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“What Does the Pope Say?” Part 3

Continuing on where I left off last week regarding Pope Francis’ instant classic, Evangelii Gaudium, we were considering his exhortation to meditate on the many scripture texts which speak of “the inseparable bond” between the message of salvation and loving our neighbor. In short, Francis is saying in no uncertain terms that those who have a genuine urge to connect with and help those who are in need find this sort of activity to be one of their deepest sources of satisfaction in life, and those who do not feel such an urge are unlikely to be saved –– to be numbered among God’s people to begin with. He makes a strong biblical case for this being a core element of the Christian message, the rest being details.

Papal audience, St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, Rome, Italy - 06 Nov 2013So from there the question of “What must I do to be saved?” shows up in a rather different light. When Jesus was confronted by the “rich young ruler” (Luke 18:18-27) who originally asked such a question, he instructed him to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” It is broadly understood that this injunction was a matter of council for this particular individual, not a precondition for salvation for all would-be believers. But how close should rich people in particular be expected to come to this exhortation in order to gain “treasure in heaven” and the status of living as one of God’s children here on earth?

When it comes to final judgment on such matters, the pope is willing to leave the ultimate determination up to God. He seems to consider this to be part of the spirit of the principle of subsidiarity. But the core issue of the faith remains prioritizing the sharing of God’s compassion ahead of all personal safety and comfort concerns. It is the details of how one goes about fulfilling this mission that are left to be settled between the believer and God. “[N]either the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (EG 184) Yet unlike his predecessors, Francis refuses to let these matters of social responsibility be reduced to vague generalities that can readily be swept under the rug: “The Church’s teachings concerning contingent situations are subject to new and further developments and can be open to discussion, yet we cannot help but be concrete – without presuming to enter into details – lest the great social principles remain mere generalities which challenge no one. There is a need to draw practical conclusions, so that they ‘will have greater impact on the complexities of current situations’.” (EG 182)

The issue here is the message of God’s Kingdom being revealed on earth. This cannot be reduced to a matter of personal mystical experience. “Nor should our loving response to God be seen simply as an accumulation of small personal gestures to individuals in need, a kind of ‘charity à la carte’, or a series of acts aimed solely at easing our conscience. […] To the extent that [God] reigns within us, the life of society will be a setting for universal fraternity, justice, peace and dignity.” (EG 180)

“It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven. […] Christian conversion demands reviewing especially those areas and aspects of life ‘related to the social order and the pursuit of the common good.’” (EG 182)

“Jesus’ command to his disciples: ‘You yourselves give them something to eat!’ (Mk 6:37)… means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity. It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

“Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.” (EG 188-9)

This means education, access to health care, and above all employment” offering “a just wage [which] enables them to have adequate access to all the other goods which are destined for our common use.” (EG 192)

Or to put this message in concrete political terms, one can be anti-socialist or one can be a follower of Jesus, but one cannot be both! This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (EG 194)

Francis goes on to point out that when St. Paul speaks of avoiding “disqualification” for rewards in heaven for his efforts at spreading the gospel, in Galatians 2, the basic qualification that he holds up as the legitimizing factor for his mission (in verse 10) is that he had eagerly continued to “remember the poor.” If you don’t want to be disqualified before God then, do like Paul did and never let caring for the poor slip from your priorities.

Jesus himself grew up poor, as evidenced by the fact that when he was presented as an infant at the temple, his parents offered doves rather than a sheep. Whatever their social status then, Christians are called to identify with this same sense of poverty. “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.” (EG 198)

So to be true to the message of the Gospel, believers must continuously identify with the interests of the poor. This does not exclude participation in professions involving wealth and power, but it sets conditions on how we relate to such positions:

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.” (EG 203)

Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good. […] I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor! It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education and healthcare.” (EG 205)

Notice that he makes no mention here of politicians preventing pornography, homosexuality or birth control –– the favorite issues of those fighting for “morality” in the name of the Church. In fact those issues are not raised in the entire document. The repeated issues which believing academics, businessmen and politicians should be addressing, as Francis sees it, are to care for the needs of the poor, particularly in terms of ensuring that they have access to quality education and health care regardless of their economic status, and ensuring that their labor is duly compensated –– that corporations are no longer allowed to pay their employees slave wages.

Francis does somewhat apologetically maintain the traditional Catholic position on abortion, but with some significant liberal caveats attached: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. […] Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. […] Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. […] On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” (EG 213-214)

This statement rather conveniently, though somewhat necessarily, skirts around the uncertainty factor regarding the presence of an eternal soul in the fetus “from the moment of conception” which John Paul II acknowledged in his anti-abortion opus Evangelium Vitae: “Even if the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be ascertained by empirical data… what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence.” (EV 60) In other words we’re not really talking about certainty regarding the existence of an eternal soul in the embryo here; we’re talking about a combination of probabilities and emphatic dogmatic traditions being maintained for their own sake. But even the most strident liberal can probably see that it would open up all sorts of counter-productive cans of worms for Francis to dig any deeper in reforming church teaching on this question. If he can continue to prioritize care for those in the sort of “profound anguish” that in extreme cases leads to abortion over further legislation to regulate abortion, that has to be seen as a positive step.

Francis’ take on scientific matters in general here is not without its problems. He doesn’t really have anything new to say about this matter, but in enthusiastically reinforcing the traditions of the past couple of generations at least he claims, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvelous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. Neither can believers claim that a scientific opinion which is attractive but not sufficiently verified has the same weight as a dogma of faith.” (EG 243)

In other words we have three essential categories here: absolute scientific facts, dogmas of faith and scientific opinions. Francis is saying that they must be prioritized in precisely that order: Dogmas of faith always take precedence over “scientific opinions”, but “conclusions which reason cannot refute,” also known as scientific facts, take precedence over statements of faith –– presumably even dogmas of faith. This could turn into a really messy debate if we pursue it to its logical conclusions. But given that this is an “exhortation” rather than a formal doctrinal statement, it’s probably best just to leave this as an expression of good will to keep channels of communication open between the Catholic Church and the “scientific community” –– an effort to keep ideologies from blocking the path to “authentic, serene and productive dialogue.” (ibid.)

In addition to dialogue with science as such, Francis also takes the time to promote dialogue with Protestants, Orthodox Church members, Jews, Muslims and agnostic seekers in particular. He stresses that other churches, Muslims and Jews really do worship the same God that Catholics do, and agnostics are often sincerely searching for the sort of spiritual truth that comes from the God of the monotheistic faiths. The point is for “believers and non-believers to engage in dialogue about fundamental issues of ethics, art and science, and about the search for transcendence.” If there wasn’t enough here to make fundamentalists’ heads explode already, that should certainly do it.

