Friday, May 27, 2011

Why Same-Sex Marriage Will Strengthen Marriage for Everyone

Marriage is about love, family and commitment -- for everyone. If we look at the specifics of how marriage strengthens and protects loving commitments and provides a more secure framework for home and family, we'll see how and why extending the social recognition and the legal protections of marriage to same-sex couples strengthens everyone's families.

1. Coercing same-sex oriented individuals into mixed orientation marriages is a formula for heart-break and marriage failure. One of the major reasons opponents of same-sex marriage offer for their position is that they believe it is God's will for everyone to be in heterosexual marriages. By denying same-sex couples the social approval that comes with marriage, they assume, opposite-sex marriage will be upheld as the social ideal and more individuals will feel drawn to enter into those kinds of arrangements.

While no one is forcing anyone to marry an opposite-sex spouse against his or her will, this is a subtle form of social coercion/pressure whose end goal is essentially to promote mixed-orientation marriages, the vast majority of which fail. This social policy is, in other words, almost calculated to increase the likelihood of divorce for large numbers of couples.

It is in the best interests of our society to promote stable, lasting pair-bondings. Allowing same-sex marriage as an option helps to remove the social stigma on homosexuality. It will encourage same-sex oriented individuals to come out of the closet and pair bond with (marry!) other same-sex oriented individuals. This is what opponents of same-sex marriage do not want. But, it is nevertheless in society's best interests, because it will reduce the likelihood that closeted individuals will enter into inherently unstable unions with persons of the opposite sex. It will correspondingly increase the likelihood that they will form lasting commitments with persons they are attracted to, and who are attracted to them.

Same-sex marriage will decrease divorce and increase family happiness and stability for everyone!

2) We are individually and collectively stronger when we are members of a family. Families are the oldest form of social insurance there is. Being married means you have someone to rely on if you get sick, if you lose your job or if you experience any other form of misfortune. That someone is there to take care of you not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. Often when we experience tragedy, the thing that plays the biggest role in helping us get back on our feet again is the emotional support and encouragement we get from someone who has committed to be our yoke-mate for life. I know this has been true for both me and Göran. In our going on 18 years together, there have been times when one or the other of us has been down and out, and the other has been there as number one cheerleader and supporter.

Opponents of same-sex marriage would prefer that if gay people can't be married to a member of the opposite sex that they be single for life. But in whose best interest is that really? Certainly not in the state's interest. When a person who is alone falls, who is there to help pick him up?

Individuals live in families, families live in societies. If an individual falls, if he has no immediate family, extended family is expected to help. If extended family is non-existent or ineffective, then it falls to the larger society. Forcing gay people to be alone weakens the fabric of society. Because Göran and I have been able to help each other over the years, we are stronger, we've been able to become resources to others. In recent years we have become foster parents, able to provide a loving home to children who have fallen through the cracks of society. So, the fact that we exist as a family unit means we can provide resources to help care for others, to become part of the social safety net.

Any one of the personal crises that Göran and I have faced could have proven deadly. That fact that each of us was here for the other increased the likelihood that we are both here today. And we are here today as a family unit that is capable of contributing to our neighborhood, community and state. And so society is stronger.

Same-sex marriage makes all of us stronger.

3) Marriage promotes morality and makes us more spiritually sensitive. Refusing same-sex couples the right to marry essentially sends a message to gay folks that the normal rules and expectations of sexual morality don't apply to us the way they do to everybody else. It also sends another, subtler and more damaging message: that gay people are inferior to heterosexual people. That we don't deserve stability, love or family. That we are inherently morally inferior. This damaging message encourages just the kinds of reckless, immoral behavior that the opponents of same-sex marriage claim to oppose. By legalizing same-sex marriage, we send gay folks the message that they are expected to abide by the same social norms, the same morality that we expect of everyone else.

When Göran and I got married, it had a huge psychological impact on me. I became aware of a profound responsibility to my significant other. It changed the way I thought about myself and about my sexuality. Committing myself to my husband and being willing to bridle my sexuality in a way that honors my love for him and my commitment to him has changed my life in so many ways for the better. In many ways, those commitments paved the way for me to come back to the Church. I believe living in a way that honored my love for him made me more sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit.

It is those spiritual benefits of the kind of love and commitment that can be fostered in marriage that I personally consider one of the greatest benefits of marriage. Though, for obvious reasons -- such as social stability and the reduction of sexually transmitted diseases -- providing a social framework that discourages promiscuity and encourages sexual morality among gay men and lesbians is also a benefit that strengthens not just the individuals involved, but society as a whole.

