Thursday, January 28, 2010

Towards a More Perfect State of the Union

“Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. This same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it.... We must continually renew this promise. ...This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

--President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 27, 2010


When Barack Obama’s words, in his first State of the Union address, started to venture into the area of equality and fairness under the US Constitution, I grew more and more hopeful that finally he would stand up to the law and practice that has made it impossible for me to serve in this country's military, that has cost tens of thousands their jobs and service to our country, and cost our country qualified defenders in this time of great need.

That moment came when President Obama said that he would work with Congress this year to strike down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

But we have had this long moment of promise for a year already. This promise has hung in the air as more and more people whose service to this nation has not only been damned, but wasted under the existential strangulation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. People whose service is not only needed, but is effective, indeed vital, to ensuring our national security.

The hope continues, but so does the biting at hearts that wish only to be equally respected and defended along side of their heterosexual equals, hearts that pump the same blood and feel the same sense of duty to protect our homeland, and have been encouraged emptily in the past. President Obama, working with Congress in their Constitutionally-mandated capacity as directors of military policy and conduct, could still bring about a full and complete repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I live in hope that this will indeed happen in the next year.


It might come as a surprise to people who know me, and indeed somewhat surprises me, that I would think of being in the military. There are many ways in which I am not standard issue.

I am, in my deepest personality, for example, somewhat antipathetical towards leadership. It is more than ironic that I would be called to Christian ministry, but such is the calling that I have received. I’m not much of one who likes to follow rules, but at the same time, something in my bearing and personality has led people to ask if I’m in or have been in the military. I’ve often wondered myself what it would be like to serve in the military.

I might not agree with the rationale of our nation’s presence in Iraq, and I might question our wisdom of being in Afghanistan, a war that wore the Soviet Union down for years before we got into it, but our troops are there, and they need many levels of support.

Among the very important levels of support given our troops is the support of chaplains, whose presence is not only spiritual, but also psychological. Chaplains are not psychologists, but they are sources of confidence, both in terms of supporting and boosting the confidence of those who are carrying out our campaigns in many capacities, as well as keeping confidences and building trust and morale. Given my theological and ministerial training, being a chaplain would make the most sense for me. It would be an honor to support those who put themselves in harm's way to defend the cause of freedom.

At this moment, however, I could not be a military chaplain. I am way out of the gay closet, and cannot and would not go back in for a job, a calling, a career, relationship, or for any other reason. That makes some people very uncomfortable. That choice to be open has thus far cost me a first call as a Lutheran pastor for three years, when I have been told that I need to “fly under the radar” if I want a church, “feeling [my] way out” as I entered a parish in the closet. That is advice that I cannot heed, and it comes at a cost. But the closet has a much higher cost.


The closet kills, in a free society as ours is, moment by moment, lie by lie, hidden relationship by hidden relationship. Like Act-up activists said in the days of AIDS holocaust, silence=death.

Being and remaining closeted is for some being complicit in this oppression. It is choosing not only one’s own silence, but helping to enforce silence on others as well.

Now, this is a strong statement, which sounds to my ears as judgmental as it sounds true, and I do know that being out of the closet is for others, in societies less free than ours, a luxury that their societies will not allow. Their lives and only sources of income are at stake in such a choice to come out. Their relationships with their parents, oldest and closest friends are hanging in the balance. In Uganda, in Iraq and Iran, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, the very lives of gay and lesbian people are at stake, and the closet is a chief means of survival. That is unfortunately still true for some in the United States as well.

Only by directly challenging this enforced silence in standing up and being counted, starting here in a society that attains to being the freest on earth, a country that tens of thousands have given their lives to keep free, starting here in the United States, and in other free societies, can those of us who have the luxury of being out and staying alive end the power of intimidation wielded by institutions and individuals who would prefer our invisibility, indeed, prefer that we did not exist at all, insofar as we are gay or lesbian, or as some prefer to be known, queer.

If silence=death, visibility=life and strength in numbers.


I recently heard the phrase “don’t let who you are now prevent who you might become.”

This phrase, when interpreted in certain ways, may indeed be very liberating. But it has been lived out in other ways that are ultimately harmful to the whole, as well as to individuals.

If every military chaplain, pastor, priest, minister, rabbi, imam, guru, prior, abbess, mother superior, or any other spiritual leader;

if every politician, congressperson, teacher, and CEO;

if every quarterback, centerfielder, guard, and goalie;

if every person who is gay or lesbian would come out who could come out, even to just a few people whose mind would be changed about gay and lesbian people, it would eliminate the need for a closet, a need imposed on us from the outside that stifles, silences, and strangles. It would finish the work started by the bullet that entered Harvey Milk’s brain, when it ended his life but didn’t silence his prophetic tongue.

There would no longer be any need to be in the closet. If you didn’t want to talk about being gay or lesbian, you wouldn’t have to talk about it. But at least you could share what everyone else can share about their lives without worrying that even one "slip up," one solitary mention of same-sex attraction, partnership, or inclination, would potentially cost you your job, calling, family, or life. And in a country where police raids on gay bars in the last year in Atlanta and Fort Worth have shown a scary turn towards the facism of years past, challenging those who would silence us is still a need.

Being out gives us voice. Being in the closet gives those who wish us out of existence voice and power. There would be no way that everyone who is gay or lesbian could be fired, kicked out, put down, defrocked, ground under, executed, or disrespected, because the voices would be too many to be drowned out with cries of “sinner” or “faggot.”

And the choice is clear: Existence over invisibility. Service over silence. Honesty over duplicity. And open love over overt hostility.

