All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. — Edmund Burke
“Who inspires you?” she asked. “Courageous people,” I said. “To me, courage is what we uniquely bring to the party as an authentic expression of our heart, soul, and spirit. Courage is what raises us up. And it’s about the hardest thing there is to be true to in this life.”
I surprised myself with that answer, and had to think about why. Not too long ago, I got a written and verbal lashing from a group of people who happened to think differently about a subject than I did. Their response was not to call and visit with me about our respective views, or to write a thoughtful treatise on their position to seek understanding and compromise, but was to disparage me in the press and online with accusatory fabrications of their own imaginations of who and what a terrible person I must be to hold the opinions they attributed to me. In so doing, they frightened me. Their ill-considered words threatened me, and things got bad enough that my friends suggested I beef up my home security system.
Curiously, I reacted to all that negative attention with a total flight response. I couldn’t get away from the fight fast enough. It scared me, angered me, confused me, and I wanted nothing to do with it. And in that fear, I met my inner cowardice. Maybe the issue wasn’t important enough to me to pay the price of courage. But some things are.
I was pretty brave when I was young. In 1978, as a sophomore at the University of Georgia in rural Athens, I danced with a man from Uganda. The dance was short – probably less than three minutes – because a group of my sorority “sisters” physically removed me from the dance floor. Dancing with a black man in the South in 1978 was still taboo enough for those girls to find appropriateness in a public reprimand. My multi-page letter of resignation to the sorority at-large the next morning was about as brave as I knew how to be. I’m not sure my mother agreed, seeing as how she figured that would be the end of my social life, but it released my voice. I had seen wrong and its face looked just like mine.
Thirty-three years later last week, LGBT rights activist David Kato was buried in Uganda. The forty-two year old was bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home. His name was found listed in an anti-gay magazine. The headline read, “Hang them!”
Radical U.S. Christian missionaries have begun ordaining ministers and building churches across East Africa, preaching almost entirely against homosexuality. Bruce Garner, a member of the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, said that Kato’s murder may have been avoided “if the leaders of the various Christian faith communities… had spoken out prayerfully but forcefully against such a selectively literal interpretation of Scripture… When we sit in silence or only whisper our protests against what we believe to be wrong and not in accord with the Gospel, we are as culpable as those who are such loud and stringent voices calling for severe punishment, in this case ending in death.”
Among the worst enemies of world peace today, I think, are those same such Biblical literalists and self-taught fundamentalists. Most of us know some of them personally. Their faces often look just like ours. We need to start calling them out, not by vilification, but by education about the things that matter to them – education by fact, not by legend and lore.
Let’s start with followers of Joel Osteen. The popular Houston-based preacher, who by his own admission never attended seminary, counts a lot of well-meaning, mainstream people among his 700 million weekly viewers, people who are looking for a modern understanding of Christianity, and who usually get pretty practical guidance from the personable and folksy Osteen. But just last week, he voiced his opinion that homosexuality is a sin and likened it to an addiction. While admitting, ”I’m not the judge. God didn’t tell me to go around judging everybody…,” he did indeed judge, saying, “I say it’s wrong because that’s what the scripture says….”
Some of Joel Osteen’s more liberal fans leapt to his defense, saying he’d done a lot of good and helped a lot of people, so this one errant opinion shouldn’t be held against him. The problem is that his one errant opinion is the sort that people are being murdered because of. And Joel Osteen owns a mighty big pulpit from which he can now count himself among the bullies. His level of responsibility is 700 million times bigger than most people’s.
Besides, he’s wrong. Taking what little is written in the Bible on homosexuality literally is like using language from the 1940s to communicate today. “I just smoked my first fag of the day and it made me feel queer. We’ll go out and have a gay time later.” To 2011 ears, that sounds like the confession of a serial killer who is surprised after the morning’s first hit to be relating to his victim, enticing him to attend a gay bar. The actual translation is more like, “I just smoked a cigarette and it made me queasy. I’ll be in a party mood later.”
Knowing that language can change so much locally in just one half Century, doesn’t it stand to reason that the oft-translated words used to express cultural norms across the world in Biblical times would necessarily be foreign to our modern American ears?
Case in point: It is well known to Biblical students of all stripes, except perhaps fundamentalists in denial, that the word virgin in Jesus’ day was an adjective describing an unmarried woman who no longer lived in her father’s home. It was an honorific, such as Miss or Mrs. or Ms. (the latter of which has only been around since the 1970s). It had nothing to do with her having had sex or not. So the “Virgin Mary” was the “Unmarried woman named Mary who doesn’t live at home” or “Miss Mary.” If you’ve never heard that before, I bet you’ll go rethink that whole virgin birth/immaculate conception story now…
I was a philosophy major at Columbia and have bumped into some exciting, mind-bending thoughts from theological historians over the years, the kinds of ideas that seem to only come up these days with other liberal arts students or at particularly high-functioning cocktail parties. Today my best teacher and probably the most courageous person I know is the woman with whom I intend to spend the rest of my life. She is a seminary student on the path to ordained Episcopal ministry, so I have a built-in fact checker and wildly talented Biblical interpreter on my team. She has deepened my understanding with some of the most elevated explanations of Biblical references (and non-references) to human sexuality in historical context that I have ever heard.
So if there’s anyone out there reading this who struggles with the concept of Biblical inerrancy when it comes to homosexuality – and eating shrimp and touching a football and getting divorced and selling your daughter into slavery and working on Sunday and trimming your sideburns and planting crops together and wearing wool/cotton blends — let me know. We’ll take this conversation to the next level.
Meanwhile, here’s my moment of predictive horror if we all ignore these not-so-early warning signs: There were good Christians in Nazi Germany who never personally hurt anybody, who helped a lot of people, and who even had Jewish friends, but through their inaction they allowed millions of Jews and others to be systematically exterminated. Imagine how the world would have been different if the millions of Christians worldwide who did not had instead stood up to the Nazi bullies and said, “No, that doesn’t work for us.” Remember, too, that that all happened just sixty-odd years ago. Many people among us personally remember it. Some still have tattoos as daily reminders. I am not being dramatic or hyperbolic when I make these comparisons. Good people did nothing and evil flourished.
You cannot hide behind “I’m not political.” Politics is the art of making the mutually agreeable rules that keep us from killing each other. If people are dying, it’s not working. So if you are alive, you are political. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
For me, the pen is mightier than the sword. I am a devout pacifist and spiritual politicist. I believe that we live in a world, not a country, that we have an ethical and moral imperative to provide food, shelter, health care, and education to every human on Earth, and that no one’s rights should be at the expense of anyone else’s. In short, I believe in the utilitarian perspective of the greatest good for the greatest number.
So for my part, I’m going to step up my writing. Sometimes it will be scary, but I’ll take the slings and arrows because we pay a price to follow our call, as I am reminded daily.
We must be willing to pay the price of courage.