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Is the Bible a Threat to National Security? June 30, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Right Wing.
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 Roger’s note: click on the link to watch this scary video: “MRFF just posted a video montage, which could easily be called the military evangelicals’ greatest hits, here.

Antiwar.com / ByKelley B. Vlahos
 

A military Bible paints war as religious devotion. What could go wrong?

June 26, 2012 |
 
 
 
Can a Bible be a “threat to national security”?

For years, the government has employed the risk of “national security” excuse to infringe on a wide range of freedoms — like the right to pass through an airport security checkpoint unmolested, or read library books without Big Brother peeking over your shoulder.

Michael L. “Mikey” Weinstein is trying to prove that there is more than one way to put the country at risk, and he’s found it in a heretofore unlikely place: the Bible.

Well, the Holman Bible. To be more exact, a version of the Bible that, for reasons still undetermined, was authorized with the trademarked official insignia of the U.S. Armed Forces emblazoned on the front cover. There is The Soldier’s Bible with the Army’s seal, The Marine’s Bible with the Marine Corps seal, The Sailor’s Bible and The Airman’s Bible, both with their respective insignia. The books have been sold for nearly six years throughout Christian bookstores, commissaries and PXs on U.S. military installations — and are still available on Christianbook.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

 It’s not the King James Version that the Gideons leave behind in hotel rooms drawers. The Holman Bible was commissioned and published by LifeWay Christian Resources, a subsidiary of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Baptist denomination in the world, in 2003.

 

In a 1999 press release announcing the edition’s progress, Broadman & Holman Publishers called the new version “a fresh, precise translation of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek of the Old and New Testaments.” LifeWay President James T. Draper Jr. weighed in, saying there was a “serious need for a 21st-century Bible translation in American English that combines accuracy and readability,” adding, “the Holman Christian Standard Bible is an accurate, literal rendering with a smoothness and readability that invites memorization, reading aloud and dedicated study.”

The Holman Bible, or HCSB, has been popular with evangelicals for its references and study tools. Someone convinced each branch of the service they’d be perfect for the military, too. So the HCSB became the “official” Bible of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines in 2004, complete with reader-friendly text and custom “designed to meet the specific needs of those who serve in the most difficult of situations,” according to the publishers.

In other words, aside from the text, the books are filled with “devotionals” and “inspirational essays” tailored to each branch of service. I was unable to get my hands on a copy by press time, but Amazon’s “peek” inside the book and several positive reader reviews confirm some of the contents, revealing what could only be described as a guileless conflation of both Christian and American military iconography. War and service as religious devotion.

In addition to the Pledge of Allegiance and the first and fourth verses of the Star Spangled Banner, there are excerpts from one of George W. Bush inaugural addresses and the Republican president’s remarks at a National Prayer Breakfast. Gen. George S. Patton’s famous Christmas prayer card from the field of battle 1944 is also included, as is “George Washington’s Prayer,” which has been widely circulated (and debunked) as proof of America’s Christian paternity.

These Bibles also feature “testimonials and encouragement from the Officers’ Christian Fellowship,” which has approximately 15,000 members across the military and whose primary purpose is “to glorify God by uniting Christian officers for biblical fellowship and outreach, equipping and encouraging them to minister effectively in the military society.” In other words they proselytize within the officer corps as part of an evangelical “parachurch” within the military.

A largely unfettered one, apparently, as one watches Pentagon officers commenting freely on camera — and in uniform — for this Bush-era promotional video for Christian Embassy, another federal government-wide “fellowship” with similar missionary goals.

One officer, Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Catton, who said he worked on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, described himself as “an old fashioned American and my first priority is my faith in God.” Pointing to his meeting with other officers under the auspices of Christian Embassy, he said, “I think it’s a huge impact because you have many men and women who are seeking God’s counsel and wisdom as we advise the Secretary of Defense.”

Then U.S. Brigadier Gen. Bob Caslan (currently promoted to lieutenant general as the commanding general at the U.S. Army’s prestigious Combined Arms Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.) went so far as to say he sees the “flag officer fellowship groups … hold me accountable.”

“We are the aroma of Jesus Christ,” he added.

Something smells, all right, said Weinstein, who heads the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). The roles of the officers in the video were later deemed improperafter MRFF demanded an investigation in 2007. As for the Bibles, Weinstein said he received some 2,000 complaints about them from service members over the last year. Weinstein, a former Air Force Judge Advocate (JAG) whose 2005 charges against the Air Force Academy in Colorado led to an investigation that officially found religious “insensitivity” against non- fundamentalists there, has gone on to expose a much wider climate of “top-down, invasive evangelicalism” at the institution and throughout the military as a whole.

“We’re fighting a Fundamentalist-Christian-Parachurch-Military-Corporate-Proselytizing-Complex,” Weinstein said told Antiwar.com last week, “and we have been fighting this for some time.” MRFF just posted a video montage, which could easily be called the military evangelicals’ greatest hits, here.

He said aside from “prostituting” the military insignia, the military’s endorsement of the Bibles violated federal separation of church and state, and continue to sanction an insidious culture of radical evangelicalism and discrimination throughout the services (as a Jew, Weinstein said he felt the sting of prejudice when he attended the Air Force academy in the late 1970s; his sons had it even worse, he claims, prompting his first formal complaint seven years ago).

Since then, “(MRFF) has had 28,000 clients and a hundred more each month,” said Weinstein, rejecting claims by his critics that they are all atheist. He insists that 96 percent of his clients are Christians (Catholic and Mainline Protestant) and that his is not a religious crusade. On the other hand, some 33 percent of chaplains are now evangelical Christians (Weinstein’s MRFF places that number at 84 percent), while only 3 percent of service members describe themselves as such.

“They are spiritually raping the U.S. Constitution, the American people and the men and women who are fighting for us,” said Weinstein, who never, ever minces words.

