* 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