Inherent Worth and Dignity

I don’t intend anything extraordinary in this sermon (which doesn’t mean that, despite my intentions, it couldn’t turn out to be extraordinary).

It occurred to me that this occasion (the 1999 Interweave Convocation) would be an opportunity for us to simply re-state the basics, reassert liberal religion’s attitudes in relation to gays, lesbians and bi’s and reaffirm the ground for those attitudes.

Let’s begin by stating the obvious.

The attitudes of liberal religion in matters of gender, color, sexual orientation, freedom of choice are different from those of some other religions. They are particularly different from those of fundamentalist Christian religion. Unitarian Universalists welcome people of diverse sexual orientations, affirming their worth and dignity and their equal rights and freedoms. Many Christians condemn those whose sexual orientation is anything other than heterosexual.

Why is that?

Well, for one thing, there’s a certain amount of homophobia abroad. Some of you may have noticed that. Homophobia. The fear of homosexuality.

We are born into a culture — family culture, religious culture, national culture. Cultures have their mores, their moralities, their paradigms of thought and understandings of reality. These are the boxes within which people think and live. What’s within the box is familiar, comfortable, untroubling. What is outside the confines of the box is fearsome, anxiety-provoking, disturbing.

The conviction is that, since what is outside our box causes us this much anguish, it has to be just plain wrong — and not only wrong, but dangerous, evil. We fear being out of the box. The fear is bred in our bones. We dread being different, being left out, being driven out of the box.

But the box is, of course, artificial, a mere construct. Thoughts and feelings cannot always be tightly contained. The out-of-the-box thoughts and feelings which sneak up on us are terrifying. Fear turns to anger at that which makes us fearful. Anger turns to violence — actual physical violence or violence done against the rights and freedoms of others.

Here’s an example of where homophobia leads:

In the Arizona State House recently, Republican state Representative, Barbara Blewster, explained to her assembled colleagues that, throughout history, cultures that have embraced homosexuality have also embraced bestiality, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. Blewster was speaking in support of Representative Karen Johnson, the author of a “no-benefits-for-gays–ever” bill. Johnson herself said that homosexuals undermine “the natural family,” are “morally suspect,” and are “at the lower end of the behavioral spectrum.” The attitudes of these two politicians are repugnant, of course. They are also ironic, in that both women are Mormons, a group that has endured bigotry and violence for nearly two hundred years — particularly in the west.

Here’s another example of where homophobia leads: A young man was lashed to a fence, tortured, beaten, murdered simply because he was gay.

Then there’s Tinky Winky here.

He looks harmless enough but, by now, you all know the lengths to which Jerry Farwell’s homophobia has gone. The current edition of the National Liberty Journal, which Falwell publishes and edits, declared that Tinky Winky is a gay role model, made to subtly undermine the moral lives of the children of normal, God-fearing families. (Did you ever wonder why people who claim to be morally pure say they are “God fearing?” If they’re so damn good, what do they have to be afraid of?)

Just a few of the daily uncounted examples of where homophobia leads. Homophobia begins with fear and translates into the absurd at best and violence and oppression at worst.

Now I can assure you, from my years as a counselor, that one cannot reason a person out of a phobia. And the vast majority of the western populace is homophobic. The best we can do is to see to it that homophobes are not able to murder and oppress out of their fear or turn their irrational dread into legislation.

Having brought the Reverend Falwell into it, let’s look at the other reason why liberal religion takes a different attitude toward sexual orientation than that of fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity. Fundamentalist/evangelical Christians believe that homosexuality — and just about any sexuality one might actually enjoy — is condemned in the Bible, which they believe to be the inerrant Word of God.

This would be a good place for me to emphasize that not all Christians are homophobic nor do all Christians exclude gay people from their communion. Those Christians who ground their faith in an intelligent and scholarly understanding of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures know that, to begin with, the very term “the Bible” is problematic.

“The Bible” is a term which — regardless of the loyalty it inspires refers, not to a seamless and uniform historical narrative, but rather to a collection of documents of various kinds, ranging over a stretch of centuries, and patched together in devotion to and in support of two very different ancient religions. So, to talk about what “The Bible” says, is somewhat deceptive — however sincere the verse-quoter may be.

There are those who, in well-intended defense of diverse sexual orientation, say that, contrary to the religious fundamentalists, the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. But, like it or not, that’s not really the case.

It is the case that Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, is silent on the matter of homosexuality and, if anything, takes a non-judgmental position in relation to morality — as for example in his refusal to judge the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery.

But, in the epistles, the letters — another collection in the “Bible” — the Apostle Paul clearly condemns homosexuality — and, again, just about any other kind of pleasurable behavior. He recommends marriage to those who just can’t control themselves, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn.”

Not everyone would agree with that, but that was his point of view.

And, in that volume of the so-called “Bible” known as the Old Testament or, more correctly, the Hebrew Scriptures, homosexuality is, again, clearly condemned; as in, for example, the book called Leviticus, a book of laws and religious restrictions.

