Judy Shepard & ADL: “The Fight for Justice”

On Tuesday evening, January 30, I attended a program titled “The Fight for Justice with Judy Shepard” sponsored by the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League. After a brief video about Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, Robert Trestan, the Regional Director of ADL interviewed Matt’s mother, Judy Shepard, who has been crusading for equal rights since the death of her son.

She spoke about Matt’s personality. He dressed in a preppy style, which was not typical for 1990’s Wyoming college students. He had strong opinions, and could be argumentative. He liked theater (played the younger brother, Wally, in “Our Town,” for example), thought he could sing, but he couldn’t. He was only 5′ 2″ tall, and very slight.

She sees the current situation in our country with respect to minority rights, including LGBTQ, as a retreat from the progress of the previous approximately two decades. But she doesn’t think the current expressions of prejudice indicate new feelings. She believes that the election of Barack Obama gave a focus and increased intensity to long-standing bigotry. Then with the election of Donald Trump, people felt free to express those feelings in virulent and sometimes violent ways.

Judy Shepard wrote a book titled The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed. Robert Trestan said that he had brought three copies with him, from a supply that they have in the ADL office, adding that the book is now out of print. (I’d guess that used copies are available on line.) After the event I mentioned to Mrs. Shepard how moving I had found “The Laramie Project,” and that the element of  denial which was shown creeping in by “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.” Then I approached Robert Trestan and asked if the copies of The Meaning of Matthew were available for purchase. He replied that they were not, but he would give me one. A few moments later it occurred to me to ask Judy Shepard to autograph my copy of the book, which she graciously did.

When asked what we should do now, she said the most important thing to do is vote.

All in all, it was an inspiring evening, a valuable reminder of what is at stake in the fight against hatred.


Matt Damon, BSO, Sexism, and Racism

Not long ago, in the sweep of human history, Matt Damon suggested that there are degrees of sexual harassment and misconduct and that there should be different consequences, depending on the gravity of the offense. I don’t have his actual words in front of me, but I think it amounted to suggesting, in the first place, that rape was worse than touching or even caressing buttocks, and that our and society’s reactions should differ accordingly. To add my own gloss: for some things, one should be imprisoned; for some, loss of employment s appropriate; for some, disgrace is fitting. I’d also comment that in the case of some long past, minor offenses, the consequences should take account of the culture of the time in which they occurred.

The reaction was swift and furious. Denunciations rose to the level of suggestions that his appearance in an upcoming movie should be excised. The rationale seems to be that because he is a man he is not allowed to express an opinion on matters affecting women.  I don’t recall any assertions that all offenses were equally grave, but there may have been an idea that attempting to grade them was irrelevant, since they were all offenses against women.

I think Matt Damon was right, and it was his right to say it. To deny his right to do so because he’s a man strikes me as sexism.


More recently, some people complained to management of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that they are not playing enough music by women and minority composers. They pointed out that in this year’s subscription series only one work composed by a woman is being performed.

The question that occurs to me is, “Who are the composers who deserve to have a place alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvořák, Rachmaninoff, and others in the standard repertory?” The only female composers of any stature I’m aware of are Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach, and I really doubt that there are others as good or better whose works have been suppressed. Similarly, the only “minority” composers I’ve heard of are the Chevalier de Saint Georges and T.J. Anderson (a black man who was a member of the Harvard Musical Association). It’s not that simple, however. It won’t do simply to say, “There are no female or minority Beethovens.”

For one thing, the BSO performs works by second rank composers. This season, for example, we’re being treated to compositions by Méhul, Adams, and Ligeti. There ought to be room for Fanny Mendelssohn and Amy Beach from time to time. In addition, the orchestra regularly commissions or co-commissions new works. This season, they are giving the American premiere of a new work by Jörg Widmann which they and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra jointly commissioned.

So I think the response is twofold. On the one hand, new works by women and minority composers should be as welcomed by the orchestra as those by white males. There may be proportionally fewer women and minority composers than their numbers in the population at large, but sex and ethnicity should not be limiting factors. On the other hand, the music of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries has all been composed, and it’s almost all by dead white men. For the foreseeable future, that music will be a major part of the repertory of symphony orchestras, and that does not mean the orchestras are being racist or sexist.

“Great Sleepovers” Are Enough — Globe Columnist

I’ve noted before that society seems to be saying to young people, “We want you to have sex as much as you can.” Even so, I was shocked when I read this in the June 6, 2017, Boston Globe “Love Letters” column: “Move on — as soon as possible. You are doing all of the work, and I’m not sure what you’re getting in return. There’s no great friendship. There are no great sleepovers.” (Emphasis added.) This piece of advice was given to a woman who is “new to college” and has met a man in his 20’s.

