HOMOPHOBIA: THE LAST "RESPECTABLE" PREJUDICE
By W. S. Coffin
From “THE HEART IS A LITTLE TO THE LEFT, published in 1999
I WANT TO CONFRONT homophobia for two reasons. The first is that the "gay agenda" has replaced the "communist threat" as the battering ram of reactionary politics. Instead of a commie behind every bush, there's a gay person sick and sinful.
The second reason is that while the church has generally given at least some support to the oppressed, in the case of homosexuals the church has led in the oppression.
The better to refute the assertions of contrary-minded Christians, I want to speak as a Christian preacher who shares Bishop Tutu's sorrowful conclusion: "The Lord of the Church would not be where his church is in this matter.”
Preachers do best with texts. Mine this evening comes from the fourth chapter of Luke, when Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says he is come "to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind." Who are the captives, and what is it these days that holds them in bondage?
Many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change--of any kind. And some of us even go so far as to embrace "The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent" put forth by the British academic who said, "Nothing should ever be done for the first time."
The result is an intolerance for nonconforming ideas that runs like a dark streak through human history. In religious history this intolerance becomes particularly vicious when believers divide the world into the godly and the ungodly; for then, hating the ungodly is not a moral lapse but rather an obligation, part of the job description of being a true believer.
Think how, for example, fleeing British persecution, our Puritan forebears sailed to America, only to become equally intolerant of religious ideas other than their own, which they enforced as the official faith of the Massachusetts Bay colony. First they banned that early church dissident, Anne Hutchinson, who, as she exited the church where the trial was held, said words haunting to this day: "Better to be cast out of the church than to deny Christ." (Everything churchly is not Christlike!)
In I660 these Puritans went farther, hanging Mary Dyer, an early Quaker, for insisting, in effect, "Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth.”
Three hundred years later, in the I960s, this same intolerance made many Christians consider Martin Luther King Jr. more an agitator than a reconciler. And to this day most churches refuse to ordain not only gays and lesbians but all women, You'd think that if Mary could carry our Lord and Savior in her body a woman could carry his message on her lips! As for the argument, repeated frequently by the pope John Paul, that there were no women among the original twelve disciples-well, there also were no Gentiles.
Why all this intolerance! Because while the unknown is the mind's greatest need, uncertainty is one of the heart's greatest fears. So fearful, in fact, is uncertainty that many insecure people engage in what psychiatrists call "premature closure," They are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what a distortion of the Gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse—to have limited certainties but unlimited sympathies—is not only more tolerant but far more Christian. For "who has known the mind of God!" And didn’t Paul also insist that if we fail in love we fail in all else?
The opposite of love is not hatred but fear. "Perfect love casts out fear." Nothing scares me like scared people; for while love seeks the truth, fear seeks safety, the safety so frequently found in dogmatic certainty, pitiless intolerance.
So I believe the captives most in need of release, those today whose closet doors most need to be flung open, are really less the victims than their oppressors – the captives of conformity--the racists, the sexists, the
heterosexists, all who live in dark ignorance because their fears have blown out the lamp of reason. So groundless are these fears that fence them in, I am reminded of the entry for November 1939 in E. B. White's journal, One
Man's Meat, which he wrote while living in Maine:
A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of
his land, and he keeps two cows there. I asked him one day
how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate.
"Doesn't cost a damn thing:' he replied. "As soon as the
battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That
strand of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but
cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their
lesson the first few days:”
Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the
United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a
strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine
them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take
your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people
in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted·
Come on out!
Yes, come on out, fearful people; the pasture is greener where love prevails and discords end and the joys of unity are proved. Come on out, especially you
Christians, because "for freedom Christ has set you free.”
Here's what many a Christian has learned: It is absolutely right to love and learn from the sixty-six books of the Bible (seventy-one if you're Roman Catholic). But it is wrong to fear their every word, for everything biblical is not Cbristlike. For example: "Now go and smite Amalek... do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass ....
