A 30-Day Riot of Love

My calendar this morning reminded me that we’re almost halfway through June 2020, perhaps the strangest Pride Month in LGBTQI history. Am I the only one for whom the last three months of sheltering in place feels as if it’s both the longest and shortest 90 days ever?

I think it’s because it feels as though a year’s worth of horrifying news, social upheaval, and personal angst have been packed into those 90 days.

For me it started with the realization that three white men had walked around my home state of Georgia scot-free for 74 days after conducting a modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. They were granted this freedom by local law enforcement, who characterized the confrontation as a citizen’s arrest gone wrong.  It took a viral video to show the truth and provoke the arrests of the three men on felony murder charges.

A 74-day delay of justice might as well be an eternity for what it says about our society’s ability to deny that justice.

Eight minutes and 46 seconds is another eternity; it’s how long George Floyd found himself pinned to the ground with a white police officer’s knee on his neck as the ability to breathe slowly left him and three other police officers stood by doing nothing to prevent this lynching.

This time, the viral video of this heinous act that circulated prompted protests that started the next day in Minneapolis and spread over the next 12 days to more than 750 cities and towns in the United States and abroad.

As I witnessed all this through my laptop screen, my heart broke and a flashback took over my mind — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 and the cities of our country burning with expressions of anger, resentment, and hopelessness that became a nationwide convulsion of urban riots that lasted for 54 days; the immediate riots became known as the Holy Week Uprising.

I then had a knee-jerk reaction and posted on my Facebook page:

My hope and prayers are with all those who are protesting and those charged with keeping the peace… Violence is not the answer.

That brought two immediate responses that made me feel painfully misunderstood and… white; the first was from a friend who said:

What is this better way… everyone keeps talking about?? We have tried EVERYTHING… writing, calling, videoing, praying, and kneeling, yet you still ostracized, demonized, criticized, arrested, beat, and killed us… You have left us no other choice… can you hear our voice now 400 YEARS later?

Soon it was followed by this from Craig Washington, a black gay activist and good friend for whom I have nothing but deep respect and gratitude for his work in our community:

With all due respect Pastor Paul, this has been going on for decades, centuries, this same dialectic. No justice, no peace. Why are we focusing on the rioters? Have we forgotten what continues to trigger rage in the streets? My father had to train his sons how to survive white hatred — probably his father before that and his father’s father before that! My brother had to train his sons, and his sons must train their children. By age 11, I knew how to avoid being killed by a policeman, did you? So, we have a cadre of leaders from the Mayor to TI to Killer Mike telling those whose trauma has distilled into rage: “violence is not the answer”???? I suggest you prioritize that message for the police, the white women that call the police on Blacks, and the white fathers and sons who hold dear the tradition of their Confederate ancestors — lynching, that “Violence is not the answer”.

I was stunned; I thought to myself: What Craig is describing simply cannot be the way 37,144,530 black Americans have to live in this country. Yet there is no getting around it or explaining it away. It is indeed the plight of 37,144,530 Americans, and of that we ought to be ashamed. We ought to be “Jesus tearing up the temple” angry.

Rev. Timothy McDonald of Atlanta said: “The problem of racism in America, is the silence of the White Church.”

The issues of racism — as with homophobia, sexism, and most other “isms” — mostly don’t get talked about or dealt with unless that particular “ism” happens to come into our own personal backyard. Then only for the time it takes the media to do the story — and we get our 15 seconds of fame.

Which brings me to the reason I am writing this on a Friday in mid-June 2020.

It is Pride Month, the 28th day of which is the anniversary of a riot. A riot that started on a small street in New York City, was then observed with a yearly parade, and has now become a coast-to-coast annual corporatist party that floods our social media feeds with company logos converted to rainbow colors. In that party, so many of us are either literally or figuratively not much more than rainbow flag-waving bystanders.

I’m sorry, but I perceive more than a little patriarchal (and by extension, white) privilege in the fact that we’ve laundered Pride’s roots as a riot into a money-soaked rainbow flag while encouraging our black sisters and brothers to be nonviolent in the face of violent oppression. Whatever happened to getting “Jesus tearing up the temple” angry about something?

I have often thought that one reason LGBQ people are not murdered more often is because we have the option of passing — which for white LGBQ people amounts to two layers of invisibility that become terribly handy when the all-seeing eye of the evangelical white church swings our way.

