be the reaction of large numbers of our fellow citizens, as Finn's war gets underway. It will also, I feel sure, be the reaction of large numbers of Catholics who, to the shame of our pastoral leaders, have been made to feel less welcome in the church today than Robert Finn and Thomas Euteneuer, with their wild babble about the devil.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Subverting Family Values: The Arkansas Anti-Gay Adoption Initiative in Retrospect

Yesterday, the organization Know Thy Neighbor put online (here) the names of 84,000 citizens of my home state who signed the petition to place on our last statewide ballot an initiated act to ban adoption by unmarried couples in Arkansas. I’ve blogged in the past (here) about a similar database that Know Thy Neighbor has placed online for Florida. Though some of those who sign these anti-gay petitions object when their names are made public, the names in these databases are a matter of public record.

I’ve also blogged about the anti-gay adoption initiative in Arkansas (here and here). As my postings on this initiative note, though it prohibits all unmarried couples in Arkansas from adopting, its target is clearly gay citizens. It was one among several such initiatives that the religious and political right floated in the last election to bring out the faithful and assure that they would vote “right.”

As my postings also note, the Arkansas initiative was particularly mean-spirited, because, in the hope of stirring animosity against gay citizens and bolstering Republican votes, it actually penalizes children who need foster and adoptive homes. We are a state in which there is a dearth of adoptive homes and a surplus of children needing such homes. The ultimate effect of the anti-gay adoption initiative in Arkansas is to make it harder for children to be placed in foster and adoptive homes.

With the pretense of promoting family values, the religious right is making it difficult for many children in Arkansas to have any experience of family at all in their formative years. It is also assaulting families that, for all kinds of reasons, are headed by two adults (of the opposite or same sex) who are not married. The law my state passed in the last election makes it impossible for a grandparent who is living with someone else without benefit of marriage to adopt his or her own grandchild.

These are points underscored in a press release that Know Thy Neighbor issued as it placed the names of petition signers online (here). Tom Lang of Know Thy Neighbor states,

“. . . [T]he Arkansas Family Council . . . used the welfare of children, the most vulnerable in our society, those in foster care and in need of adoption, in order to prove their claim that loving gay couples should not be adoptive or foster parents,” alleges Lang. “If you have a problem with me, if my sexual orientation is such a threat to you that you feel the need to take action against me, then come on, go after me. But don’t use children as fodder for your agenda. What sort of cowards would do that?”

And so I search the database this morning, and what do I find? A cousin of mine who is a Baptist minister signed the petition. So did his wife. So did the wife of that cousin’s brother, also a Baptist minister. My brother’s business partner (who is also his sister-in-law) signed the petition.

When members of one’s own family sign such a petition, it is personal. These family members obviously think that, should Steve and I wish to adopt a child, we would not be fit to parent that child—as they themselves are fit.

These family members clearly do not think that Steve and I are family—not in the same way in which they are family.

That message is not, of course, new to me. It’s one that has been consistent on the rare occasions in recent years when I have had to endure time with these family members who treat me as non-family, as a lesser human being.

The last two gatherings that have found us all together have been a wedding and a funeral—their mother’s remarriage following the death of my uncle, my father’s brother; and the funeral of my aunt, my father’s sister. At the wedding, someone called for a family photograph.

Steve and I were sitting in a church pew beside my aunt when this call went out. My cousins beckoned me, my aunt and uncle, and other cousins and their spouses to join them for the picture. Knowing how they feel about him (how could he not know? Treacly Southern hugs and beaming smiles can only go so far to disguise strong disdain), Steve remained seated as I joined the family.

At which point, my soft-spoken, gentle, never combative aunt, the matriarch of the family, whose voice would normally count, said, “I think Steve should be in the picture. He’s family.”

Everyone heard her, but it was as if the walls, and not a person, had spoken. My cousins went right on with the family photo session, with all spouses included except Steve. Certainly not Steve. This was a church, after all, a sanctuary for family values. It was a church pastored by one of the cousins, for Christ’s sake. A First Baptist Church.

How could a gay spouse be included in a picture like this, in a family such as this? We smiled for the camera, cooed at each other and said goodbye, and headed to our separate homes. What my cousins felt as the gathering ended, I can't say. I can certainly attest to what I felt, though: relief. Escape. Liberation. A determination never to spend any time with these family members in the future, if I can avoid it.

And now here are their names on this list, for God and all to see.

What does one do with such a testimony to the real family values of some family members? What does one do when one’s own commitment to family and to the way of Christian discipleship is completely at odds with the way in which other family members choose to interpret family and to read the bible?

Recent media articles are noting that increasing support for gay marriage around the U.S. will result in divisions in the churches. To those of us who are gay, this is not news at all.

