Russia's new anti-gay law has a loophole: The law, which has led to numerous arrests, beatings, and bans against LGBT people, specifically prohibits the "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," but homosexuality is as traditionally Russian as vodka and caviar.
Where does one begin the list of prominent LGBT Russians? Peter Tchaikovsky, one of Russia's foremost composers; Nikolai Gogol, one of its leading writers; from the world of dance, Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Nureyev; not to mention members of Russia's ruling classes, including Grand Duke Sergei Romanov, brother to the czar and mayor of Moscow from 1891 to 1905.
What could be more "traditional" than this list? Indeed, so "traditional" was Russian homosexuality that it was even seen as a distinctive symptom of Russian decadence by some revolutionaries. Indeed, none other than Ivan the Terrible (1538-1584) and Dmitry 'the Pretender (unk.-1606) were known to be homosexual, or at least to have had male lovers.
In fact, what is nontraditional is the suppression of sexual diversity, not its expression. Following the Russian Revolution, the regime under Lenin formally legalized homosexual acts (along with divorce and abortion), but Stalin criminalized them in 1933. So they would remain until 1993: officially illegal, yet tolerated on and off, depending on those in power. Which of these legal regimes is "traditional" and which is "nontraditional"? Is Stalin more traditional than Lenin?
The reality is that, as everywhere, sexual diversity in Russia is entirely traditional and entirely natural. Of course, contemporary labels -- "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender" -- are culturally specific and of relatively late vintage. But the existence of same-sex relationships goes back as far as Russian history itself. Indeed, a few years ago, a 600-page volume containing 69 biographies of famous Russian lesbians and gays was compiled by Vladimir Kirsanov, editor of the gay magazine Kvir.
Now we all know that Vitaly Milonov, the most vocal of the anti-gay bill's sponsors, had homosexuality in mind when he introduced the bill. But a literal reading of the bill's actual language, coupled with even a passing glance at Russian history, does not agree.
Of course, it's unlikely that a Russian jurist will really read the law so cleverly -- although doing so would provide an "out" for moderates seeking to control the damage it has caused, which now extends to calls to boycott the 2012 Winter Olympics, Russian vodka, and Russian performance venues.
Yet even if such a literal reading never finds its way into a judicial decision, it serves as an important reminder that although homosexuality goes by different names in different places and at different times, it is a traditional part of every culture that the human race has ever created. Sexual diversity is, like other forms of diversity, an intrinsic, natural part of the human experience. Alas, so are efforts, like Russia's, to deny it.
Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Dr. Jay Michaelson is vice president of the Arcus Foundation and the author of five books and two hundred articles on religion, sexuality, ethics, and contemplative practice. His most recent book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist.
The "Scalia Dissent" has been a particular subgenre of legal discourse for two decades now, amply studied in the academic and popular literature. Vitriolic, hyperbolic, littered with witty bon mots and invective against faulty reasoning (i.e. any reasoning with which Justice Scalia does not agree), it is something one now comes to expect in any high-profile Supreme Court case decided in a more liberal direction.
But Justice Scalia's dissent in U.S. v. Windsor, the Defense of Marriage Act case, feels different. Scalia pulled out the same rhetorical flourishes as ever, but he seems remarkably oblivious to context: the lives of millions of Americans. Windsor was not another case about crèches in the public square (the occasion of some of the earliest Scalia rants) or obscure administrative procedures. It was the case that decided the fates of tens of thousands of families, and, more broadly, established that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, regardless of one's personal views on the subject. Agree or disagree that same-sex families are marriages or not -- they certainly are families, and certainly are made up of human beings. Justice Scalia's contemptuous dissent is contemptuous of these millions of Americans' humanity.
The majority's opinion in Windsor was clear enough, and exactly what most legal experts had expected. After dispensing with the issue of standing, the majority noted that marriage is a matter of state, not federal, regulation. Thus a couple married in New York is duly married, whether same-sex or opposite-sex. To discriminate against a married couple requires a secular interest which was lacking in the Defense of Marriage Act -- on the contrary, the legislative record showed evidence of bias. Thus, such discrimination violates the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
This reasoning is what Justice Scalia termed "legalistic argle-bargle."
Really? Argle-bargle? The term doesn't appear in my dictionary, but I take it to mean an incoherent ramble, the equivalent of gibberish. And to apply it to the legal arguments that a generation of lawyers and legal scholars have debated for years is, itself, offensive. It is offensive to those lawyers, of course, but even more so to people like Edie Windsor, the 84-year-old plaintiff in the case, suing to not be penalized that her legal spouse was a woman and not a man. It is offensive to my friend who can now apply for a Green Card, finally, after living apart from his husband for a year. Context matters, a Scalia Rant in this context is deeply offensive.
Of course, no one expected Justice Scalia to strike down DOMA. Yet ironically, the reason we all knew this is that, over the years, Justice Scalia has shown himself to be a duplicitous legal reasoner when his legal ideology meets his political or religious ones. That is, he argle-bargles. For example, for years Scalia waved the banner of state's rights -- until Bush v. Gore, in which he suddenly voted to overturn a state supreme court's interpretation of its own constitution. Indeed, just one day before Scalia's impassioned defense of deference to Congress in Windsor, he voted to overrule Congress in Shelby County, the Voting Rights Act case. So what is the principle here? We defer to Congress when it discriminates, but not when it bars discrimination? Is there a principle? Or is there, rather, just argle-bargle?
We also know Scalia is bargling in Windsor because of his many extra-judicial comments about what was at issue in the case. Shockingly defiant of the principle that justices not comment on cases before the Court, Scalia said only a few days before the decision was handed down that the case, like Lawrence v. Texas, was about "consensual sodomy." Sodomy - an act. Not sexual orientation, not what millions of people are telling us about their lives; not friends and neighbors and family members - but a sexual act. As if opposite-sex marriage is about cunnilingus.
