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Discussion Grows The Mind

September 19, 2012

The Internet, that electronic vampire that drains away life, has been instrumental in facilitating a change in my attitude this week. I feel fiercer, leaner. I feel like a hungry cat, hungry and angry. It started innocently enough, well as innocent as it can be if you’re spending large amounts of time strolling along the fibers of the World Wide Web. I was scrolling through the tweets of people I follow. Here’s a link to an underreported news story; here’s a photo of a celebrity’s dinner; here’s a snarky comment about a presidential candidate; and here’s a link to an essay written by my second cousin which he leads to by saying something supportive of Dan Cathy.

You are probably asking yourself who Dan Cathy is. I was. It sounded vaguely familiar. Nothing a quick Internet search can’t take care of. Dan Cathy is the president and Chief Operating Officer of Chick-Fil-A which was founded by his father. He is a vocal opponent of gay marriage and recently made the following statements in an interview:

“Well, guilty as charged. We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families – some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that … We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

And:

“As it relates to society in general, I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage. I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.”

His statements caused a furoré with pundits on both sides quick to point out that this relative molehill was certainly a mountain. People lined up for hours outside of Chick-Fil-A’s around the country to show their support of opposing gay marriage. It mostly made both sides look stupid. He made stupid comments, the other side reacted negatively and made a big deal out of it prompting more people to react stupidly by buying chicken sandwiches. Of course that can’t go unanswered and the fight continues until both sides are distracted by someone or something else.

So why was my second cousin, who I’ll call Joshua, tweeting in defense of Dan Cathy. It should be obvious that Joshua is religious. He is a Christian. He is an associate pastor at a church somewhere in Illinois. I click the link to the essay. It is the text of a sermon he preached. It deals with good and evil from a biblical standpoint, specifically from the book of Revelations.

Let me give you a little of my background when it comes to religion. I was raised with nothing. It was never that there was no god. He just wasn’t there. No one ever spoke about him. There was the odd prayer thrown in here and there by a seldom seen relative, but I wasn’t raised with the constant thrum of religion beating in my ears. Therefore it seemed slightly odd to me, an eccentricity of strangers. When I went to college, when I left my grandparents care and moved to a faraway city, it didn’t seem so odd. I never felt so alone, surrounded by beauty, verve, excitement and creativity, but no one to share it with. Of course this was a period for me to explore the world, as many of us do when we venture out on our own. I tried reading philosophy books but they either bored me or made me angry so I had to stop. I read a few religious books and books about religion. I went to church once on the invitation of a classmate but it was too much for me. To the uninitiated, being plunged into a sea of people with closed eyes and raised hands who are speaking in tongues can be quite shocking. Of course, I know not all churches are like that. I’ve been to the odd service here and there in my life. (Once, when I was young, my uncle who is my grandma’s brother and Joshua’s father, took me to an Easter service. I liked the music, but the rest, especially as a child, bored me to sleep.) So, long story short, I am what I guess you would call an atheist, although it seems to me that that appellation carries with it more than not believing in god. When I think of an atheist, I think of these fiery fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who are so adamant in their disbelief and dismissive of belief. I don’t feel that way. I don’t hate believers or think they’re stupid. I can see how it would be incredibly reassuring to believe that there is an all-powerful entity that loves you. I don’t begrudge anyone that. I just don’t believe in it. It’s not active disbelief. I barely think about it unless someone brings it up. That’s where Joshua comes in.

In his sermon, he asserts that according to the Bible, we can be assured that there are some things in the world that are clearly evil and some that are clearly good. We can also be assured that God will reward us accordingly. He wonders what gives Dan Cathy the moral authority to say gay marriage is bad and then replies by assuring us that the Bible gives Christians the moral authority. He says refusing to recognize that some things are sin is a dangerous game that could have eternal after effects. He rounds it out by saying that rather than filling Christians with dread, they should be filled with hope knowing that in the end there will be no injustice and that evil will be rooted out and punished.

I don’t know how you take this message. I know how I took it. Normally, I try not to engage on these kinds of issues, as I know it is often times like arguing with a wall. But, I felt I could not let this go by the wayside. I have long admired Joshua. He was never like the Christians you see on TV that carry signs saying “God Hates Fags.” He does not spend his time looking for faults in people but generally tries to live life to the fullest. He’ll have a beer now and then and sometimes he smokes a cigar. He swears on occasion. In other words, he is quite liberal and more interested in loving people than hating sin. Or so I thought.

