Tag Archives: HIV-AIDS

A Reflection on HIV/AIDS for World AIDS Day

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Thursday was World AIDS Day, and so today I am going to reminisce about the events in my life that helped bring me to not just care about the treatment of people infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS but for becoming an advocate for the Gay Community. This is kind of an emotional post as I have friends from high school, college, and the military who have died of AIDS, I have known far too many others who have been cut off from their families, and faith communities once they were discovered to be infected with HIV or came out and admitted that they were homosexual.

The role of right wing political Christians in condemning these men and women has been one of the most disgraceful aspects of my experience, and I am a straight, married, white Christian minister. Sadly, many of the people that I will mention in this article continue to condemn LGBTQ people, those infected with HIV, and those suffering with AIDS. Likewise, they have been involved with demonizing men and women infected with Ebola a couple of years ago. They are without compassion, and without empathy. Gustave Gilbert, a psychologist who worked with the Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg. Gilbert noted: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the
defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
It is the same lack of empathy demonstrated by supposedly Christian leaders that bothers me today, including Vice President Elect Pence, and several of Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, and many of his advisors. 

In 1986 the late Dr. C. Everett Koop, then the Surgeon General courageously went against the feelings of many people, especially his fellow Evangelical Christians by saying:

“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.”

Dr. Koop reminded us all of the basic humanity of those suffering with AIDS and would go on to be a committed advocate for caring for the men and women infected, often going against the bulwarks of the Religious Right including James Dobson and Phyllis Schafly. As a young man he became an inspiration to me.

I met someone with AIDS for the first time, at least knowingly for the first time in the summer of 1987 while serving as a Medical Service Corps personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences, Fort Sam Houston Texas. I was the Adjutant for the Academy Brigade, which is the unit that all medical training courses fell under for administrative and command and control issues. My job normally was consisted of basic personnel administration, working with commanders and legal officers when court-martial proceedings were needed, appointing investigating officers for different purposes, reviewing line of duty investigations and running duty rosters. It was nothing to write home about.

But that summer, after years of ignoring the issue the Reagan administration, which had made light of the disease and refused to do anything about it following the initial clinical diagnosis of it in 1981, belatedly, directed the Defense Department to start testing servicemen and women for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected personnel.

Since it was considered by most in the mainstream to be a “gay” disease the Reagan administration treated it with distain, during some of the White House press conferences, Press Secretary Larry Speakes mocked and laughed about it to reporters who asked questions about it.

On October 15th 1982 this exchange took place: in the White House Briefing Room.

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

  1. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?

Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?

  1. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

Q: No, I don’t. MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.

Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—

  1. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)

Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke? MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.

Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?

  1. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—

Q: Nobody knows? MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—

  1. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.

Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?

  1. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.

Q: Didn’t say that?

  1. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)

Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)

  1. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)

Q: Oh, I retract that.

  1. SPEAKES: I hope so.

Q: It’s too late.

Read more: http://www.alan.com/2014/10/18/that-time-the-reagan-white-house-press-briefing-erupted-with-laughter-over-aids-13-times/#ixzz3GcMPItu7

The late Congressman from San Francisco, Phil Burton told those seeking government help in diagnosing and treating the new disease that:

“I’ll introduce a bill. But if all the angels came dancing down to earth like the Rockettes, even they couldn’t get a dime out of this administration for anything with the name “gay” on it.”

I seriously doubt had Reagan’s friend, Rock Hudson, a closeted homosexual who was a cinematic idol in his day had not died of AIDS in October of 1985 if the administration would have even acted then. Their intentional disregard and negligence was criminal. But they finally did act, and the military acted to begin testing for the disease and to develop personnel policies for infected service members.

Back then no one wanted to deal with AIDS or the people infected by it. This was especially true in much of the military. Since I was the junior Medical Service personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences I was told that I would coordinate all services to those infected and work with those appointed by the Army Surgeon General’s office to develop appropriate personnel policies. People in the office joked that I was “CINC AIDS.” That was not a compliment.

