Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Friendship in a Fallen World: An Ecclesial Reflection on Homophobia and Societal Consensus


It is a uniquely obtuse attitude among the self-consciously moral, the well-to-do, self-identified liberals, and those who inhabit the academy to presume one, some combination, or all of four things:
  • that moral progress happens from the top down, by incremental irreversible movement, universally;
  • that if something is morally reprehensible or is by general societal consensus considered to be morally reprehensible any actions in apparent contradiction with that agreement are unthinkable, are a direct witness to the character of the acting agent, and/or belong to a past (morally inferior) age;
  • that some such contradictions with said societal moral consensus are without question worse offenses than others per their supposed agreed-upon awfulness (and not their consequences for society);
  • that a day is fast approaching (if not already here) when certain agreed-upon evils (particularly all forms of bigotry) will disappear from human civilization (for "human civilization" read "beginning with the developed West and funneling into the still-backwards developing world").
As anyone knows who lives in America, homosexuality is a supreme example for this kind of moral worldview. It has become the third subject for civil rights after race and gender. It is possibly the quintessential moral hot button issue right now -- one simply does not raise it in mixed company, "mixed" meaning non-assured homogeneity of views vis-a-vis politics and morality (and, likely, religion).

I am not immediately interested in addressing the issue as such. I am much more interested in what I take to be the prevailing ways people speak about homosexuality and address homophobia, and the implicit language and attitudes used and reflected in such speech. From this exploration we will discover what the witness of the church has to offer and the possibility of hope in the midst of modernity's moral quagmire.


The fact is that there simply does not exist a society-wide consensus on the morality of homosexuality or what moral people's stance toward it ought to be. There may be "agreement" in high society or in Hollywood or in politics or in what may be spoken in a public setting without drawing criticism, but those arenas have very little relation to (though they do have a great deal of influence upon) life as it is lived by real people who are not famous, rich, or known for their academic prowess -- which are, of course, the great majority of human beings.

Thus, while many wish it were not so, spend half an hour with most groups of American males -- whether 12 or 22, 32 or 42 years old -- and it is exceedingly likely you will hear jokes somehow related to and involving the implicit or explicit detriment of homosexuality. Sometimes I wonder what world people live in when they act as if "society" (you know, that easily identifiable thing called "society") has "moved on" from homophobia, whether in language or in practice. It may be because I'm from Texas, or because I grew up in Christian circles, but I doubt either have much bearing on the issue.

Guys make gay jokes. All the time. It is understood without explanation and absolutely that to be gay is to be less than male, if not less than human. To be gay is the worst thing possible. To call another male gay is the worst insult possible. To be around another gay male is excruciatingly uncomfortable, and may call into question one's own sexuality. Homosexuality is without a doubt a derivation from what true masculine living is.

Those are the facts on the ground. They do not describe all males in America, nor even necessarily a majority (though they certainly are the majority in many areas, and the accepted majority position at that). Nor does it exclude women either, although that would entail an entirely different discussion.

A simple example is to watch a movie or television show with a large group of people, wherein male-on-male sexual activity happens or is even hinted at. Groans are audible; there is uncomfortable shifting; the joke is laughed at (if it is intended as a joke to begin with). There is a kind of agreed-upon disgust, or at least discomfort, at even the thought.

Now. This picture does not necessarily tell us anything about individual males' personal views on homosexuality as such. They might have a family member, friend, coworker, or acquaintance who is gay. They might love a book or movie featuring gay people. They might even have strong feelings about gay rights as a political issue, or great conviction about the treatment of gay people by bigots, churches, or society. But individuals do not act as individuals in groups. They act according to a group mentality.

And the American male group mentality, by and large, is that homosexuality is perversion from normality.


This is where, before continuing in our direct line of exploration and argument, we must stop and catch our breath. Specifically, I have to catch my breath. This is a potent topic and it should be clear by now that I am speaking out of passion and not a small portion of defensiveness. I think it may indeed be that I feel defensive for those friends and family members whom I know and love or with whom I have grown up -- to be sure, in a decidedly conservative, traditional context -- who are the disregarded targets of what I perceive to be an unthinking self-righteousness that identifies likely or realized prejudice and, rhetorically or otherwise, treats those persons or that people group as scum of the earth. And I take umbrage both at the notion that they are uniquely worse than anyone else and at the idea that they might not be able to be, even in the midst of their prejudices, men and women of good character. Because, as we will see below, we are all members of an interlocked human family which has not forgotten the ways of other-hatred nor, on the world's current terms, will it ever.

So that is my bias, my hidden defensiveness out on the table. But there is also another story here, one that cannot go untold or unmentioned, particularly in any context of discourse that purports to be Christian.

Bigotry in all its forms is evil. Bigotry belongs to that category of behaviors and thoughts which Christians name as sin, actions of the mind, mouth, or hands that, literally, miss the mark. To be human is to be made in the image of God, and to sin is to participate in any kind of action that denigrates, harms, or lessens the image of God in human beings individually or corporately. In other words, to sin is to cause violence to another human being.

