Sunday, May 27, 2012

Promises to keep

A week ago at Memorial Episcopal Church there was a baptism, in the course of which the entire congregation reaffirmed their Baptismal Covenant, promising, among other things, to "respect the dignity of every human being."

That promise was echoing in my head during the week as I read about the clergyman who preached from the pulpit that gays and lesbians should be rounded up and put in concentration camps.

I am not making this up. The Rev. Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., proposed building a fence of a hundred or so miles and herding gays and lesbians inside it. "And have that fence electrified till they can't get out. Feed 'em. And you know what, in a few years, they'll die out. Do you know why? They can't reproduce." And there have been other sermons like unto it in North Carolina as the state considered a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.*

One of the marks of evil, one of the ways you can tell it when you see it, is to deny humanity to individuals or groups of people. When the Nazis proclaimed that Jews were subhuman, "vermin" being a favored term, that made it easier to gather them into concentration camps to die.

The human tendency to define oneself against the image of an enemy has flowered in Christianity over the centuries, not merely in outbreaks of anti-Semitism, but also in the bloody hostility between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It can be found today in hysteria about Muslims, most of whom are no more terrorists than the Rev. Mr. Worley. Actually, most of them a good deal less so.

Respecting the dignity of every Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, homosexual, or whoever does not mean approving of them all or endorsing all they do or say. But it does mean, if you are serious about the Gospel, that you do not get to treat them as if they were any less human than you are.

And so is the Rev. Mr. Worley. One challenge for those of us who try to honor the dignity of every human being is to find a way to approach people who have been warped by prejudice and ease whatever fears, distrusts, bad experience, and faulty education have led them into hatred, to help them emerge. 

*Let's get this out of the way. Civil marriage is secular, because it is in the interest of the state to regulate property, inheritance, and the welfare of minor children, and churches accommodate to it. Civil marriage permits divorce, for example, and the Roman Catholic Church does not dictate terms to the state; neither does the state regulate religious marriage in the Roman Catholic Church.

Civil marriage, like the rest of the law, changes with social mores. At some times and places it was possible to secure a divorce only with proof that one party had committed adultery.** Now simple incompatibility suffices, because society no longer labels divorce with the stigma it formerly did. If North Carolina were to approve civil marriage for gay people, no one could compel the Rev. Mr. Worley to officiate at such a ceremony. The Constitution grants him a cloak for his bigotry.

**Now that I think of it, Scripture informs us that adultery is a great sin. But I do not see reports that the Rev. Mr. Worley has advocated herding adulterers into concentration camps to fulfill God's word. Is it unduly cynical of me on a Sunday to suggest that such a measure would empty many congregations?