This sermon really threw me for a loop so I sent him a lengthy email detailing why I thought he was off base with his defense of Dan Cathy and characterization of gay marriage as “evil”. Here are excerpts from that email:

It seems to me that you are defending Dan Cathy’s statement of intolerance and further cementing the walls that separate the citizens of this country. I am fully aware that both you and Dan Cathy worship the same god. You have both pledged your allegiance to Jesus Christ and call yourselves his servants and have vowed to live according to his teachings. But this kind of language, the condemnation of unbelievers and the expectation that everyone should live by the same personal agreement that you have entered into with God, is antithetical to the message of Jesus as I understand it.

Jesus’ message was one of love. And, while often times, as you point out, he spoke of the consequences of sin, he did not ever force a follower into servitude. He allowed them to come to them of their own accord: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. He never encouraged his followers to legislate sin. He never asked them to turn their backs on the sinful. He never said that some people should be treated differently than others. His message, as I understand it, was inclusive rather than exclusive. He spent more time with prostitutes than he did with priests. He spent more time in the dust with the poor than with the morally superior rich.

The problem with Dan Cathy’s statement and with the prevailing sentiment of American Christianity is that they have turned their attention away from people, the very people Christ came to redeem with his blood. They have elevated their own beliefs above the well being of their fellow man. They have made a concerted effort to impose those beliefs on unbelievers through legislative means by funneling a great deal of money, time and effort into making what is a personal agreement between them and their god into law. This is time, money and effort that could be better spent feeding the poor, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick. Instead they have chosen to use their time on earth, for which, as you say they will ultimately be judged, to focus on crushing free will through federal, state and local governments.Above all else, in my understanding, Jesus Christ came to give humankind free will.

John says, “God is love.” And love allows us to make our own choices. If He wanted us to do exactly as He wanted He would have created us that way. But from our time in the Garden, He has always allowed us to make our own choices, even if that meant He would have to make painful judgments in the end. Love under duress is not love. Love given freely, love as a choice is enduring. But that is not the message Dan Cathy’s of the world espouse.Despite what Rick Santorum and the dyed-in-the-wool religious bigots of the world would have you believe, Christianity is not under attack in America. As of 2009 over 78% of Americans identified as Christians. Our country has operated and identified with Judeo-Christian principles since it’s founding. We have a set of laws that have core principles based in this religious footing. But the good thing about America is not our religious roots, but the value attached to freedom, that same free will that Jesus died for, that same free will that God gave us from our infancy as a species. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor.

This notion championed by Cathy, Graham, Santorum, Robertson, Pope Benedict and various other religious leaders that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman and that any other arrangement is an attack on the “sacred vows” of marriage is laughable given the statistics from America. The divorce rate in America for first marriage is 41%. The divorce rate in America for second marriage is 60%. The divorce rate in America for third marriage is 73%. Marriage is clearly not sacred to the American Christian. If I were to speculate, I would guess that marriage between homosexual partners is probably more sacred than between heterosexuals, as the LGBT community has had to fight for whatever scraps of equality they have been given. They are fully aware of the weight of their vows.

Does the Bible condemn homosexuality? You bet it does. Does one’s belief in the Bible mean that his neighbor must also follow its teachings? I should hope that your answer would be no. As a Christian, it is of course your duty to bring God’s word to the unbeliever. Is it also your duty to force God’s word on the unbeliever? Again, I would hope your answer would be no.

This debate, the gay marriage debate, smacks of the same bigotry and intolerance that we have already fought through in the last century (see Loving v. Virginia). And it quite frankly surprises me that you have indirectly weighed in on the side of intolerance. I am hoping I have misinterpreted your words.

Love. Jesus is love. Christians have rarely displayed this love. Theirs is a history of causing suffering, of committing unspeakable horrors. Theirs is a history of hypocrisy, of condemnation with one hand while indulging with the other. Christians behave as if they have already been redeemed, as if assured that when they stand before the throne, their name will be found in the book of life, somehow forgetting that it is not what they have done but what they are doing and what they will do that counts. Saying the Sinners’ Prayer, reading the Bible daily, attending services: these are hollow gestures without true Love to back them up. Is it easy to love those you disagree with? No. Is it pleasurable to love the filthy homeless and the diseased sinner? No. It’s not supposed to be. Christians are not meant to be self-serving, but to serve Christ. It seems the Church has forgotten this. There is a rather lengthy plank in the eye, but they have chosen to judge their neighbor instead.

