“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.” From C.S. Lewis “God in the Dock”
When I read this quote from C.S. Lewis I could not help but think that this was an apt description of the relationship between the church and its gay members. I have often tried to understand how it is that patient, loving, and compassionate people – like those that I encountered in the church – can cause so much unintentional harm. I have never thought that there is some sort of conspiracy of horrible people aiming to exclude and marginalize gay people, yet this is the effect of conservative theology – intended or not. With a tilt of the head, and an earnest facial expression the pastor sighs, “It’s for your own good.” How much pain and suffering has been justified and morally rationalized under that treacherous slogan? How do pastors wash their hands of the blood of suicidal teenagers or the tears of their parents? The answer is that they do not claim responsibility even as they walk away culpable as fuck. This is the thing that makes me really angry. When confused children and youngsters seek help from their well-intentioned pastors and all they get is a subtle re-shaming cloaked as pastoral advice. “It’s perhaps best not to tell too many people about this” he says, trying to spare his charge some pain or public humiliation. Yet he does not think what this advice actually accomplishes. This suggestion to cover-up, to hide, to conceal only confirms to his charge that somehow he is to blame for this. This is his fault. So he walks away internalizing the guilt and shame with every step. The next session the pastor will re-assure his charge of God’s unconditional love and acceptance while he utters the words “There is nothing to be ashamed of”, as if these seven words could somehow counteract all the things he has heard or felt both inside and outside his church. As if it could negate all the things that have been insinuated and suggested by friends and family and pastors and preachers. No, it is not that easy to negate the secrecy and self-denial promoted by the evangelical church. You really have to be wilfully ignorant or just plain stupid not to see how the church’s current approach leads to self-loathing and shame for those who cannot match up to the unworkable and inhumane expectations placed on them.
William Easterly has written a fantastic paper about the ill effects of foreign aid on developing countries and refers to the situation as a “Cartel of good intentions.” A great description of what I am talking about here. “Cartels thrive when customers have little opportunity to complain or to find alternative suppliers.” And these facts together – Lewis’ tyranny exercised for the recipient’s benefit and Easterly’s lack of voice or exit means that we are stuck with a horrible equilibrium. More blood and more tears even as the church prays more fervently and tries to “help” to “care” to “pastor.” What they do not realize is that they are the solution to their own problems, indeed they are the problem.
Things will change, they always do. “The arc of history is long but it is bent towards justice.” We have more precedent than we have need for – slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, what more do you need? I believe two things are changing and they will be the straw that breaks this obstinate camel’s back: changing attitudes and beliefs of church members and increased compassion from pastors themselves. I have yet to see a pastor who has kicked his own child out of the church for being gay. Funny that, how one’s firmly held theological beliefs change so radically when the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law collide, as they sometimes do.
Obviously most people do not lead churches or mosques or synagogues. They are not the bastion of intolerance and rejection that gay people regularly come up against. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing they can do. There is always something you can do. Speak. Act. Listen. Advocate. Vote. Empathize.
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ” ― Paulo Freire