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Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Accidental Activist

Who knew such an obviously just cause could be so contentious within the most liberal of denominations?

I refer to the cause of marriage equality. To cut swiftly through all the shrill, reactionary, and inflammatory guff that's been burped out about it, the issue is actually a rather simple one, and can be subject to clear thinking if you really try.

Major premise: People do not choose their sexual orientation. (This is a verifiable fact, supported by masses of medical and psychological research over the past twenty years. It is not a lifestyle choice; it is a matter of discovering and living truthfully your own personal identity.)

Minor premise: Denying someone equal rights and legal standing based on characteristics beyond their control (race, gender, disability) is manifestly unjust. (People can be answerable and accountable for acts of their will, but one cannot will oneself to be a different race (pace Michael Jackson). Nor can they will themselves to respond sexually to what they do not respond to sexually.)

Conclusion: Denying the legal right to equal marital status, based on sexual orientation, is unjust.

Professional logicians who want to pick that apart, 'go yer hardest', as they say Down-under.

Notice the far more professional placards of the "God Hates You" brigade at the back
The thing is I seem to be pathologically unable to jettison the clear direction this reasoning affords simply for the sake of a quiet life. Unitarians pride themselves on the application of reason to matters of religion and morality. But sometimes, I swear, you wouldn't know it...

My wife and a few congregants and I showed up recently to a rally in support of changing the marriage law to reflect simple justice. Australia, often an innovator in social policy, has been woefully retrograde on this issue. Witness, without weeping for joy if you can, the moment tiny New Zealand passed such a change in their laws:

This expression of joy was in part an emotional release from love long denied, but it was also, I think, a burst of positive energy that, in these times of divisive and polarized politics, a simple and obvious good can still be done by people who have the will to do it.

Now, all Unitarian umbrella organisations in the world are behind this movement toward marriage equality. All of them, and not without much internal soul-searching and debate, I am sure. In the UK, a couple of Unitarian churches were granted special licenses to perform same-sex marriages before the bill changing the law was passed through Parliament. The Standing on the Side of Love movement within the UUA is well-subscribed and well-known.

Unitarians are also committed to tolerance, and that means respect for the diversity of views. Reason and tolerance. Do you see the problem here? Suppose the views you are called to respect are irrational, fear-driven, or cravenly change and risk averse? How do you resolve that? Are there any 'wrong' views that may be, respectfully, dismissed?

I suggest one view we might dismiss is the one championed by the theological illiterates waving the anti-gay placards in the distance in the top photo. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but you're not entitled to cherry-pick an encyclopaedic source, make up stuff from what you've picked, and use it to oppress and harass people. Are we agreed on this? Good.

But a far more insidious view on the issue is "let's just wait 'til everybody agrees and no one is offended". First, like THAT's ever going to happen. Second, apparently it's perfectly okay to let oppression you acknowledge carry merrily on until YOU'RE feeling perfectly comfortable. Had this fear-based approach been applied to the civil rights movement or the women's movement, we'd still be living in the 1950's when inequality for minorities and women were pretty much institutionalized.

Worse: when you don't stand up to those taking the first view, they win.

No, the wheel of justice turns damn slowly, and turns even more slowly if you don't bother to put your shoulder to it. Complacency is incompatible with a desire for social justice.

So when I let it be known around the church that I planned to appear at this rally in my role as Pastor, it was as though someone had turned the temperature in the room down 5 degrees. I was told I was not to speak for the church of which I am the Pastor, because some in the congregation might be uncomfortable with it. Hence the wording in the placard I am holding in the photo.

It's our tradition that no one individual speaks for the Unitarian movement, and given our lack of hierarchy, this is as it should be. But what that means in practice is that nobody speaks. At all. On anything. As a result, we've been here in a not-large city for 158 years, and we might as well be invisible.

Hey ho. So in living out my UU values, I find myself an activist. I didn't actually mean to, but as someone said, "I can do no other, God help me."

In the end, I was the only clergy there. The only other religious representation there was, you guessed it, the crowing bigots with the well-made placards. By sheer dint of numbers and volume, their view was the view of the religious community for those assembled. And the reality is it damn well isn't.

The bleak shall inherit the earth
This is what happens when religious liberals and progressives fail to stand up for their values: all the unchurched know of the religious life are the very zealots Jesus himself would have had no truck with. Those who preach hate instead of love.

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