Ironically, this clear contempt for and ignorance of LGBT lives is precisely the sort of animus Justice Scalia says we should not impute to DOMA's backers. In the same words with which he complains of being called a bigot, he writes like a bigot.
The ignorance of the lives of gay and lesbian people is not unique to Justice Scalia, of course. Others, too, cover up their ears when they hear about lesbian ministers, or gay boy scouts. No, they insist, there are no gay people -- only gay acts, only sodomy, only a "lifestyle."
But this is ignorance of the facts. The facts are that gay people exist, that many (though not all) say they were 'born that way,' that same-sex families are families. And while such ignorance may be expected among the extremist rabble, it ought to have no place in the Supreme Court.
Indeed, even if Justice Scalia still denies the humanity of gay people, one might've hoped that he would have recognized the gravity of the moment and of his role as a Supreme Court justice, and held back from ranting, just this once. But instead, by demeaning the people whose lives were at stake, by dismissing with an invented slur the articulation of their hopes and aspirations, their very sense of what it means to be an American, Justice Scalia has demeaned the institution he is meant to serve.
As for the LGBT community, we will not be brought down to his low state. At a rally in New York's Tompkins Square Park, a beloved artist and performer named Donald Gallagher -- a man who was present at Stonewall, who recently lost his partner of 40 years to cancer, and who once laboriously painted the entire ceiling of his church in Jersey City -- proclaimed that, in the secret language of the ancient gay elders, "Argle Bargle" really means "Joy to All." Argle Bargle! the crowd shouted. Argle Bargle!
Dr. Jay Michaelson is vice president of the Arcus Foundation and the author of five books and two hundred articles on religion, sexuality, ethics, and contemplative practice. His most recent book, God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, was a Lambda Literary Award finalist
The murder of Mark Carson, targeted for being gay, is the third, and most serious, in a recent string of attacks against gay men in New York City. The horrific act, under investigation as a hate crime, has brought appropriate condemnations from all quarters.
But what it should not have brought is surprise. On the contrary -- Carson's murder highlights the shortcomings of a rights-based, marriage-based approach to LGBT equality, and cries out for deeper, and more difficult, forms of engagement.
With states falling like dominos into the marriage-equality camp, many have expressed shock that homophobic hatred and violence is "still" possible. But why is this shocking? The advent of civil rights for African Americans did not end racial violence, still widespread nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. Feminism has not ended violence against women. Indeed, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, to echo President Obama's historic turn of phrase, legal inequality is only the tip of the iceberg. Submerged beneath it are deep-seated patterns of injustice, privilege, prejudice and fear.
In an astonishingly short period of time, homophobia has gone from commonplace to contemptible. To take but one example, star athletes are today punished for saying a word - "faggot" -- that was one of the most common slurs of 'trash talk' just five years ago. Indeed, in coverage of Carson's murder, the word, like the 'n-word,' was referred to only euphemistically, as an "antigay slur."
This change is welcome, but it is also so rapid as to induce whiplash. And banning language from polite speech does not remove it from consciousness. On the contrary: the tamping down of hatred only increases its intensity, leading to tragic bursts of rage.
So too the advances in same-sex marriage, the cultural acceptance of LGBT people, and other hard-earned markers of the normalization of sexual diversity. All of these are crucial signposts on the path to equality, and they did not come about overnight; they were, in fact, the culmination of decades of struggle. But none of them, nor all of them altogether, can uproot the roots of homophobia, which lie (among other places) within religion, culture and psychology.
In social struggles, legal equality is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Yes, the state's imprimatur upon animus is now being, gradually, removed. But the animus itself remains. Carson's murder; the other acts of violence against LGBT people in New York; and, further from the camera's lights but more tragic and more prevalent, the spree of violence against transgender people -- particularly transgender women of color, some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBT community -- are not vestiges of bygone days we thought we'd left behind. Rather, they are a reminder that most of the work still lies ahead.
The work to come is different from what's come before. To be sure, legal inequality still persists in most states; in my home state of Florida, for example, I can be fired from a job simply for being gay, and my husband and I cannot adopt a child. But the real debates take place not in legislatures but in living rooms, locker rooms, and, yes, churches as well. For example, religious leaders cannot stand on the sidelines, or equivocate between 'sin' and 'sinner.' You're either opening hearts or closing them, fighting hatred or abetting it. Unfortunately, neutrality is not an option.
Nor is blissful ignorance. It's fun to live in "gay ghettos," or closed bubbles of like-minded friends. But these spaces are permeable. They are not as safe as they seem. And if we want to fight the causes of violence, LGBT folks and our allies need to venture out of them, and have more difficult conversations with those who aren't yet allies. This is more difficult than winning lawsuits; it takes time, and requires vulnerability, dialogue, and persistence. It is the responsibility of all of us, not just a few lobbyists and lawmakers. But personal relationships, personal stories, and personal experiences are the water that will erode the stone of the hardened heart. Nothing else will.
Nor can we imagine that because some of us are secure, all of us are secure. Progress has been uneven. It has not reached LGBT people in red states, in conservative religious families, in many communities of color, or in economically disadvantaged communities. It has not encompassed those whose gender presentation is different from the norm, or who do not "pass," or who are not "just like everyone else." These are people who live in constant threat of violence and marginalization, often intersecting with other forms of oppression.
Carson's murder reminds us that violence can strike anyone, anywhere. But it should also remind us that some people live with this fear every day.
Some privileged pundits have recently opined that the gay mission has been accomplished, that gay organizations should shut their doors, that victory may now be declared. To them, I suppose, Carson's murder is just an anomaly -- and those of more marginalized people, like Ce Ce Acoff, the most recent transgender woman of color victimized by hate, are simply invisible.
But this violence is neither anomalous nor invisible. It should not even be surprising. Rather, it is a reminder that hate doesn't disappear when discriminatory laws are taken off the books. For those of us who need reminding.
If you're following the news today, or seeing all the red equality icons on Facebook, you areno doubt thinking about marriage equality. The Supreme Court hears arguments in two cases this week—Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor—that have the potential to tip the judicial scales in favor of greater legal equality for LGBT families. Here's a selection of reading that will help you dig deeper.
