Monday, August 20, 2012

Why I Keep Ranting about Gay Rights: Part 2 — Me and My Shadow

This is my second post in a short series about experiences that have contributed to my quite vocal advocacy for gay rights.  My first post tells about my feeling of liberation upon encountering the critical study of religion and of learning to interpret the Bible in ways other than literally.  This post will be about encountering my own shadow and having the powers that systemically oppress unmasked.

While in seminary, I was the white pastor of an African-American congregation.  I had grown up in a family that made racist remarks on occasion and in a community that was completely bereft of African Americans.  Racial slurs coming from the mouth of my friends were not uncommon, nor were racially derogatory jokes.  My father once, upon seeing a mixed-race couple in a car, exclaimed to my sister and me that he'd better never see us do anything like that.  When filling out my housing application for college, he made me write in the "Special Considerations" section that "I am a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with deep Southern convictions."  I remember those words exactly because they troubled me considerably.  This was 1980.  I had been a voracious reader growing up and had read a lot about racism in the South.  (I know there is racism everywhere, but I mention the South because of what Dad made me write.)  I was from poor, rural Kentucky and had no "deep Southern convictions" of the kind he had in mind.  I nevertheless complied.

Seven years later, I went to this African-American congregation with the naive notion that my commitment to the gospel and my conscious repudiation of racism had eradicated it from within me.  Simply put, I was wrong.  Regardless of my conscious decisions and my exercise of will, there were times when I was afraid while walking in my own neighborhood at night.  I would meet an African-American male or a group and would sometimes think, "I wonder if they know who I am.  If they don't know, I wonder if they will attack me for being a white guy in the black part of town at night."  During the four years I was there this fear eventually left me, but at first it was pretty powerful.  I didn't want to be afraid.  I consciously repudiated whatever it was that was bubbling up from within me, but it was there nonetheless.

Early in seminary, in a Pastoral Care and Counseling class, I began to learn about unconscious behavior, about family-systems theory that talked about individuals fulfilling roles because the family system demand they do so, and about the notion of the shadow.  (Some people feel that the very terminology of the shadow and its negative connotations is itself racist.  I haven't decided what I think about that, but I will use the familiar terminology of the shadow for clarity.)  The shadow might be understood as everything about oneself of which one is not consciously aware (Jung), or it might refer to the aspects about oneself that one doesn't want to acknowledge and so it gets repressed (Freud).  In this second understanding of the shadow, it is almost completely negative.  I do think this is true and that it plays itself out personally, socially, societally, and systemically.

During the time I was there, I read an article about social justice by, I think, the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, my particular denomination.  It suggested, in order to understand systemic injustice as distinct from personal prejudice, that the reader walk around their own neighborhood and simply pay attention to the condition of the sidewalks.  I did just that.  I walked all over that small town in central Kentucky, noticing nothing but the sidewalks.  In the affluent parts of town, the sidewalks were perfect.  In other parts of town, they were functional but not perfect.  But in the parts of town in and near the housing projects (where I lived, by the way), the sidewalk might as well not be there.  Chunks of it were missing.  Sometimes it would disappear for blocks.  Sometimes adjacent sections of the sidewalk might be inches or even a couple of feet apart in height, like an earthquake had hit it.   

I delved deeper into the concept of social justice, and I learned about systemic classism, systemic racism, systemic sexism; and I would soon couple that with systemic heterosexism.  There are structures in place that benefit some people at the expense of other people.  This is not the same as personal prejudice.  Sometimes people with no personal prejudice benefit from these structures without even realizing it.  Look at me, a white, straight, male.  I benefit from systemic injustice without even wanting it.  People treat me differently simple because of this.  

Sometimes, though, structures exist to enact prejudicial treatment, while masking the personal aspect of it.  “I’m not racist, but there are laws against whites and blacks going to school together.”  “I’m not sexist, but the rules say that only men can be in this club.”  This systemic expression of the shadow goes beyond the personal.