We've been living with the divisions for some time now. We've been on the outside looking in—in church families and families of origin—for some years now. We live the divisions. They already run through our own families and our lives, through our very psyches.

And because of them, we often run the other way, when a “family” gathering is announced, or when someone invites us to be part of their church “family.” We've learned long ago that the word “family” can be used to mean the opposite of what that word means traditionally.

In traditional usage, the term “family” means inclusion, welcome, the place you know you will always be taken in no matter who you are or what you've done. In the mouths of many contemporary Christians, though, the word is a weapon, designed to hurt, to demean, to exclude family members who happen to be born gay or lesbian. Family is anything but the place where you know you'll always be taken in, if you're gay or lesbian.

Entire churches have constructed their identity around an ethic of exclusion of those of us who are gay, and they have done so while claiming to promote family values. While professing absolute fidelity to “traditional” notions of family, they have chipped away at the real, essential meaning of family in their own family circle and in their churches to such an extent that no one but a fool would imagine that these families and these churches are all about family.

No. They're about its opposite. They're about assuring that many people who need the solace and shelter of family will not find it when they need it. And to their shame, these promoters of family values have added to that list children without homes and families of their own, in the state of Arkansas.

Thought for the Day: "Hell. What's the Presidency for?"

When Lyndon Johnson advised his aides, just days after President Kennedy was assassinated, that he intended to use his presidency to enact landmark civil rights laws, he was warned that it was far too early to risk the nation's support on something so controversial. "Hell," Johnson replied, "What's the presidency for?"

Robert Kuttner, "Obama Has Amassed Enormous Political Capital, But He Doesn't Know What to Do with It," Huffington Post (here), citing President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

My commentary on LBJ's statement: leaders waste their moral capital (and leadership capital) when they do not lead, particularly in the area of protecting and promoting the human rights of all. It is particularly disappointing to see leaders whose life experience should yield a strong commitment to human rights for all begin to waver and dodge on human rights issues, once they are placed in positions of power (here, H/T Julie Arms). When people experience oppression due to innate characteristics like gender or race, one always hopes that, placed in positions of leadership, they will become leaders committed to the human rights of all. To defend conscientious objections to racism and sexism while rejecting the claims of conscience vis-a-vis homophobia is inconsistent and morally offensive.

Churches that turn a blind eye to homophobia cannot legitimately expect to be listened to, when they preach against racism and sexism. And leaders who do not lead in the area of human rights undermine their claim to be leaders.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Catholics and the Public Square: The Domain of the Crazy Fringe?

I just wrote (here),

I’m disheartened by the way in which so many of my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center seem to keep missing the point: that . . . our jabber among ourselves about these issues, and the morally obtuse intellectual parsing that goes on in this intramural discussion, places us in a curious, irrelevant ghetto position when it comes to many of the most significant moral and political discussions of the day.

And I opined,

And as we parse and parse these issues and fume and fret about Notre Dame and Mr. Obama, nary word from any of our bishops about torture. It’s no wonder what we have to say to the culture at large is regarded as insignificant today. We have earned our insignificance, in spades.

And now, having written that, I scan the Commonweal blog again, to find an interesting post by Grant Gallicho (here), linking to the Vox Nova blog, where a blogger called Morning Minion has posted (here):

The Catholic right may think they have won a major tactical victory with the “watershed moment” over Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame, but nothing could be further from the truth. More and more, the core life issues of abortion and ESCR will be seen as the domain of the crazy fringe, and will become more disassociated from the broader culture of life issues that define Church teaching. The reaction of many supposed pro-life Catholics to Iraq and to torture will not be forgotten. And that is an absolute disaster if Catholics have any hope of persuading the general culture that abortion is not a “right” to be cherished, much as Catholics have slowly but surely been turning the tide against the death penalty.

Yes. That is my point. Absolutely so.

Except that I would include in the opening phrase, "The Catholic right and the center that is all too prone to defend and give voice and legitimacy to the right . . . ."

An Appeal to the Catholic Bishops to Denounce Violence: Dennis O'Brien Writes Cardinal George

Calls for the U.S. Catholic bishops to repudiate rhetoric that fuels violence in American political discourse and culture (here) have not ended with the presidential election. On the Commonweal blog yesterday (here), Margaret O’Brien Steinfels published a recent letter of Dennis O’Brien to Cardinal Francis George, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

O’Brien calls on Cardinal George, as head of the bishops’ conference, to “publically and unequivocally denounce anything that even hints at a ‘hate Obama’ movement.” O’Brien concludes, “As Christians we never endorse hatred but in the statements and stance of many bishops, legitimacy is being lent to hatred.”

