Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren - Opportunity for Learning?

The prevailing narrative that has been spun on the Rick Warren controversy goes something like this: Rick Warren has marketed himself as a "moderate" conservative evangelical Christian whose "purpose-driven" ministry focuses on poverty and AIDs rather than engaging in the culture wars -- until he recently decided to campaign for Prop. 8. This proved that he was homophobic just like the rest of the religious right, a wolf in sheep's clothing, who needed to be exposed for who and what he really is. And, wouldn't you know it, he went on television and finally made it perfectly clear that he not only is a homophobe but that he, like his brethern, have nothing but contempt for those whom he likens to pedophiles and those who commit bestiality. Therefore, he must be condemned, repudiated, and removed from the public stage. Every effort must be made to exert political pressure on Obama and anyone else who might naively think that it is o.k. to pal around with the likes of Rick Warren. Good liberals and progressives are like conservatives -- they must put walls around themselves and do whatever it takes to keep their base angry, upset, and ready to demonize and scorn the Enemy.

I haven't checked but I'm sure there is a counter-narrative to this going on at places like Faux News. Something like, see, the fascist liberals are at it again, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. Which will mean that the liberals will counter the counter by saying, see, you cannot build bridges to these people, it's a waste of time and effort, because no Warren supporters would ever want to cooperate with the Obama administration on anything, and it is a travesty to hold out the olive branch to them all for the price of this terrible insult to gays and lesbians who are tired of being told they are no better than dogs, which is what people like Orombi and Akinola say -- the ones that Warren pals around with over in Africa.

This is politics as usual. And yes, the implication of what Warren has said about homosexual conduct and gay marriage is awful. But unlike most of his ilk, he came out and talked about it at considerable length. Rather than simply hide between the usual scriptural verses and talking points, he talked about sexuality in general, his own urges, desires, and temptations, and how he related all that to homosexuality.

Is it ugly for gays and lesbians to listen to? Yes, I'm sure it is. But in the desire to both condemn and escape from this kind of talk, something valuable is being lost -- the understanding that might be gained by listening to it carefully, thinking it through, and using that knowledge to try to combat that kind of thinking. For one thing, Rick Warren did not use the words "incest" or "pedophilia" or "bestiality" -- he talked about brothers and sisters and an old man and a young person. Of course, he meant the same thing, and it could have been pure cunning and guile, but I'm not so sure about the latter. This is a guy who has long said publicly that heterosexual promiscuity and infidelity are much more important religious and social issues than homosexuality and, until recently, he hasn't been actively involved in campaigning against homosexuals. The fact that he was so open with his talk suggests to me that, for better or for worse, he really means what he says about looking at sexual sin as all being pretty much the same, focusing as much, if not more, on heterosexual sin than what he considers unnatural behavior by a small group of people.

Does this make him a nice guy, a better person, more reasonable, open to change, etc? No -- or at least I make no such assumptions. What I see is someone who was given enough verbal rope that he, in effect, hung himself with it. But maybe, just maybe if more attention is paid to those words, those who oppose the ideas behind them can get more traction for trying to eradicate them from not only those who utter them but those who do not.

While GLBT folks may have heard and focused on the words that, quite naturally, give them great offense, I must say that as hetero I found pretty bizarre his talk about his "natural" urges to have sex with "every beautiful woman I meet" and resisting internet porn. While it was not exactly surprising, I think it pays to listen closely when people like Warren reveal the extent to which they are (pardon the expression) pretty screwed up in their thinking about sexuality in general -- the whole, sex with Da Wife is good; everything else with anyone else is bad. I suspect that it is no coincidence that some of the guys at Viagaraville have their own stories of heterosexual excess in their youth (sometimes aggravated by alcohol or drug abuse), from which they believe that their strict, menacing, Calvinistic god has saved them and will save everyone else who will take his wrath and judgment seriously.

