Archive for February 2007

Keith Olbermann: Truth Teller

February 28, 2007

Melinda and I have gotten into the habit of watching Keith Olbermann every evening. I think we got started because Randi Rhodes mentioned him on her radio show (

Anyway, count us among the many who record the program on our digital video recorder so that we can watch it at our convenience (and zoom past the ads and the portions of the show that we aren’t interested in–and there are some, like all of the Anna Nichole Smith/other celebrity stuff).

Here’s the link to the show —>

And I liked this article from Rolling Stone magazine:

Keith Olbermann:

Tim Dickinson

Keith Olbermann photo

A god among sportscasters, Keith Olbermann had never quite proved his mettle as a big-league news anchor. But that changed in five minutes on Labor Day 2005, when the MSNBC Countdown host confronted Katrina’s compound disasters — one natural, the other government-made — in a Hall of Fame rant. It all started when Olbermann heard Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff declare to reporters that “Louisiana is a city that is largely underwater.” A city? Louisiana is a city? For Olbermann, something snapped. “This was no longer a political question to me,” he says. “It was, ‘I am a citizen. You are the government. And you keep screwing up.'” Olbermann fired up his computer. “This was one of those moments when it felt like the words were just coming out my fingers,” he recalls. “I didn’t have very much to do with them.”

On that night’s broadcast, after playing a clip of Chertoff’s city/state confusion, Olbermann let fly: “If ever a slip of the tongue defined a government’s response to a crisis, this was it.” And the gloves truly came off when he took aim at the president — “a twenty-first-century Marie Antoinette . . . This is the Law and Order and Terror government . . . And it has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.”

Posted on the Net, the rant was soon forwarded around the world. The president of NBC pulled the forty-six-year-old anchor aside and encouraged repeat performances. Most recently, Olbermann blasted Ohio Republican Jean Schmidt for questioning the courage of the Democrats’ leading opponent of the Iraq War on the House floor: “John Murtha, the decorated Marine intelligence officer from Vietnam — a coward? Right, congresswoman. He’s a coward, and you’re the leading argument against intelligent design.”

But Olbermann is committed to keeping his punditry in reserve. “It’s not going to be talking points and ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’ and all of that TV nonsense,” he says, in a shot at Bill O’Reilly. Olbermann compares himself instead to a judicious sniper. “When I’ve got the bullets,” he says, “I get to bring out the gun.”Posted Dec 15, 2005 1:16 PM

Barbara Gittings, LGBT pioneer and hero

February 26, 2007

I’ve been busy enough over the past few days that I hadn’t gotten far enough into the news to read of the death of Barbara Gittings. A friend sent me an email with the news.

You can see a great tribute page to her at Another good piece on Barbara Gittings, “Our Rosa Parks,” can be found at:

When I came out in 1973, California still had sodomy laws on the books. Although they weren’t being enforced at the time, they still existed–and were a clear sign of our lower-than-second-class status. Sonoma State University, where I went to school, was THE place to go for an education in humanistic psychology at the time (still may be, for all I know), and the “delisting” of homosexuality as a mental “disorder” got lots of discussion there. I found out about Barbara Gittings and her contribution to this in a women’s studies course that I took.

Because it was time to do so, and armed with the recent action of the APA, the state of California enacted a “consenting adults” law during the next legislative session, revoking the sodomy statutes. I remember that the bill was pushed by Troy Perry, sponsored by Assemblyman Willie Brown, and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. There was definitely a liberating feeling when that bill became law on January 1, 1976. But the bravery and hard work of Barbara Gittings was most definitely a precipitating factor on the road to that achievement.

Although certainly not one who I would ever call a friend, I knew Barbara Gittings. I met her through another of our pioneers, a woman who I do call a friend. I also had an occasional e-mail correspondence relationship with her. I did my best to honor her.

She’s one of those people who changed the world for LGBT people. It’s sad that most in our community–and beyond–don’t know anything of her, and, most likely, never will…

Safe in God’s hands

February 20, 2007

One of my best friends of all time died of AIDS in 1989. By then, it at least had a name, and people weren’t dropping dead within a few months… or weeks… of the appearance of the first symptoms. But he was a young, funny, brilliant man who I loved like a brother–and his loss was huge in my life.

He wasn’t the first person I knew to have the disease. As a matter of fact, I had already lost so many in my life that I had thrown away my address book, because each page had crossed-out names of those who had died. But this was the closest person to me to die of AIDS. I didn’t do very well with it all, and I didn’t do everything that I could have done or should have done for him. I still feel a certain level of guilt about that.

My friend had moved away from God when he moved away from Michigan. Not that God doesn’t live in San Francisco–to which my friend had moved to attend San Francisco State University–but my friend was a young, vibrant, fully out gay man in the Castro and the Haight in the gay liberation days of the late 1970s and beyond, and he kind of forgot about God as an active presence in his life for a long time.

As had I.

One of the things that he and I did together was to start on a road back to God. We attended MCC-San Francisco together for awhile. It was a good, safe place to go, but neither of us really felt a full connection to God through that particular faith community. This was before his diagnosis. After he began to get sick, and then to begin his process of living with a death sentence, my friend’s faith journey led him to Unity in San Francisco. (Mine led me back to my Presbyterian roots.)

