Saturday, May 29, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes be Yes’ and your ‘No be No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:33-37

It is important to live honestly and authentically. We need to be who we are.

Thursday the House of Representatives passed a bill repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gays serving in the military. A similar bill was approved by a Senate Committee and may come to a vote soon. With the repeal of DADT, gay men and women will be able to serve honestly beside their straight sisters and brothers.

This will be one more step toward becoming a more inclusive and just society. It is progress and it is a good thing.

But before we move forward, it is useful to look back. DADT is an unjust policy. And it has always been an unjust policy. But when it was adopted, it represented progress. The idea was to end the witch hunts. Service men and women would never be asked whether they were gay, and as long as they did not announce their sexual orientation, there would be no problem. It was better than an outright ban on homosexuality in the armed forces.

There are at least two lessons here.

One is that is easy to forget history and context. With twenty-twenty hindsight, compromise seldom looks good. Activists today condemn DADT unequivocally. They say it is fundamentally unjust and from today’s perspective it looks like a bad idea from the start. Maybe. But at the time, it was a step forward. It moved us in the right direction.

In the old abolitionist hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” James Russell Lowell wrote:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth

DADT is hardly ancient, but from our perspective it is uncouth. It is hard for us to remember that when it was adopted, it did embody at least a limited approximation of “good.”

At the end of that verse, Lowell brings us to the second point:

They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

We cannot let a limited achievement cause us to forget larger goals. The Kingdom of God is always in the future. We will never, on earth, embody perfect justice and righteousness. And we cannot rest where we are. One of the great challenges of living into our calling as the people of God, is that we are always called to be on the move. We cannot stay where we are. We follow One who always goes ahead of us.

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