The mass murder of people in a gay club in Orlando Sunday has drawn grief and mourning. It has also enflamed discussion of gun rights versus gun control, of homophobia, of Islamic extremism and of the potential for a backlash against innocent American Muslims, as if these issues were not among the most prevalent topics of discussion already.
Those issues are being parsed in detail, but I want to home in on the role of religion and homosexuality, not only in this case but more generally. Orlando, to me, is a clarion call that, no matter what your ancient book might say, people of faith — every faith — need to look at real-world impacts of their theology.
Seddique Mateen, the father of Omar Mateen, who murdered at least 49 people and wounded more than 50, didn’t wait for the bodies to cool before declaring that “God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality.”
Untimely as the father’s remarks were, they actually reflect a weirdly “live and let live” approach, which is that it is not for us to judge, but for God. Still, it is easy to see how a son raised among such ideas might believe he was performing God’s work in mass murdering scores of gay people. This is not a theoretical connection.
Mateen Senior raises an issue I’ve wondered about: If religious people are so certain that God is going to punish sinners in the afterlife, why are many of them, including his son Omar, so committed to punishing them in this life? Does it reflect a degree of uncertainty, a fear that the retributive God they believe in may not exist? Or that God may not be as zealous as the believer might wish? The answer, usually, is some statement, couched in professions of love, that the believers are trying to steer the perceived sinner in the right direction while there is still time.
Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis said of homosexual people, “Who am I to judge?”
This seemed revolutionary. If it is not for the head of the Roman Catholic church to judge, who on earth is to judge? And that seems to have been his point. For those who believe in a higher power, and who contend that God sets out moral rules, then meting out rewards or reprimands really should be the purview of God, not humankind, shouldn’t it?
In a clarification, however, the Pope let it be known that he was mostly saying in different words what well-intentioned people have said all along, that we should “love the sinner but hate the sin.”
The idea that maniacs will differentiate between theological nuance and hatred of perceived sinners is optimistic, particularly given the barbarity with which some religious people speak of homosexuality.
We like to say that every religion shares values that are fundamentally good, and when someone behaves barbarically in the name of a religion, we declare that they are not representative; that they are, in fact, not of that religion at all. Every time an Islamic extremist perpetrates an atrocity, we are assured they do not represent Islam. Westboro Baptist church, we add, are not real Christians.
To this, I might ask, if a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or anyone else kills people — and claims it is in the name of their God — who am I to judge otherwise? When ISIS drops gay people head first from tall buildings, it is because their interpretation of Islam says this is the right thing to do. When the Texas lieutenant-governor tweets a Christian proverb implying that the 49 dead gay people got what they deserved because a “man reaps what he sows,” it suggests he believes Christianity justifies mass murder. Who am I to declare that their version of Islam or Christianity is inauthentic? I mean, I can condemn their words and actions, but I am in no position to contradict their professions of faith.
The problem is, these acts of violence do not occur in a vacuum from religious teachings about homosexuality. It is in a literal reading of ancient texts that lie the seeds for the violence perpetrated last weekend.
Ah, says the fundamentalist, so you acknowledge that the ancient texts condemn homosexuality.
Yes, and they contain much else that evolved humankind has abandoned. Call me a moral relativist, that trump card of the dogmatists; I’ll wear it with pride. Contemporary Christians, Muslims, Jews and others by necessity pick and choose from their holy texts. Unless your everyday resembles A.J. Jacobs’ in his book “The Year of Living Biblically,” you’ve already made a lot of compromises with your holy texts. Let this just be another one.
Anything written thousands of years ago will have components that are inconsistent with the present and are consequently ignored. Leviticus is filled with proscriptions ignored by Jews, Christians and Muslims who ostensibly view it as a holy book. Yet this one bugbear, homosexuality, is where so many choose to make a stand. Omar Mateen made his stand at Pulse based on his professed religious beliefs. And while so many Muslims, Christians, Jews and others will condemn the violence, they will also continue to teach the underlying principles that inspired it.
Religious intolerance of both homosexuality and homosexuals led to mass murder last weekend and to so much pain and violence besides across the centuries. These ideas have no place in our contemporary world, no matter where they are written.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is merely a way-station on the bloody road to Orlando.