One of the gifts that he gave me that remains with my to this very day is the “image” of his faith. It was more than an image, but it WAS an image. I don’t know exactly how to describe it… maybe as a living metaphor. He began each day in a time of meditative prayer. He would sit in bed to do this, because if the sun was shining, it would shine through the window in the morning, right onto his bed. And, as a part of his prayer, he would place himself in God’s hands for the day. My friend would see and feel God’s hands, cradling him and holding him safe for the day. For just that day. Because he never knew what the next day might bring. Sometimes God’s hands were in a cup shape; other times, they were more closed–the way you might hold a baby bird that somehow got into your house, so that you weren’t going to crush it, but so that it couldn’t fly away before you got it outside to release it safely.

I miss this friend every day, and I thank him for this gift that he gave me.

The book excerpt below makes me remember my friend. I guess that I need to read this book…

My daily bread

Raised to worship the New York Times on Sundays, I found myself going to church and praying instead. I thought a lot about God and flesh and blood — and didn’t tell my friends I was becoming a religious freak.

By Sara Miles

Feb. 17, 2007 | My first year at St. Gregory’s would begin, and end, with questions. Now I understand that questions are at the heart of faith, and that certainties about God can flicker on and off, no matter what you think you know. But back then, I thought “believers” were people who knew exactly what they believed and had nailed all the answers.

My first set of questions was very basic. I covertly studied the faces of people at St. Gregory’s when they took the bread, trying to guess what they were feeling, but I was too proud and too timid to ask either priests or congregants the beginner’s queries: Why do you cross yourselves? What are the candles for? How do you pray? And, more seriously: Do you really believe this stuff?

My next question was not about God or church; it was nakedly about me, and my fears. What would my friends think?

In America, I knew exactly one person who was a Christian. It turned out that my friend Mark Pritchard, an introverted writer with a tongue piercing, attended a Lutheran church with wooden pews where he sang old-fashioned hymns every Sunday. So I took some walks with Mark, trying to draw him out, but despite his orange Mohawk and wild sexual politics, he was a fairly Lutheran guy, not much given to discussing his emotions or spiritual life. “Sure, well, I believe in first principles,” Mark said to me, cautiously, when I probed him about his beliefs. He might as well have been speaking Greek. “Oh,” I said. I didn’t know anyone else who went to church.

Poor people certainly believed in God. San Francisco might be the least churchgoing city in the nation, but there were still plenty of churches within the run-down blocks around my house — the left-wing Chicano Catholic parish with its gorgeous altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe; the “Temple of the Lyre of the Valley,” an evangelical Salvadoran storefront; the black Pentecostal dive, the Santeria chapel, the cruddy white-trash Assembly of God building with its dirty curtains. Poor people said “God bless you” and crossed themselves and stood on street corners singing loud, bad hymns; they bought their little girls frothy first communion dresses; they buried their dead gangbanger brothers with incense and Scripture.

Nationally, middle-class Christians — even though many seemed to enjoy portraying themselves as a picked-on, oppressed minority, ceaselessly battling secular humanist regimes — weren’t exactly an endangered species either. People who called themselves Christians comprised 85 percent of the population. Christian rock music alone was a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise; there were more than 150 million Christian websites, and there had never been a non-Christian United States president.

But my own friends weren’t poor urban believers or smug God-talking suburbanites. My friends, at the most, read about Buddhism or practiced yoga. They tended to be cynical, hilarious, and overeducated, with years of therapy and contemporary literature behind them, and I was afraid to mention that I was slipping off to church and singing about Jesus on Sundays instead of sleeping late, cooking brunch, and reading the New York Times Book Review as I’d been raised to do. I couldn’t tell them about communion, or that I had started to read the Bible I’d bought, furtively, at a used-book store. It would be years before I’d meet Paul Fromberg — a funny, profane priest who would become my closest friend. He believed that “the craziest thing about Jesus is that church life never gets in the way of feeling close to him” and would teach me about the ironies of religion. At the time, though, I had no idea that I could be pals with anyone who described himself, unabashedly, as both “a big fag” and “Jesus’s man.”

My social circle was shocked when I first shyly broached the subject of church. An activist lawyer I knew sputtered. “Are you kidding?” he said. He launched a litany of complaints about the church that I’d come to hear over and over: It was the most reactionary force in the world, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic … the Vatican … the Crusades … Jerry Falwell … child-molesting priests … Ralph Reed … I’d hated, during the 1980s, being expected to defend left movements or revolutionary parties, even when they were screwed up. I had no interest in defending another more fabulously corrupt institution. “It’s not about the church,” I said. “It’s about — ”

“Good deeds?” the lawyer asked incredulously. My desire for religion just didn’t make sense to him. He worked harder than anyone I’d ever met, spending fourteen hours a day defending Haitian refugees and Muslim political detainees and the victims of war and empire. He’d listened to prisoners at Guantánamo sob as they described Christian jailers destroying the Koran; he had represented a Nicaraguan woman raped by evangelical soldiers who sang hymns as they took turns with her on a dirt floor. Whatever faith drove him forward in his vocation, it had nothing to do with the Almighty God so readily invoked at prayer breakfasts in Washington.

But the Christianity that called to me, through the stories I read in the Bible, scattered the proud and rebuked the powerful. It was a religion in which divinity was revealed by scars on flesh. It was an upside-down world in which treasure, as the prophet said, was found in darkness; in which the hungry were filled with good things, and the rich sent out empty; in which new life was manifested through a humiliated, hungry woman and an empty, tortured man.

