Although Soulforce is all inclusive (interfaith and ecumenical), this article was written to my Christian friends who have become the primary source of misinformation about God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children.
While President George Bush conducts his war against fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans are under siege by fundamentalist Christians in the United States. On February 15, 2002, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, a Southern Baptist, wrote these words in a case depriving a lesbian mother of custody of her three children. "Homosexual practice is a detestable and abominable sin… by its very nature immoral… destructive to the natural order of society." Judge Moore claimed that the state has the power to imprison and even execute homosexuals to keep them from influencing children. Fundamentalist Christians across the US cheered Judge Moore’s decision. How long will we wait to launch a full scale, nonviolent revolution to end the untruth and gain our civil rights at last?
In "Why We Can’t Wait," Martin Luther King, Jr. describes the 1963 struggle for civil rights (Albany, Birmingham, and the March on Washington) that climaxed with legislation that ended segregation in the United States. Dr. King’s book might have been titled, "Why We Didn’t Wait," for he describes the "disappointments" that drove African-Americans into the streets – "disappointments" that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans know all too well.
We, too, are disappointed in the Congress and the courts; disappointed in both political parties and their leadership; disappointed in the lack of change in the United States when liberation is happening in other nations. We, too, are tired of slow change and token changes, tired of defending ourselves against the claims of moral inferiority, tired of being victims of public laws and private humiliations, tired of intolerance and inequality, tired of suffering and dying just because we are different.
The historic civil rights legislation of 1964 came just eight years after Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s been more than thirty years since this latest season of protest began at the Stonewall Bar in New York City, and with all the changes we can celebrate, the real problem remains the same: the antigay religious teachings and actions that support intolerance and discrimination are still powerfully in place in our Protestant and Catholic Churches.
These antigay, religion-based teachings and actions have become the primary source of misinformation against sexual and gender minorities, misinformation that leads to suffering and death. Most antigay initiatives and antigay court decisions (local, statewide and national) flow out of those same religious teachings. They give license for gay bashers to harass and harm us and motive for God’s gay children to kill ourselves. Instead of changing minds and hearts, the thirty-year war of words has seen those antigay religious teachings harden into place. When will we realize that the antigay teachings cannot be "studied" or "debated" away? It will take another civil rights revolution to end them.
Dr. King admits that the revolution of 1963 could not have happened "…if there had not been at hand a philosophy and a method worthy of its goals." The "soul force" principles of relentless nonviolent resistance to which King refers are a philosophy and a method developed by M. K. Gandhi and Dr. King that are also worthy of our goals for the liberation of sexual and gender minorities. Those principles make it clear that when negotiations fail, it is necessary to move on to courageous acts of nonviolent non-cooperation and direct action.
Our civil rights revolution begins when we end the studies and the debates by refusing to participate in them. We must no longer allow ourselves to be examined and discussed like lab rats or exotic insects by clergy or laity who act as though we aren’t even in the room. We must boycott and protest those events where our dignity is to be debated and our integrity questioned by non-gays or former gays who have "studied" the issue and have all the "answers." To accept the role of a "specimen" to be researched and discussed like a virus or rare fungi is the ultimate act of self-denigration. To sit patiently through another vote (let alone be silent when another "study" is called for) is another proof of our internalized homophobia. To play along with this game of studying, debating, and voting who and what we are is to support the structures of bigotry.
It is time that we quit cooperating with those who oppress us by their actions or with those who oppress us by refusing to act. It is time to begin a campaign of relentless nonviolent resistance (guided by the ‘soul force’ principles of Gandhi and King) that will convince church leaders to do justice at last. They have assumed that we are infinitely patient or too comfortable in our closets to call for revolution. For their sake, and for the sake of Christ’s church, we must prove them wrong.
It is time we take it to the streets. I don’t know exactly how our "Salt March," our Montgomery, or our Birmingham will take shape. We leave that in the hands of God. Gandhi said, "Just take the first step and see." "Nonviolent direct action did not originate in America," King adds, "but it found its natural home in this land, where refusal to cooperate with injustice was an ancient and honorable tradition." There are many reasons why we should follow in their steps.
