Good News, Wrong Location

I speak fairly often about the need for moderate believers to stop telling me that they’re moderate. If I’m having a civil conversation with you, I can tell you’re moderate. If you’re not telling me how evil I am, I got that. I don’t need to know how supportive you are of queer people, I don’t need to know how tolerant you are of other beliefs or the lack there of, I don’t need to know how supportive you are of women’s rights or minority rights or really any rights, and I believe you when you say you think science has more to say about the natural world than ancient texts. If you’re active, that’s amazing, and anything I say about people who make hollow statements of support is not about you, so there’s no reason to tell me how active you are unless you want to trade war stories over Scotch, at which point I’m totes there.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but most likely, I already know because your actions have revealed it. When I rage against homophobes, misogynists, theocrats, etc., I’m not talking about you, though I will often use broad terms to not give people the rhetorical out that comes with using words like “some”.

With all of this in mind, I point to a really wonderful development, then immediately rain a bit on it.

Not sure. Might be astrological.

This bit of good news is from Cranston, RI, or, as I like to call it, “New England’s Tennessee.” After months of hatred, inhumanity, and generally disgusting behavior from the various residents of a state founded specifically on religious tolerance, we have a statement from a number of religious leaders calling for an end to the persecution of Jessica Ahlquist.

You know what? Good on them. They heard what was happening and decided to say something. They took a stand against intolerance and for decency. They all spoke eloquently and passionately, and they deserve respect and credit for that.The way Rev. Dr. Anderson ended it was especially moving, and he seems like a man I would like to one day meet.

So what’s my problem?

I have several problems, actually, not the least being that it took months of abuse and weeks of heavy local TV coverage for this to happen. But really the first is that they did it on a church’s steps in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. This has nothing to do with the location itself except that that’s not where the problem is. It’s all well and good that you’re doing a news conference, but where you’re needed is the Cranston school board meetings where your co-religionists are trying to shut down conversation in true Archie Bunker style.

You know when would have been a really good day to say this? Sunday. In front of your congregations. Or Friday, or Saturday, or whenever your particular faith gathers and recognizes the Sabbath. Some of you have, and I encourage you to continue. It’s cool that you’re all together with the cameras and everything, but the problem isn’t with the television viewers, it’s with your parishioners. Yes, there will be some overlap, but if your religion is about teaching moral behavior, then use your religion to teach moral behavior and do it in the place commonly accepted to be where those lessons go on.

And it’s cool that you got so many of you up there. Imagine how many people there would be if each of you encouraged your congregation not only to be tolerant, but to stand against intolerance. Told them that standing for goodness and justice is a virtue, one they should embrace actively. Told them that this behavior is wrong and in some cases evil and should come with social consequences. It’s one thing to tell people not to be bullies, and quite another to tell them to not let bullies get away with their actions.

Making the rounds on my Facebook today has been a reax from the 2010 Chicago Gay Pride parade in which a group of Christians from the Marin Foundation publicly apologized for the bad behavior of their co-religionists. This is an old story, and was shortly thrown into a whole lot of mud by the actions and statements of founder Andrew Marin, but whatever Marin’s intentions, I can believe that some (most) of the people there were genuinely sorry.

The problem is, so what? Yes, I appreciate that you’re sorry you believed what somebody told you a book meant and that it applied to reality. It’s wonderful that you’re rejecting those attitudes and we welcome you to our side. So I guess that means you’re going to be helping to stand up against other people who still believe those terrible things that you’ve very rightly rejected, right? Let’s look at the video from the next year when hatemonger “Johnny Duran” decided to add his voice to the Chicago parade. I don’t know about you, but I’m noticing a distinct lack of Marin Foundation members condemning his bad ideas.

It’s not enough to be sorry for what you did, and if you insist on apologizing for those who did bad things in your name, what they did. We’re glad that you realize your (their) mistake and want to make up for it, but that requires actually making up for it.

And that’s what I say to the religious leaders who called for civility in Cranston. Your call is heard and appreciated, but you’re the spiritual leaders of many of these same people. You volunteered to be the moral guide for them, not an easy task and one that comes with a lot of responsibility for the actions of others, and their ethical course is badly mis-charted. It’s good that you’re stepping up now to say you’re sorry and call for civilized dialogue, but if you really want to be leaders, if you want people to realize that your faith isn’t some Orwellian rebus, you need to show people that. You need to not just take soldiers off the field, but lead them in ranks for the cause of justice. You can do so much more, and I really do want you to join us in doing so.

