Faith & Spirituality

Category Archives: Faith & Spirituality

Faith, spirituality and religious philosophy or theology.

Faith & Spirituality

London Bridge is Falling but its people rise in love not hate

London Bridge is NOT Falling!

It’s a beautiful day outside but it was an ugly night. The terrorist incident overnight in London brought out the best in the many and the worst from a few. Three perpetrators are now shot dead. Seven innocents (at this time) are counted among the dead and nearly 50 in hospital, several critical including a number of police officers. Whilst “London Bridge is Falling” may have trended on ISIS channels, #HopeNotHate, #LondonIsOpen and #SofaForLondon did here.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Hope and Hospitality

Most of London resorted to opening their homes in response, a taxi driver tried to run down one of the attackers, a policeman lies in hospital injured during the 8-minute long initial and immediate response to prevent further carnage. The London Mayor Sadiq Khan, and several politicians called for “normality” and not changing our way of life.

Khan is emblematic of London’s diversity, its first ethnic minority and Muslim Mayor. I lived in central London for 7 years and it’s a place of community and cohesion despite its differences. The Blitz spirit lives on 77 years later, though the Londoners who embody it are more diverse but no less united against attacks on their open city.

Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary said we need to:

“defend the essence of London as a multicultural and multiracial city.”

It’s a spirit, well – a beverage, that saw some hurling pint glasses at their attackers and others fleeing the scene pint in hand! Others fighting back including a Spaniard with a skateboard and a Romanian man with a crate.

Immigration and Integration

The political campaign and election on 8 June must go ahead, as democracy is part of our culture that needs defending. Needless to say, some will be calling for clampdowns on immigration, increased surveillance and security, and Muslim bans, like Donald Trump has. What we need is not necessarily less immigration, but more integration, more community, less conflict. I live in Norwich, a city whose response to hate is community and cooperation. Our security should be intelligence-led, not driven by fear.

More Love, less Hate

Back in 2012, Norway suffered an extremist attack on its young people. No, not an Islamist terrorist, but a far right xenophobe, Anders Breivik. There are many kinds of terrorist – but the response to them all should be along the lines of their Prime Minister:

“Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity…We will answer hatred with love.” – Jens Stoltenberg

Hate and Islamophobia

Whilst messages of hate and hope circulated on social media, Katie Hopkins called for the incarceration of “the lot of them”, deportation, and even blamed the attacks in mock humour on food deprivation during Ramadan fasting. Who are this “lot”? All Muslims? When the IRA used to bomb London we didn’t round up all the Irish!

That’s the language of Donald Trump’s white and right Christian America, who nonetheless just returned from visiting Saudi Arabia and like the UK exchanging arms contracts worth billions.

Faith and Ideology

Friday, I was invited to a Shabbat meal at which another ideology’s desire to kill a people of an alternate belief was discussed, today many will go to church and pray. Yesterday evening Sikh Gurdwaras opened to people in need during the terror attack, as did many Londoners. Faith or no faith, nationalism or internationalism, it’s the actions and adherents of extremist ideologies, the interpretations and “twistings” of beliefs that lead a few to latch hold of isolated texts as justification to kill and maim. Those texts only excuse fighting if “oppressed” or denied freedom of expression of Islam – take away the oppression and the justification of military jihad is gone.

“if anyone saves a life it should be regarded as though he had saved the lives of all mankind.” – Quran 5:32 (but see interesting context and alternate interpretations and its Jewish origins here)

The fact that last night’s terrorists wore fake suicide bomb vests makes me think these were “inspired by” ISIS rather than orchestrated by.

The issue remains that they recruit, radicalise, foment extremism. They are able to celebrate terror on social media with virtual impunity. Free speech should never include hate speech and incitement to violence and terrorism. But even if we stop that, terror preaching behind closed doors wouldn’t stop. The funding of terror needs to stop too.

“Muslims everywhere are outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons. That this should happen in this month of Ramadan, when many Muslims were praying and fasting only goes to show that these people respect neither life nor faith.” – Muslim Council of Britain

Practising Muslims in Britain and the Muslim Council of Britain condemn these attacks each time, so we can be clear this is not Islam attacking the West. 

“There will always be particular groups which take views that are different from the mainstream but what is clear over the weekend is the extraordinary level of condemnation by every significant Muslim leader we know and every significant Muslim body we know.” Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Kabul should be indicative of that too, with 100 killed in the last few days there during Ramadan and a funeral, Muslims are the majority victims of extremist Islamist terror. They are waging war within Islam more than they are waging war outside of it. The violence is as much sectarian and territorial as it done “in the name of Allah”, a claim opposed by the majority of other Muslims. 

“Kabul has just suffered one of the bloodiest weeks in years, leaving its streets devoid of life and its residents gripped by fear – and feeling unprotected.” – Al Jazeera

Historically, Christians killed Christians in the name of interpretative differences, empire and territorial gain. They also targeted Muslims in the past and as recently as Bosnia. The story is repeated across most religions and ideologies. Settling differences by destruction not constructive dialogue.

True Muslims, yesterday, were praying and fasting not killing and maiming. They were celebrating Ummah – the “community” of its faith, not the extremism of its terrorist false prophets who seek to divide and destroy by preying on the vulnerable with the promise of heavenly gain after earthly jihadist carnage. 

“Yes, there are evil Muslims who have carried out acts of terror, which are totally un-Islamic. The sooner we stop giving any credence to these evil people by attaching the label of the religion to their evil the better it will be for us, because by giving them that label we are giving them a platform that they seek to legitimise their evil ways.” – MCB

Practice peace, preach peace, encourage love not hate. Engage and educate!

Discriminate too – YES, yes discriminate between terrorists and people of faith, don’t tarnish all people with the same brush. Hate against Muslims rose five-fold after Manchester. Let it not deteriorate further.

Origins of Terrorism

The reasons people become terrorists are complex and though they include taking a cut and paste approach to the out of context and out of time scriptures of a religion, they also include revenge for bombings on family members by Western interventions in the Middle East.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. – The Bible, John 8:7

It is undeniable that Saudi Arabia, Iran and others have contributed to the rise of extremist ‘Islamist in name’ terrorism, but also that the USA encouraged Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the past, then invaded Iraq, Afghanistan etc; the West including Britain bombed Libya and Syria – the primary recruiting grounds of recent terror attacks.

Using military might to crush terrorism by creating more collateral damage victims only recruits more terrorists who’ve lost a brother, mother, daughter in a less-than-precision bombing raid.

A better way?

I don’t have answers, but what is clear is that returning hate for hate and bomb for bomb is not working. It is only perpetuating and escalating.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Einstein

You don’t solve an issue or many conflicts in any permanent way using the same weapons with which they are being waged. There is no lowest common denominator to which we must sink, it’s not a race to the bottom and basest instincts of people. We need a higher level of consciousness and rising above with which to end the recruitment to humanity as its most hopeless when it seeks to take the lives of others in the name of any ideology of hatred. 

 

 

Faith & Spirituality

Britain’s first openly gay Rabbi Lionel Blue hitchhikes to heaven

Rabbi Lionel Blue, 1930-2016

2016 is racing to lay claim to as many great names as possible, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died yesterday, had a great 99-year 9-marriage innings, and Rabbi Lionel Blue at 86 has just downed his pen and mic. He fell in love with Judaism, Marxism and even Christianity, but will be remembered for his love of life and for being the first British rabbi to admit to his love of men. The grandson of Jewish Russian immigrants he grew up in the East End of London during the racism and hatred of Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler.