When a soldier was diagnosed then they were given a form by their physician stating that they would let any partners know that they were HIV positive and that if they had sex they would only have protected sex. These were a host of other restrictions given in that medical “counseling” and all of these were reinforced as each soldier was then given an order by their commander to the same effect. The difference was that what the doctor gave was “counseling” and what the commander gave was an order, which if disobeyed could result in punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Following this they were sent to me to discuss assignment limitations and career options. When people saw a soldier sitting outside my door, they pretty much knew what the person was there to see me for, as my job became more and more about dealing with those infected with HIV. As I took the job I read everything that I could and discussed the matter with physicians dealing with the disease.

Despite that in the beginning it was a scary experience. I attended a local mega-church and much of what I heard, read and listened to on Christian radio was full of paranoia, conspiracy theories and an attitude that could only be explained as an almost joyful gloating that the “homosexuals” were being judged by God. Not only that since HIV was determined to come from Africa, there was a tremendous amount of “old South” racism interspersed with their theological pronouncements.

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.

These political preachers and activists marginalized Surgeon General Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic how he was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:

“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”

Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”

But that was the world that part of me lived in. The other world was one of logic and reason, informed by human compassion, so unlike what I was being fed by church leaders and the “Christian” media that I immersed myself.

The sad truth of the matter is then, as today, that far too many Christians, especially influential leaders intentionally and malevolently spread lies to bolster their position. For them it is far easier to profit from demonizing people than it is to work with people they hate, to find solutions that help everyone. In my view many of these supposedly “Christian” leaders, apart from their fashionable clothes, are no different than the Nazis who blamed the Jews, Socialists and homosexuals for every ill in society; or the Japanese leaders who organized the Kamikaze Corps to send true believers to their deaths in a hopeless cause simply to maintain their power.

There is no love, there is no care and there is no empathy in any of them. As Army psychologist Captain Gustave Gilbert noted at Nuremberg “evil is the absence of empathy.”

When you do not know or have never have met someone being demonized by religious people it is easy to surround yourself in comfortable theology. However, when a family member, friend or colleague becomes one of those being demonized it tends to blow up your comfortable theology unless you are a sociopath.

I never will forget the day in the late summer of 1987 when an officer came to my office. He was the first person who I had ever met who was HIV positive. He was a medical professional, an Army Captain who had been selected for promotion to Major. He was married, had children and was a “born-again Christian.” He had contracted HIV when dealing with a combative drunk patient, who was HIV positive. The patient smashed glass, cutting himself severely and started bleeding. The shattered glass cut this officer as he tried to intervene and subdue the man. The officer was infected by the man’s infected blood, which entered him through his own wounds. Though he attempted to disinfect himself by normal protocols he became infected. I was looking at a man, just a few years older than me. A man who loved God, loved his family, who had did all the right things but had become HIV positive.

Even now I can see and hear this man, his face is etched deep into my memory, struggling to fit what happened to him into the message of God’s judgment that his fellow Christians and church members said was the cause of his disease. As I talked to him I realized that what I was being told by men who I was listening to every day on the way to work, as well as what I was reading by “Christian” authors and what I was hearing in church was a lie.

My worldview was forever changed that day. I realized that this man had done nothing wrong, in fact he was trying to do his job as a medical professional to keep a patient from further harm. I was able to help him get into a Master’s degree program in Healthcare Administration since he was no longer allowed to serve in a clinical environment. I have no idea what happened to him after I left the active duty Army to attend seminary in late 1988, but I presume since the mortality rate for HIV/AIDS was so high back then that he probably died years ago. I would hope that by some miracle that this man was fortunate and like NBA great Ervin “Magic” Johnson has not only survived but continues to do well. But I know that the odds were not in his favor.

When he left my office we shook hands, something that my fellow Christians said that I needed to avoid. Not only did I shake his hand, but I gave him a hug and I did not wash my hands or disinfect myself. I figured that God wanted me to get HIV from caring for and accepting someone infected with it than it didn’t matter.

Since that time I have worked with, cared for and ministered to more victims of HIV/AIDS, their families and their friends than I can count. Many of them have made significant impressions on me, my life, and my faith. Without them my life would not be as rich as it has been. I continued to deal with case after case and it is interesting to read the citation from my end of tour award for my time as the Adjutant of the Academy Brigade. It is almost all about AIDS.

