Rocks and Hard Places for Gay Christians this Christmas

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Rocks and Hard Places for Gay Christians this Christmas

Scott Swenson

During this Holy Season for every faith, many are up in arms over a prayer Rick Warren will offer, some planning to disrupt it, which will only cede the moral authority progressives now have.

I pray. Everyday. Sometimes several times. This week begins a twelve day feast of the birth of Christ in my faith tradition, and it happens amidst other celebrations of light in the darkness in every faith. It is a good time to remember that light starts within each of us and spreads as we respect it in ourselves and others, no matter how challenging that may be. Some might say that it is in dark moments of challenge that we are meant to discover the light.

I’m also gay, so this holiday season has been consumed with a roller coaster of emotion and rage at the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to lead a prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration, where the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery will also pray.

Until January 20th, I will be praying that those of us who disagree with the selection of Rick Warren will not compound the challenges we face on our journey toward equality by being disrespectful, booing during prayer, or otherwise thinking that this moment is anything but what Obama intended — modeling civility from a position of strength and conviction in his own progressive ideas about sexual and reproductive health and rights. I will pray that we see through the darkness toward the light within each of us, the light that allows us to see more compassionately those we don’t  understand or definitely disagree with, yes, even those who would deny our very existence. In demanding equality we are claiming our right to journey through life on our own terms. To achieve equality we must not deny others in our effort to be recognized.

Obama is not moving toward Rick Warren and social conservatives as Congressional Democrats have attempted to do by hushing progressives clamoring for changes to many policies on sexual and reproductive health. Instead Obama demonstrates that progressive ideas on gay issues, sex ed, contraception and abortion are moral choices.  He invites Warren to join him, even while disagreeing on gay rights and abortion, to find new common ground.  When news of the Warren invitation first broke, I noted that the challenge was now Warren’s to lead hard-right social conservatives past partisanship and bitter divide that has characterized gridlock in Washington for much of the past 30 years, to a new place of civility that Obama is attempting to create in our politics. It appears Warren is taking some initial steps in Obama’s direction.

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These are generational changes we are participating in and they are being led and defined by arguably the most progressive new administration in history. Obama recognizes that to get movement on the policies we must change, our democracy requires change as well — this was the premise of his campaign — and it is the surest path toward full equality strategically. Democracy is not designed to produce instant reward, does not offer immediate gratification, is not about wholesale change. It is messy, takes time and most importantly requires we understand that we must do the careful, respectful work of education to bring people who fear change along on our journey.

Anthony B. Pinn has a tremendous piece today about this at Religion Dispatches, in which he concludes:

It is unreasonable to think President-elect Obama can or should
resolve the conflict over religiously informed opinions when this very
task has befuddled religious leaders for centuries. Obama will do well
if he can help us make the tension between religious worldviews
creative and an arena for fruitful exchange. What we can hope for is
management of and respect for our religious differences and an attempt
to map out ways to harness the energy of our shared quest for life
meaning, for a greater sense of who, what, when, and where we are. And,
in this way we might tame the more harmful aspects of our religious and
theological orientations. Will we achieve this taming of our more
harmful theologically-fueled tendencies…not likely, but it’s a task
worth the effort regardless of the outcome.

Obama is making
this effort, and the measure of his success isn’t the contentment of
any particular group; but the ability of each group to voice its
discontent, its disagreement and push a national conversation forward.
Yes, dislike his selection for the invocation, and voice this dislike;
but recognize that Obama’s call for common ground will mean not always
getting what you want.


As a community gay people are tired of waiting, of not getting the equality, not that we want as Pinn writes, but that we deserve, as Americans, and most importantly as children of God (for believers). 

Are we more tired than women? More tired than African Americans? More tired than the current wave of brown immigrants coming to this nation of immigrants? More tired than under-educated or economically disadvantaged whites? Are we more tired than the many religions that make up the most diverse and religious country on the planet or non-believers who are continually disregarded when someone says "this is a Christian nation" and whose faiths will not be represented at the inauguration prayers?

Those who have held the moral authority, as gay people do now, have always been long-suffering, non-violent and respectful. The shoulders we stand on in this moment understood that when caught between rocks and hard places, it is the slow erosion of trickling water that softens the hard edges. They left the throwing of rocks, the verbal and literal stoning, the torrent of the fire hoses spraying water against flesh, the beating, bashing and lynching to those on the wrong side of history. The glacial pace of change is frustrating and every group excluded from the promise of equality in America sees that slow pace as our nation’s tragic flaw.  It is also what allows each of us to fall in love with America as each generation works to fulfill her promise in new ways and thus remain a light of freedom to many suffering around the world.

That we might be entering a time when it is possible for us all, as Americans, to solve intractable problems of government with less animosity is a sign of hope.

There are iconic moments in history that have defined every struggle for equality. But if we who disagree with Warren disrupt a prayer, and specifically a prayer at the inaugural of the first African-American President in American history, the iconic moment captured on that historic day will cede moral high ground and goodwill progressives now hold. The gay community continues to deal with its own racial struggles within our community and black gay men and women understand the challenges in ways many white gays do not. To act out during a prayer will not help our cause where we most need the help, on gay issues and HIV/AIDS, within black churches.

Students in Georgia listened to George Wallace standing in the doorway, faced threats and derision, but quietly worked for change and won their rights. They sat at lunch counters where they were not welcome, quietly and simply attempting to order food from people who denied their humanity. Their quiet courage and presence won their rights. People marched and sang wishing President Kennedy would do more, some demanding it, many vocally frustrated by the political reality of the times. Women marched for decades just to be able to vote and then to have bodily autonomy and still await equal pay. Poor people of all races have always struggled to be heard, respected, educated, and employed — and during these tough economic times more iconic images of disparity between rich and poor are being etched in our minds.

Those historic and iconic images changed hearts and minds and led us to this historic election and inauguration.  We who disagree with Warren can listen respectfully for 90 seconds without creating a negative iconic image of people disrupting prayer — and we can continue to fight strategically for the rights that are ours by birth.  We risk too much moral authority — the same that Obama is using to reach out to Warren — by giving in to rage and emotion and disrupting a solemn moment.  We can create positive iconic images in keeping with the respectful and non-violent traditions of all civil rights movements by listening to those we disagree with, and standing firm for our lives and loves with every other long-suffering movement for equality, and in doing so, support Barack Obama in his efforts to bring real and lasting change to our democracy, leading toward the full equality we all seek. 

The promise of nature in winter is that light will return even in the face of the darkest day. It is the same promise that every faith tells different stories to teach at this time of year. In many ways, it is the genius and promise of America — that in the face of darkness we can choose either to add to it, or instead find light within and with quiet strength and grace shine our light in a way that others will see and greet, and be thankful for giving us the opportunity to learn again that there is light within each of us. That we can choose differently. That in choosing to act from strength and light, we create the change we seek.