In spite of everything that’s gone before, the last 12 months have been the happiest and most special of my life. To become a parent is a blessing I never imagined might be bestowed upon me until recently. It’s an awe-inspiring responsibility and both David and I are determined to fulfil that responsibility — not just to our son but to his generation. We want him to grow up in a Britain where every young person is not just loved as much as we love him, but is afforded fair treatment and respect. However, as we start thinking about Zachary’s future education, it’s clear that this Britain doesn’t exist yet.
—Elton John on Comment is Free, “I want Zachary to grow up in a world without homophobia”
~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Key to Relationship? Good Old-Fashioned Conversation about Everyday Topics
by Krista Tippett, host
(photo: © Beowulf Sheehan)
Of all the “Civil Conversation Project” voices we’ve interviewed, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s credentials are the most erudite and global. He is the president of the PEN American Center, a Princeton philosopher, and an American citizen raised and educated between the country we now know as Ghana and the United Kingdom. He has written sweeping, fascinating, and influential books, including Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. In his latest work, he analyzes the real-world ingredients of social change and “moral progress” in disparate times and places — the end of foot-binding in China, for example, or of the slave trade as a social and economic staple of the British Empire.
Anthony Appiah also has a rare kind of personal moral authority with which to analyze such things, and that makes him the kind of voice I love.
His intellectual passion is leavened by life experience. He is the product of a seismic cultural shift that seemed unimaginable but then transpired within a generation. Every culture has had these. In my lifetime, there is the fact that black people were still sitting in the backs of buses in American cities. And the interracial 1953 marriage of Anthony Appiah’s African father and British mother — the daughter of a former chancellor of the exchequer — was condemned as morally repugnant, the stuff of global headlines.
I pursue a bit of a thought experiment with him for the purposes of this conversation. What if we considered the breakdown of civility in American political, media, and cultural life as a moral crisis — a condition fed by our worst instincts and destructive of our highest ideals, which will rot us from the inside if we don’t address and correct it? How might Anthony Appiah’s knowledge about moral change inform our words and actions moving forward?
For all the gravity of that question and the scholarly intelligence Anthony Appiah brings to it, his response is a relief. Sometimes we need to address difference head-on, he says, but often the best way is to “sidle up to it” — to accept and live it without forcing agreement or even addressing it head on.
He echoes a point made forcefully by Frances Kissling on this program, speaking from the context of the abortion debate, that our rush to come to agreement can get in the way of really understanding each other. But Anthony Appiah brings this closer to the ground. He muses on how differences retain their vitality within extended networks of friendship and family — not going away, often, but also not presenting a stumbling block to relationship. Appiah is a gay man, and he relates in his personal history experiences of family who may not accept his sexuality as moral, but with whom he can stay in loving relationship.
What we need more than agreement, he says, are simple habits of association with different others, encounters that breed familiarity. There is real social and even moral value to be had, he suggests, when we connect with others even on the most mundane topics of who we are and how we spend our days — whether it be soccer or football, shared hobbies or parenting. In fact, Anthony Appiah says, this kind of human exchange — as much a matter of presence as of words — is the old-fashioned meaning of the word “conversation.”
The trick in our time, of course, is that the world is conspiring against human presence even as it gives us a million new ways to connect. We have to work particularly hard to seek out those who are different from us. Anthony Appiah’s analysis on this point is provocative and helpful, one other piece of the puzzle of what has gone awry in what we used to call “common life.”
Yet even here, his prescriptions are doable. He tells a story of one especially formative relationship from his early life that he calls a great piece of good fortune. As a left-leaning student activist, he formed a friendship with an arch-conservative neighbor. He agreed with this man on virtually nothing, yet they conversed in a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness. This experience of connection that held and contained difference, he says, has shaped his movement through the world ever since. These, surely, are the kinds of encounters we could all begin instantaneously to nudge into existence, to sidle up to, and to do so with our children. I for one will be looking, with relief, for such good old-fashioned conversation.
Are Theological Conversations on Homosexuality Really Pointless?
by Jared Vázquez, guest contributor
At Wallingford United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington, the pastor invites everyone to the communion table on Easter Sunday. (photo: © Michael Spencer/Flickr)
I admit that I was taken by surprise when I saw this tweet summarizing theologian and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann as saying that theological conversations about homosexuality are futile. As I have read some of Mr. Brueggemann’s writing and have a great deal of respect for him and his prophetic calls to justice, I promptly went about listening to the interview in question:
“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why in the church does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline.’ And I’ve decided, for myself, that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is, rather, that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. There have always been gays and lesbians; we’d have to acknowledge them.
