* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Taking God Out of Justice Conversations

Recently, a number of states have passed legislation that demonizes transgender people. Hopefully, it's obvious that these laws are driven by fear, and that this is not a way to get what people most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness (one of our big questions). Marginalizing and oppressing people who seem different to you may be satisfying in the moment, but it certainly cannot be said to create greater wholeness in the world. Many people have made some very insightful critiques of this trend, and I don't need to repeat them all here. However, I do want to explore briefly how God-based arguments contribute to the problem of persecution more than to the solution.

I know that when people feel powerless, they look for ways to make themselves feel powerful. And one thing that makes people feel powerful is bullying, and legislation that limits the rights of a minority group in order to make emotionally immature people feel safe is bullying. The whole argument about who is allowed to use which restroom is ludicrous from the start, and it's clear from people's behavior that folks are really not all that concerned about who uses which public restroom. 

If a predator wanted to hurt your daughter in a public restroom, they could do so at any time. They'd have to break the law -- it has never been legal in this country to assault a person in a public restroom -- but they could do it. If you were that concerned about your daughter being harmed in a public restroom, you'd make sure she never went to the restroom unaccompanied -- which is kind of weird, but it's what you would do if you were really that afraid that public restrooms are havens for predators.

The most important point in all of this is that transgender people are not predators. They're people. Moreover, they're people who use the appropriate restroom for their gender. The fear is not really about predators in the restroom (which has nothing to do with transgender people), it's a fear of transgender people -- which is really ironic, since transgender people are the ones who are being harassed and threatened in this scenario. And this fear of transgender people is connected to a fear of homosexuality, which is less severe than it used to be in the United States. Still, you can hear many a preacher on Sunday morning riling up a congregation from the pulpit by bad-mouthing LGBT folks. 

And that's really where all of this fear gets its legitimacy. When religious leaders fill people with irrational fear (or amplify people's fears), it isn't to create greater wholeness in the world. Fear doesn't do that. Religious leaders have an agenda that is more about preservation of an organization or ideology (or less scrupulously, the preservation of their own lifestyle), and they think that fear is a powerful motivator. Or these religious leaders are so fear-driven themselves that they can't help but spew it all over people.

Thankfully, there are other religious voices who are less fearful. Amid the persecution and marginalization of transgender people and others, some religious leaders speak out for the oppressed and call for an end to the harassment and fear. They speak of love and connection and community, and all of this is well and good. They see transgender people as human beings worthy of the same rights as any other human being. If they were to stop there, the argument would be sound. Some people choose to bring God into the argument, however, and it immediately becomes a less fruitful conversation.

When a fearful person claims that God is angry about transgender people or homosexuality or anything else, they have an unassailable conviction. You can say, "Where does scripture say that?" and no matter what the claim is, a person can indicate a scriptural text that supports their belief. The Bible says to love, but it also says to kill people who do anything that isn't good for the preservation of ancient Jewish culture. So, when a person says, "The Bible condemns homosexuals to death," they're right. When they say, "God wants us to kill homosexuals," then we have a problem. And loving believers try to resolve that problem in a number of ways.

You may say, "The Bible also says x." This simply discredits the Bible to a rational person, because it's making contradictory assertions or commands. A person who has committed themselves to fear is often impervious to this sort of argument. They'll stick to their guns because they believe that they're right, just like you probably will. 

You may say, "That isn't what the Bible means in that passage." Then you have an unresolvable conflict of interpretation. Since everyone makes up their own meaning for scriptural texts, there's very little to be gained from an unwarranted assertion one way or the other. Even biblical scholars who have spent years studying a text disagree on the basic meaning, sometimes proposing outlandish assumptions to justify their view. You don't know what the Bible means any more than anyone else does.

You may say, "No, God wants us to love." This is a much healthier way to live, and a person who bases their actions on love rather than fear will certainly create more wholeness in the world. There's no solid defense for this claim about God, though. If you can't know what a scriptural text actually means, why in the world would you think you can know what God wants? You think God wants one thing, they think God wants another thing, and neither of you has any evidence one way or the other apart from your own assumptions, feelings, and imaginations. 

I've heard well-meaning theists claim things like, "We are all God's children," only to turn around and hear other people talk about how being God's children means we have to be obedient to God's law or be disciplined by God. I've heard liberal Christians talk about universal salvation -- that Jesus has paved the way for everyone to go to heaven -- only to turn around and hear another prominent Christian voice talk about hell with equal conviction. Using God to justify any behavior is dishonest, because you are the one who decides how to interpret your scripture, and you are the one who determines for yourself what you think God wants. You are the one who decides.

Now, I've also heard people say that you can define God however you want to. God is a universal force of love. God is nature. God is your conscience. God is the space between us. If you're going to use so flexible a definition for a word that no one knows what you mean unless you define it for them, then the word is useless. Why use it at all? When you know that so many other people in the world define "artichoke" a certain way, why would you decide that when you use the word "artichoke" you actually mean "surround sound speaker system"? Sure, you can allow for everyone to define "artichoke" in a way that is personally meaningful to them, but then meaningful communication between people is impossible. Your personal definition for God is only useful for you. The moment you try to have a meaningful conversation using your personal definition with another person using their personal definition, you will fail. We have to share a common definition for the words we use if we want our communication to be meaningful.

If you stop using "God" as a stand-in for another legitimate concept, your communication can be more meaningful. Say "love" when you mean love; say "nature" when you mean nature. If we use the words we actually mean, we'll have a better quality of communication. The same is true when it comes to issues of justice. If you believe people should be treated with love and respect, then say "I believe people should be treated with love and respect." Don't try to legitimize your belief by pinning your values on God. People who believe the exact opposite of you will attribute their beliefs to God too, and neither one of you will have any ground to stand on. 

The truth of the matter is that we co-create a society together, and when people are mistreated, marginalized, or bullied, our entire system has to deal with the problem. Some organizations are shifting to unisex restrooms, which is an amazingly loving and affirming way to make oppressive laws obsolete. "We don't care who you are or what gender you are, we recognize your right to use the restroom." How silly that it's necessary to express that, but how wonderful that it's being expressed. Nothing religious need be added to that. 

Perhaps you have ways available to you to ensure that transgender people -- and other folks who are marginalized in our society -- are treated as human beings of inherent worth and dignity. You don't need to justify loving behavior with scripture or claims about God. You can justify any behavior with scripture, so that's meaningless. And you can't legitimately justify any behavior with claims about God, so that's meaningless too. Take a step back from your fear, re-align with your deepest values, and create wholeness in the world. Every person has inherent worth and dignity, and when that is affirmed in our lives and in the systems we co-create with one another, we live into greater wholeness. Anything less than that is fear, and fear has no place in a world made whole.

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully we will elect a community of love and respect. Which leaders evoke the feeling of love and respect?