Standing on the Side of Love: Sexual Justice and Unitarian Universalism
Dr Gaye Ortiz
Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church
February 12 2012
It’s been a good week for same-sex marriage here in the United States: first on Tuesday the federal court ruling striking down the Proposition 8 measure that banned same-sex marriage, then the next day the Washington State House of Representatives voting to join the State Senate in approving same-sex marriage. New Jersey’s legislators are expected to vote next week on the issue, Maine could be putting it on the November ballot, and the governor of Maryland congratulated the Washington State lawmakers and said it was time for Maryland to do the same.
According to the Christian Science Monitor’s report on the Washington State measure, it’s not all good news for gay couples wishing to marry, especially in North Carolina and Minnesota, where amendments to ban same-sex marriage are scheduled on ballots this year. However, there seems to be a shifting attitude across the country on the issue that might make it very difficult to stop the overall advance of marriage rights for the gay community. And if there are setbacks this election year, we might do well to heed the advice of Linda Stout, the Executive Director of a social advocacy group called Spirit in Action:
This is a time for boldness –not giving up. It is a time of great courage – not letting our fears stop us. If we just work on small changes, though they are fulfilling and valuable, we will not make long term, big changes in the world. We have to bring all the puzzle pieces together – small changes, individual work and big ideas – in order to create a different world. (SSL Campaign literature)
This is why it is important to acknowledge and celebrate the work that our members who have been awarded the ‘Love Awards’ have done in our community…it demonstrates that the Unitarian Universalists in Aiken practice what they preach; that we may work to make small changes but that big changes come out of that work; and that we are the leaders of change that benefits not only our faith community, but the larger community of this country and indeed, the world.
Just as we recognized with our Love Award today those who “exemplify the values of inclusion, diversity, and equality” (www.ssl.org), we have hope that, when the Welcoming Congregation program is finished here at our church, we will all exemplify those values.
This morning I want to share a message of change, of bold vision, and as we begin our Welcoming Congregation program, I want to call you to stand on the side of love and to share this vision. Now, our legacy as Unitarians and Universalists is progressive thinking on sexual matters: back in 1929 the Universalist Church General Convention passed a resolution in favor of family planning. For over 40 years, UU youth have had the benefit of he sexuality education course Our Whole Lives. Even as the prophetic voice of change, our faith tradition will undergo advances and setbacks as we work to live up to the ideals of our UU principles, but we can keep trying, as our first principle urges us to do, to promote and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.
Sometimes when we consider the sources and history that form our faith traditions, there is much, frankly, that is not helpful. Some of us have come to this congregation to get away from them; some of us still fight with the trauma that was inflicted by the religious upbringing we had, especially in the Christian faith. But it is possible to find inspiration from an informed understanding of what the message of the Bible truly has for us as well as from our historical struggle for religious freedom and social justice.
The Welcoming Congregation program has a number of topics that will help us, over the next year and more, to become a more inclusive and compassionate congregation. They will help us learn more about the issues of oppression and prejudice that exist for those in our community who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning. One of our future workshops will be on the Bible and homosexuality – here’s a taste of that topic.
In the UU Advocacy Manual for Sexuality Education, Health and Justice (1999) the Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner wrote a chapter called “The Really Good News: What the Bible Says about Sex.” In it she provides a systematic survey of both good and bad biblical examples of sexual teachings. Many of us are used to hearing about the evils of abortion and birth control from those in religious and political arenas, with the Bible used as justification for sexual oppression. Haffner says that these issues of reproductive ethics, along with sexual practices of masturbation and oral sex, are not addressed by the Bible.
Haffner states that it is inaccurate to use the Bible’s four verses about same-sex relationships – two in Leviticus and two in the New Testament – “to condemn committed, consensual same-gender sexual relationships” (18), because when quoted as anti-gay rhetoric they are never put into context. For example, Leviticus says that ‘you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination’ (Lev 18:22) but in the same scripture it says that cursing your mother and father is punishable by death (Lev 20:9). It also punishes by exile seeing family members naked and having sex during menstruation (Lev 20: 17-21). There are only four verses that address the same-sex issue, compared to ten prohibitions against having sex with a menstruating woman.