MRFF’s lawyers sent a formal letter to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s office in January. In it, MRFF charged that authorizing LifeWay to print its Bibles with the service insignia “is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution … and several regulations,” and that the authority should be withdrawn immediately or face legal action from MRFF.

Interestingly, according to the documents now available online, the Army, Navy and Air Force responded to the letter in February, insisting that the summer before Weinstein’s lawyers at Jones Day contacted the Pentagon, they had already pulled their trademark authorizations to LifeWay, for “unrelated reasons.” So, in effect, according to the military, the Southern Baptist Convention subsidiary no longer had use of the trademarks and the question was moot.

Weinstein responded with one word: “lies.” He told Antiwar.com that they were just informed of the letters in June, not in February. Furthermore, according to MRFF senior research director Chris Rodda, MRFF has obtained documents through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests that indicated the “AAFES (the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs the BXs, PXs, and other stores on military bases) was clearly concerned about the complaints about the Holman Bibles, with emails as early as June 6, 2011 from AAFES to LifeWay saying that these Bibles had ‘become a hot issue,’ and referencing and linking to a June 2, 2011 article on MRFF’s website as the reason they were becoming a hot issue.”

Nevertheless, according to a Fox News Radio story, LifeWay insists it’s “sold” all existing copies of the military Bible in question, and instead is printing the same Bibles with “generic insignias, which continue to sell well and provide spiritual guidance and comfort to those who serve.”

The AAFES told Fox News Radio it has 961 copies of the Bible left on shelves at 83 facilities. Weinstein doesn’t know how many are out there but contends that until each and every one is gone, “they’re still aiding and abetting the cause of al- Qaeda.”

Why? Because it is a national security issue if America is perceived as waging a religious war against the Muslim world. One can’t help but get that impression reading the added material in these Holman Bibles, suggesting that that God has blessed the American warrior for his existential struggle of good versus evil.

A crusade — and one playing right into the religious extremism on the other side, putting Americans overseas, and at home, at risk, said Weinstein.

His approach — which is as fiery and combative as the preachers he rebukes (he’s taken to calling the Pentagon, “Pentacostal-gon,”) — has drawn fire from a number of conservative Christian organizations and websites, which have labeled MRFF a bunch of zealous atheist agitators.

“Why should these Bibles be removed because of the demands of a small activist group?” Ron Crews, head of The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty, asked last week, adding in an interview with Fox News Radio that the Department of Defense was acting “cowardly” by backing down to MRFF.

“MRFF must cease and desist their reckless assault on religious liberty. The Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty calls on Congress to investigate this frivolous threat and apparent discrimination against religious views by the DoD.”

But this “reckless assault” has offered the public a window into how much evangelicalism threads through the military ethos today — from the Pentagon buying guns with sights outfitted with biblical references, to born-again chaplains directing soldiers to hand out Bibles and proselytize among the Muslim locals in Afghanistan.

MRFF has accused Army chaplains of using religion in lieu of mental health counseling to aid battlefield stress, and drew attention to provocative displays of religious murals and crosses sprawled on walls at U.S. bases and on vehicles driven through the urban battlefront. MRFF has protested the taxpayer-funded “Spiritual Fitness Concert Series” performed on bases here in the states, and followed up on complaints by service members at Fort Eustis in Virginia who said they were punished by a superior officer for not attending. MRFF also helped put the brakes on an Air Force training program in 2011 that used the New Testament and the insights of an ex-Nazi to teach missile officers about the morals and ethics of launching nuclear weapons.

More recently, MRFF criticized a fighter squadron’s decision to switch back to its old “Crusader” moniker, complete with a Knights Templar red cross emblazoned on its planes. Under pressure, the Marines have since reversed that decision, returning to its old World War II-era “werewolves” nickname, earlier this month.

Weinstein said “predatory” evangelicals in the military “believe the Separation of Church and State is a myth, like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster,” and he doesn’t mind putting his own reputation and safety on the line to smash that myth to pieces.

“If we’re catching them on things like this Bible, what the hell else is going on? Well, we know,” he said. “The Bible situation is not innocent, it is not innocuous, it is another raging example of this cancer.”

Evangelical Homophobia-Planting in Uganda: A Tough Seed With Poisonous Fruit May 10, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Human Rights, LGBT, Uganda.
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Tuesday 10 May 2011

by: Valerie Tarico, Away Point

Christian extremists in Uganda’s parliament are hoping that hunger and high gas prices will provide the cover they need to finally subject gay men to punishment of biblical proportions.  They haveintroduced a bill, up for vote on May 11, that seeks life imprisonment for gay sex and, for repeat offenders, the death penalty.  Last year, similar legislation was averted by international outrage.  President Museveni was afraid of losing valuable aid dollars, and after outcry arose across the West, with Barack Obama calling the law “odious,” Museveni prevented the bill from coming to a vote. 

Stopping the bill was insufficient to save the life of one Ugandan,David Kato, who was beaten to death with a hammer in January.  Kato was Uganda’s most outspoken gay rights advocate and had received many death threats before he was killed.  In the winter months before his death, one newspaper ran a front page photo of Kato with an anti-gay rant and a banner urging “Hang them.”   Last spring I traveled in Mozambique, where a full-page article in a local paper interspersed Bible verses, exhortations to spiritual living, and similar anti-gay vitriol.  Although leading fundamentalists like Albert Mohler appear increasinglyresignedto “tolerance” here at home, across Africa the marriage of Christianity and homophobia appears to be thriving—thanks in part to an American tendency to take our outdated wares and social movements overseas. 