It’s not fashionable any more to protest pushy blacks. It’s not fashionable to protest pushy women. Those battles are lost, or won. But you can still have great moral indignation around gays and lesbians.
And so I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. So, I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians any more because that’s not what the argument is about.”
You see, I’m a seminary student, and I’m gay. This, for me, has meant that all of my academic work has surrounded the need for dialogue regarding this very issue. In most denominations there remain deep divisions on issues about whether or not gays should be ordained, whether they should be allowed to marry, or whether they are even welcome in churches.
I took Mr. Brueggemann to mean that such conversations are futile in that issues like homosexuality should be a non-issue — that churches should be able to move past this issue. However, this position ignores the cry of gay people for justice that remains unrealized in many places. As long as theology and biblical scripture are used to marginalize gay people (or anyone for that matter), the conversation is anything but futile! Churches can’t move past this issue because it is still an issue.
Walter Brueggemann has an advantage that I as a gay man do not have; he does not live with the very real threat of homophobia. Enjoying one of the highest places of privilege in our society (straight, white, and male), he has the luxury of being unaffected. He will likely never be hollered at from across the way with insults about whom he shares his bed with. To not have a conversation about the theological basis for the hate that many Christians direct at gay persons ignores our oppression at the hands of those Christians.
But why take the time to dialogue with those who believe my lifestyle is wrong? Because I believe that conversation matters. It is true that there may always be those who are uninterested in conversation. They desire shouting matches that rarely prove anything aside from who can shout the loudest. Still, I believe that most everyone can be drawn into dialogue that does not aim to convert, but rather to foster understanding of one another.
In Truth and Method, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that the most important thing in human relationships is to experience the other in a way that allows them to really speak to us. In this kind of communication, says Gadamer, we do not merely listen and then leave unaffected. Rather, we are changed by way of this experience with another individual.
For this kind of change to occur, for us to be affected by another, we must be open to accepting something from them. I believe that the simple act of pausing in order to have such a dialogue demonstrates an openness to this relational experience that is already present; though it may be deeply hidden.
For those who stand with the oppressed, who seek to bring about justice, taking advantage of that pause, and engaging in dialogue, is essential if justice is to be realized. The challenge is that we must also be willing to be affected by that other individual. For those of us who have experienced blatant hate, this is a scary thought because it asks us to remain vulnerable in front of those we may perceive as enemies. Yet, that openness is what I find so valuable in dialogue. It teaches us to coexist, hopefully in peace.
Let me use metaphor familiar to Christians. The communion table is a place where the church gathers and there represents the community of Christ. Though Christians hold differing ideas about what happens at communion, a common understanding is that in that sacrament there is a deep — even mystical — connection to each other and the divine. It represents the highest form of community for Christians.
Can that image not translate to dialogue, even a theological one, whose aim is to bring about understanding of the marginalized and thus promote justice? Can churches create spaces of communion in which theological conversations about homosexuality are not futile, but are instead catalysts for social justice? Can these conversations lead us to a deep connection to one another and even to the sacred?
I think so. More than that, I think that is precisely what we are called to do.
Jared Vázquez is a third-year Masters of Divinity student at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jared’s research interests lie in embodiment, identity, and intersectionality. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in social ethics with focus on latina/o queer experience. Most recently Jared has been accepted to the 2011 class of the HRC’s Summer Institute for Religion and Theology.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
A Home for Middle Eastern Gay Men to Celebrate Both Identities
by Andrew Khouri, USC graduate journalism student
“The hookah breaks the ice,” said the man behind the bar.
A collection of old, silver-painted water pipes styled as light fixtures hang above his head, bathing in gold a crowd of men as they puff away on flavored tobacco below. The pulsating beat of Arabic music wafts onto the outdoor patio from inside the bar, where throngs of gay men dance together, and scantily clad male go-go dancers gyrate on stages.
A similar scene of rhythm, smoke, and liquor plays out nightly throughout Los Angeles, a city revered for its immigrant and gay cultures. But for party-goers at this weekly romp, the atmosphere was a new one. Most hailed from the Middle East, where homosexuality carries social and sometimes even legal punishment. In Saudi Arabia, homosexual sex carries a maximum penalty of death, and even in Lebanon, which has a burgeoning gay club scene, “sexual intercourse contrary to nature” is illegal.