But Francis is also acknowledging the need for reconciliation with those theoretically within his own camp –– those claiming to do “God’s work” through various forms of right-wing political action. To them he says, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth.” (EG 208)

What a wonderfully eloquent way of saying, “as your friend I’m trying to help you overcome your current problem of being a complete waste of space on this planet”! Let’s hope they are able to receive this message entirely in the spirit in which it was written.

Francis closes this epistle with a reverent tribute to Jesus’ mother, tying her persona quite directly into his central message: “Contemplating Mary, we realize that she who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53) is also the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” (EG 288)

I must confess though, my “low church” up-bringing has not provided me with this sort of appreciation for the liturgy of the sacred feminine. I don’t reject this form of spirituality; I just don’t strongly identify with this particular appeal. So I’ll close here with a quote from part 274 that all of the “others” which the pope hopes to build a dialogue with could agree on:

We achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!”

May each of you find your hearts so filled this holiday season!

 

 

 

 

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”Course You Know, THIS Means War!” (Happy birthday, Robert)

leghorn warI’m writing this in honor of my older son’s 24th birthday today. I’m not sure he always realizes how important his birth is to me, and how much I respect and appreciate him in spite of all of the things that may have come between us over the years.

As I tell my friends, my son is a drill sergeant in the Finnish Army up in Lapland. He seems to find that fulfilling on a number of different levels, and I’m quite satisfied that he’s found that sort of career satisfaction for the time being at least. There was a time that he contemplated becoming a theologian as well, but for various reasons he thought the better of it. Even so, he remains interested in religious matters, though he avoids debating these things with me directly.

This can be seen in the Facebook status he posted yesterday, in Finnish, quoting from the controversial recent speech given by Finland’s Minister of the Interior and “Christian Democratic Party” chair person, Päivi Räsänen. To quote Robert in full, (in my own translation into English):

“I don’t understand what the problem is here. ‘…the situation where officials forbade the apostles to preach about Jesus…’ was an example of illegal activity. If the law forbids this, then you can certainly break that law.”

In complete respect for his perspective, I do actually understand what the problem is here, and I’d be happy to explain it. I can readily picture Robert saying, “No, that’s OK,” but I’ll do it anyway. For me it’s a matter of “doing what I do” this time in honor of my son. And not only will I try to explain what I see as the problem in this matter, but I’ll go on to briefly explain what I would like to see those my son is in fellowship with do in terms of moving in the direction of solving this problem. Of course this isn’t “Thus sayeth the LORD.” This is just a fatherly perspective which happens to coincide with my current doctoral studies. It is inevitably imperfect, and if Robert or anyone else would like to address those imperfections, I would be happy to take their council in return.

Courtesy of the newspaper Savon Sanomat

Courtesy of the newspaper Savon Sanomat

First of all, in terms of agreement with Robert, Mrs. Räsänen and the Book of Acts in the New Testament, I would absolutely defend the principle that any law which is intended to silence one’s freedom of religion, and people’s freedom to express their religious convictions in the public forum even, is a bad law, which deserves to be broken. According to a recent report I’ve seen, of all the most populous countries in the world, the ones which do the best at practically respecting this human right to freedom of religion are Brazil and South Africa. I have close friends from and strong sympathies with both nations in this regard, and I believe that the United States, Russia, China, Western Europe and the Arab nations could learn much from their positive example.

But that’s not really the point that Mrs. Räsänen was driving at. Where she was going with her speech was in trying to convince religiously conservative Finns to join in with what in the United States is being referred to as “the culture wars”. In particular she is trying to create political momentum in the direction of being more restrictive of abortion services and less publicly accepting of homosexuality.

The speech in question begins with a nostalgic bemoaning of the pattern of secularization, church property being sold off due to its low usage rate, and the church losing its cultural influence in Finland overall. This she sees as a problem because, “Churches and Christian organizations have had a far greater influence on the stability, safety and economy of our society than is commonly thought.  The foundations of child welfare, respect for human value and human rights, as well as other aspects of our legislation and civil culture are strongly based on the picture of humanity brought in by Christianity. Honesty, our work ethic and respect for authority are prerequisites for our receiving tax income on the basis of which our welfare can be maintained. Stable families, lasting marriages and responsible parenthood are preconditions for the development of children and young people.” The implication being, the less Godly people are, the more all of this come under threat.

This is contrasted with a culture of hedonism, in which sex and drugs and rock and roll overcome the fear of God, where young people’s lives fall apart for lack of a spiritual focal point. The statistics used to shock the righteous here are that over half of Finland’s first-born children are born outside of wedlock, and each year Finland has 24,000 marriages and 14,000 divorces. To protect us against these trends we need to go back to literal respect for the first chapter of the Bible: mankind is made in the image of God, and marriage must always be between one man and one woman.

At this point, rather than trying to back up this weak assertion, Mrs. Räsänen goes for comic relief –– telling of how when she had her last child, her then 2-year-old daughter requested that the following new family member Mommy would bring into the world would be a kitten. The Minister then asserts that those who don’t follow her biblical literalist standards are just as silly as her young daughter was back in the day. From there she goes into a rant against abortion based rather closely on American “Religious Right” materials (which I responded to here last fall). From there she moves on to an argument against Finland moving closer to the Dutch/Swiss model regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide, concluding with the argument, “Calls for euthanasia are the fruit of the value collapse of our time. A culture of superficial hedonism drives people to retreat from life’s limitations into death. If life’s purpose is defined in terms of seeking pleasure, the limitations caused by sickness or disability appear to destroy the meaning of life. These days it is difficult to accept that weakness and suffering are part of life.”

There’s a lot that can be said in opposition to all that, but the basic issue comes down to one of asking, how far are we justified in telling other people that they have to suffer because our religious convictions say that’s what they have coming to them, and on that basis they’re not allowed to do anything about it? If we get beyond that issue then the next question is whether or not that is really the (only) proper understanding of the Christian message here, but I won’t open that particular can of worms this time. Suffice to say, Dostoevsky’s fictitious speculation about all things being permissible if God is dead does not strictly speaking hold true philosophically speaking, nor does it provide a valid justification for civil law being based strictly on religious principles.

Mrs. Räsänen’s sermon goes on to depict Peter Singer’s philosophy of sentience having more moral significance than intra-species loyalty as the major antithesis to a Christian moral perspective. She concludes her polemic on this particular matter with the theologically unconfirmed statement, “The message of the cross is nonsense if human life is not sacred and human value unconditional.” As powerful as the message of the cross is in reinforcing our understanding of each person’s value before God, however, there is nothing about assuming that terminally ill people have the right to choose to die, or that the presence of an eternal soul in a first trimester human embryo is somewhat questionable, which nullifies the message of the cross.