Lionel Blue, Hitchhiking to Heaven (on Amazon)
Lionel Blue, Hitchhiking to Heaven (on Amazon)

One of his several autobiographical books was titled “Hitchhiking to Heaven” and with grace and good humour he’s finally arrived there, if and wherever that is. A question he himself asked having explored doubt and faiths extensively in life. Another book of his was entitled “My Affair with Christianity“. It was not his only flirtation with other beliefs and ideologies, and his home testified to many stops along the journey in Hinduism, Islam and more.

“I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.”

Judaism and Homosexuality

When he came out as gay, people were more interested in the affairs of his heart, not his soul. He’d been open about his homosexuality since the late 1960s and many knew about his private life through the 1970s, but it was in 1980 that he officially confirmed it, so becoming the UK’s first openly gay rabbi. He did so partly out of shame at not having supported a troubled gay contact of the manager of the sauna he frequented, nor having attended her funeral, for fear of a spilling over between his spiritual and sexual, sacred and secular, separated lives.

Of Judaism’s attitude to homosexuality, Rabbi Blue said in a 2004 interview:

”Well, the Orthodox Jewish tradition used to regard homosexuality as a terrible sin, but now it’s looked on as a sickness. Progressive Jews, though, accept it as a reality in varying degrees and most try to find a blessing ceremony for couples which is inclusive.”

So, has he never been threatened with excommunication? ”No. But for 15 years I ran the religious court for the Synagogues of Great Britain which meant that I would have to be part of any excommunication machinery, and I’ve never been so masochistic as to excommunicate myself.” – Sunday Herald, 2004

As a student at Oxford, his hidden homosexuality had led to loneliness, depression, and a suicide attempt. Possible refuge in Christianity had led to his mother threatening to do the same!

“‘Lionel, you’re doing this to spite us. I’ll kill myself and your father will kill himself too.’ I realised that I wasn’t quite up for murdering my mother and father, so I backed out.” – Independent

Later, he’d visited Amsterdam and found sexual freedom there, but it was his third faithful relationship with Jim, a former undertaker, that became his longest lasting of over 30 years until his death in 2014.

He combined the sacred and the secular, with a pan-spiritual, homosexually inclusive, here-and-now society, syncretic faith that in a way, he once said, was his own made up religion. Indeed, he irreverently addressed his God or guardian angel as “Fred”

Thought for the Day

Described by Radio 4’s presenters and book reviewers alike as “engagingly meandering”, Blue was down to earth in his search for heaven and happiness. On the introduction of same-sex marriage debate in 2012 the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, described it as “grotesque” and immoral on Radio 4, even akin to slavery. Rabbi Blue had the ‘Thought for the Day’ slot not long after and used it to poke gentle fun at heterosexual marriage as “mixed marriage”! On Twitter, he was regarded as having disarmed the Cardinal’s comments and having countered “bigotry with a gentle dignity that you just can’t beat”.

On another ‘Thought for the Day’ he spoke to students about success and failure, stress and faith:

“I remember asking a God I didn’t quite believe in to turn my failure into goodness. To my surprise my worldly failure opened a spiritual door in me. It’s when you lose your footing in life and your false pride goes down the drain that you learn mercy and compassion and what it’s like at the wrong end of the stick. My advice to my students and you dear listeners is Make friends with your failures – they may be the best teachers you’ve got.”

“I had the mother of breakdowns in my second year. Being gay was criminal so I rejected my body, and as a Marxist I no longer believed in my soul. So my mind had to bear life’s burden alone and it cracked. I even toyed with religion, asking a friendly prior what I needed to become a monk and forsake the world. A low sex drive he said frankly and another fantasy hit the dust.” – BBC Radio 4, Thought for the Day, 6 June 2011 

Fears for the Future

Despite growing up in the 1930s and witnessing anti-Semitism, he remained hopeful, and yet “frightened”, of what he saw as recent echoes of those times now.

“I see the same signs that accompanied the end of the Weimar republic and the rise of the dictators. Currencies in trouble. Swastikas at football matches. Massacre at Srebrenica. The search for scapegoats, the rise of media demagoguery. Loving ourselves but not our neighbours as ourselves. The endemic problems of European tribalism, economic and spiritual. Heaven and hell are very close, and the devil is in the detail.” – BBC Radio 4, ‘Thought for the Day’, 10 June 2012

He finished that particular ‘Thought for the Day’ with a joke and a “foody spiritual note” with a misquoted saying from Lao Tzu:

“Govern a state as you would make an omelette, with care.” 

The Chinese Taoist philosopher actually referenced a “small fish“, but the point is well made, and perhaps enhanced by Blue’s updated version.

Humour and Scripture

Having once taught classes on humour in the Hebrew Bible I know full well how much satire, sarcasm, innuendo, and punning, there is in Jewish scripture. Blue saw humour as a way to counter economic and personal depression. In a 2010 interview he told the Jewish Chronicle:

“Humour is the unofficial scripture of Jewish life. It takes away the anger and bitterness and replaces it with kindness and charity. That was the scripture my audience could accept”

He joked about death as brushes with mortality, and he had a fair number of those from suicide, to two cancers, and a couple of heart attacks. He described himself in old age as “crumbling nicely”.

“God comes closest to me in the comedy and tragedy of human life.” – Independent

He will be best remembered for his gentle honesty and genial humour.

Faith & Spirituality

Norwich LGBT & Allies Stand with Orlando Vigil against Hate & Homophobia

Orlando Shooting, LGBT Vigil in Norwich

Norwich Stands with Orlando, Vigil Against Hate, 13 June 2016
Norwich Stands with Orlando, Vigil Against Hate, 13 June 2016

Monday evening, just as the heavy rains stopped, 200 people – LGBT and allies, gathered on the steps of Norwich City Hall, to stand with the 100 fallen, killed or maimed in a hail of hate and bullets at Pulse, Orlando. The Vigil against hate was organised by Norwich Pride and featured speakers: Katy Jon Went, Julie Inns for Norfolk Police and the Chair of Norwich Pride, Andy Futter.

Norwich again shows its support for diversity and freedom of expression, as it did with its Charlie Hebdo vigil, demonstrations against the EDL and many more political but peaceful assemblies.  The Norwich vigil was marked by a minute’s silence and the lighting of candles on the steps of City Hall. [See below for the texts of the speeches or photos of the event]

Norwich City Hall, Orlando LGBT Vigil
Norwich City Hall, Orlando LGBT Vigil against Hate [see more photos of the event]

LGBT Communities unite against Hate

Vigils were also held in Brighton, Cambridge, Glasgow, Leicester, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, and around the world. Cities turned their landmarks rainbow in the same way that after the Bataclan massacre many lit their monuments and city halls in the colours of the French tricolour flag.

Orlando shooting Rainbow lit Eiffel Tower Paris
Rainbow-lit Eiffel Tower in Paris by Felicianne Soukéïna

Norfolk local and LGBT poet laureate, Trudy Howson, at the Soho event, told Sky News:

“It is very important to show solidarity … we’re all part of the same community and it’s very important that we show love and solidarity. We’ve all been victims at some point of homophobia – we need to stand up to hate and evil and fight for respect.”

Laurie Penny wrote about the Soho gathering and the condemnation of queer Muslims, by some, that they shouldn’t exist, and of those who refused to kneejerk blame radical Islam as apologists with blood on their hands:

One woman held up a sign that said Every Life Matters: “Queer, Black, Muslim, Latino.” Next to me in the crowd a white man in his forties held a sign that said “I’m Gay And Religious – Get Over It.” Squeezed in beside him was a young man in a taqiyah, standing with a girl. “My friend is Muslim,” said the girl.