Joshua replied to my email. Excerpts follow:

I don’t believe Cathy’s statements were intolerant, in the older sense of allowing free speech and the free market of ideas (from which the truth emerges). And I don’t believe calling a thing wrong is intolerant. I’m not sure anyone can hold to that rule consistently (even in making it you break it).

Jesus’ message clearly was to repent and be saved through him. According to Jesus, we have all sinned, are all condemned, and all in need of a savior. The love of God expressed through Christ wasn’t that he was going to wave a wand and pretend none of our wrongs happened, but that he would die on our behalf to save us. When I speak of God’s wrath, I’m not saying, “You are condemned,” I’m saying, “We are condemned.” When we talk about sexual ethics, my point is not to point out that someone else is different than me, but that they are the same. We simply can’t give Jesus’ teaching an honest reading and come away saying he condemned nothing but hypocrisy. Yes, he condemned hypocrisy, but in doing so he wasn’t saying, “Really, everyone is good.” He was saying, “Really, everyone is bad, and in need of a savior.”

For a long time, I’ve avoided even thinking about politics, much less talk about it. My reasoning went like this: The political system is corrupt. The gospel of Christ is not. Therefore I will not engage in politics. Recently, I’ve come to see this as a cop out. For better or for worse, this country is intended to be governed by people voting from their beliefs. Moreover, scripture teaches that the role of government is to keep evil held at bay until Jesus restores the world to peace. Therefore, for me to avoid engagement is irresponsible. Does this mean we aim to turn our country into a theocracy? Absolutely not. Ideally we would have a society in which the older kind of tolerance (the free market of ideas) is able to function, and where the truth can be challenged and known. It gets tricky, though, when we talk about things like legislating Gay Marriage. Again, I want to stress that my point above was not “We shouldn’t legislate Gay Marriage.” It was to call into question the inconsistency of calling everyone who disagrees a bigot. However, I don’t think we should legislate Gay Marriage because 1. I understand marriage to be a central sign of the gospel in the world, and thus worthy of protection, 2. This is one step in a journey which many other countries have already traveled, starting with this legislation and ending with pastors being sued in their pulpits for calling homosexuality sin, or refusing to marry homosexual couples (UK, Netherlands, etc.), 3. I do not believe children should be raised by homosexual couples. 4. I believe the central issue to be whether or not Gay Marriage is right or wrong, and not about who gets tax credits (I would gladly sign away my tax credits if that was really what was at issue).

I hope that clarifies things a bit. I’m not passing out the Kool-Aid. Rather, I am trying to take seriously Christ’s command that I preach his good news, which begins in repentance, and ends in salvation. 

Of course, I then replied:

Personally I have no problem with Dan Cathy saying what he said. He can say whatever he wants to. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist cult can tell the world that “God Hates Fags” till the world ends for all I care. In fact, I have been in a number of arguments where I defended their right to do so. Terry Jones can repeatedly stoke the flames of hatred around the world. I won’t stop him. I will say what these people say is wrong and arrogant and pretty fucking stupid. But when Adam and Steve want to say in front of their friends and family that they love each other and are making a lifelong commitment to each other, that is where the “free market of ideas” crumbles. They are not allowed to utter these words of love. Christians have become so focused on hating the sin that they have forgotten to love the sinner. Does this mean they can’t say homosexuality is a sin? No. It means they can’t force everybody else to say it too.

I will agree that perhaps the word “intolerant” might be a bit rhetorical when dealing with Cathy’s statement. But these words are not uttered in a vacuum. There is a long and troubling history in this country that mirrors the struggles blacks and other minority groups have had to fight. His words may be mild but it is part of the long tail of intolerance. In your “free market of ideas”, unfortunately for Dan Cathy, the LGBT community and their advocates have every right to call his statement intolerant. 

Unfortunately, in my opinion, engaging in politics does not simply mean people voting from their beliefs. You say the role of government “is to keep evil held at bay until Jesus restores the world to peace”. (I would like to see a citation for this if you don’t mind. This is the first I’m hearing of that terrifying bit of Biblical dogma.)