Her next argument is to say that heterosexual matrimony is the only context in which child raising is a legitimate process. “Sex differences, manhood and womanhood are […] a significant part of the Christian image of humanity. Marriage has a special place within this Christian image of humanity in that it is the only union between people that was established in the creation.” On this basis all political efforts to have homosexual relationships recognized as legitimate, on the same level as heterosexual relationships, must be anti-Christian.

This is a very personal issue for some, so I think it is fair for me to state my perspective on the matter in very personal terms: My sons know that I am quite strictly heterosexual myself, and that I have been what is properly called a serial monogamist. I set out to live by biblical standards, but after their mother chose not to live by a shared commitment to such standards and abandoned our marriage, I found those standards rather impossible to maintain, as much as I wished to do so for the sake of my children. But from a biblical perspective then, regardless of my good intentions, I am a far greater sinner than any homosexual. There are far more verses condemning divorce and sexuality without deep personal commitment than there are verses condemning homosexuality as such. Nor can I, by any stretch of the imagination, say that any of my gay friends are in any way to blame for the marriage crises I have seen and gone through; nor that their sexual orientation would automatically make them worse parents than many heterosexual parents I know. Thus the categorical stigmatization of their sexuality which Mrs. Räsänen contributes to in her speech is unacceptable to me. The rest is details.

The Minister moved her sermon towards a close with an anecdote of a prostitute who had become a believer and who felt rather guilty for her profession being against God’s will (another factor that has had absolutely nothing to do with my experiences of the breakdown of family life). On this basis Mrs. Räsänen wants all sin to be acknowledged as such, so that sinners can come before God (preferably by way of his ecclesiastical representatives) to beg for forgiveness. It is from there that she went into her citation of the apostles’ preference to “obeying God rather than men.”

In terms of the original context of the verses in question, however, I believe she rather misses their point. The apostles were not trying to set standards by which non-believers would be required to live; they were trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment in which their value system was subjected to all sorts of unfair stereotypes, in which things eventually got so bad for them that it literally became part of the government program to invite people to watch Christians being killed just for the entertainment value of it. Trying to compromise and get along with such a governmental system, as a political strategy, was a bit of a non-starter.

Does that mean that Christianity cannot coexist with any strong form of central government? Of course not! At one point, in fact, the Apostle Paul himself made a gesture towards peaceful coexistence with the powers that be. After starting out the book of Romans with a bit of a homophobic rant against the leaders of Roman civil society –– God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. …so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. (Romans 1:26-29) –– and from there having written a particularly long letter in which he went through issues of the dynamics of God’s forgiveness, his own personal guilt complexes, and the role of the Jewish nation in the big picture of things, Paul sets out to close the book in as conciliatory a way as possible. Thus he starts chapter 13 with advice to show the greatest possible loyalty to these civil authorities:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. (verses 1-3)

In historical context this turned out not to be particularly trustworthy advice: doing “what is right” provided no guarantee that Christians would be treated fairly by the Roman rulers over the next couple of centuries. Yet in one sense this passage does offer valuable advice all the same: If you operate on the assumption that those in authority are in fact on the side of the right –– evil, greedy and depraved as they may be –– you have a lot less to fear and you have a lot better chances of living in peace with them than if you automatically consider yourselves to be in a continuous state of war with the powers that be.

The question then is, how can we apply the various teachings of the Bible regarding political perspectives –– with their varying historical contexts and strategic backgrounds –– to the context of a pluralistic liberal democracy in which we now find ourselves? Face it: our current world political situation was never envisioned by any of the writers of the Bible. Nowhere in the scripture is there the remotest consideration of how the people of God should vote if they are faced with choices in municipal elections between those who demand more just treatment for the poor and those who demand stricter punishments of the promiscuous. Both sorts of priorities can be justified on the basis of various biblical teachings, but the nowhere does it say directly how things should be prioritized if we are given a choice between the two. The possibility of our current situation arising –– the idea that these things might someday be decided by the collective will of a mixed body of voters, including both believers and non-believers –– never occurred to the apostles and prophets.

Nor is there specific direction in scripture as to what to do in the case where a large group who identify themselves as followers of Christ would attempt to seize the reins of power for their own moral cause and fail. Should they pack up and try to find a more righteous place to live? Should they try to stage a coup and take over the government by force? Or should they just “suck it up” and get on with life as best they can? Over the centuries believers have found justifications for considering each of these reactions to be their proper “Christian responsibility”. I believe there can be a time and place for each, and they need to be considered very carefully (and prayerfully) before we move forward with the more radical solutions in particular. I can accept the sincerity of those promoting any of these solutions in any given situation, though not necessarily their understanding of scripture nor their practical strategic, political intelligence.

Another acquaintance of mine recently posted a link to a Christian political blog entitled “The War We Are In,” promoting a particularly adversarial stance in which Christians are called upon to see all unbelievers and all Muslims in particular as “the enemy!” According to this perspective, “Throughout its 2,000 year history, hostile governments have sought to eradicate Christianity, or at least subvert it for its [sic] own purposes and subsume it under its own rule.” Thus a siege mentality where, “this longstanding struggle between state supremacy and the supremacy of God” in which “secular liberalism is a political religion which cannot peacefully coexist with Christianity” forms the backdrop for all political action among those who are considered to be properly believing Christians. In particular the author there claims that the premise for examining the “political philosophy of the last 500 years,” should be that “separation of state and religion was first championed by Christianity. Before that the two were closely fused.”

So Christianity brought about the separation between the state and religion. Now what religion was it that had been so closely connected with the state before that? Oh, right…

In order to build this heroic narrative of struggle of the true church against the state, writers like Bill Muehlenberg and Benjamin Wiker –– who are responsible for the blog in question –– need to label many of those who have operated within political systems in the name of Christianity as not being “true Christians,” but rather part of the evil “statist” system oppressing their faith. This is not to say that during the Medieval Period, and thereafter, those forces which claimed to be representing Christianity were particularly sincere in doing so. A lot of rather distinctively non-Christian stuff –– reflecting more of a crude lust for wealth and power than respect for the teachings of Jesus –– has been done in the name of expanding Christian political influence. The problem is that this situation really hasn’t improved much over the past 500 years. It doesn’t take too close a reading of the history of Constantine the Great, Charlemagne, the Borgias, Henry VIII, Pius IX, Ralph Reed or the Koch brothers to see such a trend running from the earliest days of Christianity’s official state acceptance to our present era. And these are the forces which have presented themselves as the Christian alternative to the evils of a more secular government!

