Friday, May 29, 2009

The Seamy Bridgeport Diocese Story: A Time to Reconsider Homophobic Strategies of Diversion

I blogged a number of times (e.g., here and here and here and here) in March about what I saw as the attempt of Bishop William J. Lori of the Catholic diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to play the anti-gay card as he sought to torpedo legislation that would have given layfolks oversight of finances in Bridgeport parishes.

In the postings to which I’ve just linked, I argued that Bishop Lori targeted two openly gay legislators in Connecticut to stir opposition to the proposed legislation. In an open letter, I appealed for Bishop Lori (and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, who collaborated in this attempt though he has no authority in the Bridgeport diocese) to stop using homophobia as a weapon in political battles. My letter calls on the American Catholic bishops to exercise fraternal correction by encouraging their brother bishops to stop fanning the flames of prejudice against gay people, since violence often follows when authority figures use homophobia as a political weapon.

And, as the postings to which I have linked indicate, the son of a Catholic deacon did, in fact, email a threat of violence to the two legislators his bishop targeted in March . . . .

In light of what was happening in the Bridgeport diocese earlier in the year, it is interesting to read now that the Connecticut Supreme Court has ordered sealed files of the Bridgeport diocese re: priests accused of sexual abuse to be opened. Even after the court ruling, the diocese is fighting hard to keep these files sealed, and is claiming (not unlike our federal leaders who resist a truth commission on torture) that opening the files will only open wounds that have already healed. This claim runs against the insistence of victims of clerical sexual abuse that their healing process requires the full truth to be known.

As I read about this controversy in Connecticut, I cannot help thinking of the recent claim of Father John Owen, communications director for the diocese of Cardiff, Wales, that the clerical sexual abuse of minors is due to the presence of gays in the priesthood. Owen was responding to the horrific revelations a few days back of longstanding sexual, psychological, and physical abuse of children (of both sexes) by Irish priests, brothers, and nuns.

Now that I know more about what is going on in the Bridgeport diocese, Bishop Lori’s attack on two openly gay legislators earlier this year, as he tried to work up Catholic fervor to thwart legislation having to do with church finances, seems, well, downright seamier than it did when I first read about that attack. There is something extremely rotten in the Catholic church. The Bridgeport story demonstrates it. And anyone with eyes to see, can see it.

The persistent need to scapegoat gays, to work up hostility against gay people merely because they are gay, when the church itself is rotten with perversion as religious authority figures abuse children and are then protected at the highest levels of the church: that need is sick. In the extreme.

It has worked, for a long time, though. The church has managed for a long time to divert attention from its own structural and pastoral (and legal and financial) shortcomings by scapegoating gays.

But this tactic seems no longer to be working well. Look at the postings following newspaper articles about the recent Connecticut Supreme Court decision re: the diocese of Bridgeport’s files, and you’ll see that the majority of them condemn the church’s ugly game-playing with victims of sexual abuse. People are becoming aware that, while preaching the highest moral standards, the church has itself frequently cloven the psyches of children and assaulted their bodies through sexual abuse, and has then lied, bullied, and manipulated in every way it can to hide its moral shortcomings.

And as people become aware of this aspect of the life of the church, the strategy of targeting gays to divert attention from the abuse scandal is less and less effective. It is now becoming part of the seamy history of the abuse scandal itself, with its cover-ups and pay-offs and refusal of the highest pastoral authorities to do what pastors are supposed to do.

It would be more seemly, and surely more effective, if Catholic leaders reconsidered this strategy of homophobia and confronted their problems forthrightly, without anymore bashing of anyone. Or so it seems to me.

Thought for the Day: One-Issue Analysis Misses the Point of What Ails Us

This strange approach to politics, involving nudges, nods, and winks on cultural issues, reflects the real division in the nation: between those who want to have a culture war and those who don’t. At election time political candidates need simultaneously to "rally the base," which includes a heavy quotient of culture warriors, and to "appeal to the center," meaning the majority (often left of center on economic issues), which sees health care, education, jobs, taxes, and national security as central concerns trumping gay marriage or abortion. The result is a strained, dysfunctional, and often dishonest political dialogue based on symbolic utterances. Hot-button questions that rally particular sectors of the electorate—and draw listeners and viewers to confrontational radio and television programs—preempt serious discussion of what ails American culture and society.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008), p. 50.

On the Failure of a One-Issue Politics re: Abortion: Voice from My Past

As I've done a number of times recently, I'd like to cut and paste for this blog a tidbit I've found in my journals of the past, as I scan them for information these days.

The following journal entry is from January 1993. I wrote it as a small Catholic college in North Carolina expelled me from its midst. Though I had never written or taught anything at all about abortion, one of the charges made against me as I was given the death kiss by church authorities was that I was pro-abortion.

So I had to think the issue through, and I did so in my journals. This entry seems still pertinent to me:

Why a one-issue politics of abortion fails:

▪ It gives the impression that there is no other issue.

▪ In doing so, it invalidates itself, because it implies that abortion can be separated from other life issues; only a consistent ethic of life can validate a pro-life stance.

▪ It appears to endorse one political party, and thus a single (flawed) political agenda.

▪ In doing so, it fails to advert to how the terms “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” are charged with meaning that goes beyond their ostensible meaning—the “pro-life” or “anti-abortion” commitment also comprises homophobia, deification of middle-class family, blind patriotism, blind fidelity to unbridled capitalism.

▪ It merely confronts, and does not transform.

▪ It has no power to transform. It is interested only in standing against and tearing down, not building up.

▪ A religious ideology that does not creatively engage culture with an intent to transform culture departs from what religion is all about, in its core values.

▪ Specifically, it fails to address the value system from which support for abortion proceeds—individualism, expediency, pragmatism.

▪ It does not call for the church to repent of its complicity in these, in making the pragmatic and expedient choice the only possible choice for some women faced with the decision about whether to choose an abortion.

A church that commits itself to one-issue anti-abortion politics will make itself more marginal to a world being shaped by many other forces today. It will eventually find itself on the margins of history and culture, rather than at the center, offering constructive values to the center.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Reader Writes: Trying to Unravel the President's Code on Gay Issues

Since some good dialogue seems to have followed my last posting, and since it's in the comments section (which blog readers notoriously overlook on most blogs), I want to do something I've done in the past and lift a comment and my response to it into a posting.

Colleen: Doug Kmiec is probably mouthing Obama's answer to this equality question. Secular civil unions and religious marriage. I wrote this would be the tactic months ago. That way Obama can be both for gay equality and against gay marriage. Clever if somewhat 'non' Christian.

Personally, as long as all the federal benefits accrued to marriage go with civil unions, it's ok by me. It will just serve to point out how freaking morally bankrupt and socially backward religious intstitutions actually are, and even more so if they object to such a strategy, as has already happened with Kmiec.

In essense this would be a strategy which says you are welcome in 'our' country, but not in 'our' churches. Emphasis would still be on 'our' but a least gays wouldn't have to pay an unfair share of taxes to support 'their' official 'morality'.

Bill: Colleen, I think you're probably right. And like you, I would be satisfied with any terminology (within reasonable limits) that did not disguise inequities between marital and other relationships.

At the same time, I think that the application of any symbol (including a term for marital unions) to a targeted group of people, which makes that group distinct from the majority in a demeaning way, feeds other inequities. So even if civil unions were equal to marriage, the use of two distinct terms--one of them clearly inferior in the mind of many citizens--by its very nature sets up conditions for further denigration.