It is not an overnight cure. We can’t force the boys to change, but we want them to know what their choices are in life. Some effeminate boys end up as a transvestite or a homosexual, but we want to do our best to limit this.
—Razali Daud, education director of the Malaysian state of Terrengganu
Malaysian authorities, the Telegraph reports, has ordered 66 Muslim schoolboys to attend a reform camp where they will receive religious classes and “physical guidance.” At the four-day camp to promote Muslim morality, the boys, who were identified as their teachers as being effeminate, will receive counseling on masculine behavior to discourage them from being gay.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Passing of Thomas Merton’s Mentor at Gethsemani
Lou retells some of Merton’s story here, in a fresh and human way, but also some of the story of this lesser-known light of Gethsemani. I’ve heard from monastics across the years how great a teacher on the deepest meaning of celibacy this gay man was.
(photo: Peter Jordan)
The Consequence of Cohabitation
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“The pro-life movement is definitely very appealing to younger evangelical Christians. … Definitely pushing the whole gay marriage thing, that’s more toward older folks. I don’t feel like our generation really cares about that at all.”
—Josh Kunkle, a senior at Manchester College on NPR
While some conservative mainstays boycotted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year to protest the inclusion of GOProud, an advocacy group “representing gay conservatives and their allies,” younger attendees came in droves. Polling data shows that Millennials — those born after 1980 — are more likely than any other generation to support gay marriage. This trend was reflected at CPAC, too.
Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah characterizes this attitudinal shift as “the consequence of cohabitaton.” He says today’s college students are less homophobic because they’ve grown up knowing other gay peers — people they may or may not have liked, but who are nevertheless “just part of the normal range of what’s around” and therefore “the idea that these people are particularly horrendous is just not one that you can sell.”
Listener Demands Apology and a Civil Exchange Results
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
(photo: Metal Chris/Flickr, reprinted with Creative Commons license)
Chad Smyser, a listener from New York City, took us to task for our editorial decision to broadcast and podcast a recent show featuring Evangelical leader Richard Mouw. He wrote:
I am so disappointed in last week’s episode.
This broadcast was ill-timed in the wake of the hate crimes in New York and the suicide at Rutgers. In addition, at a time when SOF is transitioning its brand identity, one would think the choice of material would be less divisive.
I have listened to your show for years. It has brought great comfort and understanding into my life. I will continue to listen, even in the wake of what I consider to be a giant gaffe from a show that I deeply respect. Would the show have given voice to someone who supported Virginia’s anti-interracial marriage laws in 1967, no matter how civil the voice? In my mind, this is what “On Being” did, translating it to 2010.
But civility in the political and religious arena is such an important topic! I wish it had been explored in a way that didn’t highlight one man’s disapproval of gay marriage. I long to be respectful of other folks’ beliefs, struggles and communal aspirations. Regrettably, it is impossible for anyone who believes in equality to reconcile Mr. Mouw’s beliefs on gay marriage. How is it civil to deny someone his or her right to marry the one he or she loves? An on-air apology to your gay and lesbian listeners would be most welcome.
The language used on one of the Facebook posts (“No matter what your opinion on gay rights”) was appalling. While I’m sure it was unintentional, I feel that the show really needs to clear the air.
All the best,
This critique echoed many other listeners’ reactions to the show. And, we answered as many as we could. But, it was the following exchange between Kate Moos, our executive producer, and Chad that offers an example of what quality conversation can be when we are honest, open, and vulnerable with one another:
Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m sorry the show disappointed you. There has been some follow up on our blog, and there will likely be more. Our internal editorial process was quite fraught along some the same lines of question and concern you describe. The program itself was not designed to be—and wasn’t—a show about the gay marriage and gay civil rights issues. It was aimed at the broader topic of civility. But Mouw’s position on gay marriage colors his authority—in many peoples’ view—for other topics of moral weight.
We argued about this and wrestled with it. Ultimately, we felt it was important to factor in the people with whom Mouw is in a distinct position to have high authority: other conservative Christians, whom he is taking to task and challenging to greater compassion, humility and civility. In fact, we received an email yesterday from one of those conservative Christians who has been paralyzed in her relationships with 2 close family members who are gay. She wrote to thank us because she was heart-broken and felt Mouw gave her a way to be in relationship with them, and in some sense, gave her permission to love them. So that is another impact of this program.
