No one is born a bigot. And while at birth we are all vulnerable, caring communities help us to distinguish between the monsters under our beds and the very real dangers posed by high places, sharp corners, or automobiles whose drivers are not on the look-out for toddlers.
As I prepare for Good Friday services at Saint Mark’s this evening, I am weighed down, as I know Jesus is weighed down, by the very real dangers posed by people in Indiana (and throughout the US) who believe that their religious rights have been infringed upon. Here is just one example from FB:
The comment appeared among hundreds of comments posted in response to a post by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, defending his signing of Indiana’s new “Freedom of Religion” law. The post has been shared by over 17,000 individuals, not a FB record by any means, but surely significant.
Am I wrong to think that Jesus is bearing this poor woman’s fears to the Cross with him? She thinks that her faith is the target of government agents and operatives, evidently operatives who sympathize with Muslims, in the IRS, NSA, and FBI. She believes that Christians are being silenced, prohibited from mentioning the name of Jesus at funerals; that they are being targeted by homosexuals in the military; that they cannot even mention his name in government buildings or schools. How very terrified this woman must be. How afraid. How vulnerable.
On a personal level, it is tragic that apparently no one ever held this woman and told her that there are no monsters in the closet. For this woman it is clear that monsters lurk around every corner. Yet, rather than comforting her, turning on the light, and showing her that there are no monsters, members of her community have evidently validated her fears, reinforced them, heightened them, cultivated them.
As a former biblical scholar, seminarian, and church historian, I want to sit her down, help her to appreciate the social, historical, and anthropological contexts in which biblical authors wrote about interpersonal sins. I want to help her to appreciate that her grasp of the Word of God was invented quite recently by well-intentioned Christians eager to square the Bible with their Cartesian experience of the world. I want to help restore her wonder and amazement not with a dead orthographic letter, but with the Living Word to which these texts unequally and unevenly bear witness. I want to take her hand and show her how the Spirit Who descended on Pentecost has continued to reshape a community and a world in Her image, to show her why everything cannot happen and be finished all at once; to show her why it takes time.
But, of course, I know that this kind of demon is difficult to exorcise; that it is not susceptible to reasoning or evidence because it was shaped in the fires fanned by fear and terror.
When I see this kind of fear my mind leaps back to the 17th century and to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. How terrifying it must have been during those times either to be a Protestant among Catholics or a Catholic among Protestants: compelled to live a secret life, to fear for one’s livelihood should one’s deepest beliefs and experiences come to light. Leaders within both Protestant and Catholic communities had cast the leaders and members of the other community as bearers of demonic bile who, should they be permitted to express their beliefs publicly, would surely poison the entire body politic. Each community demonized the other so that it only made sense for each community to exclude the other. Surely this is an experience with which closeted members of the GLBT+ community can identify.
The solution in the 17th century was to stand by your guns, quite literally, ready to kill the monsters that threatened you.
Several of the posts on FB make this very point. They urge Mike Pence on. They praise his masculinity, his manhood, his eagerness to carry the cause forward, his readiness to fight. One post in particular transports me back to 17th century England.
The Supreme Court is not God! The Government is not God! . . . This is an attack on Christianity, and if the Supreme Court, or any court for that matter forces churches to remove sinful homosexuality from their sermons, lessons, or the Word of God, the Holy Bible, and they penalize, or prosecute because of it, it then becomes not just an attack on Religious Freedom, but it becomes religious persecution!
Do you feel the fear? Do you feel the terror? Thomas Hobbes looked at this terror, this fear, the violence and the horrors of civil war, and he saw clearly that the only response was for Leviathan — the Crown, the State — to stand above it. The only solution was for the State to pose a greater threat, armed with greater violence, than the deities of either of the warring parties. Leviathan. Catholics should be free to worship as they choose. Protestants likewise. But if either violates the civil liberty of the others, then they will surely feel the full wrath of the Crown, Leviathan, the monster; not the monster under the bed, but the real Monster, the State, about whose monopoly on the legitimate use of violence Max Weber wrote so eloquently.
But it is precisely here that we encounter a dilemma. Mike Pence is Leviathan, but, instead of standing above the fray, he has taken sides. He has ruled that it is legitimate for citizens in the State of Indiana to discriminate against others. He has said that Leviathan will hold harmless any citizen who, for religious reasons, denies equal treatment under the law to any other citizen. And so Leviathan, rather than using his prowess to enforce civil peace and restore calm, is found instead to be using his monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to promote and fan the flames of civil war. He is Oliver Cromwell, sword in one hand, Bible in the other, an avenging Angel come to crush the Catholic infidels and their Church of England collaborators. “The Supreme Court is not God! The Government is not God!” Well, OK; but if you violate the rights of other citizens, we will have your head on a post. So says Leviathan.
And, yet, the King has taken sides. He is promoting civil war. He is leading it. What now?
In the case of the 17th century, the crown proved competent to sway enough stake-holders that — Catholic or Protestant — civil peace served the better interests of all. So, perhaps the question that we need to raise is who is Leviathan? Who holds sufficient power, sufficient enough to be actually terrifying, to compel the competing parties to back down, or else. Is Jesus Leviathan? Is God?
In the US — which is de facto a plutocracy governing under the extra-judicial authority of a rogue Supreme Court — those who must stand up for Leviathan, for the authority of law and civil peace, are among those least certain of where they stand or even should stand. The business community has pursued a policy of ever expanding profit margins at the expense of the community’s health, education, and welfare; and in so doing it is reaping the whirlwind by creating a citizenry poor, poorly educated, and terribly frightened; and, as in the case of Indiana, it has created a citizenry not too worried about suffering economic loss for the sake of the Kingdom. But it is precisely the business community that needs to step up and assert its horrible powers.
Similarly — see Citizens United and Gore v Florida — the justices of the Supreme Court have, until now, proven constitutionally tone-deaf. Everything, in their judgment, hangs upon the interstate commerce clause. Clearly the Justices, or at least five of them, need to discover their constitutional chops. I suggest they start with Hobbes. Civil leaders do not promote civil war. Civil leaders do not undermine public faith in public institutions. Civil leaders do not choose winners and losers in the public sphere. Civil leaders stand above the civil sphere. But, back to Jesus.
He is nearing his apparent end. He is already in Jerusalem. We are all loudly demanding his execution. He violated the religious codes. He ate with tax collectors and sinners. His followers included prostitutes and criminals. He was a law-breaker. He came to his own and his own received him not.
I think that Jesus has some sense for what is happening in Indiana and in the rest of the United States. I think that is why he went to Jerusalem, to show how it is done and to do it himself. He is bearing in his own flesh all of this hatred, anger, fear, terror. He sees Peter with his sword — with the power wielded by Leviathan — and he is saying to Peter, “Sheath your sword.” Why? I think that in this instance Peter believes that he will defend his religious rights with the help of Leviathan, with the help of the legitimate use of violence; and never before or since has there been a more legitimate cause for violence: defending Jesus from those who would execute him. So what does Jesus say to Mike Pence and to his political supporters who believe that they can use the state to defend their religion and their freedom? “Sheath your sword or you have no share in me.”
But — and this is crucial — Jesus did not take sides. He opened his arms wide upon the cross to welcome all.