I am, frankly, sickened by the faint, ambivalent response of many of my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center-right to the real possibility of violence that the bishops’ injudicious language about abortion and courting of extremist anti-abortion groups elicits. I am sickened by the quibbling, dismissive references to Godwin’s law among some of the respondents to O’Brien’s letter at the Commonweal thread—as if any reference to the Nazi period and what led up to it, no matter how pertinent, is illicit in discussions of potential violence in our society today, and as if Godwin’s law is about suppressing such discussion rather than a wry observation about the statistical probability of Nazi references in political discussions.

I’m disheartened by the way in which so many of my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center seem to keep missing the point: that we can’t talk about a commitment to life and resistance to violence while engaging in rhetorical maneuvers that inflame violence; that we have lost moral credibility through our fanatical, blind devotion to a single political party, which has caused us to be totally silent about the serious moral shortcomings of that party’s platform and its leaders; and that our jabber among ourselves about these issues, and the morally obtuse intellectual parsing that goes on in this intramural discussion, places us in a curious, irrelevant ghetto position when it comes to many of the most significant moral and political discussions of the day.

We’ve worked long and hard to put ourselves in that position.

And as we parse and parse these issues and fume and fret about Notre Dame and Mr. Obama, nary word from any of our bishops about torture. It’s no wonder what we have to say to the culture at large is regarded as insignificant today. We have earned our insignificance, in spades.

Thought for the Day: The Other WhoTurns Out to Be Like Us

Rather than the remote “other” being perceived as problematic and/or dangerous, it is the proximate “other,” the near neighbor, who is most troublesome. That is to say, while difference or “otherness” may be perceived as being either LIKE-US or NOT-LIKE-US, it becomes most problematic when it is TOO-MUCH-LIKE-US or when it claims to BE-US.

Jonathan Z. Smith, “Differential Equations: On Constructing the ‘Other,’” 1992 Arizona State University Annual Lecture in Religion (Arizona State Dept. of Religious Studies, 1992), p. 13.

More Welcome at Work Than in Church: State of the Workplace for Gay Citizens

In a posting last week (here), I cited a recent interview with Soulforce co-founder Mel White (here), in which he notes that the movement to treat gays as human persons with rights equal to those of other persons is far more advanced in the laws and practices of most Western cultures than in the churches.

Mel White notes that the United Methodist Church remains split about the question of whether even to admit gay members, let alone affirm the human dignity and divine worth of those members in God’s eyes once they are admitted. He notes that, even as awareness of the human rights of gay persons is increasing in Western cultures, many churches are permitting themselves to be held hostage by right-wing political groups whose real agenda is to undercut their traditions of social engagement and solidarity with the marginal.

In a posting last Friday (here), I noted the continuing strong influence of groups like the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in the United Methodist Church. As numerous well-documented postings of mine about this political organization have noted, IRD is essentially a neoconservative political-activist organization operating under the guise of a watchdog group to preserve orthodoxy in mainline Protestant churches in the U.S.

Its real goal is to eviscerate the tradition of critical social teaching in these churches. It uses wedge issues like abortion and homosexuality to divide churches, to siphon away energy for and commitment to social teachings critical of rapacious free-market capitalism and injurious to the poor, and to distract church members from the really significant moral challenges facing churches today.

Many churches have only slowly become aware of the real game of groups like IRD. These groups have been given large room to participate (some would say, meddle) in the inner deliberations of various churches up to now, in part because these groups can buy that room with their abundant funding sources and connections to the politically and economically powerful.

As Frederick Clarkson notes in a 2006 PublicEye.org article about the battle for the soul of mainline churches in the U.S. (here), unless church leaders and members begin to recognize the political context of what now seem to be internal church struggles around abortion and homosexuality, and unless they repudiate the undue influence on church institutions of these right-wing political organizations masquerading as watchdogs for orthodoxy, the churches will end up becoming mouthpieces for the rich and powerful, rather than what they are meant to be, prophetic critics of the status quo.

Clarkson quotes Rev. John Thomas of the United Church of Christ, who calls on the mainline churches to become more critically aware of the game that groups like IRD are playing with the churches, and to combat attempts of such groups to take over the churches. Rev. Thomas states,

“Groups like the Evangelical Association of Reformed, Christian and Congregational Churches and the Biblical Witness Fellowship,” he said last year, “are increasingly being exposed even as they are increasingly aggressive.” Their relationship to the right-wing Institute for Religion and Democracy and its long-term agenda of silencing a progressive religious voice while enlisting the church in an unholy alliance with right-wing politics is no longer deniable. United Church of Christ folk like to be “nice,” to be hospitable. But, to play with a verse of scripture just a bit, we doves innocently entertain these serpents in our midst at our own peril.

