Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Revenge of the Sith pt. 3: The Spiritual Fall

(You guessed it... spoilers!)

The third major devolution in Revenge of the Sith is the destruction of the Jedi Order, which is a sort of odd combination of religious order and Knights of the Roundtable. The Jedi have been guardians of the Republic for over a thousand generation. They serve the light side of the Force, which can be used as a metaphor for almost any religion. As a Christian, I am naturally interested in comparisons to Christianity. Their enemies are the Sith, who serve the dark side of the Force. The Sith are so full of hate and anger that they almost killed off their own numbers until they determined there most only be two Sith at any given time: a Master and an Apprentice. Throughout the entire six-movie series, Palpatine is the Sith Master. He has a series of apprentices over the course of the saga, the last of which is Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.

The Jedi, on the other hand, number in the thousands, although their numbers have been diminished by the Clone Wars (one of if not the ultimate goal of Palpatine in starting the war in the first place). The Jedi are governed by the Jedi Council (think 12 Disciples), the leader of which is Master Yoda, a 900-year-old diminutive alien of unknown species. Yoda is noble and wise; not exactly Christ-like, but perhaps more similar to Old Testament prophets like Moses or even Joshua (because in addition to being wise, some serious ass, kick Yoda can!) ;) The Jedi follow the Jedi Code, which honors peace and justice and defense rather than aggression. They are skilled negotiators and warriors and the clear heroes of the saga. They are, however, deeply flawed.

One of the main teachings of the Jedi is to abandon "attachment." The Jedi are not allowed to marry or have children. They have no personal possessions except for their lightsabers, their Jedi robes, and a few other tools of the trade. They don't own homes or property but instead live at the massive Jedi Temple on the Republic's capital planet, Coruscant. Young Force-sensitive children whose parents wish them to train as Jedi are removed from their homes as babies and raised in the Temple so as to be indoctrinated in this sort of lifestyle from the beginning. Anakin, however, is not discovered until he is nine years old. The Council very nearly refuses to let him train as a Jedi, but he is so powerful they believe him to be "The Chosen One" who will "bring balance to the Force." Right from the beginning, Anakin has problems with attachment. He is taken from his mother and, understandably, misses her greatly and when he fails to save her life, slaughters an entire tribe of Sand People in revenge. He falls in love with Padmé and accepts the dark side of the Force in the hopes of not losing her like he lost his mother. Anakin is a living example of everything the Jedi fear about attachment; however, it is precisely their dogmatic insistence on no attachments that makes Anakin so unable to deal with his. So insistent on following the literal words of the Jedi Code, they squeeze the real Truth behind those words out of it. When Anakin goes to Yoda for advice when he first begins having dreams about Padmé's death, Yoda blithely tells him to "rejoice" when those he knows "join the Force. Mourn them do not, miss them do not." In short, he's telling Anakin he has to let go and that he can't control life and death. Good advice, but to take "no attachment" to the level of rejoicing and not grieving? It's ludicrous. As one of my friends pointed out during this scene on one of our numerous viewings of the film, "I don't see Yoda throwing a party when all the Jedi 'join the Force' later." Clearly, Yoda mourns their loss, but he is able to move on, let go, and get to the business at hand. This is a personal strength, but his inability to sympathetically communicate this to someone fearing the death of the person they love the most makes him almost brutally cold and uncaring in this scene. Compare that to the seeming warmth and compassion Anakin receives from the Chancellor and it's little wonder he chose the Sith over the Jedi. Palpatine even uses the truth of the dogmatism of the Jedi to manipulate Anakin into throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The Jedi might be extreme in their dedication to the lack of attachment, but that doesn't make them completely wrong about everything.

The Revenge of the Sith novelization by Matthew Stover illustrates this a little better than the film because as a novel, it can get inside characters' heads. In the book, Yoda recognizes this failing:

"Too old, I was," Yoda said. "Too rigid. Too arrogant to see that the old way is not the only way. These Jedi, I trained to become the Jedi who had trained me, long centuries ago--but those ancient Jedi, of a different time they were. Changed, has the galaxy. Changed, the Order did not--because let it change, I did not."

This makes me think of modern Christianity where often dogmatic adherence to literal texts takes precedence over understanding the Truth behind the literal words. We follow Scriptures written by and for people of a different age than our own. To try and make the literal words mean for us what they meant to the writers and original audience is to twist all Truth out of them. The old way is not the only way. God may be unchanging, but we are not and if Christianity tries to stay exactly as it was in Jesus' time, it will stagnate and die as surely as the Jedi Order. Just as the Jedi missed the truth about love because of their focus on the literal words in the Jedi Code about attachment, we are in danger of missing God's Truth by focusing solely on the literal words of the Bible.