And isn't it ironic that the discussions has NEVER been about forcing churches to marry same-sex couples--as if the term "marriage" in our society means exclusively church-sanctioned wedding? That argument has been such a red-herring, but so powerful as a weapon in the arsenal of the religious right.

I should add that I'm disappointed in Mr. Obama on this issue precisely because I believe he sees these distinctions, and that he rejects gay marriage for reasons of political expediency--which cut against his moral insight.

I can understand his need to do what's pragmatic and expedient, and I can see that this may even be wise, as we move to confirm a new Supreme Court justice and forward on healthcare. It is possible he'd be handing the right a juicy wedge issue to help bash Sotomayor and doom healthcare reform by speaking out now on gay issues.

Still. Moral imperative is moral imperative. I'm sure some of the things that have happened right now on the gay rights front couldn't have been anticipated, and in that sense, they offer an unexpected challenge to the president now.

But in my view, he's not rising to that challenge by remaining silent. The right may well use anything he says as a wedge, but there are large numbers of Americans--and a majority, increasingly--who would welcome at least a word of leadership on these issues, which moves in the progressive direction.

Total silence in the face of the challenges now facing the president is not an option--not if he expects to be taken seriously as a leader in other areas. Silence is an abdication of his responsibilities as a leader. Silence, particularly on a human rights issue, also undercuts his persausiveness, when he seeks to lead in other areas.

Mr. Obama: "Equality Is a Moral Imperative"

Dear Readers, Friends and Fellow Pilgrims,

As my preceding two postings indicate, I'm having difficulty writing today. I wanted, though, to post at least a small note apologizing to anyone who might read this blog regularly, in hopes of finding, well, whatever I offer. (Though I also suspect some readers may well be relieved not to be offered one of my usual jibber-jabber posts talking about everything in the world.)

We've had an elderly friend with us for a week now, and it takes time and energy to respond to his needs. At nearly 95, he's a remarkable human being, with a sharp mind and fascinating stories to tell of a long, fulfilling life. But like anyone that far down the chronological journey of life, he does need attention. We're happy to provide it. One day, perhaps we'll be elderly, and how can we expect solicitude then if we don't give it to others now?

Also struggling with an ear infection causing tooth problems, and with the effects of the witches' brew of this and that the doctor has prescribed to help me overcome these problems. Thankfully, the medicines seem to have knocked the infection out.

Most of all, as my post earlier today indicates, I am downhearted--along with many other folks--at the California Supreme Court decision earlier this week. Though I anticipated it, it rubs salt into wounds that weren't healed in the first place. And the phrase "narrow and limited exception" cuts very deep.

It would have been better, it seems to me, for the court simply to say that its hands were tied by popular vote, but that its commitment to what it had said in its statement striking downs on gay marriage in California remained intact. I suspect that when the history of this period is written, Justice Moreno will receive well-warranted attention as a person of courage and conscience at a critical moment in the history of the struggle for rights in America. And the rest? Names that will be forgotten by historians, I fear.

I am also very downhearted about the president's choice to go to California on the heels of this state Supreme Court ruling, and to remain silent. I find this silence shameful. If it is true that Mr. Obama joked last night about a protester who asked him whether he intended to keep his promises to gay citizens , and that the crowd laughed (as I'm reading on many websites today) (see e.g. here and here and here), then I find his behavior all the more shameful, particularly when he wrote in Feb. 2008, about the struggle of gay citizens for rights, "Equality is a moral imperative."

Imperatives demand action. That's what the term means. Moral imperatives mean that we are obliged to act now, not later--if we want to retain the right to call ourselves moral agents.

In what shape, form, or fashion is the disingenuous phrase "narrow and limited exception" about equality? And if it is so clearly an assault on equality, how can one who believes that equality is a moral imperative remain silent, when that phrase is uttered?

Shameful, Mr. President. Shameful. Shameful silence. Shameful inaction in the face of human need that you have the power to address. Shameful avoidance of your call to be a leader.

Just shameful.

Update: some readers of Andrew Sullivan's blog have
written him to say that they think the president's humor at the Beverly Hilton fundraiser was a joke at his own expense, rather than a dismissal of those protesting the denial of rights to gays outside.

Perhaps. But if so, then this is one of the prices a leader has to pay, when he's completely silent about an important human rights debate occurring on his watch, and he has campaigned on a platform of respect for human rights.

Thought for the Day: Stephen Toulmin on Hidden Agendas of Cultures

The hidden agendas of cultures, as of individuals, are often seen as much in their symbols as in their deeds.

Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (NY: Free Press, 1990), p. 127.

Three Fifths of All Other Persons

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons (article 1, section 2, paragraph 3, United States Constitution).

Three fifths of all other persons, enjoying the rights and privileges of all other persons, but oh, with the little matter of a few “narrow and limited exceptions” as a reminder of the two fifths of oneself that is not equal to all other persons: I wonder what it feels like to be told that one is three fifths of all other persons?

And to be content with being three fifths of all other persons, with the “narrow and limited exceptions” that separate one from all other persons, since this is the majority's decision, the majority's assessment of one's human worth?

Right now, it feels too painful--as if I'm touching an open, bleeding wound, trying to find the glass buried inside and remove it--to write about it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thought for the Day: Fenton Johnson on Anger at (and Gift of) Being Gay

And yes, anger at being gay, being deprived of the world of not questioning, being deprived of and excluded from the world of power. No matter that almost all good that has happened to me (including my lover) has grown from that exclusion, human nature will want what it cannot have (Buddhism’s First Noble Truth . . .), and what I want is the comfortable sense that the world ‘belongs’ to me, even as in my heart I know the idea is preposterous. The poor and oppressed do not have to labor for the gift of understanding that the world does not ‘belong’ to them; that is the nature of their reality. To the extent that being gay has given me access to that wisdom, I am blessed.

Which, as my anger makes abundantly clear, is not to say that I accept and embrace that wisdom.

Fenton Johnson, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey (Boston/NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), pp. 152-3.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Debates about Kosher and the Limits of Paternalism in Making of Religious Meaning

With my recent focus on the aftermath of the California Supreme Court decision about prop 8, I don’t want to lose sight of a valuable article that updates a previous discussion on this blog. In a number of previous postings (here and here), I looked at a fascinating discussion now underway in American Judaism, following the raids at the Agriprocessor meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in May 2008.

As those postings note, the plant at which immigrant workers were rounded up by federal officials processed kosher meats, in conformity to Jewish dietary laws. Following the federal raid, questions arose about the labor practices of the plant’s owners and managers. There were allegations that those working under rabbinic supervision at Postville included children, and that laborers were physically abused and forced to work 17-hour shifts six days a week.

These revelations gave rise to a discussion in American Jewish communities about what kosher can possibly mean, when food that is declared ritually pure is produced in circumstances that violate a religious tradition’s ethical norms regarding just treatment of workers. As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld noted in a New York Times op-ed discussion of the issues last August, when ritual action is done by a ritual authority figure whose behavior undercuts the ethical tenets of his or her religious tradition, the significance of the ritual action is itself undermined. One may ask, in light of what came out following the Postville raid, whether one can really kosher meat when one treats any human being as tripe.

Other Jewish thinkers commenting on the revelations about the Postville plant called for the creation of a set of “social justice criteria” to accompany the koshering of food, so that food stamped as kosher would also receive a stamp of approval verifying that it was produced under ethically tenable working conditions.

