Saturday, July 4, 2015

Letter from a religious minority

I started this piece a number of months back and like so many posts I start but hesitate to put out there until I am sure I have thought what I am saying through and asked myself a dozen or more times, is what I am saying balanced? Anyway, I'd like to take a moment to congratulate the GBLTQ community on their recent big victory in the United States. My sincerest best wishes and regards. I'm sure it has been a long road and means a lot to a lot of people. If I may say as well, as someone who felt devastated by a similar decision in my native Canada ten years ago, I wasn't devastated by this decision. I'm one of the many social conservatives who has come around to supporting gay rights with time, but I have to say that as a human being I have not felt at all respected during this process. And maybe that doesn't matter, and I gather that it doesn't matter to many people because I hear them say precisely that, your feelings don't matter, you have your rights, etc. But yet the question that remains in my mind, if it's not acceptable to belittle or to label or to name call or to bully or to bash gay people, even verbally, why is it somehow acceptable to bully and to name call and to bash social conservatives and religious minorities?

The reason I ask that is because I'd actually just started to think I'd made my peace with this issue, even that I had moved on and was thinking and writing about other subjects, most thankfully as this subject has haunted me for years. I've sometimes written out of both a personal necessity and desire to try to find common ground. Yet, in online discussions that followed this announcement and with what was for me, a passing comment in one such discussion and the outright dismissal and ejection that resulted, much of what I had felt for ten years came flooding back. All for the mere suggestion that perhaps we could continue to include religious rights in this discussion. In my experience people shut you down, often before they even allow you to speak, assuming they know what you're going to say before they even take a few minutes to get to know you.

Perhaps this individual was simply having a bad day, I don't know, but it left me wondering if social conservatives even have the right to exist in this culture at this time. Are we even allowed to be part of the discussion? What else am I to conclude, when one isn't even allowed to participate and any mention of rights of conscience for religious persons on this issue is met with spite and acidic retorts? And just when I thought I was doing so well (shrug). I'd come around to what I thought was a fair and reasonable position, that though I see myself as a theologically conservative Christian and social conservative at heart, perhaps I've become more politically liberal in the last number of years, in seeing the damage that these social issues are doing, the division that it is causing, the pain and polarization that has resulted. It's not worth it to me, it really isn't. What's the point I figure, if as Christians we win the argument or the legal battle and lose the audience; if we lose the person, we lose the relationship.

And so it seemed like a fair compromise to me that though I am conservative in some ways, to put a new emphasis on simply supporting the rights of the individual firstly as a way of building bridges with communities. Makes sense, doesn't it? I thought so, though I have been told by people close to me that this is a violation of my own beliefs and principles and that the whole point of a democracy is that we all get a vote. Why not vote for traditional marriage if that's what you believe in? I don't think so. I can compromise, I can give a little. I can't give away my soul, but I can make it a priority to support the human being firstly. Hey, why not? Why is that not an equally Christian thing to do, to support the individual rights of the human person, as supporting the traditional family? Jesus said that there would be no marriage in heaven, but there will be individuals, and as I have come to understand, it is this core biblical concept of human beings being created in the image of God, endowed with an intrinsic worth and dignity that really is the concept that we continue to cling to and to draw from as a society. Somewhat ironically, it is this same core concept of human dignity and worth that the gay community is appealing to today, while the larger secular culture assumes that religion has no place in society.

But I'm not here to argue about that, or anything else for that matter. What I desire to express is that this has been a heck of a road for all of us, social conservatives as well as the gay community. I have felt abused and belittled and browbeaten and bruised throughout this process and I'm not exaggerating by the way. This issue has weighed on me emotionally, almost daily for much of the last decade. Yet, the idea seems to be that again, well, Christians have their rights, and so the end justifies the means, or so we're told. We can't have gay people browbeaten and bruised as a community; we can't have them ostracized, or harmed, or hurt and so, by any means necessary, right? Something tells me that Martin Luther King would not have agreed. Martin Luther King would have understood the value of people who were opposing him, the value of all people.