So we fast forward to 2016. I’m still in the military, only now I am not a Medical Service Corps Officer in the Army but a Navy Chaplain and I am now teaching Ethics. During my career I spent about eight years in the critical care environment of major medical center ERs, trauma departments and ICUs. I have a rather unique perspective having experience with AIDS and other highly infectious diseases, as well as the ethics of treatment.

Since I was previously qualified as a Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense officer when I served in the Army in the 1980s, I understand the importance of, as well as the limitations of personal protective equipment and decontamination procedures. Of course because I know a good number of physicians who specialize in critical care, infectious diseases and pandemics and try to remain current in regard to such diseases, their causes, and the vectors by which they spread.

Thus I realize when I see and hear the Trinity of Evil; the politicians, pundits and preachers who make their living promoting fear, panic and hatred to keep their jobs and obscene profits coming in are at work in demonizing President Obama, the CDC and NIH and poor Africans in Liberia, Ghana and other countries. Like the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the same cast of disingenuous, unscrupulous and dishonest preachers, pundits and politicians are at work today as we wrestle with the Ebola crisis, which is neither an epidemic nor a judgment from God.

Sadly, these people are not limited to their own religious networks to spread their lies, propaganda and hate. They have the full buy in from a major cable news network and countless political “news” services, “think tanks” and Political Action Committees; who are their fellow travelers in their quest to demonize those that they hate and dominate society.

The Ebola crisis of 2013-2014 provided these same people, this Trinity of Evil, and their followers; with the avenue to create havoc without taking any personal or corporate responsibility to demonize people, to hinder rational and reasonable solutions to meet the crisis and to ensure the political destruction of the Black man in the White House who they hate with a hatred beyond comprehension, and beginning in January these same people will have massive influence in the White House and Congress to do their worst in harming people by denying medical care, funding, and research into not just HIV/AIDS and Ebola, but any other disease that they choose to label as God’s punishment on people that they despise.

Their words and actions, often clothed in the language of faith may seem to some as a demonstration of righteousness; only now they are even more closely linked to political and economic entities that simply want more power and profit and use them to achieve their malevolent purposes.

The sad thing is that while the leaders of the “Religious Right” benefit from this deal, their followers do not. In fact should Ebola ever reach epidemic or pandemic status in the United States because of their actions which have helped to hinder the government’s response to it; they don’t have to worry, they have good healthcare coverage which is paid for by their followers; and little threat of exposure. On the other hand their followers will have to fend for themselves, paying exceptionally high insurance rates if they can even afford it all the while the people that they support fight to ensure that they do not have affordable, or reliable access to health care.

The sad thing is that Ebola, as bad is it is; is a hard disease to catch, unless you happen to get blasted by a load of the massively infected vomit or bodily fluids of someone in the final stages of it. In fact Ebola is a lot harder to catch many forms of the Bird or Swine Flu, which are airborne viruses and highly contagious. History has shown that both are far more deadly in terms of numbers killed than either Ebola or AIDS have ever been.

Sadly, the same people who fought against treating HIV/AIDS and Ebola are the same people who mock public health experts and agencies when they warn of potential Influenza epidemics or pandemics, and fight against reasonable vaccination and prevention programs and education.

The actions of these religious and political leaders and their media supporters are unethical, irresponsible and at odds with measure of human compassion. It is like they have a death wish for the planet. But truthfully I have to say that it does not look to me that they seem to care so long as they reap a political and economic benefit from it.

Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like the late Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”

Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schafly, who in my view was one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”

In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even loathsome preacher should abide:

“I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”

But then as it did in the 1980s, the band continues to play on… and those that unite religion and their hatred of others continue to do everything that they can to ensure that people die as they lie. As for me, I am glad that finally saw the truth about these people and I thank people like that HIV positive Army officer who walked into my office in 1987 who humanized that terrible virus, and for helping me see the light.

But our fight is not over, we have to continue to bear witness and speak the truth.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Journey to Support Gay Rights

kim davis pastor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As I mentioned yesterday I was overjoyed when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized Marriage Equality for American citizens who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, and Transgender. That being said, there are still many inequities that people in the LGBTQ community face, and in many places that are movements to legislate laws which are little different than Jim Crow on homosexuals. Thus as a Christian, and as a Priest I will continue to lift up my voice in support of my friends in the LGBTQ community. That being said I think that 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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Prisoners of Hate

got_aids_yet-mardi_gras

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

A couple of months ago I read the late Randy Shilts’ book about the beginning of the AIDS crisis, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. As I did so I was struck by a single sentence “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”

In the book, Shilts, a journalist and author, discussed the impact of hatred on people. The part of the book I was reading was about the release from prison of Dan White, the San Francisco city councilman who murdered the legendary Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on January 7th 1984.