It was a picture that my friend Jose Suarez, who’d left his Cuban Baptist family in Texas to become a psychiatrist, had also glimpsed — but only briefly. Devout as a child, saved as a teenager at a Billy Graham rally, Jose made it through a year at a conservative Christian college before he began to feel “betrayed” by the inauthenticity of religion. “I’d go to services,” he said, “and it was all very social, unexamined, class-bound. I mean, didn’t they read the words of Jesus?”

But the hypocrisy and insincerity of church, what had driven my own parents away, was only part of it. “I was actively listening,” Jose said. “I really wanted to hear God. Ping — nothing. Ping — nothing. I couldn’t find it. I’d drive out this highway into the country at night, lie back on the hood of my car and look at the stars, and have these arguments with God. It was like: Say something, show me, give me a sign, some sort of experience. I’d watch the stars move across the sky, but I couldn’t find it inside. The container didn’t contain anymore.”

And so Jose had been wary, though curious, when I told him I was going to church: I was the first friend he’d had since high school who was anything close to a believer. It was in talking with him that I was able to articulate, for the first time, something about what prayer meant to me: what I was searching for, beyond the psychological, with all my questions about faith.

Jose and I met for lunch at a small cafe with outdoor tables one afternoon, when he was in the middle of an excruciating breakup. We sat on the patio and talked, picking at some complicated California sourdough-and-vegetable sandwiches while the fog came in.

Jose was in analysis then, and seeing a dozen patients, and serving as the medical director at a community mental health clinic, and writing scholarly papers on Freud, and doing energetic yoga for hours every morning, and generally overachieving, but he couldn’t fill every minute, and whenever he paused, the heartbreak would pour in. “Maybe I should go sit at the Zen center again,” Jose said. He was a small, handsome man with wiry hair and little glasses and perfect posture. His eyes were wet. “I’m not sleeping so well anyway; I might as well get up at five, what the hell.”

We finished lunch, and I took Jose’s hand. “Jose,” I said, “you should pray.”

As soon as I said it, I felt like an idiot — worse, like a proselytizing busybody who knows, without ambiguity, what’s right for everyone else. Jose looked genuinely surprised. Then he put on his analyst face. “Hmm,” he said. “What do you mean?”

What did I mean by prayer? I didn’t mean asking an omnipotent being to do favors; the idea of “answered prayers” was untenable for me, since millions of people prayed fervently for things they never received. I didn’t mean reciting a formula: I loved the language of some of the old prayers that were chanted at St. Gregory’s, but I didn’t think the words had magical power to change things. I didn’t mean kneeling and looking pious, or trying to make a deal with God, or even praying “for” something. What was I telling him?

“Um, well,” I said. I was embarrassed. Then I looked at Jose again, and the word tender filled my mind — tender as in sore to the touch and compassionate, at the same time. After my father had died, Jose had listened to me cry with the deepest empathy and patience, not trying to “comfort” me but just being present. As tenderly as I could, I said to him, “I really don’t know. I don’t know what I believe or who I’m talking to. Sometimes I just try to stay open, sort of. Especially when it hurts. And I try to — I know this is corny — but I try to summon up thankfulness.”

“When you told me to pray,” Jose would remember later, “it was incredibly earnest. You said prayer was like having this intense, profound longing that you just had to be with. That you put the longing in the hands of God, in a certain way. That it was important to be receptive to the unfulfilled, and not fill it or deny it.”

I had to be receptive or go crazy — because even as I kept going to church, the questions raised by the experience only multiplied. Conversion was turning out to be quite far from the greeting-card moment promised by televangelists, when Jesus steps into your life, personally saves you, and becomes your lucky charm forever. Instead, it was socially and politically awkward, as well as profoundly confusing. I wasn’t struck with any sudden conviction that I now understood the “truth.” If anything, I was just crabbier, lonelier, and more destabilized.

All that grounded me were those pieces of bread. I was feeling my way toward a theology, beginning with what I had taken in my mouth and working out from there. I couldn’t start by conceptualizing God as an abstract “Trinity” or trying to “prove” a divine existence philosophically. It was the materiality of Christianity that fascinated me, the compelling story of incarnation in its grungiest details, the promise that words and flesh were deeply, deeply connected. I reflected, for example, about [my daughter] Katie, and about what it was like to be both a mother and a mother’s child. The entire process of human reproduction was, if I considered it for a minute, about as “intolerable” as the apostles said communion was. It sounded just as weird as the claim that God was in a piece of bread you could eat. And yet it was true.

I grew inside my mother, the way Katie grew inside me. I came out of her and ate her, just as Katie ate my body, literally, to live. I became my mother in ways that still felt, sometimes, as elemental and violent as the moment when I’d been pushed out from between her legs in a great rush of blood. And it was the same with my father: He had helped make me, in ways that were wildly mysterious and absolutely powerful. Like Jesus, he had gone inside somebody else’s body and then become a part of me. The shape of my hands, the way I cleared my throat, the color of my eyes: My parents lived in me — body and soul, DNA and spirit. That was like the bread becoming God becoming me, in ways seen and unseen.

I tried to remember my own passionate spiritual feelings as a child, when I had no religion and no language to understand them. There had been one early spring afternoon, raw and chilly, when I lay by myself in the muddy backyard in my snowsuit examining a fallen log, looking and looking and looking. There were patches of snow on the wet wood and, around it, spears of onion grass just beginning to poke up, and I sat up after half an hour contemplating the log. The cloudy sky above me was so huge, and I was so small. The phrase “the whole universe” occurred to me. I must have been in third grade, and no amount of papier-mâché solar system models had prepared me for the vast, heart-beating calm I felt, or for the inarticulate desire to just stay there, suspended, looking and breathing my tiny puffs of the whole universe’s air, until I had to pee and went inside, shedding my wet mittens.