Two years ago, I wrote an article that asked, “If the Bible Were Law, Would You Qualify for the Death Penalty?”  It described some of the thirty six causes for capital punishment listed in the Good Book, including cursing parents, witchcraft, being raped (only within the city limits), adultery, and of course, homosexual sex.   Mercifully, even the most old school American Christians seem to ignore the Bible on these points.  But one of the unfortunate consequences of Americans exporting biblical literalism to developing countries is thatpeople in those countries take the Bible literally– including the parts we all, missionaries included, wish they wouldn’t.  In Nigeria, American Pentecostalism has fused with local animism and resulted in children being beaten and burned as witches, just like the Bible prescribes.

In Uganda, American evangelism may besimilarly responsiblefor Kato’s death and the proposed law.  In March 2009, frustrated by their inability to block the gradual inclusion of gays in the universal human rights umbrella at home, Evangelical leaders traveled to Uganda and led incendiary workshops seeking to increase Ugandan fear that gay men are a threat to straight marriages and children.  It would appear that Uganda’s already fractured and restive society is reaping what the American missionaries have sown:  further contention and violence. 

“I don’t want anyone killed,” said Mr. Schmierer, one of the Evangelical leaders who traveled to Uganda two years ago.  “But I don’t feel I had anything to do with that [Kato's death].”  Many evangelicals, those who see the Bible as literally perfect, find it almost impossible to imagine that the Bible itself could be responsible for inciting violence or that those who preach biblical inerrancy could be complicit in that violence.  And yet other Christians, those who see the Bible as the imperfect record of the imperfect struggle of our spiritual ancestors, find this causal chain quite plausible.  According to theologian Thom Stark (The Human Faces of God),the biblical record attributes divine sanction in places to some of the worst of Iron Age impulses, including human sacrifice.  Unless we understand those writings in their human context we are bound to glorify passages that instead should teach us about the darkness in the human spirit.  And glorifying human darkness puts us at risk of enacting it. 

It is troubling that of the many offerings that might have been carried by American Christians to Africa in the service of theGreat Commandment, what has been carried instead are the seeds of homophobia—fear, hatred, and death.  It will take many voices raised together to reverse the damage done by a few misguided missionaries.  I hope those voices will be raised this week (petition here)and again next year, and for as many years as are needed until Uganda’s gay community can live in love and peace

 Valerie Tarico is a psychologist. She is the author of ‘Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light’. She is also the founder of WisdomCommons.org.

Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime: a Book Review February 25, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in About God, About Religion, Religion.
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Roger Hollander

www.rogerhollander.com, February 24, 2010

The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, Transworld Publishers (Random House), London, Black Swan edition, 2007.

If it didn’t go against the very spirit of the author’s work, it would be tempting to call Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” the Atheist’s Bible.  Dawkins is no fan of Bibles, Korans, or scriptures of any sort.  He is a fan of science; he is a renowned evolutionary biologist; but he does not make a religion of it.  That is an important point because many of his critics have accused him of just that.

For Dawkins the dichotomy is not the religion of God versus the religion of Atheism, rather it is belief based upon evidence (science) versus belief that is founded upon faith (religion).  He argues passionately and, in my opinion effectively, against those who say the two spheres are mutually exclusive; that faith has nothing to say about science and, more to the point, that science has nothing to say about faith.  If there is a God, for example, as millions of believers believe, who can simultaneously enter into the mind of every human being on earth and listen to prayers and communicate back, then scientists who study the human mind surely would be interested to explore, understand and evaluate the phenomenon.  Dawkins shows how “faith heads” are quick to discount science when it contradicts belief but jump on any shred of scientific evidence that might verify a Biblical notion.  The case study of religious “scientists” who with diligence attempted (using double blind studies, control groups, etc.) to prove that God answers prayers (the result: He doesn’t) is both humorous and grotesque.  I am reminded of an experiment I once read about where religious “scientists” took the weight of dying individuals just before the moment of death and just after, in order to determine the weight of the human soul (which they presumed left the physical body at the moment of death).

If you appreciate the scientific mind, you will love Dawkins.  Along with a comprehensive and penetrating knowledge, not only of his own field of Darwinian studies, but in many other areas of science, Dawkins has the gift of explanation, he is lucid and logical to a fault, and he writes with equal doses of humour and passion.  He is highly opinionated, and that offended many of his wishy-washy post-modernist critics, but his opinions are painstakingly based upon careful and reproducible experimentation, analysis and sound reasoning.

I will not attempt here to review the entire work for it is of epic proportions, but rather to underscore what I consider to be some of its most salient points.  I urge you to read it for yourself.

The God whose existence Dawkins undertakes to disprove is the God of Abraham, the founder of three of the world’s greatest religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the alleged Creator of the Universe.  By giving the reader what amounts to a mini-course in Darwinian evolutionary biology, he shows the high degree of improbability that such a deity could have done what He is alleged to have done.  Along the way he dissects, excoriates, and destroys the arguments and theories of those latter day Creationists, who have come up with a false science called “Intelligent Design” in their weasely attempt to introduce Biblical “science” into the science curriculum of public schools through the back door.

Dawkins makes the distinction between agnosticism and atheism, and his major reason for opting for atheism is that agnosticism as he understands it posits an equal possibility of the existence or non-existence of God, whereas he believes the probability is almost nil.  From my perspective it is not that important a distinction; but after having read his entire argument, I tend to agree, especially in this era of the resurgence of totalitarian religious fundamentalism at a global level, that it is important to counteract vigorously and mercilessly conclusions about the reality of our universe that are based upon faith or revelation rather than scientific observation.

It should be noted that this work is not so much an assault on the belief in God as much as it is an attack on religion itself.  When criticized for concentrating on the more extreme fundamentalists, he counters by demonstrating how to a large extent fundamentalist based totalitarian theocracy has moved into the mainstream.  But more fundamentally, he demonstrates that the kind of moderate religion that sees the Bible as metaphoric, for example, rather than literal, nonetheless is telling us to base belief on faith as opposed to evidence, a notion that makes us vulnerable to deception and manipulation.