These are the forces with which Mrs. Räsänen has been aligning herself. If these “Christian” politicians were to be honest about the matter they would have to say, “We have seen the enemy, and we are them.”

In the case of US politics, starting during the Reagan years (when I first moved to Finland), the Religious Right, in all of its various incarnations, has served primarily as a means of reducing the power of government to protect the poor and the natural environment from the interests of the wealthy and the corporate elite. Fighting against abortion and homosexuality has been their rallying call, but while reducing human sexuality as far as possible to just “legitimate” potential baby-making might be their official agenda, the concrete change in society which they have brought about has been to create “the Walmart generation.” In the process of providing cheap products and driving their smaller competitors out of business, businesses in the United States no longer have to pay their full-time workers enough to actually live off of. Employees can be treated as disposable commodities. Consequently the gap between the rich and the poor has grown far beyond the proportions seen in the works of Charles Dickens. The bankrupt city of Detroit is the current poster child for this dilemma.

I believe that the proper job of civil government is not so much to provide moral guardianship for the population –– keeping people from having sex in unacceptable ways, as Mrs. Räsänen and her exemplars in the American Religious Right seem to be primarily worried about –– but rather to protect the human rights of those governed. These rights include the right to private property, the right to freely choose their own religious paths, the right to speak freely about their personal convictions, the right to have the sort of education that enables them to really know what is going on in the world around them, the right of private individuals to have a say in governmental processes, and the right not to be treated as slaves.

Ideally these rights should be restricted only as far as is necessary to keep their exercise from being used to take away the rights of other people. This is particularly important in the case of religion being used as a political tool. Would-be theocracies in countries like Iran and Afghanistan are not the only ones who try to reject the rights of those who religiously disagree with them in the name of “doing things according to God’s rules rather than man’s rules.” In fact Mrs. Räsänen’s rhetoric –– again picked up from her American exemplars –– comes eerily close to the ayatollahs’ self-justification.

My political interests are not in allowing those who nominally support the same religious brand that I do to have as much power as possible, but to do what I can as an individual “person of faith” to support the sort of government that respects and supports not only my personal human rights but the human rights of all those Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matthew 25:40). Rather than getting sucked into American style “pelvic politics”, I would hope that European Christian would share this sort of political emphasis on human rights.

lapland 023And beyond all of this I just want to say to my son, Robert, I love you, and whether we agree on these matters or not I hope you never forget that or have reason to doubt it. Happy Birthday.

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Regarding Obama and Homosexuality in Africa

I’ve been dragging my feet about finishing a more thematically ambitious essay I started more than a week ago, but while working on that I have been actively involved in various other debates that I haven’t blogged about here. To get something up here while semi-blocked on the other project, allow me to toss out a response I gave via social media to an acquaintance of mine in central Africa this morning. He wrote:

President Barack Obama should know that we africans [sic] have our ways life. We don’t just copy anything done in the western world. Its shameful to hear president Obama advicing [sic] african governments to ligalise [sic] homosexuality and gay marriages! The American president should be made to know that we make our laws based on our ways of life, not on the uncalled for advices [sic] from foreign leaders. If there is nothing usefull [sic] he can tell african leaders and people, then he better shut up, enjoy his african tour and go back home.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn't actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don't have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

What would have happen if, 500 years ago, a group of Zulu warriors would have discovered that one of the guys among them wasn’t actually attracted to women but rather to men? We don’t have any records that would answer that question for us one way or the other.

This sparked a lively conversation, strictly between Africans, on topics ranging from the irrelevance of the homosexuality question to the pressing problems of poverty, Obama’s personal vanity and his mother’s potential Jewish roots to the extent to which Africans are expected to mimic western cultural standards. So in response to that my wake-up rant this morning was as follows:

———————————————————————-

OK, as an American with no pretense at fully understanding Africa, but having tried, having only spent a year in South Africa, and having worked teaching humanities subjects in international schools in Europe for most of my professional life, I still feel I have to say something here.

President Obama is the first American president to be in touch with his African ancestry, as well as the first to have spent a significant amount of his childhood in a Muslim country. He doesn’t make any particular claims of cultural connection with your cultures beyond that, and those who have false expectations of him on those bases only have themselves and their own social echo chambers to blame.

By American political standards Obama is a moderate liberal. That means that his policy priorities are focused on better reinforcement of human rights for all both within the US and around the world… in theory. In practice of course he has his own cultural blind spots. This does not mean that he is going to start lecturing Africans on the meaning of marriage from his own cultural perspective: He will not be preaching to Jacob Zuma about the dangers of his polygamy or his adultery. But with his general human rights focus he will be telling Indians who didn’t get the message from Gandhi that they can’t treat Dalits as disposable human beings. To Africans, I honestly believe, he is fully justified in saying that there are certain abuses that cannot be tolerated in the name of “protecting cultural tradition”. These would include genocidal wars, the sexual abuse of children, and yes, killing homosexuals for no other crime than being homosexual.

It is rather difficult to say if homophobia in Africa is a cultural feature which goes back to the time when sangomas dominated religious life there, or whether homosexuality was something that Africans learned to hate and fear with the coming of Muslim and Christian missionaries. There is little question about the matter that in all cultures there have always been certain small minorities of men who are more sexually attracted to other men than to women, and that the same has gone for women as well. Westerners did not introduce this phenomenon into any culture. Westerners may have actively tried to change attitudes towards such people, in both positive and negative ways. In this regard for Obama to preach tolerance towards homosexuality in Africa is, probably to his mind, and in my mind quite justifiably, a matter of attempting to undo the damage that has done by other westerners and outsiders with their various forms of hate-mongering. There isn’t any God-given or other need for Africans to hate and attack the sexual minorities among them. Those people too are people, having value as such and capable of making important contributions in their societies.

I’ve been studying the phenomena of “Theonomy” among western Christians and “Qutbism” among Muslims as radical programs for establishing modern civil law on the basis of “God’s eternal decrees” — including a religious decree that homosexuals should be killed for their “perversion” just because “God says so.” This is not a traditional African perspective on such matters, but foreign missionary groups have very actively and successfully promoted such views on the African continent. In the name of respect for indigenous culture those messages should be rejected at least as vehemently as President Obama’s message of tolerance — preferably far more vehemently.

I say all this not as the outsider who is “so much more intelligent that you” but as the outsider who can perhaps see your situation just a little bit more clearly for not being entangled within it. You might have the same advantage in analyzing problems of European culture. I ask that you kindly consider my words here not as those of a wannabe cultural imperialist, but as those of someone who wants to be your brother in spite of having been born white and far away. Peace all.