The London event took place outside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, Soho, where three people were killed and many injured in a nail bomb attack in 1999, just showing that homophobic terrorism need not be of religious origin. The perpetrator, David Copeland, was a far right BNP neo-Nazi extremist who targeted diverse communities in Black, Bangladeshi and gay areas of London in three bomb attacks. He was known to have mental health conditions including paranoid schizophrenia but insufficient, perhaps due to the public outcry, to warrant diminished responsibility as a defence plea.

Lighting candles at Norwich City Hall, Orlando LGBT Vigil
Lighting candles at Norwich City Hall, Orlando LGBT Vigil [see more photos of the event]

Orlando Massacre explanations aplenty

As family, media, and commentators explore the reasons for Omar Mateen‘s mass killing spree, families and lovers mourn their dead, who no amount of analysis can bring back. It has been said that Mateen was bipolar, was a wife-beater, had joined several Islamist extremist groups including ISIS (at the last minute). His father says that Omar had recently witnessed two men kissing and had been disgusted by it.

The most recent reports suggest that he’s actually patronised the club and been drinking there – hardly very devout Muslim behaviour, indeed many said he was barely religious at all. Apparently, he’d also been seen on gay dating sites, so the possibility of internalised homophobia, self-hate, and sexuality identity repression seem very strong motives, with the tacking on of Islamic State, more of an afterthought seeking some kind of redemption and forgiveness in the afterlife for his, considered sinful by his faith background, sexuality.

Muslims, Gun Control and the Blame Game

Scapegoating and stereotyping have hit the headlines, making it all about IS or immigrants, religion or lack of gun laws. Some on social media have perpetuated the hate and homophobia by rejoicing in the slaying of sinners – sick! Yes, the US right to bear arms and easy access to not just a pistol or shooting rifle but an automatic weapon are accountable – but not solely responsible, for the extent of the massacre. Getting off 24 shots in 9 seconds was facilitated by the type of gun that was readily available. It was not purchased for self-defence, unless one was expecting a war. The AR-15 style assault rifle – the Sig Sauer MCX, is described by its maker as a “battle-proven weapon system”.

US Presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted an “I told you so” type of approach, taking credit for seeing this coming and calling for an immediate suspension of Muslim immigration. Some are happy to label it terrorism, others a hate crime, yet more that it is a gun control or immigration issue. Not so many, focus on the fact that this was a very real attack on an LGBT safe space, a gay bar, some have even gone to great lengths to condemn Muslims and avoid reference to LGBT, how else can right wing nationalists stir up Islamophobia whilst avoiding any reference to their own homophobia? The crime does not fall into a neat explanatory box. Journalist, Owen Jones, walked out of a Murdoch-owned Sky News discussion because it failed to acknowledge it as a specific attack on the LGBT community.

FBI Report in US Mass Shooting Incidents

FBI 2000-2013 mass shooting incidents in America
FBI 2000-2013 mass shooting incidents in America

Between 2000 and 2013, 486 people were shot dead, and even more wounded in mass shooting attacks in America. The frequency of incidents has only got worse, more than doubling in the last 7 years of the analysed period, to more than 16 incidents a year. The Orlando attack was the worst mass shooting in peacetime American history.

A Mother Jones investigation going back 33 years shows 670 killed and 650 injured in 80 incidents, with mental health a factor in between 60% and 80% of cases.

The vast majority took place at commercial workplaces or schools, by disgruntled employees or students, or over things as irrationally minor as arguments over a CD player or driving ability. By far the majority were carried out by white males, not foreign immigrants or Muslim extremists. Out of 160 incidents, barely 2% could be described as Muslim perpetrators, a couple were clearly anti-semitic.

“You are no more likely to be shot by a Muslim than by a Christian or an atheist in America.”

LGBT Muslims are also in mourning.

orlando shooting
Photo of a rainbow-illuminated Ankara Mosque by Cihat Ertem

Text of Speeches at Norwich LGBT Vigil

Katy Jon Went | Julie Inns | Andy Futter

Katy Went

Speech download as PDF

If killing 50 LGBT people, and maiming as many, is your response to witnessing a kiss, an expression of love, between two people of the same sex, then you need help not hate, to get open minded not offended, and a change of religious interpretation. I can’t help but think there might have been some internalised homophobia going on besides mental health, anger and other issues already raked up by media, before this individual jumped on the ISIS bandwagon to tag his heinous act.

We forget that London, Brighton and elsewhere have had their own homophobic atrocities, that were not done in the name of ISIS, that Los Angeles Pride just had another violent attack on it averted, nothing to do with alleged Islamic extremism, that Prides in Israel have seen LGBT people attacked and killed by Jewish Orthodox extremism. There is no place for ill-informed Islamophobia now – people of all faiths and none, Communists and Fascists in recent history, have all targeted LGBT people.

Anger is no less a legitimate response than many others at this time. Forgiveness, albeit a healing one, can never be asked or expected of anyone unless freely given and only by the victims and their loved ones. Understanding, love, mercy, and worldwide calls for an end to homophobic judgement and violence are needed, people to challenge bad religious interpretation and attitudes, and show better alternatives. I’m pleased that many faith groups march with Pride, and historically just one small one, against it, here in Norwich.

Religious groups are all over themselves with prayers at the moment but no recognition of the hypocrisy that their slowness to accept LGBT people counts towards the fear and hate that drives confused and conflicted people to carry out these acts. The victims don’t need prayer they need acceptance, the only justice would be churches, mosques and temples overturning their hitherto homophobic attitudes, policies and doctrines. This may sound offensive but so was Jesus. Prayer without doctrinal change and better practice right now is like blessing the homeless with words but not with a blanket and some food. People of faith need to offer more than prayers right now.

I’ll put my hand up in the air, 30 years ago I was a fundamentalist Christian, opposed gay rights etc, years later several members of my University Christian Union, that I’d helped found, came out as gay or lesbian. My views changed, when I had my own coming out and Damascene conversion to LGBT acceptance. Others can too.

Will we see the same international condemnation and responses as in Paris? I doubt it, as the victims were LGBT.

Amidst the EU referendum debate, US presidential campaign and escalating immigration and Islamophobia issues, we don’t need blanket condemnations but change. People in the US and UK have hijacked Orlando as an excuse to condemn migrants, religion etc, but not to call it homophobia.

Hate and fear need naming but the responses need to be love and, ‘out and proud’ confidence.

As Martin Luther King said:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Julie Inns, Norfolk Police

Good evening everyone it’s so wonderful to see so many people supporting this event tonight. I’m immensely proud to be standing here tonight; I stand here on behalf of Simon Bailey, Chief Constable of Norfolk Constabulary and Lorne Green our new Police and Crime Commissioner who unfortunately at short notice were not able to be here tonight, although they send their best wishes for a successful event.

I am very privileged to be standing in front of you tonight with so many familiar faces some of who I know quite well and some who will be new to me, supporting this Norwich Stands with Orlando Vigil to support our LGBT brothers and sisters across the pond who have suffered this weekend and for which there are no words to describe what went on in Orlando this weekend. I just can’t think of the words to describe it. But from the Constabulary and Police and Crime Commissioners Office our thoughts do go out to the family and friends of those effected but this atrocity.

Now we all know that Norwich is statistically a safe place to live, it’s a safe county and we encourage people to come here to live, to work or come on holiday and visit and we say to you, you can come and you can bring your religion, your sexuality, you can eat your food and wear your traditional clothes and come one come all and we are really accepting of that. However we must be mindful that unfortunately in this day and age that terror can strike anywhere.

