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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Week in Raleigh

Look with pity, O heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. And grant that every one of us may enjoy a fair portion of the riches of this land.

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart (and especially the hearts of the people of this land), that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

-The Book of Common Prayer, “For the Oppressed”, “In Times of Conflict”, and ‘for Social Justice”

This is a short account- from Charlotte Magazine- of an event yesterday:
Here’s what the North Carolina General Assembly did today, in your name, with your money: In the morning, introduced a bill that effectively defines “transgender” out of existence; forces transgender men to use women’s rooms and transgender women to use the men’s; allows private businesses to discriminate against gay and transgender people; prohibits local governments from preventing such discrimination; prohibits local governments from setting any employment standards, including minimum wage, for businesses they hire as contractors; jeopardizes $4.6 billion in federal Title IX funding for schools; nullifies every nondiscrimination ordinance ever passed by any local government in the state; allowed legislators five minutes to read the bill; allowed the public 30 minutes to comment on it; placed North Carolina on the regressive side of the state of Tennessee; claimed to be motivated by the need to establish consistent statewide standards for business operation in order to “improve intrastate commerce,” ignoring a brace of North Carolina companies that today publicly announced their opposition to the bill; and declared “that the general welfare of the State requires the enactment of this law under the police power of the State”; all predicated on their genuine or feigned horror over a presumed danger that has been shown, definitively, not to exist. 
Let that sink in.
Governor Pat McCrory refused to call a special session for the “emergency” Republicans felt, so three-fifths of them, in both houses, called themselves back. Governor McCrory signed their bill before 10 p.m. last night. He had declined to call the special session out of concern that legislators would rove well beyond the scope of the call. He was correct to hold that concern, but he seemed to resolve all doubt in favor of avoiding the snowballing protests of major corporate interests in the thirty days he had to consider the bill.


It is interesting to reflect on how Holy Week seems, in recent years, to have become ground zero for the war of American conservatives against American LGBT citizens.

In 2013, they were outraged that the Supreme Court scheduled oral argument for Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor. The first case was over the legality of the California ban on marriage equality; the second, on the inequality of the Defense of Marriage act in imposing a nearly $400,000 tax bill on an elderly widow that she would not have owed had her legally married spouse been a man.

Even those on the right side of history were shocked. An Episcopal priest, Susan Russell, wrote:
I’ll admit my first reaction to the announcement that the arguments had been scheduled for March 26 & 27 was an incredulous “Seriously?” And yet as the clock has ticked down to Holy Week, it has become clear to me that the preparation happening for the work in the halls of justice is just as holy as the preparation happening in the halls of worship. I have come to see a profound synchronicity between a core value I hold as an American — “liberty and justice for all” — and a core value I hold as a Christian — “love your neighbor as yourself.” And I have been deeply gratified by the number of people of faith standing up and speaking out for equality — not in spite of their faith but because of it.
In 2015, the nation was gripped by the spectacle of Indiana’s legislature blazing a new trail in antigay discrimination law as the Supreme Court signaled the imminent recognition of marriage equality, and- as a side effect- the launching the phenomenon of antigay profiteering and reality show/conservative rubber chicken circuit celebrity by business owners: Memories Pizza, which hoovered up $842,000 bravely vowing never to cater a gay wedding with their pies; Barronelle Stutzman, the Washington florist ($275,000, plus an undisclosed payout from the Memories Pizza pelf; and Aaron and Melissa Klein, the weep-on-demand bakers of Gresham, Oregon ($530,000, plus undisclosed additional sums raised by Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse and other solicitations).

The forces of reaction, backfooted, regrouped.

And this year, we have seen an emboldened conservative movement lay on the spite with a trowel.

Kansas’s legislature killed a nondiscrimination bill. South Dakota’s legislature passed a bathroom panic emergency bill, and the governor vetoed it as a punishment in search of a victim.

Georgia’s governor is playing coy with whether he will veto that Republican legislature’s antigay law as Hollywood heavyweights- human and corporate- threaten to pull out of doing business there and the NFL puts the new Atlanta stadium under a Super Bowl question mark.

Ted Cruz's 19-member Religious Advisory Council unveiled its lengthy lists of steps President Cruz should take to embolden antigay forces, assured that his administration will give them free rein in indulging their crotchets and whimsies.

And the North Carolina General Assembly met. In less than twelve hours, at the bargain price of $42,000, Republicans vaulted the state into first place for going out of its way to deny LGBT residents any shred of protection from discrimination under law.  In the process, they passed a new antidiscrimination law, pointedly left gay people out of it, and then tabled amendments to include them. So keen were they to sweep the table, they outlawed protections some cities and counties had extended to veterans. Under the new antidiscrimination law, one's sole recourse is to a human relations commission that is not funded for the coming year and is scheduled for sunset review once the regular session starts in April.