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That’s a strictly “take it for what it’s worth” perspective, but if any of you would like to add your own $0.02 worth here, feel free.

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Filed under Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Tolerance

On Pledges, Acts of God and Huckabees

I’m no big fan of Mike Huckabee. As far as I’m concerned there are just two reasons for him to be vaguely relevant to life as I know it: he is one of the characters from the 2012 Republican primary in the US that make Mitt Romney look presidential by comparison, and he is one of the American politicians who has the most even mixes of directly political and directly church-related work on his resumé.  But since a number of people from the political right with whom I still have cordial relations liked his Sandy Hook statement on Fox News, I decided to have a look at it. And now as my last pre-Christmas blog for this year I’ll give a proper response on the matter. It does, after all, have quite a bit to do with the question of God coming into our human world, which is theoretically what the message of Christmas is all about.

huckabee

By way of background, it’s fair to say that those on all sides of the political spectrum have been tempted at least to use the press attention given to this sad event to their own advantage. I myself am prone to promote the role of teachers as more than just information providers and standardized testing implementers. Thus I wrote an article relative to the event showing how it reinforces these values that I wish to promote. Meanwhile those who believe that private gun ownership is the root of all social evil wrote articles showing how this event proves their point, and those who believe that a sufficiently well-armed general populace can solve all social problems wrote articles claiming that this event proves their point. And if that were not enough demonstration of how existing presuppositions color our reception of information, those who are prone to theological doubt predictably commented yet again on how this sort of senseless suffering raises the “theodicy problem” yet at again, and those prone to covenant-theological perspectives –– not only, but including the infamous Westboro Baptist gang –– claimed that this is a sign of God’s punishment on those who reject various aspects of fundamentalist morality.

From this perspective Huckabee was trying to come across as a moderate, and by Fox News standards he seems to have succeeded, finding something of a middle road half way between the Westboro and NRA positions on the crisis.

Barack Obama, Chris ChristieSniping aside, I have to give Huckabee credit for courage in one respect: he did go as far as saying that “God was present” in what President Obama had to say to comfort the American people that Friday afternoon. That may well have been the most significant acknowledgement of the President’s integrity and spirituality since Governor Chris Christie spoke in favor of his crisis management following Hurricane Sandy. I’m sure there are many on the Religious Right who are now ready to disown Huckabee over such a gaffe. We’ll see how that plays out.

The core of Huckabee’s message was surprisingly close to a “Liberal Gospel” message: God is most clearly revealed through human hearts, in their capacity for compassion and connection with each other. When we are open to sharing each other’s pains as well as joys, God works through us and the world becomes a much safer and more welcoming place.

From this perspective Huckabee would be justified in saying that God had been sidelined prior to the Sandy Hook tragedy: too many people were moving through the holiday hustle and bustle without stopping to care about those who are still in suffering this season. The sense of caring about those around us had fallen off considerably in the month between the election season and Sandy Hook. Once those who were suffering (because of “Obama’s mismanagement”) were no longer of strategic political value, those on the Religious Right who claim to speak for a God of compassion sort of lost interest in them. Twenty-eight senseless deaths later compassion and mutual support have risen to levels not seen since 9-11. Sadly, however, we can be quite sure that this sense of caring and compassion will soon fade away. Americans will soon return to their priorities of “keeping what’s mine as mine” and being ready to shoot anyone they feel threatened by.

This is the traditional message which most consistently informs Huckabee’s words:

“..we’ve escorted [God] right out of our culture and we’ve marched him off  the public square, and then we express our surprise that a culture without him actually reflects what it’s become.

As soon as the tragedy unfolded I think God did show up. He showed up in the lives of teachers who put their lives between a gunman and their students. He showed up in policemen who rushed into the school not knowing if they would be met with a barrage of bullets. He showed up in the form of hugs for children, parents and teachers who had lived through the slaughter. He showed up at the overflowed church services where people lit candles and prayed. And he showed up at the White House, where the President invoked his name and quoted from his book.

And in a few days or weeks we’ll probably ask God to excuse himself from view, and we will announce in our arrogant pride that…”

If the other ¾ of Huckabee’s sermon to the media had kept that same tone I think he would be my new political hero today. He wasn’t talking about the religious dogmas or sexual morality of those through whom “God showed up,” but their selfless compassion, their sense of duty to protect the helpless and their sense of community transcending previous divisions and animosities. I believe that there is a strong consensus among those of very divergent religious traditions for saying that such things can be referred to as “God moving” among the people. Even staunch agnostics would have to go along with acknowledging that society would be healthier if we could have more of such a spirit manifested in our communities. But alas, Huckabee sandwiched this meat of the matter between thick layers of the other prominent Christian tradition in American politics: hatemongering.

Rather than pointing to our lack of compassion as our means of escorting God out of our culture, he lights into those who don’t share Christian convictions for suing to have signs of it removed from the public spaces they share with the rest of us. Granted, these non-believers frequently do reflect a confrontational tendency in American culture which is part of the problem at times. Some of the law suits brought over expressions of religious sentiment in public are blatantly childish, and not at all conducive to tolerant coexistence between those who share these convictions and those who don’t. If Christians were credibly representing themselves as a force promoting compassion and solidarity it might be reasonable to point fingers at secularists for trying to break down this sense of harmony by complaining about religious symbols. Sadly that is not the case.

The things that Huckabee’s brand of Christianity stands for in the public square these days are the “moral issues” that he tossed into his spiel after his reaction against reactionary atheists. Huckabee and his constituents see it as their duty to oppose “tax funded abortion pills,” a public refusal to call things “sinful” and the general abandonment of “bedrock moral truths.” Those are each sort of worth unpacking.

The first point goes back to the fact that under President Obama’s leadership the United States has at last joined the rest of the developed world in recognizing access to medical treatment as a basic human right, on par with elementary education. The means of getting it there was a bit of a messy political compromise, but the important thing is that it finally got there. People without private fortunes who have “pre-existing conditions” are no longer left without treatment. A lack of health insurance will no longer cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of bankruptcies in the United States each year. But since this law has been passed, the strategic priority for the Republican party has been to find an excuse for getting rid of it. If they can make a moral excuse for their attempts to derail “Obamacare,” so much the better.