People have long talked about the "ick" factor with respect to homosexuality. I suppose that those terribly afflicted with cannot be budged from their views. But I've long wondered if what propels the anti-gay marriage laws is really fear and prejudice arising from heterosexual views of homosexuality based entirely on a conviction that homosexual orientation is not only all about sex (i.e. erotic biological urges) but it also is about impulses for the wild and naughty, no different from impulses and urges they have experienced (and sometimes even acted upon) that have been destructive to themselves and/or others. In a culture where there is much fear of "anything goes," it is not difficult for some people, especially when bombarded with misinformation and anti-gay propaganda, to at least question, if not believe, that letting persons of the same gender marry (gay or otherwise) is going to undermine sexual morality and social structures. It's not logical in terms of reason, but on an emotional level it apparently has a big appeal.

Someone like Rick Warren may reveal by both his words and his laughter that he is deeply uncomfortable with homosexuality. But, at least until now, it may have been true that he held no particular animus towards homosexual persons and was willing to allow people of the same gender to join together and live in Civil Unions for what legal protections they might afford. I know full well that that is not good enough, that such supposedly benign or neutral or "moderate" views only act to give cover to deep prejudice and fear that can erupt in hate at any time. But, I still think that it pays to not only understand where these folks are coming from but also to try to speak their language and to start engaging in dialogue based on shared values and goals.

For a long time "straight" culture has benefited from the gadfly role of gay culture -- its deliberate upending of conventional norms, its wit, its satire, its humor, and scathing criticism. I'm not going to presume to tell GLBTs how to be, as either citizens of the world or political constituents in the U.S. or elsewhere. But I would like to suggest that one avenue of advocacy for full equality is for gays and heteros to tackle together the confounding issues of human sexuality from a perspective that recognizes that persons of various sexual orientations face many of the same human problems with respect to coming to terms with their sexuality and learning to live with it in peace with oneself and others.

I don't know about Rick Warren personally, but his words convey an attitude towards sexuality that is no more healthy for heterosexuals than it is homosexuals. People have sexual urges, some stronger than others. People in hetero marriages can and do engage in all sorts of sexual behaviors (with various body parts, as well) out of boredom, self-gratification, pleasure, and assertion of power. Sex poses the same temptations towards evil or good for just about all of us. Someday I hope we can all get to that understanding and simply deal with it. But until then, it seems to me that we've got to start talking about all of it more openly and honestly. While I wouldn't want to submit Rick Warren as the poster child for such talk, I would like to suggest that the occasion of this latest controversy might be used to get such conversations going, to talk through some of the things Warren said with all sorts of people, not just try to silence him. Some people can be reached, sooner or later, one by one, step by step. But if they are continually shunned and shunted aside, I do not see what hope there is that progress will be made.


Lindy said...

Are you forgetting that until last month the Saddleback Church website stated explicitly that church membership would be denied to homosexuals. Unless, of course, they repented of their lifestyle and submitted to the lordship a'Geasus.

But, uh, we're supposed to be all accepting and inclusive of him. Is that what you're saying?

I want to get real clear on all this.

Have you forgotten about Akinola, and Rick's other African connections and the hate he condones there? Is it OK for him to campaign for imprisonment of gay people if they are in Africa? The homos in Africa, they aren't really as important as the homos here? Is that what you are saying? Or, did you just forget?

Do you remember what Rick said when asked about how his teachings differed from those of James Dobson? He laughed and said that it was only a matter of style, there was no substantive difference.

Do you recall that when Henri Luke Orombi announced his big plan for purifying Uganda by purging it of all the homos Rick Warren jumped right in and agreed with him?

I mean, come on.

klady said...

Hi Lindy,

Gosh I wrote this a long time ago. Since I wrote it I did learn a few things more about Warren than I knew at the time, but I certainly did see and hear some of the things he said and I knew about his close ties with various Anglican leaders in Africa -- you may or may not recall I read the book written one of the bishops in Rwanda (long ago featured at the Episcopal Cafe), and I noticed then that Warren wrote the forward to the book and was quite involved.