Does the Bible prohibit homosexuality? No, says Bible scholar and activist Jay Michaelson. But not only that: Michaelson also shows that the vast majority of our shared religious traditions support the full equality and dignity of LGBT people. In this accessible, passionate, and provocative book, Michaelson argues for equality, not despite religion but because of it.
For more than a century before gay marriage became a hot-button political issue, same-sex unions flourished in America. Pairs of men and pairs of women joined together in committed unions, standing by each other “for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health” for periods of thirty or forty—sometimes as many as fifty—years. In short, they loved and supported each other every bit as much as any husband and wife.
In Outlaw Marriages, cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter reveals how some of these unions didn’t merely improve the quality of life for the two people involved but also enriched the American culture.
Among the high-profile couples whose lives and loves are illuminated in the following pages are Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and Mary Rozet Smith, literary icon Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, author James Baldwin and Lucien Happersberger, and artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage reframes the family-rights debate by arguing that marriage shouldn't bestow special legal privileges upon couples because people, both heterosexual and LGBT, live in a variety of relationships-including unmarried couples of any sexual orientation, single-parent households, extended biological family units, and myriad other familial configurations. Nancy D. Polikoff shows how the law can value all families, and why it must.
Engaging and largely untold, From the Closet to the Courtroom explores how five pivotal lawsuits have altered LGBT history. Beginning each case narrative at the center-with the litigants and their lawyers-law professor Carlos Ball follows the stories behind each crucial lawsuit. He traces the parties from their communities to the courtroom, while deftly weaving in rich sociohistorical context and analyzing the lasting legal and political impact of each judicial outcome.
Will same-sex couples destroy "traditional" marriage, soon to be followed by the collapse of all civilization? That charge has been leveled throughout history whenever the marriage rules change. But marriage, as E. J. Graff shows in this lively, fascinating tour through the history of marriage in the West, has always been a social battleground, its rules constantly shifting to fit each era and economy. The marriage debates have been especially tumultuous for the past hundred and fifty years-in ways that lead directly to today's debate over whether marriage could mean not just Boy + Girl = Babies, but also Girl + Girl = Love.
I visited Minnesota to meet folks involved in the same-sex marriage debate. I
was inspired by the amount of energy that people were devoting to the cause,
and to emphasizing dialogue and conversation instead of shouting and slogans.
thing we’ve learned is that a lot of Minnesotans (and Marylanders,
Washingtonians and Mainers) are sincere in supporting equal rights for gays and
lesbians and simultaneously sincere in their misgivings about same-sex
marriage. Yes, there are absolutely-sure people on both sides, but there are
also a lot of people sincerely in the middle. If you’re one of those people, I’d
like to share some of what I’ve learned as someone involved in this issue for
several years now—and as someone who married my same-sex partner in New York a
First, I want to say that I get it. I
know many people in the gay community who say that if you don’t support
marriage equality, then you must be a bigot or a homophobe, but I know that
that isn’t true. I know plenty of people who are sincerely concerned about the
consequences of same-sex marriage for their communities and their values—and
some of them are my friends. So this is not about bashing people who disagree.
(Of course, it’s also true that there are some
bigots and homophobes out there, too. But I’m not really speaking to them,
because they’re not interested in what I have to say anyway!)
To those sincerely wrestling with this
issue, I offer four points to consider.
1. Your church
will never have to hold any kind of wedding it doesn’t want to.
Polls have told us that the number-one
concern of “undecideds” is that their church, pastor, minister or rabbi would
have to officiate a gay wedding if marriage equality passed. Let me be clear as
a lawyer and a religious leader: This is absolutely 100-percent false. In every
state with same-sex marriage, there are “ministerial exemptions” and other
protections that ensure that this will never, ever happen.
There’s also the U.S. Constitution. The
exact boundaries of the First Amendment have been debated since it was passed
223 years ago, but every justice on the Supreme Court, and every judge on every
federal court, agrees that no church can be compelled to solemnize a wedding
(or baptism, or funeral) that it finds religiously objectionable. It’s way, way
beyond the pale of the law.
Unfortunately, anti-gay zealots have
deliberately distorted this issue. They have taken a small handful of
borderline cases and twisted them beyond their meaning, or warned of a “coming
storm” that will happen in the future. This is misleading, and it’s led to
confusion. But it is a fact that no church will ever have to perform a same-sex
wedding if it doesn’t want to. Period.
2. You’re right
to be stuck on the word “marriage.”
Another thing we’ve learned in Minnesota
is that a lot of folks support civil unions for gay couples but not marriage.
Why? Because the truth is that “marriage” is a religious term. The state has
taken it over, but the word, the concept, is religious. It’s true that this
debate is about civil marriage, not religious marriage, but it’s also true that
the word “marriage” itself is derived from religious concepts.
The real problem here isn’t same-sex
marriage; it’s the state deciding what marriage is in the first place. Many
people, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, have argued that the
state has no business deciding what “marriage” is. The state should just issue
a civil union license to everyone and leave it to churches and other
institutions to solemnize marriages.
In my opinion this is a good point. The
trouble is that “marriage” is the word we use right now. It’s how the state,
and our communities, recognizes families. It’s how we decide who gets to visit
their lifelong partners in the hospital or leave their property to their loved
ones. More importantly, this is the word we use to decide which families count
and which don’t.
If we as a society want to change that,
fine. But in the meantime, there’s a group of people—around 5 percent of people—who
are excluded from being counted as families because of this definition. Unless
we’re going to change the whole system, that isn’t fair.
So if you’re stuck on the word “marriage,”
you’re right. It is a word that comes from religious traditions. But words take
on new meanings all the time, and this is one of them. That’s what we’re voting
on now: not the original, religious meaning but this new, secular one. It
really is a different question.
3. Marriage has
I know that two men getting married may
seem like a huge, radical break from a tradition as old as the Bible, but it
isn’t. In fact, the tradition has always changed.