In the end, it is only when the Old Jedi Order is destroyed and the New Jedi Order is born (via Luke Skywalker, Anakin's son, in Episode VI) that right can triumph over wrong. Like his father, Luke had many attachments. He loved his friends to the point where he was willing to defy Yoda and Obi-Wan to try and save them in The Empire Strikes Back. He loved his father and believed he could save him from the dark side. He loved his sister, and Vader very nearly uses this love against him just like the Emperor used his own love of Padmé. The difference between Luke and Anakin/Vader, however, is that Luke's kind of love is the 1 Corinthians 13 kind. Luke is not possessive or arrogant or controlling. He loves his sister, but when given the choice of striking down his father to save her, he can't because he loves his father, too. Where Anakin picked up his lightsaber to lead troops into the Jedi Temple to kill, Luke threw his lightsaber aside. He did so knowing his death was certain, yet he did so not in defeat, but victory. The Emperor might take his life, but in refusing to give into the dark side, Luke assured the Emperor could not take his soul. It marks the first time in the entire six-movie saga that something happened that the Emperor had not planned for. So angry is he that he cannot make Luke turn the way he had Anakin and all the other apprentices before him, he loses himself in rage and attacks Luke, forgetting that Luke's father, whose life Luke had just refused to take, is watching. It is this moment that Anakin comes back to the light. He saves his son--and his own soul--because he loves him. Real love this time, not the possessive, obsessive kind. The latter sent him to the dark side, but only the former could bring him back. Luke thus becomes an example of Christ's teaching, that only by losing our lives can we save them. Luke lives because he chose death over doing the wrong thing. Anakin "died" and became Vader because he chose the wrong thing in order to try and stop death. The reason Luke was able to make that choice and Anakin was not, in part, lies in the loosening in the dogmatic restrictions of the Jedi. Luke knew how to love because he was allowed to love. Anakin did not know how to love because he was taught he wasn't supposed to.

Here again is a lesson for Christians, a lesson Jesus repeated often. Love is not found in the rigid adherence to rules and regulation. Love is found only by practicing it.

Revenge of the Sith pt. 2: The Political Fall

(Thar be spoilers!)

Paralleling Anakin's personal fall to the dark side is the deterioration of the Republic into the Empire. Like Anakin personally, the Republic falls for all the right reasons. Palpatine was elected as Supreme Chancellor of the Senate in order to take action and stop red tape when his and Padmé's home planet was being unjustifiably attacked by the Trade Federation. A decade later, after his term should have expired, he is granted broad and sweeping emergency powers and an indefinite term of office in order to deal with the crisis of a looming civil war between the Republic and the Separatists. What the Senate and the citizens of the Republic don't know is that Palpatine is playing both ends against the middle. As Darth Sidious, he is controlling the Separatists even as he controls the Republic. War for the sake of war, its only purpose to scare the Senate into granting him more and more power. When he finally does formally declare the end of the Republic and the birth of the Empire, with himself as the ruler for life, he lists noble reasons: safety, security, justice, peace. Of course, these are all lies. There can be no safety, security, justice, or peace where there is no freedom. The Senate, however, responds to the catch phrases with wild enthusiasm and Padmé utters one of the most chilling lines of the film: "So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."

George Lucas had this movie outlined years, perhaps decades before 9/11 and the war in Iraq, so the broad strokes of the political climate of the Galaxy Far, Far Away as the Republic falls as compared to the current political climate in the United States cannot be intentional, but some of the fine details probably are. The Emperor's speech about safety and security echoes the kinds of things that were said when the Patriot Act won such quick approval in the days that followed 9/11. Anakin tells Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy," almost directly quoting one of President Bush's speeches to the international community on the War on Terror. He justifies hunting down and murdering every last Jedi (including the children in the Temple!) by claiming they are terrorists and sings the "safety and security" refrain once more. I can't help but find the fall of the Republic so disturbing because it does seem so similar to some of the things going on in the United States today. I'm not saying Bush is a Palpatine. I don't think there's any one "Palpatine" in the American political scene, but I do think the tragedy of 9/11 has been used to scare people into giving up too much freedom and I do think there are political groups, particularly on the far right, that once would have been considered outrageously extremist but that have managed to gain power in recent years by taking noble concepts like justice and security and twisting them. We may not be on the verge of becoming a totalitarian Empire, but we are letting liberty die a slow and agonizing death piece by tiny piece... with thunderous applause.