Shilts reflected on how reciprocal hatred between White, his militant-anti-Gay supporters, and the Gay community harmed the whole community, and the response to the AIDS epidemic. The Gay community was angry, and rightly so, about how White who had killed Milk and Moscone in cold blood based was acquitted of the First Degree Murder charge on the ludicrous defense diminished capacity based on White’s being consumption of Hostess Twinkies. That anger was compounded by how many Gays felt about the AIDS epidemic, which at the time the cause was still unknown, and which most government agencies were ignoring.  When White was released, angry Gays protested, some even calling for White’s death. White was out of prison but he was a prisoner of his actions, he killed himself a number of months later.

Shilts wrote, “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.” In regard to White, Shilts echoed the words of Thornton Wilder who wrote, “There is no need for me to curse you -the murderer survives the victim only to learn that it was himself that he longed to be rid of. Hatred is self-hatred.”

At the time neither the Gay community, nor their opponents, especially conservative Christians could get around the hate. Many people, including men like Gary Bauer, a current leader of the Christian Right who was then an adviser to Ronald Reagan, believed that believed AIDS was God’s judgment upon Gays and fought against public health measures and research.

Sadly, despite all the advances in civil rights that the Gay community has fought for and earned, there are still those who hate them just for being different.

When I read Shilts’s words I was struck with just how timeless they were. While Shilts was discussing the experience of the Gay community in 1984, the lesson can be applied in almost every instance where there is anger about real or perceived injustice; as well as in times like today when societies are deeply divided along political, ideological, racial, or religious lines.

They are truly timeless.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Separate Ideology & Religion from Sworn Duty: The Legacy of Dr. C. Everett Koop

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“At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic many Americans had little sympathy for people with AIDS…. The feeling was that somehow people from certain groups ‘deserved’ their illness. Let us put those feelings behind us. We are fighting a disease, not a people.” C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General 1986

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have mentioned that I have been reflecting on many things over the past few weeks and months. Of course if you follow my writings you know what I think about public officials who refuse to do their duty to follow the law and protect the rights of other citizens, even of those that they happen to disapprove. This came to a head recently with the case of the anti-marriage equity county clerk, Kim Davis. I am not going to revisit her case as I have been worn out by it and have no need to waste any more time on her.

That being said I can point out the case of a public official, a conservative, pro-life, Evangelical Christian who served as Surgeon General under President Reagan, Dr. C. Everett Koop. In an era of extreme intolerance and hatred for those infected with HIV, Dr. Koop became one of the leading proponents of compassionate and responsible care for victims of HIV/AIDS, most of whom were homosexual men. He met opposition within the administration, where despite his impressive credentials he was marginalized and was vilified by conservative Christians.

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. D. James Kennedy, early leaders of the political religious right were particularly vindictive. These unscrupulous leaders helped spread much disinformation about HIV from the a book published by a charlatan named Gene Antonio who wrote what was then a popular book called “The AIDS Cover Up,” They claimed that AIDS could be spread by kissing, mosquito bites or even by touching surfaces that had been touched by those infected. These men were bolstered by their allies in the Reagan White House, Secretary of education Bill Bennett and his assistant Gary Bauer who were the official administration spokesmen regarding AIDS.

They marginalized the Surgeon General; Dr. C. Everett Koop who noted in the early days of the epidemic was “completely cut off from AIDS” by Bennett and others in the Reagan Administration. They were so wrong that Koop, who was by no means a liberal took them to task on their hateful, dishonest and un-Christian proclamations. Koop told a journalist:

“the Christian activity in reference to AIDS of both D. James Kennedy and Jim Dobson is reprehensible. The first time that Kennedy ever made a statement about AIDS, I saw it on television. It was so terrible, so homophobic, so pure Antonio that I wrote him a letter.”