And, as if to confirm Mel White’s observation that the churches are lagging far behind the secular culture in recognizing the human worth and rights of gay persons (and are lagging behind because they have allowed themselves to be captivated by right-wing political-activist groups like IRD), in a recent article entitled “Better Gay at Work Than in Church” (here), Paul Gorrell reports that many secular employers are far ahead of the churches, when it comes to granting equal rights to gay employees.

Gorrell cites a recent Human Rights Campaign report on “The State of the Workplace for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Americans,” which shows that 85% of Fortune 500 companies have protections based on sexual orientation for employees, 57% offer partnership benefits, and 18 Fortune 100 companies offer transgender-inclusive health benefits. Gorrell concludes, “In general, gay people are more welcome at work than they are at church.”

Sad, no? And, sadly, I concur. As I’ve noted on this blog, based on Steve’s and my experiences in Catholic and United Methodist colleges and universities, I would not encourage any openly gay LGBT young person to consider a career in most churches or church-owned institutions. The churches and their institutions are, on the whole, failing lamentably at being welcoming places for those who are gay or lesbian.

The agenda of the Maxie Dunnams (here) of the world—and the churches and their institutions are unfortunately full of Maxies—is decidedly to make anyone who is gay or lesbian unwelcome. No matter what Jesus said or what Jesus did.

This is proud bigotry and proud hypocrisy. Those engaging in this anti-ministry of exclusion in the name of Christ are, of course, cynically aware that they do not and do not intend to hold heterosexual church members to the standards they wish to impose on gay and lesbian members. The selective and hypocritical appeal to standards about celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is bluntly not about sexual morality at all: it's about keeping LGBT people out of the churches and demonstrating to us that we are despised and unwelcome.

Sadly, many secular employers today offer young gay folks what the churches claim to offer, but refuse to deliver, when the one knocking at the door is gay. Young gay folks entering the workforce who want affirmation of themselves as human beings, economic and social resources to live with dignity, freedom from discrimination, a place in which to offer their talents and fulfill themselves as human beings, hope for the future, a social space in which to form healthy, long-term, committed relationships, would be well advised to avoid most churches and their institutions.

People do have to find salvation and hope somewhere. When the churches’ doors are decisively closed to gay folks, we’ll look elsewhere. That’s the only choice the churches are willing to offer us right now, in many instances.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Thought for the Day: Kevin Sessums on Men who Pray and Prey

Spiritual murders take place at the hands of such men. What must their most secret prayers be like, these men who pray and prey and pray and prey?

Kevin Sessums, Mississippi Sissy (NY: Saint Martin’s, 2007), p. 232 (Sessums is writing about his experience of being sexually abused as a young teen by a minister [Methodist] in Mississippi).

Week's End News Roundup: Religious Right and Anti-Gay Hate

As the week ends, an assortment of news articles and blog postings about which I’ve been thinking this week.

First, Wayne Besen links the religious right to increased gay bashing around the globe (here). Besen notes the rise of violence against gay people in places like Iraq, Burundi, Uganda, Nigeria, Moscow, and Jamaica. He attributes the increased anti-gay violence in some of these nations to the deliberate exporting of homophobia by religious right groups in the U.S. in the past several decades:

What we are seeing in front of our eyes is the globalization of gay bashing. The United States has exported marketing techniques and church structures to culturally homophobic countries. The sexual minorities caught in these nations do not have the same freedoms that we enjoy in the west, so they can't fight back. They are essentially voiceless and fearful -- allowing insidious myths and stereotypes to go unchallenged. With gay people effectively demonized and hatred promoted by civic and religious leaders, hysteria on gay issues ensues.

"U.S. religious right sponsored programs blossomed under the Bush administration," explained Christina Engela of the GLBT group SAGLAAD in South Africa, noting the rise of such groups in her country. "Suddenly these people are using us as scapegoats to unite and build their power bases."

And, as if to prove Besen’s point, religious right groups in the U.S. have been raising a hue and cry against the so-called Matthew Shephard bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 1913), which yesterday received approval of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House. The bill, which would criminalize acts of violence directed to those who are gay because they are gay, will be brought before the House sometime in the next weeks or months. This act received both House and Senate approval in the Bush administration, but was vetoed by President George W. Bush when it reached his desk.

As Bill Berkowitz reports at Religion Dispatches (here), powerful organizations of the religious right have misrepresented this bill as legislation that would establish thought police to prevent churches preaching anti-gay prejudice. The bill penalizes acts that can clearly be traced to homophobic intent. Berkowitz notes,

Teetering between irascibility and irrelevance, spokespersons for a number of conservative Christian outfits are warning that on Wednesday, April 22, Christians will once again be victimized by perpetrators of the gay agenda, and life—as they know it—will change forever. That is the day that the House Judiciary Committee considers hate crimes legislation that would finally confer on sexual orientation the same legal status as race and religion.