If you read the column, the problem the young woman has is that he doesn’t initiate text conversations, or even respond promptly to her texts. Apparently, they’ve been meeting in person, bot it’s not enough for her. This is certainly a problem of our time. People have been conditioned to expect instantaneous communication with acquaintances whenever they want. They can’t stand having to wait. This is certainly unfortunate. Similarly, there seems to be an all-or-nothing mentality. Neither the young woman nor the columnist seems to have any idea that friendships and courtships can take time to develop.

But to my mind the worst thing is the expectation that the columnist implies: you’ve got to have a great friendship or great sleepovers, pronto, or you write someone out of your life. Perhaps it’s best to have both, but great friendships without sleepovers are fine, and great sleepovers without friendship are fine. The attitude is not unique to her, of course. It seems, rather, to be typical of our time. Sex does not require marriage. Yet there often seems to be an unspoken expectation of temporary exclusivity until the couple breaks up, as they feel free to do at any time. “He cheated on me,” is an often seen complaint; and cheating isn’t even just having sex with another. A date can be cheating.

This world of noncommittal commitments leads to much heartache, but so have all the courtship mores of earlier times. The real problem now is that extra-marital sex — which has always gone on — is no longer considered taboo. Instead, it is recommended. Extra-marital sex isn’t frowned on, but the lack of it is undesirable in the eyes of our culture. If the man being written about would have sleepovers which she enjoyed, that would be enough. “Who could ask for anything more?”

Pulse (Orlando*)

* Although the attack occurred in Orlando, the most important fact about it is that it was perpetrated in a gay club. Just as the assault at the offices of Charlie Hebdo became known by the target, rather than the city where it occurred, this terrorist attack would better be known as Pulse than Orlando. The city is an appropriate designation for attacks where the victims are random and the location is not associated with a specific target group. In this post, I’ll be considering this attack in its character as an attack against gay, or LGBTQ, people.

The choice of Pulse for the attack, when any number of other clubs were available, is itself enough to show that the attack was motivated by hatred of gay people. The widely reported account by the killer’s father of his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing in public confirms the fact. Many comments and a candidate for President blame the hatred on Islam and target all Muslims in response. Other comments have blamed Christians who have opposed homosexuality for creating a climate of hatred.

I think it is inaccurate to blame Islam for this attack, even though the attacker was Muslim. The “Joint Muslim Statement on the Carnage in Orlando” shows clearly that many Muslims believe that such violence against gay people is wrong — this despite the fact the Islam considers homosexual conduct immoral and deserving of death. So it is unjustifiable to blame Islam as such for the actions of that Muslim, in the same way as it is unjustifiable to blame Christianity for violence against gays — despite the fact that some Christian churches continue to maintain the traditional doctrine that homosexual conduct is wrong. In fact, I think some Catholic bishops did very well in expressing that homophobia should not have any place among us.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some Christians do believe that violence against gays is justified, even that gays deserve to be put to death. The rest of us should explicitly reject such ideas. This is clear enough. But we need to go beyond that. This incident should be recognized as a wake-up call. We need to acknowledge that the insistence with which many of us have made an issue of homosexuality, the forcefulness with which we have upheld our positions — even if justified at the level of moral theology — have indeed been factors in promoting the climate of hostility within which some people feel justified in resorting to violence.

Somehow, we needed to be clearer that, while we were appealing to the consciences of individuals, we were not seeking to compel those who disagreed with our theology. In the first place, though, we needed to be clearer in our own minds about that. For many, homosexual conduct seemed to be some sort of “super sin.” That view doubtless shaped the thinking of those who turned to violence.

I think we “conservative ” Christians still need to be clearer in our own minds, as well as in our ways of expressing our beliefs, about our love and acceptance of gays as deserving of respect, and welcome in our churches. Some people say “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” At a theoretical level, that may be cliché; but in reality it is hypocritical when the only time we say it is when we are talking about people who engage in homosexual conduct. We don’t say it about fornicators or adulterers, the proud, the avaricious, the calumniators, the rash judgers, the lustful. Some people have the attitude that homosexuals have to refrain from homosexual conduct as a condition of being welcome, but we never withdraw the welcome from gossips, from money-grubbers, from cohabiting couples.