Several days ago at Religion Dispatches, Benjamin Weiner offered a summary of this discussion, as it now stands. Weiner notes that while some ultra-orthodox believers have rejected criticism of the labor practices at Postville’s Agriprocessor plant as a “blood libel” against a pious family, other Jewish communities have continued the discussion of what kosher can mean, when a kosher food producer contravenes ethical teachings about the treatment of workers.

As Weiner indicates, some groups are now proposing that food declared kosher would receive a seal that simultaneously declares it to have been produced under fair labor conditions: heksher tzedek, a phrase that combines the terms "kashrut seal of approval", and "righteousness." Other groups are proposing the development of what is called a Tav HaYosher—an "ethical seal" that would supplement the kosher designation, assuring that the food which is declared kosher was also produced in circumstances that do not violate norms of ethical treatment of workers.

As Weiner notes,

The ancient rabbis taught that since the destruction of the Temple a Jew's own table is his or her sacred altar, and should be subject to the same degree of sanctity. Kashrut is not meant to be a system of arbitrary food taboos, but a discipline that elevates the human drive to eat above the kind of desecrations Agriprocessors may have committed.

And this observation captures why this Jewish argument should be of significance to Christians, I would argue. Christianity shares with (and borrows from) Judaism the sense that table practice has sacred significance: that a home’s table is its altar, and that when a family gathers around the table for a meal, it does so not only to eat, but to pray and give thanks, as well.

This understanding of the “secular” table of families is built into Christianity through Jesus’s own constant emphasis in the gospel stories on table fellowship with outcasts. Again and again, Jesus chose to share his meals with those pushed to the fringes of his society, those not welcome at the tables of the righteous and the “normal” or normative.

The Christian practice of Eucharist or Lord’s Supper incorporates these themes, reminding Christians every time they gather to worship that breaking bread with others in the ritual action of communion obligates us as well to share the bread of daily life with others—particularly with the dispossessed and marginalized—in our workaday lives. For Christianity—if we read the gospels aright—there is no separation between the ritual action of church and the “secular” action of breaking bread together at the family dinner table. We cannot claim to be celebrating the Lord’s Supper faithfully if our behavior at the other, everyday tables at which we sit to share food violates all that is implied in ritual communion.

I am especially taken with the argument that the very designation of a food as kosher implies that it is not merely ritually pure, but also produced in ethically defensible circumstances. One of the most significant developments in the world of religious thought during the modern and postmodern periods has been the recognition that ethics is not somewhere over there, as we determine the meaning of religious beliefs. It is part and parcel of what religion and the beliefs of a religion mean.

Prior to modernity, various religious groups established the “truth” of their religious teachings entirely apart from any consideration of the ethical behavior that lay behind those “truths,” and often without serious consideration of the ethical implications of the “truths” under consideration. With modernity and its turn to the subject in philosophical thought, the divorce of systematic theology from ethics became insupportable.

We now recognize that what a religious teaching does—what it does to real-life human beings, in their everyday lives—is part and parcel of what it means. It is no longer possible to talk about the meaning of religious ideas without examining what those ideas do to people—without examining their ethical effect on people.

This is a turn that has long been resisted by authoritarian and literalist religious traditions, including the current leaders of the Catholic church, as they continue the battle against modernity even as we enter the postmodern period. The reason for that resistance is obvious: as long as we can determine the meaning of religious ideas from some center of authority, without attending carefully to the ethical significance of those ideas—and, above all, to the ethical behavior (or lack thereof) of those occupying a community's center of authority—we do not have to look at the connection between what we proclaim and what we do and live.

But once it becomes clear that what we proclaim is inherently connected to what we do and what we live, the question of establishing authentic meaning (“truth”) in religious communities becomes much more challenging. And at the same time, far more like what the founding figures of religious traditions, like Jesus and Moses, usually envisaged as they set their communities of faith into motion . . . .

The Humanity of It: California Supremes on Gays' "Narrow and Limited" Exclusion from Equality

*Lots of talk today about the upholding of prop 8 by the California Supremes. I’m struck by the New York Times’s clear and forceful conclusion that the California Supreme Court “got it terribly wrong.”

As the Times editorial notes, besides denying basic fairness to gay persons, the court ruling sets a dangerous precedent that could permit the majority to diminish the rights of any targeted minority through voter initiatives. The editorial questions the argument of Chief Justice Ronald George in yesterday’s ruling that the abridgment of equal protection for gay citizens in the case of prop 8 is “narrow and limited.”

The Times finds this contention “disconcerting reasoning,” and notes that the one dissenting opinion in yesterday’s California Supreme Court decision, by Justice Carlos Moreno, finds that prop 8’s requirement of “discrimination against a minority group on the basis of a suspect classification strikes at the core of the promise of equality” in the state constitution. For Moreno, the “narrow and limited” exclusion of gays from the right of marriage “weakens the status of our Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.”

William Bradley’s Huffington Post piece on the “avoidable tragedy” of prop 8 offers similar analysis. Bradley looks at the use of such voter initiatives in California from an historical perspective.

He notes that, though these initiatives have enabled voters to keep at bay the power of corporate interest groups seeking to hold the state government hostage, they have also provided “a way to railroad issues in the Golden State . . . .” And that railroading has included previous attempts of the majority of state voters to deny rights to minorities: in 1964, Californians passed an initiative blocking “fair housing” legislation that sought to end housing discrimination against African Americans. This initiative passed by a whopping 65%, only to be overturned three years down the road by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And that’s the thing—the troubling thing—about these attempts by the majority to curb or turn back rights for minorities through the ballot box. The attempts inevitably run up against the strictures of our national constitution, which recognizes the fundamental rights of all citizens, regardless of what the majority may think, choose, or wish in the case of any targeted minority. Though the constitution is not always upheld by federal judicial decisions, and though the process by which the courts arrive at judgments that unambiguously recognize the constitution’s provision of equal rights for all is often tortuously slow, there is built into our democratic life a thrust to equality that makes it impossible to keep a minority in its “narrow and limited” place forever.

The history of legislative and voter-driven attempts to deny rights to targeted minorities in the United States is shameful and long. As one reads the crowing of religious right spokespersons in the last two days, about the “victory” their side has “won” for free speech and majority rule, one wonders if these spokespersons have any inkling at all of what has been done by the majority—in violation of the constitution—in this nation in the past. As I have noted in a previous posting, in 1859, my state’s legislature was delighted to pass a law requiring that all free people of color be required to leave the state immediately, since there was no longer a “place” for any person of color in this state who was not enslaved.

And as the legislature distinguished itself by passing this act, all the while quoting the bible, a majority of voters approved. The rights of minorities should never be up for grabs through popular vote—not when we have a constitution that guarantees rights to all as a constituting factor, a sine qua non, the glue, of our democratic society.

And separate-but-equal arrangements that comprise “narrow and limited” inequities for targeted minorities inevitably include other inequities, whose driving force is the savage need of social groups to keep some targeted group in its “place” through violent repression enshrined in those same “narrow and limited” inequities the majority wishes to dismiss as mere annoyances for a minority group that otherwise has it good.

As Timothy Kincaid notes in a Box Turtle Bulletin posting today about the “narrow and limited” exception gays now enjoy under California law, John Lewis, who has fought long and hard for African-American civil rights throughout a distinguished career, noted in 2003,

I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.

