Saturday, December 21, 2013

Salvation Army Bell-Ringers, Homophobia, and Christmas Plays

It's that time of year again. Salvation Army bell ringers are outside your local Walmart store. In a time of mad consumerism, of rushing around to buy useless junk to stick under the tree or into the stockings of people who have more than they need, the iconic red tripods with their metal buckets have become a symbol of an alternative spirit. Stationed at the door to consumerism's temple, the Salvation Army donation bucket reminds us that giving shouldn't be primarily about finding some useless trinket for everyone on our list. It should be about caring for those with urgent needs, lifting the spirits and feeding the bellies of those who are left out in the cold.

It's that time of year again. At least if you're like me--an advocate for gay rights with many gay and lesbian friends and allies--you've been getting those social media messages and forwarded e-mails reminding you that the Salvation Army is an anti-gay group and that giving to them is a tacit endorsement of bigotry. Some of those messages will quote the views of one of the more homophobic members of the Salvation Army, naming the person's military-style rank within the organization so as to make it seem as if this person is speaking for the Salvation Army in an official capacity. A few of the messages will conclude that the Salvation Army is a hate group.

I wrote about this last year, but this year these messages have become particularly jarring. The reason is the Christmas play I'm in right now: Robert Fulghum's "Uh Oh, Here Comes Christmas." It's basically theatrical storytelling, and one of the stories features the Salvation Army. It's about bell-ringing, about generations of fathers and sons standing outside a local Woolworth store--a tradition that began with a "Great Heathen" who had no use for church but who faithfully rang the bell every year, to his son's great puzzlement. It turns out that when the Great Heathen was a child, his family's house burned to the ground, and the Salvation Army came to the rescue.

After one evening performance, two Salvation Army members--in uniform--came up to the cast and thanked us for our performance. They said it brought tears to their eyes. I shook their hands. I chatted with one of them, a diminutive woman with a warm smile. To call her a member of a hate group struck me as, well, a bit hateful.

Or maybe just confused. The Salvation Army was born out of a commitment to reaching out to the socially marginalized in a spirit of inclusive love. A central part of that mission focuses on meeting tangible human needs. And that's what their Christmas Assistance program is all about. To put it simply, putting money in the Salvation Army bucket helps needy people. The money that goes in the Salvation Army bucket goes directly to locally-administered programs aimed at helping needy families in the community. None of it is used in financial contributions to anti-gay causes.

Westoboro Baptist Church is a hate group. The Salvation Army is not.

Let me be clear: The Salvation Army is a conservative Christian organization. Like other such organizations it persists in endorsing what I take to be a damaging teaching, namely that all homosexual acts are categorically sinful. It continues to endorse the view that it is possible to love our gay and lesbian neighbors while holding that faithful gay couples committed to one another are committed to sin, and that the relationships that give so much meaning to their live ought to be dismantled--the equivalent of holding that it is our moral duty to try to end a loving marriage and force the partners who have forged a life partnership to get a divorce (after all, that's what follows from thinking the relationships are essentially sinful).

I think this view is a serious failure to understand the implications of an ethic of love in relation to our gay and lesbian neighbors. No clear-thinking Christian, upon encountering a happily married couple who add richness and meaning to each others' lives, who love and support each other in good times and in bad, would think that trying to tear their marriage apart would show love for them. But what can it mean to hold that a monogamous life partnership is inherently sinful if that doesn't include the belief that it ought to be brought to an end?

And the Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, perpetuates this error. The Salvation Army, along with every other conservative Christian community, harbors within its ranks individuals who seize on the doctrinal teachings about homosexuality as an excuse for indulging their bigotry.

But as a community it has, in recent years, wrestled sincerely with the question of how best to express Christian love towards gay and lesbians--wrestled in a way that few other conservative Christian communities wrestling. They still don't get it, as is clear from the comments such as this one, from the Salvation Army's national community relations secretary, George Hood:
If we can all agree that we have a difference of opinion on the lifestyle issue and that's OK, then we start to talk about issues of discrimination and the steps we've taken to see that there is no discrimination.
Any gay or lesbian can tell you that this isn't just about a difference of opinion, and certainly not over a "lifestyle issue." Gays and lesbians want to be able to live the same lifestyle that heterosexuals are free to live without censure--a lifestyle that includes falling in love, standing up and making public vows together with the one they love, and then establishing a home and a family and intimate life partnership with the beloved. Because of their sexual orientation, gays and lesbians can only pursue this "lifestyle" (which heterosexuals take for granted) with someone of the same sex. The "opinion" of the Salvation Army is that gays and lesbians have a moral obligations to deny themselves the "lifestyle" that heterosexuals celebrate--that they have a duty to stand out in the cold while others seek the warmth of loving partnership.

They may not get it...but they're honestly wrestling. And they're sincere in their commitment to nondiscrimination in both employment and in distributing services. These are not characteristic features of a hate group.

They happen to ascribe to conservative teachings, but those teachings stand at the periphery of what they do. And what they do is try, with sincerity of purpose, to meet human needs. As with all organizations, there are bad apples. You can find mean-spirited souls anywhere. And even the best among us get things wrong.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Eric, but I wonder ... What’s the evidence for the claim that SA is “honestly wrestling” with the gay issue (as opposed to making cosmetic PR changes) or that “they’re sincere in their commitment to non-discrimination” in employment? Their position is identical to that of other conservative churches, and they’ve made no statement indicating they’ve stopped discriminating against gay people in management hiring.

    Also, you didn’t mention – and the public is largely unaware – that the Salvation Army is a CHURCH, not a social service agency or a religious charity. “Putting money in the Salvation Army bucket helps needy people,” AND it funds SA’s 15,000 conservative churches. Donors can’t support SA social services without also supporting their discriminatory membership and HR policies, anti-LGBT political actions, and conservative church operations. Why should a donor hold their nose while dropping money in the red kettle when so many other organizations serve needy people without the religious and anti-gay ethical complications?