Koop said of Dobson, who he had worked with earlier on HIV/AIDS: “I don’t know what happened to him. He changed his mind, and last August in his paper he attacked me for two pages as leading people down the garden path. But again his arguments were full of holes. I just cannot believe the poor scholarship of so many Christians.”

Despite the opposition and attacks on his character by leaders of the Christian Right, Dr. Koop was undeterred and had no problem taking on these men and women. Some of these supposedly Christian leaders still are with us and spout the same hatred for homosexuals that they did in the 1980s. Dr. Koop realized that many of his fellow Christians really didn’t care about people, and believed that HIV was God’s judgment against people that they already despised and had in their theology condemned to Hell. He also realized that many of these leaders would resort to poor scholarship and even inflammatory statements to influence public opinion.

For doing so Dr. Koop was condemned by fanatical extremists like Phyllis Schlafly who said that Koop’s recommendations in his report about preventing AIDS looked “like it was edited by the Gay Task Force” and Schlafly, ever the loving, honest and ethical Christian that she is accused Koop of advocating that third-graders learn the rules of “safe sodomy.”

Koop replied in a very courageous manner to Schlafly, who in my view is one of the most loathsome people to ever unite religion and politics: “I’m not surgeon general to make Phyllis Schlafly happy. I’m surgeon general to save lives.”

Dr. Koop understood the oath that he took as a physician and the oath that he took when he became Surgeon General; sadly Mrs. Davis and many in the Christian Right will never understand that. In 1988 Dr. Koop said something that most people in positions of any public responsibility, be they public health officials, medical professionals, politicians or even the most partisan political preachers should abide: “I separate ideology, religion and other things from my sworn duty as a health officer in this country.”

Dr. Koop’s words should be heeded by any Christian in public office, but sadly, those who do will be treated with the same scorn and hatred as Dobson, Kennedy, Bauer, and Schlafly heaped on him.

I can understand Dr. Koop’s plight. I have been set upon by some of the disciples of Bauer, Dobson, Schlafly, Kennedy and others for simply defending people’s rights under the Constitution and obeying the oath of office that I took in 1981 and have continued to affirm since. Sadly, the truth is that many so-called Christians will attempt to destroy the lives, reputation and careers of other Christians who do not tow their ideological line, and sadly this has become much worse than it was in the 1980s.

I will write more about this but for now I will wish you a good day.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Not to Be Alone: Why Gay Marriage Matters

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been thinking about the profound legal and moral implications of the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equity, the Obergfell v. Hodges case. One of those impacts in in a very simple and human concern, the ability of people to be with their loved ones during medical crisis or when they are dying. I saw the profound implications of not having this right when I was a young chaplain doing my hospital residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas 1993 and 1994. This is the story of those two encounters and how they changed me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

marriage equality

For me it is still hard to comprehend, a young chaplain; two relatively young men dying of AIDS, two partners, two families and two radically different experiences of humanity, faith, religion and authentic loving relationships.

I was still a relatively inexperienced minister and chaplain back when I was doing my Pastoral Care residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas Texas back in 1993 and 1994. Yes I had graduated from seminary. Yes I had a bit of chaplain experience as an Army National Guard chaplain and as a counselor at a major evangelical Christian ministry, and yes I had experience in dealing with AIDS as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army.

Despite that, I was so ill prepared to deal with the massively different treatment of people dying from AIDS from their families. Families that in some cases shared the same Christian faith as me. I think that is one of the things that young ministers struggle with when they enter the nether world between life and death, mortality and immortality, faith and unbelief in the real world. When I was in seminary the senior pastor of the mega-church that I attended told a story about being approached by a family member of someone who was very sick and in hospital. The person wanted him to visit them while they were a patient. He had been their pastor for years. When they ask him if he would come, he refused. He recounted that the “parishioner asked just how sick he would have to be to get a hospital visit?” The pastor told us his response. He laughed and said “you don’t want to be that sick.” The congregation laughed and I was devastated.

