[From time to time, we invite guest writers to share their thoughts about issues making news in our communities. Today’s guest is Lisa Roling, a licensed clinical social worker, a member of Covenant of the Goddess, and the co-priestess of Inanna’s Well. She lives in the valleys of Eastern Pennsylvania, where she is loving her pregnant wife and spinning yarn. If you enjoy the diversity of opinions and the new voices that come through our guest posts and through our monthly columnists, please support our Fall Fund Drive. You make it possible for us to continue this work. Consider making a donation today.Thank you.]
Thirteen years ago, on September 11, our country shook as we faced the devastation that hate can inflict. Regardless of our religion, race, sexual orientation, or any other socially-recognized division, we stood together as a people; held our loved ones more closely; grieved for our losses; and vowed to stand together in pride. On this September 11, two gay men were savagely beaten on the streets of Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love.”News reports quickly highlighted a similarity shared by each of the 12 people who had confronted the couple, including the three who had physically attacked the men. All were graduates of Archbishop Wood, a local Catholic high school. A coach was also present. However reports differ on what, if any, role he played in the attack. He has since resigned his position, and the school has renounced the actions taken by the mob of former students. Three individuals have been arrested and subsequently released on bail.
The LGBT community is understandably furious, especially since they are now reminded that sexual orientation is not covered by the state’s hate-crime laws. Some members of the LGBT community have found renewed energy and determination in lobbying for the creation of legislation to include sexual orientation and gender expression in the list of protected groups.Several hundred residents of Philadelphia recently gathered in Philadelphia’s Love Park to show their support for the severely beaten couple and to speak out for the protection of the LGBT community by the Commonwealth’s hate crime laws.Others have directed their anger and outrage into the public shaming of the assailants. On the Internet, there has been a particular interest in the female defendant, who has been widely criticized as being a promiscuous, binge-drinking homophobe. There is also no shortage of hate speech pointed in the general direction of the Catholic Church. It is understandable how easy it could be to look to the Church considering its stance on homosexuality.
But are the acts of a small group of people a reflection on the teachings of the Catholic Church?
Soon after it was learned that individuals involved were graduates of the Catholic high school, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia released a statement in response, stating:
…Catholic schools are centers of learning where students are expected to treat each other in a Christ-like manner at all times and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. The actions of those who took part in the attack are reprehensible and entirely unacceptable. They are not an accurate reflection of our Catholic values…
Many people have rolled their eyes at this statement and, with heavy sarcasm, laughed it away. Notwithstanding the new voice of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has had a long history of speaking out against gay marriage and teaching that homosexuality is “sinful.” The general stance on the subject has not wavered. However the Church has attempted to repackage it to fit the current cultural context by saying, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
The assumption in this statement is that homosexuality is simply a behavior, just like wearing clothing of mixed fibers, burning bulls to please the Lord, and eating shellfish. While Catholicism does not rail against eating shellfish in this day and age, they have maintained their stance on homosexuality. Clearly this institutional belief and teaching does not endorse violence. Howevever, it does reinforce that LGBT individuals are different and, therefore, not deserving of the respect and dignity of which the Archdiocese speaks.
The Catholic Church, however, does not have the corner market on the intolerance of “difference.” Generally speaking, we humans, do not like people who are different. Regardless of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, we innately distrust anyone who is different from ourselves. Learning to look past differences, see similarities, and ultimately accept people for everything that they are is a learned behavior. Our biology is such that we are easily convinced to distance ourselves from people who are different from us. If this distrust is a natural human instinct, can we hold a religion accountable for violent and reprehensible actions conducted by an individual member of that religion?
There are certainly many Christians who distance themselves from the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church and Muslims who distance themselves from the ISIL. There have also been countless times that individuals have committed cruel and unforgivable acts, stating that it was part of their Pagan identity. In such cases, members of the Pagan community, have responded by denouncing the person and the act: “This is not a value of our religion!” or “This person isn’t really a Witch!” But the truth is that every religious group, every racial and ethnic group, every conceivable “type” of person we can lump people together as a group, will contain individuals of whom we are not proud; people we want to distance ourselves from because they are clearly not like “us.”
Portraying the entire religious group in that manner, however, is often inaccurate. Rob Schreiwer is a resident of Philadelphia, the manager of Heathens Against Hate, a Chaplain of In-Reach Heathen Prison Service, President of Distelfink Sippschaft, Assistant Steer of The Troth, and organizer of the Delaware Valley Pagan Network. He says:
I want to be careful not to pin the actions of a few adherents of another religion on the religion itself… We Heathens, in particular, know what it is like to be tarred by the brush of vile actions perpetrated by others in the name of our religion, so we must be extra vigilant not to engage in a rush to judgment ourselves.
While the Catholic Church does have a institutional violent streak in its past, the individuals that acted in this particular case appear to be just that: individuals. They did not say they were acting on behalf of their religion. According to media reports, they were simply acting on their own accord; only on behalf of their own intolerant and volatile nature. Unfortunately, as Schreiwer notes, “Such forces are destructive, not only to their victims, but also to entire communities and even to the perpetrators.”
How do religious communities heal from situations like this? How does the LGBT community heal and move forward? Certainly not by ostracizing and shaming the assailants. For as much as our self-righteous indignation enjoys that in the moment, many members of Pagan and Heathen communities know the pain and suffering that come from being on the receiving end of that very same indignation. Schreiwer says that the Heathen community has responded to such actions by taking a more proactive stance. They are “helping to educate at-risk Heathen populations as well as institutional administrators and the general public about what Heathenry is and what Heathenry is not.” He adds, “While there must always be freedom of consciousness and thought, each community has a right and a need to stand against the devolution of our society and the disintegration of law and order.”