Thursday, February 17, 2011

Did You Hear the Joke About the Gay Guatemalan?

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1-2

Confession is not easy. But it is necessary.

(Before I go any further I need to confess that I am pointing out a speck in someone else’s eye when I have a log in my own eye. When it comes to inappropriate remarks, I have made my share. But the awareness of may own failings has never stopped me from pointing out the failings of others, so here we go.)

At a luncheon with business leaders in Providence last week, my State Representative and the House minority leader, Robert Watson, made headlines with a sarcastic remark. He was criticizing the legislature for spending too much time on questions about the medical use of marijuana, illegal immigration, gay marriage, and authorizing more gambling at Twin River. And this is what he said:

“I suppose if you are a gay man from Guatemala who likes to smoke pot and gamble, you probably think we’re onto some good ideas here.”

It got a good laugh.

The Guatemalan community was outraged. The gay community has heard a lot worse and took little notice. (Please think about that . . .)

At a news conference in Providence, David Quiroa, president of the Guatemala American Alliance called on Watson to apologize. He also said that he was disappointed in the people in the audience for laughing at the remark. Watson responded that the audience appreciated the remark for what it was, a non-insulting comment about misplaced priorities.

In a phone interview with the Providence Journal, Watson explained, “I apologize when appropriate and/or necessary,” and he concluded, “I identify this situation as representing neither circumstance.”

And he explained, “I was highlighting the misplaced priorities in [the State House] this year. I was using political sarcasm to make my point. Sometimes, political sarcasm or levity can make a point more forcefully than serious sober commentary. . . . Social issues are important, and I know we can walk and chew gum at the same time. But we’re in fiscal financial collapse here in Rhode Island.… We’ve got cities and towns on the brink of bankruptcy. We’ve got unfunded pension funds that are ticking time bombs. And we’re preoccupied by issues that do nothing to solve those problems.”

As James Carville famously advised candidate Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

And there is a truth there which transcends narrow political gains and losses. Jesus talked about economics almost all the time. The Bible has something like 6,900 verses (not my personal count!) about how we treat the poor. Issues of economic justice are at the very center of Jesus’ portrayal of what the Kingdom of God will be. I might not agree with Representative Watson on the solutions to our economic problems, but I do agree on the priority of the issues.

But social issues are important.

And when it comes to minority rights, those who enjoy the privileges of the majority will always be tempted to think of those rights as secondary to more important matters.

In terms of Representative Watson’s remarks, I see two issues. First, he does need to apologize to the Guatemalan community, and to the gay community, for using them to make a joke. And second, he needs to see that although issues of marriage equality and immigration have little effect on his personal life, they do matter to real people.

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