In the process of deciding what God is for us, whether as an unwavering faith to the literal Word or we’re drawn to the Divine as felt through our own filter; no one has the right to deny civil rights to another person unless she’s willing to deny herself the very same.
The NAACP on the heels of President Barack Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage reiterated its stand that gay rights, including the right to marry, are in fact civil rights.
“It’s the responsibility and history of the NAACP to speak up on the civil rights issues of our times, ” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous believes. “The NAACP now firmly opposes all efforts to restrict marriage equality.”
Yet many black pastors who believe the Bible denounces slavery, segregation and inequality for women, also believe the Bible condemns homosexual behavior as sinful and an abomination.
And there we are. The moment of impact.
Brothers grapple with the others’ identity
I recently heard that phrase, moment of impact, through the thoughts of a main character in the movie Ordinary Family. This is when two events collide and there’s no turning away from what happened. The only decision now is how you’ll deal with what you now know.
In the movie Seth introduces his long-time committed partner William to his family when he shows up for their annual summer reunion at the lake house. Seth’s casual, unapologetic introduction of William announces by association rather than by confession, that he’s gay. Thomas, Seth’s brother and an evangelical minister, strongly resents being sideswiped by the surprise, particularly when he finds out his wife knew about William for weeks.
The elephant in the room during dinner the first night forces Thomas, an agreeable and overall loving guy, to face what he always suspected but never acknowledged. Near the end of the meal he sends his kids away from the table after William makes an inappropriate yet clearly-over-a-kid’s head sexual comment about what attracted him to Seth. Thomas storms off and announces to his wife Mattie, who finds his tantrum unacceptable, that he has every right to shield their kids from this issue.
The tension between Seth and Thomas and the gap between how Mattie and Thomas view Seth’s homosexuality inform the rest of the movie.
Initially I was disgusted with Thomas’s reaction to Seth. Deeper into the movie however, Thomas’s anger moved into confusion and eventually despair as the conflict between his deep religious convictions and his deep love for his brother consumed him.
Ambivalence is an inferno of emotional conflict but perhaps it’s our most hopeful and endearing quality. The insidious pecking of incongruent feelings isn’t to torture us, it’s a sure sign we’ve let the light in.
Grace looks for the light beyond the label
In one scene Thomas works up courage (nudged by his wife Mattie) to apologize to his brother for his outburst. Seth, seething from decades of pent-up anger from Thomas’s and their deceased father’s implied disapproval of homosexuality, remains emotionally distant despite Thomas’s repeated attempts to explain his conflicted feelings.
My sympathy completely shifts when Seth becomes what Thomas was, the judgmental and self-righteous brother.
The brother’s impasse interferes with their reconciliation until the end of the movie when Thomas and Seth, prompted by gentle explanations from Mattie about each brother’s viewpoint, gradually accept each other to the degree they can — which is to say, imperfectly.
Seth begins to understand that Thomas’s refusal to accept his homosexuality isn’t a rejection but an irrepressible obedience to the Word of God. Thomas gradually accepts that Seth’s attraction to the same sex isn’t a hostile denouncement of religion or God, but an acceptance of himself in totality — and therefore a rejection of any view in contrast to his self-acceptance. We see Thomas tortured, grappling to reconcile his oath to God with his love for Seth, who when they were younger, used to sing next to Thomas at church choir functions.
“What I hear is gay rights is “Ok, I want to be treated fairly, but I want to be able to engage in sexual behavior that is contrary to what the Bible says,’ said Pastor Beverly Brown, executive director of Redeeming Light Center in Eatonville.
I read “Because the Bible tells me so” rhetoric, religious directives given at the expense of the psyche of our gay and lesbian citizens and I start reflexively arm crossing.
Brown’s words remind me of the clear line in the sand between people who accept homosexuals because they understand by common sense, compassion, indifference or scientific finding that sexual orientation results from how we are born, like having blue eyes — and those people who “accept” homosexuals with soul-stripping caveats: as “All God’s Children” who need to turn around and repent.