Let's tell our stories. If you are straight, why is marriage valuable to you? How would same-sex couples marrying spoil marriage for you? How would it weaken your marriage? If you're gay, what have you gotten from your relationship with your same-sex spouse? How has it strengthened you, made you a better, happier, more complete person?

Come, let us reason together!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Fight Over Marriage Comes to Minnesota

It hasn't been fun watching the same-sex marriage debate roiling other states. Until now, the gay marriage debate has been an abstract issue for Minnesotans. Previous efforts to amend the Minnesota state constitution were stopped in the legislature. But in the last election, Republicans took over the Minnesota state legislature (even as they lost the governor's mansion), and now Republicans in the legislature have put an anti-gay-marriage amendment on the ballot for 2012. (The voting in the legislature has been almost totally along party lines, with only a couple of Republicans joining Democrats in opposition to a marriage amendment.) So now we get to have a public referendum on same-sex relationships.

Recent polls are showing that a majority of Americans favor same-sex marriage, and a a majority of Minnesotans oppose banning same-sex marriage. Both sides claim polling data in Minnesota that supports their position. And as we know from the Prop 8 campaign in California, public opinion can change in the course of a campaign. So for these reasons, and also because Minnesota is currently seen -- both by gay marriage opponents and by gay marriage supporters -- as a bellwether for the nation, it looks likely that national organizers on both sides of this issue will get involved here. Which means we could be in for a fight, and it could get ugly.

This is not something I am constitutionally capable of sitting through on the side lines. Even if I wanted to keep silent and let others fight this fight, every molecule in my body would force me to my feet, to get out of the house, and to open my mouth. Bottom line, I'm getting involved. I've joined the Faith Steering Committee of OutFront Minnesota.

The mood of many GLBT folks here is gloomy. Many do not look forward to having the merits of our lives, our love, and our families publicly debated and demeaned in the way that only politics can demean.

But I am not gloomy. I am glad, and I am excited. Public opinion is evenly divided which means we can win this. And I believe that, since we live in a Democracy, the only way a lasting resolution of this problem will ultimately be brought about is not in a court, and not by executive fiat, and not even in a legislature, but by the voice of the people. Minnesotans now have an opportunity to discuss, not legal finery or constitutional procedure, but substantive values and real lives. If we do this, if we talk about our lives, and about why love, family and commitment matter to us, we will win.

Gay folks are a small minority everywhere, so it is frightening and dismaying to have our lives, our rights, and our families voted on by majorities. But our opponents aren't bigots, they're just afraid because they don't understand. If we stop looking at those who oppose same-sex marriage as our enemy, and start looking at them as folks who just don't know us well enough yet to be our friends, we will find the voice that will enable us to tell our stories in a way that will reach and touch real people and make a difference. If we just have patience and faith, and if we show kindness, we will find friends in unexpected places.

We must not be fearful, and we must not be dismayed. We must find the hope and the courage that only love can inspire.

If you live in Minnesota, and, gay or straight, you want to help, let's talk!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Destiny and Desire

Not all wants, needs or desires are equal. Some things we desire for a time, and then our desire wanes; we lose interest in what once we felt we couldn't do without. Some things we desire, we never lose want of; they give us joy that is unending. Some things we desire are very good for us; they nourish us. Some things we desire are not good; they harm us. Some things we desire are not necessary; we may pine for them and ache for their lack, but sometimes we might be better off without them. Sometimes unrequited desire makes us better and more human. Some things we don't just desire, but are more like needs than desires. Without them, life is unhealthy and unhappy and, ultimately, unbearable. There are things we desire, the lack of which dehumanizes us. Included in this last category, I would put things like love and freedom.

When we experience a desire, it can be difficult to know which kind of desire we are experiencing. Which desires in life should we resist or repress, which should we bridle or channel, and which should we pursue wholeheartedly?

I want to exclude from this discussion things that I would describe as explicit needs; things that we can't do without for very long and remain alive. Without air, we will die in a view minutes; without water, in a few days; without food, in a few weeks; without clothing and shelter (depending on the environment), within a few seasons. It is interesting to note that it is possible for us to lose desire for these things if we lose our desire to live.

A lot of discussion in relation to homosexuality centers around the question of whether intimacy (emotional and physical), touch, and sex go into the category of "need" or not. I think the case can certainly be made, and has been made. Infants deprived of touch will die. That certainly seems to point to a need. Without mental and emotional health and happiness, without intimacy, touch, and love (or, for that matter, other intangibles like dignity and freedom), we can lose the desire to live. That's why the problem of gay Mormon suicide bears on the question of whether a healthy intimate relationship is a legitimate need or not.