Some say let’s choose another route and give gay folks some legal rights but call it something other than marriage. We have been down that road before in this country. Separate is not equal. The rights to liberty and happiness belong to each of us and on the same terms, without regard to either skin color or sexual orientation.

“Narrow and limited” exceptions to equality undermine the very notion of equality, Kincaid concludes. There are no narrow and limited exceptions to equality, and separate and equal arrangements are, by their very nature, unequal. They are designed to be that way. The imposition of “narrow and limited” exceptions on a targeted minority that is kept separate from the majority, while being assured that its separation does not represent inequity, is designed to let that minority know that it is unequal. And that it is unwanted—in the mainstream, among those who enjoy full rights and full humanity.

And where is this drive to keep some Americans separate and confined to the enjoyment of “narrow and limited” exceptions coming from? Sadly—but just as it did during the period of slavery and the civil rights movement—from the churches, from communities that sing each Sunday about the wideness of God’s mercy and the kindness of God’s justice.

As Peter Laarman notes at Religion Dispatches today, the deciding factor in the choice of the California Supreme Court to back-step on its May 2008 defense of gay human rights is “bad religion.” Laarman notes the way in which powerful, well-funded religious groups used their resources to frighten and misinform California voters in the case of prop 8, and in this way to thwart rather than promote the democratic process and the conversation on which that process depends, if democracy is to work effectively.

As I do, however, Laarman finds it particularly disconcerting when our allies in progressive movements remain silent about the majority’s insistence that we be content with “narrow and limited” exceptions to equality, while they simultaneously decry human rights violations in every other area possible:

I worry about their enablers. I worry about those who deem certain Evangelical leaders “good” on other justice issues (climate change, torture, workplace justice) and thus exempt these leaders from any criticism for taking retrograde positions on sexual and gender justice. I am speaking here of leaders who are well known for their deafening silence on equal rights for LGBT people and families or else (like Samuel Rodriguez) well known for their active participation in efforts to consign gay people to a separate and unequal ghetto.

That these leaders have been given a blanket welcome as social progressives is actually quite astonishing.

Enablers: you know who you are. Don’t you have even a tiny twinge of remorse at a time like this?

Thankfully, in the midst of his curious silence about proposition 8 or anything having to do with gay rights or gay human beings, period, Mr. Obama did at least find time yesterday to sign a proclamation declaring this National Hurricane Preparedness week (H/T Pam Spaulding at Pam’s House Blend).

Oh, the humanity of it . . . .

*I've noticed that the graphic I chose for this posting is very similar to one Timothy Kincaid uses in the Box Turtle Bulletin posting I note above. It wasn't my intent to copy, though I certainly do value Timothy Kincaid's work and have learned much from it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

When My Silence Is Actually Speech

When others are being dehumanized and I see what is taking place but remain silent, my silence is actually speech.

By remaining silent, I am saying that I find the degradation of these others thinkable.

I am saying that I find their humanity less than my own humanity, that if challenged, I could offer reasons for their dehumanization.

I am saying this because, under similar conditions, I would cry out loudly, with righteous indignation, against my own dehumanization.

Because I know I am human, and I know that human beings ought not to be treated as less than human.

And I would expect others to join in as I cried out against my dehumanization, because they, too, are human as I am human.

Jubilating Today, Looking Back in Shame Tomorrow

Aaron Zelinsky’s Huffington Post statement about why the California Supreme Court decision today will be good for gay marriage in the long run seems eminently reasonable. Zelinsky argues that we are reaching the limits of judicial activism when it comes to seeking equal rights for gay citizens, and that today’s decision appropriately tosses the ball back to voters.

Zelinsky states,

Gay marriage will stand on sounder footing when it is popularly enacted rather than judicially imposed. One can imagine the wedge issue Strauss could have handed the Republican Party had the Court overturned the decision of the California electorate. Instead, opponents of same sex marriage must fight it out again at the ballot box.

I agree, with one proviso. What happened in the prop 8 ballot raises disquieting (and still largely ignored) questions about the indefensible role religious bodies—and their tax-protected funds—can play in skewing democratic discussions and the democratic process. It is one thing for communities of faith to be galvanized by moral issues, to organize, to lobby so that their voices can be heard. It is one thing for faith leaders to address moral issues from the pulpit.

But it is another thing altogether for people of faith to collude to thwart democratic deliberation with poisonous advertisements, while turning their church structures into political machines to assure that a faith community’s viewpoint overturns judicial decisions, and while hiding how they have inappropriately used tax-protected church funds for political purposes, breaching the wall of separation of church and state.

I read in the news today that some churches are organizing celebrations of their “victory” this coming Sunday I would suggest that this “victory” is a pyrrhic one that will bring as much shame to churches in the future as churches’ collaboration with the Nazis now does, or churches’ resistance to civil rights for African Americans does, or churches’ opposition to equal rights for women does.

I saw some of those “victory” celebrations at close hand in the 1960s, in white churches that managed to keep their doors tight shut against black fellow Christians. Those churches now recognize that their behavior in the civil rights struggle (and then when women’s rights became an issue) was shameful. What they crowed about in the 1960s, they now speak about in whispers.

And it will not be different in the future, as churches look back at their shameful abuse of gay human beings at this point in history.

Why I Cannot Remain Silent: On the Necessity of Speaking Out in Face of Injustice

I could not remain silent.

When the rights of my African-American brothers and sisters were being assaulted during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, I had to speak out. I could not remain silent when many of my fellow citizens wished to overturn legislation affording black citizens civil rights, for the following reasons—reasons that have compelled me throughout my life to speak out against assaults on the rights of people of color:

▪ Silence in the face of injustice is complicity in injustice.

▪ Denial of the rights of others implies that the humanity of the other is less than my own. I cannot participate in the diminution of others’ humanity (either actively or passively, through tacit consent) without diminishing my own humanity.

▪ In a democratic society (and in a moral universe), we are all interconnected. To permit the humanity of others to be diminished and their rights to be removed—even or especially by the will of the majority—dissolves the bonds that are the only possible foundation on which a viable participatory democracy can be built.

▪ I am those I deem Other. It is only an accident of history that has assured that I live my life in another skin that that of the Other. If I permit the Other to be demeaned for any reason whatever, when my words and actions can prevent this, I cannot reasonably or morally expect to escape the treatment accorded the Other, if my own situation happens to change and I find myself the Other.

▪ The keystone of the system of legal segregation in the United States and of the cultural norms this system presupposed was violence. Underneath the entire system ran a constant threat of violence against any black person who got out of his or her “place.”

I saw actual violence with my own eyes, during the period leading up to and immediately after the Civil Rights act of 1964, as some white citizens of my community sought to keep black citizens in their “place.” I knew people who, having cleaned fish, would put the offal from the fish into brown paper sacks and throw these onto the roadsides in black neighborhoods, to remind their black neighbors of their inferior “place.” I knew white teens who would drive close to black children walking on roads in black neighborhoods, so that the children would be forced to jump into the ditches beside the road.

In my community during the 1960s, white teens driving through a black community threw a brick at an elderly black woman as she walked to church, hitting her in the head to remind her and the community of her “place.” In my final year of high school, a black teen was shot in cold blood while sitting on his porch, in a horrific act of violence that went unpunished. I knew those who shot this young man.

▪ If I permit violence—whether that violence is overt, as in hitting a woman in the head with a brick, or covert, as in creating laws to make an entire group of people second-class citizens—to rend the fabric of civil society, I cannot reasonably or morally expect at some point in my own life to be safeguarded from the violence that I have permitted to go unchecked in society at large.