He bemoans the fact that we tend to treat faith-based notions with kid gloves, that we bend over backwards not to offend religious belief in a way that we would not allow, for example, for political ideas.  Evolutionary cosmology, for example, tells us that our earth is millions of years old, whereas the Bible tells us it is some six thousand years old.  He cites respected scientists who accept the Biblical version “on faith” when forced to choose between science and faith.  Kurt Wise, an American geologist, for example, “… if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate.”

Dawkins would ask us not to credit, in the name of religious tolerance, such deliberate blindness (to give an idea of proportion, believing the Biblical data on the age of the earth would be like believing that New York is about seven yards from San Francisco).

Dawkins is perhaps most passionate when it comes to children.  He asserts, for example, that there is not such thing as a Catholic child, rather a child of Catholic parents.  He sees the indoctrination of children, who are incapable of weighing the evidence and making judgments for themselves, as tantamount to child abuse, an assault on the development of their critical faculties.  He cites Victor Hugo: “In every village there is a torch – the teacher: and an extinguisher – the clergyman.”

In an interesting section of the book, one where is scientific evidence and reasoning is more speculative and open to different interpretation, he gives theories on why religion is so universal and all pervasive from a Darwinian evolutionary standpoint.  To survive the evolution process of natural selection, one must have positive, advantageous characteristics; so if religion is so destructive, how come it has survived and prospered?  One theory is that at one point in human evolution the need to trust (especially parental) authority without question was necessary for survival; organized religion based upon unquestioned belief then is an aberration,  a left-over from an earlier evolutionary stage.

From Thomas Jefferson to Bertrand Russell, Dawkins cites respected sceptics who have chosen reason over faith.  Let us here give the final word to Thomas Jefferson:

“The priests of the different religious sects … dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.”

Religion and Women January 19, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Women.
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NYT  – January 10, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

“Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.

“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”

Mr. Carter, who sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights,” is a member of The Elders, a small council of retired leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. The Elders are focusing on the role of religion in oppressing women, and they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to “change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”

The Elders are neither irreligious nor rabble-rousers. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and they begin their meetings with a moment for silent prayer.

“The Elders are not attacking religion as such,” noted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights. But she added, “We all recognized that if there’s one overarching issue for women it’s the way that religion can be manipulated to subjugate women.”

There is of course plenty of fodder, in both the Koran and the Bible, for those who seek a theology of discrimination.

The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.

In fairness, many scholars believe that Paul did not in fact write the passages calling on women to be silent. And Islam started out as socially progressive for women — banning female infanticide and limiting polygamy — but did not continue to advance.

But religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.

Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.

That’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.

Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.

Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.

Religion and Women January 11, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Religion, Women.
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NYT  – January 10, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Religions derive their power and popularity in part from the ethical compass they offer. So why do so many faiths help perpetuate something that most of us regard as profoundly unethical: the oppression of women?

It is not that warlords in Congo cite Scripture to justify their mass rapes (although the last warlord I met there called himself a pastor and wore a button reading “rebels for Christ”). It’s not that brides are burned in India as part of a Hindu ritual. And there’s no verse in the Koran that instructs Afghan thugs to throw acid in the faces of girls who dare to go to school.

Yet these kinds of abuses — along with more banal injustices, like slapping a girlfriend or paying women less for their work — arise out of a social context in which women are, often, second-class citizens. That’s a context that religions have helped shape, and not pushed hard to change.

“Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified,” former President Jimmy Carter noted in a speech last month to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.

“The belief that women are inferior human beings in the eyes of God,” Mr. Carter continued, “gives excuses to the brutal husband who beats his wife, the soldier who rapes a woman, the employer who has a lower pay scale for women employees, or parents who decide to abort a female embryo.”

Mr. Carter, who sees religion as one of the “basic causes of the violation of women’s rights,” is a member of The Elders, a small council of retired leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela. The Elders are focusing on the role of religion in oppressing women, and they have issued a joint statement calling on religious leaders to “change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”

The Elders are neither irreligious nor rabble-rousers. They include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and they begin their meetings with a moment for silent prayer.

“The Elders are not attacking religion as such,” noted Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations high commissioner for human rights. But she added, “We all recognized that if there’s one overarching issue for women it’s the way that religion can be manipulated to subjugate women.”

There is of course plenty of fodder, in both the Koran and the Bible, for those who seek a theology of discrimination.

The New Testament quotes St. Paul (I Timothy 2) as saying that women “must be silent.” Deuteronomy declares that if a woman does not bleed on her wedding night, “the men of her town shall stone her to death.” An Orthodox Jewish prayer thanks God, “who hast not made me a woman.” The Koran stipulates that a woman shall inherit less than a man, and that a woman’s testimony counts for half a man’s.

In fairness, many scholars believe that Paul did not in fact write the passages calling on women to be silent. And Islam started out as socially progressive for women — banning female infanticide and limiting polygamy — but did not continue to advance.

But religious leaders sanctified existing social structures, instead of pushing for justice. In Africa, it would help enormously if religious figures spoke up for widows disenfranchised by unjust inheritance traditions — or for rape victims, or for schoolgirls facing sexual demands from their teachers. Instead, in Uganda, the influence of conservative Christians is found in a grotesque push to execute gays.

Yet paradoxically, the churches in Africa that have done the most to empower women have been conservative ones led by evangelicals and especially Pentecostals. In particular, Pentecostals encourage women to take leadership roles, and for many women this is the first time they have been trusted with authority and found their opinions respected. In rural Africa, Pentecostal churches are becoming a significant force to emancipate women.

That’s a glimmer of hope that reminds us that while religion is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. The Dalai Lama has taken that step and calls himself a feminist.