The problem for many if us is that there are ingrained habits of mind which it will take sustained effort to change, but we have to do it. We have to catch ourselves whenever we find ourselves making judgments on gay, when we think of them as cases in moral theology, when we start regarding being on good terms with them as something we need to justify to ourselves. We need to see them as individuals, not as members of a category. Which means we have to be willing and able to become acquaintances, friendly acquaintances, and friends, with whom we deal as ordinary people. When enough of us do that, perhaps fewer gay people will perceive us as enemies.

It may be that the anti-gay prejudice which exists is similar to racism or prejudice against Jews. It can exist in us unnoticed or nearly so, and it can be overcome only with conscious effort. One thing which helps, of course, is getting to know people as individuals, so that we can no longer think of them merely as categories.

Beyond looking at our own attitudes and manners of expression, we should also do what we can to promote a climate in society where expressions of anti-gay prejudice are unacceptable.

Some responses to the killings have suggested that the expression of doctrines which hold homosexual conduct to be wrong is, in and of itself, so damaging to gay people’s sense of acceptance and so productive of a climate of fear among them that those doctrines must no longer be proclaimed. To me, that seems to go too far. It must be acceptable for simple traditional doctrine to be taught by churches to their members. That, however, doesn’t mean that churches need to or should make public statements condemning the private conduct of others.

At this point my thinking on how we should go forward is provisional, but it seems to me that our church leaders should refrain from public statements, press releases, or the like, proclaiming opposition to homosexual conduct. Such positions are already well known and do not need to be repeated. What is needed is a living out of Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” If someone asks a question about what we think, we should answer truthfully, simply, and as non-confrontationally as possible. But otherwise, for those of us who aren’t someone’s pastor or spiritual director, their perceived or proclaimed orientation isn’t really our concern and shouldn’t be an issue, and the sooner we can realize that and live accordingly, the better it will be.

For gay people to feel accepted in our churches, it is necessary that they actually be accepted. For them to feel safe in our society, it is necessary that they be safe. We need to do what we can to promote that acceptance, based on love and respect, and to bring about that safety

Red Cups in the Sunset (or Starbucks)

The past couple of days have seen a fair amount of internet talk about Starbucks’ red cup for this year. It’s basically just a plain red cup with a Starbucks logo on the front, and the usual spaces on the back to indicate things about the contents.

Since I don’t regularly patronize Starbucks, I hadn’t been aware that they’ve traditionally had a red cup. But it seems many people are frankly incensed because in prior years the cups had a seasonal design, and they take the lack of imagery this year as symptomatic of a war on Christmas or a war on Jesus.  I think the controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

In the first place, there is nothing inherently wrong with this year’s design.

Even more to the point is this article which I came across. It shows that over the past several years the designs on the red cups were of things such as snowmen, sledders, people dressed for cold weather, and words like “hope.” In other words, no nativity scenes, now word Christmas, nor anything else explicitly Christian. The idea that winter scenes are what Christmas is about, of course, is nonsense. The idea that not having winter scenes on a red cup is anti-Christian is even greater nonsense.

I’d even say that Starbucks has, probably inadvertently, taken a small step to restore the true meaning of Christmas by removing the secularized images which often pass for Christmas decorations. Instead of complaining, Christians who know what Christmas is really about should be thanking Starbucks for this year’s design, not criticizing and even calling for boycotts. In that spirit, I went to a Starbucks today, and bought a cup of their Thanksgiving Blend coffee.

Once there, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but bags of their Christmas Blend coffee for sale (rushing the season a bit, but that’s what retailers do). Even more wonderful, in front of the bar was a barrel with large boxes whose cellophane front showed the contents: a large white triangle with colorfully covered round objects, looking sort of like Christmas tree ornaments. They were labelled Advent Calendar, and they promised a daily treat.

Far from warring on Christmas, Starbucks is recognizing not only Christmas but, truly rare and worthy of applause, Advent as well. Those calling for a boycott have made themselves look really foolish.

Israel and the Palestinians

The past couple of weeks have brought the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the fore.

The wave of violent attacks on Israeli citizens has apparently been fomented by Mahmoud Abbas’ false accusation that Israel intended to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. Palestinian leaders have continued to praise the unprovoked attacks and to lie about the Israeli response. This article gives a fairly extensive report.

This wave of violence is consistent with the history of conflict since the foundation of the State of Israel. Arabs attacked Israel at its birth in 1948, and although Egypt and Jordan had the good sense to come to terms with Israel, the Palestinians have never wavered in their purpose of destroying Israel and ending the presence of Jews in the area. The Palestinian leaders have constantly promoted anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiments among the people.