I remembered how I used to pray — there really was no other word for it — when I was six or seven. I’d been reaching for something solemn, obligatory, ritual: wanting God and not even knowing what that was. In an upstairs bedroom in my parents’ home, I’d once been taught, by a girl who went to Catholic school, the vaguely sexual language of the Hail Mary. It remained a mysterious, private poem to recite, the way I recited, as I walked home from school, lines from other poems: “The breaking waves dashed high / On a stern and rock-bound coast.” But I had no framework to understand it as prayer, linked to the same longing I’d feel alone, at night, when I looked at the ceiling and made up words.

What would religious instruction have done for me then? What would have sustained me more as a child than my own atheist parents’ love, my father’s soft voice at bedtime as he invented stories for me, my mother’s hand on my back? What would have fed me more than cooking and eating with them, or given me more courage?

Food was a lot of what had grounded me before, shaping my family, my work, my relationships. It had meant a five-gallon plastic bucket full of broken eggs. It had meant a generously offered bowl of rice porridge in the jungle. It had meant the thin blue milk leaking from my own breasts. Now food, in the form of communion, was collecting all of those experiences in one place and adding a new layer of meaning — not on my time but on God’s.

The child I was, protected from religion by her parents, at some point had become the woman crying at the communion table. Those tears weren’t a conclusion, or a happy ending, just part of a motion toward something. It was still continuing. God didn’t work in people according to a convenient schedule, by explaining everything or tying up the loose plot lines of every story. Sometimes nothing was settled.

So I sat by myself a lot and mused about God, and my mother, and flesh and blood. I read the Bible. I prayed; I tried to stay open to the questions that flooded me. I didn’t tell anyone I was becoming a religious nut.

Excerpted from “Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion” by Sara Miles. Copyright © 2007 by Sara Miles. Reprinted by arrangement with the Random House Publishing Group.

The Foreigner, the Eunuch, and My Neighbor

February 20, 2007

So just why is it that it’s okay for Christians to discriminate against LGBT people? And not just to discriminate, but to actually HATE us??? I’m particularly thinking this morning about what’s going on the the Episcopalian “communion” right now, but it’s a far broader question, of course. It has to do with the exclusion of anyone. If God includes–and it is clear to me that God does include, and that scriptural examples of exclusion are demonstrations of human failings–then who are we to decide to exclude?

Why is it okay for anyone to say that they’re better than anyone else?

At the small Presbyterian church to which I belong, we have tried very hard to make it clear that everyone–EVERYONE–is welcome to be a full participant in any and all parts of the community. We have ordained and installed several LGBT elders; we have had charges filed against us for doing so, and have prevailed. It would be easy to be smug and comfortable, but God brought us a “test case” so that we could learn more about being an inclusive community. This came in the person of a woman who is marginal in all kinds of ways. She is formerly homeless, now living with her non-Christian daughter in an uncomfortable compromise. She has severe mental and physical health problems, and is on welfare. She attends another church in addition to ours, but the people there are “mean” to her–and they won’t touch her… So we all hug her during the Passing of the Peace, and we pray with her when she’s there (and for her when she isn’t). This woman’s faith is strong and obvious, and she has been a blessing to us. More than that, she is one of us. Thanks be to God!

I had read this Bible study article by Ched Myers before, but I remembered it again this morning, thinking about the pain that is being caused to the LGBT “outsiders” who are part of God’s family in the Episcopalian community.

* * * * * * * * *

A House for ALL Peoples?
A Bible study on welcoming the outsider.

THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN TWO AMERICAS: that of rich and poor, of inclusion and exclusion. The America of inclusion found expression in the ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” and has been embodied whenever Indian treaties were honored, and in the embrace of civil rights, women’s suffrage, or child labor laws. The America of exclusion, on the other hand, was articulated in a Constitution that originally enfranchised only white landed males and has been realized in land grabs, Jim Crow segregation, Gilded Age economic stratification, and restrictive housing covenants.

These two visions of America continually compete for our hearts and minds, not least in our churches. On one side are the voices of Emma Lazarus in her poem “The New Colossus” (“Give me your tired, your poor…”), and Martin Luther King Jr. when he preached “I Have a Dream.” On the other side are those of George W. Bush’s imperial politics and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.”

Perhaps the most consistent battleground between the two Americas, from inception to the present, has concerned immigration. Where our churches locate themselves on this political and theological terrain is profoundly consequential.

All social groups establish boundaries–whether physical impediments, such as fences or borders, or symbolic and cultural lines, such as language or dietary laws. Such boundaries can be a good thing, especially when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. More often, however, boundaries function in the opposite manner: to shore up the privileges of the strong against the needs of the weak. It is this latter kind of boundary that characterizes the current U.S. immigration debate and that the Bible consistently challenges.

Torah warns the people not to discriminate against economic or political refugees, since in God’s eyes even Israelites are “but aliens and tenants” in the land (Leviticus 25:23). Instead they are to stand in solidarity with the “sojourners in our midst” (Deuteronomy 24:14). This is later reiterated in the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I want to go beyond these well-known exhortations, however, and examine one text from each Testament that together make a powerful case that the very health of our body politic depends upon our embrace of “outsiders.”

