Friends of Padre Steve’s World
In light of what I have been writing about the Obergfell v. Hodges and comparing that case to the historic examples of the 1856 Dred Scott decision and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling I think it is important for my readers to know I got to the place where I have become an advocate for the rights of my friends in the LGBTQ community.
Frankly my journey has been a long strange trip. Most of my life I would have considered myself a conservative Christian and a career military officer, most of that as Pa chaplain. Generally people with similar backgrounds to me do not end up as advocates for Gays and Lesbians. But throughout my life and career I have had problems with the way other Christians and fellow military members treated Gays and Lesbians. Even in the days that I considered homosexual behavior to be sinful, I had a hard time condemning, ridiculing or supporting those who sought to harm homosexuals in any way, including fellow clergy, members of my former church or fellow officers or chaplains.
Now I know that there will vehemently disagree on what I believe and stand for, believe me I have been called everything but a white man by some people, including some that I used to count as friends. Likewise I have been threatened by others. But as I see it I have to stand up for what I believe and defend those whose civil rights are constantly under attack by people who not only condemn them in this world, but to everlasting damnation as well.
But this my friends is my long strange trip. It is what I believe with all my heart, and why I pray that the Supreme Court will legalize Gay marriage throughout this land. though I am not Gay, this matters to me. I have too many Gay and Lesbian friends who have endured hellish persecution for people who call themselves Christians and claim to be defending Christian values when they forget that the most important part of the Christian life is to love, love even your enemies, both real and imagined. But I digress…here is my journey…
I have been in the military coming up on 34 years between the Army and the Navy. That is a long time. When I enlisted and through the first two thirds of my career I can safely say that I fell rather strongly on the conservative-Christian side of the social issues debates. Over the years, especially the last seven since I returned a changed many from my time in Iraq, I have evolved significantly on most of these issues where although I while consider myself to be rather moderate I now fall decidedly on the liberal side of most social issues.
A lot of this has to do with the attitudes that I saw in churches that I was associated. Many people in my former denominations endorsed policies of the Christian Dominionist or Reconstruction movements, that basically upended First and Fourteenth Amendment protections and if enacted would basically turn the country into a theocracy. I have written about those things time and time again so I won’t elaborate on them now.
It was not only the policies, it was the attitude towards the LGBT community that really bothered me. For some reason it seemed that to many of my friends and colleagues that homosexuality was the only unforgivable sin, and not only that that homosexuals were somehow less than human and not entitled to the same rights as any other American citizen. Not only that they were blamed for every economic, social, foreign policy or natural disaster. Hurricane, blame the gays. Stock market crash, blame the gays, the 9-11 attacks, God’s judgment on the United States because of the gays. You name it, blame the gays, and that my friends still happens every day.
But my journey to accepting and fighting for Gays and Lesbians began a lot earlier.
When I first enlisted in the Army in 1981 it was not uncommon for gay slurs to be hurled at soldiers as a matter of course, especially at young men who did not appear manly enough or women who wouldn’t put out sexually when it was demanded of the. They were queers, fags, dykes and worse. There is a scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where R. Lee Ermey, a man who actually was a Marine Corps Drill Instructor berates one of his recruits:
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Where the hell are you from anyway, private?
Private Cowboy: Sir, Texas, sir.
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Holy dog shit! Texas? Only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy, and you don’t look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down. Do you suck dicks?
Private Cowboy: Sir, no, sir!
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Are you a peter puffer?
Private Cowboy: Sir, no, sir!
Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I bet you’re the kind of guy who would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!
The sad thing is that such behavior was still common even in the 1990s and though not nearly so pervasive still happened on occasion in after the 9-11 attacks. But those taunts really bothered me and when I was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps Officer in 1983 I met gays in my officer training, they were closeted but they were targets. When I served as a company commander in 1985-1986 I had a number of gays and lesbians in my unit. As I mentioned before they were among my best and most trustworthy soldiers, always going the extra mile.
Meanwhile the unit had the highest drug positive rate in Europe when I took command and had so many real disciplinary and criminal cases on the docket I was told by the Group Commander to “clean that company up.” But when I got down to It I realized that I was so overwhelmed with the real criminals that I didn’t want to harass or prosecute my best soldiers, including those gays and lesbians. That was a watershed. While other commanders sought out gays in order to prosecute them and throw them out of the military I was protecting and promoting them, not because they were gay, but because they were excellent soldiers.