But for this to happen to them during their PRIDE celebrations in a club where they should have felt free, welcomed and happy to be who they wanted to be, I don’t know about you guys but I find that even more heart-breaking and gut-wrenchingly awful that I have no words to explain it.

So I’d like to think that we would be lucky enough in Norfolk never to have to experience anything like what happened in Orlando over the weekend and our county will never see such an atrocity. But we have to remember that it does go on and we all have a part to play in keeping all our citizen’s safe. So with that in mind let’s not blame the actions of a small minority of the people who commit these acts on the majority. And when we talk about what happened in Orlando and bandy the word hate crime around it doesn’t quiet cut it for me, it just seems to be a bit beyond that. But I want to be really really clear on this and this is important for me. Norfolk Constabulary is absolutely committed to the LGBT community in Norfolk that we will keep you safe and we will shield you from harm wherever possible. But in order for us to do this, people have to come and talk to us and sometimes that can be difficult. But we want you to be who you are, to be authentic at work and out in the community and to be safe while you are doing that, but for us to do that if there is a problem you need to come and tell us about it and I know for some of you that is going to be difficult so I’ll be here afterwards if you would like to come and talk to me or take my contact details so we can talk in private, that would be really great.

The one thing I would like to reassure you on is that when anyone reports incidents of hate to us whether it be about your sexuality, your race, which religion you follow or if you live with a disability, whatever the issue is I can assure you now, we will believe you, we do take it seriously and with your help do whatever is possible to pursue the perpetrators through the criminal justice system until we get a conviction and that is my personal promise to you on behalf of Simon Bailey and Lorne Green.
So I’d like to say that Norfolk Constabulary and the Police and Crime Commissioner wholeheartedly support this vigil tonight and say no to hate. But not just no to hate, No to hate in our county, No to hate in our fine city, No to hate across the world and finally we believe in hashtag #loveislove.

Andy Futter, Chair of Norwich Pride

In the early hours of yesterday morning, at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a 29-year-old man carrying an assault rifle and a handgun and began shooting and murdering individuals before taking hostages.

Once the horrific event had played out, fifty people lay dead and a further fifty-three were hospitalised.

These people were a part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They were enjoying a weekend night out with their friends at a venue in which they should have been safe.

I ask those of you who do not have to experience this particular brand of hate to understand that – despite it being 2016 – the LGBT+ community – my community – still needs these spaces.

They are our sanctuary.

And if you can’t understand the concept of a bar or nightclub being a sanctuary, then be grateful. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to hold someone’s hand in public. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to tell people that you met someone new – simply because of the gender of that new partner. It means you’ve probably never been afraid to leave your house for fear of being mistaken for another gender and the violence that so often goes hand in hand with that ignorance.

I mean that utterly sincerely. Be grateful if you have experienced none of those things. But try to reflect on the experiences of those who have and understand that we need those safe spaces – just like the Pulse nightclub.

That should have been a safe space. But yesterday, that peace; that sanctuary, was shattered in the most brutal way.

Those individuals were no longer safe. They were targeted for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered; or for being a friend of the LGBT+ community.

Being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered is not a choice. Getting out of bed and deciding to walk into a bar to target those of us who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered is most definitely a choice. But so is being an ally.

So for those of you here tonight who are not L,G,B or T, I thank you for your support.

Our community is strong and across the world right now and the coming days, you will see how just strong this worldwide family is; but we are all the stronger for having you on our side.

We are all the stronger for you understanding that despite huge legal steps forward – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people still face hate on a daily basis, for simply loving the people we love and expressing our true selves.

We are all the stronger for you understanding that, so I would ask you to understand something further. Yes – every life matters; every act of terror and murder should be condemned; but make no mistake: this was an attack directed squarely at the LGBT+ community.

Right now we are scared.

But we are also empowered by our love and solidarity.

Right now we are vulnerable.

But we are also strong in ways which may surprise many – including ourselves – and we will not be beaten.

Right now we are upset.

Right now we are angry.

So when you reach out to your LGBT friends, loved ones, brothers, sisters, colleagues: hold us closer and hug us tighter than before.

Right now, we need it.

Every one of us here tonight owes it to every one of those who died at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando to stand taller. Be prouder.

We will not hide in the shadows.

We will not quietly clamber back into the closet. We will not stop living our lives.

So for all of those who died on Sunday in Orlando; to those who still lie bleeding in hospital; to those who have had loved ones ripped mercilessly from their lives, I say this: the people of this fine city stand with you.

Tonight we are united in grief.

Tomorrow and always – let us be united in love.

 

Faith & Spirituality

Pope Francis says lots on Joy of Love but changes little in Amoris Laetitia

Amoris Laetitia – “Joy of Love”

Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis on the Joy of Love
Amoris Laetitia – Pope Francis on the ‘Joy of Love’

After two years in the making, the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis‘ publishing of a “landmark papal document“, Amoris Laetitia – “Joy of Love“, actually says a lot (around 260 pages) but very little that’s new. How could it, when innovation or theological development is anathema to tradition, dogma, and infallibility? The exhortation seeks to be compassionate, merciful and pragmatic, rather than legalistic or judgmental, yet in reality is no less rigidly orthodox in terms of doctrine and offers little prospect or hope of change for LGBT inclusivity or other alternative relationship realities.

Positive vision of Sexuality

The document fails to be the “positive vision of sexuality” that it purports to be and is critical of the so-called “obscure need to
‘find oneself'” (#153). Unless churches acclimate and accelerate, in their acceptance of modern love, their message of love and finding oneself (“in Christ”) will be increasingly left behind and irrelevant.

Theology of the Body

The current Pope reaffirms John Paul II’s ‘theology of the body’ (1980) teaching that sexual differentiation leads to both reproduction and the “capacity of expressing love” (#151). By continuing to root the expression of love in both reproductive capacity and dimorphic bodies, he rules out same-sex love and families.

Cultural vs Fundamental Truths

It is a shame that the Pope, in relegating some of Paul’s teaching to the cultural matrix and context of patriarchy and female submission (#154-156), does not use the opportunity to recognise the cultural moving on of society on sexuality, despite overtures to feminism and sex equality.

“I certainly value feminism, but one that does not demand uniformity” (#173)

Traditional Masculinity

Although placed in the context of parenthood, he says, attitudes to gender roles remain traditional – men, particularly fathers, should be:

“possessed of a clear and serene masculine identity” (#175)

“the clear and well-defined presence of both figures, female and male, creates the environment best suited to the growth of the child…children need to find a father waiting for them when they return home with their problems.” (#175-177)

No room for same-sex parenthood or adoption, then. Nor of alternative masculinities – female, transmasculine or effeminate.

Genetic Predisposition

In a section on the foetal child he writes that:

“all the somatic traits of the person are written in his or her genetic code already in the embryonic stage.” (#170)

That being the case, why continue to reject people on the basis of their probably mostly genetic sexuality? Why fail to condemn reparative therapy for homosexuality (‘unwanted same-sex attraction’) or gender identity? As if the genesis of our innate coded lives can be rewritten by prayer, healing and therapy, to undo that which seems to go against doctrine, but which, in fact, to do so would be to go against nature. The nature of our selves, rather than a nature seemingly defined by ancient laws.

Respected but Discriminated

On “persons who experience same-sex attraction” Pope Francis described the situation as not easy for either the parents or the children:

“We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided, particularly any form of aggression and violence…” (#250)

… but not discrimination in sex, love or marriage, then, that would be presumably be justified discrimination. Marriage and intimacy remain strictly heterosexual and for non-divorcees, since divorce remains “evil” and gay relationships “intrinsically disordered”.