ISAIAH 56:1-8 is the opening stanza of the prophetic oracle sometimes referred to as “Third Isaiah.” The parts of the book of Isaiah known as second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) and Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) represent the work of prophetic successors to the great eighth century prophet himself: the former during the exile to Babylon, the latter during the “reconstruction” period following the return. These writings arose out of prophetic “schools” (see for example 2 Kings 4:38), in which disciples recontextualized the word and work of their teachers in another historical moment. This is, of course, what all preachers do every time we try to proclaim the Word in the midst of a given social situation.

Isaiah 56:1-8 is his “invocation,” setting a tone of radical inclusion, envisioning a time when people from all over the world, including ethnic outsiders and other minorities, will be welcomed as full members into God’s house. The prophet reiterates this theme at the close of his oracle as well: “The time has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they shall come and behold my glory” (Isaiah 66:18). This is the “new heaven and new earth” that Yahweh intends to bring about (66:22).

Scholars date Third Isaiah sometime in the first two generations of the exiles’ return from Babylon, between the reconstruction of the temple (circa 515 BCE) and the time of Nehemiah (circa 444 BCE). There were many issues facing those trying to rebuild Israelite society under the imperial rule of Persia. Those who had been exiled to Babylon were the upper classes of Israelite society: priests, managers, the landed aristocracy, scribes, etc. The peasant majority, however–the “people of the land”–had remained behind in Palestine, working the land and scraping out a living, as the poor have always done under any regime. As the elites began to trickle back, they set about trying to re-establish their title to land, social status, and political position.

Clinton Hammock, in a monograph analyzing in detail this social and historical context, argues that these returnees were a mixed bag and included land speculators and carpetbaggers trying to take economic advantage of the new settlements; priests determined to re-establish a cultic center as their power base; ultra-nationalists who saw a chance to rebuild old dreams of sovereignty; and political front men for Israel’s Persian overlords. They all agreed on one thing, however: They would define and lead the reconstruction project.

It is not hard to imagine, then, their conflicts with the existing population over property, politics, and religion, and indeed we hear allusions to this in Nehemiah 4-6. We need only think of the situation of Palestine since 1948, also a struggle between longtime residents on the land being disenfranchised by ideologically motivated and politically and militarily powerful “returnees.”

The strategy of the elites was to purge the “people of the land” by establishing new ethnic purity standards, focusing on shoring up boundaries of marriage and nationality. The Persians were supportive of such measures, as they wanted their colony to be ethnically uniform to better enable their imperial management. Thus Nehemiah forbids future intermarriages (Nehemiah 10), while Ezra goes further, demanding the divorce of foreign wives (Ezra 910). This position was likely legitimated on the basis of Deuteronomy 23:18, which specifically excluded “from the assembly” males who were not sexually functional, the “illegitimately” born and foreigners.

It is not hard to understand why the peasants resisted these attempts to exclude them, and Third Isaiah emerged as their advocate. He argues against the position of Ezra and Nehemiah, taking issue specifically with their view that the nation is best protected through purity codes. Instead, the prophet calls for the community to be preserved through ethical behavior: Whoever keeps the Sabbath covenant is entitled to full inclusion. He underlines the point using two “extreme” examples: eunuchs and foreigners.

The oracle begins with a dramatic exhortation: “This is what God says: ‘Defend justice! Do what is right! Then I will vindicate you!'” (Isaiah 56:1). From the outset the issue is justice, defined in 56:2 as obeying Torah, keeping Sabbath, and turning away from evil. The prophet is invoking Sabbath as the heart of Torah ethos, with its twin social concerns to 1) Constrain greed: Everyone must have enough and the gifts of creation should circulate rather than concentrate (Exodus 16:16-19); and 2) Deconstruct poverty: releasing those who groan under the burden of debt (Deuteronomy 15) and allowing the poor to glean the surplus of the fields (Exodus 23:10-12).

But Third Isaiah goes further, addressing those who are being legally and socially excluded on the basis of purity. We hear the voice of those who have internalized this rejection in terms of their self-worth and social prospects:

Let not the foreigner say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
Let not the eunuch say ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For this is what God says… (Isaiah 56:3).

The excluded throughout history know all too well the self-hatred that comes with second-class citizenship: black children trying to scrub their skin white, immigrants changing their names, women keeping silent, gays and lesbians staving deep in a destructive closet–all to avoid the contempt of a society that barely tolerates them. But God, writes Third Isaiah, says differently; one commentator portrays the prophet’s rhetoric here as implying a new legal ruling on case law.

The eunuch who keeps the Sabbath covenant will receive “in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off’ (56:5 is a play on the Hebrew word for eunuch, which comes from a root meaning to castrate). The prophet knew very well that eunuchs were, according to Levitical strictures, supposed to be “cut off from benefits of cult and family life, which would mean their names would also be lost to posterity, an ancient way of rendering someone socially invisible.

Instead, God promises an honored place in the “house,” something better than pride of genealogy or title to land. This is symbolized by a special “monument” and an “everlasting name.” (Playfully, the Hebrew word rendered as “monument” is yd, which can also be a euphemism for “penis.”) This is a poignant word to the current debate over exclusion of lesbian and gay people from full status in church and society.

The only people below eunuchs in the social hierarchy were foreigners–and this is exactly who the prophet next addresses. If foreigners follow God and observe the Sabbath covenant, “I will bring them to my holy mountain, and their sacrifices will be acceptable. Because my house will be known as a place where all nations pray” (Isaiah 56:7). This is Third Isaiah’s answer to Ezra and Nehemiah’s culture war on those who didn’t fit the national ideal.