Another excellent precedent is slavery. Each of the Abrahamic faiths accepted slavery. Muhammad owned slaves, and St. Paul seems to have condoned slavery. Yet the pioneers of the abolitionist movement were Quakers and evangelicals like William Wilberforce. People of faith ultimately worked ferociously to overthrow an oppressive institution that churches had previously condoned.

Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior. The Elders are right that religious groups should stand up for a simple ethical principle: any person’s human rights should be sacred, and not depend on something as earthly as their genitals.

The Virgin Joseph? November 29, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Virginity.
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Roger Hollander, November 29, 2009

“If men could have babies, abortion would be a sacrament.”

I buy 99% of my reading second hand at thrift stores.  I get some really good deals, and after a careful browsing of the back cover I almost invariably pick reading that I enjoy.  I find the best buys at the Bibles for Cambodia thrift shop in Guelph, which is why it is ironic that it was there that I inadvertently chose a “Christian” novel (“Deeper Water,” Robert Whitlow).  Its blurb suggested it was a “legal thriller,” which I love, but I missed the small print that read “Christian novel.”  So be it.  I decided to read it, I made it to the bittersweet end (the crime is solved, but the morally pristine heroine has not yet been able to chosen between her two born-again suitors), and I have no regrets.  The work was well written, the plot and the characters were believable, including the protagonist’s Evangelical family and her Evangelical lawyer associates.

Having once myself fallen into the throes of Evangelical Christianity (back in the early 1960’s, after which I took the message of Jesus seriously, left the hypocritical church and dedicated myself to Marxist humanist revolution), I felt the portrayal to ring true.  The author’s point of view was both Evangelical and fundamentalist, but mercifully lacked the narcissistic and jingoistic neo-Fascist political outlook of contemporary American Fundamentalism.

Two things about the novel struck me.  One was what I consider to be the ingenuous belief that the Christian god of the literalist interpreted Christian Bible concerns himself with the daily minutiae of each and every believer (imagine the mega giga’s on the dude’s computer).  But, beyond that, the obsessive preoccupation with the female protagonist’s virginity.  This we take for granted, but I decided to do some critical thinking on the theme.

First of all, I remember from my theological studies (Princeton Theological Seminary, 1963-1964) that some scholars use “maiden” instead of “virgin” for the original Hebrew and Greek word that traditional Bible translators translate as “virgin.”  “Maiden” would refer to an unmarried woman who is not necessarily, well, virgin, as we understand the word (that is, intercourse-free).

Contemporary Evangelical Christians, not to mention fundamentalist Muslims, Jews, etc. consider that their god is cognizant of the various marriage rituals, secular and religious, that constitute “marriage” in modern society, and that he insists that women shall not have had sexual intercourse prior to entering into that arrangement.  But hey, what about men?  Why not the Virgin Joseph?

Granted that if you asked a believer should a man be “virgin” before marriage, she or he would probably say yes, perhaps however with a sly wink on the side.  To the credit of the author of my Christian novel, he had his female Christian protagonist equally obsessive about her dress and manners so as not to tempt members of the opposite sex into sinful thoughts and desires.  What he doesn’t address, however, with respect to our heroine’s two Christian suitors, is the sexual attraction I would expect to be included in the attraction that induced them to become suitors in the first place (the author does constantly refer to her physical beauty).  Are we to believe that the attraction is strictly limited to the woman’s character and beliefs?  That certainly wasn’t my experience when I fell in love and married when I was an Evangelical Christian, and I cannot believe that I was an exception.  Where is Jimmy Carter when you need him?

Neither did my author give any mention to his heroine’s sexual desires or fantasies.  Does he want us to believe that she was entirely an asexual being?  That Christians have no sexual drive until marriage, at which time it somehow automatically it pops into gear?  I don’t think so.  I think Evangelical Christians acknowledge sexual drives and categorize them as sinful (an offence against their god) before marriage but suddenly somehow transformed into a gift from god after marriage (to be used however, only according to the instructions from the manufacturer that come with the product; that is, with the approved partner, with anyone else we’re back to sinning).

Now let’s go back and look at what it means for a woman to be “virgin,” to abstain from sexual intercourse before marriage.  If she does not have sex with single or married men, then with whom are these men to have sex?  Well, for married men that’s a no-brainer, their wives.  But if unmarried virgin women are not to have sex with single men, and single men are not to have sex with either single or married women, then there is no escaping the logic the Christian god wants good Christian men as well to be “virgins” prior to marriage.

Fair enough.  But why then all the obsessive preoccupation with the Virgin Mary and absolutely no mention of the Virgin Joseph?  You cannot bring in the Old Testament patriarchal values or what Saul of Tarsus (who later became Paul the sexual moralist) wants us to believe about his god’s view of the different roles of men and women, to explain this.  Yes, Christian women are to be submissive and obedient to their husbands, but definitely not to either a single or married man who asks for sexual intercourse while she is still single.  She must remain virgin, and therefore logic allows for no other option for the Christian male to remain virgin as well.

While the Evangelical Christian (as well as Roman Catholics and other religious fundamentalists) will probably acknowledge this to be true, again what they cannot explain why in all their discourse, female virginity takes on the color of an absolute while male virginity hardly deserves a mention.

For me the answer is obvious, especially in light of the patriarchal (man controlled) structures, theologically and institutionally of virtually all organized religion.  It can be summarized in a single word.

Misogyny.

In looking for an image to go with the article, this is what I found on Google under “male virgin”

Text of Terror: A Bill Granting LGBT Citizens Equal Rights Evokes Biblical Citation March 1, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights, Religion.
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blogimage_sized_leviticus2

Those who cling to a harrowing scrap of an otherwise marginal biblical text want the rest of us to believe that it amounts to persecution to ask them to unclench their fists so that all of us can live together in peace.
As a bill allowing government employees to share health benefits with their same-sex partners headed toward passage in the Colorado state senate a couple of days ago, one dissenting Republican legislator used a line from the Bible to provide the context for his dismay.