There is one other political issue that cannot go unmentioned as it is perhaps one of the most profoundly disturbing moments of the entire film: the execution of Order Sixty-Six. While the Clone Troopers are all clones and not normal humans, they are still people and not machines like the Separatist Droid Army. Unlike their descendants, the Stormtroopers of Episodes IV-VI, the Clone troopers are often seen without helmets and are given nicknames in addition to numerical identifiers. Anakin wants to save "Oddball" during the opening space battle, and Obi-Wan jokes with Commander "Cody" about droid kill counts on their way to hunt down the Separatist General Grievous. Later during his duel with Grievous, Obi-Wan drops his lightsaber and it is Cody who retrieves it. They are comrades in arms, dutiful and brave soldiers under their Jedi commanders. And then Palpatine issues "Order Sixty-Six," and to a man--er, clone,--the troopers turn on the Jedi and kill them. In a brutally painful montage, we watch first as Cody, having just returned Obi-Wan's lightsaber, receives Order Sixty-Six and calmly without any regret or second thoughts at all, orders the clones to shoot Obi-Wan in the back. Obi-Wan survives because the dragon he is riding takes the hit and he falls into a deep lake where he is able to hide from the searching troopers. Then we see Jedi after Jedi after Jedi fighting along side their clone comrades only to be placidly shot down. None of them see it coming except Yoda because Yoda alone senses Anakin's fall and the impending disaster in the Force. The Jedi, who can sense emotions like betrayal and malice, sense nothing from their clone troops because for the clones, nothing has changed. They were built to follow orders and Order Sixty-Six is just another order.

The most immediate thing this brings to mind is Nazi Germany and the constant refrain heard from Nazi troops following World War II: "I was just following orders." I think, however, like the other political parallels in Sith, there is a message for Americans today as well. The clones are the Ultimate Patriots. They are unceasingly loyal to the Republic and the Chancellor. So loyal, they obey his commands without question, even when his command is, in fact, quite questionable. American Patriotism post-9/11 has taken on some alarmingly similar traits. To be a "true patriot," one must support the president and the nation always and without question. If we are going to war, than to be patriotic, we must support the war. If you voice concerns or are, God forbid, opposed to the war, then you are not patriotic. Voice concerns about American international policy or shame over treatment of prisoners of war, then you are labeled a malcontent and told, "America, love it or leave it." The clones' passive obedience to Order Sixty-Six is this kind of patriotism taken to its extreme. Again, this doesn't mean we're on the verge of being the next Nazi Germany; the clone parallel is hyperbole, after all, not reality. Still, it would behoove us to be careful of confusing patriotism with blind acceptance.

Revenge of the Sith pt. 1: The Personal Fall

(Big time spoilers. You've been warned!)

Anakin Skywalker's personal fall to the dark side and the effect it has on his loved ones, namely his secret wife and her unborn children and his partner and "brother" in the Jedi Order, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is the centerpiece of Revenge of the Sith. In Episode I, we see Anakin as a young slave boy who wants to do what ever he can to help strangers, a Jedi and a young girl, stranded on his home planet, Tatooine. The "teaser poster" for that movie, a picture of young Anakin walking through the desert, casting the shadow of Darth Vader ominously on the wall behind him, sums up the film for me. How does a young and decent kid grow up to be a mass murder, the fantasy equivalent of a Machiavelli or a Hitler? In Episode II, we don't really get the answer yet. Anakin is portrayed as a rather whiny and bratty teenager who spends lots of time blaming everyone else for his problems. He is plagued by dreams of his mother's death (he was taken from her ten years earlier in Episode I when rescued from slavery) and in love with Senator Padmé Amidala, the girl from Episode I. As a Jedi, he is forbidden "attachment," so neither his love and later secret marriage to Padmé nor his return to his mother are allowed. When he finally goes home to Tatooine to try and save his mother, defying orders from the Jedi Council, he finds her too late, just before she dies, and in his rage slaughters the entire tribe of "Sand People" who killed her.

In Episode III, we finally start to see all the pieces come together. Anakin doesn't fall to the dark side because he was taken from his mother, or because he was a slave, or because he was a bratty kid who whines and blames other people for his problems. Anakin falls to the dark side for one reason: love. He loves too much. He loves so much he can't let go. From the very beginning of the film, we see Anakin saving people. He saves Obi-Wan Kenobi during a dogfight. He tries to save the clone troopers backing them up, but is admonished by Kenobi to focus on his own mission. He saves Chancellor Palpatine, the as-yet-unknown (to the characters) villain of the piece. He saves Obi-Wan again, even at risk to the Chancellor, whom he is charged to protect. "His fate will be the same as ours," he tells Palpatine matter-of-factly. He is virtually obsessed with saving people, something not ordinarily considered a character flaw. However, he then starts having dreams about a now pregnant Padmé similar to the ones he had about his mother. Over and over he dreams of her dying in childbirth, screaming his name out in agony. Now the only thing that matters in his life is saving Padmé and he will stop at nothing to do this. Palpatine, brilliant and manipulative, uses this to his advantage, claiming that he has power over death. Many times Anakin tries to do the right thing, but the dogmatic Jedi don't understand him and offer no useful advice and his need to control everything, even the life and death of his wife, leads to his fall. Of course, this being a tragedy, the dreams are self-fulfilling prophecy and Anakin is responsible for Padmé's death.