Then, heedful of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Romer v. Colorado, that laws are unconstitutional which deny civil rights based solely on animus toward an identifiable group, the Republicans added a sweetener and banned cities and counties from requiring a living hourly wage.

Now it’s a commerce regulatory bill, said Rep. Skip Stam, who got caught trying to slide a statewide ban into one of the last bills the legislature considered, after midnight on its last day, last session. Retiring this year, he will go home with the knowledge that he has dragged the state backward fifty years or more.

God help us, even South Carolina isn't this het up about fags.

Ironies abound. A viral tweet today shows a man transgendered man who will now be required by law, receding hairline, beard and all, to use a women’s restroom. The Republicans brushed aside the ethical oddity of a city that retains its right to not discriminate against gay employees, but will be required to hire contractors who insist on exercising the right to discriminate against the civil servants who supervise them, and the taxpayers who are required, by law, to fund them in their exercise of public spite.

Governor McCrory circumvented corporate lobbying by signing the bill into law three hours after it was passed. Rob Reiner and the Disney Corporation will not come to North Carolina. The Republicans have already driven the television and film business out of state.

The North Carolina bill was planned as a showcase for rising GOP talent. Its floor manager was Rep. Dan Bishop, who is running for the state senate. The Senate’s farcical hearing on the bill was chaired by Buck Newton, who is running for attorney general. During the special session, Republicans rolled out a TV ad slamming the current attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor, as so gay-friendly he might as well just campaign in drag.

Just as they sought to run up the score by placing the last state constitutional ban on marriage equality on the same ballot as the 2012 Republican primary, they are girding to smear the queers from now until November.

Still, one can look for silver linings. North Carolina’s economic development strategy can  now seek to lure away hate groups like the Family Research Council (85 employees, $12 million budget) and National Organization for Marriage (lots of employees, they say; $10 million budget).

Now that the General Assembly has pulled sales tax revenue away from the cities that generate to give it to rural areas where no one wants to live, there can be relocation grants for thriving small businesses like Arlene's Flowers, Barronelle Stutzman’s shop. General Assembly members will clamor to deliver to their home towns Sweet Cakes by Melissa's fit-like-a-glove moral gradations for cakeworthiness (they will sell you one for a straight divorce party- even Kim Davis could get one if she dumped husband #4, but not a gay wedding).

Indeed, North Carolina- the nation’s tenth most populous state- has, this week, turned itself into the shining New Jerusalem on a hill envisioned by conservative columnist Linda Harvey on WorldNetDaily last September (only she was thinking way too small):
I believe there’s a clear precedent for establishing sanctuary cities for authentic, lawful, man/woman marriage. 
Think about how great life would be in those cities. After all, unlike the defiance of immigration law, these cities would be upholding the actual law under our actual Constitution, not the imaginary one in the mind of Justice Anthony Kennedy. 
So, why not cities that uphold a standing, just law? Family life would be much healthier and safer in these cities. Keep out the vile “gay-pride” parades as well as harassment lawsuits against bakers and florists. And how about no pro-homosexual lessons in school, falsely implying that some people are born homosexual, or born to mutilate themselves by sex-change surgery? Also, no ban on counseling for teens who have same-sex attractions. 
And the local media, if they tried to distort the truth in the current popular fashion, would find local advertisers withdraw. “Tell the truth or forget our support” would be a refreshing new response by the unshackled corporate community. 
Businesses in such cities would not be pressured to contribute to homosexual causes, or if they were, they could respond, “Sorry – please go away!” And contractors outside the city would have to adhere to the marriage sanctuary’s policies: “Honor marriage and family, or you are not eligible to compete here. Take your business elsewhere.” 
Of course, such cities would not be without challenges. They would be targets for dirty tricks, phony “hate crimes,” special sections on “gay apartheid” by the New York Times and so on. The formulaic fables and drama, based on no facts but lots of screeching, can be composed now in advance. 
We are not unaware of the schemes of Satan, nor of Saul Alinsky adherents.
It will take a courageous city council to take this step, yet the trend would be contagious as people share their positive experiences with friends and relatives across the country.
The late American theologian Marcus Borg underscores, perhaps, why Holy Week has become a proxy battleground:
Thus the historical framework yields minimally a twofold understanding of Holy Week: it is about God’s passion and Jesus’ passion for a transformed world; and it is about personal transformation. 
The difference between these two frameworks divides American Christianity today. The first – Jesus’ death as a dying for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven – is strongly affirmed by most conservative-evangelical Christians. 
For example, Albert Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, said in an interview on NPR in 2010: 
Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that’s a very interesting chapter of human history, but I’m not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity. 
Note how his statement combines the “gospel, the “hope of everlasting life,” the “hope for eternity,” with Jesus being more than “a mere victim,” more than “a political prisoner executed because he had offended the regime.” For Mohler and many Christians, what matters about Jesus is that he died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven. 
Yet this emphasis on Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin (he died in our place to pay for our sins) is not ancient or early Christianity. It is less than a thousand years old, first explicitly developed around the year 1100. 
The second and more historical framework is becoming increasingly present within mainline Protestant denominations and Catholics. It is the product of integrating the historical biblical scholarship of the last few centuries into an understanding of Holy Week and the origins of Christianity. 
Within the historical framework, Jesus’ death was a sacrifice – but not a sacrifice required by God as payment for sin. Rather, he was willing to sacrifice his life because of his passion for God and the kingdom of God. In this sense of sacrifice, three Christian martyrs of the 20th century sacrificed their lives because of their passion for a different kind of world: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Martin Luther King, Jr., in this country, and Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Sacrifice, yes; substitutionary payment, no. 
The division between the way these two frameworks see Holy Week also corresponds to some extent to a political divide: conservative Christians tend to vote conservatively; the Christian theological right and the Christian political right are largely the same. 
Christians who understand Jesus and the Bible within a more historical framework tend to be political moderates or progressives.   They see the meaning of Holy Week as both personal and political. It is about personal transformation; and it is also about the domination system of the ancient world killing Jesus and God vindicating Jesus. 
Just as there is a Christian right, so also there is a Christian left, even though it is not nearly as visible. 
The first of these frameworks most often leads to a focus on personal morality, forgiveness when we fall short, and heaven in the end. It appeals to many people, and is still probably the majority form of Christianity. For it, the important political issues tend to be about personal behavior, especially the “loin” issues of abortion, contraception, abstinence, gender, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. 
The second leads to a focus on seeking to transform the world by following Jesus and standing for what he was passionate about.  Its political issues are the systemic issues of greater economic justice, less dependence on military power for our security, and human rights.  A more economically just and peaceful world.  Its passion is political transformation as well as personal transformation. 
Thus how Christianity’s primal narrative of Holy Week is seen and understood matters greatly. At stake is whether Christianity is primarily about individual morality and an afterlife, or whether it is also and equally about the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.
In the short term, those of us who are the fearful, the frustrated, the anguished, the rejected who feel like all of North Carolinas will now be like going to their family reunions- all day, every day- are rightly angered by the thumb-in-our eye tactics of the Republicans.

