Having stripped ourselves of the sacred texts of Sappho, Plato, Rumi, Dickenson, and countless others, in our eagerness to find a seat near (but not at) the Eucharistic table, I don’t want to find us the victim of a malady that I call “Cabin Fever Syndrome” or “White-Man God.” This essay is a cautionary about the sacrifices we may make in order to join some conventional churches.
The Promise of Soulforce
This year, Soulforce’s Reverend Mel White has been engaged in leading Protestants into a showdown over equality for sexual minorities in the church. I worry that the significance of White’s work may be underappreciated by the strait and gay press alike. Why? Perhaps because there seems to be a separation between church and press that matches the separation between church and state. Gay people in particular who are not church goers are not likely to give the Soulforce activism any real mindshare. Many in our community are so contemptuous of organized religion that they view White’s struggles with Methodists or Presbyterians with little appreciation.
If left unchecked, how counterproductive can this deep-seated distrust of religious institutions become? People close to the effort, such as the Metropolitan Community Church’s ecumenical outreach officer, Rev Gwynne Guibord, have spelled out the essential connection between American religions and the decisions that are ultimately made in our nation’s polling booths. The interfaith outreach by MCC in the National Council of Churches, she says, has important consequences for our legal status and also our collective sense of self-worth. So perhaps the message to our skeptical friends ought to be: wake up and smell the fresh-ground cappuchino. The real goal is a place at the Eucharistic table, but beyond that, also Bruce Bawer’s place at the nourishing table of The American Family.
As I said, I believe that many of our most deeply-principled friends are not aware of Soulforce’s importance. Intuitively, however, these skeptical thinkers recognize what gay people of faith all too often cannot: that sexual minorities who identify closely with organized religion of all stripes (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever) are paradoxically in danger of losing their souls to conformity — their unique lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender gifts from their Creator.
A role for a loyal opposition
These unbelievers are in the best position to help us appreciate the soul-stealing potential in conventional religion. Unfortunately, they are also the least likely to be heard, stuck as they so often tend to be in their simplistic attitude toward religion. Any devout Christian would immediately dismiss their cautions on the grounds of poor judgment, for these critics include people who are willing to throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater: not just the debatable theologies of atonement and miracles, but the whole framework of Christian moral wisdom that is deeply admired by other religious traditions. Jews would have similar objections to those that would dismiss the Torah out of hand, and so on.
What is needed is a loyal opposition, a third path of reason and discernment, to mediate between believers and unbelievers. The real point of this essay is that the believers among us, most clearly embodied in the example of Mel White, need to hear an important public announcement from the cautionary nonbelievers. The latter have struggled to achieve a sense of profound self-worth as a lesbian, a gay man, a transgender or transsexual citizen, or a bisexual participant, and they don’t want to see anyone throw that baby out with the baptism. But the dogmatic “Jesus loves me and he knows I’m gay” and the “You’re fighting over a meaningless institution” camps cannot hear one another.
Lessons from history
To get the critical message to gay people of faith, we must look for the right vocabulary. Not surprisingly, having considered it constantly over the past eight years, I view Walt Whitman’s gay theology a helpful spiritual framework for gay identity. After that, I would cite the great legacy of women’s rights. Indeed, the history of women’s rights is 150 years overdue for being harnessed as a practical legal tool, and I’m glad to report that David AJ Richards (Women, Gays, and The Constitution, and Identity and the Case for Gay Rights) has taken up this cause. But for the present purpose — the purpose of avoiding the pitfalls of spiritual assimilation — -perhaps we can find more pointed examples in civil rights for African Americans and in the coerced religious conversions of First Nations, or Native Americans.
I will refer to these concepts as Cabin Fever Syndrome (CFS) or White-Man God (WMG). Both of these are very loosely implied in a recent letter to Soulforce:
Granted, it must be true that Gandhi and King were leaders in nonviolence not only because of good organizational skills and people skills. As far as I know, I suppose they also had the philosophical depth and the eloquence to set forth a new vision of “the good fight.” So in that respect, you’ve chosen your figureheads for your organization well.
But still, hasn’t it ever seemed a little too obvious to simply pick the two superstars and neglect other spiritual leaders? I hope you can appreciate the irony of an organization dedicated to lesbian, gay, trans spirituality that focuses on strait leaders and effectively imposes a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy towards the past 200 years worth of our own leaders who have lived, fought, and died in a nonviolent opposition to discrimination and hate.
Susan B Anthony is one enormous example of this, and Whitman is another. But specifically, I’m thinking about Bayard Rustin, having just been thumbing through my biography of him. If you haven’t looked at your copy of Jervis Anderson’s “Bayard Rustin” lately (for I’m certain you would have one), could I recommend that Soulforce consider learning more about him, and consider honoring him to whatever extent seems appropriate, in your literature?
Before I close, let me leave you with this suggestion. If you think about Anthony, Rustin, and Whitman, what they all had in common was an indescribable burden of liberating the world at large that forced their attempts to liberate sexual minorities to take a distant back seat.