It is impossible to read what the “Christian” organizations cited in Berkowitz’s report are saying about this hate-crimes legislation and to avoid reaching the following conclusion: the religious right wants hate in the name of Christ to be protected. The religious right is actively defending hate against gay and lesbian persons. At the same time that these organizations are either completely silent about or actually in support of torture practiced by the U.S. government, they are promoting, defending, and exporting homophobic hate—in the name of Christ.

These are points that blogger John Aravosis has made powerfully in two important postings on his America Blog this week (here and here). As the second of the two postings just cited notes,

The religious right's main legislative effort surrounding their right to kill is centered around the hate crimes amendment being debated in the House this week. As Joe wrote earlier, the hate crimes amendment takes the current US hate crimes law, that has been on the books for decades, and applies it to everyone.

Under the existing law, only violence inspired by the hatred of some classes of Americans is covered - some might even say that those classes, which include Christian fundamentalists, have been granted "special rights" under the law, since only some groups, and not others, are included in the current law. Already included in the current law is violence motivated by the race, religion or national origin of the victim. The hate crimes amendment being debated today would add gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity to the already-existing law.

Regardless of your views on the propriety of hate crimes laws, if America is going to have such a law on the books - and we already do - shouldn't it protect everyone? If not, then the very nightmare that hate crimes law opponents predict - a world in which some classes of people have more legal protections than others - will not only be a reality, it will remain our current reality.

Of course, isn't that what this is all about? The religious right is desperate to protect its special rights. Thus, they viciously attack a law that secretly already protects them, in order to ensure that no other classes of Americans receive similar protection. They invoke their right to kill, in order to defeat a law that is intended to stop the killing. If the religious right were truly opposed to hate crimes laws, they would be agitating to repeal America's current hate crimes law, the one protecting them. But they're not.

And, at the same time that we move closer in the U.S. to long overdue and much-needed laws that protect gay citizens from violence directed against us solely because we are gay, some churches continue to question whether gay persons should even be admitted to the church. I have noted before on this blog that, in some regions of the country (Florida comes to mind, because of experiences I have had with Methodist institutions in that state), the United Methodist Church is split on the question of whether gay persons should even be admitted to United Methodist churches—let alone affirmed in any way by United Methodist churches (here and here).

As an indicator that groups within the United Methodist Church continuing to resist the very inclusion of gay people in the church remain alive and well: two leaders of the anti-gay movement in the UMC have recently released videos calling on United Methodists to vote against an amendment to the church’s Book of Discipline at their annual conferences. The amendment in question is amendment 1 to paragraph 4 of the UMC Book of Discipline. The amendment is part of a set of amendments on the structure of the church which last year’s General Conference has now placed before UMC annual conferences, for deliberation prior to the next General Conference.

The passage in question deals with eligibility for membership in United Methodist churches. The proposed amendment would emphasize the eligibility of all persons for church membership. This language is being resisted, however, by those within the United Methodist Church who wish to continue excluding openly gay persons from United Methodist churches, and who claim that the church has an obligation to call openly gay persons to repentance and to a renunciation of sexual activity before they join the church.

What is at stake here is, quite simply, the wish of some groups within the United Methodist Church to target and exclude a particular group of human beings—gays and lesbians—from church membership, solely because they are gay. The two videos recently produced by leaders of the anti-gay movement in the United Methodist Church, Revs. Maxie Dunnam and Eddie Fox, make that point abundantly clear (here and here). I blogged about Fox’s activities at General Conference last year (here and here). As these links indicate, Fox, who heads UMC’s World Evangelism program, led the charge as delegates voted to continue the current language of the Book of Discipline characterizing the practice of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian life.

To his shame, in his video, Rev. Dunnam even tries to play the gays = pedophile card to encourage UMC Annual Conferences to reject the amendment to the Book of Discipline. He also states,

It [i.e., the proposed amendment] would also mean that a local church could not expect such persons to fulfill what we ask of all our members—faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness either before or after they join.

After watching Rev. Dunnam’s video, I read that line to a friend of mine who grew up in the United Methodist Church in North Carolina. My friend was a United Methodist Sunday School teacher for many years. He laughed uproariously at the suggestion that United Methodist Churches “ask of all” prospective members or actual members that they give assurance of their fidelity to sexual teachings.

My Methodist friend confirmed that my impression of United Methodist churches and their institutions is correct: only gay persons are being singled out in this way by some of these churches and institutions. Methodist churches and institutions would never dream of imposing on their heterosexual members the strictures about faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness that some Methodists want to impose on their gay brothers and sisters—to exclude them from church membership.

This is all about something that is intensely shameful, and undercuts the most fundamental claims of many Christian churches today to represent Jesus and to understand what church is about at its most basic level. It is all about making gay and lesbian people unwelcome in churches.

