Saturday, September 19, 2015

Permanence, Fear…Love

Thoughts on religion in America and the strange case of Kim Davis.

Kim Davis
The strange case of Kim Davis, the elected County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who on August 31 began refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in her county, has gotten me thinking about my own religious odyssey, and the role of religion—and in particular, Christianity—in American life.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex couples must have the right to marry no matter where they live in the U.S., Davis was jailed for contempt of court, but subsequently released to the delight of thousands of supporters. This chain of events, predictably, has elevated Davis to the position of Culture Warrior Numero Uno in the eyes of Fox News, Christian conservatives, and Republican Presidential candidates. (Ever the opportunists, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz high-tailed it to Kentucky on news of her release, eager to be on stage with the religious right’s latest cause célèbre.)

And as always and apparently forever, the more one learns about the case of a crusading modern Christian in America, the more bizarre the story gets.

Davis is reportedly an Apostolic Christian, a particularly conservative sect that believes in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Though it is worth mentioning that there seems to be some confusion about her true denomination, and no congregation has stepped forward to claim her. This is strange because Apostolic Christians do the whole laying of hands thing when someone joins up, and given that Davis only converted four years ago, one would think someone would remember her. Whatever the brand of Christianity that has led her to flout the law and in so doing claim the national spotlight, Davis has probably violated its teachings, since she’s been married four times and appears to have birthed her children—including a son who works in her office and, sharing her religious convictions, is also defying a court order and refusing to issue marriage licenses—out of wedlock.

One report says that Davis claims to have been “ordained by God” to do what she’s doing—sitting in jail for five days on the public dime, refusing to do the job she was elected to do, and now claiming that marriage licenses issued by her office against her will are legally null and void—none of which is particularly surprising, since God has long been the go-to excuse for so many people who decide to do dickish things in this world. But…tending to be more of a contemplative type about things like this, I find myself asking the question, Why? Why, in the 21st century, can’t we, as a species, get beyond this? And these are questions that invariably lead me to recall my own long and deep experience with Christianity.

* * *

My own Christian odyssey is pretty much the opposite of the one Kim Davis appears to have traveled. Rather than sowing wild oats for 40 years and then falling under the sway of a conservative brand of Christianity, I was born into and educated in early life under a comparatively liberal brand of Catholicism, the brand that thrived in California and around the country in the 1960s and led so many white Christians of all denominations to march alongside their African-American Southern Baptist counterparts during the Civil Rights Movement. My parents were typical of the Catholic couples wed in the 1950s, eschewing birth control and begetting and raising nine children, seven of whom (including me) were educated in a then-affordable private school under the watchful eyes of Dominican nuns and Franciscan priests. As a student at St. Frances Cabrini School from 1966 to 1973, I don’t remember much talk of hell. I also remember no readings from Leviticus, no talk of sodomy or homosexuality, and in fact nothing that promoted exclusion over inclusion. (This despite the towering presence of our 4th grade lay teacher, Miss Mock, an incorrigible dyke who shocked our nine-year-old sensibilities the day she unabashedly announced, “Not everyone’s a Catholic. I’m not a Catholic.”)

San Francisco Peace March, 1969
Our many masses at St. Frances did of course feature those vivid, realistic, and macabre images of Christ being tortured—getting lanced in the side and nailed to a cross, etc.—but what I remember most of those years (aside from a certain calliope beginning to find tune in my adolescent loins) is lots of love and lots of song. Nonetheless, I distinctly recall that at around the age of 10 or 11, I used the critical thinking skills the nuns and lay teachers had nurtured in me from the beginning to decide on two things: 1. If there is a God, he’s probably not such an insecure wuss that he needs all of his followers to go into a building once a week to “worship” him, and 2. If there is a God, he’s probably not the kind of supreme jerk who would take people that He created and banish them to a tortuous inferno for all of eternity.