For a start, let’s look at the Bible
itself. Biblical marriage wasn’t monogamy; it was polygamy. Abraham had two
wives; King Solomon had a whole harem. And that’s just the beginning. In
biblical societies, when you conquered another group, the victorious men would “win”
their defeated foes’ wives as part of the spoils. Is this “traditional marriage”?
But let’s not stop there. Right up
until the 20th century women were considered the property of their husbands—something
the Bible explicitly states. Until the 19th century girls were married off at
the age of 12. Is that “traditional marriage”?
Of course, let’s also remember that in
some places, interracial marriage was seen as a “crime against nature” up until
the 1960s. In the 19th century African Americans weren’t even considered fully
human. As revolting as it is to even remember this fact today, some people at
that time would have considered interracial marriage a marriage between a human
and an animal. Is that the “tradition” we’re protecting here?
Thank God we have come a long way. Our
society doesn’t treat women as property. All people are seen as fully human,
equal in the eyes of God and the state alike. But getting from point A to point
B was a radical change—no less, I submit, than including gay couples in the
institution of marriage today.
Gays and lesbians aren’t trying to
change marriage. We’re trying to join it. And marriage itself has grown and
changed as long as the institution has been around. Yes, this can seem like a
big step, but look where we’d be if we hadn’t taken such steps in the past.
4. It really is
about “separate but equal.”
Finally (and I think this point will
probably be the one that carries the day in Minnesota), this really is about “separate
but equal.” Slice it, dice it, see it from every perspective, but at the end of
the day this question is about whether your gay uncle or the lesbian in your
church is a real person, to be treated fairly or not.
Let me speak from my own experience.
When our families and friends gathered to celebrate our wedding a year ago, and
when the state recognized it, they were affirming us as human beings. We are
people, and our love is real. The joy in my mother’s face revealed the pride
any mother would feel at her son’s wedding. And yes, it mattered that it was
Civil unions fulfill the legal
technicalities of marriage, but we all know that separate can never be equal.
Anything less than marriage tells gay people that they’re second-class
I really do understand the complicated
religious questions that same-sex marriage brings up, but make no mistake: A
vote for so-called “traditional marriage” is a vote against the dignity of gay
and lesbian people. It is deeply hurtful and deeply unfair. And unfortunately,
there’s just no getting around that.
A person’s sexuality isn’t some kind of
choice, a vice or a psychological defect. It’s a part of who they are, and the
diversity of sexualities is part of the incredible diversity of nature. The
question now is whether we can open our hearts to those who are different from
us, and whether we can see them not only as God’s children but as God’s adults:
fully human, deserving of respect and thankfully blessed with love.
I have to tell you that over the course of several years, as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed, monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that "don't ask, don't tell" is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.
Angry voices on the so-called "Christian right" are already screaming about President Obama's "war on religion," but today's announcement regarding same-sex marriage was actually an inspiring religious pronouncement. Why?
First, because it came one day after one of the nastiest, meanest anti-gay votes in recent memory, North Carolina's "no families but mine" Amendment 1. It offers a studied contrast between humanity and dogmatism, inclusion and nastiness. Religious and non-religious people alike can now see two very different ways of approaching how we ought to live with one another, one welcoming and the other cruel, one open to the experience of others and the other with its hands over its ears, one focused on compassion and the other focused on exclusion. Who Would Jesus Discriminate against, anyway?
Second, Obama's statement is a model of religious reasoning. Jesus said in the Sermon of the Mount, "By your fruits, you shall know them" (Matthew 7:16). This, not some obscure lines in Leviticus or Corinthians, is the real religious message regarding gays and lesbians, and it is the way Obama made up his mind on this issue. Over time, he said, he has come to understand the truth of same-sex couples, that they are as capable of commitment, love, and sanctity as opposite-sex couples, and that it is an injustice to deny the benefits of marriage to gay people.
Those are religious values; they are exactly what the Sermon on the Mount preaches, as well. "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit," Jesus said (Matthew 7:18). Well, let's apply that method to the question of same-sex marriage. Does it produce bad fruit or good fruit? Good fruit, as Obama himself has come to understand. Therefore, it, too, is good.
This process is about the growth of individual conscience: I used to feel one way, but over time, in a careful and long process of discernment, I come to feel a different way. And look at the evidence Obama cited: People on his staff, friends, and family -- these, not abstract principles -- are what shifted his heart and mind. Thinking of his personal responsibility for the lives of soldiers serving our country -- this, not some policy point -- is the data that weighs into questions of right and wrong.
Affirming the equality of LGBT people, including same-sex marriage, is not a choice between religion and some other values, between God and gay. It is, on the contrary, a direct consequence of taking religion seriously. It's easy to sit back comfortably with one's assumptions and prejudices. What's harder, and thus what really counts, religiously speaking, is to be open to what other people and their experiences have to teach us. That's how we can fulfill the injunction of Matthew 7:16, and it's exactly what the president showed us today.
We've all heard the cliché, and we all know its meaning: that "male" and "female" are at the heart of God's plan for the world, and that heterosexuality is the only "natural" sexuality. Kirk Cameron, the former child TV star, made this point just a few days ago: that homosexuality is unnatural.
We know, too, that this is not a scientific claim. Actually, homosexuality is quite "natural"; it's present in hundreds of animal species and in every culture in the world. Sexual diversity is the rule, not the exception -- the plan, not the deviation.
But there is that myth, that story, of Adam and Eve. No matter the scientific evidence, no matter the countless lives of happy, healthy LGBT people, there's that story, that binary, and that claim.
Well, I'd like to take that story back -- to reclaim it for all of us, not just those of us who find love in heterosexual, monogamous life.
First, let's set aside the parts about God, the Bible, the whole theological aspect of this myth. Let's treat it just as literature -- as a text, sacred to many, but first and foremost a story of human origins and human purpose. All of us -- religious, atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, progressive, fundamentalist -- should be able to agree on that.