“Such families should be given respectful pastoral guidance, so that those who manifest a homosexual orientation can receive the assistance they need to understand and fully carry out God’s will in their lives.” (#250)

I wonder whether “assistance” includes the psychologically deprecated reparative therapy? It’s certainly not been condemned, whereas most international psychological, psychiatric and psychotherapeutic bodies have banned it.

Same-sex Marriage or Civil Unions

“In discussing the dignity and mission of the family, the Synod Fathers observed that, “as for proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level as marriage, there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.” (#251)

Furthermore, the Pope argues that international poverty aid should not be dependent upon countries introducing LGBT equality laws.

Curiously, at (#121) in the Papal document, he cites the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as an example of conjugal loving unity – hardly the best analogy if you want to avoid references to threesomes, same-sex relationships, or children born outside of wedlock!

Furthermore, at (#122), his concept of marriage mirroring the love of Christ for the Church fails in portraying only a narrow heterosexual conjugal union rather than that put forth in St John’s Gospel:

“For God so loved the world” (John 3:16)

The world includes all people, not only married straight people who’ve never divorced.

I still find it incongruous that a celibate and single Pontiff can preach to others about marriage, love and sex.

The idea that faithful marriage for life is a “natural inclination” (#123) also seems to go against scientific and social realities. That statement, from the Pope, is followed up with a barely veiled criticism that broken marriages or relationships outside of “unto death… commitment” are, by their nature, “weak or infirm”, and “ephemeral” (#124).

Modern understandings of psychology and psychotherapy might also have an issue with the idea of complete ” surrender” of “our future entirely to the one we love”, although he is critical of past expressions of patriarchal dominance within marriage.

Sex education in schools

Safe-sex education in schools remains an oxymoron to the RC Church since the only sex that should take place is that within marriage and for the “natural procreative finality of sexuality”. Despite devoting space to the erotic dimension of love, reproduction is still seen as the end goal, not love itself – which would, of course, open up LGBT and non-marital variants.

As a result, contraception and abortion remain absolute wrongs, leaving women not in charge of their own bodies.

“No alleged right to one’s own body can justify a decision to terminate that life.” (#83)

This puts the Pope firmly in US Republican Donald Trump’s, Poland’s, and Irish/Northern Ireland Catholic camp on the illegality of abortion at all stages of foetal growth – all places that have recently featured calls to keep or extend anti-abortion laws. Despite Pope Francis saying Donald Trump is ‘not a Christian’.

In summary, however forward thinking the Pope may seem, the language compassionate and merciful, the tone accepting and gracious, the theology remains stuck, rigid, intransigent. The words may change, the attitudes may soften, but the laws remain as seemingly writ on stone as ever before. No good news for LGBT Christians. Read the full text of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia – “Joy of Love” for yourselves.

Faith & Spirituality

UN Female Genital Mutilation Zero Tolerance Day, Origins of FGM

International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

The United Nations designated Friday 6 February 2015 a worldwide day of zero tolerance on FGM, and called for action to end FGM now before another 86 million girls under 15 (most are under 5) are cut against their will by 2030.

African girlIt is carried out at the behest of male patriarchal societies, and increasingly by medical practitioners not just by tribal societies. In some countries up to 75% of cases involve healthcare professionals (most often other women) against the primary rule of medical ethics – The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere – “first do not harm”.

“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.” – United Nations

Prevalence of FGM

African mother and baby girlDespite laws against it, and blatant after-the-fact evidence that is occurs on UK soil, and not just in African and elsewhere, female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) still happens. In 7 countries 85%-98% of girls are cut, with Somalia being the most extensive practitioner.

Some 140 million women and girls throughout the world are thought to be living with FGM, including some 200-500,000 in the USA and an estimated 66,000, 103,000 or 137,000 in England and Wales (2011 figures). It still goes on in at least 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Illegal but not Prosecuted

In the UK the first court case of its kind brought against medics and others involved has just failed to reach a prosecution. Another woman was arrested in the last few days trying to take her 8 year old daughter abroad, presumably to engage someone to carry out the intervention, the child was taken into care.

It has been illegal in the UK for nearly 30 years without a single successful prosecution. In Egypt it’s been against the law for only 7 years, but it has had its first guilty case just last month.

Culturally Barbaric

African girl TanzaniaWhilst it has been rightly called “barbaric”, even primitive, is can be a distraction to use this term. Amnesty International counsel against it, though others think we should call a spade a spade, or a barbaric scalpel.

“Barbaric” may mean “uncultured, uncivilized, uneducated” or even “foreign, strange, brutal” from its earliest Greek and Latin origins, but some societies practising it do so in full knowledge of what they do, and as part of their culture, or coming of age ceremonies.

FGM Origins and Geographical Spread

It was present as far apart as Australian aboriginal tribes and Tsarist Russia in a Christian sect called the Skoptsy. They practiced castration and cutting of men and women as necessary for salvation – a complete misreading of some biblical texts in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The early church father Origen, was said to have castrated himself too.

Indeed, there are reports that the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it themselves, highly civilised cultures by some measures. FGM and female circumcision pre-date the Quran, in fact they are not mentioned in it. Its practice may have related to controlling slave women, and through the slave trade spread across sub-Saharan Africa via Arab and other traders. Some early descriptions seem to be of early surgeries on intersex people with either an enlarged clitoris or large labia. To this day genitals and even gender are still defined by size.

African mother and baby girlWhatever its origins, in a supposedly post-slavery era (though we are not there on that count yet either) it remains used in traditions and cultures that are innately sexist where men and marriage define and control status, pleasure, and purity. Virginity and FGM remain prerequisites for some African marriages thus forcing mothers into being accomplices in the practice, in order to find marriages for their daughters and avoid the social and economic exclusion of not being married off.

Zero Tolerance to End FGM

Zero tolerance rather than a phased ending of FGM is the only way to bring about its demise, irrespective of cultural excuses, rather than setting some future date for it to end by. It is abuse, explained by culture and tradition but never justified by it. Mothers and medics, being coerced into collusion breaks their sacred vows to first, do no harm, to their child or patient. We need education of mothers, medics and girls, as much as legal action, to raise awareness that this is an unacceptable practice that must end.

An early version of this article was first published here.
Credits
Images courtesy of Pixabay and do not imply people illustrated are affected by FGM
Faith & Spirituality

Raif Badawi, Waleed Abulkhair, Islamic Mercy and Saudi Justice

In Saudi Arabia Raif Badawi remains in prison under threat of 950 more lashes and 9 more years of a 10 year sentence and a further 10 year travel ban upon release, as punishment for “insulting Islam”. Additionally, his trial lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair‎, who set up a human rights monitoring organisation (MHRSA) in Saudi, was also subsequently charged himself for various breaches. Both had their sentences recently increased by half again, not cut or commuted.

Waleed Abu Al-Khair

Waleed Abu Al-KhairAmong other things, Waleed Abu Al-Khair (also written as Abulkhair)‎ was accused and convicted of “breaking allegiance with the ruler” and sentenced to a 15 year prison term in 2014 and a 15 year travel ban upon his release, he was already prohibited from travel since 2012.

Abulkhair had defended many people for socio-religious and political crimes in Saudi, including a British national when he was hired by the British embassy. If political is even a word that can be voiced in a state that is an absolute rather than even a constitutional monarchy. Opposition and democracy are thus, inherently illegal.

He ran, in his own home, a mixed sex politico-religious discussion group or salon called Smood (“resistance”) and used Twitter and Facebook for further discussion, somewhere he felt free at last. Indeed, Forbes magazine listed him as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Arabs on Twitter.