Israel has, for its part, exercised its right and duty to defend itself during the state of war it has had to endure for 67 years. Some decisions, such as the building of settlements in areas won during hostilities, may have been unwise. Some actions undertaken in Israel’s defense may have involved excessive or misdirected force. There is an excellent book, My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit, which acknowledges wrongs done by Israel, while affirming Israel’s fundamental right to exist. The wrongs, in my opinion, no more make Israel “the bad guys” in the conflict than excesses committed by the Allies in World War II make them the bad guys in that conflict.

As I see it, the basic underlying fact is that the reason there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinians is that the Palestinians are unwilling to live in peace with Israel.

The history of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem’s anti-Semitism, (see here, and here) has also made the news. The first article I linked notes how that anti-Semitism long predated the Mufti’s support of Hitler and how it continued on after the war in Yasser Arafat, his kinsman and admirer. It is unfortunate that PM Netanyahu’s exaggerated account of the matter may be enabling people to evade the reality the the anti-Semitism of the current leadership of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has deep roots in their history and is surely behind their intransigence.

In the light of all this, I don’t see how it is possible for any decent person to support the Palestinians generally, to try to justify Palestinian violence against Israelis, to criticize legitimate Israeli self-defense, to focus on occasional excessive acts by Israeli forces while saying not a word about Palestinian terrorism and brutality, or to support the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

And yet there are such people. A second cousin of mine gloated about the fact that Canadian PM Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party had lost every seat in Atlantic Canada where she lives: “Atlantic kicks Harper’s arse. 1-way ticket to Israel.” She has been involved with a group that calls itself “The Island Peace Committee,” which was active in 2014 in condemning Israel’s self-defense against attacks from Gaza. When I responded to a couple of her shares of posts from the Committee, she unfriended me. When I responded to her post about Harper with a comment pointing out that Israel is the only country in the region that recognizes many rights she ought to support, she deleted the comment.

Many people point out the inherent anti-Semitism of the supporters of the Palestinians, but I think that is not the full explanation. On a personal level, I can’t recall my cousin ever saying anything suggesting anti-Semitism on her part. In some cases, anti-Semitism may be the primary motive; in others, anti-Americanism may be in play — the U.S. supports Israel so they oppose it. Even more, though, I think this is an instance of opposition to Western Civilization, of which Israel is a clear representative. There is the mindset that says all cultures are equal, and equally good. Somehow, in practice that means that people of every other culture can be proud of their culture and seek to maintain it, but Westerners shouldn’t. Whether from that starting point or not, a number of people seem to have the (perhaps unspoken) attitude that Westerners are the oppressors of everybody in the world, and therefore deserve to be defeated.

Maybe I’m psychologizing the pro-Palestinians wrongly. What I am sure of is that they are, whatever their delusions about Israel and the Palestinians, in fact on the wrong side of the conflict.

“Senior Salute”

Recently the story of a 2015 graduate of a prep school in New Hampshire has received extensive coverage in the Boston press. While details are not clear, he was charged with what is often called “statutory rape.” There existed at the school a tradition (apparently of fairly recent vintage) called the Senior Salute, in which seniors would ask underclassmen to date them. This particular 18 year old senior at the school cajoled a 15 year old freshman into meeting with him as his “senior salute.” According to news reports from the trial, the two ended up in a darkened room on campus, where some sexual activity took place. To what extent it went was disputed. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, but convicted of others.

Commentators generally seemed to assume that the only real question was one of consent, and if there had been consent, there would have been nothing wrong. They suggested that in one way or another we need to teach boys to refrain from any sexual activity to which girls have not clearly consented. Some wondered what has gone wrong that we have failed to convey that message.

It seems to me that the problem lies not so much in failing to convey that message as in the message which we do convey loud and clear. It is, “Have sex. Have all the sex you can. Enjoy.” We used to tell young people, “Don’t have sex until you’re married.” People didn’t always live up to that standard, but we knew it was the standard.

Theoretically, perhaps, the standards of consent and no sex between adults and minors could be sufficient if the basic rule of having sex whenever you want with whomever you want were valid and those were the boundaries and we could just present them effectively enough. But, as we see, it’s not working. The encouragement to have sex — it’s actually presented as an expectation in contemporary culture — overwhelms the cautions.

Not only is our contemporary standard not working; I believe it’s wrong. Instead of encouraging a “hook-up” culture of meaningless sex between strangers where the only purpose is physical pleasure, we should realize once more that sex should be an expression of loving self-giving within marriage. We should realize that the standard of “Have sex. Have all the consensual sex you can as adults. Enjoy,” is the wrong standard. We should affirm the right one.