Bigotry, therefore, by its very character is the overt and unapologetic diminution of the Other. It is hatred, rejection, or violence for the very reason that is the glory of humanity: its multifaceted, profound, wondrous difference, a difference grounded in the image of the One who is Three, who exists eternally in relationship with himself in perfect triune unity, ever the intimate friend and ever the separate stranger. In God's very own life we see modeled and flourishing that hospitality which from the beginning was to be instantiated in human community. Unfortunately, as we will see below, the consequences of sin lead to a world that not only does not know its right hand from its left, but does not know it does not know.

More importantly for this discussion and for this moment, is to name the bigotry of homophobia clearly and precisely as possible as the evil that it is. It is violence and wickedness, oppressively evil, murderously sinful. It is a rejection of all that the God revealed in the people Israel and Jesus of Nazareth commands, expects, models, and desires for his beloved creation. And whenever and wherever the church does not name this evil for what it is, much less participates in it by silence or (God forgive us) by adding its voice to the hate, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been forsaken for the idolatry of sameness and safety. May we know with utter assurance that in such times and places the God who came near in Christ to the hurting, oppressed, discarded, and marginal in first century Palestine is even now present and suffering with all people who live as objects of hatred today -- whatever their perceived transgressions, mistakes, faults, or imperfections -- especially those who suffer at the hands of those who claim to be God's own people. That we confess such a truth is utterly central to our confession that the crucified Messiah is, in fact, Lord.


Tragically, the reality remains the same: Prevailing attitudes among American males of all ages, but especially teens through their 20s, are negative if not outright hostile toward homosexuality. Whatever we say, do, think, or feel in response to this claim we unequivocally cannot act as if it does not exist. Furthermore, we cannot act as if it is an exception to the rule or merely the unfortunate holdover from a previous time or simply the product of rural/southern/Christian/traditional /(whatever backwards group society allows us prejudice against) enclaves who need the good news of liberal democratic American moral enlightenment. In a society as pluralistic as America, there is no "we" who together believe x or y to be wrong across the board. To presume that "we" have moved "beyond" some belief deemed wrong by the group speaking as "we" is only to identify the borders of the group in question over against the group at fault.

When what is actually going on in such moral judgment is not named but rather assumed in condescension over against others, the proper name for such action is arrogance. It is also ethically incoherent.

For example, recently on TrueHoop, the premier NBA blog on the internet, Henry Abbott addressed the ongoing verbal spat between Denver Nuggets player Kenyon Martin and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. First let me emphasize my deep respect for Abbott: he is as fine a writer as they come; his analysis, work ethic, commitment, and love for the NBA are as laudable and gifted as they come; in all of my email interactions with him he has been gracious and conversational, and here and there has even posted things I've written him as updates to posts he's written. He is one of my favorite reads and my co-favorite source for all things NBA (alongside Bill Simmons).

His stance on the Martin-Cuban spat is exactly in accord with the character that shines through in his work, and it is accordingly laudable to the extent that it evinces the wisdom of an ethically intentional adult who takes mature behavior seriously. But it is also a profound example of how not to approach morality on a societal scale, particularly regarding the issue of homosexuality.

Abbott's overall response to Martin and Cuban is for them to grow up and act like adults. Everybody makes mistakes, everyone says stupid things in the heat of the moment, but after cooling down, say you're sorry (and mean it) and move on. That's what adults do. "Or," he writes,
they can embrace one of the essential lessons of education and history, which is that feuding is stupid and leads to a society not unlike the Middle Ages. People tend to be much happier, and have better lives, when they make it their business not to find ways to not like each other, but instead find ways to work together.

(This is a conversation I had recently with a five-year-old.)

Cuban started this whole thing by needlessly dragging Kenyon Martin's mom into a conversation about players being violent.

Did you see that video of Kenyon Martin the other day? It's on YouTube. After a game, he screamed at Mark Cuban, on camera, calling him a f----- (derogatory word for a homosexual) m----------- (you figure it out).

This is not something you get to say in 2009. It's depraved, and it's wrong. And in case you didn't get or didn't believe the memo: The idea that homosexuality is a generic put-down ended with eighth grade graduation.

Again, witness the profound wisdom of Abbott's response: Listen, boys; you're acting like my 5-year-olds -- actually, worse -- so knock it off. Apologize and grow up. For goodness sake, act like adults!

But there is a problem here. Who decides what adult behavior is? Which standards are we using here? Apparently we are working within a history of moral progression. We don't condone behavior that resembles that of the Middle Ages, because we live in 2009. And in 2009 eighth graders know better than Kenyon Martin that homophobic slurs just aren't allowed, or better yet, don't work, because everyone knows that to be called gay is not an insult.

I'm not sure what high schools or teenage basketball teams Henry Abbott has been hanging around, but let me assure you: Ninth grade American boys have most certainly not gotten the anti-homophobia memo.