Social media activity is an uncensored medium that has got away from Saudi Arabia, which has the largest number of Arab Twitter users and a Facebook user base second only to Egypt. Perhaps the United Nation’s big #SocialUN gathering on 30 January and discussion of digital diplomacy will foster awareness of those imprisoned for freedom of speech on social media.

Yet, in all this, Waleed knows no hate. As he wrote in his last letter before prison:

“Do I hate anyone?” I wonder, particularly those who have insulted me and my family, using the foulest of words in the course of the investigations? Do I hate those who imposed a travel ban on me for years with no legal reason? Do I hate the judge who ordered that I be put in jail simply because I have a signed a statement calling for fair trials? Or should I hate the Prince, whose emissaries have continuously threatened me with being put in prison for years if I refrain from signing an affidavit? Do I hate men of religion who drafted heinous reports about me to the security agencies – full of lies and proclaiming me an apostate? Or should I hate the people using pseudonyms on new media outlets, so they could lie about me and my family so as to damage my reputation further?

I reach deep within my heart and find that I bear no grudge against anyone. I realize that I rather feel sorry for them, the same way I feel sorry for those who decided to give up their freedom, just like an alcoholic who roams aimlessly after willingly giving up his mind to liquor.

Hamza Kashgari

Freedom of expression on social media hasn’t stopped Saudi reaching beyond international boundaries to extradite and imprison one Hamza Kashgari for questioning Islam via Twitter. Thousands of Saudis backed calls for this young man’s execution for apostasy and support of the Arab Spring.  He served 2 years after apologising but was banned from writing again.

Kashgari described his original actions in the following terms:

“I view my actions as part of a process toward freedom. I was demanding my right to practice the most basic human rightsfreedom of expression and thought – so nothing was done in vain. I believe I’m just a scapegoat for a larger conflict. There are a lot of people like me in Saudi Arabia who are fighting for their rights.”

Raif Badawi

Raif Badawi Raif Badawi was arrested in 2008 and again in 2012 for apostasy and insulting Islam by electronic means, i.e., he set up the website Free Saudi Liberals to enable discussion of religion and politics. Cited charges included “ridiculing Islamic religious figures” and “going beyond the realm of obedience” – whatever that means!

The Saudi court ordered him to undergo 50 lashes every Friday for 20 weeks, publicly outside a mosque on a religious day just after prayers, only the first instalment has been delivered to date, in the middle of the square in front of Al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah where a large crowd gathered to witness the flogging. Last Friday, he was again not caned  – the third time the punishment has been postponed, allegedly due to his previous wounds not having healed enough, but also likely due to international media attention on Saudi following the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the death of King Abdullah.

Religion and Punishment

What kind of religion or state combines faith and flogging, prayer and punishment, in such a way? Well perhaps ancient Judaism might have done. Certainly, biblical texts of the Torah allow for the stoning of those caught in adultery, for instance, or tell of the clinical purging of an enemy for idolatry. That the populace tried to pick up stones, to stone an alleged adulteress, as recorded in the gospels, proves that the law was still known, if not in use, though there’s little record of it being enacted. Jesus intervened, in this case, and it didn’t happen. Likely as not, the Romans would have had a problem with people literally taking the law into their own hands anyway.

So, just because Jesus stopped a public punishment, does that place Christianity above Judaism in ethics? Far from it. Church history records the Crusades and the Inquisition, brutal tortures, executions, burnings of heretics, witches, liberals. Some countries and US states continue to commend the death penalty based upon biblical texts.

Islam – Peace or Violence?

Ironically, whilst Islam means “submission” it stems from the same root as the Arabic salām سَلاَم‎ meaning “peace”. Numerous people have referenced its over 100 verses suggestive of killing varieties of “unbelievers”, yet it also condemns the taking of a single “innocent life” as equivalent to murdering the whole world. Like all religions, it seems, there is plenty of Scripture to cut and paste and formulate one’s own intolerant beliefs, or to foment and indoctrinate via human interpretation.

Just compare the negative Quran quotations with some of the more positive verses, including:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error; whoever rejects evil and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold that never breaks. And God hears and knows all things.” – Qur’an, Al-Baqarah, 2:256

Indeed, all three monotheistic religions have scriptures calling for tolerance, mercy, love and peace. What we choose to focus on, judge by, is therefore, a function of our beliefs, not something we can justify by selective religious reasoning.

State Sanctioned Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of not only Saudi Arabia, but those nations and leaders that visited the country in the wake of the recent death of the king, even flying flags at half-mast, like England but not Scotland, is visible to all. Transparently and desperately trying to get in with the new king to gain access to oil, defence, and trade agreements.

As Abulkair has written:

“As long as the oil keeps flowing, the world will turn a blind eye if Saudi Arabia continues to crack down on freedom and human rights.”

Saudi’s own hypocrisy lies in not exercising mercy and tolerance in order to deserve the same, principles cited by Muhammad himself:

“No mercy would be shown to him who does not show mercy”, Muhammad in Sahih Al-Bukhari and in Sahih Muslim

“Be tolerant to be tolerated”, Muhammad narrated in Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad 1/248.

Tolerance, or samah, in Islam is considered to also mean leniency.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that they extreme flogging sentence breeches even the grounds and interpretation of Quranic and Sharia punishments.

Human Rights Campaigns

Various Change.org and Amnesty International campaigns are keeping the pressure up, but governments are turning a blind eye to Saudi, tolerating one form of extremism over another, Islamic State. Mainly, it seems, because IS (ISIL/Daesh) is missionary, i.e., wanting to expand and conquer, whilst Saudi is content to rule its own citizens with an iron rod, beheader’s sword and flogger’s cane.

Other international human rights, humanitarian, peace and journalists organisations have continued to publicise Badawi and Abulkhair, giving them prizes and awards to draw attention to their plight and honour their fight. For instance Badawi has been awarded the PEN Canada One Humanity Award 2014, the Reporters without Borders Netizen Prize 2014, and Aikenhead Award 2015 of the Scottish Secular Society.

Whilst the حديث‎ ḥadīth or saying(s – technically أحاديث ʾaḥādīth is the plural) of the Prophet are outside the Quran, they like the Mishnah and Talmud for Jews, form a significant part of traditional interpretations for Muslims. Indeed, much Shariah law is derived from the Hadith. For those campaigning for the release of Raif Badawi and Waleed Abulkhair you could do no worse than to quote the following hadith to them:

“It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.” – Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1011.

In fact it is an injunction of one hadith to call Islamic oppressors to account:

Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother whether he is an oppressor or an oppressed,” A man said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I will help him if he is oppressed, but if he is an oppressor, how shall I help him?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing (others), for that is how to help him.” – Sahih Bukhari 9.85.84

The latest Amnesty International petitions can be found here: http://amn.st/6182IYIa and http://amn.st/6185IYIL. Twitter campaigns here: #FreeRaifBadawi and #FreeWaleedAbulkhair

Abulkair finished his final letter pending imprisonment with this:

“…freedom is cultivated, its seeds are those who have sacrificed a lot and have made the sky the limit to their sacrifice… There will always be free souls in this world who will not be silenced by oil!”

Please, and especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, do not forget those in prison for standing up for freedom of expression in the Arab world. Keep the pressure on governments, agencies and media alike to Free Raif Badawi and Free Waleed Abulkhair.

Faith & Spirituality

Liberation theology for Vicky Beeching, evangelical, Christian music star, theologian, as she comes out as lesbian

“It’s taken all my courage, and all these years, for me to finally do this interview, tweeted Vicky Beeching, “a theologian who spends holy days with the Archbishop, whose God-fearing lyrics are sung by millions in America’s Bible Belt, [on her] coming out as a lesbian”.