I'm not asking anyone to have any good or warm feelings towards the man, especially those who are wounded by his words and the actions of those he has supported. What I am interested in his understanding what his appeal is to others and basically how those people think, how their hearts and minds might be changed and facing the fact that such people are not going to go away or lose influence if they are simply scorned and demonized.

I'm also very tired of character assassination by association. While Warren's religious beliefs are clearly much the same as many far right conservatives, I think he's not totally beyond persuasion. Until Prop. 8, he was not really involved in the "Culture Wars" in the U.S. While he may not have welcomed "unrepentant" GLBTs in his church, until the marriage issue came up, he didn't use them (not sure he even does now) as scapegoats and the focus of his ministry like some others. People who have met him have also said he's different from the rest.

Maybe he's not. And that's part of my point - so many people reacted as if his views really were totally outside the mainstream and that Prop. 8 only failed because of money and influence, not because there really is a lot of prejudice and fear out there. Is it really so shocking and surprising that people like him believe that any kind of sexual contact outside heterosexual marriage is sinful and against God's plan? That's what they all say, and even long after they stop saying it, many will still believe it and act on it.

What I saw happen with him over the inauguration controversy was much more than that. Many people took one look at him -- his face, his body shape, his smile, his tone of voice, and yes, the incredibly stupid things and terrible he said (like I have lots of gay friends and they ask me why they can't have multiple partners), and everyone was ready to pillory him and conclude that nothing in his life and ministry was honest or worthwhile. At the same time, people were ready to tear apart anyone who might talk to or work with the man, especially Obama. That's no different than accusing Obama of palling around with terrorists just because he's worked with a former Weatherman. And like Warren or not, he hasn't been involved in the same kind of ego-driven ministries as many of his Evangelical brethern. For better or for worse, he really believes he has helped people change their lives around and come to Christ and that he has gone to Africa to really help people, to start by asking folks there what he could do to help at a time when so many Westerners just stood back in horror and did nothing. That doesn't make him a saint, and it doesn't change the harm he has caused GLBTs, but it does make him a lot more complex than many are willing to see.

The problem is that a whole lot of people who are now strongly pro-GLBT rights and marriage were not always -- especially some religious folks. Yet their hearts and minds were changed -- can think of off hand, people like Fr. Terry, Mimi, and a few others. I remember how years ago older family members of mine had a really hard time accepting equal rights and dignity for black people. Much more recently, I had to talk my mother through her initial conniption fit when she found out that a cousin was bringing her partner on a visit to my mom's and they wanted to sleep in the same bedroom. Had I or anyone else simply gone on and on about how evil these people were, they may never have come around but instead may have become more hateful.

As Jonathan said recently, expressing anger can be very healthy. I have come to understand more and more since this controversy erupted that few if any GLBT persons can hear the things Warren has said and not react with flashes of anger. But I think it is not only is counterproductive but unhealthy for some of us straight people to go on and on about how awful the man is, how the very sight of him makes our lips curl or want to throw things at the t.v. or computer screen.

I recall doing my best to work with a black student club in high school in the late 1960's -- especially an all day teach-in on Afro-American history held at a local college. I was, I think, the only white kid on the bus. Of the many things I learned, I cannot "own" another's pain or discrimination. It is totally foolish and generally false to pretend I can.

Bottomline, I don't hate Rick Warren. I see him as little different from many others who are anti-gay but usually aren't as vocal about it as some others. Yes, what they say and do is no less evil than those who simply cannot focus on anything but gays. But those who are not consumed by hatred for homosexuals are, I think, reachable, and if you listen closely to them, you can start to puzzle out their twisted logic. They really, really believe that same-sex attraction is something really deviant behavior no different from straight folks who have their own obsessions and destructive sexual behaviors. They really, really believe that the danger of same-sex marriage is that men and women will give up on "traditional" marriage and commitment to child-rearing because, in their view, homosexuality really is a choice.

