Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What lunch has to do with injustice in North Carolina

While the people of North Carolina were voting yesterday to write discrimination against sexual minorities into their state constitution, I was having lunch with one of this nation’s most tireless defenders of the rights of sexual minorities.

Mel White was passing through Oklahoma with his long-time partner, Gary, on the way from Virginia to California. Mel is the author of the powerful memoir, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, as well as founder of Soulforce (a nonviolent social action group that targets the religious roots of violence and injustice against sexual minorities). For the last several years he and his partner have lived in Jerry Falwell’s hometown of Lynchburg, in the shadow of Falwell’s mega-church as well as Liberty University, attempting to support the LGBT community there and, by their presence, to serve as a visible reminder of the humanity of those most harmed by Falwell’s teachings (teachings that are still very much alive after his death). But now, five years after Falwell's death, they decided it was time to move on.

And the cross-country drive has turned into an impromptu book tour: the Holy Terror Tour, to be exact, named after Mel’s newest book, Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality. Since they were stopping for a book-signing at a Barnes & Noble in Oklahoma City, I drove down from Stillwater to meet them.

Unfortunately I ended up at the wrong Barnes & Noble. (Who knew there were two of them on the same street in different parts of the city?) As I was wandering the aisles, wondering what had become of Mel and the book signing, I heard my name over the intercom. When I got to the customer service station, I was handed a phone. It was Mel.

He knew that I was planning to be at the book signing, and somehow he’d figured out what had happened. And so, graciously, he offered to drive to the bookstore where I’d been waiting and take me out to lunch.

We went to the best Mexican restaurant in town, which happened to be right by the Barnes & Noble I’d wrongly chosen to visit. And we had a lovely lunch talking about books, about teaching ethics, about religion gone wrong, about the roots of anti-gay prejudice and  the roots of my own passion for gay rights. And we drank Tecate with lime , served in the way that they serve it at this particular restaurant—with most of the inner meat of the lime clinging to the rim of the over-sized goblet. As Mel noted, it looks kind of gross but it’s incredibly good.

Mel’s life story is remarkable. It’s a story of inner struggle, of courage, of audacity and hope. For years he was an insider in the Christian right. He was even the ghost writer for Jerry Falwell’s autobiography. But those were years of soul-crushing self-denial and pretense. And finally he couldn’t take it anymore. Not only did he come out of the closet, but he came out (nonviolently) swinging. To be more precise and less metaphorical, he knew first-hand what the teachings of the Christian right were doing to the souls of gays and lesbians, and he couldn’t stand by and let such spiritual violence continue unresisted. And so he spoke out. And he took action. And he continues to do so.

But for the hour that we sat together at Ted’s CafĂ© Escondido, we were enjoying the flavors and textures of good food and congenial company. And even as we were there talking and eating, the people of North Carolina were taking to the polls. As I enjoyed the warm humanity of Mel and Gary, who have been together in loving partnership for decades, the citizens of North Carolina were voting to marginalize them.

Supporters of the anti-equality constitutional amendment--including Billy Graham--consistently cited God and the Bible as reasons for their stance. I do not doubt that of the roughly 60% of voters who supported the amendment, most were operating in part on the conviction that voting as they did was what God wanted them to do.

This upsets me more than anything else. One reason, of course, has to do with my belief in the importance of religious liberty and church/state separation. To believe in these things is to believe that sectarian religious doctrines cannot serve as a legitimate basis for justifying legal discrimination. Equality under the law is a core civic precept. When such legal equality is abridged on the basis of particular religious teachings—when that abridgment is written into the very constitution of a state—then sectarian religious doctrines have become established as state doctrine.

Does that undermine the separation of church and state? You bet does. Does it threaten religious liberty? Imagine that the religion in question isn’t yours, but your equality under the law has been truncated because of that religion’s teachings. Would you cry foul? Would it be a truncation of your religious freedom? Of course it would be. When the state takes a particular religion's sectarian teachings as warrant for overriding basic civic principles of equality, the state has co-opted a particular religion's values as state policy in a way that threatens the religious liberty of anyone with a different faith.

Since the state of North Carolina affirms freedom of religion in Article 1, Section 13 of its constitution, what the people of that state have just done is write a contradiction into their constitution. Of course, they aren’t alone in doing so. My state of Oklahoma did the same thing a few years back. But that doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

But for all my outrage about the violation of church/state separation, that isn’t what angers me the most about the recent events in North Carolina. The idea that God stands behind this act of discrimination, that the author of the universe wills that some of his children be cut off from the nurturing intimacy of life partnership, that they be systematically excluded from one of the great blessings of human life simply because they happen to have a romantic and sexual orientation that leads them to fall in love with persons of the same sex—this idea is appalling.