And in that myth, the pairing of Adam and Eve was the solution to a problem. In the more detailed version of the Genesis story, they don't just appear on the stage; human coupling is the result of divine fidgeting. God creates the human being, but then has to tinker with the original plan, because of the first flaw God finds with all of God's creation: loneliness.
"It is not good for the human being to be alone," God says in Genesis 2:18. In context, this is a shocking pronouncement. Six times, God had remarked how good everything is: light, Heaven and Earth, stars, plants, animals -- all of these are "good." The entirety of creation is "very good." Yet suddenly something is not good. Suddenly, God realizes there is something within the world as we find it that is insufficient, something that all of us experience in our own lives and that we all strive to transcend: the existential condition of being alone.
Notice, too, that Eve is not the first solution God attempts to deal with the problem of Adam's aloneness. God first presents Adam with every animal in the world -- birds, beasts, even those animals that would later become domesticated by people. But none suffices. Only then does the story of Genesis 2 tell us that God took the rib from man to make woman. Only human companionship solves the existential problem of aloneness, the first problem our religious traditions set out to address. And, finally, notice that Eve is not created, in this narrative, to make children with Adam; this story is about loneliness and love, not procreation and progeny. Indeed, Eve's femininity is not even essential to be what Hebrew calls an ezer kenegdo, and what antiquated King James English calls a "help-meet": someone able to be with Adam on equal terms and be a companion to him.
In other words, notwithstanding the many problems with this particular myth (it's been used not just against gays, of course, but primarily against women, by those who read it as setting up a gender hierarchy), this is a tale about the importance of human love and companionship.
Now, for most people, this love is indeed experienced in a relationship between a man and a woman. For about 5 percent of people (we can argue about the numbers; the range is usually 3 to 10 percent), this love is found in a relationship between two men, or between two women. And for some others, love may be found in either kind of relationship, and sexuality may be experienced as fluid.
Personally, I am one of that 5 percent. During my teens and 20s, as I struggled with my sexuality, I had relationships with women and, as much as I was able, fell in love. But something was always "off," even though at the time I couldn't quite identify it. (Maybe I knew, deep down. I don't know.) It took me 10 years of wrestling, cajoling, self-hating, and self-judging, and finally a serious car accident, which shook up my body and soul, to finally admit that if I wanted true love, the kind that the Song of Songs sings about, the kind that the Genesis myth says is so important, well, my Eve would have to be a Steve.
This is about much more than sex; it's about love. And that is the most natural thing in the world.
Now, if we do consider ourselves religious, this point matters, and it influences how we understand our sacred texts and traditions. Surely, a loving God could not want the tyranny of the "closet" -- an all-too-cozy metaphor for what is really a life of deceit, loneliness, and alienation. The Kirk Camerons of the world can still pretend that homosexuality is some kind of choice, pathology, or worse. But I have known both the life of the closet (for 10 years of my adult life) and the life of companionship. I know that my life with my partner is not simply about lust. It is exactly as the Genesis myth describes: a life of sharing, companionship, and love. Sure, for most people, "a man... shall hold fast to his wife." But in some cases, a woman shall hold fast to hers. And in some others, a man shall hold fast to another.
Of course, I know there are other Biblical texts that influence what some people think about homosexuality. In my book God vs. Gay?, I spend a long, long time parsing them out and show that they are obscure and ambiguous, and that they certainly do not contemplate loving, committed relationships. But anyone can interpret Biblical text; that's the easy part. As Shakespeare said, even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. The hard, and more important, part is deciding which approach to take: one that leads to more love, or one that leads to more aloneness; one that leads to more of the holy, or one that leads to more of the shameful. As I approach these sacred texts, the story of Adam and Eve helps point the way, by reminding me that it is not good to be alone -- and it is very good to find someone with whom to share your life.
Our national conversation about equality for LGBT people can often be, well, nasty. Opponents of "gay rights" routinely compare us to perverts, accuse us of horrible things, and deny our very existence. Meanwhile, to many religious people, gay folks really do threaten their understanding of the proper relationship of religion and society, morality and social order. It can be painful on both sides.
Yet I want to suggest that this debate is good for us as a society, and good for religion, specifically. As more religious communities, especially conservative ones, recognize the existence and humanity of LGBT people, they are forced to engage in the sort of critical thought and introspection that makes religion worthwhile in the first place. This is a good thing.
We grow as religious people through an unlikely combination of courage and humility. It takes courage to question one's opinions, and humility to recognize that we may not be as right as we thought. As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." We're not meant, religiously speaking, to remain as ethical babies. We're called to something more than that.
All of us who make religion or spirituality part of our lives are accustomed to the process of introspection. Whether we attend confession, or review our lives as part of the annual cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or have heart-to-heart conversations with Christ, or enter periods of contemplation and discernment when we try to understand what course of action is the right one, or engage in any number of other procedures of self-examination and review, those of us involved in religious communities or spiritual practice are invited, time and again, to look inward.
We are even asked to reflect on our reflection. After all, introspection is not entirely interior in nature. Our hearts and minds are informed, saturated, even, by the values we learn from our sacred traditions and the world around us. We all know this to be true, which is one reason so many believers choose to separate themselves from the world at large. But do we acknowledge the depth to which it is true? Even on a gut, instinctual level, our very hearts and minds are shaped by assumptions and judgments that may be so familiar that they pass unnoticed. And these assumptions are culturally determined: show a picture of a dog to someone born into a Western society, and they may think "pet," and possibly feel affection. Show the same picture to someone born into some traditional Asian societies, and they think "food," and feel hungry.