In his view, the Jerusalem temple was meant to be a world house, not a national shrine (as every other temple in antiquity was). Yahweh welcomes whosoever desires to follow the Way, regardless of who they are in their somatic or ethnic identity. Third Isaiah’s perspective did not, however, prevail against the ethnocentric strategy of Ezra and Nehemiah. Indeed, many of those kicked out of the newly proscribed Judean body politic ended up as the despised “Samaritans” of Jesus’ day. But God’s Word did not prove fruitless.

MORE THAN FOUR centuries later, a young Jesus of Nazareth, preaching his first sermon, looked hard at his audience and proceeded to read from the heart of Third Isaiah’s oracle (Luke 4:18 parallels Isaiah 61:1). Jesus may have staked his entire ministry on a reappropriation of this prophetic tradition. He invokes it again at the culmination of his struggle with the public authorities in Jerusalem: In the midst of his dramatic “exorcism” of the temple, Jesus quotes directly from our text: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Luke 19:46 parallels Isaiah 56:7). It was this vision of radical inclusion that animated Jesus’ constant transgressions of the social boundaries of his day: eating with lepers, hanging out with women, touching the impure, teaching the excluded. More than anything else, it may have been what got him strung up.

Jesus most clearly addressed this issue in an oft-overlooked parable found in Mark’s gospel. “There is nothing which goes into you that can defile you; only that which comes out of you defiles you” (Mark 7:15). This teaching is another prophetic skirmish with the social function of the purity code. Mark’s Jesus is defending his disciples’ practice of sharing table fellowship with the “unclean” outsider (Mark 7:1-5) by insisting that “What goes into a person’s body from the outside cannot contaminate it” (7:18). Mark presents this parable as one whose meaning the disciples must not miss (7:17)!

Jesus is proposing the physical body as a symbol of the “body politic of the nation (a metaphor employed also by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12). His point–which echoes exactly Third Isaiah’s argument–is that the social boundaries constructed by an exclusionary purity code are powerless to protect the integrity of the community, which can only truly be “corrupted” from within. In what may be at once his most radical and most widely ignored teaching, Jesus rejects all culturally proprietary boundaries that allegedly protect a community from perceived external threats. Scapegoating or excluding outsiders cannot protect us; we must look to our own ethical behavior. “Only that which comes out of you defiles you” (Mark 7:20).

The episodes that immediately follow in Mark’s narrative underscore the point. Jesus’ own male and ethnic honor is challenged in the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman. In the sole gospel instance of Jesus losing a verbal joust, he concedes the justice of this female foreigner’s insistence upon inclusion (Mark 7:24-30). The expanded circle of enfranchisement is then illustrated by the feeding of Gentile multitudes (Mark 8:1-9). Jesus then warns his disciples to “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Herodians” (8:15), which represents the social and political exclusivity that jeopardizes the “one loaf around which the church is called to gather.

TO BE SURE, issues related to the continuing and often involuntary migration of peoples, and to the geopolitical definition of human communities, are complex in the modern world and deserve our careful reflection and deliberation. But these are finally theological and pastoral issues for Christians, and we must seek to know immigrants and refugees not as statistics but as human beings who endure extraordinary hardship and trauma in their struggle to survive.

And for U.S. citizens, these are issues of national identity. Israel’s ethic of compassion toward outsiders was shaped by its own history of pain: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We, too, are a nation of immigrants. Amidst the current culture wars that marginalize immigrants and refugees, then, our churches must choose which America we embrace. To do that we must “hear and understand” Jesus’ teaching afresh (Mark 7:14), and that of Third Isaiah before him. If we refuse to take sides with today’s outsiders, we too are “without understanding” (Mark 7:18).

Ched Myers worked for many years on immigrant rights issues. He lives and works in Oak View, California, with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (

Copyright Sojourners Apr 2006

Save Iraqi LGBT Lives

February 2, 2007

Save Lives — go to Iraqi LGBT’s website at


U.N. Confirms Iraqi Gay Killings

For the very first time, an official United Nations human rights report released last week has confirmed the “violent campaigns” against Iraqi gays and the “assassinations of homosexuals in Iraq.”

“Attacks on homosexuals and intolerance of homosexual practices have long existed, yet they have escalated in the past year,” says the latest bi-monthly Human Rights Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), released on January 16. “Islamic groups and militias have been known to be particularly hostile towards homosexuals, frequently and openly engaging in violent campaigns against them. There have been a number of assassinations of homosexuals in Iraq,” the report says.

Including a section entitled “Sexual Orientation” for the first time, the 30-page report goes on to say that the UNAMI Human Rights Office “was also alerted to the existence of religious courts, supervised by clerics, where alleged homosexuals would be ‘tried,’ ‘sentenced’ to death, and then executed.”

“The trials, presided over by young, inexperienced clerics, are held… in ordinary halls. Gays and rapists face anything from 40 lashes to the death penalty,” the UNAMI report says, citing a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, adding: “One of the self-appointed judges in Sadr City believes that homosexuality is on the wane in Iraq. ‘Most [gays] have been killed and others have fled,’ he said. Indeed, the number who have sought asylum in the U.K. has risen noticeably over the last few months… [This judge] insists the religious courts have ‘a lot to be proud of. We now represent a society that asked us to protect it not only from thieves and terrorists but also from these [bad] deeds.'”

