In 1988, when I moved to Fort Collins, I was done with church. There was no one thing that had pushed me away over the years, but what became intolerable was its theology and practice regarding gay people. My closest friends in Denver had gone through exactly what my wife and I later went through, where one member of a heterosexual marriage came out as gay. So I had a front-row seat to the whole “gay thing.” The overall church response was abhorrent.
I had a lot of conversations with myself and with church-going friends in the years between 1988 and 1994. One of the subjects of those conversations was the idea of “reform from within.” Church-going friends made the plea that I stay within the system to act as a moderating or reforming influence.
I’ve never noticed that this is a particularly effective strategy. To the contrary, it seems to me that the only thing that ever reforms an institution is threat from without.
Institutions are skilled at cocooning dissent-from-within, and rendering it impotent. They can always dilly-dally about changes: tomorrow we’ll discuss it, the day after that we’ll make some plans, next week we’ll talk about funding. Yes, it was nice to have this little chat, let’s do it again, soon. Nothing changes that way.
Walking away makes a much louder statement, poses the imminent threat of lost income and political authority, and demands a reaction — even if it’s only to re-argue questions previously considered settled. The up-side is that I don’t have to listen to those tired old arguments any more.
I chose to walk away. As I say, the gay issue wasn’t the only thing. But it was one that I simply could not reconcile with my conscience.
Looking back over the last twenty years, I like to think that my act of voting with my feet, in the company of many, many, many others, was at least partly responsible for the recent toppling of the “gay” barrier within the church and within society as a whole.
But I’m also recognizing that the concentrated essence of reactionary ballast I left behind in the church by removing my “moderating influence” had its own role to play.
We can look to the Westboro Baptist Church as an example. Their antics have spoken far more loudly than my departing feet. Many people who knew nothing about homosexuality, knew about Matthew Shepard, the college student in Laramie, Wyoming, who was beaten, tied to a snow-fence far outside town, and left to die of his injuries and hypothermia, all because he was “homosexual” — whatever that meant. It was hard for most people to grasp what could possibly have been so horrible, to deserve that kind of death. Many people who knew nothing about homosexuality knew that it was opposed by those “spite-filled nut cases” in Westboro, who disrupted military funerals with signs claiming Matthew Shepard deserved his grim death at the hands of two thugs and now burned in Hell. Those people might have been unclear on what homosexuality was, but they knew that the people opposed to it were bad, crazy people.
The Westboro Baptist Church took on the role of Evil in this little mummer’s play, and has played that role well, with gusto. I think the legalization of gay marriage owes a lot to the Westboro church: though I’m pretty sure that isn’t what they intended.
By walking away from the church, I caused it to swing microscopically toward Westboro. With thousands of us walking away, it shifted significantly toward Westboro. I think that was a wake-up call for the church — it was certainly the opportunity for a wake-up call, and it put some existential teeth into the issue. And many churches did reform — even the Catholic Church, now.
There continues to be a fringe element that cultivates homophobia, and probably will always be, but it is increasingly seen as petty, even vicious, obsessing over a dead issue.
I’ve recently been facing bouts of writer’s block and emotional distress over a number of other issues in the general US society — police brutality and the Bush/Cheney torture have been only two of these on the tip of the iceberg bobbing about in these chill waters.
I feel the need to vote with my feet.
It’s harder to leave the country than it is to leave the church, though it is a consideration. What I can do right now, however, is to walk away from these issues.
My youngest son feels that most of these public issues are manufactured as our US American form of the old Roman panem et circenses — bread and circuses. It keeps us entertained by arguing amongst ourselves about side issues while the rich plunder the commonwealth, as the powerful stroke each others’ turgid egos and look the other way.
Is the US government corrupt? Of course it’s corrupt. Is it more corrupt than the German government? Or the French? Or the Somali? I have absolutely no idea. All that I know comes through news feeds, and the news feeds are also corrupt.
I’m really starting to understand that I’m just one small Hobbit in a very large world, and worrying about any of these shadows flickering on the walls of the cave is pointless. I’m not going to start a movement. I’m not going to shift minds or hearts — if I did, it would be ten or twenty, not ten or twenty million. I’m not Martin Luther King Junior — I have not one drop of that kind of leadership or charisma in me.
So I don’t have to try to reform the United States from within: an ineffective strategy at best, and not one I’m cut out for. I really don’t even have to take part in the attempt.
The good news is, I can thank men like Dick Cheney for doing a far more effective job of damning the worst excesses of the United States government, just as I can thank the Westboro Baptists for damning homophobia: not within the US, of course, but outside it. The Germans mocked Bill Clinton over his peccadilloes, but they liked him. They have filed war crimes charges against Bush and Cheney. It will all play out as it must.
In Oakland and Ferguson, police are beating and arresting protesters, while in Nashville, police are providing hot chocolate to protesters, so long as they keep the peace. The brutal cops will eventually be vilified just like the Westboro Baptists, and will in the end do far more to improve black lives, and civil liberties, than anything I could do: though I doubt that will have been their intent. It will all play out as it must.
The Republicans who currently control the Congress are not fit to govern. If by any strange chance I’m wrong about that, well, good on them. If I’m right, they will continue to sully the Republican brand and will eventually destroy it completely. They may well destroy the economy (again), which is at least an opportunity for a wake-up call to US Americans (again). It will all play out as it must.
So I consider this a kind of New Year’s Resolution: to walk away from this crap, and vote with my feet. I’d rather think and write about things worth thinking and writing about.
And let it all play out as it must.