Which, of course, reveals the whole precarious house of cards to begin with: America is not the society Abbott envisions, wherein things like sexual bigotry (much less gender or racial) have been eradicated, either from the category of publicly sanctioned actions or from life altogether. Let it be accepted once and for all: To say "the year is 2009" is no statement at all, ethical or otherwise, except one naming the time in which we leave. To say "today's society is not the Middle Ages" is similarly no statement at all, ethical or otherwise, except one naming the time in which we do not live. To name our time is to name our time, not to make a moral statement.


What we must understand -- and this is the crux of the entire argument -- is that we live in a fallen world. People are as imperfect today as they were in medieval times, as they were in late antiquity, as they were in ancient times, as they were in prehistory. "We" are not "better" than "they." C.S. Lewis's term for this was chronological snobbery. It is a uniquely devious attribute of modernity. Each successive generation believes that it has surpassed each previous generation, exactly according to the time that has passed since that generation lived. It is especially easy when we have few to no traditions or practices linking us to them, and when we do not come to know them through the literature or art they left to us. Then, through the anonymity death provides them (combined with our chosen ignorance of them), we name-call and stereotype and caricature them, and they become a moral foil better than any straw man. "They" -- those who came before and are now dead -- are "worse" -- less enlightened morally, artistically, politically, religiously -- than "we." And again, we find that ever amorphous "we" lifting its intrusive head once again.

The gospel responds to this chronological snobbery with the true memory of Scripture; with a promise rooted in the past; with a connection to the people of old called Israel; with practices that have never ceased since the resurrection of Jesus. The concrete embodiment of this response is the church, that assembled people called and empowered to model in their life together an alternative to the fallenness of the world. They do this in the knowledge and the reality of the forgiveness of sins, because no member of the church is sinless -- indeed, often and unfortunately they are witnesses to the demonic power of sin; but this is in fact the point, because the company of saints that is the church must be and only is made up of fallen sinners, because all the world consists solely of fallen sinners. The church is merely the visible place where fallen sinners gather to confess their sins, to be forgiven, to worship the one who forgives, and to be sent to be witnesses of such a forgiveness to a world that continues to think it has moved beyond the need.

Such a mistake -- to believe "we" have "moved on" from our sins and thus the need for forgiveness and healing from God -- is the central mistake of the modern world. It is why N.T. Wright calls postmodernity a necessary (if flawed) response to the arrogance of a modernity that has no room for the Fall.

How does this relate to our discussion so far? It is, in a word, the missing piece to the entire question of society, morality, and homosexuality. It does not answer the question for us, but it does give us the appropriate lens through which to understand the phenomenon before us.

With the lens of a fallen but redeemed world we may not only not be surprised at the persistence of homophobia, but we may also have hope in what feels like a hopeless situation. If it seems like I have painted an apocalyptic picture of human bigotry, in which sin and hate are inexorable, acceptable, or simply cannot be addressed, that is only because I have been critiquing the mindset of a world which does not and cannot allow either for real sin or real redemption. The real sin is the simple and undeniable existence of ongoing hatred and prejudice which knows no bounds or reasons to stop. And it is true that little will change in response to the world's strategies, however much society (or those who speak for society) beats its chest or decries this or that action, as if human beings change their minds, their hearts, or their actions by hierarchical fiat or societal condemnation.

The real redemption, however, is found in the one who triumphed over the power of sin and death, whose presence and power and Spirit are found in the midst of the life of that forgiven people who follow him. In the life of that people -- called the church -- the practices and habits of discipleship to the crucified Lord Jesus over time form the virtues which lead to peace. And these peaceable virtues include the patience, love, humility, and gentleness both corollary with and necessary to the healing of all forms of hatred for people different than oneself. Similarly, the awareness that comes with knowing that I am a sinner, merely forgiven by the mercy of a God willing to suffer with and for me, democratizes all strangers to me as fellow sinners under no more or less condemnation than I.

Put another way -- allowing for a moment the understandably puzzled if not outraged responses of non-Christians who see no such hope in that people known historically for hypocrisy, violence, and intolerance -- the solution to the problem of all forms of bigotry, but especially homophobia, is not in societal consensus, real or imaginary, nor in the dispensation of moral teaching from those on the top to those on the bottom, nor in restating for the umpteenth time what time it is or is not. The solution, rather, is in relationship. Only when I, the heterosexual Texan male in my mid-20s, befriend my gay neighbor or classmate and get to know him as a person, will I forget (or choose not to participate in) the homophobic jokes my buddies always make. Only when I welcome this stranger unlike me into my home and eat with him, will he cease to be "that which I joke about " or "that which society tells me I ought to feel x about when really I only don't verbalize that I feel y" and come to be, in new eyes given true vision by friendship and by the grace of God, a fellow human being.

And so for others.

[Images courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]

No comments:

Post a Comment