Enter the argument over basic estrogen pills. These were discovered as a cheap and effective means of birth control about 50 years ago and they’ve posed a moral crisis for the Catholic Church ever since. Any technology which enables people to have sex without “being fruitful and multiplying” is taken to be a means of enabling sin, and these technologies are to be dogmatically rejected in all their forms. The problem is, everyone outside the Catholic Church (excluding a few small groups like the Amish and the Laestadians), and most of those within the “mother church” as well, think that limiting the number of children that sexually active people end up having is probably a good thing –– socially, economically, environmentally, psychologically and in most other ways as well.

So the moral compromise is that Catholics have accepted Protestants and non-believers rights to use various forms of birth control, and no one has forced birth control onto Catholic couples. It’s sort of like Jehovah’s witnesses and blood transfusions: they aren’t forced to have them, but they aren’t allowed to prevent others from having them. But in a desperate attempt to make the Affordable Health Care Act look immoral, Republicans have seized on Catholics’ objection to the provision in the law which says that all basic forms of health care which an employee could need are to be covered by the insurance provided by the employer, including prescriptions for estrogen pills. According to the new law, just like non-Jehovah’s Witnesses working for JW owned companies must have coverage that includes access to blood transfusions if they happen to get into a major car accident, non-Catholics working for Catholic owned companies need to have estrogen pills covered as part of their health insurance, even if such treatment goes against the moral convictions of the employer.

In some ways it’s a trivial matter, but it’s enough to give Obama-haters an excuse for claiming that he is violating Catholics’ freedom of religion. Anyone who would buy that sort of argument, in my honest opinion, cannot be very well educated in fundamental principles of logic and ethics. People who would be prone to accept such reasoning would also, I suspect, be inclined to believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ, that the UN is a Satanic conspiracy to take away American’s freedoms, that many mental health problems are best explained in terms of demon possession and that the best way to solve environmental problems is to pray for Jesus to come back again soon. But there are plenty of those sorts of believers out there. Mike Huckabee is probably one of them. If not, he’s at least working hard to appeal to the baser aspects of such a belief system.

To boost the rhetorical kick of his dubious assertion in this regard, Huckabee further twisted the truth to force the words “tax-funded” and “abortion” into the same sentence. The pills in question here are not “morning after pills” a.k.a. “abortion pills” but pills which prevent conception to begin with. They don’t stop a fertilized egg from growing into a full blown baby; they prevent the sperm from finding any egg to fertilize to begin with. Whether Huckabee’s inference here was based on total unawareness of how human reproduction works or whether it was based on a clumsy attempt to score political points even though he knew better is not my call to make. In fact I’m not sure which I would have less respect for. It’s sort of like asking whether it was dog s**t or pig s**t that he stepped in.

Anyway, from there he went on to the importance of calling sin “sin,” rather than labeling it as “disorders” or, God forbid, thinking of such things as normal. OK, what sinful practices might he be worried about having excused as disorders these days? Alcoholism perhaps? Nymphomania? Uncontrolled behavior occurring within manic phases for those with bipolar disorder when they get off their meds? Perhaps Huckabee does want to go back to the prohibition of the 30s, and perhaps he does see lithium treatment for the bipolar as a substitute for instilling moral character. It’s hard to say what sinister implications of “disorder” he has in mind here.

But when it comes to a biblically defined “sinful” practice being accepted as “normal” the reference becomes crystal clear: homosexuality.  I mean there are plenty of other counter-biblical practices that are accepted as normal these days –– long-haired men, short-haired women, rebellious children, women speaking in public, no-fault divorces… –– but none of those are currently hot button issues for political conservatives. Nor for that matter is homosexuality, per se, something that conservatives feel they have a viable chance of outlawing, or even getting it back on the DSM list of mental “disorders”.  What they are worried about is having this sinful lifestyle dignified with the title of marriage. For any church, or even the state, to “sanctify” the union between two men or two women who are using each other’s bodies in “unnatural” and “sinful” ways is more than religious traditionalists can swallow.

But from there the question becomes, what does this have to do with school shootings?

If we step back and look at the secular, scientific, psychological causes in such matters, school shooters are far more often than not young men who are deeply disturbed and depressed, and both aggressive and suicidal at the same time. Most often, though not always, this relates to having been bullied in school. And again most often, though not always, school bullying among boys contains an element of accusing the victim of being homosexual, and making it clear that such an orientation is unacceptable in their social circles. Thus it can be seen that a culture of homophobia –– stigmatizing young men who are labeled as gay –– is among the leading causes of school shootings. But that would imply the polar opposite of Huckabee’s implication that recognizing homosexuality as “sinful” rather than as “normal” would “bring God back” in a way that might save lives.

The only “reasoning” by which it could be inferred that condemning homosexuality would save lives, by allowing God to be more active in our schools, would be that which assumes that school shootings are a form of divine discipline meted out on those who refuse to follow the law given in the Bible. In other words according to Huckabee and company homosexuality causes school shootings in the same way that, according to certain Iranian mullahs, women in revealing clothing cause earthquakes. And this is a fellow who aspires to be a national leader in the United States.

What he meant in terms of “bedrock moral truths” beyond the issues already discussed above is something I’m not really ready to speculate about. So let’s  jump to the end of this little sermon:

“…and we will announce in our arrogant pride that we are now enlightened and educated, and we have evolved beyond needing Him.”

So in other words the things that we need to get rid of so as to keep us on the straight and narrow path, according to Huckabee, are enlightenment, education and evolution. That would imply that godliness is best served by medieval-mindedness, ignorance and a lack of adaptation in general. I have strong personal reasons for not wanting God to be associated with such traits, but I recognize that Huckabee is far from alone among American Christians in rejecting these three Es. This just further reinforces what I said a few weeks ago about having faith in God but lacking faith in faith in God.  Anyway…

“And somebody’s going to suggest that we pass a law to stop all this kind of thing. I might want to point out that we don’t have to pass a new law. There’s one that’s been around a while that works if we’d teach it and observe it: ¨Thou shalt not kill.’ Well there are about nine others, but to tell you about them would require bringing God back, and we know how unacceptable that might be.”

So many little problems with this line of “thinking”!  For starters it implies that as long as we have the 10 Commandments we don’t need to pass laws to protect human rights beyond that, or to regulate technologies which have been invented in the past 3000 years or so. As long as we follow the laws that God gave by way of Moses we don’t have to pass new laws to prevent slavery or drunk driving, or to limit access to hallucinogenic drugs or to fully automatic handguns and assault rifles. I’m sure that makes sense to some people.

Then there’s the implication that all of the 10 Commandments need to be instilled in our cultures to keep children safe. In other words we need to have effective sanctions against not only killing other people (unless our authorities tell us those people deserve it), but also against worshiping any god outside of the Abrahamic tradition, against any business being open on Saturdays, against children disrespecting their parents, against adultery and against any sort of coveting.  According to Huckabee, to get God back on our side we’d really need to teach and observe all of these, right? I mean if respecting the 3000-year-old standard is the proper solution to our problems… how far should we be ready to take this?

