Wednesday, June 15, 2016

First, Do No Harm

Words strain, 

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, 
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, 
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, 
Will not stay still.
T.S. Eliot

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, 
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. 
Morning by morning he wakens— 
wakens my ear 
to listen 
as those who are taught.
Isaiah 50:4


I have taken my time trying to find the right words to respond to the tragedy in Orlando. In college I would often put off writing an essay because I kept hoping that eventually I would have some brilliant inspiration. That seldom happened.

(Okay. By “seldom” I mean never.)

It has not happened here, either. But I will add to the torrent of words already written about this with a small comment on one facet of the tragedy.

Words are all we have to work with. Words are never enough. But they always matter.

Words can heal and words can harm.

Those of us who claim to be followers of Christ must search for healing words in the wake of the worst mass shooting in American history.

But first we must confess that for too long too many of us have been saying things that harm rather than heal. Instead of sustaining the weary, we have oppressed them.

At its best, Christianity subverts the inequality and injustice of the status quo and calls us toward a future that is more just, more peaceful, and more compassionate than the present.

This has been true for all of the great reformers and reform movements, from our Jewish ancestors rebelling against the oppression of Pharaoh, through the witness of the great Hebrew prophets, to the first century Christians. It was true in the Wesleyan reform in England and the Abolitionists in America. It was true in the Social Gospel, in Woman’s Suffrage, in Civil rights, and it is true now in the movement for LGBTQ inclusion and full equality.

At its best, Christianity calls us toward a future, which Jesus proclaimed as “the Kingdom of God;” a place where the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down, where everyone has a seat at the table, where the last come first and the poor have a special place, where everyone has enough and no one has too much.

But at its worst, Christianity has been a prop for inequality, oppression and injustice. 

Within hours of the massacre Christian pastors posted videos declaring that what happened in Orlando was not a tragedy. The only tragedy was that more homosexuals were not killed. If we lived in a righteous country, they said, the government would be arresting people for homosexuality, convicting them in a fair trial, and then executing them. You can see their posts here and here.

Seddique Mir Mateen, the father of Omar Mateen, the gunman who died in a shootout with police after killing 49 people and injuring 50 more in the attack on Sunday morning, took a more moderate view than his “Christian” brothers. 

He said that he was saddened by his son’s actions during the holy month of Ramadan. And then he commented on his son’s motivation. “God will punish those involved in homosexuality,” he said, it’s “not an issue that humans should deal with.”

The elder Mateen is apparently a rather strange person with his own mental health issues, so it may not be surprising that he would use “deal with” as a euphemism for massacre. But the earlier part of his statement is more problematic for both Muslims and Christians. He says that “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.”

And for 44 years the section on Human Sexuality in our United Methodist Book of Discipline has contained a statement saying that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Supporters of that statement are quick to point out that the “sin” is not homosexuality, the “sin” is “the practice of homosexuality.” 

Although that qualification is very important to the traditionalists, it does not soften the condemnation for our LGBTQ members and friends. 

John Wesley's First Rule was, "Do No Harm." 

Our first response to the deaths in Orlando should be the confession that for many years we have been doing harm to our LGBTQ neighbors. 

What we now know is that the gunman was apparently conflicted about his own sexuality, that he hated gay people, and that although he swore allegiance to ISIS, his primary motivation was that hatred.

And we know that the self-loathing and the hatred were supported by religious beliefs.

This is a stark reminder for Christians. When we call homosexuality (or the practice of homosexuality) a sin we contribute to a climate which says that LGBTQ people are “less than.” We devalue their lives. 

And that devaluing has real world consequences.

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