Of course they are wrong, but the fact that they are also impacts the political situation in that the number of GLBT persons will always be a minority. African-Americans -- of whom there are far larger numbers -- went through their own historical stages of hate and outrage against white culture (no doubt such feelings still exist among many, given the kind of discrimination they continue to face daily in stores, banks, during traffic stops, and some even at work and in schools). But the racial hatred, ignorance, and fear on both sides did not begin to subside until a lot of people just got tired of fueling the hate and focused on both legal rights and elbowing into white culture and showing people that blacks are not biologically different or inferior from whites.

That's what I would like to see happen someday. If you read Obama's books you will see how he dealt with some of these issues as a black man. It has reminded me again that others' causes are not my own, not because I do not deeply care or do not want to go out and work for equal rights, but because my time and energies can be better spent making headway with people in my predominantly straight world.

Someday I'd like to think and write more on the African connection with Rick Warren and what fuels some of the homophobia there. Some of it is the continuing extreme sexual violence against children and women, which was not only part of the Rwandan genocide but continues on to this day in places like Congo. People in those countries have seen families and communities nearly destroyed, in part because of what sexual violence does to its direct victims and the entire communities view of their network of relationships, torn to pieces, literally and figuratively.

When I read a couple books about the Rwandan genocide I realized that if I were there, I might well believe in demons and such, cling to a literalist view of the Bible, and think of homosexuality at as no different than the sexual violence. Yes, I know it doesn't make any logical sense, but especially in a part of a world where it is next to impossible to see healthy partnered same-sex relationships and families, it may be easy to imagine all sorts of terrible things to explain the otherwise inexplicable.

Rick Warren has gotten very close to the people there. If his heart and mind could be changed by people in the U.S., it may well be he could help beginning making changes in Africa. But it is unlikely that there will be much of chance of that happening if he continues to encounter nothing but venom and scorn from those who could best work on changing hims -- whether it be Mellissa Etheridge, Barack Obama, or someone or someone's else.

Warren simply does not get what all the fuss is about and while he used to be so wrapped up in his own world that he had no need for a persecution complex like some of the Anglican anti-gays like Duncan, Iker, etal., he may now be getting one. While I don't have any problem with him suffering for his views, and I certainly wouldn't hesitate to criticize them loudly and repeatedly, I don't see what's the point in making the attacks so personal. And I think the greatest danger is not so much what it may do to him, as what it may do to his self-styled "moderate" followers who were previously content to leave gays alone. To get the kind of legal rights and social freedoms everyone wants for GLBTs, it seems to me that those are the folks that must be approached, and that all the venom we've been wallowing in with regard to the tiny, tiny world of TEC and the AC should not be unthinkingly directed at those whom we don't really know so well.

Once again, I've probably said way too much. I really wish I could talk to some people in person about these issues. Lindy, I do not wish to cause you any further pain and I certainly don't expect you to like Rick Warren. I just wish you'd not feel betrayed at the thought that some might want to address the problem differently than you. I think GLBT rights are like all great civil rights struggles -- at times there is a need for anger, shouting, and strong resistance, at others there is a need for quiet and talk, listening and understanding. MLK, Malcom X, Obama are all different parts of a bigger whole. Likewise, so to are the rest of us. We've each got to find our own way to do what we think is best.

klady said...


Lindy, please forgive me if my response was not terribly coherent. There is a lot floating around in my head about this and and the whole inauguration, things I have not been prepared to write about for sometime. That is why until now I have chosen to be silent and let it all sit. I thought maybe later try to pull together my thoughts and feelings when I come back from the Inauguration. I'm not sure I was ready to respond this morning -- I just wanted to share something of my thinking in response to your comments before I leave later this afternoon.

Bottomline, I don't believe in "inclusion" for Rick Warren. All I know is that for myself, I need to work harder at loving my enemies and not getting distracted by my own tendencies towards outrage and moral indignation. Others can and should do what is best for them. It's just that the constant anger has been rather poisonous for me, and I don't think that it is at all helpful to join in the chorus of anger just to convince people that I really do support them. People in RL will have to be the judge of me, as well as that great Mother God wherever she is.