Every system by which one group of human beings is isolated from other groups, targeted, and then put into an inferior “place,” presupposes violence as its foundation. Without covert and overt violence, it is impossible to maintain systems of inequality that depend on keeping a targeted group in its “place.” To live with such a system and not to challenge it is to immerse myself in violence.

▪ The violence of the racially segregated society in which I grew up, and the demeaning attitude towards an entire group of human beings it reflected and enacted, were rooted in the will of the majority and in longstanding religious belief. The people among whom I grew up took for granted that the bible not only legitimated, but prescribed, their subjugation of people of color. And very little in their culture challenged that religious presupposition, precisely because it was the presupposition of the majority.

▪ As someone who reads the scriptures to affirm the common, shared humanity of every human being, I had no choice except to speak out, because my most deeply held religious beliefs were undermined by the majority’s twisting of scriptural norms to justify oppression of a demeaned minority.

▪ In the final analysis, I do not have the right to call myself a moral human being, while remaining silent in the face of injustice that I can combat through words and deeds. And being able to call myself a moral human being is important to me.

Update: I've just watched video of the latest White House press conference. Asked about President Obama's reaction to today's California Supreme Court ruling, Press Secretary Mr. Gibbs replies, I have not talked to the president about it. I think that the issues involved are ones that you know where the president stands.

Do we know where the president stands? From where I stand, it seems he is still silent.

At the Crossroads, the Impossibility of Remaining Silent

As expected, the California Supreme Court upheld proposition 8 today.

And as I mull over the court decision, I’m thinking back some 40 years to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In particular, I’m thinking about why I could not remain silent, as the rights of African Americans were debated (and assaulted) in my nation, as I grew to adulthood.

I was in junior high school when Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1964. For anyone living in a community in the Deep South, as I did—in south Arkansas near the Louisiana border—it was impossible not to notice and to be affected by the many social changes that this legislation implied.

Within a few years, the white high school in the community was integrated, while I was in school there. Businesses in the town that had kept blacks cordoned off from whites—and which could do so legally—were forced to change their practices. These included restaurants which usually had no provisions at all for black diners. If they did so, those provisions consisted of a separate "window" where African-American citizens could purchase food and then eat it outside. Even doctors' waiting rooms were strictly segregated, with a well-furnished room for white patients and a shabby small room for black ones.

There were only two cinemas in our community. One of these forbade black patrons altogether. The other required black moviegoers to sit in the balcony, while whites sat in the main theater.

All this changed after 1964, slowly and painfully, and at a certain price for anyone, black or white, who contravened longstanding custom. As far as I know, the decision a black friend and I made to go to the movies together in 1967, to sit together on the main floor, was the first quiet act of defiance to integrate the theater, following the abolition of legal segregation. I remember little uproar at our choice to do what now seems so natural—sit side by side, black and white, watching a movie. I do remember an ominous silence, though, as if everyone else in the theater had held his or her breath when we sat down—and a few whispers.

I also remember the warnings my parents received as this friend and I continue do to do social things together, and after he visited my house. Neighbors told my parents that they themselves did not object (interesting, isn’t it, that no one ever wants to admit being prejudiced, even when his or her prejudice is obvious?), but feared for their safety and that of the neighborhood, if any person of color continued visiting houses in the neighborhood socially, rather than to mow the lawn or clean the house, cook, do laundry, and tend children.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of the paths that integration forced me to take—because I had no choice, confronted with the changes all around me—was the controversy that arose in my church following the Civil Rights act of 1964. As I have noted in previous postings, the abolition of legal segregation led to requests—I believe these came from conscientious members of our church itself—for us to reconsider our whites-only membership policy.

All the churches in my community except one were, to the best of my recollection, segregated. The town was dotted with black and white Baptist and Methodist congregations, and with exclusively white Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and other churches not represented at all in the black community. The one exception to the pattern of rigid separation by race was the local Catholic church, which had closed its blacks-only mission by 1964 and combined that parish with the white parish.

The African-American friend with whom I socialized in high school was Catholic. I knew him from both church and school, since he was one of the students in the black school chosen to integrate the white high school when it was integrated. As I’ve also noted on this blog, when my Baptist church dithered about integrating, and when a divisive debate (full of rancor that shocked me) ensued in the church after the request that we reconsider our segregated membership policy, I left my family church and became Catholic. I did so in part because of the Catholic church’s progressive stand on racial issues in my particular Deep South community.

The point I want to make with these stories: it was impossible for me to avoid making choices, as integration took place in my town. It was impossible for me to remain silent. It is the nature of crossroads to force us to decide. We cannot go ahead, at a crossroads, without choosing one path or the other.

And so today, I’m thinking about why I could not remain silent in the 1960s, as the civil rights movement challenged longstanding laws and customs that separated the community, its businesses, its churches, and its schools according to race. I am thinking of why I could not remain silent even when speaking out put me at painful odds with members of my own family and church community, and forced me to make choices that radically affected my future. For those reasons, please see my next posting.

Recent News: Prop 8, Church of Scotland, Mainline Clergy and Gay Issues, and Obama and Human Rights

Because of the long weekend and yesterday’s holiday in the U.S., many readers may have taken a temporary break from reading the news and their favorite blogs. So I thought I’d offer today a smorgasbord of commentary from several recent news or blog articles, which touch on themes I’ve discussed in previous postings.

Today’s the day on which the California Supreme Court will hand down its verdict about proposition 8, the voter initiative that amended the state constitution to turn back gay marriage in the last round of elections. Most political analysts are expecting the California Supremes to uphold prop 8. But it’s less easy to know what the court will decide to do about the some 18,000 same-sex couples who married in California prior to prop 8.

Courtesy of Pam’s House Blend, I read an alarming article from Orcinus this weekend, predicting a violent right-wing backlash in the hinterlands, if the court should decide to void the prop 8 vote. This analysis ties into my caution in a number of previous blog postings (see e.g. here) about concluding that the power of the political and religious right has been decisively checked in our culture—particularly in areas in which it has long dominated political life.

Some thought-provoking reflections from Sara Robinson at Orcinus:

Yes, the right wing is losing on gay rights issues. That is, very precisely, why they’re more dangerous now than they have been in the past. Their impending irrelevance is not a reason to worry less; it’s a reason to worry more. And getting Prop 8 overturned in the courts would ignite the situation, because it will hit absolutely every angry-making right-wing button there is . . . .

It’s a sad irony that the best possible outcome for America’s gay movement could also turn out to be the tipping point for the biggest anti-gay, anti-liberal backlash we’ve seen yet. Tomorrow, we’ll know one way or another which way this will go – and whether a new court-ordered opportunity for America's gay community could also turn out to be a potent new source of danger from the right as well.

About a month ago, I noted an interesting editorial in the official journal of the Church of Scotland, Life and Work, which challenges the selectivity with which many Christians of the right quote the bible to challenge acceptance of gay persons. What I did not note at the time is that this editorial reflects an important conversation now underway among Scottish Presbyterians about gay people and gay issues.

In January 2009, after its then pastor had retired in June of the previous year, Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen chose to call as his replacement Rev. Scott Rennie—an openly gay minister, one whom the congregation knew to be gay and in a committed relationship. This action precipitated a lively discussion among Scottish Presbyterians about the propriety of appointing openly gay ministers.