Katharine Welby-Roberts, the daughter of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tweeted her support calling her brave, brilliant and beautiful.

“She will be liberated. She may well, through her commentating work, become a key figure in the liberalisation of Anglicanism. And she will be crucified”, writes Patrick Strudwick in the Independent.

A fraught ‘coming out’ journey

She began to speak out in support of same-sex marriage, a year ago, and since then her loving Christian American Bible belt fan base has been delivering abuse at her, saying she is deceived by the devil. Well the devil does have all the best tunes!

Vicky Beeching Twitter Profile picShe’s also taken flack from some anti-religious members of the gay community, from reading the comments (not always an advisable thing to do) on the Pink News report of her coming out.

At 12 she was attracted to other girls and at 13 sought forgiveness, as an older teenager she experienced deliverance of the “demon of homosexuality”.

I had a similar path, a clandestine same-sex relationship at 15, repentance and forgiveness, vice-President of the University Christian Union, where we were very definitely anti-abortion and anti-gay, deliverance at 22 of my own demons of “a gender mix up in the womb”, years working for a church, as a missionary, then a theologian in a Bible School. The views I held at college I’ve had to repent of and apologise for, but it has made me more openminded and gracious towards those for whom homophobia has often been a cover up of something internalised before they themselves come out. I do believe in redemption and change, just not sure God, if he exists, is always the agent. Be the change.

In all my study of theology, Hebrew and Greek, I never really got why , until I came out, I felt such a disconnect from the God of the Church and the practice of evangelical Christianity versus the all-loving, minority accepting, class and division challenging Jesus of the Gospels. The Old Testament passage that has always stuck with me is, from of all books, Leviticus: “Love thy neighbour as yourself”, that’s the same book that appears on a surface reading to condemn same-sex practices. But the Hebrew and the history are more complex, interesting and liberating.

Beeching, herself, ended up in America, first Nashville, Tennessee then California mid-Prop 8 anti-equal marriage rallies, at which she performed her music, whilst knowing inside she didn’t agree with the message. She had record contracts with EMI’s Christian sub-division which included a “morality clause” which would have precluded her from speaking out had she been ready to at the time. This was 2008.

Then she was hit by a life-changing illness that included extensive chemotherapy. Many fundamentalists would no doubt point to this being a judgement from God, not my kind of God. However, the doctors did say it could have been triggered by trauma – Vicky felt this to be the stress of her hidden sexuality.

She’d not met an ‘out’ gay or lesbian till the age of 30. When I came out at 40, I’d never met another trans person, to my knowledge, but by then a couple of friends from university Christian Union days had come out as gay. With my own revelation, which resulted in divorce and a mid-life crisis, I soon made contact with what transpired to be more than a couple of old CU friends, who had come out as lesbian, bisexual or gay. We’d all repressed it for decades. Some, to my knowledge, still are. Some are ‘out’ but still trying to “rid themselves” of homosexuality through reparative therapy.

Beeching began to explore the possibility of coming out and met with Ruth Hunt, the now new chief executive of Stonewall, who suggested she met with some other ‘out’ lesbians including BBC newsreader Jane Hill, sports presenter Clare Balding and her former Radio 4 newsreader wife, Alice Arnold. “They said, ‘Be yourself and everything will follow.'”

But being yourself is very hard with evangelical baggage and a lifetime of repression. Coming out is hard enough when school and society can be so homophobic and transphobic, but it is doubly hard when you have faith, and belong to a denomination that sees your sexuality or gender identity as sin. The pressure to conform can lead to mental health problems and deny you your free existence for years.

She has been called “the bravest” to come out, because of her conservative evangelical Christian background, by Alice Arnold in the Telegraph, but can now look “forward to writing music again, for the first time in her life with no secrets to hide.”

LGBT Theology

Those following Beeching’s blog may have seen the signs before this week’s coming out. She has been writing since April on LGBT Theology with thousands of views and hundreds of comments online.  The responses to her support of LGBT issues were to call her a “disgrace” and boycott her music, to tell her she was “no longer welcome”, how Christian! How unlike Jesus.

She recommends numerous books on her blog including Sex and the Single Savior by Dale B Martin which I’ve also read. “Martin concludes that our contemporary obsession with marriage–and the whole search for the ‘right’ sexual relationships–is antithetical to the message of the gospel.”

She also lists for reading:

  • Bible, Gender and Sexuality by James Brownson
  • God And The Gay Christian by Matthew Vines
  • Torn/Unconditional by Justin Lee
  • Permanent, Faithful, Stable – Christian Same-Sex Marriages by Jeffrey John
  • Sexuality and the Christian Body by Eugene F Rogers
  • Love is an Orientation by Andrew Marin

Beeching, Channel 4 news & Scott Lively

Beeching bravely appeared on the 7pm Channel 4 news on Thursday and was set up against the infamous Scott Lively, the US Christian activist who has called for the criminalisation of “the public advocacy of homosexuality” and has allegedly done much to stir up the anti-gay debate and homophobic criminal justice bill in Uganda.

On C4 News, Lively said that lesbianism is something to overcome, “I’m very sorry she has given into the lie that she is a homosexual” and suggested she could be cured still, has Beeching not already tried that and acknowledged that it “fractured” her and “really messed” her up.

Lively says that all sex outside of Genesis’ “one flesh paradigm” of man and woman is “illicit”. He’s obviously  not read Genesis too well and its half-dozen sexual and relationship paradigms. “There is no such thing as a gay person, it’s an identity you adopt”, he says.

Agree to disagree on theology & sexuality but still love you?

In response the the C4 news broadcast a UK police chaplain, in Brighton of all places, has called her sexuality a choice, disagreed with her theology, and subtly dissed her via Twitter by saying that he was “Leaving [the] conversation to pray for really (italics mine) courageous people” referring to the Christians in Iraq, as opposed to her courage in coming out as a lesbian Christian. Sitting on two police equalities boards, I cannot understand how this guy can be active as a police chaplain with his biblically homophobic mindset.

In Beeching’s raw and honest interview she says that “her parents have agreed to disagree on the theology around homosexuality”, but have supported her lovingly nonetheless. My own were the same, my father at least still struggles with my so-called choices and lifestyle – of course I don’t see it as that. But over time, my mother has come round as a full-on supporter and advocate and reads everything on trans and gender in the papers, often sliding it under my father’s eyes to move him forward slowly.

Only last week I had to come out to another old college and church friend and they admitted that whilst being sympathetic to my struggle and journey they could not agree with my stance of homosexuality and transsexuality. Churches have so much to learn and it is sad that in many if not most cases they are behind the times, in terms of equality and diversity, something that centuries ago they might have once led on.

Christianity out of step with social equalities evolution

Certainly, at times, Christianity has been groundbreaking in its attitudes to and liberation of women and slaves, removing and equalising barriers of class and race. Yet on sexuality it is as if it is still stuck in the dark ages and is Christianity’s last great taboo and the cause of an exodus from the church as it is seen by the young as irrelevant and just plain wrong on LGBTIQ issues.

It has led to my agnosticism now, but I can’t let go of the radicalness of Jesus’ love and inclusion 2000 years ago. Beeching has written a foreword to the book on “The Liberating Truth: How Jesus Empowers Women” – Jesus may do, but the Church does not. The Church of England has finally agreed to women bishops nearly a century after women got the vote! Catch-up for G*d’s sake, Jesus was a feminist, don’t you know?

If only the Church were more like Jesus. Beeching, remains committed to the Church and “rather than abandon it and say it’s broken, I want to be part of the change”, she says.