But do we ever hear the bible passages that deal positively with sexual contact and love between men? The story of David and Jonathan in I and II Samuel is a love story: “greatly beloved were you to me,” David says to Jonathan, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (II Sam 1:26). And “Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David”(I Sam 19:1). There is a healthy respect for erotic love and mutual desire in the Bible as seen in the Song of Solomon in which, as Marcia Falk says in the Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘men and women praise each other for their sensuality and their beauty”:
How fair and pleasant you are
O loved one, delectable maiden!
You are stately as a palm tree
And your breasts are like its clusters.
I say I will climb the palm tree
And lay hold of its branches.
Oh may your breasts be like
Clusters of the vine,
And the scent of your breath like apples
And your kisses like the best wine
That goes down smoothly
Gliding over lips and teeth. (Song of Sol 7:6-9)
The New testament’s I Corinthians, according to Haffner, could be “a central point of study for sexuality education programs from adolescence to adulthood,” because “the centrality of the message of love” is a basic component of all ethically sound relationships: “love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor 13: 4-7).
So if there is not a guilt trip to be found for mutual same or opposite sex relationships in the Bible, where does the condemnation of same-sex love come from? Christian history maybe?
Well, thanks to the unceasing efforts of a history scholar, Professor John Boswell of Yale University, we now have a pretty clear understanding that “for the last two millennia, in parish churches and cathedrals throughout Christendom, even in the heart of Rome itself, homosexual relationships were accepted as valid expressions of a god-given love and commitment to another person”; same sex marriage was a Christian rite that allowed “love that could be celebrated, honored and blessed through the Eucharist in the name of and in the presence of Jesus Christ” (www.christianity-revealed.com/cr/files/whensamesexmarriagewasachristianrite.html).
Even though homophobic writings began to appear in the late 14th century, it seems that consecrated same-sex unions continued to take place up to the 18th century. There is a pair of Christian saints, Sergius and Bacchus, who were Roman martyrs but who were a male homosexual couple. There is an icon of them from St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai and an early Christian account of their martyrdom written in New Testament Greek that calls them ‘erastai’, or lovers. Their feast day is October 7th.
Okay - so maybe even Christian history can’t explain the extreme homophobia that is on display in the news so often…and sometimes it goes to great lengths to make the LGBT movement seem to be the enemy of faith. In December Francis George, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, compared the advance of LGBT equality to the Ku Klux Klan. The Human Rights Campaign condemned his remarks, which were made in an interview with Fox News in Chicago. He was complaining about the plan for the Chicago Pride parade to begin at 10am on Sunday morning when a Catholic church on the parade route would be holding mass, and he said “You don’t want the gay pride movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.” He was asked to clarify his remarks and then he compared the rhetoric of the gay pride movement and the Ku Klux Klan, which he said were both aimed at Catholics. The executive director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Rev Eric Lee, was moved to speak out against the archbishop’s remarks. He said: “I have spent most of my adult life engaged in the civil rights struggle for African American people who have been terrorized by racist Klan violence. I am insulted by the comparison of the Klan to the current LGBT movement. When we distort the history of terror for cheap political aims, we only inflict pain on those whose lives have been scarred by the Klan.” (www.hrc.org)
Last year a group of clergy here in the South were inspired by a proclamation supporting gay rights that was written by a Midwestern clergy group; and so they wrote their own and called it “A Southern Proclamation”; it expresses regret for the lack of support that the LGBT community has received in the past from religious institutions, and it pledges to embrace the full inclusion of LGBT sisters and brothers in all areas of religious life, including leadership. Here is the opening section of the proclamation:
As people of faith:
We proclaim God’s love for all, including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) persons and we publicly apologize where we have been silent. As reasoned people of faith we believe that the truth sets us free and we recognize that the debate concerning sexuality is over. The verdict is in. The debate should end. Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin. We find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation. Silence by many has allowed political and religious rhetoric to monopolize public perception, creating the impression that there is only one biblical perspective on this issue. Yet we recognize and celebrate that we are far from alone in affirming that LGBT persons are distinctive, holy, and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God. The tenets of all faiths recognize that all people, no matter their color, ethnicity, sexuality or religion, are children of one God and equally loved by their creator. Further, our books of faith ask us to love God, love our neighbor, and to follow the path that leads to true justice.