The pastor was a leader in the New Apostolic Reformation, a friend of John Wimber, Rick Joyner and others who helped to pave the way to the heartless, unfeeling, political “Christianity” and “Dominion theology” that is in vogue with the Tea Party and Religious Right today. When I questioned him about his comments later he told me that thought that pastoral care of those in his congregation, especially in regard to hospital visits was “below his office as an apostle, that others had that responsibility.” The thing that disturbed me the most was that he had ordained me as an Evangelical minister in that church to be a chaplain barely two years before this. I had respected him and now I felt a tremendous sense of emptiness when I left his office.

So when I began my pastoral care residency at Parkland I found that I had a lot to learn about the real world of religious faith, religious hypocrisy and religious hatred and intolerance.

Early in my residency I dealt with a number of AIDS cases. I wrote about one of those cases last night, although that was not really early in my residency, it was closer to the end of it. There were two cases besides that one that made such deep impressions on me that I can never forget them. Both involved young, white, homosexual men dying of the complications from full blown AIDS. Both came from very “Evangelical Christian” families (both were Southern Baptist) and both were being grieved by what we called then, their “significant others” as well as their biological families. But that was where the similarities ended.

The first case was in the second month of my residency, when I was the chaplain for the Medical ICU, before the Pastoral Care Director wisely moved me to the Trauma and Surgery department. A patient came to us, a man, about my age, a successful architect with many friends who was experiencing pneumonia brought about by his immunodeficiency brought about by HIV.

When he arrived he was still able to communicate and he had many of his friends as well as his significant other visiting him. They loved him and he loved them. There was a sense of community and if I dare say real family as they visited. In those first few days I got to know him and these people, most of who were homosexual but not all. There were a number of women there, who I am sure had the patient, who was a remarkably handsome man, been a heterosexual, would have loved to have been his wife.

My encounter with him, before his condition worsened to the point that he had to go on a ventilator and was sedated was transforming. He grew up in the church, knew that he was homosexual, attempted to live with it and finally came out as gay, and was disowned by his family. Despite this he became a highly successful architect, had many friends, was active in charitable works, and still maintained his faith in Jesus. I came to appreciate him, the man who for was for all purposes his spouse and his friends.

However, when his condition deteriorated his estranged family, the people who had disowned him, rushed to his “rescue.” In good Christian form they brought their pastor who though their son was unconscious proceeded to preach at him regarding his need to “repent” and “to come back to Jesus.” The family also took advantage of the law. They were his biological family and next of kin. They banned the man’s partner and friends from his room as he lay dying.

The family’s pastor preached at the dying man and glared at the people closest to him while he was present.  I was appalled by his, and their behavior. While they isolated their son from those closest to him and allowed their pastor to condemn him as he died, I remained with his partner and friends. I prayed with them, I cried with them, I embraced them. When the family left I went with them to be with this young man’s mortal body. We prayed and after the nurses prepared his body and the doctors completed their final notes, I walked with them as we took his body on that long trip from the ninth floor to basement, where the morgue awaited. I still cry when I think of this encounter, of how supposedly Christian people would not only keep their son, who they had rejected and condemned from those who loved him the most as he lay dying.

A couple of months later I was in my element as the Trauma and Surgery Department Chaplain, but I still had on call duty where I was responsible for crisis situations anywhere in the house. One of those wild nights I got a call from the nursing staff of Nine South, the Medical Step Down unit where the lady that I wrote about last night had passed away, but that was still in the future.

This time there was another young white man, another partner, another family. This young man was not in the ICU fighting for his life, he was passing away in the quiet solitude of his room with his mother and father, his partner and his friends at his side. Like the other young man he was a man of faith. He loved Jesus, he loved his family and he loved his partner.

He was from the area west of Dallas, the area between Fort Worth and Abilene. His mom and dad were ranchers, dad was wearing his cowboy hat, a plaid shirt, classic western Levi’s jeans and cowboy boots. His mom was wearing a simple dress. Both were thing, tanned and their faces lined by the sun and weather and from being out on the range with their cattle. The young man who was with them, the dying man’s partner was casually dressed but though he was from the same area was not a rancher.

I spent time with all of them. The contrast between the “Christian” parents and pastor of the first young man could have not been more profound. Like the architect’s parents, they were Christians. In fact they were Southern Baptists who attended a small country church in the town that they lived. By any sense of the word they could be described as “Fundamentalist” Christians, but unlike so many fundamentalists they focused on loving God and loving people, even people that so many Christians reject out of hand.