This white church must have one heckuva face mask on right now, because as Rev. McDonald said, its silence is deafening on the subject of black lives.

But I know what that voice sounds like: It sounds like calling for my figurative execution in the town square. It sounds like dulcet whispers about police “just doing their job;” about “not having anything to hide” from the police. It sounds like pulling kids out of public schools and into private Christian ones, and asking the state to fund that choice at the expense of the public schools — and guess who gets left behind in those schools? In the 1990’s it sounded like the “three strikes and you’re out” policies that accelerated the school-to-prison pipeline.

And then it’s deafeningly silent again when yet another one of our transgender sisters or brothers is murdered because of their visibility — or more accurately, because of how they’re viewed. These distinctions are critical.

So, the need to continue to celebrate Pride Month during all the chaos around us is open to question. Especially since the chaos around us is thought to be more urgent than LGBTQI Pride — because after all, say the rainbow flag-waving bystanders: “Look at the progress that has been made in the community!”

Well if you haven’t guessed by now, I define progress as something other than having Madison Avenue splash Wall Street with 30 days of rainbows while your local Martin Luther King Junior Drive’s fortunes remain unchanged and Main Street still looks like this:

  • LGBTQI people can still be fired or denied housing or public accommodations for no other reason than the simple fact of who we are; marriage equality hasn’t changed this.
  • Transgender people worldwide are regularly shot, stabbed, beaten, burned, mutilated, tortured, strangled, hanged, or stoned – generally to death – simply for being who they are. It is why the single biggest transgender-focused event in any community, a Transgender Day of Remembrance, honors those who have suffered the loss of their lives in the last 365 days.
  • About 40% of youth experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQI. LGB youth are also 4 times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers – and this is in a context where suicide is already the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-24.

And, this is to say nothing of adoption rights, wage gaps, transgender underemployment, mass unemployment… the full quilt of societal forces that should have us back in the streets using our own voices in something a bit more pointed than a party. I’ll say it again: We need to be “Jesus tearing up the temple” angry.

Pride Month is for demanding actual equality; it is for re-claiming our total dignity as the full spectrum of LGBTQI people of all backgrounds. It is for us to claim our right to be fully ourselves — and left alone in that — in a world where all too often who you are is still defined by (spoiler alert) white evangelical Christian men whose worldview still turns the handle on the societal machinery that’s rolling all over you.

So the next question becomes: How do we put a stop to that machinery, or at least slow it down? What could our expressions of Pride actually accomplish?

How do we learn the lesson of Dr. King, who said, A riot is the language of the unheard.” What will it take for us to hear the cry for justice, the cry for mercy, the cry to be equal? And not only to hear the cry, but to do something about it?

For those people of the Christian faith in the LGBTQI community, we need to reclaim the narrative from the evangelical white church. We need to recognize the hypocrisy and the violence of their theology. A theology that requires belief in an angry, vengeful version of God who in their warped worldview justifies the quick or slow extinguishing of the lives of those they don’t agree with or even value.

We need to hold that theo-view to account in the name of Jesus who taught that whenever one might feel justified in killing someone, to actually carry out that killing one must be without sin. Let that soak in; it’s why Dr. King was able to say, “Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. Love is not emotional bash; it is not empty sentimentalism. It is the active outpouring of one’s whole being into the being of another.”

Into what are you outpouring your whole being? Or are you content to be a bystander while the SWAT tanks roll by? If you’re not content, the following is my suggestion for a way forward.

We need to take a second look at the story of the Good Samaritan and see the lesson of race relations.

We need to take a second look at the story of the Prodigal and see that there is nothing God will not do to be in relationship with us.

We need to re-read the story of the lost lamb in the 99-and-1 story and see who that lamb is.

We need to re-read the story of the Roman Centurion and the healing of his “boy.” Just what happened there?

We need to re-read the stories of Jonathan and David and Ruth and Naomi with an unbiased eye about relationships.

We need to hear the first words from the cross: “God forgive them…”

It means that in our churches with our faith walks, we need to take into our hearts and souls the words of Jesus who, when asked for the priority of faith, stated clearly:

“… Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.” This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: “Love others as well as you love yourself.” These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them. — Matthew 22:34-40

So yes, we need to continue each year to claim our pride and do our best to restore our neighbor’s dignity. We also need to speak out loudly and convincingly about these issues. Jesus is tearing up the temple — the question for us is whether we’ll act like we’re his followers or just bystanders.