This is a radical oversimplification of all the things that lead to Anakin's fall, but it is compelling and tragic in that Anakin does all the wrong things for all the right reasons. He loves. He wants to save people. He doesn't want his wife to die. But his love his selfish and demanding and easily twisted. It isn't the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13: patient, kind, not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude, or demanding its own way, or irritable or resentful. On the contrary, his "love" is clearly impatient, selfish, envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, demanding, irritable, and resentful; in every way possible he is the exact opposite of the kind of love Paul describes. This is why Palpatine is able to twist his love into hatred with such ease, because possessive, obsessive love isn't really love at all. Still, it's tragic because Anakin falls for the same reason so many people "fall to the dark side" in real life, with the best intentions but the tragically wrong execution and with a twisted and selfish definition of love.

Monday, May 30, 2005

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... (introduction)

I'm a huge Star Wars fan. Have been for years. Yeah, I know that seems like a rather off-topic confession for a spiritual/political blog, but the release of the most recent movie has me marveling at how fantasy can comment on reality and really hit home. I've seen it six times so far (why, yes, I am an uber geek, thank you for asking!) and it still hits me hard in the gut every time.

Of all six movies in the Star Wars saga, Episode III, Revenge of the Sith is by far the darkest, even more so than the somewhat melancholy Empire Strikes Back. The only one to receive a PG-13 rating instead of PG, Sith is all about falling into darkness. Not just Anakin Skywalker's long-awaited fall to the dark side of the Force and transformation into Darth Vader, but the crumbling of a democratic Republic into a tyrannical Empire and the destruction of an entire spiritual order and school of thought. All three are profound in the comments they make on the personal, political, and spiritual realities of life. Over the next three entries, I will explore each of these individually. There will be spoilers a-plenty from the new movie, so if you haven't seen it and don't want to be spoiled, skip the next three posts.

Friday, May 27, 2005

But some are more equal than others

I'm having another one of those "WOW, can they do this?" moments over this story. A court actually ordered two Wiccan parents in a divorce case to "protect" their 9-year-old son from "non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals."

In the order, the parents were "directed to take such steps as are needed to shelter [the child] from involvement and observation of these non-mainstream religious beliefs and rituals." The judge let the wording stand.

Uh, this is still America, right? We still have the First Amendment, right? Because I'm beginning to wonder. How can a court order parents what religion they can and cannot teach their child? "Non-mainstream religious beliefs?" It's like something out of Animal Farm. All religions are treated equally. But some are more equal than others. I find this chilling.

Now, I'm no Wiccan. I do have a couple of Wiccan friends, one of whom has a son about the same age as my kids. I don't know much about her faith. I know it isn't Satanic or evil, like some Christians believe, but I'm also not entirely comfortable with it, either. Still, it never in a million years would occur to me to tell her it's not okay for her to raise her son in that faith, any more than I would tell my Jewish brother-in-law not to bring his kids to temple. Quite simply, it's my job to raise my kids in my religious faith, not anyone else's.

I mean, if there's something abusive going on at these rituals, that's one thing. And let me be clear: I say that not because I believe it's true, but because I believe that's what's in the minds of people who make decisions like this. "Oooh, paganism, it's scary because it's eeeeevil and it's eeeeevil because I don't understand it." So for the sake of argument, let's say there is something really wrong going on at pagan rituals, something harmful beyond any kind of vague notion of spiritual wrongness, but something truly abusive. Shouldn't that be addressed by arresting the perpetrators and preventing the rituals rather than simply ordering one couple to protect their one child from it? Yet that doesn't happen, probably for the very reason that there is nothing abusive going on at all. Weird and different from a Christian perspective, perhaps, but so what? If that's the case, then why would this couple's son need "protecting" from it? Because the court commissioner who wrote the order thinks it's wrong? Isn't that "mak[ing]...law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"? Okay, it isn't Congress making the law, which is the body specifically stipulated in the First Amendment, but does that make this any less a violation of religious freedom?

