The Public Pool

Every day, in our society, we see examples of gross injustice. We bemoan what seems, to most of us, a growing trend. But we don’t quite know how to make sense of it. What the talking heads who comment on the problem all too often fail to tell us is that our society is unjust because we’ve lost our sense of community. People who feel a communal kinship with each other tend to treat each other fairly. The Golden Rule is easier to remember when we recognize that how we treat others creates the environment for how we are treated.

Mean people are stupid. Nice people are smart. That may seem over-simple, but it’s true. For the most part, those who are kind to others have happier lives. Being kind to others simply makes life more pleasant than being nasty to them. In my experience as an “out” lesbian, most of the people who have been mean to me – for being gay – did not do so because of their religious faith. Not even when (as they often did) they cited their religion as their excuse. Most of them were simply mean people. They were jerks.

Nor was their religion the reason why. If they had no religious beliefs on which to blame their behavior, they’d simply find a different excuse. What those who blame Christianity for LGBT persecution fail to consider is that mean and stupid people with no religious convictions might not only be just as mean and stupid – they might be even worse. I shudder to think of what some homophobes would be like if they had no religious restraint on their antisocial inclinations.

Those who would deny us justice feel no sense of connectedness with us. Not just us as LGBT people, but as human beings in general.

An analogy that works well, even though it might be sort of icky, is that which likens society to a public swimming pool. If we all must swim together, nobody pees in the pool. Even if we don’t mind that others might have to swim in the mess we’ve made, we don’t want to be immersed in it, ourselves. Those who fail to honor community pee in the public pool.

God loves each of us equally. “He” also loves every one of us completely. As Rev. Steven Wayles, longtime pastor at Phoenix’s First Congregational UCC, is fond of saying, “God loves each one of us as if we were the only one.”

A Christian sense of community takes the God’s-eye view that all must be cared for – that all are worthy of consideration and respect. Such a view concerns itself with providing enough room, enough opportunity, enough protection and freedom for every person. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, gay nor straight.

It is only a hop, skip and a jump from lacking any real sense of community, of connectedness to other human beings, to denying not only their rights, but their humanity. Surely a broken sense of community had much to do with why the German people turned their backs on the Jews and other “undesirables” during the Nazi era.

Only by protecting the rights of all can we protect the rights of any. A society in which one group can be dehumanized is one in which any other might eventually suffer the same fate. The German people found that out, under the Nazis, as the list of “undesirables” grew ever longer and more and more of them found themselves on it.

The cause of justice for LGBT people is advancing because people are getting to know us. We’re their children, their parents, their siblings, their coworkers, their neighbors and their friends. We’re no longer exotics who’ve chosen wild and hedonistic “lifestyles.” Certainly our diehard enemies continue to portray us that way, but a growing number of people know better. It is harder for them to dehumanize people who are, essentially, just like them.

The road to justice does not travel the way of isolated individualism, of those who use social media not to facilitate connectedness but as a substitute for it, of those who leave commentary on blogs – under aliases – that denigrate other people. Couch potatoes may think they can learn about justice by watching Judge Judy on cable five times a week, but that is a questionable assumption. Watching Jodi Arias sing to herself and do handstands on hidden camera makes for lurid entertainment, but it tells us little about how our justice system ought to work.

I’m tired of hearing complaints about injustice from people too lazy, too busy or too self-absorbed to check on an elderly neighbor to see if she’s all right. Or to encourage a coworker who’s depressed. Or to ask a person at church, who’s been unemployed for months, if he needs any help coping with daily life. Justice can originate nowhere but in our own families, workplaces, neighborhoods, congregations and cities – because if we don’t even care about each other, the very concept of justice on any larger scale is dead.

According to 1 John 4:20-21 (NIV), “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”

I’ll take that one step farther. Anyone who claims to care about “society,” or “humanity,” as some vague, nameless, faceless mass, yet does not care about those individuals God has placed right there in their lives – whose names they know, and whose faces they see – is a fraud. As the saying goes, charity begins at home. Or, at least, close to it.

Conservative evangelical churches – the sort that tend most often to be anti-gay – are growing, while generally more-welcoming liberal mainline churches are hemorrhaging members. I’ve heard all the vain, self-serving excuses for why this is happening: that people joining the growing churches are ignorant, that they’re easily frightened, that they’re looking for scapegoats to hate. Those of us who are content to believe that are living in a fool’s paradise.

The primary reason people are leaving mainline churches to join the evangelicals is not because of moral teaching or theology, but because these more conservative churches tend to provide a stronger sense of community. Mainline congregations may have, to an increasing degree, more welcoming and inclusive policies, but they still tend to strike people as stiff and cold. As all head, and no heart.

I can provide plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this. I know several people who belong to conservative churches – none of whom fit the stereotype. They all say they chose their church homes because they are lonely, feel isolated and overwhelmed by everyday life, and need some semblance of community – of family. All say that though theologically a more liberal church might be more their style, they simply weren’t getting what they needed in their relationships with other members. And each says he or she knows other people who’ve made their choice of churches for the same reason.

Precisely because many people affiliate with anti-gay churches for reasons that involve neither moral teaching nor theology, it is well within the power of LGBT-friendly churches to win them back. And not to lose more of them in the first place. Contrary to what anti-gay preachers often claim, their principles of welcome and inclusion need not be compromised to win members back. No, they simply need to follow through on those principles by creating space and encouraging opportunities, in their congregations, for community to grow. In other words, they need to live out their commitment to welcome and inclusiveness more completely.

The good news is that we can help promote justice in the world. It may feel like a task far beyond our powers, but it’s as close as the people we see every day. Yes, we live in a big, big world, and it may seem more like an ocean than a public pool. But it isn’t a good idea to pee in the ocean, either. After all, the tide may go out, but it always comes back to us again.