Anthony worked hard her whole life to liberate all womankind, strait and gay, from social and voting disenfranchisment. I suspect she viewed that as the inexorable barrier to be removed before she or anyone else could make the world a little safer for lesbians.
Rustin had to liberate black Americans, strait and gay, from oppression and legal discrimination. He had a lifetime of responsibilities standing between him and speaking to King about civil rights for gays, although I have heard rumors that he did just that.
And Whitman had to struggle with the whole planet’s load of shame about heterosex before he could ever hope for it to reconsider its hatred of homosex.
White’s answer was perfectly noncommittal…
Well said, Mitch,
I’m taking your comments very seriously.
…and not satisfactory, since Soulforce has taken no action to add any material on uniquely gay spirituality to its site.
Is Soulforce a victim of CFS, the number-one crippler of people of faith in our community? I don’t know. Perhaps you can help me understand the matter. To really understand CFS itself, consider a discussion of Harriette Beecher Stowe’s groundbreaking abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Berkeley University student Reena Naik views Uncle Tom as a kind of Christ figure — but a profoundly neurotic or emasculated kind of Christ figure.
… His undying love for all people is portrayed by his every action. He constantly submits to the hardships that he feels God has created for him. Uncle Tom dismisses the idea of running away with Eliza and Harry, he values loyalty to his master above his own well being. Although he recognizes the wrongs committed upon him, Tom’s strong worship of the Bible restrains him from rebellion. He comes to the understanding that the minds of slaveholders have gone sour and they do not no any better than to treat slaves the way they do. He also finds the positives in every situation. When he is sold to Mr. Haley, Tom thanks the lord that Aunt Chloe and his children were not sold.
If this is by any stretch of the imagination a Christ, it is certainly not the enraged Christ who drove the mercenaries from the temple with a bull whip. (Mercenaries in church?! See below.) It is not the stern Jesus who practically put his body between the angry crowd and the prostitute.
It’s important to be perfectly fair about this. One can imagine Soulforce replying that gay Christians have always traditionally been infected with Uncle Tom’s Cabin Fever Syndrome, and that this is precisely why Soulforce is in existence in the first place. Still, it’s not clear to me whether Soulforce advocates for little more than a more humane brand of what David AJ Richards calls “moral slavery,” because in the same Uncle Tom discussion, Bedros Gaule writes:
It amazes me to see how much Uncle Tom has adopted the Christian ways. During our first encounter with Uncle Tom, he leads a religious group meeting. Uncle Tom relates everything in his life to Christianity. He is very forgiving of everyone, even those who hurt him. When he learns that Mr. Shelby has sold him and Harry, he decides not to escape with Eliza but to stay and accept what has happened to him. He adds, “It’s better for me alone to go, than to break up the place and sell all. Mas’r ain’t to blame….he’ll take good car of you…” (ch.5, page 36)
Just so, we seem to cling to the hope that our Methodist and Presbyterian “Mas’rs” will take good “car” of us — if only we can wheedle them into not threatening us with eternal damnation. Gaule continues:
Tom forgives Mr. Shelby for selling him and says that these are the ways of things. From what we have read so far, Uncle Tom forgives all whites for their practices and says that they, in essence, don’t know what they are doing. Uncle Tom’s forgiving nature is surprising because Mr. Shelby’s act of selling Uncle Tom, totally unravels his current way of life. This reminds me of the Bible when Jesus was being crucified and he said to God to forgive these men for they knew not what they were doing. It will be interesting to see his attitude and feelings towards slavery and whites stays the same throughout the novel.
Yes, I have the same feeling of interest in seeing whether Soulforce’s attitude stays the same throughout 2000-2002.
The more that one observes organized religion as a loyal opponent, the more deeply one is struck by its essentially capitalistic workings. It is a truism that religion is big business — and here we’re talking really big. Not convinced? Well, Mormons and Catholics together blew $11M in Hawaii alone to fight gay marriage — like it was chump change for them (which it was). But what is even less well appreciated is that it works the other way, too: lesbian and gay membership is serious business for the welcoming congregation, a source of real revenue. Leslie Olston has identified a corresponding note of skepticism over motives in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
The way that a lot of people justified this convenience of slavery was with the bible, but as St. Clare pointed out:
“suppose that something should bring down the price of cotton once and forever, and make the whole slave property a drug in the market, don’t you think we should soon have another version of the Scriputure doctrine? What a flood of light would pour into the church, all at once, and how immediately it would be discovered that everything in the Bible and reason went the other way!” (p. 202)
The message from skeptics is: watch out for the colonization of your soul. Exploitation is how missionaries build empires. In the context of an urban church competing to stay alive, this can translate into what is essentially product development, advertising, and an effort to steal market share. The ultimate “missionary position.”