An organized movement to block this appointment and the ordination of any openly gay ministers in the Church of Scotland got underway. A group of ministers within the Presbytery of Aberdeen filed a complaint about the appointment, precipitating deliberation by the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly in May 2009. A group calling itself the Fellowship of Confessing Churches formed and organized an online petition to consolidate opposition to Rev. Rennie’s appointment.

On 22 May, at its General Assembly, the Church of Scotland voted to uphold Rev. Rennie’s appointment as minister of Queen’s Cross Church. And now, Clerical Whispers is reporting today that opponents of this move are vowing to hold back contributions from the Church of Scotland.
And this is the point I want to emphasize, as I wend my way through this story. In February, I noted that the Presbytery of Arkansas had voted 116-64 in favor of striking down statements in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian church that prohibit the ordination of openly gay clergy. Though this initiative (which requires a two-thirds vote of approval from presbyteries throughout the country) failed, it came closer than ever before to succeeding in this year’s round of votes.

What I did not mention at the time I blogged about this issue was that, at the same time that the Presbytery of Arkansas voted in favor of abolishing barriers to ordination of openly gay clergy, a Presbyterian church in Little Rock, Second Presbyterian, ordained an openly gay deacon. I’ve followed the story of this ordination with some interest, since I have a number of friends who attend this church.

They tell me that the day on which the vote to ordain this deacon took place, one of their ministers reminded them of how their church has always been at the forefront of movements to defend human rights. The congregation sent participants to the Selma march in 1965. It also sent representatives to protests against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Its commitment to gay rights is an extension of its longstanding commitment to protect and defend human rights in many areas.

My friends tell me that the decision to ordain a gay deacon took place without rancor and with very little opposition in the congregation. However, following the vote, a number of well-heeled families informed the church (or so I am told) that they are withdrawing their membership and going to a more “biblically-correct” church.

This is, unfortunately, an all-too-common story. The primary reason many churches do not do what they know is right in the case of gay brothers and sisters has to do with money: fear of financial reprisal, if they put their words into action, in the case of gay brothers and sisters, holds many of our churches captive. It will be interesting to see how right-wing groups twist the screws, as they apply their financial blackmail to the Church of Scotland now—and whether they are successful in holding the church hostage to well-heeled interest groups that oppose gay rights.

Dirty business . . . .

And speaking of debates within the Presbyterian church about gay persons and gay rights, I should note the Clergy Voices Survey of Public Religion Research. This survey was conducted last year, and its results were recently released.

The survey polled clergy from seven mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S.—the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church USA, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Church, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Evangelical Lutheran Church. The survey finds strong support among mainline clergy for laws prohibiting discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens. Two-thirds of mainline clergy support hate crimes legislation and workplace protections for gay and lesbian persons. A majority supports adoption rights.

However, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the survey notes some stark differences among mainline denominations. While 67% of UCC clergy and 49% of Episcopal clergy support gay marriage, only 25% of United Methodist clergy and 20% of American Baptist clergy do so.

I find the response of United Methodist and American Baptist clergy to questions about whether the churches should refuse to work actively to make homosexuality acceptable particularly disappointing. While 51% of all mainline ministers agree that the church should not work to thwart society’s acceptance of gay persons (this includes 81% of UCC clergy, 77% of Episcopal clergy, and 61% of ELCA clergy), among United Methodist and American Baptist ministers, fewer than 4-in-10 agree.

And finally, I want to mention a persuasive article asks about what seems to be going wrong with the Obama administration, when it comes to issues of civil liberties. Bromwich focuses in particular on the president’s national security speech on 21 May, which simultaneously repudiates Bush-Cheney policies while appearing to accept some of that administration’s infringement on constitutional rights in times of perceived danger to the American public.

A provocative quotation:

Let us say it: something is seriously wrong in this administration -- though we are not yet in a position to judge the cause. We do not know who the lawyers are that gave Barack Obama advice that goes against a long career of ostensible commitments. And it is too early yet to say at what point a new president, confused by the depth of his burdens and uncertain how much even now he believes of what he used to say, becomes instead a man we are compelled to see as lacking in convictions. It cannot be a virtue that he sheds the Constitution with a gentler demeanor than George W. Bush. . . .

A misjudged statesmanship has allowed Obama to think himself magnanimous when he declines to expose the wrongs he has come to know. The way to right a wrong is not to install a somewhat reformed version of the wrong. People, by that means, may be spared embarrassment, but their instinct for truth will be corrupted. It is a false prudence that supposes justice can come from a compromise between a lawful and a lawless regime. On the contrary, the less you tell of the truth, the more prone your listeners will be to commit the next barbarous act that is proposed to them under the cover of a national emergency or a necessary war.

On the whole—and sadly—I agree. I agree, in particular, with Bromwich’s insistence that they way to right a wrong is “not to install a somewhat reformed version of the wrong,” and that “the less you tell of the truth, the more prone your listeners will be to commit the next barbarous act that is proposed to them under the cover of a national emergency or a necessary war.” And this is why a href="">I support the call for a national truth commission

Monday, May 25, 2009

Frederick Clarkson and Chip Berlet: Is the Religious Right Really Dying?

Yesterday, as I summarized Frank Rich’s analysis of the timidity that seems to govern the Democrats’ approach to gay rights issues at present, I noted that Rich finds the stalling of the Obama administration on gay rights hard to understand at a time in which “the power of the religious right to undermine the new administration seems especially limited.”

What Rich says, to be exact, is the following:

It would be easy to blame the Beltway logjam in gay civil rights progress on the cultural warriors of the religious right and its political host, the Republican Party. But it would be inaccurate. The right has lost much of its clout in the capital and, as President Obama’s thoughtful performance at Notre Dame dramatized last weekend, its shrill anti-abortion-rights extremism now plays badly even in supposedly friendly confines.

It is important to note Frederick Clarkson’s countervailing view about the waning power of the religious right. Several days ago, in a posting at Talk to Action, Clarkson offered some compelling reasons to doubt the imminent demise of the religious right. Clarkson notes that, though some younger evangelicals appear to be be softening the hard-right religious stance on gay issues, this demographic group remains, on the whole, stridently anti-abortion.

In Clarkson’s view, it would be premature for progressives to conclude that the religious right’s power to skew the political and cultural direction of the country has vanished. Clarkson and Chip Berlet note that some progressives’ strategy of outreach to moderate evangelicals runs the risk of importing into the progressive agenda positions on reproductive rights that may move that agenda to the right. In Clarkson and Berlet’s view, a thoroughgoing commitment to human rights demands that progressives not mute their appeal for rights in one area while celebrating forward movement in other areas.

In my view, Clarkson and Berlet deserve serious consideration—though I am undermining the argument I made yesterday in noting this. I would like to second Frank Rich’s contention that the power of the religious right is waning. But I suspect that Clarkson and Berlet may be quite correct in their caution about the continued potential of the religious right to exert strong influence in the political sphere.

That potential resides, I think, in the ability of the religious right to impede rather than to determine. Though the numbers of its adherents may be waning, and though demographic trends do not bode well for its future, the religious right has created a well-oiled propaganda machine, and that machine still has tremendous power to crank out disinformation on a daily basis. It seems naïve to imagine that the political and religious right will avail itself of the resources of that disinformation machine whenever possible, as it seeks to probe weak spots in the new administration and craft pain for the new president. And it seems equally naïve to imagine that a significant number of citizens will remain unmoved by that disinformation, as it pours forth.