And so, just as the LGBT community is gaining religious allies, it also has powerful supporters in the civil rights movement, such as the NAACP, speaking out for their rights in the true spirit of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/24974.html ).
Just a couple of weeks ago the NAACP President and CEO, Benjamin Jealous, delivered the opening keynote address to the National Conference on LGBT Equality, hosted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In it he issued a strong call for overcoming the forces of hate and oppression.
Here is a portion of his speech:
As some of you may know, the struggle for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality is near and dear to my heart – my brother was a transgender youth who faced discrimination and bigotry.
I stand before you today as an individual with a deeply vested interest in this movement, but also as the leader of an organization with strong connections to the fight for LGBT rights.
For 103 years, the NAACP and our diverse allies have run with the baton first set in motion by the American Revolution. As Fredrick Douglas observed in his speech “Our Composite Nationality”: every nation has a destiny, a destiny which is defined by character, and a character which is usually defined by its geography. Our nation, bordered by two nations and situated between two oceans is called to be the most perfect example of human unity the world has ever seen.
Our work, the work of the civil and human rights movement is to empower America to be America … to be the most perfect example of human unity the world has ever seen.
That is why whether a child is bullied by a student because of her sexual orientation or gender identity or mistreated by a teacher or principal because of his race, the NAACP and the Task Force must stand up together. Because no child– who is mistreated at school because of what they are –has fair access to a high quality education.
That is why whether it is fighting to end discrimination against LBGT people at work or black people at the bank, the NAACP and the Task Force must stand strong together. Because when you or your community is the target of any “ism” in the marketplace, ending discrimination is as important as job creation. And ending the virus of hatred anywhere requires ending it everywhere.
And that is why, in this moment when our nation is in the midst of the greatest wave of voter suppression legislation since before the creation of the NAACP, we must rise up together to beat it back and get America moving toward the future again.
We are in a battle with those who seem more inspired by our nations dim past that its inspired future.
And although these forces are equipped with limitless resources, the ability to influence our elections with no transparency, unedited mass media echo chambers, and even lies-lies created to hurl fear and hate-often where there is despair and uncertainty.
We can never allow ourselves to be discouraged, distracted or divided.
Because history has taught us that we can never win the battle for justice, equality, and freedom when we our soldiers are defined and limited by our individual silos. But that we can only emerge victorious when we unite for the common good of all. We emerge victorious, when we build large diverse coalitions who dare to dream bold dreams and win big victories.
So let us move forward in unity and with the collective vision and determination to build the America that we dream for all of her children.
An America where everyone can get a good job,
And where everyone can obtain a quality education.
An America where everyone has access to health care and communities with clean air and water.
An America in which opportunities are afforded to all.
And most importantly, an America in which no matter a person’s race, creed, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity— she or he can live in a country free of discrimination—where her or his basic human rights and dignity are respected.
…let us all recall the words of the late great Harvey Milk-who said “It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no survey to remove repressions.”
Let us remember those words and carry them forward in our fight to justice, equality, and freedom.
When we speak out individually and collectively, we can win the fight. When we live out our words, the words of Unitarian Universalists through the centuries who have been standing on the side of love, we can win the fight. We can speak up with the knowledge that ours is a faith that backs us in our fight for justice, equality and freedom. “Love is the message, and we are its messengers.” What’s my message? That I am standing on the side of love.
Let me see you turn to your neighbor and say, “I’m standing on the side of love.” Now turn to your other neighbor and say, “I’m standing on the side of love.” (Angela Herrera, SSL campaign lierature)
As we sang this morning, “Emboldened by faith, we dare to proclaim: we are standing on the side of love” –
May it be so, blessed be, Amen.