A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
``Homosexuality'' isn't the issue or problem. Neither is biblical literalism or fundamentalism. The issue or essential problem cuts much deeper and is infinitely more complex. In fact, it's huge - a kind of tsunami, a tornado.
We find ourselves engaged in a bloody civil war. It's been building for years. Have-nots wanted in. These included women. African Americans. Latinos or Hispanics. Asian Americans. Native Americans. Men and women who had long been labeled ``white trash.'' Non-competitive youths in the power game who, like Malcolm X, were told to learn a trade (garage mechanic, janitorial work, fast-food work) and not worry their minds about education, advanced education or steps up social ladders.
Finally, even queers wanted in. Faggots. Homosexuals. The post-modern lepers who could sometimes have a small piece of the pie if they kept their god dam mouths shut, lied about their identity, didn't reach too far, and accepted strict limits of power brokerage. It was too much when they stormed the barricades, took their place in family photographs, asked for partnership benefits in work places, requested dignity and maybe even honor, and sought to contribute as equal peers in the fabric of American life.
Too much! What about law and order? What about the sanctity of cultural and political and social structure? What about the image of God in long-honored categories of human beings - traditional families, macho men, women as homebodies of the hearth, traditional churches (avoiding controversy, providing comfort), old-fashioned schools (with libraries bereft of scandalous books that might offend someone by introducing a fresh idea.)
The civil war has been raging for quite some time. Now it is also caught up in globalization, with angry voices piped in from Nigeria, Australia, South America and elsewhere in the Tower of Babel. Make no mistake: the civil war ranges from culture to politics to religion to lifestyle to nationalism to world vision.
The point of the civil war is: what kind of world do we want? What is America's place and role in that world? What kind of church do we want or choose to belong to? As men and women, children and elders - and as trees, dogs, cats, towns, cities, hills and valleys - how can we exist, live and breathe in that world?
I find an incredible irony in the emerging role of gay people in the civil war. For one thing, we've been identified as major players. We're under attack. Suddenly it's important how we deport ourselves, communicate with others, ``explain'' who we really are to people who have looked instead at stereotypes, identify what we want, seek allies and companions on the journey and liberate ourselves (and everyone else, including those who hate us) from utterly distorted views of our lives.
So, this means we have a significant teaching role to perform. We can't reach from textbooks; we must teach from our lives. In an astonishing change of roles, ours has turned into conveyor of moral truths. We are in a unique position to define the parameters and boundaries of the civil war - in other words, to say clearly what the civil war is about. We are also in a unique position to ``fight'' in the war in a moral way.
For this, I look to Martin Luther King, Jr. He taught nonviolence. He knew that violence begets violence. Anger begets anger. Rage begets rage. Terror begets terror. When twenty-eight of us - African-Americans and whites, all Episcopal priests - gathered in the black Dryades Street YMCA in New Orleans on September 12, 1961 to commence a prayer pilgrimage-freedom ride, Dr. King arranged for us to be instructed carefully about nonviolence. I've never forgotten one detail of this. ``Nonviolence is how you answer and pick up the phone,'' we were told. Nonviolence, then, was not a political strategy or public relations mechanism or useful gimmick. It is deeply spiritual, a way of life, and has been understood by very, very few of those who've chosen to trumpet it loudly in a rather violent way.
Our calling and vocation is to ``fight'' in the civil war in a moral way. This includes nonviolence in the deepest sense of its meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr., also told us that it is not enough to change laws; human hearts must be changed, too. We need always to hold onto this truth. I recall a spring afternoon in 1965 when I sat with young Jonathan Daniels (who would be murdered a few weeks later) in Brown's Chapel in Selma, Alabama. King walked in - tired, sweaty, in shirtsleeves. This seemed a painful and lonely period for him, under attack for relating poverty ghettos in America to battlegrounds in Indochina. I recall his saying that people often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they do not know each other; they do not know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated. He called for persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness.
How can I explain without sounding absurdly maudlin and sentimental - and if I do, what the hell? - how much his words brought quick, hot, embarrassing tears flowing from my eyes? King touched a supposedly hidden nerve in that area known as my conscience. He conjured up at least a glimpse of vestigial innocence deep within me. So, ideals were possibilities, and pragmatic ones. He roused my weary body and soul to renewed action. He stirred impulses in me that warred against my narrow self-interest and fear of an involvement that could be costly.
King seemed to be consumed by a fire that burned deep within his soul. There was something of a Moses about King as he taught and led us, struggling to make us want to reach the promised land that he saw. But he knew how long and hard that passage would be. Many followers would fall away, losing stamina and ceasing to share his dream. ``Pilate's great sin wasn't that he didn't know what was right but that he lacked the moral courage to stand up for right,'' I heard King thunder from a pulpit. He knew the ambivalence of the world's Pilates, past and present, in the face of myriad wars, betrayals of the persecuted and poor, and obituaries tagged on justice.
The last time I was with King was in a nonviolent protest against the Vietnam War on February 8, 1968 in Washington DC. His words and actions cut to the heart of the meaning of Christianity. Why is it that so many so-called Christian leaders, unlike King, do not seem to understand Jesus at all? They seek to lock Jesus Christ inside stained glass and dogmatic formulations. But Christ gets away - eluding their keys and chains.
At this moment when we find ourselves engaged in a bloody civil war, be vigilant. Be calm inside. Let your courage be rooted in active and quiet prayer. Keep on loving, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did - even when many ridiculed him for speaking of love and witnessing to it. Be hopeful, knowing that there are no instant solutions to long-range, complex human issues. Hold onto faith as if your very life depended on it.
The Reverend Canon Malcolm Boyd is poet/writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
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