I sometimes suspect that those who are confident that the religious right is dying have never lived in places in the United States in which this movement is strongly represented, and therefore do not appreciate its tenacious hold on the lives of many Americans. From the standpoint of New Haven or San Francisco, the religious right may well look like a behemoth heading for extinction. From the vantage point of Amarillo or Topeka, Spartanburg or Little Rock, however, it looks like a vital critter still very much alive and kicking.

And that’s to say that it does continue to have the power to make the lives of many gay and lesbian Americans intently miserable, on an ongoing basis, in some places in our land. It continues to do so through disinformation campaigns designed to stir hatred against them among their fellow citizens which have great cultural power in some areas of the coutnry. As I noted yesterday, many of us who happen to be gay and lesbian also happen to live in places in which there are almost no legal protections against discrimination—places dominated by the religious right.

I noted, as well, that in such dark places in the land in the 1960s, it would have been impossible for hatred to be unchecked and a new course to be set, had the federal government not intervened decisively through the Civil Rights act of 1964. While there may have been widespread revulsion against racism in much of the country in the early 1960s, in the heartland of the religious right—in the American Southeast—the will to discriminate remained exceptionally strong, and plebiscites to challenge that will repeatedly confirmed the majority’s intent to deny rights to a minority.

The critical factor that tipped the scales, as many Americans repudiated racial discrimination while many others clung bitterly to their “right” to discriminate, was the decision of the president to intervene and to exert strong leadership. Certainly that decision did not end racism forever. What it did accomplish was very significant, however. It began a process of confining the “right” to discriminate, of exposing that “right” as indefensible prejudice, and of marginalizing those intent on clinging to this “right” so that the culture as a whole could move beyond the vise in which an angry, defensive minority wished to place it, while claiming religious sanction for its noxious agenda.

At tipping point moments, when strong indicators suggest that a growing number of citizens are changing their minds about deep-seated cultural practices of discrimination, whether on grounds of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and when powerful religious movements do all they can to resist such cultural shifts, decisive leaders with morally cogent platforms can make a world of difference.

Or they can choose not to do so, and allow some scapegoat groups within their culture to remain the object of derision and prejudice. But in making such a choice, they also ask an entire culture to pay a high price for their inaction, when circumstances have placed in their hands the ability to effect positive change. Even when savage, overt discrimination is confined to select geographic areas within a nation, it tears at the soul of the entire nation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Frank Rich on Dearth of Democratic Leadership in Struggle for Gay Rights: LBJ Stepped Up Big Time

Frank Rich’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, “La Cage aux Democrats,” pinpoints the problem I’ve been discussing on this blog, vis-à-vis the apparent inability of the Obama administration to move forward in addressing gay rights: lack of leadership.

As Rich points out, the silence and stalling of the Obama administration on the agenda of gay rights is particularly hard to understand, at a time in which the power of the religious right to undermine the new administration seems especially limited, and in which even many Republicans are doing all they can to distance themselves from the vicious homophobia in which their party has traded for some time now.

Rich sees the situation in D.C. now as similar to what was going on early in 1963, when the civil rights movement had experienced a series of major breakthroughs—Brown v. Board of Education, the Freedom Riders, the Montgomery bus boycott—followed by stagnation and division as the federal government sought to consolidate rights for African-Americans, and “violent setbacks.” Then, the deciding factor tipping the scales in favor of civil rights was the decision of President Lyndon Baines Johnson “to step up big time” and urge Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act.

In Rich’s view, we are at a similar pass now, but what is clearly lacking now is leadership. Neither the Democrats nor Mr. Obama seem willing now to step up and provide the leadership necessary to tip the scales decisively in the direction of what human decency and the Bill of Rights demand:

So what’s stopping the Democrats from rectifying that legacy now? As [civil rights lawyer Evan] Wolfson said to me last week, they lack “a towering national figure to make the moral case” for full gay civil rights. There’s no one of that stature in Congress now that Ted Kennedy has been sidelined by illness, and the president shows no signs so far of following the example of L.B.J., who championed black civil rights even though he knew it would cost his own party the South.


“This is a civil rights moment,” Wolfson said, “and Obama has not yet risen to it.” Worse, Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage is now giving cover to every hard-core opponent of gay rights, from the Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean to the former Washington mayor Marion Barry, each of whom can claim with nominal justification to share the president’s views.

Leadership: a word I’ve stressed over and over on this blog. Our nation, and many of our social and religious institutions, stand in dire need of leadership at this point in history. And those of us who have pinned such high hopes on the new president and his administration have no choice except to be bitterly disappointed, precisely because we saw this man of promise as the leader for whom we were hoping. When Mr. Obama and his administration appear to put pragmatic calculation and political expediency over human rights, we feel betrayed.

Particularly when the balance has tipped so decisively that decisive, strong leadership would make all the difference in the world, and when the danger of inactivity and back-stepping remains strong . . . . Mr. Rich notes the “violent setbacks,” the renewed backlash, that occurred in that limbo period after significant breakthroughs had been made, but before the Civil Rights act of 1964 was passed, as Democrats wrung their hands and refused to act because they feared alienating their white Southern base.

Dr. King was arrested in Birmingham in April 1963. Bull Connor turned fire hoses on demonstrators in the same city in May. Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Mississippi, in June. In September, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, all young black girls, died when a bomb exploded at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham as they attended Sunday School. In the riots that ensued, two more black youths died in Birmingham.

Violent setbacks; backlash: this is what happens, particularly in the dark places in our land, when leaders refuse to be leaders, and to begin the process of making such violence unthinkable, and gradually, undoable. I have stated before that I believe Mr. Obama is a man of conscience, and that he knows what a morally courageous leader ought to do, faced with the choices he faces now.

As he deliberates, I hope he will think about what the unconscionable delays, in-fighting, and lack of leadership produced in 1963, before the president stepped up to the plate and did what was right. Gay rights are important not simply because some major urban areas of the nation have strongly organized, vocal gay communities whose members deserve to pursue their lives free of prejudice.

Gay rights are important, as well—they are imperative—because many of us who are gay and lesbian in the United States live in places in which there are no such support networks, no strong advocates to speak on our behalf when we experience discrimination. We live in those places because they happen, for one reason or another, to be our homes. They happen to be where we grew up and have family ties that we cannot break, if we are to fulfill our obligations as sons and daughters to aging parents, or to brothers and sisters in need of our assistance.

We, too, need the right to live our lives peacefully and productively, free of discrimination. And the discrimination that we can often experience, in the places in which our family ties have placed us, can be brutal. It can range from outright violence to the experience of having one door after another slammed in our faces, as we seek employment commensurate with our abilities. We live, many of us, in well-founded fear that, should our life partner be hospitalized, we might be prevented by hospital authorities from visiting him or her. Many of us lack adequate healthcare because we have no access to partner benefits, even when our partner is working.

In those places throughout our nation—and they represent the nation far more than the major urban centers of the coasts do—we are very likely not to have any partner benefits at all, even when we are in stable, long-standing, committed relationships. The option to have our relationships legally recognized in either a civil union or a marriage is a faraway dream to many of us.

When we find ourselves in situations of conflict in such communities with those moved by homophobic hatred, we seldom have any advocate at all. We fight as best we can, knowing that even many of our gay brothers and sisters who live more privileged lives in enlightened and tolerant urban areas will be unlikely to hear our pleas for assistance.

