Monday, July 14, 2014

Bloody Sunday - Irish Rocker Spotlights Church Role in Anti-Gay Russia

Last spring, I wrote about a young woman named Dannika Nash who quoted the Macklemore song "Same Love" in some frank advice to the institutional church on behalf of milliennials. In a nutshell, she warned that if the church forced her generation to choose between it and their support of LGBT rights, it was going to be disappointed in the outcome. Her basic message was one that research clearly shows is shared by many in her generation, 30% of whom do not claim any faith affiliation at all. She implied that - for them - music and other aspects of their culture fulfill a social-consciousness need that religion does not.

Macklemore, classified as a rapper, was not afraid to call out the genre's reputation for homophobia and misogyny. In January of this year, he performed "Same Love" at the Grammy Awards while Queen Latifah witnessed the marriages of thirty couples, including some of the same gender.

I heard a song recently in my truck which caught my attention because the chorus starts out with the phrase "take me to church..."  Not only is this unfamiliar subject matter for popular music (for reasons explained above, I expect), but a Facebook buddy and his friends use the expression "go to church" as a euphemism for their favorite pastime (kayaking over waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest), and I thought he might get a chuckle out of a song that features that phrase.

Video for Hozier's "Take Me to Church"
(CAUTION: Violent Imagery)

Hozier at SXSW 2014
Used under Creative Commons License
 Some rights reserved
It wasn't til I got home and read more about it that I understood the song's topic is no laughing matter.  Having only half-heard the words while driving, I discovered upon closer examination that Andrew Hozier Byrne (who goes by his middle name), a 24-year-old Irish man, is not asking to be brought to a religious institution, at least not the ones he knows.  Describing his experience as "Every Sunday's getting more bleak / A fresh poison each week"  Hozier (or at least the protagonist in the song) is -- like Ms. Nash -- eschewing life in the pews for a "religious experience" of another kind, in his case a lover.

What caught my attention, however, was the subject matter of the song's video.  It depicts -- in brutal honesty -- the abduction of a gay couple in Russia by a vigilante gang.  The connection to the lyrics was not immediately clear, but -- if you know a little background on what's going on there -- it starts to make sense.

For at least the last 12 years, anti-gay sentiment in Russia has been ramping up. Attempts to hold pride marches in Russian cities have been generally meant with political opposition and/or violent protests.  The country's Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have all spoken out against the observances, with the Grand Mufti Talgat Tadzhuddin encouraging flogging for the participants in the Moscow Pride of 2006.

"I always stand by the song and the point that the video made, so it’s never a chore," Hozier, who is not gay, told the London Evening Standard. "The song is about loving somebody, and the video is about people who would undermine what it is to love somebody."

Journalist Jeff Sharlet, whose books C Street and The Family document the degree of control a cadre of evangelical Christians have over Washington, traveled to Russia this fall in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics and painted a stark picture of gay life in the country which appeared in February's GQ.  Sharlet describes the growing hostility towards gay people as part of a larger social unraveling: Russian civilians, encouraged by their government and religious institutions, have taken matters into their own hands.
"There's a national network called Occupy Pedophilia, whose members torture gay men and post hugely popular videos of their 'interrogations' online. There are countless smaller, bristling movements, with names presumptuous (God's Will ) or absurd (Homophobic Wolf). There are babushkas who throw stones, and priests who bless the stones, and police who arrest their victims."
In the article, Sharlet describes shoot-ups in bars, rapes, beatings, and computer surveillance, (even on the part of private citizens).  Readers learn the measures to which people will go to survive, and the lengths others will go to tear apart the lives of complete strangers in pursuit of some dystopic fever-dream. We meet two families that live together symbiotically, presenting as heterosexual to the world as a cover for their actual same-gender partnerships.  Sharlet talks to both targets and perpetrators, attempting to help readers decipher what is behind the fear and violence.

The Duma in 2013 passed an "anti-propaganda law" which makes it illegal to communicate about "non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors. Of course what constitutes "propaganda" can be broadly interpreted to suit the occasion, and one could be punished for doing anything something as simple as holding hands anywhere "where children might see."  Victims of vigilante violence are laughed at or punished if they seek help from law enforcement.

Western Connection (AKA, Why We Should Care)

If the rationale of "protecting the children" sounds familiar, it is because it is the same mantra used to justify anti-gay laws in Africa, and -- lo and behold -- some of the same American evangelical voices, including Scott Lively, are taking at least partial credit. Lively is currently the target of a federal lawsuit under the Alien Tort Act for crimes against humanity, due to his involvement in getting Uganda's "Jail the Gays Bill" passed.  He toured that country in 2009 with several other Americans, stirring up anti-gay fear at a series of rallies.  He employed the same tactics in Russia and called the passage of the law there "one of the proudest achievements of my career".  His enthusiasm was shared by the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer.

Most American clergy, not unaware of shifting public opinion, are more nuanced in their positions on LGBT issues, sometimes head-scratchingly so.  Televangelist Joel Osteen told Larry King "I believe homosexuality is a sin, but I don't want to preach about it." Jim Wallis of Sojourners (who is frequently described as a progressive) drafted and circulated a letter to Barack Obama in favor of a "religious exemption" to the President's executive order on discrimination by companies holding federal contracts.  A number of the large, venue-based churches like Hillsong NYC, attempt to avoid the topic altogether.

But we can't not talk about it, so long as crises as large and terrifying as the one unfolding in Russia continue to happen, and as long as there are places in our own "civilized" country where people think belonging to a church makes it okay for you to be a bully and want that enshrined in the law.  For those of us who believe there is a place for everyone at God's table, the recent string of domestic victories should not be mistaken as a sign that we're anywhere near done doing justice work. The "religious freedom" laws being introduced in various quarters are a clear sign of that.

Nor can we rest on our laurels while we know that hurtful things are being done in God's name anywhere in the world. The one thing our Savior didn't abide well is hypocrisy, and the YouTube generation is reminding us of that by voting with its feet.  Perhaps if they saw our churches witnessing to the pain being inflicted in the name of religion and how this conflicts with the Gospel we know, they'd be more inclined to stick around.

Christian Paolino is the Chair of the Integrity Stakeholders' Council and Diocesan Organizer for Newark.

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