I saw this in action after an instance of racial violence in the high school while at the congregation I've been talking about.  As my congregation expected its pastor to be active in the community to further and to protect its interests, I was part of the conversation afterward.  Sometimes the school administration invited me to meetings about the event that it didn’t invite the African-American pastors in town (see my above comments on white privilege).  I guess they thought I was on their side.  Here’s their side: The black kids, of course, started the fight that turned into a riot.  They started the fight by being on the wrong side of the hall.  In the mind of these (all white) administrators, the African-American kids were in the wrong simply by being in the “white” zone.  This was in 1990, if you can believe it.  Believe it.  

Another instance involved small children being terrorized on the bus by others writing racial slurs in the fog on the bus windows.  The mother reported this, and the administration’s response was basically, “Kids will be kids.”  They did nothing.  This mother and her two small children sat in my living room, telling me about it.  They were hoping and expecting that I could do something about it.  I did speak to the school administrators, but they didn’t think it was important enough to worry about.  In the end, the only thing I could do was to tell those children that they were beautiful, that God had made them with skin that is a beautiful color just like God made me with skin that is a beautiful color, being “black” was beautiful just like being “white” was beautiful, that the kids who wrote those mean things didn’t know that yet, but that maybe they would learn it someday.  The mother wept and thanked me, saying she’d never heard a white person say anything like that before.  That’s quite a “something” that happened to me, something that has changed me forever.

My last post in this short series will apply my North Star of biblical interpretation and my understanding of the personal and systemic shadow to the issue of gay rights.  Once again, I want to thank you for reading this.  I know that the forthcoming post about gay rights will contain opinions and perspectives with which some of you will not agree.  I can only offer them as my own.  I love you and respect you, but I wholeheartedly think that Christians who oppose gay rights are misusing the Bible and are engaged in behavior, whether conscious or stemming from the "shadow," that systemically oppresses a class of people.  And, if you are one of those persons, I will oppose you.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Reprehensible Ethics that Underpin Paul Ryan's Politics

Now that Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, I've decided to write briefly on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits as the inspiration for his policies and proposals.  I'm particularly concerned with Ryan's draconian budget proposal and his proposals to privatize Social Security and to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid.  There are many places where the budget and his other proposals are critiqued, but I want to write about Rand's philosophy.  Ryan's proposals are not merely compatible with Rand's philosophy, but he credits her philosophy as the bedrock of his own thought.  His only caveat is that he does not agree with her atheism.  My perspective on this is that there is much more about her philosophy that is antithetical to Christianity than her atheism, which is of absolutely no concern to me.

I've read Atlas Shrugged and several, but not all, of the essays that comprise The Virtue of Selfishness.  I find her explication of ethics as solely self-interest to be reprehensible.  She sums it up: "Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."  The Ayn Rand Institute adds this addendum, which is completely consistent with what I've read in The Virtue of Selfishness: "Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society."  

This, I think, is the antithesis of every form of spiritual wisdom, which she reviled, whatever the tradition.  I also wholeheartedly disagree with her metaphysics, epistemology, and politics, but mainly because they express her ethics, just from a different angle.

I do agree that one should not sacrifice others for oneself, but the systems that would be set up by objectivism do just that.  Just because an individual does not personally stand on the throat of another individual, that doesn't mean the systems set up don't function in that way for the benefit of the so-called "producers" over against the so-called "looters" or "moochers" Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged.

Rand's entire philosophy centers around the idea that an individual owes nothing to any other person or, even worse from the perspective of objectivism, to any group of people.  It sees everything that an individual owns as solely owned by that individual, with no social or societal obligation.  An individual may choose to provide care for another individual, usually a family member, but that is only because it is in the rational self-interest of the individual to continue genetically through offspring.  But, even then, it would be left up to the individual as to whether one extends care (functional care, not psychological feelings) or whether one withholds it.  Any other instance in which one sacrifices for others is ethically wrong, according to Rand.

