Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What the Pope Said, and What He Didn't Say

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5

The Protestant fascination with the Pope is not unlike the American fascination with the British Royal Family. We separated for good reasons, and we have no desire to go back, but we love to watch from a distance.

With the Pope, it is more than a celebrity fixation. Though he does not lead the whole church, he does lead a substantial part of it. We are part of the same family, and his leadership makes a difference in how the world experiences Christianity.

Pope Francis has been a breath of fresh air in so many wonderful ways. He has re-focused Roman Catholicism on critical issues of economic and social justice and away from a fixation on sexuality, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality.

Earlier this week he held an informal press conference on the papal plane as he flew from Rio de Janiero back to Rome. And he made a remarkable statement. Speaking of the possibility of having gay men in the priesthood, he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” . . . . “The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem … They’re our brothers.”

The statement itself did not really break new ground. He was talking about celibate priests, and he was separating homosexual tendencies from homosexual acts. Being gay is not the problem; the problem is homosexual acts.

Those of us in the United Methodist Church are painfully aware of this line of reasoning in which we are supposed to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” In our denomination, there is no prohibition against gays and lesbians becoming pastors as long as they are celibate. If you agree with our Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and you believe that homosexual acts are intrinsically sinful, then this makes perfect sense. If you are in favor of the inclusion of gays and lesbians as whole persons, then that position is deeply offensive.

If the entirety of his position on homosexuality were really caught in the statement, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” it would have been an astonishing break with previous Roman Catholic teaching. Sadly, that was not the case.

But the most important thing was not what he said, it was the way that he said it. After delivering his conciliatory and inclusive remarks regarding the possibility of gay men in the priesthood, he did not immediately qualify those remarks so that no one could think he was making a broader statement. He spoke with openness and candor. He made a positive statement without adding a negative qualifier. And he did clearly and intentionally differentiate homosexuality and pedophilia. That is no small thing.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Stars May Lie, But the Numbers Never Do

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away.

Psalm 31:9-10

I am not in mourning. In spite of what I have seen, my eyes are not wasting away from grief. But they should be. And we should all be grieving for our nation.

Over the past few days I have seen dozens of internet postings about Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing what she called “warning shots” over her husband’s head. Her husband had a history of domestic violence and she fired the shots after a violent altercation. No one was killed. There were no injuries.

It took the jury less than 15 minutes to find her guilty.

Ms. Alexander is black. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

There are issues with Marissa Alexander’s case. But the broad outlines are hard to ignore. George Zimmerman is “not guilty.” Trayvon Martin is dead. And Marissa Alexander is in prison, while her husband with a history of domestic violence is alive and well.

Racism has been called America’s “original sin” and it is still with us.

We don’t need to argue the specifics of the Trayvon Martin case. On the face of it, it looks bad. But it is just one case. This one case is significant only because of the broader trends. If we look up rates of incarceration, sentencing, capital punishment, unemployment, income, education, or pretty much anything else, what we find is that black people are disproportionately on the disadvantaged side of the ledger every single time. We would like to believe that justice is blind but the statistics say otherwise.

To paraphrase Mary Chapin Carpenter, "The pundits and politicians may lie, but the numbers never do."

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal a white person commented that white people had not rioted after the O. J. Simpson verdict, when a black man was found “not guilty” in the murder of a white woman, and that black people should show similar restraint. And, of course, we should all show restraint. And, so far, things have been relatively calm.

But seriously, O J. Simpson? That’s a great first example. Now we will all wait patiently for the second example.

What the Simpson verdict proved is that money makes a difference. And that in some cases, class may matter more than race.

In the recent court rulings on affirmative action, someone cynically observed that colleges and universities were more comfortable with defining diversity in terms of race rather than class. Racial diversity could be achieved by focusing affirmative action on income. If a colleges and universities achieved economic diversity, they would also achieve racial diversity without ever considering race as a category. Lower income blacks and whites would all benefit. But the present focus on racial diversity allows the colleges to select students from families with higher incomes, regardless of race. And the big gain for the colleges is that such a selection costs less in terms of financial aid.

We know that racism is still a problem in America. We don’t know whether or not George Zimmerman is a racist. The evidence is mixed. We don’t know whether or not the judge, and the jurors and the police officers are racists. But we know that racism is a problem in America. And we know that we have work to do.

We also know one more thing with a reasonable certainty. If George Zimmerman had not had a gun, then no one would be dead. Without a gun he would not have followed Trayvon Martin and the altercation between them would never have taken place. And without a gun, Marissa Alexander would not be in prison. She was not in danger when she fired the warning shots.

Maybe we need to do something about the guns.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Wimbledon: Lessons in Parenting, Sexism, and Torment

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Genesis 29:16-18

In the NRSV, Leah’s eyes are called lovely, but the Hebrew is uncertain. In the Common English Bible they translate it as “delicate,” with a note that maybe she had poor eyesight. The New English Bible says that her eyes were “dull.” But there was no doubt about Rachel, she was beautiful and graceful.

Jacob fell in love with Rachel as soon as he saw her. He struck a deal with her father, Laban, and agreed to work for him for seven years in return for permission to marry her. But Laban, trying to be a good father, did not want his older daughter embarrassed by having her younger sister married first, so Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah. And he made Jacob work an additional seven years for Rachel. So Jacob had two wives and “he loved Rachel more than Leah.”

I thought about Rachel and Leah when I read the story of BBC radio announcer John Inverdale’s comments about Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli.

In the introduction to Bartoli’s final match against Sabine Lisicki, who was favored, Inverdale asked the audience, "Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little 'You're never going to be a looker? You'll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'."

If I can speak for the dads out there, the answer is, “No, I don’t think Marion Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little that she was never going to be a looker.”

When she was asked about the remarks at a press briefing after the match, Bartoli seemed unfazed. "It doesn't matter, honestly. I am not blonde, yes. That is a fact," she said. Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I'm sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes."

The next day she took “being a good sport” to intergalactic levels when she suggested that Inverdale might revise his remarks if he saw her at the champions dinner. “I invite him to come to see me in my dress and high heels tonight at the tournament ball,” she said. “It could change his mind.”

But seriously. This is very bad.

There are at least two things going on here.

The first is sexism. Women are always judged by their appearance. Women are always judged by their appearance. It makes no difference if you are a Wimbledon champion or Secretary of State. And the comments can get ugly in a hurry. It is boorish at best, but it often descends into a form of bullying. On Twitter, the first reactions to Inverdale’s comments were critical, but there was soon another wave of vulgarity and sexual slurs.

The sexism is important and we should not dismiss it lightly, but there is something else going on here. The truth is that we find it very difficult to get beyond our fixation with appearances. It is worse with women, much worse, but it is true with men also.

When psychologists show us pictures of people we don’t know and ask us to imagine the characteristics of those people, we imagine that the attractive people are friendlier and have more integrity than those who are less attractive. We are more likely to vote for attractive candidates and hire attractive workers.

Our prejudice in this regard is never harmless and we will probably never get over it. But if we are aware of our tendency we may be able to mitigate it. And at a deeper level, there may be lessons we can learn.

In Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem about the Civil War, he portrays Abraham Lincoln in the telegraph office of the War Department waiting for word on the Battle of Antietam, reflecting on the will of God, the suffering of war, and freeing the slaves. In Benet’s telling, Lincoln sees his strength as the ability to wait patiently and to persevere as history unfolds.

That is my only virtue as I see it,
Ability to wait and hold my own
And keep my own resolves once they are made
In spite of what the smarter people say.
I can’t be smart the way that they are smart.
I’ve known that since I was an ugly child.
It teaches you–to be an ugly child.