Among a number of assassinations detailed in the UNAMI report, it says that “at least five homosexual males were reported to have been kidnapped from Shaab area in the first week in December by one of the main militias. Their personal documents and information contained in computers were also confiscated. The mutilated body of Amjad, one of the kidnapped, appeared in the same area after a few days.”

Gay City News first broke the story about the systematic murder of Iraqi gays last March (see this reporter’s article, “Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays-U.S. Indifferent,” March 23-29, 2006). The Badr Corps-the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the country’s most powerful Shiite political group-launched a campaign of “sexual cleansing,” marshaling death squads to exterminate homosexuality, following a “death to gays” fatwa issued in October 2005 by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 77-year-old chief spiritual leader of all Iraqi Shia Muslims, to whom the SCIRI and the Badr Corps owe total allegiance.

Late last year, the Badr Corps-whose members up until then had been paid their salaries by Iran-was integrated into the Iraqi national police under the Ministry of the Interior, and its death squad members now have full police powers and wear police uniforms, which they don to carry out murders of gays.

Death squads of the Mahdi Army, the armed militia under the control of fundamentalist Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, have also carried out assassinations of gays.

The UNAMI report says that, “The current environment of impunity and lawlessness invites a heightened level of insecurity for homosexuals in Iraq.”

One can get a vivid idea of that climate from a conversation this reporter, through a translator, recently had with Hussein, 32, a gay man living with his married brother’s family in Baghdad.

“I’ve been living in a state of fear for the last year since Ayatollah Sistani issued that fatwa, in which he even encouraged families to kill their sons and brothers if they do not change their gay behavior,” he said. “My brother, who has been under pressure and threats from Sistani’s followers about me, has threatened to harm me himself, or even kill me, if I show any signs of gayness.”

Hussein had already lost his job in a photo lab because the shop owner did not want people to think that he was supporting a gay man.

“Now I’m very self-conscious about my look and the way I dress-I try to play it safe,” said Hussein, who is slightly effeminate. “Several times I was followed in the street and beaten just because I had a nice, cool haircut that looked feminine to them. Now I just shave my head.”

Indeed, even the way one dresses is enough to get a gay Iraqi killed.

“Just the fact of looking neat and clean, let alone looking elegant and well groomed, is very dangerous for a gay person,” Hussein said. “So now I don’t wear nice clothes, so that no one would even suspect that I’m gay. I now only leave home if I want to get food.”

One of Hussein’s best friends, Haydar, was not long ago found shot in the back of the head at a deserted ranch outside the city. “Some say he was shot by a family member in an act of honor killing; some say he was shot by those so-called death squads,” Hussein said. “Everyone says it’s easy these days to get away with killing gays, since there is no law and order here.”

All Hussein thinks about is getting out of Iraq.

“Things were bad under Saddam for gays,” he said, “but not as bad as now. Then, no one feared for their lives. Now, you can be gotten rid of at any time.”

The UNAMI report was hailed for its recognition of the plight of Iraqi gays by Ali Hili, a 32-year-old Iraqi gay man in exile in the United Kingdom who is coordinator of the London-based Iraqi LGBT group, which has a network of supporters and informants throughout Iraq who have helped document the sexual cleansing campaigns targeting homosexuals.

Speaking from London, Hili told Gay City News that the UNAMI report helps show how “the new Iraq is denying the right of every homosexual human being to exist and suppressing them ever since the invasion, and it gets worse every day.”

The work of the Iraqi LGBT group was cited in the UNAMI report, which noted that “26 of their members have been killed since 2003. This includes the murders in 2006 of two minors, 11-year-old Ameer and 14-year-old Ahmed, because of their alleged sexual orientation even though both were reportedly forced into child prostitution. Another two young women were murdered in Najaf.”

A request from Gay City News to the U.S. Department of Defense press office in the Pentagon for comment on the UNAMI report went unreturned. In the past, Hili and the Iraqi LGBT group have reported that when gays went to U.S. occupying authorities in Baghdad’s Green Zone requesting protection, they were treated with contempt and derision.

To help support Iraqi gays, or for more information, go to Iraqi LGBT’s Web site at

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at

©GayCityNews 2007

A Bright Gay Future For Marriage

February 2, 2007

A Bright Gay Future For Marriage
E.J. Graff
December 13, 2006

E.J. Graff, Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.

While you were enjoying November’s tilt away from the far right, there’s some more good news you may have missed: The world is steadily warming toward same-sex couples. Just two days ago, the U.K. celebrated the one-year anniversary of its civil partnership law, which legally recognizes same-sex couples. And in November, both Israel and South Africa (a very odd couple indeed) joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain in recognizing marriages between two women or two men. That brings to total number of nations that have done so to six, in as many years, with the Scandinavian countries now jockeying to see which will be next.

South Africa’s move has been predicted for years in part because its post-apartheid constitution includes a clause banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Still, it was thrilling when the South African parliament voted 230 to 41 in favor of the new law. Israel’s situation was different, albeit instructive for those who believe marriage should be left to religions. Because Israel has no civil marriage—religious authorities administer their religions’ marriage and divorce laws—inter-religious or non-religious couples are forced to fly elsewhere to marry, and afterwards to register their marriage with the state. That’s what five lesbian and gay couples did, getting married in Canada—and on November 21, Israel’s top court ruled that those marriages, too, being valid where performed, must be registered and treated as valid in Israel.