Notwithstanding all the common-sense advice to "trust your gut," really, our guts are not trustworthy at all and must instead be tempered by love and reason. All animals have gut reactions, after all. But only humans (and perhaps a few others, in more limited ways) are able to reason beyond them. The "gut" may contain intuition and wisdom, but it's not the sum total of humanity. We are blessed with the ability to rise beyond our gut reactions -- as some religious traditions put it, we have sparks of God within us. (Or, as some neuroscientists put it, we have pre-frontal cortexes that can mediate the impulses of the amygdala.) And we all know from experience that we can feel something in our gut and still be wrong. The process of educating the moral conscience, of growing up religiously and ethically, is, in large part, the process of applying love and reason to what we think we already knew. Love teaches us how to think justly.
This is how moral progress takes place, I think. We learn to stop trusting the gut reactions based on falsehoods we've been taught. And it is one of the gifts that our national wrestling with the question of equality for LGBT people gives to each of us. It is an invitation to be uncomfortable, because discomfort is a sign of growth; it's a sign that you've reached your learning edge, where assumptions may be challenged and difficult lessons may be learned.
Let me share a bit of my personal story for a moment. I was raised to believe that being gay was about the worst thing in the world. Before I even knew what a "faggot" was, I knew I didn't want to be one, because it was what you called kids you wanted to degrade -- "Gay Jay" was the one name that I'd try to beat someone up over. Eventually, I learned what these words meant, and, years later, that they did in fact apply to me. My first response? Horror, terror, hatred, denial. I postponed coming out, for fear that it would end my religious life and alienate everyone I knew. I tried desperately to evade the truth myself. And why? Because I felt in my deepest guts that this way of intimate relation was wrong, disgusting, depraved.
Thanks to years of love, activism, therapy, and, above all, meeting hundreds of people who have shown the stereotypes I learned as a child to be wrong, I no longer feel this way. And yet I meet people in my work who are right back at square one, still repulsed by their own sexuality. And I meet devoutly religious people who, indeed, feel that revulsion deep inside... in their kishkes, their guts. It's easy to condemn right-wing loons as ignorant bigots -- but really, how different is what they feel from what I myself felt? I understand their hatred, because I once felt it myself.
And the journey has a way of continuing. One may be comfortable with some gay men, but not with "effeminate" gay men. With lesbians, but not "butch" lesbians. Or not with transgender people. Or not with people who reject the gender binary and locate themselves somewhere in the middle of a gender continuum. And so on. Rather than see this as an unending litany of PC requirements, I want to invite an attitude of joy that there are always assumptions in need of being defeated. Yom Kippur may come but once a year, and confession once a week -- but every encounter with an "other" is an occasion for growth and renewal.
In other words, feeling uncomfortable is a sign that you're where you need to be: working through your "stuff."
Imagine if you didn't do that. In past decades, our country kept racist laws on the books because privileged white people like me felt the rightness of them in our guts. But guts should never be the end of a moral conversation. If religion has taught us anything, it is that there is a moral value in transcending our baser instincts -- and that includes the snap judgments all of us make all the time. At first, and maybe for a while, these corrections along the course of moral conscience may not "feel right." But they are the defining marks of our humanity. Discomfort can be a good sign not just for the individual, but also for entire communities and societies.
I have seen this process unfold hundreds of times regarding LGBT issues. The organization PFLAG, for example -- Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays -- is largely made up of folks who have traveled this journey, from rejection to acceptance to embrace. These are ordinary people, not gay activists and not gay themselves, who once had strongly anti-gay views, for whatever reason, but who were forced to reexamine those views when people they loved came out as gay or lesbian.
This journey is a painful one, but it is also crucial. It is the unfolding of the moral conscience, and it is, in my opinion, humanity at its very best. We should be grateful for it.
LGBT people awoke with a sense of dread to the news of Rick Santorum's near-tie with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum is not just the butt (pun intended) of a deservingly dirty joke; he has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to bashing gay people for political gain. He is the poster child for political homophobia.
And yet, this near-win is different, because America is different. Santorum represents not the resurgence of gay-baiting, but its last, self-defeating gasp.
Only a few years ago, homophobia was a great uniter. Short on campaign cash? Need to fire up the base? Why, flash a few images of the latest pride parade, compare same-sex marriage to bestiality, and the checks and self-rightous blog posts would flow like milk and honey. And while religiously-soaked gay-bashing wasn't the rhetoric of choice for neo-conservatives and fiscal conservatives, they went along with it, building a strong coalition between corporate capitalists and Christian conservatives.
Indeed, it has been remarked that this was Reaganism's great innovation: using social issues to convince working class people to vote against their economic interests. At first, it was the "Southern strategy," making use of coded racism. Later, it grew into gay-baiting, making use of overt homophobia. For at least twenty years, it was the winning formula for the Republican party. Enrich the rich by enraging the working poor.
Only now, things are different. Last May, a Gallup poll found a majority of Americans supported legalizing same-sex marriage. Last September, a large majority supported the end of the military's "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy. And over the last year, we've seen a dramatic increase of LGBT (including T) people in the media, in politics, and in our communities.
As a result of these dramatic changes, Santorum's homophobia is more a liability than an asset. Gay people may be horrified at his near-win in Iowa, but we needn't be. His bigotry still plays to his base -- but it's only the base, only the extremists, who still soak it up.
Of course, public opinion could always turn against gay people. But I don't think that's likely, because it changed, over time, due to a very resilient and powerful force: truth. Straight folks have seen, in their own personal experience, that gay people are no more or less ethical than they are. There are lusty, libertine gays, and quiet, conservative ones. Gay people are atheist and religious, of all ethnic backgrounds, young and old, wild and mild. The stereotypes that all gay people are a certain way (lewd, anti-family, demonic, whatever) are simply not true, and anyone who bothers to -- no, allows themselves to -- get to know their gay neighbors realizes this.
And they've seen, too, that sexual orientation is a trait, not (as it has been variously labeled) a sin, pathology, "lifestyle choice," neurosis, or dysfunction. Sexuality is just part of who we are -- a good part.
That kind of truth isn't subject to the whims of political opinion. Once you see that stereotypes are lies, you don't go back to them later, especially when -- as poll after poll has shown us -- that knowledge comes first-hand. The lesbian couple in church, or the gay man raising a child, is far more potent an opinion-shifter than the latest fundraising santorum from the likes of Rick Santorum.
