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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Beyond the Homophobic God

Carter Heyward

Not only has AIDS generated a social crisis of multiple public and private meanings in the United States and throughout the world; it is also underscoring a spiritual and moral crisis for many religious traditions. For many religious persons, the AIDS crisis has provoked fear-based reactions - rejection and isolation, condemnation and judgment, shame and guilt. From some traditions and groups, AIDS increasingly is evoking genuinely compassionate (as opposed to patronizing) pastoral responses. In the most liberating currents of religion, in the U.S. and elsewhere, the crisis is inviting creative theological and ethical responses. My reflections in this Atlanta Convocation on AIDS and Religion in America have been shaped by my involvement in feminist liberation theological endeavors in contemporary Christianity, which tend to stretch in ecumenical, global, and secular directions beyond most conventional forms of either Protestantism or Catholicism in the United States.

In this Convocation, we have discussed the increasingly brown, black, poor, and female demographics of the disease in the United States. We have also recognized the extent to which, in many (if not most) religious traditions in this country, certainly in most Christian churches, the response to AIDS has been shaped largely around its early associations with the predominantly white and middle class community of gay men -- and hence has been steeped in homophobia (the irrational fear of homosexuality). That the disease has moved in staggering numbers into communities of color, (mostly among the urban poor,) in the U.S. has done little to reassure most Christians that AIDS is a major health crisis rather than a "moral" problem (defined narrowly as "sexual" by most Christians and others in this very christianized nation).

And of course AIDS does confront us with significant moral and theological problems, as well as health issues (including the necessity of having "safer sex" and using clean needles). But especially for those of us who are Christians (and also Jews, Muslims, and other western monotheists), the moral crisis we face in the context of AIDS is much more about the shape of the social relations which our religious traditions promote -- how we are connected with one another in the world -- than about who we have sex with and what kind of sex we have with other adults who want to have sex with us.

Morality is, after all, about making right-relation with everyone and every creature. It has to do with how we spend our time, our money, our energy, our lives. Our big moral questions are about how we relate to one another as co-inhabitants of planet earth - how do we share the resources for life? how do we build local and global networks of mutual interdependence and live responsibly and happily together in them?

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Issues of sexual activity are sometimes important, but they are always a subset of the larger moral invitation to live together in mutually respectful, nonviolent ways. This is what our religious institutions should be teaching us and helping us build spiritual and theological foundations to support. Yet the prevailing and most popular assumptions about the Christian God tend diminish rather than enlarge our ability to respond creatively to these significant moral questions. Why is this?

The Christian "God" and Homophobia

Most people whom the churches celebrate (usually long after their deaths) as saints, prophets, and other liberating spiritual leaders, have agreed that the living Spirit of love and justice cannot be known or loved as a "nice, respectable" god who has a special connection with morally exceptional people. Nonetheless, much prevailing theological rhetoric among Christians - -especially, though not exclusively, those of dominant class, culture, race, and gender-identity -- has created a god in the image of people who aspire morally beyond niceness toward perfection, "to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect." This is experienced by most Christians as a call and a challenge to act in good ways, to be well-behaved in the image of a god who is a Big Moral Scorekeeper, rather than to accept the wholeness of life in its complexity and find serenity in it -- to find our peace in God -- which I believe is a much healthier and more deeply moral way of understanding our own and God's "perfection" as wholeness, integrity.

Still, "God" has become for most Christians something more like the Big Moral Scorekeeper. In most popular Christianity, this is what "Our Father", does he keeps score of our rights and wrongs. He (or even perhaps She, in a more inclusive spirit!) is One whose mercies are granted and punishments meted out accordingly. Like a good (moral, perfect) father, this deity gives us our due, be it wealth or poverty, good health or disease. As it happens, in most religious traditions (Christianity is no exception), those who make the rules -- including the theological and moral (or ethical) systems - have the ascribed economic, cultural, and gender-based power to set the standards for both divine and human morality and the criteria for judging those who fall short.