The movie helped me uncross my arms and try to empathize with Thomas’s (admittedly) enviable devotion and blind passion for God. Yet, I’m incensed that the Golden Rule doesn’t reign supreme as the decisive factor for civil rights. I’m disgusted that the religious message of love for the “weakest among us” remains an empty promise.
The evangelical view of the homosexual population (largely) houses inhospitable attitudes, e.g. being gay or lesbian is an “abomination” but — Jesus loves you. To get full acceptance simply ask for forgiveness for who you are. Peel off your identity. But rest assured, ripping off your self-skin won’t hurt because God will help you remove your rotting flesh.
And the reason you’re able to remove a layer of yourself? Because you chose the abomination and so of course, you can un-chose it. My response to such an inhumane and unnatural request is that when someone decides to remove their heterosexuality, please let me know, mine just came that way.
How about God come to the table and change who He is?
Which is why I default to the God of my own understanding. Not the God of someone else’s. And my God accepts he made some people heterosexual and some homosexual, as he made some with blue eyes, some with brown, some with physical handicaps, some without.
Marriage and the algebra of gay unions
When we ask the conservative religious right to allow gay marriage we’re not demanding they put their blessing on “destroying marriage.” A straight couple doesn’t suddenly wake up and devalue their marriage because now “anyone” can get one. Marriage isn’t a monetary system where we have to worry about printing too many licences for couples and so, create worthless paper. Marriage isn’t the Dotcom era; it will never be a Gold Rush. It’s still a selective institution chosen (largely) by loving, committed couples willing to follow the rules a marriage implies.
The sanctity of marriage isn’t threatened by same-sex couples tying the knot. It should only be so easy to blame the mess heterosexuals have made of their own marriage stats. A marriage stands or crumbles on its own strength or weakness. Marriages stand on the degree of love, respect, fidelity, commitment and hard work between two parties, regardless of what kind of couple makes the covenant.
“I do believe they [NAACP] are right that it is a civil-rights issue and not a religious issue,” said Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., former NAACP branch president and pastor of New Covenant Baptist Church of Orlando. “I believe that Jesus came to deal with those who are disaffected, those who have been disenfranchised, who have been disinherited. Jesus gave us a mandate to deal with ‘the least of these’. They gays are the least of these.”
I believe every divisive issue houses at least some compromise, but this impasse within the black community on gay marriage is an insurmountable blockade created by what I feel is the permanent gap between the interpretive and literalist view in religion.
Those of us who feel the Bible is an interpretive guide to steer our innate sense of the world are faced with thinking through infinite permutations on the intent behind the Word. The resulting cognitive dissonance can be enormously unsettling when what we feel doesn’t jive with what’s written. Yet, not only do I accept the dissonance, I welcome it as a reminder of the sentient, reasoned being I am allowed to be.
I can, thank God, think and reason for myself.
Thomas knew he loved his brother. He saw Seth wildly happy. He saw how William loved and was loyal and protective of Seth. Thomas saw his wife emotionally unencumbered by this knowledge despite being the wife of an evangelical pastor. Thomas saw his kids laugh often and easily with Seth and William. Thomas saw love unimpeded by happenchance sexual orientation and asked God with earnest longing what to do.
If the answer wasn’t hiding inside compassion for his brother, then the answer was in simple algebra:
Brother is happy + no one is hurt = it’s fine.
“Gay rights are unequivocally civil rights because they are about human beings living in a civil society and their basic fundamental rights,” said the Rev. Bryan Fulwider, senior minister of First Congregational Church of Winter Park.
And there’s my moment of impact:
In the process of deciding what God is for us, whether as an unwavering faith to the literal Word or we’re drawn to the Divine as felt through our own filter; no one has the right to deny civil rights to another unless they’re willing to deny himself the very same.