And by the way, this is even true within Santorum's base itself. In evangelical communities across the country, there are moderate voices questioning the way in which gay people have been singled out by the so-called Christian Right. While most evangelicals remain committed to a broad reading of Scripture regarding homosexuality, increasing numbers are voicing misgivings about whether it's really Christian to stigmatize gay people. Who Would Jesus Hate, after all?
Given the money and the races ahead in the Republican primary, there's no way Rick Santorum will be the party's nominee. Mitt Romney's PACs will destroy him just as they destroyed Newt Gingrich in Iowa, burying him under an avalanche of negative ads. But as depressing as Santorum's rise may seem to LGBT folks, this time really is different. We are not about to be victims again. On the contrary, if the polling data is accurate, the biggest victim of Santorum's homophobia will be Santorum himself.
Before I came out, I was sure that doing so would spell the end of my religious life. Raised in a Conservative Jewish household, I absorbed the message that being gay (let alone acting on homosexual impulses) was about the worst thing in the world. I thought it meant I could never have a family, and could not be gay and Jewish. Ironically—tragically—accepting and celebrating my sexuality was the beginning of my religious life, not the end of it. What we call in our popular culture “coming out” is an awesome spiritual experience, a gateway to the holiness of love. I was able to stop being dishonest, with myself—and with God.
In spiritual communities, bearing witness is a sacred act. We testify to the truth of the gospel, we tell stories about the operation of grace in our lives—and what we say has meaning because it is our experience and it is true. So, let me bear witness to the reality of sexual orientation—not as a choice (though some people may experience it that way, I do not), and not as a deviant pathology, but as a fiber of the soul.
My story is not everyone’s story; it’s a male story, it’s a Jewish one, and it’s by no means universal. But the truth of my experience, and that of millions of other people, is that homosexuality exists as a trait, and it can be, like heterosexuality, a gateway to holiness, or its opposite. This is our shared testimony, and it has provoked uncertainty and reflection among many sincere believers in different faith traditions, because it seems to contradict what some of our traditions say about sexuality. This is not because believers are bigoted or ignorant, but because, like the new roles of women in our society, this new information about human sexuality—not just science, but also personal testimony and witness—challenges some very old traditions. We do need to reexamine what we thought we knew, and reflect upon beliefs which seemed certain. Then again, isn’t that a consummate religious act as well?
What some folks don’t understand about “the closet” is that it’s not just a set of walls around sexual behavior. It’s a net of lies that affects absolutely everything in one’s life: how you dress, who you befriend, how you walk, how you talk. And, more importantly, how you love. How can you build authentic relationships with anyone—friends, family—under such conditions? And if you’re religious, how can you be honest with yourself and your God if you maintain so many lies, so many walls running right through the center of your soul?
When I was in the closet, I lied to myself, willing myself to believe that I was bisexual, or that I could master this evil inclination, as my religious tradition taught me. But I also lied to girlfriends, family members, friends, and teachers. I lied to employers, to students, and to casual acquaintances. I lied all the time, to everyone. Even on the rare occasions when I would sneak out of my life and into the seedy gay underworld of secrecy and sex, I would lie, making up fake names and backgrounds so no one could identify me later.
Somehow, I believed that all this lying was in the service of God. From where I sit now, the very proposition is preposterous: this notion that to be faithful to God requires deceit, falsehood, and deception. “He that works deceit shall not dwell within My house: he that tells lies shall not tarry in my sight.” (Psalms 101:7-8) “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Surely, the “seal of God is truth,” as the Jewish rabbinic saying has it. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9) “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Yet from where I hid for a decade of my adult life, I thought telling the truth would end my religious life—when in fact it enabled it to grow.
The weight of lies is so invisible and omnipresent that it eventually becomes unnoticeable, until at last it is shrugged off, out of despair, desperation, or even hope. I had no idea how much lighter life could be, or how the anxieties that I took for granted were unnecessary—and uncommon. I realized that not only were closeted people unaware of how miserable they were—but that straight people were too. People who have never had to hide the way I hid have no idea what it is like to carry around such a secret—a secret that one uncautious move can divulge. Catastrophe is always around the corner—as close as one unintentional flit of the hand or gaze of the eyes. Locker rooms, cocktail parties, football games, college dorms—all of these were places of terror for me, because, in their casual conversations and erotic temptations, all were traps that could undo years of careful self-presentation.
Of course, as we know from formerly-closeted politicians, musicians, and clergy, the deception is never as perfect as one hopes it to be. My family and some of my friends were surprised when I came out to them—but not all of them. Some said they knew all along.
But in my world of lies, I thought the deception was complete. I’ve already remarked at how tragic and offensive it is to hear homosexuality called a “lifestyle,” as if it’s like living in the country, or enjoying golf or tennis. But the closet, in my experience, is a death-style—a slow, painful draining-out and drying-up of all that makes life worthwhile—even for those of us fortunate enough to live in places where gay-bashing and state-sanctioned violence are comparatively rare. This is true even for those closeted people who seem to be happy and successful. In my work, I have met hundreds of them—mostly men, successful, often married, and with varying degrees of self-awareness. Many have children, careers, and lives that are filled with joy. Yet I almost always recognize in them the same tentative anxiety I once knew in myself—a certain illness-at-ease with life as presented, as if they are wearing clothing a size too small or too large.
To suppose that such a life is what God wants of us is to be gravely mistaken either about the closet, or God, or both. Yet this is exactly what I used to believe, which is why I try not to rush to judgment of those who believe it still. It took a decade of self-hatred, and finally, as I described earlier, a near-fatal car accident and the ending of a long-term relationship, before I at last gave up on trying to be someone I was not.