I’m interested in the coordinated use these two leaders of the anti-gay movement in the UMC are making of YouTube right now. Maxie Dunnam joined YouTube on 6 April (here). Eddie Fox joined the following day (here).

And as soon as these videos attacking the proposed legislation had been uploaded to YouTube, links to them began to circulate on various blogs, some of which note that links to the videos were also being emailed out to General Conference delegates. For instance, blogger Shane Raynor of Wesley Report has recently posted a piece encouraging readers to view Dunnam’s video and click the share link at the bottom of the video to send it to their General Conference delegates (
here).

Within three days after the videos went online at YouTube, Beth Ann Cook of Maxie Dunnam's Asbury Seminary also uploaded a statement attacking amendment 1 to the Facebook site of the Confessing Movement (
here), and linked that Facebook site to Dunnam's and Fox's videos.

The clearly coordinated appearance of two of the chief leaders of the anti-gay movement in the United Methodist Church on YouTube; their use of videos to try to influence deliberation and votes at Annual Conference in advance of General Conference; their support in this activity by bloggers around the Internet: these give the appearance of a well-oiled (and apparently well-funded) campaign prior to the next General Conference to offset any action by delegates that might make the United Methodist Church more gay-friendly and gay-inclusive.

Where is the money for this well-organized online anti-gay media campaign in the United Methodist Church coming from, one has to wonder? Given the close ties of Rev. Dunnam to the Confessing Movement and the Good News Movement of the United Methodist Church—both of which have strong ties (including funding ties) to the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which has persistently sought to push mainstream Protestant churches in the U.S., including the United Methodist Church, to the right—one cannot help but wonder about the possibility that political groups entirely outside the United Methodist Church are now at work, once again, to predetermine the conclusions of the church's next General Conference.

For those interested in further documentation of the points made in the preceding paragraph, please click links on Bilgrimage to the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and see as well here and here and here and here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day Again: Remembering Roses

It is very hard to write when roses are in bloom. I want to spend long periods outside, just observing each rose in different light at different moments of the day, noticing how the fragrance becomes lighter or more intense in different weather patterns or at different times of the day.

Of all flowers, roses are as much idea as execution of soil, light, leaf, air, and water. It is impossible to look at or smell a rose and not think, somewhere deep in the collective unconscious of one’s mind, of mysticism and romantic love, of the high gardens of the ancient Near East that gave this marvelous flower to the world. We do not grow roses by accident in gardens in Little Rock or Omaha or Chipping Norton or Buenos Aires. We do so because they are part of our cultural heritage, a long tradition rooted in something more than soil. Roses mean something. And so we struggle to grow them and enjoy their bloom for brief periods of glory each year even in climates of alternating heat and cold, drought and humidity, that defy easy cultivation of this flower of lore and myth.

My roses mean something even more particular to me, and this is part of what draws me repeatedly out of the house when they are in bloom, to look and smell. There’s the old red climber that we have had now since the mid-1980s, and have taken with us everywhere we have moved since then, so that it has offspring all around Charlotte and in Florida, and now lives on all sides of our house in Little Rock, climbing up and along each fence.

We call it the Mouton Bickham rose, because it came to us from an elderly neighbor with that name, on whose shed it rambled prolifically, without any care, fragrancing the entire section of Tremé in which we lived in New Orleans in the 1980s. Mr. Bickham died while we lived beside him, and the rose means even more to us now, as a reminder of his life, of his gentle, quiet, humorous presence on his stoop each evening, as he sat in the shade to try to catch a cool breeze, any breeze, in the torrid New Orleans summer.

Neighborhoods die when Mouton Bickhams leave and are not replaced. And how does one replace a wise, elderly African-American man whose very presence on a porch in the evening, as he exchanged greetings or stories with passersby, stabilizes and humanizes a neighborhood?

I’ve tried for years to identify our Mouton Bickham rose. I knew it had to be an old rose, because it requires no care, is not susceptible to black spot in our ferocious summers, and has the sprawling habits and intensely fragrant blooms of many old roses. Its smallish doubled blossoms of an indeterminate red somewhere between crimson and mauve are not particularly prepossessing, but have the classic, simple, beauty of roses before they were fussed with (and often made horrible) by hybridizers and landscape mavens.

I’ve decided at last that it’s a climbing sport of a rose once common in old New Orleans gardens, Louis Philippe, which came to New Orleans in 1798 and established itself there with such alacrity that it is now often called the Creole rose—or the Florida rose, since it grows well in that semi-tropical climate as well, something to which we can attest, after we brought a cutting there and saw it, in one summer’s time, grow from a small slip to a rose high enough to reach the roof of our house.

