Sunday, March 29, 2015

Taking on Hate with a Whole Different Kind of Courage

"Hate and bigotry wrapped in religious freedom is still hate and bigotry."
– Todd Adams, vice-president of the Indianapolis-based Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Until now, I have largely avoided politics and religion in these posts on the assumption that I would be preaching either to the converted or to the unconvertable. But the situation in Indiana, where discrimination has just been legalized in the name of religion, has pushed me over the edge and has revived my long-dormant activist self: I can no longer stand silently by while a privileged majority masquerading as a persecuted minority tramples over hard-fought rights in the name of religious freedom.

This is not a gay issue, nor is it an Indiana or even a U.S. issue. Around the world, zealots of all stripes feel increasingly emboldened to attack those they disagree with – too often, in the name of religion. Virulent and sometimes violent racism, antisemitism, islamophobia and homophobia are on rise, as are attacks against women, and silence in the face these attacks on human dignity can no longer be acceptable. As Apple's Tim Cook put it today in a Washington Post op-ed, "This isn’t a political issue. It isn’t a religious issue. This is about how we treat each other as human beings."

Some have argued that the so-called religious freedom laws popping up in the U.S. (Indiana's is not the first and will likely not be the last) are about freedom of speech. I disagree.

Freedom of speech is not absolute.

Of course, everyone has the right to believe what they choose to believe and to speak those beliefs, however objectionable you or I might find them. However, when those beliefs take the form of legislation that impinges on the freedom, dignity and personal safety of others, it becomes a matter of public policy....or should. When those beliefs take the form, for example, of a "kill the gays" ballot initiative, as is now the case in California (California!), then free speech has been subverted into something so twisted and hateful that it cannot be sanctioned in a civilized society.

By the way, the attorney who has launched the California ballot initiative claims that the state-sanctioned execution of all homosexuals, through his proposed "Sodomite Suppression Act," is the only way to save righteous Californians from God's wrath. Sounds crazy, right? Like something you would hear from ISIS? But it's real, it's happening in this country, and the process of getting it onto the state ballot is underway.

Earlier today, when I posted about the Indiana issue on Facebook, someone suggested that those in Indiana unhappy with the legislation could always leave: "Don't like what is happening in Indiana? Don't go or live there."

Telling people who don't like Indiana's new law that they have the freedom to leave is like suggesting that blacks who didn't like institutionalized segregation should have moved out of the South or that Jews unhappy with the European (and North American) antisemitism of the 1930s should have gone elsewhere.

Yes, moving is a choice...although it's not always a practical or viable choice, nor, in a civilized society, should it be a requirement.

Again, I defend anyone's right to say whatever they want to say....until those words legislatively strip me of my freedom, safety and dignity. For in the end, a democracy built on the tyranny of a majority that persecutes, actively or passively, those who think, believe, act or live differently is more tyranny than democracy...and that has nothing to do with freedom of speech.

In 1935, in the face of rising fascism in Europe, American author and Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis published a novel about a populist U.S. senator who is elected president on a platform of reform, patriotism and traditional values. Once elected, he uses a paramilitary force to take control of the government and imposes totalitarian rule. The book's title? It Can't Happen Here.

"It can't happen here," is what the ordinary Americans of Lewis's story kept saying...until it did.

Today, we in North America and Western Europe look at the religious zealots in other countries and say, "it can't happen here." The problem is, it already is happening here – from synagogue bombings in Europe to abortion clinic bombings in the U.S., from radicals in the Middle East claiming a right to kill in God's name to the California attorney who would do the same, for much the same religious reasons.

Is giving Indiana (or Arkansas or Virginia) businesses the right to deny service to anyone who offends their religious sensibilities any different from those who used religion in the 1950s as a justification to enforce segregation and deny interracial marriage...or who used it in the 19th century to justify slavery?

How do we stem this tide of codified discrimination and legislative ugliness? We do it by speaking up and by voting it out – at the ballot box and with our wallets. We do it by sharing our stories – privately with each other and then as publicly as we dare.

We do it by making sure that the people who act out their hatred know that hate has consequences – for the haters as well as the hated.


What we don't do is become haters ourselves.

It's too easy to hate those who hate us, to attack those who would attack us. Ironically, it's not only profoundly unChristian, it goes against the fundamental tenets of every major religious, spiritual and secular humanist teaching. It also makes us no better than those who would strip us of our freedoms.

"Opposing discrimination takes courage," Tim Cook wrote in concluding his Washington Post essay. "With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous."

Yes, we must make our voices and views heard – loudly and forcefully. But we must also do it with compassion and with open hearts. We must be, as Gandhi said, the change we want to see in the world. And that takes a whole different kind of courage.

2 comments:

Kathleen Messmer said...

What is this insanity? How is ANY of it constitutional? How have we come so far in human civil rights in THIS country only to have it ripped away by a few over-zealous bigots? Unbelievable...

Mark David Gerson said...

Kathleen: All good questions and questions I have asked myself as well. The problem, of course, is that the constitutionality can't be determined until there's a court challenge -- or series of court challenges. Until then, the legislatively endorsed hate goes on.