From the time the church made peace with the Roman state (4th Cent., ce), Christians have come close to equating immorality with violations of sexual boundaries. Most feminist and other social historians suggest that this Christian equation of sin with sex, and thus of morality with sexual morality, has been how ruling class/tribe men (including, especially in earlier periods of western culture, church prelates) have maintained control of the social order and thereby guaranteed the perpetuation of patriarchal power relations as a foundation of ecclesiastical, cultural, political and economic order.

This ordering of church and state has generated ideologies to support it: Racism has been one of the most virulent; hetero/sexism (1) has been another, and obviously economic exploitation and classism have been essential to the world of God. So too has been the creation of "marginal" groups of people and other creatures to uphold the fathers, sons, and other men at the center of this world wives and children of course; and also slaves, servants, workers, mistresses, animals, and other members of a creation designed by God to serve ruling class/tribe men. Beneath all other people and creatures -- at the bottom of the margins -- in the pecking order of God's world have been the rebels, resisters, deviants, and those whose alien character has been, for morally correct men, primarily a source of mystery, fear, and confusion. In our time, "homosexual" has become a [probably the] signal word for the bottom of the margins in cultures throughout the world.(2)

1 I often use "hetero/sexism" as one word to signify The inextricably of male gender privilege from heterosexual privilege and of misogyny from homophobia. The oppression of women and of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and Transgendered people are rooted in the same gender-based assumptions.

2 This does not mean there are no exceptions to this. It does mean that on every continent, in most if not all nations, "homosexuality" is considered wrong, sick, or dangerous by most people. This is certainly the case wherever Christianity has become the predominant religious force.

A modem (Victorian) term invented as a means of diagnosing people whose lives

and. styles seemed to deviate from how most men and women displayed their gender-identities, "homosexual" has become, a hundred years later, a highly-charged and increasingly politicized code-word for "perversion" of what is good, "deviance" from what is right, and "danger" to the "natural" order of God and man. The very word sparks images of chaotic gender-bending and a fluidity of gender/sexual boundaries which badly agitates nice people, turning a few of them into hysterical hate-mongers and punishers "in the name of God," and frightening and confusing almost all of them- which is to say, almost all of us.

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"Homophobia" is shorthand for this 20th Century hysteria that stirs in the hearts of

morally respectable men, women, and their children who learn fear-based lessons all too well. From the most popular (patriarchal and, today, capitalist) Christian theological perspective, 'homophobia" is a defense against the demise of the Father God and His good order. In a more mythological spirit, "Homophobia" could be the name of the Archangel appointed to prevent even the mention of gender bending in the presence of God in heaven; while here on earth the angel Homophobia stokes the Father's wrath against homosexuals and comes up with the idea of AIDS as an appropriate punishment.

Making Connections

Christians need to help liberate God and the world from this terrible theology and the moral rubble left in its wake from one generation to another. I was sorry to hear about the hysterical response of Anglican bishops to homosexuals during the bishops' meeting at Lambeth, in England, last summer. But I was hardly surprised, given the theological premisses noted above, assumptions about morality and sin, and mythologies about God and punishment, which are buried deep in our common Christian history.

The courageous gay-affirming Bishop Jack Spong of Newark calls for a reformation in the church on issues of sex, Bible, and authority. Spong is right as far as he goes. But he does not go far enough, many feminist theologians would agree. We need more than a reformation --which, by the way, we have been in the midst of for about thirty years, via feminist, black, queer, and other liberation theological movements in this country and elsewhere, especially Latin America. We need a theological revolution, the turning over of patriarchal (and now also monopoly capitalist) logic with its fear-based obsessions with financial gain and sexual control.

Such a theological revolution can be seeded only in an on-going, shared spiritual and social transformation which, if we are willing to join in it, will be significant far beyond our own lives, communities, cultures, and generations. The Sacred that will greet us, and reshape creation itself, through such a process is likely to become more our friend, less our "authority"; more a fully human and morally struggling sister, brother, mother, or father, less a "perfect" anybody; more a burst of rage at injustice, less a "nice" feeling; more an impulse to resist cruelty, contempt, or apathy, less a resignation to "respectability"; more our power for generating mutuality, compassion, forgiveness, and the courage to let go of the need to control the world, and less a projection of one who knows it all, controls it all, and metes out rewards and punishments as He sees fit. The God we need is the God we actually have - One who is with us, not over us; One pulling for us, not against us, in our efforts to live together in mutually empowering ways; One helping us create moral compasses to guide us in our life together.