When it blooms, the fragrance is so intense—a heavy, true, classic rose scent with undertones alternately sweet and spicy, but always intensely redolent of the inimitable smell we think of as rose—that people would stop their cars in front of our house in North Carolina to ask what smelled so good around our house. We gave I don’t know how many cuttings to neighbors, friends, strangers there. It does my heart good to think of Mr. Bickham’s old climbing rose, his Louis Philippe Creole rose, now fragrancing one garden after another in the Carolina Piedmont, far from its geographic and cultural origins in New Orleans, and in France before that.

Intertwined with the Bickham-Louis Philippe on a white trellis on the south side of our house is another old climber whose name I do not know. This is a very fragrant, beautiful yellow rose with large, flat, open blooms that shift from apricot to gold as the blossom opens. Its fragrance is lighter than, but as intense as, that of the Louis Philippe—a cleaner, spicier rendition of classic rose tones, with a slightly herbal underscent. Its blossoming habit is blowsy: the rose opens and flattens quickly, revealing a pronounced, beautiful circle of yellow-brown stamens at its center.

I cherish this rose—and worry about it: it is difficult—because it has belonged to people I love, in my family, for over half a century now. All through my childhood, it climbed up the northeast side of my grandmother’s house, around the windows of her kitchen and breakfast room. It was a fixture in the rose garden that stood just outside the kitchen on that side of the house.

None of us ever knew the name of the rose, because it had been a pass-along plant rather than one my grandmother brought from her beautiful big country garden when she, my mother, and my mother’s siblings moved into the city as World War II ended. A neighbor passing by the house, who saw my grandmother at work among her roses one day around 1950, returned home, clipped a cutting from her yellow climber, and brought it to my grandmother.

Who cherished the rose that grew from the cutting for the rest of her life, up to her death in 1968. At which point, it became a carefully guarded treasure of my mother’s oldest sister, who inherited her mother’s house, and who tended this rose alone as she let the rest of the rose garden (and all the other beautiful, fragrant shrubs and trees around the house: gardenias, glossy abelia, hydrangeas, forsythia, flowering quince, camellias, bridal wreath, dogwoods, Japanese magnolias) languish and die.

In the period after my grandmother’s death, the rose became, in my mind, Kat’s rose, her favorite yellow climber, on which she never failed to remark as she worked in the yard or walked to the stores up the street to do her daily shopping. The rose became identified with Kat for me, too, because it was yellow, her favorite color, one she wore with green, russet, and other fall colors, to set off her red hair. When she died in 2001 and the house was sold, I dug the rose up and brought it to my garden several blocks away.

Where it has struggled for several years to establish itself, and where I can get no cuttings to root. It is not an easy rose. It seems to respond neither to fertilizer nor mulching, lack of mulch, increased light or increased shade. It does its own thing, and I have decided to let it do whatever that thing is, as it sends its tentative new canes among the rowdy, prolific Louis Philippe beside which it’s planted.

To study these roses when they bloom, to bring their blossoms to my nose and draw in their scent, is more than an exercise in gardening or aesthetic appreciation. It’s an act of remembrance—of people and worlds now gone, bits of which and bits of whom have been entrusted into my hands.

So that I remember. And care. And pass along who they were and what they cherished, in the hope that someone after me will continue to remember and to care.

Thought for the Day: Newman on Relentlessly Reasoned Ideas and Hard Hearts

No ideas are more wild than those which are relentlessly reasoned out by the hard heart and the sober judgement.

John Henry Newman, The Theological Papers of John Henry Newman on Faith and Certainty (Oxford, 1976), ed. H.M. de Achaval and J.D. Holmes (p. 95, from Newman’s notebook, 1863).

An Earth Day Meditation: On the Furry Mind of God

This Earth Day meditation is a day late. But since the topic doesn't cease to be topical, I want to post today, in celebration of Earth Day yesterday, the following entry from my journal of 5.1.1994. I'm dedicating this entry to a new-found friend, Daisy, at the Fur-licity blog site:

Last night as I lay on the futon, Arabella* crept up next me, as she's wont to do, as if she's an unnoticeable wraith approaching and not a lumbering mass of overgrown puppy flesh. She lies beside me with her long nose ensconced in the crook of my arm and demands--absolutely demands--that I pet her with my other hand. The minute I cease, her snout begins a ceaseless interrogation, pushing my arm and hands to make me start again. As I pet, she lies like a sybarite, eyes half closed in an eschaton of pleasure.

What I thought of was this: if dogs are made in God's image, as humans are, then God is furry and canine, as well as anthropic. It's a hard idea to express; I glimpse it more than see it. It's that, in order for God to make, God must be like what She makes. God doesn't make by imperious edict and fiat, but by birthing out of her own womb what is simultaneously of herself, stamped in her image, and not herself. God lends flesh and substance to everything she births. So dogs are made in God's image, and we see the face of God in their faces.