I’m off to Greenbelt, next week, the only Christian festival that I know of that embraces doubters, atheists, LGBTI people, it even welcomes evangelicals! It is inclusive of a diversity of people and opinion. Vicky will be speaking there and chairing a panel on equal marriage. Sinead O’Connor, who came out as a lesbian back in 2000 and is now more label-free, will be performing too.  For one of the most recent interviews with Sinead see PrideSource. At least Vicky has now found her own “liberating truth”, freedom at last.

[This post first appeared on Bubblews]

Faith & Spirituality

Let them Eat Cake unless it’s a Gay Cake as Christian Bakery refuses to bake Bert and Ernie Equal Marriage Cake for Belfast’s QueerSpace

Marriage in Northern Ireland is still “defined as being a union between one man and one woman” says NI Christian bakery company that refused to bake a “gay” Bert and Ernie queer cake and is taking “a stand” according to a trending BBC story.

[UPDATE: Bakery loses appeal against conviction for discrimination based upon the grounds of sexuality]

Queerspace logoIt seems that the cake request came from a volunteer LGBT activist from Belfast’s QueerSpace, as the cake design was to include their logo. QueerSpace is a “volunteer-led collective which has been serving the LGBT community of Belfast and Northern Ireland since 1998. It does this by raising LGBT visibility, supporting LGBT community activities and facilitating communication.”

QueerSpace Belfast Support Gay Marriage cakeThe cake was designed for their event to promote the International Day Against Homophobia as can be seen in the alternatively sourced cake that features prominently in several Facebook photos.

IDAHO(T) Day

The International Day Against Homophobia is celebrated each year on 17 May to combat homophobia and transphobia.

Sesame Street

Sesame Street Bert and Ernie LoveDescribed by Channel 4 News as “Sesame Street’s most sexually ambiguous couple”, Bert and Ernie have long been considered possibly, if not probably, gay.

The official Sesame Workshop position is that they are just “good friends”. In a 1993 statement they issued, it said:

“Bert and Ernie, who’ve been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans.”

CEO Gary Knell in Sesame Street: A Celebration – 40 Years of Life on the Street, was a little more vague, hinting at sexual ambiguity as well as their sexual inability:

“They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. They don’t exist below the waist.”

Sesame Street Bert and Ernie FriendsIn a 2011 statement it was reiterated that they “do not have a sexual orientation”.

This didn’t stop some Christians complaining that they represented a gay couple. Reverend Joseph Chambers on his radio show, in 1994, said:

“Bert and Ernie are two grown men sharing a house and a bedroom. They share clothes, eat and cook together and have blatantly effeminate characteristics. In one show Bert teaches Ernie how to sew. In another they tend plants together. If this isn’t meant to represent a homosexual union, I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to represent.”

Eric Jacobson, in a 2011 interview for Vanity Fair, said that Bert and Ernie were more “The Odd Couple” than a gay couple, if anything they emulated the close friendship of Jim Henson and Frank Oz.

All these assertions and denials, it makes one wonder, because we all know what hides behind denial, lol! 😉

Ashers Baking Company

Ashers Baking Company and its Christian founders and directors have taken their stand based upon their religious beliefs against a customer’s request to bake a pro-equal marriage cake. Whether the gay rights activist’s order was a test and if the bakery’s Christian views were well known beforehand is not clear. What is clear, is the law. Refusal of goods or services based upon someone’s actual or perceived sexuality is an offence. The Equality Commission wrote to the bakery saying that they had discriminated against the customer on the grounds of his sexual orientation and that they had seven days to recompense and “remedy [their] illegal discrimination” or end up in court.

According to a YouTube statement the company was named after Asher, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, recorded as having “gifted bakers” in it. It runs itself on what it perceives to be Biblical guidelines, not opening on Sundays either.

General Manager, Daniel McArthur, said of the customer order that:

“The directors and myself looked at it and considered it and thought that this order was at odds with our beliefs. It certainly was at odds with what the Bible teaches, and on the following Monday we rang the customer to let him know that we couldn’t take his order.”

It was not the first time the bakery had declined orders, McArthur, said they had also refused to bake cakes containing “pornographic images and offensive vile language”. They made no direct link between gay marriage and pornography but by offering up no other examples their statement makes a less than subtle and unfortunate, if not downright offensive, connection between the morality of pornography and homosexuality to some Christians.

Rev Andy Marshall, a Church of England priest, has written a fabulous piece pointing out Ashers’ biblical failings according to Leviticus and the New Testament. I mean what is a non-bearded man doing selling pork sausage rolls and then condemning dubious Levitical laws allegedly condemning homosexuality? Not to mention not representing the love and acceptance that Jesus showed towards ‘outsiders’, the oppressed and minorities. I can imagine Jesus being more likely to storm angrily into the bakery and upset their dough wielding a “whip of cords“.

Whilst Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK not to have passed a same-sex marriage law, this particular incident depends entirely on existing legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

Northern Ireland and Devolved Equality -The Equality Commission

Unlike Wales and Scotland, anti-discrimination legislation is devolved in Northern Ireland has devolved anti-discrimination legislation, what this means is that whilst Wales and Scotland fully comply with the Equality Act (2010), Northern Ireland implements it incompletely, in its own way. The Northern Ireland Assembly, rather than the Westminster Parliament, is responsible for equalities law. Sections 73, 74 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) established the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and placed public sector bodies under an equivalent though not entirely identical to British Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). Notably, pregnancy and gender identity/reassignement are not explicitly protected characteristics.

The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has responsibility for enacting and enforcing the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2003 and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (NI) 2006 acts. It is the latter regulations , which came into force in 2007, which make it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of, among other things, “goods, facilities or services”.

Equality Commission NI Logo

Whilst some religious organisations in Northern Ireland are exempt from the regulations, a bakery is a business, Christian-run or not, and as such must comply.

A Defence of Religions and Political Freedoms?

The Christian Institute, which is mounting their defence, disagrees and their director, Colin Hart said:

“All the McArthurs want is to run their bakery according to their Christian beliefs. There won’t be many situations where they need to turn down an order but this is obviously one of them. No one should be forced to use their creative skills to promote a cause which goes against their consciences.”

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph the initial story of which made front page news, Hart described this in apocalyptic terms:

“[It’s] a sign of things to come exactly as we predicted…. Now this nonsense, more usually associated with the public sector, is being applied to the private sector … This means millions of ordinary people who do not agree with gay marriage, face intimidation and the real threat of legal action from the forces of political correctness if they, out of conscience, decline to provide good or services to campaign groups they do not agree with or support. It establishes a dangerous precedent about the power of the state over an individual, or business to force them to go against their deeply held beliefs.”

Their defence will be based upon arguing that an equal marriage cake is a political campaign and that it is not discrimination to refuse to endorse a political position.

The issue has now made it to the UK Parliament with Prime Minister’s Question time (PMQs) raising the issue and David Cameron, knowing little about it, being challenged to defend religious freedom.

Burwell v Hobby Lobby Case

The case has some similarity with the recent SCOTUS (US Supreme Court) judgement on Burwell v Hobby Lobby in which despite a federal mandate to provide employee health coverage, Hobby Lobby’s owners, David and Barbara Green, refused to comply as they felt that 4 out of 20 of the health insurance registered contraceptive drugs were morning-after and week-after life terminating abortion pills, based upon their view of life beginning at conception. SCOTUS upheld their refusal by 5-4 and ruled in their favour with “important implications for over 50 pending lawsuits brought by non-profit religious organizations … also challenging the mandate”.

[An earlier version of this article first appeared here]

Image Credits

QueerSpace Belfast Support Gay Marriage public facebook photo
Equality Commission NI logo