When I went to my next assignment as a personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences discharges of trainees for being gay was common. I know because I had to sign off on every discharge packet before it was sent for approval. Since we had five to seven thousand students at any time, both officers and enlisted I did not know the details of most of the stories nor meet the individuals concerned.
However, in 1987 I was given the responsibility of helping soldiers diagnosed as HIV positive with their career options. I also helped officers from the Army Medical Department draft the Army’s policies for those infected with the AIDS virus. At the time many of the Christians that I went to church with believed the myths and lies being promoted by leading Evangelicals about AIDS and displayed a tremendous amount of distain and even hatred towards gays and others infected or dying of that disease. I was dumbfounded that people who preached the love of God had neither compassion nor empathy for those suffering.
I left active duty to attend seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. There I knew a few closeted homosexuals and lesbians who had deep faith in Jesus, were outstanding students and potentially outstanding pastors or chaplains but who had to remain closeted. After I graduated when I was going through my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency one of the men I graduate with did a one unit internship. During that time he made the agonizing decision to come out as Gay. For him there was much to lose, but his example was inspiring and I still stay in touch with him. I also met a chaplain from the Metropolitan Community Church who had been raised in a Black Pentecostal church. He was an amazing and compassionate minister.
In the hospital setting I worked with a lot of homosexuals, of which many were Christians who suffered in their churches as their pastors and friends railed against homosexuals. When I served as the installation chaplain of an Army base I hired an organist who was gay. He worked for the National Guard as a civilian and was a Log Cabin Republican. He grew up in a very conservative church and though he had deep faith was not welcome in most civilian churches. At the time I was a fairly new in a very conservative denomination and my bishops held that giving communion to Gays was forbidden, in fact they called it a sin. However, when he presented himself for communion, knowing his faith I took the advice of a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran chaplain, don’t ask, just trust the grace of God in the Sacrament. That became my model of ministry from then on. I never mentioned it to my bishop. Thankfully he never asked or I would have had to be honest. This encounter brought more homosexuals to the chapel, and the chapel community which was composed mainly of military retirees and National Guard personnel welcomed them.
In civilian churches of my old denominations I knew Gays and Lesbians who struggled and tried to do everything they could to change, but no-matter how hard they tried, how hard they prayed, how many times well meaning friends attempted to cast out their demons in rituals similar to exorcisms they struggled and suffered. Most eventually drifted away because they knew that they would not be accepted. I have had friends in church whose children came out as gay or lesbian. Some loved and accepted them, others turned them away. Judy and I have always done what we can to support them as we would the children of any friend.
That understanding of God’s grace as well as what I believed were the fundamental Constitutional and human rights of Gays and Lesbians brought me to where I am today.
I know that a lot of conservative Christians have and will condemn me for these beliefs and actions, but for me honesty, integrity, empathy and love have to take precedence over hate, blame and prejudice, even when that prejudice is clothed in the words or faith and righteousness. I just figure that once we begin to use religion to condemn others and bolster our own political power that we are no better than people like Al Qaeda, ISIL or the Taliban. We are no better than the Inquisitors or others who destroyed cities and massacred people, even other Christians because they didn’t believe the right way.
I believe that it is just a small step from hateful thoughts and words to actions that end up in genocide. The “German Christians” of the Nazi era demonstrated that to a fine degree. The authors of the Bethel Confession, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who protested the German Christian alliance with the Nazis noting:
“every attempt to establish a visible theocracy on earth by the church as a infraction in the order of secular authority. This makes the gospel into a law. The church cannot protect or sustain life on earth. This remains the office of secular authority.”
That I believe with all my heart and that is why I will support and fight for the rights of the LGBT community in order to ensure that they have the same rights and privileges of any citizen. Otherwise what does the rule of law mean? What does the Constitution mean? What does that sentence in the Declaration of Independence that:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”
Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1854 concerning the rights of Blacks, something that is certainly applicable as well to homosexuals: “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.”
That my friends, especially my conservative Christian friends who do not understand why I would speak up for the LGBT community, is why I do it. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I state today: “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”