A gay friend shared with me today how delighted he is in the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage; he spoke of how the ruling brought validation to same-sex couples he knows who have waited for years for equal rights. Yesterday a friend on the other side of the issue shared her consternation. Many people with social conservative convictions fear that they and their views will be consigned to the closet, just like gays and lesbians in the past (See this article and video). I would assume many of you have friends whose emotions and convictions range across the spectrum on this issue. But how often do you and I sit down together with all of them to listen and share? We need to take the conversation from the court room and the closet to the table.
My friend and colleague Dr. Brad Harper is writing a book with his son, Drew. Like me, Brad holds to a traditional view of marriage based on our reading of Christian Scripture. His son Drew is a self-professed gay man, who recently penned an article titled “I Infiltrated an ‘Ex-Gay’ Group in New York City—And This Is What It Did to Me.” Father and son are writing a book together. Drew writes the following of his relationship with Brad, their book, and the “other”:
In the coming months, my father and I are releasing a book, Space At The Table: Conversations Between an Evangelical Theologian and His Gay Son. He and I don’t believe the same things. But we’ve found a way to maintain a loving relationship amid that. This is the kind of story I wish America heard more often. Recognizing the humanity of an “other” is something this discourse still lacks profoundly — from both sides.
Brad’s and Drew’s book will model what it means to recognize the humanity of “an ‘other.’” Drew’s article also reveals his growing recognition of the humanity of the members in the ex-gay group he infiltrated. Whose humanity do you and I need to come to recognize? It is hard to recognize the other as human if we only glance at them from a distance across a courtroom or on the steps outside the Supreme Court. It is also hard to recognize their humanity if we banish them to the closet. As the gay man and artist Simon in the movie As Good As It Gets reveals, if you look at someone long enough, you will see their humanity. One of the best places to look at others and listen to them is across the table.
In closing, I wish to draw attention to what I learned about this subject through my conversations over the years with my friend and colleague, the late Abbot Kyogen Carlson of Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. Kyogen and I embraced very different metaphysical beliefs and ethical practices, but we shared a common curiosity and desire to dialogue with “the other.” Based on our prior interaction as individuals who seek to engage openly those with different convictions, Kyogen and I initiated dialogues with members of our communities. For many years now, members of his liberal Zen community and my conservative Evangelical community have met to discuss our convictions at the potluck table where everyone brings something to share, Buddhist and Evangelical, including gay and straight. Based on what I learned from Kyogen and our table meetings, I close with these open questions:
Will we reach out and contact people who are open to dialogue, no matter their convictions? People like my friends Eric and Eugene, two gay men who were together over sixty years? Eugene died in December 2013 and was not able to witness the Supreme Court ruling. People like my friend Jeanna, who has a sensitive heart and philosophical mind, and who is also a Lesbian? People like my friend Phil, another caring and sensitive soul, who founded a ministry to support those like himself who desire to leave a same-sex lifestyle? People like my friends Brad and Drew? None of these individuals are simply or ultimately “other;” just like you and me, all of them are human persons with real stories, real hopes and fears, and who want to be treated for who they are, and not what we project onto them.
If we want to move beyond projections and understand how other people around the table view themselves, we need to ask open questions. Ask those gathered for dialogue the questions Kyogen encouraged all of us to ask: “How do you arrive at your convictions? What is the process by which you arrive at this decision?” “What do you do if you have a question concerning what your faith tradition is telling you? How do you resolve that tension? What challenges have you had? Have you worked through your challenges, and has it made you stronger?” Also, ask them to share their personal stories about how they relate to their personal faith and ethical systems. The result can be very rewarding, as Kyogen shared:
It is a very profound thing to hear somebody share in a very personal way how they come to the position that they hold. When they’re across the table from you, and you’ve just shared a meal with them, you cannot dismiss their perspective at all. There’s something transformative about that experience. While you might not agree with them regarding their perspective, you may have a deeper understanding about what it means to the other person and why it’s important, and an understanding of how it works in their lives. Those types of things humanize people’s faith positions rather than bumper-sticker-label them. I have a thing about bumper stickers; they label other people’s perspectives too often. Our dialogues were the opposite of such labeling. (For a fuller discussion of this subject, see Kyogen’s and my interview with John W. Morehead in Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, vol. 10/2, “Religious Diplomacy Conversation with Kyogen Carlson and Paul Louis Metzger”).
Legal decisions of various kinds certainly have their place. But legal decisions alone do not humanize people. Open conversations across the table do.