Why believe it? Because of this or that verse of the Bible, defenders of the view will say. But here’s the problem. The Bible tells us that human beings were made in God’s image. It doesn’t say that a book was made in God’s image. It said that human beings were. If we take that biblical teaching seriously, then there is more of God in the loving couple I was sitting across from at lunch yesterday than there can ever be in any collection of writings, no matter how insightful or sublime.

And if we read the Christian Bible carefully, what does it tell us is the fundamental revelation of God in history? This Christian Bible? No. It points to Jesus. Jesus has that honor. A person has that honor. And that person taught—at least according to the Bible—that he comes to us in the form of the neighbor in need. What we do to the least of these, we do to him.

And that same Bible teaches that God is love. It teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is something that is experienced in our relationships with persons, not in our relationship with a book. If God is love, then we experience God most truly in loving relationships. If we want to know God, we need to get on with the messy business of loving one another, listening to one another, paying compassionate attention to the persons who carry in themselves the image of God.

At every turn the collection of writings we call the Bible is pointing us beyond its pages, calling us to care about humanity, to find the divine in the work of loving and being loved. When I do that, I cannot help but look at Mel and Gary, sitting side by side, years of tender affection on display in the subtle interplay of glance and comment, smile and touch.

Here is love. And the law of love calls me to pay attention to this love, to these people, to pay compassionate attention to these neighbors.  The law of love calls me to pay attention to Mel’s moving and often harrowing life story, a story in which the traditional condemnation of homosexuality is seen, vividly, as soul-destroying, a story in which rejection of that traditional teaching has the character of a spiritual awakening.  The man who wrote Falwell’s autobiography from the shadows is very different from the person that has emerged since that spiritual awakening to preach for equality in the light of day, the person I sat across from at the restaurant, the man who boldly and lovingly, often at personal risk, fights one behalf of those who are suffering.

And I know which man more closely resembles the chief moral exemplar of the Christian faith.

If you believe that God is love--as Christians do--then you cannot pretend that the lessons gleaned from loving relationships have no bearing on understanding the will of God. You cannot pretend that you are doing justice to God when you use a handful of ambiguous biblical passages as a reason to ignore the often anguished stories of neighbors you are called to love.

To prioritize those passages, interpreted in the least loving way, over the lessons of human community, it to turn the Bible into a dead book of rules. It is to take this once-living text and beat still-living human beings with it, sometimes to death. It is to turn away from life and compassion and make the Bible into nothing more than an underwriter of prejudice.

What makes me so angry is that so many of North Carolina's voters have been so indoctrinated into a rigidly unquestioned set of teachings--about the Bible, about homosexuality, about God--that in the name of fidelity to a God of love they are unwittingly doing violence to the spirit of love. In the name of fidelity to a scant handful of biblical passages, interpreted as they’ve been taught to interpret them, they are unwittingly doing violence to the spirit of the Bible. In the name of loving their neighbors, they are unwittingly doing violence to their gay and lesbian neighbors.

Let me pause here and say that I know that many thoughtful people don’t see matters quite like this. And a blog post can't address all the objections and counterarguments, or acknowledge all the nuances, all the ways in which people who are doing violence to sexual minorities can also be, in many other dimensions of their lives, genuinely and deeply loving. In saying that the people of North Carolina did violence to Mel and Gary and all their gay and lesbian neighbors, I am saying something about what they did. I am not trying to define who they are.

And I’m not saying they intended to do violence. It is the teachings—teachings that can lead good people to unwittingly do violence in the name of what is right—that are the deep problem.

In my own life, the error of these teachings became increasingly and inescapably apparent because of my close relationships with gay and lesbian friends. If there is anything I want to share with those who voted for NC's Amendment One, it's this: From now on, before you take actions that have staggering implications for real human beings, get to know those human beings. Take them to lunch. Or coffee, or dinner. Or sit down with them on a park bench. And listen to their stories.

Love for them demands no less. Love is about listening empathetically, listening in a way that leaves you open to being moved. 

If you can't get yourself to listen to a live human being, then read stories such as the one Mel tells in Stranger at the Gate.

Read honest, heartfelt narratives. Take your gay neighbors to a Mexican restaurant and ask them to tell you about their lives. Love finds its fullest expression not when you chastize and berate and judge, but when you open your heart enough to your neighbors that their journeys can touch you. Before you decide again to truncate rights, to restrict and marginalize, listen with love.

That's what I did. And it changed me.


  1. Eric, thank you for your testimony, and especially for having lunch with one of my favorite people. I was privileged to call myself Mel's pastor for the last five years of his time in Lynchburg, but the real pastoring went, as you can imagine from your lunchtime conversation, the other way. He was mine. He and Gary embody the law of love in all the are and do.

  2. Beautiful post - thank you.