Tolerance is wonderful, but this is about more than just preaching the tolerance of another person. This should be about preaching the virtue of actively standing up for a brave teenager who has been singled out by her community, by her elected representative, and by the monsters who wear the cloak of holiness. If you believe that something is wrong, it’s not enough to not participate.

You need to fight.

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3 thoughts on “Good News, Wrong Location

  1. Warning rant: Alright.. so when Religious leaders do nothing you rage, when they do something you also rage.. I understand you’re not a religious leader but you have some experience in herding cats.. so when I say it is damn near impossible to herd said cattle together for something like Christmas please consider how difficult it would be to herd them together for somethincg like this.. Could these leaders have waited to speak at their district/regional/national conferences? Absolutely, but that would have taken more time. Speaking of time, why did it take so long? Likely because they had to pass it through church (etc) committee first.. unfortunately the only freedom most religious leaders have is their pulpit, and writing, I imagine most of these individuals used those to the best of their abilities.

    • I will grant the time and bureaucracy issues.

      The thing is, I’m not raging here, but I am asking for more. My problem with this press conference wasn’t what happened or what was done. To be perfectly honest, I think the people who spoke did wonderfully and had an excellent message of tolerance and open dialogue. The problem is that they were speaking to the wrong problem and I think they missed the point.

      Tolerance and open dialogue are wonderful things that everybody should practice, but they are ultimately inert at this point in the discussion. If you and I are diplomats from different countries about to sit down to negotiations in a room with no alcohol present and I open discussions by cautioning us to drink moderately, it fails to address any real concern since there is no alcohol present to drink, moderately or otherwise. Moderation can be virtuous, but in this case the caution becomes a non-sequiter because it refers to a problem that neither of us are at risk of facing. Similarly, if this were a debate between beliefs, calls for tolerance and open debate would serve to remind people that ideas are free and best experienced when shared with others in reasoned dialogue. Group A believes one thing, Group B believes another, spiritual leaders remind them that if they’re to get anything out of talking to one another, they’ll have to understand that the other side has valid thoughts worth considering. This would have been the appropriate message a year and a half ago when the school refused to remove the three illegal lines. It would have been nice for somebody, anybody, not just spiritual leaders, even a janitor, to have said, “You know, if this really is just about history, why not avoid all the problems and take the message from the banner.”

      But that’s not the problem. The citizens of Cranston who have been harassing Jessica Ahlquist are not interested in proving the existence of God to the atheist girl. They’re interested in punishing her for taking away their favorite toy that they hadn’t paid attention to in decades. Group A believes something, and they threaten a 16 year old girl with rape. This has nothing to do with tolerating or not tolerating her beliefs, it has everything to do with not being the kind of inhuman filth that threatens kids with violence. The problem is that this message will make very little impact on the perpetrators, and doesn’t really stop them. It tells people who likely already were fairly tolerant to continue to be so, which is a good thing, but doesn’t really address today’s problem.

      A continuing refrain amongst the speakers in this video is that they believe the majority of Cranston doesn’t like what’s going on. I believe it, too. Which is why the message needs to be “Come to the next Cranston school board meeting with a sign and let’s show these people that most of us don’t agree with them.” Take the classic parable of the Good Samaritan. What makes that story impactful is that we see a clear distinction between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Part of it is lost in non-translation (i.e. you know what a Samaritan is, but most people don’t), but ultimately just calling for tolerance is the wrong call. When you have people who are not only threatening the life of a young girl but also threatening the education of countless children by demanding that the school board appeal the case that they are going to lose again (thereby wasting more money), tolerance without a clear call to action is saying that the priest and the Levite are as virtuous as the Samaritan because they didn’t kick the victim while they were passing. Not being a dick is great, but action is better, and as tough as it is to herd cats, saying, “By the way, I encourage all of you to come out to the next Cranston school board meeting so we can make sure that our kids are well educated and won’t suffer because of their beliefs, whatever they are. It’s two weeks from now, Friday the Whatever-th, at 8 pm. I’ll be the guy with the big sign” doesn’t seem like a whole lot. Now, I could be wrong, and if that is really tough to say that for some reason (bureaucracy or whatever), let me know, but fundie churches seem to excel at getting their people to places to protest everything from the asinine to the idiotic. I know they cheat by riling people up with lies, but is the truth really that much less powerful?

      • Bureaucracy does make the actions that a religious leader wish to do in their individual time more difficult, especially speaking in a public forum.. however I would be surprised if these leaders (or at least some of them) were unable to do that.

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