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Violence and Christian Responsibility

On October 6, 1998 Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was tied to a fence, robbed, pistol whipped, and left in the freezing Wyoming night. He was found eighteen hours later and eventually died in hospital. Two men were arrested and convicted for the murder. Christians picketed Matthew's funeral, carrying posters reading: "God hates fags." In the United States, Christians also carry posters claiming that God wants gay men and lesbians  killed. We in Britain may find such practices repugnant, but we are not free of violent practices, the most extreme example being the Soho bombing.

It is generally accepted that Matthew was yet another victim of a culture of hatred towards gay men and lesbians. Given that Christians picket gay  funerals, and that the Church generally, but not universally, maintains a position of exclusion based on an understanding that gay people are ontologically immoral or pathological, it can be suggested that the Church is, at least in part, responsible for the culture of violence that led to Matthew's death. It can further be suggested that Christians are, to some degree, responsible for their Christian brothers and sisters proclaiming divine hatred towards gay men and lesbians. If as a Christian one does not wish to be associated with and held accountable for Christian violence, one must at the very least denounce those Christians who practice violence.

Violence is not simply a matter of doing overt physical harm to another. There is institutionalized overt physical assault (e.g. war); personal covert violence (e.g. violation of a person in ways that are psychologically and/or spiritually destructive); and institutionalized covert violence (e.g. institutions or structures violate the personhood of another) (see Robert McAfee Brown, Religion and Violence, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987, pp.7-8).

Admiral Duncan, Old Compton Street, London

Obvious examples of violence range from physical harm to systematic injustice. But if we take seriously that covert attacks on another's personhood are also a form of violence, we must be cognizant of the use of dehumanizing and violent language, psychological and spiritual repression, the creation of institutional structures that formally exclude,  and scriptural and theological interpretations that define gay being as less than human. Defining a group of people as "less than human" has often been used to justify both overt and covert violence against them.

The United Reformed Church is now debating whether it will formalise the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from the full life of the Church. It is generally accepted that formal discrimination and exclusion of people based on their class, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation/practice is a form of injustice and repression, and that injustice and repression are forms of violence. Further, if the Church contributes to an individual and/or institutional justification for violence (based on particular theological and biblical teachings) it implicates itself in all realisations of that violence, even when practised by others. The Church is complicit in the violent acts of others when their violence is a result of Christian teaching and practice, and it should be held accountable by society. I have not heard a convincing argument that exempts the Church in general and the United Reformed Church in particular from the ethical demands to overcome and avoid such violence. Justifications based on selective literalist readings of the particular biblical passages are unimpressive.

It seems reasonable to ask why the Church involves itself in violence. First, it may be that the Church maintains, on theological and ethical grounds, that overt and/or covert violence against certain groups of people is necessary. Some Christians believe that gay people are rejected by God, that gay sexual practice is an abomination and should be prohibited if not eradicated. Such a position calls for, at the very least,  covert violence in the form of exclusion. Such Christians should simply state their position clearly: yes, we discriminate against gay people because that discrimination is justified given our theological, anthropological, and biblical understandings.

Second, it is possible that the Church does not accept that its anthropology and structures result in overt and covert violence against gay people. If this is the case, the Church would claim that its teaching of personhood and its institutional prejudice and exclusion of gay men and lesbians does not contribute to the culture of violence that victimises them. Such a claim is problematic, however. If the Church takes such a position it is declaring its own irrelevance and impotence to influence, for good or ill, the practices and attitudes of the society in which it has pitched its tent. If, on the other hand, the Church does claim to possess and exercise a moral and spiritual authority which can and does influence people and society, it must also admit that it contributes to a culture of violence towards gay people. To finesse this paradox is an expression of naiveté at best and dishonesty at worse.

Third, it is possible that the Church actually recognises its own attitudes and acts of violence towards gay men and lesbians, its complicity in the acts of violence of others, understands that violence as ethically and theologically wrong, but still does nothing to stop it. One might ask why. Perhaps the most potent reason for the Church's reluctance to speak out against its own violence is the perceived fear of disunity. For generations the Church has asked men and women of colour, straight women, lesbians, and gay men, to wait for justice because their full and open inclusion would cause conflict and schism. Even when the Church recognized that its practices marginalised others and resulted in institutional injustice and individual trauma, it continued those practices in order to protect its own peace and unity. In the present debate in the United Reformed Church, it has been made clear that maintaining the peace and unity of the church is of paramount importance, more important than justice or judgment.  

The United Reformed Church knows that its peace is fragile. It has voiced its intention of avoiding a "witch hunt" against gays already in the church, thereby admitting that the acceptance of Resolution 34 could lead to the creation of spiritual and social attitudes and an institutional ethos that might further victimise gay people. The very use of the phrase "witch hunt" highlights the fact that the church is introducing language and structures that may encourage violence. If the United Reformed Church actually wants to avoid a witch hunt, it can do so by avoiding the language and structures that encourage the hunt in the first place. However, as long as unity is more important than the avoidance of covert and overt violence, the best we can hope for is a genuine effort by the Church to shun the violence it has itself encouraged.

It has been argued by Christians that Christian theology, ethics, and anthropology offer an alternative to Western individualism. It is said that Christianity offers instead an understanding of society that is based on organic, corporate, covenantal oneness. This understanding is, in part, grounded in a theological interpretation of the Trinity, in which each member can only be defined in relation to the others, where their relationship is organic and covenantal, and where the character and actions of one are intimately related to the character and actions of the others. The Trinity offers a model for relations between individuals and in community that understands human identity and nature as existing in a corporate wholeness with clear ethical implications.

If we take this argument seriously, then each Christian finds his/her identity and meaning in relationship to others. Each Christian is responsible for and accountable to others in God's covenantal community. Responsibility and accountability come in degrees, of course. Saying the Church contributes to the culture of violence is not to say each Church member should be held morally and legally responsible for all violence. But it is to say that Christians who recognize individual and institutional covert and/or overt violence in the Church should denounce it.

Copyright © 1999 Dale Rominger

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