Having said that, I think we got it right the first time, and I'm not speaking of the civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's or women's liberation. I'm speaking of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic counter Reformation, from the turmoil of which was born the idea of tolerance, more descriptively, you set up your tent as a Catholic, I'll set up my tent as a Protestant, and we'll agree not to kill each other. This is classic tolerance is it not? And hey, it's worked for centuries, so why not put it to work now? Why do we insist on a uniformity of mind, for what is a most painful issue for so many people? I have been suggesting for some time that I think religious rights or rights of conscience would be a much better model for this issue, over insisting on a one size fits all approach which arguably is leading to confrontation and political and social polarization.

In reflecting on western history, my sense is that historically, the west learned that there is a heavy price that comes with sectarian conflict. My understanding is that this is also where the idea of separation of church and state emerged, that people who were fleeing religious persecution in Europe, understandably wanted to establish a balance of powers when immigrating to the U.S., the principle that no denomination or governing institution should get the upper hand, while the others are left to be marginalized or persecuted, or the church persecuted by the state or vice versa. In contrast, the sense that I get in this present discussion is that for many people, it really is about wrestling power from power or gaining or maintaining power for some, but at what cost? Freedom of conscience? I'm speaking for both sides when I define this issue as an issue of conscience to be clear, but our present mainstream society seems much less concerned with rights of conscience as concerning the rights of religious minorities. That is what I see. Feel free to disagree.

Now you might say Marg, you're paranoid to think religious minorities have anything to worry about, somewhere there is a clause that says that clergy will not have to marry gay people, as if that settles it. At the same time, there seems to be little discussion of where these boundaries end or begin, while law suits emerge and religious individuals and institutions appear to be targeted. And if the culture only allows one side of this issue and one group to be heard, who do you think the media and the courts will side with, as rights of conscience for religious minorities are suppressed and weakened? Call me paranoid if you like, but the fact remains that we are seeing court battles between rights groups...and who is winning? Does it matter that some of these legal and media battles involve religious institutions or even private businesses in private homes?

Again, what I have been saying for some time is that it would be much more constructive for both sides to think of this issue in the way we think of religion or politics, as an issue of conscience with a healthy freedom to disagree while respecting each others space. You be a Catholic, I'll be a Buddhist, you be a socialist, I'll be a Green, etc., instead or trying to force unanimity on what is again, a complex and painful issue for so many people. I would never walk into a synagogue and demand to be taught the Lord's prayer, nor would I walk into a gay festival and demand to carry a sign that says Jesus saves, so why are people telling Trinity Western University how to define marriage within their own religious educational context and social milieu?

In summing up, if one thing has become clear to me following this decision, it's that there is still so much pain and division that centers on these highly controversial social issues, and I think it will be years, even beyond the last legal battle before the sting is taken out of this issue for a lot of people. As I said to a close friend last week, we don't know how to talk to each other; liberals and conservatives are speaking different languages while insisting on opposing points of reference when confronting each other in the public square. Looking back, if I may say, this issue came out of nowhere and hit me like a truck; all of a sudden, almost overnight, you're being equated with people who killed millions of innocent people. For what? For having traditional family values and for believing that children need parents and that traditional marriage is in the best interest of the larger society (shrug). With that said, I think if it had been put to me differently, I might have gotten to the decision I did, sooner.

I think we need to reframe this issue in terms that are understandable to both sides. I've been thinking about compiling some of these blogs in such a way to do that. Maybe it's not such a bad idea to think of trying to communicate this issue in new ways, but for now, I'd like to allow myself space to say what I have felt for much of the last ten years. Some days the division I see all around me bothers me more than others, but it's always there (sigh). On a positive note though, what keeps me going is the thought that despite the polarization and the visible extremism that seems to be more and more of an issue in our modern world, that most people are reasonable and that in time, hopefully, we can begin to see past our differences enough to support each others right to disagree -as fellow bearers of another mind's image. :)

If I may, I would like to close with something I wrote a while back. Please understand that I'm not posting this to be self-indulgent or overly emotional. I'm posting this because I honestly don't think that the average person in more mainstream or secular circles understands how painful this issue is for social conservatives. And please, before you scoff at that, I want you to take a step back and please think about an issue that is near and dear to your heart, something that you know you could never compromise on, something that cuts to the core of who you are as a human being. Slavery? Poverty? War crimes? Human trafficing? Social Justice? I don't know, but you know what that issue would be. What could you not compromise on, even if your life was on the line?