But in fact there are a lot more than 9 commandments beyond the thou shalt not kill. A. J. Jacobs claims to have counted over 700 of them. And in fact when asked which one was most important Jesus actually picked two from the Mosaic law, both from outside of the big 10. These have since become known as the Twin Commandment of Love:  Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind and strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Now in principle if you are totally committed to God and you treat your neighbor (in the broadest sense of the word) the same as you would want to be treated, that would cover the spirit of all the other rules given in the Bible. You would not do things that might cause a break down in social order because those would presumably grieve God, and you would not do things to hurt people around you in ways you wouldn’t want them to hurt you.  The Twin Commandment of Love would certainly prevent you from killing other people… unless you were suicidal to begin with, and you had become convinced that any God there might be out there is a raging psychopath.  But surprise! Most school shooters have developed just that sort of mentality by the time the set out hunting students.

So invoking biblical standards is not going to be the answer. Providing psychological counseling to help young men in particular (and some young women as well) deal with trauma from bullying, psychotic breaks and other forms of maladjustment that could set them on the war path would be far more effective. Limiting access to assault weapons could be yet another useful measure in this regard.

Another fellow my age, who also went through elementary school in America in the 60s, was recently bemoaning how kids no longer recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school each morning like we did. Would schools be safer and the country better off these days if kids still had to recite an official recognition of the US being “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”? Would getting even that much of God back into schools help matters? In my honest opinion, probably not.

To start with, the pledge itself was hardly a divinely inspired text to begin with. It was written for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of “the New World”, as part of a program designed to glorify all of the atrocities which that discovery entailed.  And in fact the “liberty and justice” bit was from the start a bit utopian on the one hand, and setting the bar rather low on the other. The other values of the French Revolution –– equality and fraternity –– were left out on purpose because there were many politicians who refused to see women and blacks as their equals or their brothers in any sense of either word.  Under those circumstances the liberty and justice available to all was inevitably rather limited as well.

But it wasn’t until 1942, when the US needed to boost a sense of militant patriotism to fuel the war effort, that this pledge came to be required as part of school opening routines.  And it wasn’t until 1954 that school children were instructed to recite the words “under God” as part of this pledge.  So the first generation which had this form of the pledge as part of their school routines were those just younger than my parents and just older than me: the ones now affectionately known as the hippie generation. So we can’t really say that such routine recognition of the divine had a particularly strong moralizing effect on the youth of the United States.

Within the past 10 years then the same people who have been militating against manger scenes and war memorial crosses have been suing schools for making kids say that the country is “under God”. Opposition to this reflects a rather short historical memory. With the last of those who never had to say that bit of the pledge in school having just reached retirement age, idealists of my generation and younger seem to assume that the pledge is something sacred, going back to the founding fathers in the form we now know it. If we recognize this pledge being as young and temporary and morally questionable as it actually is, and if we acknowledge that it is causing needless strife for some otherwise good citizens, is it really that big a deal if we drop it? Not to me.

The kind of faith in God I’d like to see built up in American, and in all other parts of the world for that matter, is the sort which enables the sort of actions which Huckabee referred to in his little speech as signs of God’s presence: heroism, solidarity, compassion and warm appreciation for those we love. This is rather the opposite of hatred for those who do not live up to your moral standards, or for those who institute forms of protection for the disadvantaged beyond what your religious tradition requires you to provide. In fact I personally am more worried about the damage that people might do to each other using their religious convictions as an excuse than I am about what a vengeful God might do to people who fail to honor the Sabbath, or to those who get heavily into coveting, or to those who break other laws attributed to him. The essence of my faith is gratitude that God can mercifully accept a moral failure like myself, with that (ideally) translating into doing all I can to help others in spite of their moral failures. Those who see it fundamentally differently –– with a primary emphasis on legislating particular confessional formulas and moral codes, and fighting over symbolic displays –– are not my problem. I hope they are decreasingly America’s problem.

So may the spirit of love and forgiveness that is at the heart of the Christmas message be with you all this week; or as Tiny Tim is quoted as saying, “and God bless us, every one!”

rockwell christmas carol

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Filed under Empathy, Insanity, Politics, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

On Not Being Gay

This blog is going up late because for the past week and a half I’ve been traveling around the more rural parts of South Africa, seeing parts of this country that are more exotic to my western eye: sugar cane fields ripe for harvest, cows and goats wandering the streets, zebras and giraffes in their natural habitat, economies based on frantic informal buying and selling everything on the side of the road, black children in school uniforms flooding the dirt paths through villages together with their livestock, women cutting marsh reeds for making wicker items, mothers of all ages with babies strapped to their backs and large parcels balanced on their heads…

I never did see any elephants crossing the road though.

It would be too easy under these circumstances to associate the international headlines coming out of rural South Africa at the beginning of this month with this same sense of things here being radically exotic and non-western: Over the May Day holiday weekend among the younger high school boys of this province there was a particularly nasty gang rape of a retarded girl, that one boy shot a cell phone video of that started getting passed around on line; and then on the eve of May Day, in the same sugar cane fields I drove past a few days later, a teenage boy brutally raped a girl just more than half his age, attempting to strangle her and gouge her eyes out in the process. In the latter case the girl survived –– barely –– blindly crawling out of the sugar cane fields in what remained of her school uniform, so badly mutilated that her family didn’t recognize her. The prognosis is that she will eventually regain sight in one eye, but beyond that hope for a normal life for her is fairly limited.

It feels natural to try and distance ourselves from such atrocities. We can’t be talking about normal teenage boys here! There must be something profoundly messed up in the culture which leads to these sorts of inhuman actions among those who are still effectively children.

From enough of a distance it may seem that this is part of childhood being stolen from African children by guerilla fighters and underground armies and the like. People like Kony are making children into monsters that do horrible things to each other. But in these cases civil tensions really have nothing to do with the situation. South Africans regularly march in protest about their poor and risky lives, but there is no risk of civil war here. So far the most radical left wing politicians here have just been big mouthed clowns who talk about state takeover of larger businesses; but their campaigns remain purely democratic at this point, and their conspicuous incompetence is seriously limiting their potential impact in that arena even. (For further perspective on this see my Julius and Rick blog from a couple months ago.) Children in South Africa are not being trained to commit atrocities, especially against other children.

