With the Rev. Dr. Mel White
"THE QUESTION OF FAITH…"
[An Atheist Responds to our Journey into Soulforce]
"…Through education and a disgust with the religious right, atheism is a growing movement. I hope you will respect our right to not believe in the Moses god as we respect your right to believe…You wrote that Soulforce was ‘relentless nonviolent resistance’ but it could be interpreted as a space age term for the same old Moses god…" (1)
Well said, friend. Here’s my response to three of your key phrases:
I. "…will you respect our right to not believe?"
I do respect your right to not believe. And I will listen carefully to your opinions as you hear mine. That’s what "soul force" is about, searching for Truth together.
But do take seriously the fact that both Gandhi and King believed that "soul force" (relentless nonviolent resistance) could only be effectively maintained by a person of faith. There are other very thoughtful advocates of nonviolence who disagree. I consider you one of those; but stay with us, see why they took this stand, and decide for yourself.
Actually, you’re in good company as an atheist. Most of us who call ourselves "believers" act more often out of unbelief. Gandhi said it this way: "We have become atheists for all practical purposes. And therefore we believe that in the long run we must rely upon physical force for our protection." (2)
Question: If you consider yourself a "person of faith" how does your faith help sustain you in times of crises? If you don’t consider yourself a "person of faith" what sustains you when you are under siege?
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II. "…atheism is a growing movement…"
Bad religion has become the enemy of God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered children. Many in our community have chosen to reject bad religion before it wounds them any deeper. And though there are thoughtful, life-long atheists among us, some who call themselves "atheists" are really people of faith stuck between rejecting an old inadequate god and embracing the new Spirit of Truth.
Too many of these "rejectors" throw the baby (of faith) out with the bath (of bad religion). They confuse religion and faith and in the process, give up both. When we abandon our spirit-journeys (because we’ve been abandoned by our churches, synagogues, or temples), we only hurt ourselves.
Walt Whitman, a brother, gives us this advice. "Review every thing you’ve been taught. Discard any thing that’s an insult to your soul. And begin again."(3)
In the meantime, wherever you are on your own faith journey, you are welcome.
Gandhi embraced agnostics and atheists as friends in transition who have abandoned old, inadequate gods. He saw the unbeliever as a person of faith on a journey back towards the authentic, the powerful, the trustworthy Spirit of Truth at the center of the universe.
So many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people are born with special faith gifts. Often, their struggle with sexual orientation frees them to discover those gifts. My son reminded me that if I "hadn’t been gay" I still might "be one of them." After accepting my homosexuality as God’s gift, I’ve gone on to accept my homo-spirituality as well.
You know from native-American history that the tribes who first peopled this land often choose lesbians, gay, bisexuals, and transgenders to be their holy people. They called us the "two-spirited" ones. (4) Now our (spirit) tribes want to purge us. It won’t be easy.
Imagine, for example, what would happen if they purged all church organists who are gay. There would be silence in Christendom. Or think what would happen to the Roman Catholic Church if they managed to eliminate every lesbian nun, gay priest, bishop, or cardinal. What a waste. L/G/B/T people of faith are at the heart of every faith movement.
However, I think those who would purge us from their churches are right when they say we "threaten" traditional values. Jesus and the Jewish prophets really threatened tradition. The fundamentalists of his time said to Jesus, "You disregard the traditions of your elders." And he responded, "For the sake of your traditions you have rendered God powerless."(5)
Once this silly war ends, once we are fully accepted back into our places of faith, those who once feared us will see that we were not born to destroy religion but to save it.
Question: Are you an atheist? An agnostic? A person of faith? Or are you a person in transition, unsure about what you believe or why you believe it? Share briefly the story of your faith-journey.
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III. [Soulforce] "…a space age term for the same old Moses god…"
Sounds like you think I might be using this experiment to recruit or evangelize. Sorry. There are no hidden agendas to this journey. I’m not that kind of Christian anymore. In fact, by the old fundamentalist standard, I’m not even a Christian.
After I keynoted an NGLTF conference, Urvashi Vaid, one of my lesbian sheroes, startled me with this question. "Mel," she asked, "how can you still be a Christian at all?" When I asked her to define "Christian" she replied, "You know, like Falwell and Robertson."