Thus says the Lord:” Besides, we Christians believe in the Word made flesh, not in the Word made words. And for God's sake let's be done with the hypocrisy of claiming "I am a biblical literalist" when everyone is a selective literalist, especially those who swear by the anti-homosexual laws in the book of Leviticus and then feast on barbecued ribs and delight in Monday night football for it is toecap, an abomination, not only to eat but merely to touch the skin of a dead pig.
Homosexuality was not a big issue for biblical writers. Nowhere in the four Gospels is it even mentioned. In fact, in all of Scripture only seven verses refer to homosexual behavior.
Although all these verses forbid or deplore homosexual behavior, nevertheless, in many discussions of texts, thinking is woefully slack. Take, for example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As the cities ready under sentence of doom, the destruction of Sodom could hardly have been the result of tempted gang rape of the angels. The prophet Ezekiel makes this abundantly dear: "Behold this was the guilt of your sister Sodom. She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and the needy." (Ez 16:49). Likewise, Isaiah and Amos compare the Israelites of their day to Sodom only because "your hands are full of blood:” "the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” And the prophet Zephaniah claims: "Moab shall become like Sodom, and the Amorites like Gomorrah" for they have filled their houses "with violence and fraud."
How ironic it is that biblical misreading made "sodomy) a crime, while the truer crime, gluttony, gets off scot-free!
If we make the Levitical text on homosexual behavior normative--"A man Shall not lie with another man as with a woman"--what do we do with other prohibitions? I've already mentioned eating pork; what about wearing garments made of two different materials and sowing a field with two kinds of seed?
And what about all the normative behavior in Scripture no longer considered so today! No biblical literalist I know of publicly advocates slavery or stoning to death an adulterer; nor do people today believe, as did the ancient Israelites, that a man could not commit adultery against his wife, but only against another man by using the other man's wife.
Polygamy too was regularly practiced, and again it's ironic that Mormon polygamy was outlawed in America despite Constitutional protection of freedom of religion and despite the fact that it was a biblical practice nowhere explicitly prohibited in the Bible.
Prostitution was considered natural in Old Testament times and celibacy abnormal. Today the Catholic Church talks of celibacy as a divine calling,
but in the case of gays it legislates celibacy not by calling but by category.
Saint Paul thought all men were straight. He knew nothing of sexual orientation. He assumed that all homosexual activity was done by heterosexuals. This assumption is true as well of Old Testament writers, which means that all the biblical passages used to gays and lesbians have really nothing whatsoever to say about constitutionally gay people in genuinely loving relationships.
In short, it would appear that everyone reserves the right to pick and choose among sexual mores in the Bible. Says Waiter Wink, to whose writings I am indebted: "There is no Biblical sex ethic.... The Bible knows only a love ethic .... This doesn't mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus' commandment to love."
When everything biblical is not Christlike, we Christians need to develop an interpretive theory of Scripture. I think the love of Jesus is indeed the plumb line by which everything is to be measured. And while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around, and beyond all laws.
In no way do I wish to discount the central role of Scripture. The Bible, after all, is the foundational document for all churches the world around. But if you take the Bible seriously, you can’t take all of it literally. And you don’t honor the higher truth you find in the Bible by ignoring truths found elsewhere. Christians should be impressed by the fact that in 1973 the American Psychological Association declared homosexuality per se was no sign of illness, Likewise, they should heed natural scientists who have discovered homosexuality in mammals, birds, and insects. How, as claimed by Jerry Fawell, could homosexuality be the result of the Fall when mammals, birds, and insects were around long before the human species arrived!
Fundamentalists forget that love demands discernment as well as obedience. Here are two biblical verses they never quote: "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right!" and "Do you not know that we are to judge angels! How much more matters pertaining to this life!"
Finally, let me say that I am sure that no word of God is God's last word.
Let's turn now to my earlier suggestion that the gay agenda has replaced the communist threat as the battering ram of reactionary politics. Why is this so?
Pride is not accidentally but essentially competitive. I can go up only if someone else or some other group of people goes down. It is for that reason that there is much conscious or unthinking social subordination in life. And some people can’t live without enemies; they need them to tell them who they are. Anticommunists for years needed communists and vice versa.