I would say that it is the role of the citizen-voter to take into account the well being of the most people when placing their vote. Voting from your core beliefs is both selfish and defeats the point of government, which is to do the most good for the most people while protecting the minority from the whims of the majority. It is a difficult balance. The citizen-voter must take an active role to protect it. When the majority operates from a place where they are only thinking of their beliefs and value systems that is when situations like Rwanda arise, or pre-war Iraq, or Iran, in which the majority oppresses the minority. While you may not aim to turn the country into a theocracy, the self-centered (or God-centered if you like) voter is detrimental to the “free market of ideas.” Am I saying you should compromise your values? No. But should you be allowed to trample the values of others through legislation? Absolutely not. A society should be judged not by how it treats the majority of its citizens, but the by how they treat the minority. This includes religious groups, ethnic groups, and people of a different sexual orientation. Do you believe gay marriage is wrong? It seems that you do. Does this mean, in your own “free market of ideas”, that gays should not be allowed to marry? The majority cannot oppress the minority.

I noticed you skipped over the appalling marriage statistics from the country where three out of four people claim to be followers of Christ. How can the Church tackle the issue of gay marriage when there is a giant poo laid on the alter? Perhaps the issue should start with heterosexual marriage. Maybe your Dan Cathy’s and your Rick Santorum’s should spend their time and money getting straight couples to stay together and honor the vows they made at the alter before their god. Perhaps the legislation should be that straight couples can no longer divorce. I’m sure if these dogmatic parrots were willing to make that commitment, the LGBT community and their advocates would be more than willing to cede the moral high ground on marriage.

Gay couples can’t raise kids? Seriously? Have you met many straight parents? Have you seen the appalling parenting skills that flourish in this country? That is such an asinine statement; I almost did not want to address it.

But, really? Basically, in your belief system, homosexuality is a sin. Jesus did not make distinction between sins. In fact he further clarified by saying that if you lust after a woman in your heart it’s just as bad as having slept with her. There are no levels of sin. There may be degrees that we as humans perceive as one being worse than the other. But to God, sin is sin. It is all appalling to him. So, by your logic, no one can raise kids. Their sin prohibits it. I know what you will say. Just gay couples can’t raise kids. Okay. Say there is a gay couple, they don’t have sex. They don’t want to defy the laws of God. Can they raise a child? Say a husband loses his wife. She leaves him with several children. His brother moves in and helps him raise the children. It is two men, both sinful, because as you and the Lord say, we all have sinned. Can they raise children? The issue with parenting is doing what is best for the child. If two men, if two women, if one man, if one woman, are able to care for the child and provide a nurturing environment for them, how can that be a bad thing?

This is the intolerance that the world is up in arms about. You said it. We are all sinners. God said it. Jesus said it. We are all sinners. Yet for some reason, the Church has come up with a whole different set of values for different sins and for different sinners. The philandering husband is allowed to remarry and have a brood of children without a bat of an eyelid from anyone in the church. But two committed homosexuals cannot marry and raise children? Ridiculous.

He replied:

We probably agree on a lot more than you think. Biblically, the purpose of the government is to hold evil which harms society at bay, not to exercise mind-control. I would just say this: you certainly wouldn’t agree that things which harm others shouldn’t be permissible by law, right? In other words, murder shouldn’t be permissible, no matter who believes it isn’t right. We all agree on that. For me, redefining marriage has fallen into this category — things which will harm society at large. It isn’t just a matter of two people committing to love one another. It’s a matter of fundamentally changing a primary symbol of Christ and his church, for children not the least.

In response to my assertion that the LGBT struggle for equality is similar to the civil rights struggles of the last century:

I can see how it would look like that from your perspective. It simply doesn’t from mine. Again, the key issue is desire vs. being. Whereas the gay community has defined desire and attraction as identity, Christianity says the opposite. Desire and attraction (sexual and otherwise) do not define us as humans. The ability to deny inner desires is not repression, it is freedom. SSA is no more the new black than my desire to sleep with women who aren’t my wife is the new black. Furthermore, everyone has desires that they hold at bay, and do not equate them with their identity (i.e., rage, violence, etc.)

