Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando: What I Want to Say

The problem is that I don't know what to say. Or maybe it's that I don't know how to say it.

I'm in the midst of writing a book on same-sex marriage and Christian love. I was just starting a chapter on the use and misuse of the "love the sinner/hate the sin" slogan when Orlando happened. I went to bed thinking about philosophical arguments and woke up to reports of horror.

The basic facts are now familiar to everyone. An American-born Muslim man--possibly wrestling with same-sex attraction, undoubtedly immersed in the idea that homosexuality is evil--went on a shooting rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. If we don't include the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. And the perpetrator was armed with a handgun and an assault weapon--that is, a semi-automatic rifle modeled after military assault rifles but lacking the capacity to fire automatically.

For days I have been a bit numb. I have watched the unfolding national conversation on social media--although at times it has more the look of a national shouting match. The themes of that debate are ones I've written about extensively on this blog: homosexuality and homophobia, Islam and Islamophobia, guns and gun control.

The charge of hypocrisy has been flying from both directions, and everyone has been busy producing unfair and oversimplified memes to justify their own position. In the midst of all the noise, of course, there have been thoughtful expressions of opposing views. And there has been grief. And there have been unprecedented displays of support for the LGBT community. Oklahoma City, a city in the heart of the Bible Belt, illumined a bridge in rainbow lights to show solidarity for the Pulse victims.

And there have been expressions of hate. If you want to find the hate, just click on any online article and then read the comments section.

I've felt the need to add my voice, but it all seems too much. There are too many things to say and too many ways to say it wrong. I want to say something that encourages thoughtful discourse, not self-righteous denunciation of opposing views. I want to say something that encourages love, not hate.

I want to lift up my gay and lesbian friends and relatives, to say something that nurtures them at a moment when they stand witness to the reality of homophobic hate and the violence it can engender, when they feel afresh the vulnerability to harm that is always part of being an LGBT person. I want to say something that shows my solidarity and invites others to express it, too. I want to find a way to show the connection between explosions of homophobic violence and the more mundane and widespread forms of disgust and social marginalization out of which such violence can grow--find a way to say this without being promptly caricatured as saying that Christians who refuse to bake cakes for gay couples are as bad as mass murderers.

I want to acknowledge that most of the Christians who call homosexuality a sin do not mean harm to their gay and lesbian neighbors. But I want to say this in a way that makes it clear that we can do harm without meaning to. I want to speak in a way that doesn't enable more mundane homophobes to use the acts of extremists as a form of cover. I want to make it clear that when the Family Research Council publishes pamphlets implying that gays and lesbians are a threat to children, the fact that they would never think of shooting up a gay nightclub doesn't make their slander okay. The fact that the deadliest single attack on the gay community was carried out by a Muslim does not vindicate the many ways that Christians have magnified the suffering of sexual minorities.

At the same time, I want to find a way to say these things that doesn't fuel the rhetoric of militant atheists, those who want to blame religion as such for the kind of hate that tore through human lives in Orlando. I want to find a way to target the beast of homophobia without doing collateral damage. I want to acknowledge that prayers and moments of silence are not the only thing that religion can offer, while also acknowledging the power that prayers and moments of silence can have in symbolizing and strengthening human solidarity--at least when these things are offered as a framework out of which to act rather than an alternative to action. I want to find a way to remind us all that the civil rights movement was rooted in the black churches of America, that not all faith is toxic faith.

I want to lift up my peace-loving Muslim neighbors and say something that nurtures them at a time when, once again, some very loud voices are holding up a violent extremist as representative of what Islam is about at its core. I want to find some new and better way to say what I've been trying to say for a very long time: the problem of religious extremism is a species of the problem of violent ideology that divides the world into "us" and "them" and treats "them" as a fundamental threat to "us," a threat that must by stopped by any means necessary. When Christians and others in the west fail to distinguish between the Muslim extremists and the vast majority of Muslims who denounce the extremism, they play into the us/them ideology that is the source of the worst kind of violence. They make part of themselves a mirror of the extremism they're reacting to. Like the person bitten by the zombie, they start to become the thing that has attacked them. Our own horror stories, the mythologies of our time, tell us where this kind of spreading infection leads.

I want to find some way to talk productively about the relationship between the accessibility of guns and the violence that is perpetrated using guns. I want to avoid ignorance and mischaracterization, acknowledge the complexity the issues, and steer a course between the extremes of draconian bans on gun ownership and the kind of free-for-all that makes it so easy for someone with violent intentions to arm themselves to the teeth with high-capacity semi-automatic rifles and ammunition. I want to acknowledge that the AR-15 is functionally no different from most guns on the market but still have a conversation about the social implications of selling guns that are deliberately designed to look, not like the weapons traditionally used to shoot deer, but like the ones traditionally used to shoot people as efficiently as possible in a theater of war. I want to have a serious conversation about the role that symbols of human-against-human violence can play in tipping some vulnerable psychologies over that line--without ignoring the many ways that this happens (including in movies and video games), without forgetting that most gun owners don't go on killing sprees, but also without ignoring the way that guns figure into the story of violence in America.

I want to talk about comprehensive policies for reducing violence without either fixating on or hiding from one piece of the puzzle. And when the conversation turns to that piece, I don't want to be mischaracterized as saying that this one thing will solve the problem.

I want to find ways to articulate the nuances and qualification that are impossible in memes and slogans, and I want to find a way to do that without my comments being caricatured or distorted or turned into an oversimplified slogan for the sake of launching an unfair attack on a straw man.

It would be easy, in the face of the challenges of pursuing thoughtful and loving conversations in a polarized world, to remain silent. This post, for what it's worth, is one alternative to the extremes of easy slogans and easy silence. I encourage all of you to offer your own, while I return to working on a book that I hope will offer a richer reflection on at least one of the issues raised by the horror in Orlando.


  1. So well said. I'd like to add my hearty AMEN to your comments. Perhaps a time to fully reassess how we all contribute to this malaise without recriminating each other. So do we all REALLY want change?...

  2. This one incident really does push all of the buttons of our hot button issues, doesn't it? It's really hard to find the balance when there doesn't seem to be any within easy reach.

  3. Eric: I appreciated being able to read your open-ended, open-minded thoughts. Why can’t we believe in the right to bear arms but discuss exceptions? I just wanted to let you know your words encouraged me to do all the things you said in-between the lines. Oh how I wish we all could simply discuss these matters openly and gracefully to continue to work toward solutions. It is getting complicated how one grows toward radicalization or extremism. One way to stop the violence is for us and families to notice when our family member or friends are showing hate and possibly planning violence. It may take some courage for fear of being turned on ourselves. Protection from authorities isn’t perfect. I have never been put in this situation but I only hope if my child, partner, or best friend showed any signs, I/we can’t protect our loved ones at the expense of the lives of others. That isn’t true love!

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