Friday, February 17, 2012

The Times We Shouldn’t Defend Our Traditions

(Cross-posted to State of Formation.)

“Philosophers,” says Martha Nussbaum, “don’t write like prophets….they have to believe, I think, that at least a part of evil is not innate or necessary, that at least a good part of it is based on error, whether societal or personal.” For prophets, on the other hand, “the urgency and magnitude of the evils they see admit of no delay, no calm and patient dialogue…Suppose Jeremiah had said, ‘the heart of Israel is corrupt utterly, but on the other hand there are some very nice people there.’” (Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, 1999, 240-1)

Nussbaum’s own inclinations and ultimate sympathies lie with the philosopher—and most of the time, mine do, too. Often, I firmly believe that attributing a problem or an evil to an entire religion, or religion as a whole, is not only inaccurate and unhelpful, but actively destructive. I often jump into the fray to point out concrete examples of principles and themes of a tradition, or groups or individual practitioners within a faith—mine or any other—that I truly believe are at work for the good. I truly believe that religion is not a monolith, and that it can do, and has done, great work in the service of humanity and of our universe. And I truly, deeply believe that the God I serve is good.

Yet both Nussbaum and I—precisely because of “the philosopher’s interest in the nuances of individual cases” (Nussbaum, 1999, 241)—are sometimes compelled to admit that the prophet has a point. Sometimes, stating the nuance and the capacity for good in a tradition that has hurt people is deeply inappropriate. Sometimes, devotion to the underlying goodness of a tradition and to its prerogative to practice as it sees fit comes at great cost to the lives of real people.

This past week, Rolling Stone published a heartbreaking article, "One Town's War On Gay Teens," detailing the toll of anti-gay bullying in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin school district. In 1994, according to the article, the conservative, evangelical group Minnesota Family Council (MFC) pushed the Anoka-Hennepin school board into adopting a districtwide policy, “which pronounced that within the health curriculum, ‘homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle.’” While the language was specific to the health curriculum, the policy practically erased discussion of homosexuality “in any context.”

When queer students—or even students who were perceived as such—complained to teachers and administrators of anti-gay bullying, they received no relevant support, and the homophobic smears continued unabated. The policy may have been quiet, but its toll is now known nationwide. Since 1999, nine students, many of whom were queer or taunted as such, committed suicide, most famously 15-year old Justin Aaberg in July of 2010.

In many of the progressive circles I frequent, both online and in real life, variations on a theme of the same angry, horrified response to the Rolling Stone article came up: Is this truly what “Christian love” looks like? Is it true that people like the MFC can’t be made to see the grave harm they’ve caused? And the conclusion often was: no, these people knew exactly what they were doing. To make the non-conformers this desperate was precisely the point.

And as much as I want to believe otherwise, I find myself agreeing with this conclusion. According to the article, MFC activist Barb Anderson blames “pro-gay groups for the tragedies”:
She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied. (emphasis mine.)
And Nussbaum notes with astonishment that Roger Scrunton argued—in 1995!—that “schools ought to teach revulsion toward homosexuality, on the grounds that the perpetuation of this revulsion is ‘a human good.’” (Nussbaum 1999, 192) I will pause for that statement to fully sink in. If one truly believes that, well, what are a few suicides?

It is, in a way, ironic that one of the go-to Scriptures for anti-gay activists is the story, in Genesis 18 and 19, of Sodom and Gommorah. Because according to many (to my mind, convincing) interpretations, the sexual sins of those cities of the plain were not homosexuality, but gang rape—sex used in the service not of pleasure, but of terror employed to enforce submission and conformity. Rabbi Steven Greenberg writes:
While the event that sealed the fate of the Sodomites was their demand for Lot to bring out his guests so that the mob might “know” them, this was still not seen so much as sexual excess as hatred of the stranger and exploitation of the weak…[in Sodom] no difference was tolerated. (Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men, 2004, 65-6)
The invocation of sexualized violence to assert dominance and enforce conformity should ring familiar. For make no mistake—the bullying that drove people like Justin Aaberg to suicide, both from his classmates and, more sinisterly, from the supposedly moral, responsible adults of the MFC is nothing other than psychological and spiritual gang rape. Its purpose was none other than to strip people like Justin of all individuality, of all self-respect, of all autonomy, to break him until he shaped up—or disappeared.

So when I encountered these generalizing statements about Christianity, or religion, or despairing for the humanity of those pushing anti-gay policies, my first response was to jump in and correct the generalizations. I then decided against it. Because in the wake of such tragedies—in the wake of the real threat of harm, or of actual, already perpetrated harm—someone for whom it is most important to jump to the defense of an institution rather than to demand justice for the people that institution has hurt is, forgive me, someone who has their priorities deeply screwed up.

Our traditions and our faith communities are important to us, as they should be.  But we cannot let them become ends in themselves.  Abraham was right to argue that, for the sake of ten righteous, the city should be spared; truly, there are far more than ten righteous in the cities that are our traditions. Yet when violent crimes occur in our cities, our first response should not be to say, “we’re not all like that!” Our first response should be to root out the perpetrators, and to seek justice for the victims.

Image: John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852). This image has passed into the public domain and is used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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