It is all more angering to know no amount of letter writing or calling will matter a bit to Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Phil Berger (whose rural constituents include the residents of Woodland, the dying town that rejected a solar energy array after a retired science teacher told them it would suck up all the sunlight, make the plants die, and leave them to perish of starvation or asphyxiation).

They have their veto-proof majorities and, on Wednesday, had the help of 12 of 45 House Democrats laying the mortar for their wall. For now, remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words: “I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

The Republicans have demanded the gutter. We must cede it to them. It is a burden they have earned.

But they will overplay their hand in the end. They always overplay their hand in the end.

Twenty years ago, Barry Yeoman reminds us in IndyWeek, Mecklenburg County’s radical rightwing commissioner majority set itself the task of cleansing Charlotte of the influence of the gays:
Joe Martin was an executive at NationsBank, which was undergoing a merger and about to become Bank of America. He was a prominent Charlotte Republican and the brother of former North Carolina governor Jim Martin. He was an elder in his Presbyterian church. And he had been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease for three years—longer than his doctors had predicted he’d live after his diagnosis. 
In April 1997, in front of seven hundred of his neighbors, Martin stood before the commissioners and spoke like a man whose values were crystallized by his reckoning with mortality. “Hear me: I am afraid of you,” he told the officials. “My family has been down this path, with governments of moral arrogance before. The English burned us out of our thatched roof cottages because we refused to obey their king or their Bible. The French burned our bodies at the stake because our religious beliefs were in conflict with the official interpretation of the Bible. And then we formed a government that allowed us to burn the skin of human beings with hot branding irons to make them our property—and our government found justification for that in the Bible. So you may hide behind the Bible if you like, but I know you. I have seen you before.” 
The end of Martin’s speech could have been delivered in 2016, with the word Charlotte removed and Raleigh substituted in its place.  
“Take a deep breath,” he said. “So deep you can smell history. There’s a stench in this government chamber, and it is centuries old. It is the smell of burning thatch in Scotland. It is the smell of burning flesh in France—and in Germany in this century. It is the smell of burning books in Boston. It is the smell of burning branding irons in Charleston. It is the smell of burning crosses in Charlotte. 
“It is the smell of government rotting in the abuse of its power, all in the name of religion.”
So the Republicans have their law. They may ride it to a grand election in November, and the one after that, which will bring the next opportunity to re-insure that with 50% of the statewide vote, they’ll still hold 75% of the General Assembly seats.

But things happen. Dr. King reminded one of his audiences, another time, a long time ago,
You know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled by the iron feet of oppression. There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.”
Our time will come. As Senator Ted Cruz is fond of reminding us, Psalm 30 declares, “Weeping may spend the night/but there is joy in the morning.”

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