But full marriage, with use of the legally powerful but contentious M word, is just the tip of the iceberg. Around the world, almost all the developed countries recognize same-sex couples under some other name. All the Scandinavian countries have “registered partnership” laws, which are marriages without the magic word—and will almost certainly be upgrading to full marriage in the next few years. Other jurisdictions with such laws already on the books include most of Australia, states in Argentina and Brazil, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

But wait, there’s more. To our south, Mexico City just passed a civil unions law; the Mexican state of Coahuila is working on one as well. In September, Uruguay’s senate passed a civil unions bill by 26 to 2; it’s expected to sail through the house. The Colombian senate recently passed a civil unions bill. Ireland, where citizens favor civil unions by between 64 and 80 percent (depending on the poll), has a commission working on its bill.

So why has the U.S. lagged on legal recognition for two women or two men who want to care for each other in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer, until death (or divorce) do them part? For several reasons. First, because we have the largest fundamentalist voting bloc outside the Muslim world. Second, because unlike much of the developed world—and unlike Europe through most of history—we have “either/or” marriage systems, with no intermediate legal recognition for couples who haven’t taken formal vows. Third, and most important, because the U.S. isn’t a single nation at all, in the sense that’s true in, say, Australia or Spain. We’re actually 50 tightly yoked nations, with 50 different sets of marriage laws. Although Massachusetts and Alabama are no more likely to agree on the finer points of marriage law than are Denmark and Poland, American states’ legal fates (and media coverage on social issues) are far more closely bound together.

And yet even here in the U.S., things are looking up. After marrying more than 8,000 same-sex couples, Massachusetts has more or less forgotten about the issue—although some parts of the state are immensely proud of going first, and furious about our outgoing governor’s demagoguery in opposition. (Our new African American governor, Deval Patrick, is a firm marriage supporter. In the state legislature, marriage opponents keep losing their seats to marriage supporters; no marriage supporter has yet been defeated.) Legally, in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New York, Boston marriages are presumed valid and would be upheld if they got to court. And New York’s governor-elect Eliot Spitzer says he favors opening marriage to same-sex pairs—and will work to make that happen.

Once again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Do you remember the national outcry just seven years ago when the Vermont Supreme Court ordered its legislature to come up with full equality for same-sex pairs, and the Green Mountain state invented the term “civil union”? New Jersey’s court did the same this year—and there’s been scarcely a peep about it nationwide. (In theory, the New Jersey legislature could gender-neutralize its marriage laws instead of expanding its civil unions statute, but I’m not holding my breath.) Both Connecticut and California have capacious civil unions laws (California’s is technically called “domestic partnership”), and Oregon will probably pass one this year. Sure, these are blue states—but they are still small nations, governing tens of millions of people.

Take California: with 36 million citizens and counting, it’s more populous than Canada, and famously has the eighth-largest economy in the world. The Golden State’s legislature will probably pass a marriage law again this year, which the Governator might veto yet again—or might not. What’s more surprising: despite California’s enormous conservative infrastructure—including the largest Mormon population outside Utah, a very active evangelical movement (including the parish of Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life ), Orange County and conservative rural and agricultural regions—this year, opponents could not even get enough signatures to put an anti-marriage amendment on the ballot.

Meanwhile, things look good in the purple states as well. Remember those anti-gay constitutional amendments and statutes that you heard so much about a few years ago? Outside evangelical communities, support is fading like a late spring frost. Arizona shot down such a bill this November—the first time voters have done so, and a good sign for the future. Lessons from that campaign are being totted up carefully by LGBT activists and funders. And while seven other states passed anti-marriage constitutional amendments, the margins were much lower than those in 2004. South Dakota’s amendment squeaked by with only 52 percent of the vote, and Colorado’s got only 56—despite the fact that Colorado is home to Focus on the Family’s long-established statewide anti-gay machine. On average, this year’s amendments passed with seven percent less of the vote—an astonishing drop in two years. According to political scientists Patrick Egan and Kenneth Sherrill, who’ve just released a paper comparing support for the 2004 and 2006 amendments, that’s in no small part because support for such amendments is dropping precipitously among non-evangelical voters—a good sign for most of the country (except the former Confederate states).

None of this is happening by itself: Gay and pro-gay progressive funders have been carefully investing in these campaigns (including building an infrastructure for future battles), as well as in taking back state legislatures and congressional seats from the right—which will be especially important in 10 or 15 years, when it’s time to repeal the amendments that have already been passed.

But the biggest news is this: American opinion keeps ticking steadily farther in favor of recognizing same-sex couples, a few points more each year. A November 2006 Fox News poll showed that, among likely voters, the nation was divided into thirds on marriage, civil unions or no recognition at all—30/30/32 (with 7 percent unsure). That’s a real gain since Fox’s March 2004 poll, when the spread was 20/33/40. Other polls show different numbers, but the same movement. And that steady upward tick has been consistent on all LGBT issues over the past 20 years. Trust me, you haven’t seen opinions change this fast on any other social issue in your lifetime. Americans, like others all over the world, are slowly but steadily getting comfortable with their LGBT sisters, uncles, neighbors and coworkers—and becoming more and more willing to have the state recognize their bonds.

So I’m ready to put down $100 on this proposition: Twenty years from today, most (maybe even all) of the United States—like so many of our neighbors to the north, south, east and west—will be celebrating and recognizing same-sex marriages. Anyone ready to pony up?