But for this discussion I want to set that argument aside. I want to acknowledge that at least some people find ways to live -- and even live well -- without human intimacy. And at least some of these are not necessarily people who are extreme introverts or who are asexual. Some of them may have what we consider normal desires for touch, sex, intimacy, and relatedness, but who have found a spiritual path that enables them to do without these things. This is rare, but it's possible. And of course, religious conservatives will tend to point out that since it is possible, if homosexuality is a sin, then it is desirable for the Church to encourage homosexuals into this path; to provide role models and structure that will enable us to find that path.

So let's suppose that sexual/intimate relatedness is not a need. Let's just look at same-sex relationships from the point of view that they most obviously present themselves to us, and from the point of view most universally agreed upon from a religious point of view: from the point of view of desire. And I'd like to look at desire from an experiential perspective: what I've learned about desire through the hard knocks and triumphs of life.

At some point in our lives, we each have to answer the question: What Do You Really Want? What is the one thing you want that you're willing to subordinate all your other wants to? I'm not sure if there's any one point in our lives where that question presents itself quite so neatly, nor where we are quite clear-headed enough to answer it from deep in the heart. Or maybe the little choices we make in life are our way of answering that question. The little decisions are our way at chipping away at that big question; our way of deciding what we think is possible and what we think is impossible, what we want, and what we have no interest in.

I do believe that if we can answer that question, and answer it honestly and unclouded by fear, we will have understood our true natures, and we will have understood what it is our destiny to become. Salvation or wholeness, I think, is to enter into that destiny in its fullness. So we can't really be saved or whole until we really know with a perfect knowledge what it is we want, and until we pursue it with an eye single.

But the problem is, rarely do we have the kind of mountaintop experience that enables us to see all things with perfect clarity and to know our place in the grand scheme of things. Or, correction! We do! But not until after we've struggled alone in the dark for a while, without feeling like we know much of anything.

In my experience, the only way we have of feeling our way forward is through the daily practice of listening that prayer offers us. Faith can be like a compass that points us in the general direction we want to go; it allows for some straying off course once in a while, it permits periodic course corrections. But it requires some overall consistency to get to the right place in the end, because when you have a journey of 10,000 miles, you're going to have to log a lot of days' walking in order to get close. We can see the mountain from the distance; it's often obscured by the local scenery, by twists and turns in the road. Any given path might take a sudden turn in a direction we didn't anticipate, and we can't know if it will swing back around. The compass -- which we access by listening to our heart in the stillness -- is the ultimate guide when we get lost. And the way the compass leads is to point us in the direction that "feels right." Not always the direction that "feels good," though they sometimes coincide.

So, listening to my heart and listening to the Spirit eventually led me into my relationship with Göran. After eighteen years or more of building a life together, I find this deep, deep reservoir of joy in it, that doesn't seem to have a bottom. It overwhelms me sometimes when I experience that joy in anything close to its totality. I realize the lessons we have learned together have been incredible, unlearnable in any other way. And I see a path forward that promises more learning and joy without end that I can discern. Even death looks like just another twist in the road in comparison with that love. I'm now high up enough on the mountainside to look back down and trace my path, to see clearly where I was once lost and where I got found again.

From that perspective, it seems like there are only two kinds of desire: the desire for things fleeting, that take me further from the deepest, most meaningful, truest desires of my heart; and the desire to be full, to be whole, to complete myself and to fulfill my destiny. Whatever is in the latter category, I've discovered, can't possibly take me further away from God, because it relates profoundly to the me that is a child of God. What I do know is that if I had listened to other voices, including some very well meaning ones, had I not paid attention to my own compass and followed it, even when others were telling me that to do so would lead me away from God, I couldn't be where I am now. And that is a very, very good place.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jesus Showing Up in Unexpected Places

Saturday I had a conversation a neighbor. This neighbor, P., is a man perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties, tall and thin, with a full shock of curly, white hair and a well-trimmed beard framing an attractively rugged face. Like many in the Powderhorn neighborhood in South Minneapolis, he lives a simple, down-to-earth lifestyle. He likes talking to and sharing with his neighbors. He drives a car that's falling apart but gets him where he needs to go. He loves gardening, even in the rain. He is a self-described political progressive, and does not think of himself as particularly religious. Nevertheless, our conversation turned somehow to the topic of Jesus, and not in the usual way of such conversations.