1. By participating in these endless studies and debates, we support our own oppression. Gandhi said, "It is as much my moral obligation not to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good." Protestant and Catholic teachings and actions against sexual and gender minorities are evil. They lead directly and indirectly to intolerance, discrimination, suffering, and even death. Our three decade attempt to study and debate an end to these antigay teachings is at an impasse. Positions have hardened. Voices have grown more shrill. Every time we agree to debate, we give our adversaries another opportunity to keep the tired, old questions alive. Until they are settled, we will not be free. So, let’s settle them. We must decide unilaterally that the debate is over, the verdict in. Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a sin! Then, and only then, can we clear the air, move ahead, and begin to heal the wounded souls who are victims of this debate.
2. By participating we demean ourselves. I am not against real dialogue or debate for they lead to understanding and reconciliation. I will sit down with anyone who comes to the table with certain basic positive assumptions about us: that we are here, millions of us, and have the right to be; that our sexual orientation, too, is a gift from our Creator who is pleased when we accept the gift with gratitude and pride; that on average we live productive and responsible lives; that we are perfectly capable of loving, committed relationships and are as equipped as heterosexuals to have families of our own; that uncounted millions of us are people of faith who serve our faith communities with creativity and commitment and patriotic Americans who serve our nation with courage and with honor; that we don’t seek "special rights" just the rights and protections guaranteed all Americans by the Constitution. Our dignity, our integrity, our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, our unqualified acceptance by our Creator are not up for debate.
3. By participating we help cripple the spirit’s of God’s gay children, their friends and families. Imagine being an African American sitting in church listening to a debate with one side misusing the Bible to "prove" that God declares them an inferior race. Imagine being a woman at a debate her congregation is hosting with men on the panel misusing the Bible to "prove" that women are an inferior sex. For decades this debate has forced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith to listen to the Bible being misused to "prove" that they are "sick" and "sinful," a threat to the nation, to the family, to children. It doesn’t matter that our side, too, is represented. Every time the debate is held and the false charges echo from pulpit or podium, we are forced to hear it all again. The "sanctuary" is supposed to be a safe place where we feel the loving, unqualified embrace of God and God’s people. The debate turns our church into a place of suffering where our spirits are crippled and our friends and families are mislead, confused and even turned against us.
4. By participating we assume that the decision can be based on scientific or biblical facts. The church has a long and embarrassing history of exclusion based on biblical literalism and bad science. Gentiles, slaves, people of color, divorcees are just a few examples of those who at first were rejected for church membership let alone ordination. The decision to accept God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children is a similar leap of faith based on the evidence of our hearts. It’s not what you know about gay people, but that you know at least one gay person up-close-and-personal, that you’ve seen the tragic consequences of this debate in his or her life, that you’ve shared his or her suffering. All biblical literalism to the contrary, it is not the mind, but the heart that settles this issue. Once you have taken that leap of faith to support God’s gay children, then the Spirit of Truth floods your heart with evidence, opens your mind to the overriding truth that God always errs on the side of love and so should we. This debate is not about love but about exclusion.
5. By participating we give credibility to the notion that the debate is about homosexuality. This debate is no longer about sexual orientation at all. The debate is about power, about who will run the church and rule the nation. In fact, homosexuality is just one of the issues being used by fundamentalist Christians to divide and conquer, to raise money and mobilize volunteers. They use a person’s stand on homosexuality as a kind of litmus test for orthodoxy. If you support "gay rights" they assume that you are not a "real" Christian and that you don’t believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God. They use the debate to label and condemn those who support "gay rights" and to create confusion and suspicion among people in every location where the debates take place. Religious leaders who know that the anti-homosexual campaign is based on half-truths, hyperbole, and ancient intolerance are afraid to speak the truth and risk the consequences of empty pews and empty plates. They allow the "debate" to continue because it is so much easier to debate than to decide. This is not about us. We are simply being used as cannon fodder in a much larger war.
6. By participating we only confuse further those who haven’t made up their minds. Antigay debaters have developed a pseudo-scholarly series of responses to every piece of evidence presented by genuine authorities. Using untrustworthy data from the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, NARTH and fundamentalist psychologists like Paul Cameron and James Dobson, the anti-homosexual debaters sabotage the supportive data from serious biblical scholars and the nation’s mental health associations. Debaters on both sides have quit listening. At this moment, there is no attempt to find a compromise position, let alone reach some kind of reconciliation. The debate simply drives the listener deeper into confusion and uncertainty. When this happens, Gandhi advises that negotiations be replaced by non-cooperation and direct action.