If I expect the freedom to raise my kids in the faith of my choice, I damned well better grant that same freedom to others, even if I don't agree with their choices. Anything less is just another disturbing step toward state-mandated religion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Game on

Only it's no game. Today the petition drive for the gay marriage amendment in Arizona begins. The official wording on the petition has been released, and as expected, it goes much further than defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

To preserve and protect marriage in this state, only a union between one man and one woman shall be valid and recognized as a marriage by this state or its political subdivisions and no legal status for unmarried persons shall be created or recognized by this state or its political subdivisions that is similar to that of marriage.

Nothing like the state taking away control from local governments. In one swipe, existing domestic partnership laws in Scottsdale, Tucson, Tempe, and Pima County would be invalidated. Interesting, because the petition's major sponsor, the Center for Arizona Policy, is fond of saying how "the majority of the people" should have their say over "activist judges." Apparently what the majority of people in Scottsdale, Tucson, Tempe, and Pima County want doesn't count. Health care benefits for partners and children would be gone. Stay-home parents would have to work or go on ACCHS (tax-supported health care for the poor). Survivor benefits gone. Hospital visitation rights curtailed. Older straight couples would not be able to create domestic partnerships, either, and would lose pension benefits. This amendment could even be used to argue that domestic violence laws only apply to married couples, as is currently happening in Ohio.

Even if you support laws against gay marriage (which Arizona already has on the books, by the way,) this amendment is a truly awful idea. It's bad policy in every conceivable way and could have devastating consequences not only to same-sex couples but to many families in Arizona. Let's not use the Arizona Constitution to take rights away from people. If you live in Arizona, don't sign this petition and if it does show up on the ballot in 2006, vote NO. Better, yet, get involved. Show support for the clergy opposing this amendment at 3:00 pm today at Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ, 122 N. Craycroft Road and/or attend the strategy meeting tonight at the United Methodist Church in Casa Grande, 1515 North Trekell Road.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Nebraska strikes down "marriage plus" amendment

Just days before a petition drive will begin in Arizona to put a "marriage plus" amendment (not only defining marriage as between one man and one woman, but invalidating domestic partnerships and any other legal arrangements that confer "marriage-like" benefits, including health benefits to city, county, and state government employees) on the ballot, a federal judge has struck down Nebraska's state amendment.

U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon said the ban "imposes significant burdens on both the expressive and intimate associational rights" of gays "and creates a significant barrier to the plaintiffs' right to petition or to participate in the political process."

Bataillon said the ban beyond "goes far beyond merely defining marriage as between a man and a woman."

The judge said the "broad proscriptions could also interfere with or prevent arrangements between potential adoptive or foster parents and children, related persons living together, and people sharing custody of children as well as gay individuals."

Exactly. Now, while I'm no big fan of a marriage amendment of any sort, I certainly could swallow just defining marriage as between a man and a woman more easily than I could denying any rights to same-sex couples. I keep coming back to the same issues: hospital visitation, rights of survivorship, health benefits, stability for children. Denying these things to anyone is just mean-spirited and destroys rather than protects families and children.

The opposition, of course, will start singing the "activist judge" refrain.

"Seventy percent of Nebraskans voted for the amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and I believe that the citizens of this state have a right to structure their constitution as they see fit," [Nebraska Attorney General Jon] Bruning said.

I really think there should be major limits on how much of a "right" we have to "structure the constitution as [we] see fit." Constitutions are about protecting rights, not taking them away. The idea that majority rule should come above justice is chilling. If majority rule is really all that matters, then why did we end slavery or segregation? We have the judicial system specifically for matters like this, to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. That's what James Madison thought, anyway.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

For God so loved the world, he gave us... George W. Bush?

Okay, here's another little disturbing sign of the trend of enmeshing politics and faith.

Bush's name inside the Christian fish symbol? Are they kidding? I don't care how much you love him as president, isn't it going just a bit too far to put his name where Jesus' usually belongs? Is it just me, or is this a bit on the idolatrous side?

Interesting, too, is this site's complaints about "secularists telling you that The Lord has no place in our government and our public institutions." Yeah, everyone who thinks we shouldn't be dictating religious belief through laws is "secularist." Never mind the huge chunk of us Christians (and people of other faiths) who strongly believe this as well. There was an interesting editorial in the Washington Post about this a few weeks back, pointing out that the attacks on "activist judges" because of their "secular humanist subversion of Christian values" is actually attacking a group of judges of which the majority are themselves Christians.

Nearly all of the demonized judges are, in fact, practicing Christians, not secular humanists. Perhaps half of them are Republican appointees, and at least that many regard themselves as conservatives. In addition to [George] Greer, [the Florida judge who presided over the Terri Schiavo case,] most of the judges of the 11th Circuit who upheld his rulings, as well as most of the Supreme Court justices who declined to intervene, consider themselves Christian. And so it goes around the country, even including many, if not most, of the judges in the California-based 9th Circuit, the regular object of President Bush's ridicule.