“Homosexuality is seen as a violation of this natural creative order, and it is an offense to God,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, who noted that one biblical passage declares that homosexual relations are punishable by death.

Leviticus 20, the source of Renfroe’s citation, is not for the faint of heart. In addition to prescribing death by stoning for “men who would lie with mankind as with women” (20:13), the chapter is a veritable catalogue of smite-worthy offenses and transgressions, including adultery, sorcery and sacrifices to an also-ran deity named Moloch.

And it’s not surprising that it should be so. Leviticus was most likely composed during and immediately after the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon, when earthly powers much greater than themselves uprooted the Jews and plunked them down in a cosmopolitan society synonymous—then and now—with cultural confusion.

For a deeply spiritual people trying to hold on to their distinctive identity in a violent world, drawing sharp boundaries between the sacred and profane is an understandable response to collective trauma.

In terms of their respective powers of self-determination, the society that produced Leviticus and the modern-day Christian movement that has appropriated it couldn’t be more different than night and day. But apart from the fact that the statutes in the rest of Leviticus (on matters as diverse as the preparation of burnt offerings and the disposal of bodily fluids) seem not to concern them, the most curious thing about conservative Christians’ obsession with 20:13 is their recreation of the siege mentality that afflicted a small community of exiled Jews two and a half millennia ago.

This hallucinatory duress is apparent in statements from Sen. Scott Renfroe and other conservative lawmakers who believe that granting equal rights to LGBT folks will imperil everyone else.

Gay activists are “probably the greatest threat to America going down” said Chris Buttars, a state senator in Utah who last Friday lost his seat on the judicial committee he chaired after he likened gays to radical Muslims.

“The homosexual agenda is just destroying this nation,” Sally Kern, a state representative in Oklahoma, said last May. More recently Kern was one of 20 Republican members of Oklahoma’s House of Representatives who voted unsuccessfully to exclude from the chamber’s official record a prayer that had been delivered by an openly gay pastor from Oklahoma City’s Cathedral of Hope.

That maneuver brings to mind a moment from the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” when a young black civil rights activist asks a white police officer to pray with him.

“I don’t think your prayers get above your head,” the officer replies.

Christian conservatives resist the notion that advocacy for gay and lesbian equality is a natural extension of the Civil Rights Movement. That strategy of denial depends on the notion that sexuality is indelible if you’re a straight Mormon or Southern Baptist but somehow becomes a matter of choice if you’re a gay minister with the MCC. It also overlooks the fact that, if you take a step back from the situation, the language and behavior conservatives employ to rationalize their disenfranchisement of queerfolk bear the marks of the same psychosis of bigotry that plagued many Southern whites a generation ago—that is, a powerful group imagines itself victimized when a formerly subjugated minority gathers the wherewithal to ask for a place at the table.

While the evocation of the specter of sexual terrorism in the statehouses of Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma is a vivid example of this loose relationship with reality, perhaps the most disturbing expression of it can be found in an hour-long “documentary” produced by the American Family Association and hosted by conservative media personality Janet Parshall. “Speechless: Silencing the Christians,” which premiered last March on the Inspiration Network, makes the case that the contemporary LGBT rights movement heralds an new era of oppression for the faithful.

“It creates a context where violence is being perpetrated against Christians,” says one man interviewed for the film.

So those who cling to a harrowing scrap of an otherwise marginal biblical text want the rest of us to believe that it amounts to persecution to ask them to unclench their fists so that all of us can live together in peace? Irony and tolerance must share a deep link in the human psyche—by refusing to cultivate the latter Christian conservatives seem to have lost their sense for the former.

For me—a former seminarian from Alabama who now spends half the year in deep retreat at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles—venturing into the dark, violent corners of right-wing American culture triggers sensations that are at once alien and familiar. On the one hand, just as a picture-postcard is a meager substitute for the direct experience of a sunset on the beach at Santa Monica, I no longer imagine that the biblical hodgepodge of primitive tribal taboo and secondhand revelation captures the wonder and full meaning of the cosmos as it unfolds all around (and through) me.

But like Scott Renfroe, Chris Buttars, Sally Kern and their tens of millions of fellow travelers, I still clutch old habits of mind that cloud over creation and that tend to keep me trapped in a nightmare world where I see menace and imperfection at every turn. What I hope for them as well as for myself is that we all come to realize the truth that there is no need to spin and toil. If we can just see that this is so, then the demons of anger and ignorance are sure to go the way of that musty old Moloch.

Gay Marriage: OUR MUTUAL JOY December 12, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Human Rights.
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COVER STORY

Opponents of gay marriage often cite Scripture. But what the Bible teaches about love argues for the other side.

Of course not, yet the religious opponents of gay marriage would have it be so.

The battle over gay marriage has been waged for more than a decade, but within the last six months—since California legalized gay marriage and then, with a ballot initiative in November, amended its Constitution to prohibit it—the debate has grown into a full-scale war, with religious-rhetoric slinging to match. Not since 1860, when the country’s pulpits were full of preachers pronouncing on slavery, pro and con, has one of our basic social (and economic) institutions been so subject to biblical scrutiny. But whereas in the Civil War the traditionalists had their James Henley Thornwell—and the advocates for change, their Henry Ward Beecher—this time the sides are unevenly matched. All the religious rhetoric, it seems, has been on the side of the gay-marriage opponents, who use Scripture as the foundation for their objections.

The argument goes something like this statement, which the Rev. Richard A. Hunter, a United Methodist minister, gave to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June: “The Bible and Jesus define marriage as between one man and one woman. The church cannot condone or bless same-sex marriages because this stands in opposition to Scripture and our tradition.”

To which there are two obvious responses: First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else’s —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. “Marriage” in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God’s will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.