7. By participating we help maintain a false sense of unity within the Body of Christ. To exclude God’s gay children in order to maintain any kind of unity is wrong. Worse, the sense of unity being maintained is false. It is fairly obvious that the division in our churches over sexual orientation, like the division over slavery before the Civil War, has become a chasm that will not soon be bridged. Why continue sacrificing the rights of God’s gay children if division is inevitable? Better yet, why not risk division (noncompliance, charges, trials) by taking a stand for justice and truth on their behalf? Since national church policies have hardened into place, it is up to individual clergy and laity to end this debate personally, unilaterally. Ecclesial disobedience (clergy and laity breaking the unjust laws by ordaining and marrying us) is our last, best hope. It takes no courage to support the debate. But it will take real courage to end it. It will cost local leaders and congregations to open their doors to gay people, but the moment they do, they become the prophetic "remnant" that transforms the church and ultimately saves it.
8. By participating we help drive a wedge between us and our gay sisters and brothers. People who have chosen to reject, subdue their, or convert their sexual or gender orientation also feel caricatured and condemned by the debate. As a gay man who accepts my homosexuality as a gift from God, I am ready to end my quarrel with those homosexual or bisexual men and women who are now living in heterosexual relationships or practicing celibacy or various methods of restraint (often at great personal price). The debate forces us to believe that there is only one right way to respond to our need for intimacy and affiliation. If only we could see each other as God’s children, making difficult decisions, living our lives as best we can, trusting God to love us, forgive us, and understand our hearts. We should grant each other the right to make our own decisions about sexual orientation and then support each other even when we disagree. Our journeys are much the same. We need each other. This debate just forces us apart.
9. By participating we help keep the church from doing the work Christ calls it to do. Imagine what this debate has cost the Christian community (let alone the world) in lost resources and wasted lives? Whole generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of faith have left their churches, and believing themselves condemned by God, have interrupted and even ended their personal faith journeys as well. Imagine all the others who have also walked away from the Christian community angry and disappointed in the way their loved ones have been treated. Historically, homosexuals have made huge contributions to their faith communities. What a waste it is to go on pretending (or debating) that it isn’t still true. If we want to debate, let’s debate what the Jewish prophets and Jesus meant when they called us to justice, mercy and truth. Then, let’s stop debating and start working together to heal our wounded world.
10. By participating we help maintain a heresy that breaks the heart of God. In spite of those passages misused to condemn sexual and gender minorities, the primary biblical truth is that God has a special kind of love for the outcast. The Jewish prophets were persecuted for condemning religious hypocrisy and for demanding justice and mercy for the outcast. Jesus, an outcast himself, spent his short life condemning religious insiders and embracing the outcast. He loved opening doors. This debate is about closing doors, excluding from the table, withholding the body and blood. Instead of welcoming the outcast, the churches are making outcasts of sexual and gender minorities and turning us away. Debating what Christ has settled suggests to the observer that there are two sides to this issue. In fact, there is only one side. The other side is a heresy. The debate just gives the heresy another opportunity to be heard.
So, where should we begin the next phase of our civil rights revolution? Where do the ‘soul force’ principles of relentless nonviolent resistance suggest we start this journey to justice?
First, we must decide for ourselves that the debate is over. There is no more time for ambivalence, self-doubt, or uncertainty. Here’s the good news. Let it be printed on our minds and hearts forever. God created us, blesses our relationships, honors our families, and loves us without reservation. More than that, God created us with our own special gifts to help transform the church and renew the world. We cannot discover let alone use those gifts until we move out of our closets and into the light. Then, and only then, will the lies be exposed and the truth revealed.
Second, we must refuse to cooperate any longer in the studies or debates. Continuing in the debate implies that the debate is legitimate. It is not. We should not only refuse to cooperate in these studies and debates, we should oppose, boycott and protest them. To say, "I will no longer participate let alone be the subject of your study or your debate" is an act of liberation and humanization. To say, "I know who I am, and if you want to know, ask me; don’t tell me," is an act of self-actualization and integrity. Let us decide now and forever. The debate has ended. The verdict is in. God has created us equal – and we will settle for nothing less.
Third, we must go public with our truth. Ending the debate does not mean we retreat from the scene. It is time to sponsor workshops, seminars, rallies, and classes where we help liberate our closeted sisters and brothers, their families and friends. These events should not have speakers, panelists or propaganda from "the other side." There should not be "open mikes" were the opposition gets another opportunity to vent the toxic antigay misinformation. We should not debate them on radio or television. Would King debate a member of the KKK? Let’s use any and all the time we get (in public presentations or on the media) to tell our stories, share our discoveries, present the evidence, and reclaim the Bible (and the church) as our own.