The missionary position
With Bedros Gaule, when I consider what sometimes passes for gay spirituality, “It amazes me to see how much Uncle Tom has adopted the Christian ways.” Much more than White, I seem to be seriously dismayed by the position of lesbians who abandon Susan B Anthony’s deep spirituality of female identity for “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or the posture of gay men who are too busy coaxing billowing clouds from chasubles to heed James Baldwin’s warnings about a diety who “sprang into being on the cold, black day when we discovered that nature cared nothing for us,” and whose advent, “which alone had the power to save us from nature and ourselves” led to the creation of “the duality of good and evil…”
The problem as I see it is that, despite the great advances White is making, we are still locked in an uncomfortable missionary position with the strait agenda on top. This remains ever so much more true as White summons the heirs of the Martin Luther King, Jr, legacy in his effort to establish credibility with the mass media. Because the discourse is mostly restricted to the self-serving confines of conventional Protestant theology, one might as well imagine that we are attending the first suffrage convention where women are not allowed to conduct any business or even to speak, because only men are still believed capable of that. Or perhaps that we have arrived at the same moment of decision that black Americans faced when Malcom X challenged King’s assimilationist politics. According to Gerald Early,
Because of Malcolm, the leaders of the civil rights movement were made, through their comparative conservatism, to seem even older than they were, more cowardly than they were, bigger sellouts than they were. He referred to them as “Uncle Toms” or as “Uncles,” associating them with the conflated popular image of both Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom, fictional characters created by white writers, aged black men who “loved their white folks.”
[And yes, I am beholden not to fall into unfairly forging this kind of slander against assimilationist Christians.] Today’s young, middle-class blacks, by comparison, Early adds…
… are wholly neither inside nor outside of the American mainstream, and they are unsure whether any ideal form of integration exists. But, like Malcolm, they wish to rid themselves of their feelings of ambiguity, their sense of the precariousness of their belonging. For many of them (and they are not entirely unjustified in feeling this way) integration is the badge of degradation and dishonor, of shame and inferiority, that segregation was for my generation.
Unbelievers and the loyal opponents of White-ian Christianity hold up to lesbian and gay Christians and Jews (and Muslims, and…) the following mirror of Early’s blackness, to see whether in it we may recognize ourselves:
I also have felt great shame in the era of integration because, as a student and as a professor, I have taken the money of whites, been paid simply because I was black and was expected to make “black statements” in order to be praised by whites for my Negro-ness. I have felt much as if I were doing what James Baldwin described black domestics in white homes as doing: stealing money and items from whites that the whites expected them to take, wanted them to take, because it reinforced the whites’ superiority and our own degradation. Allowing the whites to purchase my “specialness” through affirmative action has seemed not like reparations but like a new form of enslavement.
As I review what I have written here so far, I find in it more of a criticism of the indispensable work that Soulforce is doing than a plan for avoiding the pitfalls. But I do not wish to place myself in the camp of trivializers. My views on a more universalist approach to faith for sexual minorities and a less essentially-compromising way of working directly within established faith communities are widely available on the Web (references below). In the end, I would like to suggest that our situation as people of faith resembles the characterization of Native American spirituality by Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin:
….the North American public remains ignorant about Native American religions. And this, despite the fact that hundreds of books and articles have been published by anthropologists, religionists and others about native beliefs… Little of this scholarly literature has found its way into popular books about Native American religion…
Having stripped ourselves of the sacred texts of Sappho, Plato, Rumi, Dickenson, and countless others, in our eagerness to find a seat near (but not at) the Eucharistic table, I don’t want to find us the victim of WMG. Our denial of our true selves is a case of Henny Youngman’s “take my wife — please!” joke gone terribly wrong, with our same-gender spouses being the sacrificial victims. Like a First Nations tribe turning its backs on its own winktes and berdashes, we seem to be lulling ourselves with the childish mantra, “Teach Me White-Man Ways.”
It would seem quite difficult to offer an alternative to the comfortable, tried and true, “White-Man Ways.” Because from one point of view, we are large; we contain multitudes. As historian Christine Leigh has said,
Teaching about Native American religion is a challenging task to tackle with students at any level, if only because the Indian systems of belief and ritual were as legion as the tribes inhabiting North America.
But as I have argued elsewhere, this need not be a cause for dismay. Like Leigh, we can go on to propose that our similarities in a radical Otherness experience are more profound than our differences:
…let’s begin by trimming down that bewildering variety to manageable proportions with [a number of] glittering generalizations (which might, with luck, prove more useful than misleading)…
This is precisely what a lambda theology organization would accomplish. I challenge people of good will to consider it.
Arkansas native Mitchell Santine Gould is the leading authority on Walt Whitman’s mysterious connection to Quakerism and developed “I Call to Mankind,” an hour-long one-man play based on “Song of Myself.” He served on the steering committee of the Community of Welcoming Congregations and was an organizer of a meeting of Friends for LGBTQ Concerns dedicated to prominent gay figures in Quaker history. He earned masters degrees in physics and anatomy from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University and has published in Physics Today, Popular Science, Men’s Fitness and Runner’s World. He relocated to Oregon in the late 1990s and produced a historical documentary about the introduction of the giant sequoia to the state, titled Tuality Giants.