I arrived as the patient was breathing his last. I remained with him, his parents, partner and friends as he passed away, and when his parents asked I offered a prayer commending his soul to God. As I did this his partner was in a state of near collapse, exclaiming “I have no one now, I am alone!” His grief was overwhelming, he had no legal status, in the eyes of the law he meant nothing, though the man that he loved had just died. My heart was rent, and I held on to him.

As I did, the patient’s father came alongside of us. The father said to the young man “You are not alone, you are our son now, we love you.” When this dear man said this we all were in tears, as I am right now. I stayed with all of these dear people as the nursing staff prepared the young man’s body to go to the morgue. At some point the parents escorted their son’s now widowed partner out of the hospital. Mom and dad walked on either side of him as they left the ward. If there was anyone couple on this either who were true Christians, it was this dear couple. As we parted I could not hold back the tears, and the father of the deceased gave me a hug and thanked me for being with them and honoring his son.

I remained with the nursing staff and the internal medicine resident as they complete their duties and took the young man’s body to the morgue. After that I went back to the emergency room where some of the nursing staff, including a RN who at one time had been an Assemblies of God pastor, but was now an avowed atheist who loved to torment chaplains, except me, comforted me in my grief. It is funny that an atheist would be comforting the chaplain after such an event, but then if I do believe in God, why can’t I believe that anyone cannot share in the grief of others and of comfort and care.

It was a story that I could only share with my pastoral care residency supervisor, in our residency group and with my wife Judy, as I knew if I shared my experience at church that at best I would only be humored, and most probably be ostracized. In fact I had to keep that story pretty much under wraps until 2010 when was told to leave the church which had ordained me a priest, for among other things speaking out for the rights of Gays, Lesbians and the LGBTQ community. By then I had met and served with far too many Gays who were far better Christians than most of the Christians who condemned them not to do so.

But, in a way it was a step to freedom because I realized that what I had been taught for so long was so horribly at odds with the message of Jesus.

Two deaths, two men, two partners, two families, two experiences of God’s grace, two experiences of a common humanity and the experience of one very flawed, but no longer confused chaplain…

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The Journey: Padre Steve and Gay Rights

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I hope that you are having a good New Year. I am having power fights with my blind nearly 14 year old Papillon-Dachshund mix Molly. It seems that she has decided that she no longer likes here special kidney diet dog food and resists eating it until she can’t stand it any longer. I even heat it in the microwave to get it to room temperature and sometimes she eats it like there is no tomorrow other times she looks at it, looks up where I am and seems to be asking “this shit again?” Tonight after refusing to eat I was getting some iced tea for my wife Judy and she was trying to get in the refrigerator. Power fights with Dachshunds are one thing. Power fights with Papillons another, but power fights with a mix… well what can I say? But I digress…

What I am writing about tonight is a subject that has become increasingly important to me, and a subject that probably makes some of my more conservative Christian friends really wonder about me.

The past couple of nights I have written about historic  discrimination against Gays and Lesbians, as well as what Gays suffered in the military under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. I do hope that you take time to read them and share them both if you haven’t already done so.

But anyway. I have been in the military coming up on 34 years between the Army and the Navy. 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 judgement 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.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Prisoners of Hate

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“Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”

I read something this week that struck me. A couple of nights ago I was continuing to read Randy Shilts’ book about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. As I did so I was struck by a single sentence “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.”

In the book, Shilts, a journalist and author, discussed the impact of hatred on people. The part of the book I was reading  was about the release from prison of Dan White, the San Francisco city councilman who murdered the legendary Gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone on January 7th 1984.

Shilts reflected on how that reciprocal hatred between White, his supporters, and the Gay community harmed all. Back then Gays were angry about how a man who murdered two other men in cold blood and got off on a ludicrous defense based on White’s consumption of Hostess Twinkies.  That anger was compounded by how many Gays felt about the AIDS epidemic, which at the time the cause was still unknown.  When White was released, angry Gays protested, some even calling for White’s death. White was out of prison but he was a prisoner of his actions, he killed himself a number of months later. Shilts noted in his book that: “Prejudice makes prisoners of both the hated and the hater.” At the time neither the Gay community, nor its detractors could get around the hate.