Not only is Judge Greer a Christian, he's a Southern Baptist! Well, you know what a bunch of raving liberals those Southern Baptists are!

So basically, if you don't think having Bush's name in a fish magnet on your car is a good idea, you're a liberal secular humanist. Even if you happen to be a Republican Christian.


Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A different kind of choice

According to a new study, there is evidence that sexual orientation, at least in men, may be more biological than learned behavior.

The Swedish researchers divided 36 subjects into three groups - heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men. They studied the brain response to sniffing the chemicals, using PET scans. All the subjects were healthy, unmedicated, right-handed and HIV-negative.

When they smelled odors like cedar or lavender, all of the subjects' brains reacted only in the olfactory region that handles smells. But when confronted by a chemical from testosterone, the male hormone, portions of the brains active in sexual activity were activated in straight women and in gay men, but not in straight men, the researchers found.

The response in gay men and straight women was concentrated in the hypothalamus with a maximum in the preoptic area that is active in hormonal and sensory responses necessary for sexual behavior, the researchers said.

And when estrogen, the female hormone was used, there was only a response in the olfactory portion of the brains of straight women. Homosexual men had their primary response also in the olfactory area, with a very small reaction in the hypothalamus, while heterosexual men responded strongly in the reproductive region of the brain.

Fascinating results, but it likely will have little to no impact on the current debate about same-sex relationships. When all is said and done, the fact that sexual orientation may be biological rather than learned behavior doesn't answer the question of whether or not same-sex relationships are sinful. Straight men's biology hard-wires them to be attracted to many different women. This doesn't make acting on this attraction by committing adultery any less a sin. (Although to be fair, a strict Old Testament interpretation of adultery only cares whether or not the woman is married; men could have as many partners as they want without being adulterous, so long as none of their partners were married to another man. An example of how definitions of sin have changed over time, but then that's a different discussion.)

Hopefully, however, this will get groups like Exodus International to recognize that sexual orientation can't be changed through therapy. Or, since that's probably an overly optimistic wish, that at least it will bring recognition that groups like this are just plain wrong and they will lose some of their power to ruin people’s lives.

On the other hand, studies about the biology of sexual orientation could lead to a search for medical "cures," trading one form of therapy for another. I imagine the reaction to this from the LGBT community would be similar to that of the deaf community to cochlear implants: they'll be appalled. From an outside perspective that views deafness as a disability and nothing more, that position is very difficult to comprehend. Why wouldn't any deaf person want to be able to hear? But there is so much involved with being deaf that goes far beyond the biological function of hearing.

Similarly, there is more to sexual orientation than the biological function of attraction and the issue is far more complicated than whether or not it's a "disability" that needs to be cured. I hope that both sides will tread lightly with this new information. Ultimately, hearing people can't decide for deaf people whether it would be better to hear or not, and neither can straight people decide for gays and lesbians whether or not it would be better to be straight. Every individual has to make that decision for him or herself, should science get to the point that that would be possible.

This is true for other disabilities as well, particularly where people are born "disabled." A former student of mine was born blind. He once told me that even if they came up with a way to cure his blindness, he wouldn't accept the cure. He'd lived his whole life, a very full and active life, as a blind man. To accept a "cure" would be to change his very identity. He would have to relearn everything just so he could fit an outsider's definition of "normal" when he already was living the life he wanted. He would no more choose that for his life than I would choose to lose my eyesight, and why should he? More importantly, would we want to be in a position of forcing that choice on him for "his own good" as if he couldn't decide his own good for himself?

And that doesn't even get into whether or not a potential medical "cure" for same-sex attraction would work for everyone or not. Cochlear implants certainly don't work for all forms of deafness.

All of this, however, is really a tangent to the debate about civil rights. Even if we were to suppose that all deaf people could be cured by cochlear implants but some chose not to be, would that make it okay for society to legally discriminate against the deaf? If my former student could be cured but chose not to be, should he be denied rights under the American's with Disabilites Act because he chose to stay blind? Is choice the deciding factor on whether or not something is acceptable? We choose our religion, for example, but does that make it okay to discriminate on the basis of religion? If the answer to these questions is "no," then the answer should also be "no" for discrimination against GLBT people. Even if the study proved the opposite, that sexual orientation was learned behavior and a choice, that doesn't make it okay to decide for others that their choice of a life partner is unacceptable. I chose my husband and the law supports that choice by making him my next of kin and giving us each rights and obligations toward each other. My gay friends choose their partners and should have the same rights and obligations in regard to their partners as I do. Nature, nurture, sin, choice, none of that matters in the civil issues about sexual orientation. The only thing that does is that none of us has the right to dictate these kind of life decisions to another. It's presumptuous and un-Christlike. Jesus said "Go and sin no more," not "force your view of sin onto others through the legal system."