Faced with questions about how to move the civil rights struggle forward at a time when African Americans continued to be treated like animals to be hunted down, by some violent, hate-driven sociopaths in our country whose behavior was only barely checked by the law, Lyndon Johnson asked what the presidency is for, if not for stepping up and leading. Because Mr. Johnson stepped up and led, Congress passed the Civil Rights act of 1964.

That act did not eradicate the disease of racism from our nation. It did, however, provide a powerful tool to those who wanted to address that disease: it began the process of outlawing much of the overt discrimination that, in turn, fed the violence of sociopathic elements of our society. It began the long process of making overt, violent discrimination against one’s fellow citizens simply because of their pigmentation unthinkable.

LBJ made a difference. I hope that Mr. Obama quickly realizes that he, too, can make a difference—and that this difference will affect many lives that could be made significantly better by a stroke of his pen or a strong, unambiguous statement from his mouth.

On his willingness to choose now, faced as he is with this important human rights crossroads and the decisions with which it confronts him, his future as a leader, and as president, hinges.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Truth Commissions: Parallels Between Legacy of Torture and Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis

One of the major religion stories breaking this week is the story of truly horrific abuse of children by priests, religious brothers, and nuns in Irish institutions through much of the 20th century and up to the present. The story is breaking following the release of a report by the Irish government, based on several years of research. Another report focusing on sexual abuse of minors by priests in the archdiocese of Dublin is expected soon, and apparently contains such hair-raising revelations that the archbishop of Dublin is already warning people they will be shocked by it.

The Irish report has all the earmarks we’ve come to know all too well about abuse of minors by religious authorities in the Catholic church: the abuse was known to the highest pastoral authorities in the church; it was consistently covered up by those authorities, who consistently took the side of priests and religious accused of abuse rather than that of the victims; the pastoral leaders of the church lied, paid out money to silence victims and their families, broke the law, and manipulated government and law enforcement officials in the to protect abusers. The media collaborated by remaining silent, refusing a voice to victims of abuse, and propping up pastoral leaders and allowing them to represent themselves as moral exemplars through it all.

There is much I could say about this situation—and I have said a great deal about it, vis-à-vis the American Catholic church, in other places. Here, though, I want to focus on a connection that has struck me in the past two days, as I think about the resistance of the Obama administration to the appeals of progressive supporters to begin acting on its human rights promises.

As I noted in a previous posting today about this, human rights representatives who met yesterday with Mr. Obama and his team pressed him about his refusal to establish an independent truth commission to investigate the crimes of the Bush administration. I do not fully understand the reluctance to establish such a truth commission in this case.

I do see that there seems to be a strong presupposition in the current administration that it is important to move forward now, to let the past be the past, to put the battles of the past behind us, and to pull together as a nation to address the serious challenges that confront us. I read the refusal to establish a truth commission in light of those determinations. I suspect that there is a perception by powerful members of the current administration that too much might be revealed by a truth commission, and that what such a commission would reveal would further divide us as a nation, by exposing heinous misdeeds on the part of some of our leaders.

In my view, these presuppositions about what a truth commission would accomplish as it addressed the legacy of torture bequeathed to us by the previous administration are wrong-headed. I come to the question of such a truth commission out of other discussions in which incisive recommendations about truth commissions have been taking place.

To be specific: when the story about clerical abuse of minors in the American Catholic church began to break in Boston in 2002, and when it quickly became apparent that this problem was endemic in American Catholicism (the media reported during the bishops’ 2002 annual meeting that some two-thirds of all bishops had shielded one or more abusive priests), some compelling voices in the American Catholic church began to call for a truth commission.

In a November 2006 editorial in National Catholic Reporter, for instance, Tom Roberts argues that a truth commission in the American Catholic church is imperative if we expect to find healing as a church—the authentic kind of healing of soul about which the Catholic sacramental tradition speaks.

In Roberts’s view, in situations in which an entire community has been wounded by the actions of a few, healing begins with truth-telling: “We must start by telling the truth. The community has a right to know what was done in its name and by whom.” Roberts notes that in one of his first comments about the abuse scandal after he became pope, Benedict stated that the need “to establish the truth of what happened” is imperative, if we expect justice and healing.

Roberts also notes the need for the leaders of the Catholic church to be accountable, if they expect to be credible. As he observes, the persistent pattern with revelations about the abuse situation from 2002 forward is that bishops have been forced, fighting tooth and nail against the process, to divulge information and disclose documents.

In his view, this pattern of behavior damages the entire church, and impedes the ability of the whole community to heal. Roberts concludes:

I don’t know what a truth commission inside the church would look like; no models exist. But our understanding as a community of what is required to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation should provide some clues. While the various studies that have been completed, as well as the upcoming John Jay College study, provide invaluable information on the context of the crisis, its dimensions and some of its causes, those reports supply only part of the truth. What is missing is the narrative, a bishop to his people, about what happened, about who did what. The documents that tell the fuller story, as we have said, are extant, where they haven’t been destroyed. We live in an age in which such things will not remain secret forever. Our leaders are the ones who can determine whether this information will continue to be leaked or forced out by legal processes or whether the bishops will present the unvarnished truth to their people.

In his powerful 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Dublin: Columba, 2007), Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson offers a similar argument, this time applying it to the Catholic church as a whole. As does Roberts, Robinson notes that the abuse crisis has wounded an entire church, and that the communal nature of Catholic thought points to the need for actions that expose the truth of what has taken place, so that the healing process of the entire community can proceed from that point of moral clarity.

It is important to note that, up to now, neither the U.S. Catholic bishops nor the Vatican has acted on any of these calls for a truth commission. And the price of the silence has been steep. I would hazard the guess—I hope an educated one—that the trend many recent studies are tracking, of increasing disaffiliation from the Catholic church by younger Catholics, reflects first and foremost the determination of younger Catholics to distance themselves from a church whose leaders have known about and covered up an endemic problem of sexual abuse of minors in nations across the globe.

Silence in the face of such horrific crimes is really not an option. Not, that is, if we want to move forward productively. The point that arguments which resist a truth commission on torture are missing when they propose that having the truth on the table would divide us, is that we are already divided by what we know—cloven right through our hearts.

As Roberts notes, we live in an age when things do not remain secret forever. We already know a great deal about what has been going on in the Catholic church with the abuse crisis. The latest revelations from Ireland do not come as a surprise. We live now steeling ourselves for the next round of revelations.

But as we do so, we live with little expectation of catharsis, with the gnawing sense that we have not yet plumbed the ugly depths of this story, with a growing suspicion that those who stand in positions of moral leadership over us are, in many cases, entirely unworthy to occupy those positions. The truth would not hurt us more. It would clarify for us what we already know in part, and set us on the path to specific actions to deal with what we learn.

And the same is true with the torture story: we already know. We have long suspected. We have partial knowledge of what has gone on and who is responsible, enough to have developed strong revulsion against those who crafted and set into place the system of torture done in our name. We—we the people in whose name our leaders have tortured—want healing. We want to know the truth so that we can begin the healing process.

Silence, evasion, partial truths, half-lies have not helped in the Catholic church. The Catholic church is in shambles now and deserves to be in shambles, as long as its leaders refuse honestly to confront the abuse situation and permit us to know what they have known.

And silence, evasion, partial truths, half-lies will not serve the new administration or the nation as a whole well, either, as we deal with the legacy of torture on our behalf now bequeathed to us.