Gays are natural enemies because of the personal revulsion many straights feel about gay sexual behavior. Sex, let's face it, is dynamite, and we should recognize the power of involuntary revulsion just as we do the power of involuntary attraction.
No one is to be blamed for feeling revulsion. How can you help it in a homophobic society? What's essential is to recognize the cultural source of this revulsion and not to act in ways that hurt others.
What I hold against the religious right is its cruelty. It's cruel because it's ignorant; and as its ignorance stems from self-righteousness and complacency, it is an ethical, not an intellectual default.
Of course, it may be that instead of an irrational prejudice, homophobia represents a completely rational fear of sexuality divorced from reproduction, justified by pleasure alone. If true, heterosexuals are caught between longing for more freedom and fear of losing a more orderly and virtuous, if more repressed, world. Were that the case, then straight people opposed to
what they perceive as gay promiscuity should be supporting same-sex unions.
In any event, in a Washington cemetery, on the gravestone of a Vietnam veteran, it is written: "When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”
Although the academic community is more tolerant than the religious right, it is also more passive, and tolerance and passivity are a lethal combination. It's easy to forget how frequently compassion demands confrontation.
Confrontation is necessary to shake up the complacent, the "good people" who are indeed "good" but within the limits of their inherited prejudices and traditions. Someone has to play Hamlet to their Horatio. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy:” Someone has to recall to them Jeremiah: "Woe to those who say ‘peace, peace'
where there is no peace"; and Jesus too -- "I came not to bring peace but a sword.” Surely, he was referring to the sword of truth, the only sword that heals the wounds it inflicts.
Now comes the really hard part, the part only gays and lesbians can play. The feminist movement in Norway has a slogan, "Not to do to them what they did to us." In other words, if you are gay and people are screaming at you that you are a moral pervert, can you so speak and act as to rob their position of any moral cogency? Gandhi and Martin Luther King have shown that it is the temper and spirit with which a movement conducts itself rather than a particular action that makes the greatest difference, Divested of moral pretensions, a prejudiced person becomes as Samson with his locks shorn, Nonviolence does not mean turning yourself into a doormat so that people can walk all you. But it does mean returning evil with good, with nonviolence, hatred with a love that is obliged to increase upon pain of diminishing.
Because all this he understood so profoundly, the great agitator of the 60s won the Nobel Peace Prize, and most of America now celebrates a national holiday in his honor. Because they too, in Christlike fashion, returned evil with good, both Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer have statues m their honor in the center of the very city where the one was banned and hanged.
The good tidings are that we live in a moral universe. “God is not mocked.” The former foreign minister of Israel, Abba Eban, once remarked, "Human beings really do the right thing, but only after exhausting all alternatives.” Already there are signs of progress--the movie Philadelphia, the sitcom Ellen, the 232 United Church of Christ congregations who have declared themselves "open and affirming" to gays, the 150 Methodist churches who have done the same. Some 10 percent of all Unitarian ministers are openly gay.
Other signs of progress are the gradual de-ghettoization and de-urbanization of gays. More gays are living openly in smaller and smaller towns. And gay-straight alliances are forming in high schools supported in Massachusetts by the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.
Without doubt, such progress as has been made is due primarily to the determination of the gay community. Despite the AIDS epidemic, so poignantly described in the Psalmist's phrase, "the destruction that wastes at noonday," despite "the band playing on," the legal setbacks in Colorado and Maine, the violence against them that goes on all over the country, the gay communities of America have continued the fight, not for "special rights" but for the equal rights long overdue them. And the fight has been hard, for as every liberation movement has learned, those who benefit from injustice are less able to understand its true character than those who suffer from it.
Just as African Americans have proved that that the problem all along was one of white racism; and woman, that the problem all along was one of male chauvinism, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are proving that God’s creation is far more pluralistic than the eyes of many straights have wished to perceive.
So here's to the gay community and to all it's doing for all of us. And praise the Lord who brings liberty to the captives of conformity and recovery of sight to the blindly prejudiced.