The next reformation will be one of honesty, and that honesty will bring down the walls of every closet from here to Uganda.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pat Robertson's "pact with the devil"

Note: I'm by no means an expert on the history or folklore of Haiti. This seems to me where at least one element of this "devil's pact" thing is coming from, but I'm open to being educated if I'm astray.

"The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer. The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts."

--attributed to Boukman Dutty, at the ceremony of August 14 (or 21), 1791, at Bois Caïman, Haiti


The words of the prayer above were interpreted yesterday by television commentator Pat Robertson as being a “pact with the devil.” Robertson said, on the show The 700 Club, “And you know, Christy, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, ahh, you know, Napoleon the 3rd or whatever, and, they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the devil said "ok, it's a deal." And ahh they kicked the French out of you know the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti; on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is, is prosperous, healthy, full of resources, et cetera; Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. Ahh, they need to have, and we need to pray for them, a great turning to God, and out of this tragedy, I'm optimistic that something good may come, but right now we're helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.”

His voice was one of a grandfather telling family secrets that, though painful, were true, because he was there when they happened. Robertson pretends to have knowledge of something horrible, yet unquestionable. Yet Robertson's comments are very questionable.

In the words of a spokesman from the Christian Broadcasting Network, “[Pat Robertson’s] comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.”

The above prayer is the only text that Robertson might be able to point to in order to make his case, aside from the ceremony in which a pig was apparently sacrificed.

Fine. So we’ve got a dead pig, some fiery words that incite the overthrow of a horribly violent culture of slavery, and that’s supposed to be a “pact with the devil” that accounted for all of Haiti’s problems for the last 200 years, and underlies the death of thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of human beings in the recent earthquakes?

Some will say that Pat Robertson is not worth spending time and energy refuting. I believe he must be challenged, because some people actually see him as the face of Christianity, a serious Christianity that must be respected, in which Haitians are indeed historically devil worshipers who deserve a horrible earthquake to turn them to God. Others will see this Christianity that Robertson claims to represent as a silly religion of the weak-minded, who, God love them, prove that God doesn’t exist, because Robertson’s version of God is just too stupid to survive serious scrutiny. To be clear: my concern is that some will look at Pat Robertson, and listen to his words, and say that on account of his words, God does not exist, and that Christianity is bankrupt of truth. This is why he must be challenged.

Pat Robertson apparently expresses something that “countless scholars and religious figures” also believe. He does not cite one credible source. Nor does his company defender cite a scholar who can point to a pact with the devil. Not one bit of actual evidence to back up such incendiary comments as appear above. Not one. Yet he claims to command the truth of God.


Let’s take a look at this prayer, and do a little basic, good old-fashioned exegesis, and see if we can find the devil's pact here.

Here is a fairly lengthy invocation: “The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer.” This is the creator God, who made the heavens and the earth, the oceans and the thunder. This is the God in heaven, who sees and hears the mistreatment of God’s creation: “you see all that the white has made us suffer.” And anyone who would dispute that slavery is interminable, inhuman suffering, cannot know that of which he or she is speaking.

The prayer continues: “The white man's god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It's He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It's He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men's god who is so pitiless.” One might point to two gods, one “within us” and one “hidden in the clouds,” neither of whom is “the white man’s god.” Is there, however, any realistic doubt that white men did indeed justify their enslavement of black men, women, and children by calling to their God to justify their actions, and seeking to justify ungodly enslavement through use of certain Scriptures, from the curse of Ham to the call of Paul (or pseudo-Paul) for slaves to be obedient to their masters? I will look up some contemporary citations for this if need be.

No doubt God has been used to justify any number of destructive social views and arrangements, particularly by the white race and in the name of converting "godless" individuals and peoples into "Christians." Would it be any wonder that people who have been oppressed in the name of such a god would repudiate that god? That does not mean that they are repudiating the actual God, but what has been put forth as that God--a force that sanctions slavery and all that comes with it: abuse, torture, killing, separating families, enforced labor, enforced sex and rape, and any number of other activities that any of us who claims to believe in God and worship God would never seek to justify in the name of God.


The final line of the prayer encourages the voice for liberty, a liberty that those who uphold “God n country” raise up high as a golgatha cross: “Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.” Where is the devil here? In the liberty from slavery, or in the hearts of those who are calling for their own (and others’) freedom?

What is plain is that Pat Robertson commands a cable broadcasting network, and is able to say whatever comes into his head while he is on the air, without any fear of being challenged from within his own network, of losing his sponsors, or of being taken off the air. He is fully able to repeat shaded truths and outright lies just as though they are truths right out of the Bible he professes to love so much.

And in so doing, Pat Robertson signs his own, admittedly metaphoric, pact with the Devil: he trades his own integrity for ratings, the truth of an admittedly fuzzy historical situation for fame, and a loving God of grace for whatever gets his name in the news, the Haitian people be damned, the Christian religion be damned, and yes, God be damned: For Pat Robertson would call God the devil in order to perpetuate a racist tradition that started with the overthrow of a colonialist oppressor and continues through to this day with a natural disaster on an unprecedentedly horrible scale. God love him, as our Vice President would say, but Pat Robertson needs to get some of that God that he suggested the Haitians might now get, whom they have, in his opinion, not gotten thus far.

God love you and bless you, Pat Robertson, and turn your heart to the true knowledge of a God who is familiar with the statement and meaning of “who sinned, he or his parents?” and what goes behind it. We each have our cross to bear, and we each have the railroad tie in our own eye. But please, for the sake of the God you hold dear, think about the words that come out of your mouth.