So, yes, there are condemnations of homosexuality to be found in some of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Some of the other scriptures, however, have more important things to deal with — such as the health of the soul, Justice, Love, Peace and living in harmony. Also to be found in some of those scriptures are condemnations of thinking impure thoughts (the sin to which our beloved Jimmy Carter publicly confessed). There are also prohibitions against eating certain kinds of foods, looking at your father naked, masturbating, and walking down the street on the Sabbath. The same collection of documents also urges the slaughter of every man, woman and child in a city; the murder of your child to demonstrate your faith; and the putting out of eyes and cutting off of hands.

It’s a mixed bag, the “Bible.”

And so, when we religious liberals hear that our sexual orientation or that of our friends is condemned in the Bible as immoral and sinful, we can rightly take the attitude of “so what?” “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible they ain’t necessarily so.”

Just as there’s little point in attempting to reason people out of their phobias, there is little point in attempting to debate scripture with true believers. I read with abiding incredulity almost every week the letters in the Faith and Values section of our newspaper from true believers who attack humanists, atheists and Buddhists, by telling them what God says in the Bible. This is what the logicians call a tautology — arguing that the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true. Unitarian Universalists respect the Bible for its sheer literary endurance, the beauty of its poetry, and, here and there, its common sense lessons. But the Bible is not our ground of authority. To put it bluntly, it matters little to us what is written in the Bible when it comes to rules and guides for human conduct. So, when scripture is quoted at you, rather than trying to meet the true believers on their own ground, unless you took two years of biblical studies at Harvard Divinity School it’s best to smile in Christian love and thank them for sharing.

What about those — Christian or not — who say that anything other than heterosexuality is “unnatural?” That heterosexuality is “nature’s way?” I don’t know. Maybe so. There’s certainly a lot of that male-female intermingling going on in nature. But once one starts thinking outside the box, once fear and uncritical adherence to supposedly sacred scripture, gods and priests is eschewed, then what is “natural” is no longer prescribed by faith, belief, ignorance or terror.

Personally, I don’t know what basis there might be for making judgments about what, in nature, is “natural” and what is not. The fact that most of what happens in nature is heterosexual is not a proclamation from Nature Itself on what it considers “normal” or “abnormal.”

Nature “red in tooth and claw,” as the poet said, is also not the ground for guiding human behavior. You can call a cop if I come too near your nest, but you can’t rip my throat out. There are so many exceptions and variations in nature that, aside from the sure bet that falling from a high place is going to kill or cripple you — there are few absolutes in nature. And heterosexuality certainly isn’t one of them.

So where are people of liberal religion to turn when seeking a place to stand in asserting our values in the face of such overwhelming paranoia, phobia, and dehumanizing beliefs? If not the Bible, the preacher, Mother Nature, What is the religious ground for our commitment to diversity? Why are we a “Welcoming Congregation?”

Our seven Purposes and Principles may not be a creed but they are a statement of faith. Our Purposes and Principles are not the sum total of what we believe. But they are, more profoundly, the very least that we believe. And first in place, the anchor for all that follow, is the first principle, “We gather to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Back to my beginning question of why we religious liberals are different in our attitudes and values from some other people of religion: there you have it. We are different because we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person and they don’t.

We are as weak as any in our humanness and none of us is without sin of thought or impulse, no, not one; but our intent — the reason we gather as religious people — is not to keep the saved separate from the sinners unsaved, but to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This doesn’t mean we put up with someone, even though her way of being-in-the-world is different. It doesn’t mean we graciously tolerate someone even though his way of being-in-the-world is different.

As a people of faith whose will it is to encompass life fully and whole, our desire is to unlearn what diminishes and oppresses and to learn what lifts up and sets free. Our desire is to move beyond mere toleration to welcome by affirming that every person’s inherent worth, every person’s inherent dignity, is that same worth and dignity in which we seek to live and move and have our being.

We are different from some other people of religion. If we feel the impulse to make judgment and we do, if we experience fear of the other and we do, we do not then seek a dogma, or a prophet or a law to support and justify our impulses, fears or inherited notions.

What we seek to do, what our faith and our principles and values lead us to do, is to follow instead the guidance of the so-called pagan, Socrates –“Know Thyself.” Know the source of our fear, know the source of the self-hatred out of which proceeds violence, know the ignorance out of which proceeds injustice.

Well, look here, in our liberal seeking we’ve come around to a Christian verity. “Love they neighbor as thyself.”

As for Tinky Winky here: I’ll bet he — or whatever it is — never expected to become an icon, a role-model, as Falwell said, for the gay life-style. And I’ll bet you parents never dreamed that this lovable little tubby was sitting there on the nursery carpet quietly altering the genetic structure of your children.

You know, the Christians did a clever thing. They took a hated symbol, a symbol of fear and prejudice and oppression — they took the cross the Roman’s used for foul, cruel and barbaric execution, and they turned it into a symbol of faith and hope.

I suggest we do the same with Tinky Winky. Let’s say, “You’re right, Reverend Falwell, Tinky Winky is one of ours. Tinky Winky is henceforth the symbol of inherent worth and dignity.” Let’s wear the Tinky Winky image on our lapels, hang it on chains around our necks, and stick it on our dashboards.

In hoc signo vinces. With this sign we shall overcome.