Fourth, we must see ourselves as faithful dissenters. By refusing to participate in this non-productive and illegitimate debate we are not abandoning the church. We are helping to renew it. The Jewish prophets confronted their religious leaders when they had gone astray. Jesus was sentenced to death because he dissented from unjust religious teachings. Throughout history, there has been a remnant of believers who had the courage and the commitment to dissent. James Russell Lowell has written, "Once to every man and woman comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side." This is our moment to decide.
Fifth, before we "take it to the streets" we must recruit, train, and organize around the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance. I’m so grateful that our in three decades our community has not let its anger boil over into rage. One act of violent protest would be a disaster. There are rules for effective, nonviolent dissent carefully developed by Gandhi and King. We must learn and apply those rules in our own lives before we "take it to the streets." There is a "Four Step Journey into Soulforce" on our website. It is a good place to begin.
Sixth, we must go farther than simply ending the debate. Here’s that powerful Gandhi quote again: "It is as much my moral obligation NOT to cooperate with evil as it is to cooperate with good." If a local congregation refuses to accept us without reservation, we must lovingly express our concerns, demonstrate our case, and if full acceptance is not forthcoming, discontinue our support. If a local clergyman or woman refuses to marry us or help us get ordained, we must lovingly express our concerns, demonstrate our case, and if full participation in the rites of the church is not forthcoming, discontinue our support. When we withhold tithes and offering (or time and energy) from a local church or denomination that refuses to welcome us without reservation, we are doing justice and at the same time ending the support of our own oppression.
Seventh, we must conduct nonviolent direct actions relentlessly to confront the injustice and end the untruth. Our faithful friends who are working from inside to change the Catholic and Protestant Churches cannot do it alone. It’s time we take our demands to the streets. It’s time for boycotts, picket lines, mass vigils, serious fasts, candle light marches, pray-ins, sit-ins, kneel-ins, and acts of nonviolent civil disobedience (spiritual obedience). We need to mount permanent protests at our denominational headquarters and massive nonviolent vigils and acts of civil disobedience at our national church conventions. We must stage powerful and long term direct actions against local churches and local pastors who are the primary source of the antigay propaganda in our communities… even if it means risking our jobs or even going to jail. We must recruit, train, plan and act carefully, relentlessly, nonviolently. The rest is in God’s hands and the hands of our adversaries.
Eighth, we must mobilize our community now, before it is too late. While most of us have been living safely in our closets, fundamentalist Christians have raised billions of dollars and mobilized millions of volunteers in their efforts to win control of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Churches. And they are well on their way to success, primarily because of the skillful way they play upon people’s fear of homosexuality and homosexuals.
The danger is clear. If we stay in our closets, if we continue our polite support of the studies and the debates, if we pretend that antigay religious teachings have no long range effect on our lives, one day soon it will be too late to take our stand against them and the few rights we have won will disappear in the stroke of a pen. While we were cheering Rosie for coming out at last, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore was recommending imprisonment and even execution for gays to save children from our influence. What does it mean that fundamentalist Christians rushed to honor Justice Moore? What does it mean that the general public just yawned and switched channels when his terrifying words echoed across the land? What will it take to awaken us from our restless sleep?
Our closets will not protect us forever. In fact, our closets are exactly where fundamentalist Christians want us to be…or worse. By staying safely in those closets, the adversary wins. By coming out, our souls are empowered and our plight made known. If we don’t mobilize to end the untruth now, there will be a day when we will lose our chance to end it. Holly Near wasn’t exaggerating when she sang, "We are a gentle angry people, singing for our lives." Please, won’t you join in that song?
People of faith, thousands of them across the US, are joining Soulforce to seek justice in the spirit of Gandhi and King. Join Soulforce in St. Louis at the Soulforce Institute for Nonviolent Change, June 7-9, and/or stay over June 10-11 to bring truth in love relentlessly to 15,800,000 Southern Baptist including Judge Roy Moore. Check www.soulforce.org for details or get information by writing Soulforce, PO Box 4467, Laguna Beach, CA 92652
This article was featured in the May/June 2002 edition of Fellowship Magazine, a publication of Fellowship of Reconciliation.