I ought perhaps to add that one idea that brought me to this thought was a notion that struck me earlier in the day. As I watched the three dogs, I became aware that they know in ways that more or less elude us. It's not that their "reason" is subrational, subhuman: it's in some ways deeper and more profound, less complexified and so more intent, less troubled, than that of humans. Dogs know, I'm convinced, with a profound intuitive awareness.

How else can one explain their nobility at times of crisis, the way they serve and protect humans, giving their own lives at times to save that of their human companion? Dogs can be kenotic as Jesus was.

*An 85-pound golden retriever, all blond hair and smiles, as confident as any beauty-pageantist of her ability to beguile with good looks and charm, who was then 3 years old.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Christian Right's Preoccupation with Homosexuality: Straining the Gnat and Swallowing the Camel

Yesterday, I wrote (here),

Many of us find the political and moral positions of our brothers and sisters of the Catholic right morally repugnant precisely because of our commitment to Catholic moral teaching about economic and social justice and war and peace. As Cocozzelli rightly notes, “A strong case can be made that these icons of the Catholic Right are using abortion and LGBT rights as wedge issues primarily to elect laissez-faire economic conservatives.”

I continue thinking about that observation in light of a recent editorial in the official journal of the Church of Scotland, Life and Work (here, H/T Clerical Whispers). I cited this editorial in response to a perceptive comment a reader made about my posting two days ago re: Americans for Truth’s attack on 17-year old James Neiley (here).

The reader, Jimmy Mac, is responding to an email that Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, sent me when I expressed support for James Neiley as he is being attacked by adults who identify themselves as moral exemplars and people of faith. Mr. LaBarbera invites me to repent, because I am on some unspecified “dangerous path.” He also suggests that I read the gospel of John to set myself on the path of repentance.

In response to that invitation, Jimmy Mac notes that the scriptures are a rich source of invitations to repentance of all kinds, including the invitation to cease making covenants with death, as well as to stop making lies our refuge and falsehood our hiding place (Isaiah 28:15).

My reply to Jimmy Mac’s posting notes that neither the gospel of John nor the three other canonical gospels ever mentions a word about homosexuality. The central moral preoccupation of some Christians today is not even mentioned at all in the gospels, which speak instead, over and over, of love and justice and the need to lift up the downtrodden.

Then I note,

And, as a recent editorial in the Church of Scotland's official journal Life and Work states, "Every student of the Bible is a selective literalist. Those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the Book of Leviticus wouldn't publicly advocate slavery or stoning women taken in adultery.

They presumably no longer accept biblical teaching on sexual matters such as polygamy and sex with slaves.

And yet there are many who continue to be bound by a few biblical verses – none of them in the Gospels – about homosexuality, nowadays understood as a matter of genetics rather than lifestyle."

And so back to what I said yesterday—that many Catholics find the positions of the Catholic right on issues like homosexuality morally repugnant precisely because of their commitment to Catholic moral teaching, with its strong emphasis on social and economic justice as overriding concerns of the moral life. The religious and political right have been adroit about (and, with the complicity of the mainstream media, successful at) depicting the struggle for clarity about the gay issue within the churches as a struggle between truth and relativism, between thoroughgoing fidelity to scripture and church teaching and selective appropriation of the fundamentals of Christian faith and life.

This stark black-white morality play pitting truth against relativism deliberately misses the point. As the Life and Work editorial notes, it is impossible to take the entire bible literally. This is an impossible thing to do because the scriptures are complex, multi-layered, and multivalent. What they approve here, they condemn there. When we take the entire text literally, we end up endorsing mutually exclusive positions on any number of moral issues including how women should be treated, what should be done to adulterers, whether slavery is legitimate, and how to deal with witches.

Those today who zero in on a handful of ambiguous verses that they take to condemn homosexuality often spectacularly ignore the shining thread that runs all through the Judaeo-Christian scriptures: the persistent and entirely unambiguous call to believers to embody practical compassion and justice in everything we do. To ground an anti-gay ethic on scripture is inevitably to pick and choose some among many texts in a wide, rich canon of biblical books, often while ignoring what is absolutely central to the Judaeo-Christian tradition..

The question facing the churches today is not the bible or chaos, truth or relativism. It is the question of applying in preaching, interpretation of scripture and tradition, and the everyday Christian life what is central and most important to scripture and church teaching. There is a hierarchy of truths at the heart of the Christian life, and that hierarchy is not focused—in any shape, form, or fashion—on the question of homosexuality.

It is focused, instead, on the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus and on the call to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as a disciple. And it is clearly focused on doing justice and loving tenderly as one walks that way of discipleship—not on demeaning, excluding, and using one’s brother and sister as objects in political battles that are ultimately about something entirely different than what we claim to be fighting about.