As a child, I was raised in the Baptist tradition (the American Baptist Convention). Some of the major advantages to growing up in this faith were the traditions of congregational singing and music education (I started singing in church choirs at age 4), the absolute and complete equality of every human being before God and each other, and democratic governance (we voted pastors in and out). The major disadvantages of the Baptist faith in which I was raised included a fondness for Biblical literalism, theological adhocracy* and, at times, a ferocious and dangerous anti-intellectualism (see faith healing). Consequently, by my mid-20s when I was a working musician, I headed to the more orthodox pastures of the Episcopal Church, which has a lovely intellectual tradition if, at times, a theological smugness that I find to be suffocating. By my mid-30s, I became an agnostic, though I deeply appreciate the educations I received from both traditions.
By my late 30s, I was partnered and my partner is devoutly Catholic. She reminded me of my back ground “in church,” in church choirs, and my former life as professional musician. She gently and persistently urged me to join the choir of the local parish to which she belonged. I joined, but did so with the understanding that I was not going to take “the secret handshake.” I considered myself a guest of the local parish. I was there to support my devout partner. That the priest is bright, well read, and gives an intelligent and well-written sermons/homilies has been major bonus. He reminds us, ever so gently, to love as Christ has loved, and to live as he has lived. I have loved the music and the members of the congregation, and like most congregations everywhere, they are good people, who are bemused by my consistent (faithful?) agnostic presence.
Like every organization, there are problems. And the problem with the Catholic Church, in general, is the danger of pathological priests. In an organization modeled after the Roman Army (see Pagels, 1996), those in charge are not to be challenged or questioned. Such organizational power is a license to abuse with impunity. The resident priest is a kind and gentle man, but even he deserves a vacation. And finding a priestly substitute for a Catholic parish is a kin to finding a substitute physics teacher for a poor, urban, high school. There aren’t a lot who are available, and even fewer still who are truly competent. Over the years there have been some odd ducks who have subbed, guys who aren’t well read, who have an interesting understanding of US history and the Constitution, and who can say some really idiotic things about abortion, healthcare, and the like.
But last night’s idiocy took a hard turn into blood libel. The original blood libel in Christendom is that “the Jews” allegedly killed Christ. For nearly two millennia, during Holy Week when Christians would read and reenact the passion of Christ, priests and ministers would whip their congregants into a righteous frenzy of lethal anti-Semitism, which would then be turned loose on any Jews unfortunate to live within range of the parish. Pogroms were common feature in European life, sanctified by the Christian religious authorities under the charge of deicide. A variation of the charge of deicide was that Jews ate Christian children by grinding their bones into unleavened bread. There are other Church-based blood libels as well, most famously that Gypsies (the Roma people) steal children and that queers, my people, seduce them (see Lugg, 1998).
Last night’s substitute priest managed to hit the blood-libel trifecta (steal, seduce and eat children), but it was all directed at my people–the queers. The sermon was completely unprepared and was ever so loosely hinged to the gospel. The priest opened with a mini-rant on the evils of abortion. But watching the visceral reaction from the largely female congregation, he took a fast detour towards what he thought was a more theologically appropriate target–the queers. He spent a fair amount of time on the evils of same-sex marriage, how it was not a Constitutional right (see 6 states and Washington, DC, buddy), was not part of Christianity (obviously he’s not read John Boswell), and spent a fair amount of time on the inherent pathology of homosexuality. As he got increasingly irate, he became more logically incoherent and partially mumbled until he was discussing the serial pedophile and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. The priest ranted on about Dahmer’s monstrous acts and tying them to Dahmer’s supposed sexual identity–queer. Dahmer was the queer, scary monster that every Catholic Christian should loathe and fear. The implications he drew were clear–if you are queer–you are Jeffrey Dahmer, who stole, seduced, killed and then ate children. BINGO! We hit the blood libel trifecta.
For a moment as this sermon was unwinding I sat in shock. I have heard my fair share of crazy sermons growing up in the Baptist church, but this was a level of visceral hatred I had not encountered whilst in church. I considered whether to walk out or not in the midst of the sermon. I opted not to, which was a major moral failure on my part. Instead, I sat with my arms folded tightly across my chest, glaring at this religious leader for the rest of the service. The response of the congregation was silence. Everyone sat in their place and continued on as if nothing had happened.
Yes, members later told me they were shocked and appalled, positively mortified by the sermon. They had never heard such a hateful sermon in their 50-60 decades of life, but they would pray for this poor demented man. I snapped that they needed to do more than merely pray, that they had a little Eichmann on their hands–a man who gave no real thought to the moral implications of his own sermons, but whose very sermons condoned violence against queers, for we are all Jeffrey Dahmer.
It was an Arendtian moment. Hannah Arendt’s central premise in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” her book on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, is that evil is ordinary, banal, and arises out of the failure to think at all. Adolph Eichmann wasn’t a drooling, knuckle-dragging monster, complete with horns and pitchfork. He was ordinary man, whose dentures didn’t fit and he was blind a bat. Yet by his actions as an administrator of the Holocaust, millions of Jews died. As Arendt notes about Eichmann,
The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else (Arendt, 2006, p. 47).
Clearly, this substitute priest hadn’t prepared any sermon and so he decided to wing it. And no, he isn’t the brightest bulb in the intellectual/theological box. But he also could not be bothered to think things through much less consider how his words would sound and feel to others, especially to those historically despised minorities within his midst. So, in this improvised and impoverished sermon, it only took a few quick turns to invoke all of the lethal blood libels against queers. And it was clear to me, that this easy invocation of hatred meant that this particular sermon has been preached before … and that it will be preached again. If I were a queer, devout, Catholic youngster in this congregation, I could be in serious trouble. What do you do if adult who is deemed to be holy and sacred just called you a serial pedophile, murder and cannibal? And what do you do if you hear this blood libel, repeatedly?
I am at a critical crossroads. I have participated in the life of this church as a guest for over 13 years, and this pleases my partner to no end–my partner whom I love dearly. And I have grown to love many members of the congregation. But the Vatican’s official hatred of queer people means this situation may not be addressed. Again, the organizational prototype is the ancient Roman Army (see Pagels, 1996), a model of authoritarian control, not deliberative democracy. Consequently, I need to reconsider my continued participation. If there are no corrective actions are taken, my continued presence would be consent to a blood libel. That I must not do. Instead, I will wait for a period time. And if nothing happens, I will wisely leave.
*Making it up as you go.
Arendt. H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of evil. New York: Penguin Books.
Lugg, C.A. (1998). The religious right and public education: The paranoid politics of homophobia. Educational Policy, 12, (3), 267-283.
Pagels, E. (1996). The origins of Satan. New York: Vintage Books.