Monday, May 09, 2005

Slactivist says it better

Basically the same as my post about Christian "persecution," but better thought out and much more academic. A little more snarky, too, but that's why we love Slacktivist. No one should be this brilliant. It really isn't fair to the rest of us.

And now, the backpedal

You can almost hear the grunting as the pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church furiously backpedals.

"No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual's support or lack of support for a political party or candidate," he said.

Well, it's not exactly an apology, but it does indicate he understands maybe kicking someone out of a church for their political views is not a good move. Or at least not a popular move, anyway, what with other pastors in his denomination calling it "disturbing." And there's still the problem of the nine members who got the message their political views made them unwelcome at a church where they'd been members longer than the pastor has been serving there. They don't exactly feel like they're being welcomed back with open arms and won't return until the pastor is gone. I don't see this ending well for him.

Here's hoping this begins a whole trend of backpedaling for anyone who wants to blur the line between faith and politics and make one a requirement for involvement in the other.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

East Waynesville Baptist Church: Democrats need not apply

Wow. A Baptist pastor who requires you to vote for Bush to be a member of his church and kicks you out if you didn't? No, we're not in danger of politics and faith becoming too enmeshed in this country. Not at all.

On the upside, it's nice to see a different Baptist pastor call this "disturbing." So far this kind of thing is still on the fringe and not the norm.

So far.

Love God, Love the U.S.

Another columnist I like is George Will. Conservative, yes, but of the old-fashioned economic, almost Libertarian kind. Unlike the neo-conservatives, he still is about less government intrusion. Ah the good old days, when the GOP was about less government...

Anyway, his May 5 column was really good. The opening line really hit on my concerns about where the religious right is taking us:

The state of America's political discourse is such that the president has felt it necessary to declare that unbelievers can be good Americans. In last week's prime-time news conference, he said: "If you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship."

I'm glad the president said that, but the fact that he felt he had to is unsettling. American politics has come to the point where it is easy to assume that religious faith = patriotism and vice-versa. Wow. From the political side, it nudges at my fears that there are many in power who want the U.S. to be a theocracy and are pushing us in that direction. Worse, however, is the view from the faith side. Faith in God = "I Heart the USA." This strikes me as somewhat idolatrous, making love of country on the same level as love of God, like we've somehow replaced Zionist Israel of the Old Testament as God's Chosen People.

Will makes some other interesting points, too. I hear complaints from conservative Christians that America has become too secular, that those of faith are unjustly persecuted, that there is a lot of "anti religious sentiment...coming from the left these days." Will's noticed it too:

[M]any Christians are joining today's scramble for the status of victims. There is much lamentation about various "assaults" on "people of faith." Christians are indeed experiencing some petty insults and indignities concerning things such as restrictions on school Christmas observances. But their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic.

He goes on to show many indications of how infused into our culture not just Christianity, but specifically conservative or even fundamentalist Christianity has become.

Religion is today banished from the public square? John Kennedy finished his first report to the nation on the Soviet missiles in Cuba with these words: "Thank you and good night." It would be a rash president who today did not conclude a major address by saying, as President Ronald Reagan began the custom of doing, something very like "God bless America."

It's not that the left, or at least not the moderate left, is anti-religious. Many Democrats are Christians, too, after all. It's that there is a whole lot of fear about faith and patriotism being made into one and the same. There's nothing wrong with saying "God bless America." But there is something very, very wrong with the idea that you have to believe in God to love America or that you have to be thrilled with America to love God.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Leonard Pitts, Jr. rocks my world!

Leonard Pitts, Jr. is easily my favorite syndicated columnist. More often than not, he really nails issues. Case in point, today's editorial about the ugliness of anit-gay bias. It discusses the current climate against GLBT people in the U.S. in context of the anti-Jewish climate in Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s. Pitts shrinks from calling this "the Gay Holocaust," and rightly so.

The Holocaust is an atrocity unique in history, and I'm wary of appending modifiers: the "this" holocaust or the "that" holocaust. There's a reason the word takes a capital "H."

And yet, he notes that similarities to the scapegoating then and now are disturbing.

I always considered that the signature lesson of the Holocaust. I always felt that in the largest sense, it was not about Jews and Aryans but about humanity and inhumanity. The Holocaust was, after all, only hatred carried to its logical extreme, the predictable outcome of an environment in which we countenance taking rights from "them," heaping scorn on "them," making scapegoats of "them."