At this moment in history, I think that the strongest potential for long-term social and spiritual transformation is in our willingness and ability to combat hetero/sexism and homophobia -- and other evil social/spiritual forces such as white race supremacy, economic exploitation, environmental devastation, and theocratic fundamentalism - as simultaneously theological and political issues which are always systemically linked. We cannot get very far in fighting any one of these major social and spiritual problems without becoming more aware of how the others shape it in particular ways from culture to culture.

The AIDS crisis, globally and locally, requires us to do exactly this - through our churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations and places. Religion in the U.S. has no greater spiritual mission than to help educate, organize, and build solidarity among those at the margins, whatever our margins may be. And we religious people have no greater social vocation than to help shape creative, liberating spiritualities among people, such as Christians, whose theological legacy is such a mixed bag: partly fear-based and destructive of humanity and creation; partly liberating for humans, other creatures, and the Creator.

Our churches and other religious organizations must learn to hear and heed the yearnings of the liberating Spirit that has always, in all generations and religions, inspired prophetic voices and encouraged solidarity with those who are marginalized. Predominantly white middle class churches such as my own must study racism as a terrible spiritual as well as social problem, and also class injury and injustice, and homophobia, and the ongoingness of the fear and hatred of strong women (look at the resentments and derision heaped on the First Lady).If you are in a church that somehow never can quite do this kind of thing, then either you are in the wrong church or, more likely, your church has the wrong leadership. Don't settle for it.

Studying and addressing the AIDS crisis as one of the major spiritual, political, and social forces of our time - throughout the world, not just in the U.S. -- could be a powerful, transformative program of Christian education. Through the lenses of economic privilege and poverty, race, gender/sex, religion, culture, age, education, and health care, we would see a little more fully into the workings of both good and evil in human life and, moreover, into the presence of both human and divine life working through the AIDS crisis. Together we would be strengthening our prophetic voices, sharpening our political sensibilities, and seasoning our pastoral commitments.

I believe strongly that, in a similar vein of making connections as powerful spiritual work, a predominantly Black church in today's America would be faithful and wise to be teaching and preaching resistance to homophobia and hetero/sexism, and to economic exploitation and class injury, as massive spiritual and social problems which interlock with racism to the ongoing degradation and decimation of African-American communities and people. There are so many creative, liberating Black resources to be tapped in helping make theological and political connections not only between these evil systemic forces but also between the social and spiritual meanings of AIDS.(3)

3 Several come immediately to mind -- Coretta King, Cornel West,James Forbes of Riverside Church, James Cone of Union, womanist theologians Delores Williams of Union in New York and Kelly Brown Douglas of Howard, lesbian African American church woman and scholar Irene Monroe (finishing her Ph.D. at Harvard right now), and of course Elias Farajeje-Jones (and perhaps others on this very panel -- I don't yet know who else will be doing this with us).

We need to be doing theological education that is also political education in our religious organizations. We have AIDS, all of us -- whites and people of color, whatever our gender identities, whether we are queer or other (and I submit that aIl people who are in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and Transgendered folk are "queer" in today's world!). Whatever our religious or spiritual traditions, whether we are more intellectual or activist- minded, younger or older, HIV positive or not, we have AIDS. And thus we share a major health crisis that is political and spiritual to the core. In this crisis, we need to be making connections, and where we don't have the religious organizations to help us do this, we need to be revolting --transforming the old ones and/or founding new ones. We need to be working together, going as slowly as we must to do what we do well, but moving steadily forward, believing that, our bodies are truly, God's in this world and our voices those of the Sacred.

SUMMARY OF PERSPECTIVE: The moral questions we face in the AIDS crisis are more about how we relate to one another as mutually interdependent coinhabitants of this world than about sex between adults who are willing partners. Many of the most popular (patriarchal and capitalist) images of the Christian God today -- especially the image of the morally perfect Father diminish rather than enlarge our abilities to respond creatively to moral questions. Christians and other religious people need to be liberating God and one another from this terrible theology and the moral rubble left in its wake from generation to generation.