A society grounded in this philosophy would be, in my estimation, a horror.  No other political philosopher (and I don't know of any actual philosophers who hold to objectivism) sees society in this manner, not the most optimistic about human beings and not the most pessimistic.  The Enlightenment political philosophers whose underpinnings are most responsible for the establishment of the modern democratic or republican state -- Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson -- all speak of a social contract.  Hobbes, who was the most pessimistic about human nature, saw the state as a monster, hence _Leviathan_ as the title of his most well-known work, but a necessary monster to which individuals cede some measure of our autonomy (sovereignty) because the alternative, humanity in our "natural" state, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."  That's what I see if any society were to embody Rand's objectivism, which is what Ryan would like to see.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why I Keep Ranting about Gay Rights: Part 1 — My North Star of Biblical Interpretation

Someone on a Facebook thread a few days ago said that something must have happened to me in the past to make me have such a strong conviction in favor of gay rights.  That same person later described my expression of said convictions to be ranting.  So I decided to explain why I keep “ranting” about gay rights.  I’m going to break up this explanation into a few separate blog posts.

I didn’t start out life with a rant in mind.  I grew up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s, and I learned stereotypical homophobia from the guys I ran around with.  We made jokes about the sexuality of one another, implying that whomever was the butt of our joke (don’t make anything out of that) was gay.  But we didn’t know anything about real gay people whatsoever.  There were certain individuals in school who were rumored to be gay.  There were a few guys who had what we thought of as effeminate characteristics and a few girls who seemed masculine to us.  Quite frankly, I never really cared, but, to my shame today, I engaged in the same anti-gay banter into which I had been enculturated.

In college, one of the “somethings” that must have happened to me for me to so strongly express solidarity with the civil-rights struggle of GLBTQI persons actually happened.  This first “something” that happened to me was that I learned to think critically.  That’s one of the things a good education teaches, despite the Texas Republican Party’s insistence otherwise.  I learned to examine my own prejudices and to re-evaluate them, particularly, as a pre-ministerial student, my religious prejudices.  While a student at the same United Methodist college where I am currently the chaplain, I learned to apply these critical-thinking skills to religion in general and to the Bible in particular.
From Coda's Flickrsteram, 

This continued in seminary and is epitomized by what Old Testament professor Dr. George Coats said on the first day of class.  He told us about the first time he kissed the woman who would become his wife.  He described climbing a hill in his hometown in Texas.  He told about looking into the night sky after the kiss.  He held up a large print of a photo of the night sky.  He said that the facts were that the sky looked something like this.  But the truth, he said, holding up a print of van Gogh’s Starry Night, was that he experienced something like that.  He said that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were the artistic expression of a people who had experienced intimacy with God.  In the same way that Starry Night expresses a truth about the night sky and about the depth of what it means to be human that a factual photo cannot express, the Hebrew Scriptures contain both factual information and artistic expressions of faith that point to truth that mere facts cannot express.  This became my North Star of biblical interpretation and has been my approach ever since.  This is the first “something” that happened to me.   It guides me through the analysis of biblical criticism and beyond to a place where I can appreciate and appropriate what the biblical authors wrote during the intoxication of their intimacy with God without always having to view what they wrote in a literal or factual manner.  In doing so, I engage in what I consider to be part of my life’s mission – the integration of the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit.
From Wikipedia Commons

My next post will deal with my experience as the white pastor of an African-American congregation and my becoming a social-justice Christian as I learned about structures of racism that go far beyond personal prejudice.  I will finish with a post that applies both my North Star of biblical interpretation and my experience of structural racism to the issues of gay rights and marriage equality.

I don’t think my experiences or my perspective trump those of everyone else, and I thank you for taking the time to read about my perspective.  I offer it with love toward those who may disagree with me but with passion and conviction that the repression of persons for any reason, including that of sexual orientation, is contrary to the best impulses of Christianity.