P. proceeded cautiously, asking a few questions to feel out my own views on the topic. I think it came up in the context of my mentioning that I had just finished a semester of teaching at United Theological Seminary. He started out by mentioning a few books he had read recently about Jesus by John Dominic Crossan and Matthew Fox. He wanted to know if I was familiar with their scholarship, and what I thought of them, and what I thought of Jesus.

I told him more or less what I said on the last day of my American Religious Histories class this past Thursday, when one of my students asked me to discuss my personal thoughts about religion and history. I said that history as an academic discipline can only ever scratch the surface of reality. What we can know of God, we can learn best only directly and personally, and until we have that view, we can understand only dimly the relationship between the world of spirit and the mundane world apprehended in the academy. It took me a bit of ambling about in that vein to finally work up the courage to flatly state, "I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world."

P. listened attentively and respectfully. I asked him about his interest in the topic, and he casually let drop that he himself had had some recent personal encounters with Jesus that had motivated him to want learn more about him. That raised an eyebrow or two on my part. I asked him if he would elaborate. What exactly did he mean by "encounters" with Jesus?

He seemed hesitant to go further. He was worried he might offend me.

"If you knew my full story," I explained, "You'd know there's nothing you can possibly tell me that would shock or offend."

He proceeded to tell how he was a practicing Wiccan. While at "Witch Camp," he had sensed the presence of Jesus. Jesus, P. explained, had been quite insistent, insinuating himself into a setting that had explicitly intended to exclude him. P. described Jesus as "gentle but persistent." Among other things, he imparted a message of love, and had urged P., among other things, to start reading the scriptures to learn more of him.

Up to this point, though P. had read books by modern Jesus scholars, he had not yet gotten around to reading the Bible itself. He confessed that he didn't actually even own a Bible. He asked for advice about which version of the Bible might be most readable for someone who had little to no experience with the good book. I told him the version didn't particularly matter, that he should just start reading it, and that if he didn't own his own copy, I was happy to give him one as I had a few extra.

He then wanted to know what he should start reading first. He'd already decided he might not be able to handle most of the Old Testament. I seconded his instinct to start with the New Testament, specifically the Gospels and the Book of Acts. I told him that once he'd read at least that much, it might be worthwhile to read at least parts of the Old Testament. I encouraged him to start with Genesis, and then, if he was up to it, Isaiah.

Because his desire to read scripture stemmed from a personal experience with Jesus, we started talking about the scriptural witness of the resurrection. I told him something of my own experience, and I told him about an Episcopal priest I once worked with who had witnessed the risen Christ. I told him about Joseph Smith. And I told him that the oldest texts in the New Testament are the Pauline epistles, which include the oldest direct, first-hand accounts of Paul's experience with the risen Christ, and Paul's descriptions of other first-hand accounts. By the time we were done, he seemed eager to read any account of Jesus he could, so in addition to giving him one of my spare Bibles, I gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon (showing him where he could find 3 Nephi) and jotted down some bibliographic information for texts where he could get a hold of other non-canonical gospels like Thomas, Phillip and Secret Mark, as well as re-constructed texts like "Q" and the "Signs" gospels.

When we finally shook hands before he went his way, he commented how odd it was that at just the moment when he had been thinking about these things, somehow "the Universe" had arranged for him to run into me. I always enjoy how that works.

But more fascinating to me is how I have experienced in my own life or witnessed in the lives of others God working very directly and personally with us. God speaks to us in a language and in a way that can reach each of us exactly where we are, and can guide us in a way that is specifically tailored to our individual life experiences and needs. I can't imagine missionaries of any denomination taking it upon themselves to go seek converts at "Witch Camp." But obviously Jesus himself didn't have a problem with it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

R. Crumb's Book of Genesis (2009)

R. Crumb may today be best known for his role in the underground comics movement, and for his creation of pop cultural icons like the "Keep On Truckin'" comic, Devil Girl, Fritz the Cat, and Mr. Natural. The life of the American ex-patriot (now living in the south of France, where I served my mission for the LDS Church) has been portrayed in the 1994 eponymous film, Crumb. But it is quite possible that after his contributions to pop and underground culture have been long forgotten, R. Crumb will be remembered for his contribution to theology in the form of his graphic portrayal of the Book of Genesis.