How then can we explain the messed up motivations behind these particularly heinous and obscene crimes, committed by those who aren’t even men yet? One journalistic analysis of the eye gouging rapist has brought out two factors that might explain matters somewhat: The boy was being raised by his grandmother, with little by way of masculine role models in his life; and he was being bullied at school in the typical way that other boys jokingly accused him of being gay. This makes the problem a distinctly African one in some senses, but not so exotic or different from Western culture any more.

A lack of positive male influence in life is a tragic problem in many parts of the world. Men have been isolated from families by the economic demands of industrialized working life, and where they have not been able to find work outside of the home their value as men has been severely marginalized. Thus to prove that they are “real men” many fathers resort to drinking, violence and other testosterone boosting activities that destroy what little chance they might have of building a relationship with their children. This leads to a matriarchal network of young mothers and intense grandmothers doing the child rearing, and boys having little idea about how their masculinity is supposed to (or allowed to) work. If all forms of masculinity –– other than “providing for the family” and other than that staying out of the way –– are just as thoroughly disrespected within a boy’s childhood home, it is little wonder if he starts to express his own masculinity in highly anti-social ways.

This problem is particularly acute in Africa, but it is a well known dynamic in all industrialized nations really. Across the world school boy cultures are increasingly polarized between the “tough guys” who make no apologies for their anti-social masculinity, and “wimps” and “faggots” who do what women tell them to and are thus accused of acting like women themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with women, per se; it’s just that no self-respecting young man wants to be one. If someone finds a functional solution for this problem they should be given the Nobel Peace Prize for the century.

Bullying is something we all know about from personal experience of being bullied, or taking part in bullying others before we knew any better, or from watching it happen and not really daring to do anything about it. It’s a near universal form of competition for dominance within a group, particularly among more immature individuals: bullies trying to win social acceptance by proving to others that they would be more valuable allies than the “oddballs” they have singled out for torture. This can be particularly brutal at times, and sadly many of the other evils we find in society trace back to the emotional scars left by school bullying, sometimes generations ago even. This can be the first link in a chain of violence that escalates and becomes cyclical, leading to all sorts of other evils.

Kids get teased for any number of reasons at school: for being fat, for being foreign, for having weak hand-eye coordination, for being physically or intellectually under developed or over developed for their age group, for having speech impediments, for having unusual coloring… or for having the wrong sort of emerging sexuality. This last one is particularly nasty because it is so indefinite, especially in the years immediately following puberty. You can pretty easily tell when a kid is unusually tall, or clumsy, or of conspicuously different ancestry from the rest of the group; you really can’t tell when a kid will turn out to be more sexually attracted to his or her own gender than to those using the bathroom on the other end of the hall. If suspicion of this is grounds for social rejection, isolation, public humiliation and physical abuse –– if neither the tormentors nor the tormented can be entirely sure about whether the assumed grounds for this nastiness is real or not –– that makes the seditious evil of the bullying all the more destructive.

If a kid is bullied for being of the wrong “race” he can usually figure out what it is about him that the idiots tormenting him have used as a basis for singling him out for torture, that it’s not something he can change, that it’s not something he did anything to deserve and that it’s actually a not a flaw. From there the emotional adjustment process is a lot easier. Such kids still have to deal with the brutality of the attacks they are subjected to but they know they are on higher moral ground than their attackers, and with the sense of confidence this gives them they can fight back or ignore the abuse far more effectively. But when a kid is bullied for “acting gay”, it’s actually not always clear where such an idea comes from, whether or not he’s voluntarily doing anything socially unacceptable, whether it’s a matter of simply learning to act more “normal”, whether he actually is more sexually attracted to members of his own sex and whether that would be something horrible if he is. A young victim of homophobic bullying cannot be sure whether he should lash out against his tormentors or against himself, or against someone else entirely.

Other grounds for teasing are things kids outgrow in one way or another. Size differences even out considerably when young people are finally full grown. Those who are less coordinated either develop the necessary coordination as they get older or they learn to compensate for it in other ways. Those who are too bright for their peer group either dumb themselves down or find new circles of friends that can relate to them better. Immigrant kids learn the new language and culture and find ways to fit in, and others come to see the variety that outsiders bring as a cool thing. Kids with who have been marginalized because of doubts about their sexuality have it much worse. If they are in fact homosexual by inclination in most parts of the world they will suffer lasting social stigma and moral condemnation for who they are. If they are in fact heterosexual by inclination, having suffered such abuse can seriously damage their chances of finding a desirable partner, and of building a stable relationship –– sexuality is always a matter of proving something, not of enjoying the depth of personal inter-connection it can bring.

If I relate this all to my own personal experience, I was teased in school for being different, but not for any serious suspicion that I was gay. I’ve had friends among fellow bullying victims who were gay, some of whom may have had a crush on me even, but it never occurred to me to have any sort of romantic interest in another guy. In retrospect I wish I could have been a better and more supportive friend to some of them, but of course there were things I just didn’t understand back then. At first I saw gay men as just clowns, in a tradition running from the Scarlet Pimpernel to Gomer Pyle. They were nothing more to me than a silly joke. When I came to know a few gay fellows of my own age at first I was almost always the last one to believe that it really was the case; labeling someone as gay was something that left a very bad taste in my mouth. When it became clear that someone really was gay my immediate reaction was a mix of nervousness and pity.

It took quite a while before I could start to relate to openly gay acquaintances as friends without really worrying about their sexuality. For me a lot of it had to do with my time in the restaurant business: in all types of food service establishments I encountered a continuous stream of both fellow workers and customers of that persuasion, and learning to relate to them in a friendly, cooperative and unreserved manner was a functional necessity. Sometimes their ways of expressing their identities still came out as a bad joke but more and more it became clear that they were just people like all others: trying to do good to others in hopes of receiving good in return, defensive regarding things over which they’ve been attacked in the past, looking for acceptance wherever they can find it, hoping to find love of many different sorts as life goes on.

I’ve come to realize quite thoroughly that a fear of homosexuality is a far more dangerous thing than homosexuality itself. Sexuality of any sort has its own beauties and dangers to it, and we all have to find a balance between enjoying our drives and restricting our urges. This applies quite equally to both women and men, both gay and straight. The fact that we tend to more easily accuse those who are different from ourselves does not give any of us the higher moral ground in these matters. Yes, the majority of the human race will continue to be heterosexual and sexuality will continue to be a source of strife within the human race for as long as we succeed in avoiding extinction. That doesn’t mean that any of us are justified in issuing blanket condemnations towards others’ sexuality. The most important thing is to stop kids from bullying each other on such a basis, and to keep them from doing horrible things to themselves and each other to prove something about their sexuality.

 

 

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Filed under Education, Ethics, Parenting, Sexuality, Social identity