When I read the quote I was struck with just how timeless it was. The fact is that though Shilts was discussing something the Gay community was experiencing in 1984, it can be applied in almost every instance where there is anger about real or perceived injustice.

In the past couple of months we have seen the anger of the African American community towards law enforcement in the case of Michael Brown and other instances where police killed unarmed blacks and suffered no legal repercussions. While most protestors were peaceful, some were not.

Last week black man traveled from Baltimore to New York boosting on instagram that he was going to put wings on police. Baltimore police attempted to warn New York, but by the time the message arrived the man had brutally murdered two New York City Police Officers as sat in their patrol car. Before he left Baltimore he shot his girlfriend. The man had a long history of criminal behavior, belonged to a prison gang that advocated killing police and had a long history of severe mental illness. However, because he was black and because he had publicized why he was going to kill the officers, the protestors and other critics of police who abuse their authority were blamed for causing the action.

Since then the invective has only increased, despite the efforts of people, mainly those who support the protestors to scale back the rhetoric and seek reconciliation. Sadly, it only seems to get worse, especially from those who seek to only see one side of the problem and blame one group. I have a military physician friend who wrote something on her social media page that I agree very much with:

“I support police officers and first responders. I also support equal rights and believe discrimination based upon race, creed gender, sexuality, etc. is wrong. Am I allowed to support both these now-a-day?”

A week or so ago I asked a similar question. I have been in the military the bulk of my life and I have a strong affinity to those who put themselves in harms way be they in the military, law enforcement, fire, rescue, EMS or other first responders. At the same time I also know that not everyone in those organizations are law-abiding, and some harbor terrible prejudice against people whose race, religion, social or economic status, or lifestyle they oppose. Sadly some of them use the power they have been entrusted with to persecute or harm others and in many cases are never held accountable.

That being said I know that people who face very real prejudice, discrimination, inequity and persecution, including that of some in the law enforcement community grow angry and frustrated. Most remain peaceful, even in the use of civil disobedience, but even then they are often attacked or set upon by the very law enforcement agencies who are also supposed to serve and protect their rights as citizens. And some do lash out and cause harm to people and property.

Honestly I do not know what can be done at this point to change the direction that our society is heading. I wonder like my friend if it is possible to support law enforcement and at the same time ensure that they too obey the laws they are sworn to enforce, and the people they are sworn to serve. It was then that I remembered the words of Nelson Mandela. He said, reflecting on the 25 years that he was wrongly imprisoned by the Apartheid government of South Africa:  “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”  

Maybe that is too idealistic for most of us today. Maybe we have become so embittered by what we see that we simple decide whoever disagrees with us must be at fault for everything. Today I noticed a comment on a post I had written about a military subject. The writer of the comment was definitely parroting everything that he listens to on the right wing media circuit, Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and so many others, not to mention the allegedly “Christian” religious extremists who parrot them. The man wrote:

“Love the page. BTW there is nothing progressive about socialism. The “Progressives” in the USA are in fact socialists. It is regressive. There is nothing democratic about it either, it is top down dictatorial. There is no life liberty and pursuit of happiness when the people belong to the state. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Fascist Italy, Venezuela and even Nazi Germany (socialist workers party) are all good examples of where socialism leads. Lets not bring this kind of progressive to the USA.”

Of course this is complete hogwash and I politely but bluntly told him so.

However, his words came out of the same echo chamber that blamed peaceful protestors and their supporters for the deaths of the two New York police officers. Since on occasion I have gotten death threats and other lesser forms harassment from the most extreme elements of this right wing movement I am a bit sensitive to crap like this.

That being said I commit myself anew to the message Nelson Mandela because no matter what happens to me I do not want to be bound in the dungeons created by my the hate of others, or what hatred that on occasion that I might feel toward them. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

How do we get to where President Mandela or Dr. King believed was the true path to freedom? I think like both both of these men realized that it is about forgiveness, forgiveness even in the midst of injustice. As Dr. King said: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Such an attitude however requires genuine empathy, and sadly many people cannot feel empathy for others and as Captain Gustave Gilbert noted about what made the leaders of the Third Reich evil, wrote: “Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” 

Sadly, that lack of empathy makes everyone a prisoner of hate.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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