We would not have a guest on our show who would defend inter-racial marriage laws. And yet your point is taken—theological thinkers and religious people have erred badly in the past, and continue to err on matters of central moral gravity, things like slavery, voting rights, and marriage. Some people clearly put Mouw in that category.
The idea was to challenge all of us to keep listening through our most profound disagreements.
Chad, I am a lesbian who is long partnered, and who went to Canada to be married a few years ago—believe me I was challenged in producing this show, to keep listening to a point of view that I find in its essence a condemnation of my life. I am also related to people who share Mouw’s view of gay-lesbian marriage, and of the essential sinfulness of homosexuality. I struggle mightily to keep an open heart for them. This is where we are living, all of us, in this kind of contention.
I am not writing back to you to counter what you say but perhaps to amplify it. We will be posting reflections on this show in the coming days that might help “clear the air.” If you have other thoughts on how we can do that I’d love to hear them.
Thanks for writing, and peace.
And Chad’s reply:
I am deeply touched and grateful for your thoughtful, heartfelt reply. Perhaps this episode struck such a dissonant chord with me because, like you, I struggle with the issue of civility and open mindedness in dealing with folks in my own family and circle of acquaintances. It was Mr. Mouw’s views on homosexuality in the context of creating an open dialogue amongst people of vastly varying viewpoints that really caused my disappointment.
Also, I look to SOF/Being as one of my touchstones to a spiritual life. I was raised evangelical and threw out all things spiritual when I came out. I thought that the two were mutually exclusive. It was really your show that allowed me to find a way back to belief in something bigger than myself. Through SOF I discovered the quiet revolution of Thich Nhat Hahn. I started uncovering the secular movement toward well-being via Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness and Andrew Freear’s architecture. I even felt a deep kinship with Shane Claiborne, although his views on homosexuality certainly aren’t akin to mine. Nevertheless, his spirit of subversive inclusiveness and social justice really appeals to me.
I am moved by the response of one of your conservative Christian listeners who struggles to find a way to have a relationship with her gay relatives. Perhaps this one outcome is worth all the confusion and anger gays and lesbians may have felt. Furthermore, I suppose this episode has truly challenged my views on civility and dealing with those whose views I know are empirically wrong when it comes to homosexuality, yet with whom I must find a way to reconcile. There is nothing more human than failure. I would be well advised to accept others’ failure as well as my own.
I continue to look forward to the journey from “Faith” to “Being.” Airing your and the staff’s own struggles with this episode would be a great help to your gay and lesbian listeners. Understanding your journey has profoundly affected mine.
Of course we are sensitive to these types of personal conversations, so I requested Chad’s permission to publish the exchange, to which he replied with a graceful note:
Yes, you may publish our correspondence. I am very grateful for Kate’s response, and I imagine that it will speak to others. It really helped me to understand the spirit behind Krista’s conversation with Mr. Mouw, along with the editorial struggles that went into its production.
All the best,
American Christians Believe Church Teachings Contribute to Negative Messages of Gay and Lesbian People
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
Our recent show on civility with Evangelical leader Richard Mouw elicited many impassioned responses from our listeners, especially on his comments about homosexuality. Some questioned whether Mouw can truly strike a civil tone and see LGBT people as “a work of art by the God whom I worship” while still condemning homosexuality as a sin and opposing laws that would grant the same rights to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples currently receive.
Last Thursday, the Public Religion Research Institute released findings from a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans see a connection between the negative messages that come out of places of worship and the suicide incidence among LGBT youth. The pie chart above illustrates how Americans view the relationship between negative religious messages about homosexuality and the incidence of gay suicides.
This same poll shows that less than one in five Americans believe churches have done a good job dealing with homosexuality. Who feels that they do the best job in handling this issue? I found those results particularly interesting:
“Of all religious groups, white evangelicals are most likely to give their own church high marks for handling the issue of homosexuality. Three-quarters of white evangelicals give their church an “A” (48%) or “B” (27%). Among white mainline Protestants and Catholics, only about 4-in-10 give their church an “A” or “B.” Catholics were most likely to give their churches negative marks, with nearly one-third giving their churches a “D” (15%) or an “F” (16%).
If you’re interested, you can view the topline questionnaire on the PRR website.