The Avodah Blog

Where the Real Challenge Lies

Monday’s blog post highlighted the recent increase in media coverage of young Americans committing suicide following anti-gay persecution. Although some have argued that this ‘epidemic’ is neither new nor surprising, the increased airtime that the phenomenon has received recently has generated a rash of videos from individuals and groups across the United States relaying a single message: It gets better.

The messages offered in each video are heartfelt and inspiring, and some – like the speech by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns – are exceptionally brave. Videos have appeared on Youtube from such gay pop icons as Tim Gunn and Dan Savage, but other, more surprising allies have also weighed in. Hilary Clinton asks bullied youth to ‘hang in there’, while Barack Obama’s video message encourages victims of bullying not to blame themselves and to reach out to those who love them. Entire cities have joined in to encourage queer and questioning youth not to give up hope, and clergy members across the country – such as Rabbi David Bauer – have contributed their personal stories.

Ultimately, whether the message comes from individuals or groups, the idea behind it is the same: Don’t give up, there are people who will love you and accept you as you are. This is an empowering message, both for those who hear it and for those who tell it; it demonstrates that individual inspiration and love has weight in this world. But ultimately, can single acts of proffered love combat discrimination when it is rooted in faith?

According to a recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 72 percent of Americans believe religious messages about homosexuality contribute to “negative views” of gays and lesbians, and nearly two-thirds see a connection to higher rates of suicide among gay youths. Over the past months and years, the political and religious right has been reacting with increasing virulence to calls for gay rights; ‘anti-gay activists’, to quote the founder of Truth Wins Out, ‘see the writing on the wall and are…spewing unprecedented amounts of biblical bile’.

It’s easy to dismiss this ‘bile’ as the product of fundamentalist faith adhered to by misguided bigots.  But Jay Michaelson, founder of Nehirim and chief editor of Zeek, argues in an essay entitled “The Significance of Sex” that these reactions are rooted in the very real challenge that liberated sexuality – both hetero and homo – represents to the edifice of Western religious thought. They cannot be reduced to simple hysteria or bias.

Michaelson believes that traditionalists conceive of religion, with all its sexual taboos and preoccupation with social order, as a ‘mythic world of absolute truth’; fundamentalists relate to religion through these objective values, and view non-normative beliefs as an implicit threat to the social ordering and control that goes hand in hand with religious belief and adherence. ‘Post-mythic religious progressives’, however, relate to religion though the pursuit of ‘justice, spiritual experience, community, and kinship’, and elevate the truth of the individual subjective experience.

Michaelson refuses to delineate along the lines of liberalism and conservatism, or to attach moral goodness to one camp or the other. He believes that the question, for all those who are concerned with how religion must grapple with a modern movement for human rights, is this: ‘How do we take the achingly beautiful poetry of our religious tradition and read it in the achingly beautiful realities of lives too subtle for certainty?’ In answering this question, Michaelson cites the statistic that whether an American supports gay rights is directly related to whether he or she actually knows gay people. In light of this, he emphasizes the power of sharing one’s personal struggle with public eyes and ears. In so doing, he believes, we can convince our more traditional co-religionists to move from certainty and simplicity to embrace the messy and beautiful complexity of human love and experience.

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