In reply to my query about the role of government in the New Testament:

Maybe I’m saying it wrong. It isn’t terrifying. Easy example: Government keeps the human desire to murder in check, so that humanity doesn’t just murder whenever it feels like. See Romans 13.

Replying to my analysis of the citizen-voter:

I would certainly agree with most of this, but just have different ideas about what oppresses people, including the minority. And I disagree that not legislating SSM is responsible for criminal actions against Matthew Shepherd, etc. It wouldn’t be oppression for the majority to say no to euthanasia, right? 

Agreed 100% that marriage in the church is a joke. But (and you probably aren’t going to like this), though many in our country call themselves Christians, statistics also show that the vast majority also do not hold to the basic tenets of the faith (Apostles creed stuff). So the fight is on both fronts.

He answers my rant about his assertion that gay couples shouldn’t raise children:

Hmmm… This makes me think you’re not listening. I do believe all of these sins land us in the wrath of God equally. I didn’t say that Gay couples can’t raise kids. I said I don’t want them to. Would you want a polygamous Mormon couple to raise your nieces and nephew? If not, why not?

And I reply:

But Christ and his Church do not make up society at large so “fundamentally changing” marriage should have very little effect on Christ and his Church. Are the bonds of marriage, of Christ to the Church, so tenuous that they cannot weather the winds of secularism?

The issue here, which I feel gets buried under a deluge of rhetoric, is that there are two different kinds of marriage. There is the marriage before a Christian God, which Christians view as sacred and of the utmost importance, a living manifestation of Christ’s relationship to the Church. The other, and more common, is the marriage before the state, a legal partnership, rooted in love but cemented by the law of the land we love. The Christian attitude seems to be that their version of marriage is the only kind. This may have been the case at one time, though judging by the history of the world, I doubt it, but in our time, the legal marriage is marriage.

Let’ say I walked in to a warehouse largely staffed by African American workers and said, “What’s up, slaves?” They would no doubt react with indignation and disgust. Of course, I then say, “Oh, no, I’m only pointing out that the modern pay structure and class system promotes what could be called wage slavery.” Though my point may be valid, is it the right way to say it? Or since it is truth, painful though it may be, it isn’t wrong. I should be lauded as a hero. Obviously, I should not. It’s an incredibly stupid and insensitive thing to say. Shouldn’t you, especially as a pastor, be trying to see things from more perspectives than just your own?

After reading Romans 13:

It is a strange passage and seems open to wild interpretation. Could I then say that the war in Iraq was an unjust war, because God placed Saddam at the head of the nation? Does this apply to all nations or just America and Israel? Also, I note that that it later goes on to say that all the laws can be summed up with, “Love your neighbor.”  I don’t think that word love is to be taken lightly either. I think it means to truly love your neighbor.

The current Christian attitude, whether intentional or not, comes across as gays are bad and sinners while Christians are right and pure. Which as your sermon points out is clearly not true, but this attitude is promoted day in and day out by pastors, Christians and pundits. If this insidious belief continues to be promoted, it is a given that hatred and oppression will be the result. Why, why focus on a single sin? It is asinine and dangerous.

Responding to his question about how I would feel if a polygamous Mormon couple raised my nieces and nephews:

As you say, sexual desire and preference are only part of identity. Do I agree with polygamy or Mormonism? Not really. Does their belief have anything to do with their ability to carry out the basic functions of being a human? I don’t think so. I will be honest with you, I can think of many more things to be nervous about with a religious couple raising a child than a gay couple or a polygamous couple. Religion dominates all aspects of life, whereas sexuality is only a fraction of identity.

And that was where we ended it. Neither side gave ground. We both said some stupid things, I’m sure. But, in the end, his sermon had this effect on me: I am more determined than I ever have been in my atheism. If a religious philosophy is going to make people I admire turn into intolerant bigots than I don’t know that I can tacitly turn away and allow it. I have friends that have been personally affected by this unrelenting attack on the LGBT community. Even if I didn’t I would still be on their side in the argument. Comparatively, the LGBT community is quite small, with maybe one in ten people identifying as members. That’s not many. I’ll leave you with the words of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan which I believe to be applicable:

We have responsibilities, one to another.  We do not
each face the world alone.  And the greatest of all
responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak.

[Edit: Joshua just tweeted a link to this article which is pretty good. Really what it all comes down to is remembering we are all just people and communication is essential to the well-being of humankind.]

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