"If that’s what Christianity is to you, Urv," I replied, "I’m not a Christian." "What are you then?" she asked. I replied slowly. "I’m a mediocre follower of a first century Jewish carpenter’s son." "Well, I can accept that," Urv said before hurrying away.
Believer and Unbeliever, we are in this thing together
"Soul force" is a call for the lesbian daughter of an Indian Hindu and the gay son of an American evangelical to search for Truth together. I am a Christian, to be sure. I honor the teachings of Jesus and try my best to follow them. I love the God of Moses, of David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi. But I honor and respect those who don’t.
Therefore, before you feel excluded because you don’t see yourself as a "person of faith" who is "big on Moses," remember neither Gandhi nor King were sectarian in this rule (that "soul force" requires faith). Quite to the contrary, Gandhi said, "True morality consists not in following the beaten path but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it."(6)
Gandhi defined God as Truth but began each day with personal and group prayer and meditation on the holy writings of all the "great religions." His favorite Christian text was Matthew 5-7, the "Sermon on the Mount" and his favorite Christian hymns were "Lead Kindly Light" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." He often read and quoted the Jewish prophets and poets in the Hebrew Testament, especially the Psalms.
Gandhi, the Hindu, and King, the Baptist preacher, were agreed on one thing. Nonviolence flows out of faith. Gandhi asked marchers before every march to sign a pledge that he or she "had a living faith in God." Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, marched arm-in-arm with Jews, Catholics, mainline Protestants and other people of faith, agnostics and atheists but almost invariably he asked marchers to sign a pledge that they would at least "meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus."
IV. "you are pious and na暠ve…"
In the last few days, my email contained letters, editorials, and commentaries calling me "pious" and "na暠ve" (to quote the kinder, gentler remarks). I am both.
But nonviolence is a dangerous and difficult path. It is so much easier to respond to hate with hate, to lies with clever, angry sound bites, to ignorance with sarcasm and derision. Echoing Jesus’ command to love our enemies will anger our enemies and our friends.
King wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham Jail to his loudest critics, the Christian clergy of Alabama. Gandhi was killed by a fellow Hindu who thought him "pious" and "na暠ve" about Muslims. Our friends are confused when we love our enemies. They think we’re cowards backing away from the battle. Our enemies hate it when we love them because they have no way to defend against it. So, we get abuse from both sides. I think that’s why Gandhi and King both insist that we prepare our souls for combat before we even begin to draw up a nonviolent battle plan.
Trust me. In just a few weeks, we’ll be looking closely at the "soul force" guidelines for direct action. Soon enough we’ll be applying the rules of Gandhi and King to our struggle to end the false and inflammatory rhetoric of Jerry Falwell and the others. In the meantime, both Gandhi and King advise us to prepare our souls/spirits for the struggle ahead.
Dr. King writes, "At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds…Only God is able. It is faith we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism."(7)
Gandhi declared to the people of India "The first and the last shield and buckler of the non-violent person will be his/her unwavering faith in God."(8)
Question: Why do you think before every nonviolent direct action, both Gandhi and King asked volunteers to sign a pledge that they were "persons of faith"? Would you sign such a pledge today? Why? Why not?
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Now, copy the file with your thoughtful comments and pass it to your Journey Partner. This sharing with a "partner" may seem a silly exercise to you, but try it. You might be surprised.
Love to you all,
(1) Email received February 22, 1999
(2) Gandhi, Young India, I, p.720. Quoted in Dhawan, p.41.
(3) I saw this quote credited to Walt Whitman written on the side of a truck in Boston, Mass. Does anyone know the source?
(4) See Walter Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1980.
(5) Jesus in Matthew 15:6-7
(6) Gandhi in Ethical Religion, p. 38. Quoted in Dhawan, p 120.
(7) Dr. King in Testament of Hope, Harper San Francisco, 1986, pg. 508, from a sermon at Ebendezer Baptist Church.
Gandhi in Harijan, Oct. 13, 1940, p. 318. Quoted in Dhawan, p.41.
NEXT: Step 4
Mel White and Gary Nixon, Partners in Soulforce, Inc.
P.O. Box 4467, Laguna Beach, CA. 92652.
Fax: (949) 455-0959