With that question in mind, I want you to imagine a world where the mainstream culture was trying to change your mind on that issue. You turn on the television and it's there. You open a magazine or see an advertisement and it's there. You're aware that you are a minority in a changing world, for the majority it's no big deal, and everyday you feel the pressure to change your opinion. You're called a bigot in discussions with friends, you're called a hater in social media, you're told you are the reason millions of people died in a holocaust. It's kept you up at night, you've lost friends and been publically embarassed but still, you know that you cannot change your mind. This is who you are, this is what you believe, and yet the pressure to conform goes on for days and weeks and the months turn into years. How do you feel? My point is that it's easy to say that someone else should change their views, their most basic values and beliefs -when it's someone else. I'll leave it at that for now, but as alluded to earlier and in the opening title, this is simply called, "Letter from a religious minority." Take care. :)

Sigh. I don't want to make a big deal out of this post. I don't want to come across as self-indulgent or whiny. It's just that after several years of writing, albeit obscurely on the gay rights/ religious rights battle that is ongoing, I made the mistake while ill and tired, of reading a local new story's coverage of yet another gay/ religious battle and after reading the comment section at midnight, something in me snapped. Not one person that I read, comment after comment, with once again the familiar accusations; not one person dared to ask the question, do Catholics have the right to be Catholics?

The question rings in my ears like the accusations. I do not know why this issue has bothered me so much over the years. I am well aware that 27,000 kids die every day from hunger and preventable diseases. Does this compare, and yet it seems like when I turn on the national broadcaster, if I'm feeling brave enough on a given day and willing to feel assaulted as an evangelical Christian, it's there, so much of the time, it's there, like a big ol' club, waiting to come down on my head, again and again. That's what it seems like.

And so it looms, disproportionately perhaps, but it looms in my mind as it looms in the press with yet another battle, yet another accusation. Most days I can handle it, the familiar accusations, the familiar pain that I feel when I think of this issue. I try to take it in stride, a sense of humour helps. But this was one time, it just got to me. Never mind the stomach pains, never mind the chronic migraines, the distractability that I have felt in the last number of years, for which the familiar accusations don't seem to help. I wake up to the tune of you're a bigot in my head, and it's always there, a little louder some days, but it's always there, like my hatred, or so I'm told.

What's wrong with me? Am I over-sensitive? Do I need to learn to brush it off, toughen up? Does my pain count? Do evangelical Christians feel pain? Surely not! Surely bigots and hatemongers don't have sleepless nights as I'm writing this at 3 o'clock in the morning. Bigots are too busy being bigots to have sleepless nights, right?

And so I'll continue, continue to live with the familiar song, what else is there to do but get used to it? Another day, the familiar pain, the familiar accusations, the famous fear. But it's not famous to anyone else but me because no one cares. In a culture that talks about bullying. In a culture that talks about targeting, and how it's wrong. In a culture that says that name calling is wrong, I saw an ad for it the other day so I know somewhere standards of conduct must exist. We shouldn't hate people they say. Cyber bullying is wrong they say. Name calling is wrong they oft' repeat, so talk to your kids about it while I just continue with the familiar song and the familiar pain in my stomach and the confusion in my head because I already know the national broadcaster doesn't want to hear from me. I don't have the right views. I don't have the right opinions. There is something wrong with me. There is something very wrong with me.

I can't seem to get on the big ol' bandwagon. I can't seem seem to do it right. If I could just get on that big' ol' bandwagon everything would be easy. I know that and yet I can't do it. And I know from the sleepless nights that that is not going to change so there's no point in going there again and again because I know what I will find in the dark because I have been there many times. But bigots couldn't possibly spend time in the dark, do they?

So from someone who's worked with the marginalized for most of my adult life and who's done that from my own pain of feeling marginalized, and from someone who waited all my life to escape the mentally abusive environment that I grew up in, to better myself, to try to be a better parent, to try to be a better friend, a better person, may I humbly ask the people that talk about everyone just being themselves, when do I get to just be myself? When do I get to respectfully disagree? When can there be just a little bit of room for me and others who think like me to just be who we are? How many years of being stigmatized, how many sleepless nights does it take to have earned the right for bigotry to be called what it sometimes is -conviction.



Thanks for listening,

Margaret Harvey






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