In the Old Testament, the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call “the traditional family” are scarcely to be found. Marriage was critical to the passing along of tradition and history, as well as to maintaining the Jews’ precious and fragile monotheism. But as the Barnard University Bible scholar Alan Segal puts it, the arrangement was between “one man and as many women as he could pay for.” Social conservatives point to Adam and Eve as evidence for their one man, one woman argument—in particular, this verse from Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” But as Segal says, if you believe that the Bible was written by men and not handed down in its leather bindings by God, then that verse was written by people for whom polygamy was the way of the world. (The fact that homosexual couples cannot procreate has also been raised as a biblical objection, for didn’t God say, “Be fruitful and multiply”? But the Bible authors could never have imagined the brave new world of international adoption and assisted reproductive technology—and besides, heterosexuals who are infertile or past the age of reproducing get married all the time.)

Ozzie and Harriet are nowhere in the New Testament either. The biblical Jesus was—in spite of recent efforts of novelists to paint him otherwise—emphatically unmarried. He preached a radical kind of family, a caring community of believers, whose bond in God superseded all blood ties. Leave your families and follow me, Jesus says in the gospels. There will be no marriage in heaven, he says in Matthew. Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but he roundly condemns divorce (leaving a loophole in some cases for the husbands of unfaithful women).

The apostle Paul echoed the Christian Lord‘s lack of interest in matters of the flesh. For him, celibacy was the Christian ideal, but family stability was the best alternative. Marry if you must, he told his audiences, but do not get divorced. “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): a wife must not separate from her husband.” It probably goes without saying that the phrase “gay marriage” does not appear in the Bible at all. 

If the bible doesn’t give abundant examples of traditional marriage, then what are the gay-marriage opponents really exercised about? Well, homosexuality, of course—specifically sex between men. Sex between women has never, even in biblical times, raised as much ire. In its entry on “Homosexual Practices,” the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes that nowhere in the Bible do its authors refer to sex between women, “possibly because it did not result in true physical ‘union’ (by male entry).” The Bible does condemn gay male sex in a handful of passages. Twice Leviticus refers to sex between men as “an abomination” (King James version), but these are throwaway lines in a peculiar text given over to codes for living in the ancient Jewish world, a text that devotes verse after verse to treatments for leprosy, cleanliness rituals for menstruating women and the correct way to sacrifice a goat—or a lamb or a turtle dove. Most of us no longer heed Leviticus on haircuts or blood sacrifices; our modern understanding of the world has surpassed its prescriptions. Why would we regard its condemnation of homosexuality with more seriousness than we regard its advice, which is far lengthier, on the best price to pay for a slave?

Paul was tough on homosexuality, though recently progressive scholars have argued that his condemnation of men who “were inflamed with lust for one another” (which he calls “a perversion”) is really a critique of the worst kind of wickedness: self-delusion, violence, promiscuity and debauchery. In his book “The Arrogance of Nations,” the scholar Neil Elliott argues that Paul is referring in this famous passage to the depravity of the Roman emperors, the craven habits of Nero and Caligula, a reference his audience would have grasped instantly. “Paul is not talking about what we call homosexuality at all,” Elliott says. “He’s talking about a certain group of people who have done everything in this list. We’re not dealing with anything like gay love or gay marriage. We’re talking about really, really violent people who meet their end and are judged by God.” In any case, one might add, Paul argued more strenuously against divorce—and at least half of the Christians in America disregard that teaching.

Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition (and, to talk turkey for a minute, a personal discomfort with gay sex that transcends theological argument). Common prayers and rituals reflect our common practice: the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describes the participants in a marriage as “the man and the woman.” But common practice changes—and for the better, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric. It recommends the death penalty for adulterers (and in Leviticus, for men who have sex with men, for that matter). It provides conceptual shelter for anti-Semites. A mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have in the past, to move beyond literalism. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it’s impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours.

Marriage, specifically, has evolved so as to be unrecognizable to the wives of Abraham and Jacob. Monogamy became the norm in the Christian world in the sixth century; husbands’ frequent enjoyment of mistresses and prostitutes became taboo by the beginning of the 20th. (In the NEWSWEEK POLL, 55 percent of respondents said that married heterosexuals who have sex with someone other than their spouses are more morally objectionable than a gay couple in a committed sexual relationship.) By the mid-19th century, U.S. courts were siding with wives who were the victims of domestic violence, and by the 1970s most states had gotten rid of their “head and master” laws, which gave husbands the right to decide where a family would live and whether a wife would be able to take a job. Today’s vision of marriage as a union of equal partners, joined in a relationship both romantic and pragmatic, is, by very recent standards, radical, says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, a History.”

Religious wedding ceremonies have already changed to reflect new conceptions of marriage. Remember when we used to say “man and wife” instead of “husband and wife”? Remember when we stopped using the word “obey”? Even Miss Manners, the voice of tradition and reason, approved in 1997 of that change. “It seems,” she wrote, “that dropping ‘obey’ was a sensible editing of a service that made assumptions about marriage that the society no longer holds.”

We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual, but we can read it for universal truths as we struggle toward a more just future. The Bible offers inspiration and warning on the subjects of love, marriage, family and community. It speaks eloquently of the crucial role of families in a fair society and the risks we incur to ourselves and our children should we cease trying to bind ourselves together in loving pairs. Gay men like to point to the story of passionate King David and his friend Jonathan, with whom he was “one spirit” and whom he “loved as he loved himself.” Conservatives say this is a story about a platonic friendship, but it is also a story about two men who stand up for each other in turbulent times, through violent war and the disapproval of a powerful parent. David rends his clothes at Jonathan’s death and, in grieving, writes a song:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
You were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
More wonderful than that of women.

Here, the Bible praises enduring love between men. What Jonathan and David did or did not do in privacy is perhaps best left to history and our own imaginations.