And who can deny that this describes the plight of gay Americans in 2005? Or that demagogic lawmakers are using this environment to further their own ambitions?

Actually, plenty of people deny it. "Love the sinner, hate the sin." But if we really love the sinner, we won't push for laws that hurt him or her. We won't want to see civil rights eroded and families torn apart just because "their" family is different from "ours." Pitts cites a bill under consideration in Alabama that would ban books with gay characters from public libraries. If we hide "them" from our sight, then we don't have to deal with our own discomfort. There's that denial. So much easier than tackling our discomfort head on and recognizing that, hey, maybe our discomfort is our problem, not "theirs."

Ours is a stable and prosperous democracy, so no, I don't predict train cars full of gays rolling toward death factories. Still, the mind-set of aggrieved righteousness that allowed those trains to roll is not dissimilar from that which would ban gay people from public-school libraries.

That's the problem right there. Dig beyond the horrors of the Holocaust itself into the prejudice behind it and there are similarities. The question is, do we take an honest look at it now or do we keep up the denial and allow things to get worse until the comparison maybe isn't so unthinkable anymore?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Some days I really consider moving to Canada

I'll start off by with the caveat that I've been sick this weekend. When getting out of bed to make yourself an English muffin seems a little too strenuous, fighting political battles suddenly seem insurmountable, so where I'm usually optimistic for the long haul and full of spit and fight, today I'm just tired and wanting to escape and not have to fight anymore. Tomorrow this probably won't seem as scary. Disturbing, but not "run away!" scary.

This article about the "myth" of separation of church and state is what has me so concerned. Now I'm one of the first people to say that this concept has been abused. The First Amendment's stipulation that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" does not and should not mean that we have to excise the word "God" from every bit of public life. Schools should allow Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Pagan or whatever) clubs just like they allow secular clubs. Kids should be allowed to write papers on religious figures. People should be allowed to wear crosses or stars of David or other religious symbols. They should be allowed to pray. I get really annoyed by some of the extremes groups like the ACLU will go to that in effect establish atheism as the "established religion."

That said, we've swung the pendulum way too far the other way in recent years.

Religious conservatives, emboldened by President Bush's re-election and confident of their political clout, are not interested in merely overhauling the judiciary. Ideally, they are seeking a judiciary that would remove the wall of separation between church and state.

This ambition is stated clearly in numerous legal briefs currently on file at the U.S. Supreme Court in connection with a pending case; they seek removal of "a Berlin wall" that is "out of step with this nation's religious heritage." In fact, their leaders argue in interviews that the church-state barrier is a "myth" invented by the high court in 1947, thanks to a twisted interpretation of our founding documents.

Matthew Staver, a religious-right lawyer who recently argued a church-state case in front of the Supreme Court, said Friday, "The term 'separation of church and state' is an easy hook. People hear it, they think of the First Amendment. It's like the line 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,' and you think of Muhammad Ali.

"But there's no 'separation' phrase in the First Amendment. … Interpreting it that way is laughable."

Okay, granted, that phrase isn't in the First Amendment itself, but invented in 1947? Wha???? Try 1802 in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Baptists who were afraid for their religious freedoms. That's the important part here, he wrote this to allay their fears that their religious freedom wouldn't be tolerated. You remember Thomas Jefferson, one of our Founding Fathers?

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. [emphasis mine]

With all due respect to Mr. Staver, it certainly didn't seem laughable to Mr. Jefferson to interpret the First Amendment as establishing a separation between church and state. And not just a separation, but a wall of separation.

Heck, I'll even go a step further. I think separation of church and state as a concept, if not in those words, goes all the way back to Jesus who very specifically refused to be a political revolutionary.

What scares me about all of this is that I see my freedom to worship being chipped away, and I'm a Christian! I can only imagine how non-Christians must feel! Groups with political motivations have wormed their way into mainstream denominations like mine and have made changes that force their will on how I and others practice our faith. Amendments are being passed in numerous states that are usurping local control over domestic partnerships and legal contracts between individuals. Rape victims aren't getting access to emergency contraceptives because some people think that's abortion. Sin, which is highly interpretative even within Christianity let alone outside of it, is being used to define what should and should not be legal.

The United States was founded by people of great faith. Specifically, great Christian faith. We don't do history justice if we refuse to recognize that. But we don't do either our faith or our country justice if we refuse to recognize that both are best served by not being intertwined. Jesus said to render unto God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesar's. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a wall of separation between church and state. Why would Christian Americans want to ignore both one of the founders of our country and the founder of our faith?

I hear Vancouver is lovely this time of year...