The irony of this is captured in Crumb's own introduction to what is, in my humble opinion, his chef-d'oeuvre. "Every other comic book version of the Bible that I've seen," he writes, "contains passages of completely made-up narrative and dialogue, in an attempt to streamline and 'modernize' the old scriptures, and still, these various comic book Bibles all claim to adhere to the belief that the Bible is 'the word of God,' or 'inspired by God,' whereas I, ironically, do not believe the Bible is 'the word of God.'" Nevertheless, he has, "to the best of [his] ability, faithfully reproduced every word of the original text... [venturing] to do a little interpretation of [his] own, if [he] thought the words could be made clearer, but... [refraining] from indulging too often in such 'creativity,' and sometimes [letting] it stand in its convoluted vagueness rather than monkey around with such a venerable text." Nothing is left out, not even the "begats," and everything from the Creation, to the Fall, to the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt is portrayed with breathtaking literalness. The result is something simultaneously shocking (the cover warns: "Adult supervision recommended for minors") and captivating, a theological tour de force.

Readers familiar with Crumb's oeuvre may doubt his intentions in putting the first book of the Bible into comic book form. Crumb himself admits that his initial intention was parody. But, he claims, as he got deeper into the task of illustrating Genesis, he found himself awed by the power of this ancient text to enthrall so many millions of people across such extremely diverse cultures, over the span of millennia. Ultimately he realized he needed to take the text seriously, and portray it as literally and faithfully as possible. And in doing so, he has created something unique, and has made a contribution to the field of biblical studies for which future faithful will undoubtedly thank this iconoclastic unbeliever.

Many undoubtedly will not thank him at all. I'm sure this book has made it onto a fair number of believers' banned books lists (or will, as soon as more folks become aware of it). But I love it, and find it compelling, moving and even spiritual. I appreciate the linguistic and visual research that went into recreating the lost world of the Old Testament. More importantly, I love the way it brings Genesis to life, the way it confers vibrancy on passages I long considered unreadable, and would have considered unillustratable. It sheds completely new light on the entire text from beginning to end. Indeed, it is eminently readable as a new "translation" of the Bible, rendered in pictorial form.

The most powerful aspect of the book, simultaneously the aspect most likely to attract denunciations of heresy, and, I think, the aspect of greatest interest to Mormons, is his portrayal of the central character in the Book of Genesis, God himself. God is portrayed very literally as an exalted, omnipotent and omniscient man. He literally walks and talks and interacts directly and personally with all the other major characters of the book. His long, flowing hair and beard, and larger-than-life stature are portrayed in stylized manner to emphasize his radiance and power, but also to amplify the very human emotions of delight, love, anger, sorrow and mercy expressed in God's physical postures and facial expressions. The end result is powerful and -- for me -- strangely reverent. God is taken seriously here, and becomes humanly accessible and personal in the way he only can if we are willing to take Genesis (and other scriptural texts) literally.

I recommend this book for any serious student of the Bible. If R. Crumb's Book of Genesis offends, it offends for the very good reason of upending our conventional (and Bowdlerized!) notions of God and morality. It offends for all the very good reasons we ought to be offended by the Bible, and R. Crumb has done us a service if he has forced us to dispense with our sanitized notions of what the Bible does or does not, should or should not say. Read this book, but be warned that it is Genesis "graphically depicted" with "nothing left out!"

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why I'm Not Making Fun of the May 21 Folks

Some of you may not have heard that some folks anticipate the rapture tomorrow. They've done their best to get the word out, and have generated some media buzz, mostly derision.

While I don't necessarily share these folks' beliefs, I'm not laughing at them. That is because part of me secretly hopes that the beginning of the end could be tomorrow. Frankly, I'm eager for Jesus to arrive. I actually pray for his coming, as I believe all Saints should.

I've read these folks' arguments about how they can know it's happening May 21 -- despite Jesus' pronouncement that "ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh" (Matthew 25:13) -- and I don't buy it. I don't buy it mainly because of the moral Jesus himself draws from this pronouncement: "Watch therefore"! The reason Jesus hasn't announced the deadline of his coming is because we are expected to be ready at all times. Read the whole parable of the virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13) and see if that isn't the conclusion you draw as well.

But I'm not making fun of these folks, and I won't laugh at them if they are disappointed on Sunday, May 22, because to a certain extent, I share their hope. I'm tired of war and wickedness, hate and fear. I'm eager for Jesus to move us on to the next stage. I'm ready and waiting.

But I also accept the burden of trying to make my own heart and this world more ready for his reign in the meantime. I accept the responsibility of trying to make more peace, more love, more hope. I accept that if God wants to try my heart (and my patience) a little bit longer, I must oblige him.

Waiting for Jesus to come again isn't about sitting on my back side and counting down the seconds until his arrival. It's about working. There is work to do! That's what faith and faithfulness is all about.