In addition to its praise of friendship and its condemnation of divorce, the Bible gives many examples of marriages that defy convention yet benefit the greater community. The Torah discouraged the ancient Hebrews from marrying outside the tribe, yet Moses himself is married to a foreigner, Zipporah. Queen Esther is married to a non-Jew and, according to legend, saves the Jewish people. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, believes that Judaism thrives through diversity and inclusion. “I don’t think Judaism should or ought to want to leave any portion of the human population outside the religious process,” he says. “We should not want to leave [homosexuals] outside the sacred tent.” The marriage of Joseph and Mary is also unorthodox (to say the least), a case of an unconventional arrangement accepted by society for the common good. The boy needed two human parents, after all.

In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins, and brings the whole Christian community into his embrace. The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author, cites the story of Jesus revealing himself to the woman at the well— no matter that she had five former husbands and a current boyfriend—as evidence of Christ’s all-encompassing love. The great Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, quotes the apostle Paul when he looks for biblical support of gay marriage: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” The religious argument for gay marriage, he adds, “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.”

The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage. If one is for racial equality and the common nature of humanity, then the values of stability, monogamy and family necessarily follow. Terry Davis is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hartford, Conn., and has been presiding over “holy unions” since 1992. “I’m against promiscuity—love ought to be expressed in committed relationships, not through casual sex, and I think the church should recognize the validity of committed same-sex relationships,” he says.

Still, very few Jewish or Christian denominations do officially endorse gay marriage, even in the states where it is legal. The practice varies by region, by church or synagogue, even by cleric. More progressive denominations—the United Church of Christ, for example—have agreed to support gay marriage. Other denominations and dioceses will do “holy union” or “blessing” ceremonies, but shy away from the word “marriage” because it is politically explosive. So the frustrating, semantic question remains: should gay people be married in the same, sacramental sense that straight people are? I would argue that they should. If we are all God’s children, made in his likeness and image, then to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color—and no serious (or even semiserious) person would argue that. People get married “for their mutual joy,” explains the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center in New York, quoting the Episcopal marriage ceremony. That’s what religious people do: care for each other in spite of difficulty, she adds. In marriage, couples grow closer to God: “Being with one another in community is how you love God. That’s what marriage is about.”

More basic than theology, though, is human need. We want, as Abraham did, to grow old surrounded by friends and family and to be buried at last peacefully among them. We want, as Jesus taught, to love one another for our own good—and, not to be too grandiose about it, for the good of the world. We want our children to grow up in stable homes. What happens in the bedroom, really, has nothing to do with any of this. My friend the priest James Martin says his favorite Scripture relating to the question of homosexuality is Psalm 139, a song that praises the beauty and imperfection in all of us and that glorifies God’s knowledge of our most secret selves: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” And then he adds that in his heart he believes that if Jesus were alive today, he would reach out especially to the gays and lesbians among us, for “Jesus does not want people to be lonely and sad.” Let the priest’s prayer be our own.

With Sarah Ball and Anne Underwood

© 2008

 

Some blacks forgot sting of discrimination November 14, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in U.S. Election 2008.
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LEONARD PITTS JR.

Sometimes, progress carries an asterisk.

That’s as good a summary as any of a sad irony from last week’s historic election. You will recall one of the major storylines of that day was the fact that, in helping make Barack Obama the nation’s first black president, African Americans struck a blow against a history that has taught us all too well how it feels to be demeaned and denied. Unfortunately, while they were striking that blow, some black folks chose to demean and deny someone else.

Last week, you see, California voters passed an initiative denying recognition to same-sex marriages. This overturned an earlier ruling from the state Supreme Court legalizing those unions. The vote was hardly a surprise; surely there is nothing in politics easier than to rouse a majority of voters against the ”threat” of gay people being treated like people.

But African Americans were crucial to the passage of the bill, supporting it by a margin of better than two to one. To anyone familiar with the deep strain of social conservatism that runs through the black electorate, this is not surprising either. It is, however, starkly disappointing. Moreover, it leaves me wondering for the umpteenth time how people who have known so much of oppression can turn around and oppress.

Yes, I know. I can hear some black folk yelling at me from here, wanting me to know it’s not the same, what gays have gone through and what black people did, wanting me to know they acted from sound principles and strong values. It is justification and rationalization, and I’ve heard it all before. I wish they would explain to me how they can, with a straight face, use arguments against gay people that were first tested and perfected against us.

When, for instance, they use an obscure passage from the Bible to claim God has ordained the mistreatment of gays, don’t they hear an echo of white people using that Bible to claim God ordained the mistreatment of blacks?

When they rail against homosexuality as ”unnatural,” don’t they remember when that word was used to describe abolition, interracial marriage and school integration?

When they say they’d have no trouble with gay people if they would just stop ”flaunting” their sexuality, doesn’t it bring to mind all those good ol’ boys who said they had no problem with ”Nigras” so long as they stayed in their place?

No, the black experience and the gay experience are not equivalent. Gay people were not the victims of mass kidnap or mass enslavement.

No war was required to strike the shackles from their limbs.

But that’s not the same as saying blacks and gays have nothing in common. On the contrary, gay people, like black people, know what it’s like to be left out, lied about, scapegoated, discriminated against, held up, beat down, denied a job, a loan or a life. And, too, they know how it feels to sit there and watch other people vote upon your very humanity, just as if those other people had a right. So beg pardon, but black people should know better. I feel the same when Jews are racist, or gays anti-Semitic. Those who bear scars from intolerance should be the last to practice it.

Sadly, we are sometimes the first. That tells you something about how seductive a thing intolerance is, how difficult it can be to resist the serpent whisper that says it’s OK to ridicule and marginalize those people over there because they look funny, or talk funny, worship funny or love funny. So in the end, we struggle with the same imperative as from ages ago: to overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. But if last week’s vote taught us nothing else, it taught us that persistence plus faith equals change.

And we shall overcome.

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