Finally, all of us can learn from these narratives—the “coming out” narrative may be familiar not just to many other gay people, of course, but also to anyone who has been “born again” or experienced religious conversion. The patterns are similar: the struggle, the surrender, the renewal; the move from one world to another. Perhaps it is for this reason that many LGBT theologians (Chris Glaser, Carter Heyward, Michael Clark among them) have described “coming out” as an important narrative frame that the gay experience provides for all of us, regardless of sexuality or gender. “Coming out is a personal epiphany, a revelation,” writes Olive Elaine Hannant. It is “a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives—our worth, our love, our lovemaking, our beloved, our community, our context of meaning, and our God,” writes Chris Glaser.
Coming out, in the end, is honesty. And surely truthfulness is a cornerstone of any religion worthy of the name.
The Jewish High Holidays are an ironic time. It's the time more Jews go to synagogue than any other, yet it foregrounds a theology least likely to appeal to them, one highlighting sin and repentance, judgment and guilt. Is this a good thing?
This is not, strictly speaking, a theological question; it is a psychological one. Let us set aside the question of whether God actually exists. We know, most of us, that our images of God are metaphors, invented for our benefit. So the question really is whether this particular image -- the judging God -- is helpful or harmful.
To be sure, it's not an either/or decision. In Jewish tradition, God is both the dayan emet, the true judge, andharachaman, the compassionate/womb-like one. God is Mother, Father and Friend; Teacher, Consoler and Lover. For that matter, God is Everything and Nothing, Immanent and Transcendent, Earth and Sky. Surely, the Kabbalists were right that, experientially, we humans relate to the Infinite according to traits, genders, energies and perspectives that are different for different people and at different moments. So it is not that the judging God is the only God-image we have.
But on Yom Kippur, He (and He is a He) is the dominant one. So the question remains: Is it a good image to have, or a bad one?
Today, many object to the image of the judging God on the grounds of history. How can we speak of a God who judges in the wake of the outrage of the Holocaust? Surely, this objection argues, whatever we may wish to say about God, we cannot say that God judges fairly.
Others object to the image on the bases of gender, politics and family psychology: This judging God is like an abusive father (or husband), they say, meting out punishment and doling out rewards from above. We would all be better off without such an exemplar of abuse, patriarchy and hierarchy.
Still others, and I may be among them, object to the image of the judging God on psychological grounds. Much of what we ascribe to noble motives of repentance is really just guilt warmed over. I learned this the hard way, as I came to accept my sexuality, and slowly understood that so much of my own theological talk was just plain old guilt and self-hatred.
This is true for all of us. Is it really such a healthy thing to feel oneself to be inadequate, judged and deficient? Does it really make us better people, or does it just make us tougher, more defensive and more judgmental ourselves? Does it comport with mystical experience, which radiates acceptance and compassion? Does God judge us, or only love?
I do not have a neat answer to these questions, but I want to suggest that while the judging God is an image of God that is experientially accurate, it is ultimately something to be transcended.
First, guilt is part of human nature, and not an entirely bad part; it keeps us honest, checks the ego, and reminds us that we all have the capacity to be selfish and cruel. The judging God, in this light, is simply the superego projected toward the heavens; it accords with our experience of remorse. And as a form of social control, it is an effective story that doubtless keeps many of us from acting on our baser instincts. It just needs periodic updating from time to time.
But the essential part of this image, particularly on Yom Kippur, is that it is not a static one. God judges in order to inspire us to change, in order that God can forgive. Again, let's stay with experience, not myth. The point is that we judge ourselves so that we can introspect, right our wrong behaviors, taste the sweetness of forgiveness -- and then move on. The catharsis of Yom Kippur serves its function, and then ends. The shofar is sounded, the book is closed, the process is complete.
Or is it? Actually, the tradition says, the book is really open for another couple of weeks. And God is always watching you and always judging. And it never ends. I remember, during my more observant days, debating whether to eat non-kosher-supervised cheese, a legal debate that goes on within the Conservative movement to this day. Believe it or not, I really racked my brain and searched my heart over this technicalhalachic issue. The rules seemed nonsensical. But was I just trying to rationalize doing what I wanted? Did God really care? Was the system out of whack, or was I being lazy and indulgent?
Today, the whole thing looks like neurosis. Yes, there's a certain nobility to suffusing every aspect of one's life with holiness and participating in a millennia-old tradition of law. But all this angst -- about cheese! Couldn't the emotional energy be better spent on giving more money to the poor, rectifying the sins of racism and sexism, or, well, just about anything? Is the sense of God's judgment helping us do what's right, or making us neurotic about anything and everything?
The narrative arc of judging-introspection-forgiveness remains, for me, an important one, because it calls attention to my own tendency to judge myself and my attendant need to forgive. But if it gets stuck in the middle, it turns into craziness.
It would be funny, if it weren't tragic. Because with judgment comes -- if we judge ourselves worthy -- arrogance, self-justification and the judging of others, or -- if we do not -- self-hatred, anxiety and defense mechanisms aplenty. We make ourselves tough, argumentative and always right because we fear that otherwise we will be found lacking.
The judging God is a stage along the psychological path, both individually and communally. It is important to hold ourselves to a high standard of ethical, and possibly ritual, behavior. But at a certain point, it becomes more important to forgive ourselves for not meeting that standard -- and, as a culture, to learn to be more loving and understanding, less judgmental and strict. Of course, there are always personal and political instances where strictness is appropriate. But do we really think that what the world needs now is more judgment?
It's a shame that so many Jews go to shul only on the Days of Awe. I wish they would turn up for the Days of Love, Rest and Celebration (Sukkot and Shabbat are good starts, as are meditation retreats). Those, it seems to me, are what we need more of: more love, more authenticity, more openness. And they yield experiences of something which deserves to be named as "God."
When love, rather than judgment, fills my heart, I see a natural world which we are lucky to inhabit, in bodies which are miraculous in construction, and I feel loved in return. I feel the imperative to pursue justice, not out of judgment or toughness, but out of compassion. Terrible things still happen. But I feel God's presence in the companionship and response to such adversity, in intimacy, in love, in the healing and the mending.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.