But my own misgivings and eventual fall from the fold aside, the one thing the holy orders at St. Frances Cabrini were able to convince me of was that Catholicism was about inclusion and not exclusion, about unification and not division. And this is the one teaching that has been, beginning in my 10th year and continuing on since then, soundly refuted by both experience and the most basic understanding of world history. Christians kill Muslims and vice versa, Muslims kill Hindus and vice versa, Muslims kill other Muslims and vice versa. It’s a vicious cycle that has persisted for millennia, and when it comes to Christianity in America, you’re either in or you’re out. In the 1960s at St. Frances Cabrini and elsewhere in the nation, that was just fine: you go your way and I’ll go mine and we’ll see how it all shakes out in the next life. In my own family, in fact (and there are dozens of us, four brothers and four sisters, some with large families of their own), we have the Christian and the non. My father is Christian, my mother is not. We nonetheless live with each other and love each other unconditionally as families do all over America. And this is the way it was all over America once, when the division that is inherent in all religion sat comfortably in the back seat and not only didn’t interfere with human progress, but stepped aside so that Christian leaders like Martin Luther King could actually drive human progress. But oh how that has changed. Today we see the term “religious freedom” used to mean my right to deny you your civil rights, my right to deny you services to which you are legally entitled, my right to deny you your basic human dignity. It’s no wonder that—and, ironically, this is the good news—Americans are moving away from religion in record numbers.

* * *

So back to the question, Why? Whether there is a God or not, we—those of us here on this planet—are all humans. There are no gods here, and I suspect there are no prophets either. Some of us are more vociferous than others, more charismatic, more extroverted, more boisterous, etc., but we are all humans. And as humans, we have for millennia, I think, fallen sway for very good reasons to a few key dimensions of religion.

The first is permanence. Religion is forever, so whatever happens today or tomorrow, whatever trials we might endure, from minor frustrations to war and famine, they are trivial by comparison. Saintly knights were gladly drawn and quartered, faithful friars brutally whipped native Californians into submission, and jihadists murder and maim thousands of their countrymen because today is nothing. The real action—the truly permanent—kicks off in the next life, not this one.

The next dimension is fear. Who hasn’t heard the phrase, “a good God-fearing man,” or “a good God-fearing family”? Fear of the wrath of God was instrumental in delivering the species from primitive barbarity to civilization, and even today there are those who believe that without church teachings, their lives would have devolved into thievery, mayhem, and self-abuse.

St. Frances Cabrini Church,
San Jose, CA
And the final dimension I’ll mention is love. As I said before, my own religious experience was awash in love—love not only for our fellow congregants, but for our parents, our families, and our neighbors. Coming up in the 1960s, I recall a youth that had its challenges, but I never recall being very far from a good soak in a warm bath of love. My friends and siblings in our uniforms at St. Frances Cabrini School, my brothers, sisters, and cousins on our weekend beach trips and summer family vacations, the hippies in San Francisco during the peace marches, and of course my own incredible mother and father, who faced down adversities that I will never be able to imagine, all surrounded me with intoxicating vapors of love.

In 1973, as my fellow 8th-graders and I were being prepared for the sacrament of Confirmation, we were visited by a middle-aged couple—about the age I am now—who spoke to us honestly and openly about the challenges they had faced in the course of their long marriage to one another. As we prepared to enter adulthood in the Catholic way, they were giving us a reality check, but they were also sitting before us as a shining example of two people who were desperately in love. Just about a year after this, my own parents split up after 20 years of marriage, but I never lost my faith in the institution or my determination to enter into it in my life, and I have now been happily married to my wife Caroline for more than 23 years.

Strangely, these are the thoughts and images that pass through my mind when I think of the strange case of Kim Davis. Because when I think of the case, I don’t really think of Kim Davis at all. I think of couples like David Moore and David Ermold, who were denied a marriage license by Davis, and the kind of pain and hurt that must have caused them. And I think of the LGBT couples in my life, family members and friends, any of whom could easily be sitting together in 20 or more years just like that couple who sat before us at St. Frances Cabrini in 1973, just two people sharing a long life together, a life full of the trials and frustrations that face all of us, two people who remain desperately in love. Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll end up like my parents, eventually separated and then divorced. But that’s okay. Religion has never solved that problem for heterosexual couples and it’s not going to solve it for same-sex couples either, but what’s undeniable, in my mind, is that these couples deserve a chance.

* * *

The Road to Mecca, CA
So the rather simplistic answer to the question Why? that I’ve arrived at is, Kim Davis is fixated on permanence and fear, and has lost sight of the importance of love. Religion is not for me, but I know for a fact that there are congregations out there whose faith is grounded in love, and whose actions bear that out. I’m reminded of an afternoon a few years ago that I spent with my Aunt Monessa, a Franciscan nun, at a Catholic food pantry in Mecca, California, distributing food bundles to the poor. Because those congregations exist, I have no problem with religion. We can live with it. It can bring good into the world. But when the faithful fixate on permanence and fear, we get, at the very least, oppression, and at the very worst, certifiably insane people carrying signs reading “God Hates Fags,” and even jihad.

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