What role does Christianity play in the murder of the openly gay mayoral candidate in Mississippi?

Mar 05, 2013

Last week, an openly gay mayoral candidate was beaten, set on fire and dumped near a river in Mississippi. The incident has sparked a public debate about whether or not Christians, by not supporting homosexuals, play a role in this type of anti-gay violence.

Brad Hirschfield said, "Does teaching that any group of people represent a "threat to society" or are sinful, as some Christians - and followers of other monotheistic faiths - do, create a potentially dangerous environment for those people so labeled? It certainly does. So does assigning guilt to an entire tradition, as some anti-Christians seem to be doing. "

Do you agree with Brad? Do Christians play a role in anti-gay violence? Is it wrong to blame a religion for such violence?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic.

It seems that people will stop at nothing when it comes to exploting other people's suffering.  And even when they do so in pursuit of (what they think of as) a good cause, it's a dangerous path to follow.


Marco McMillian was killed.  That is all anyone knows for sure.  But that has not stopped people from assuming that he was killed because he was gay, and that somehow the fault, or some large measure of it,  lies with Chrsitianity.  Are such assumption justified?  Are they fair?  Is the counter claim that Chrsitianity is totally free of any responsibility because anyone who did such a thing is, by definition, not a Chrisitan?


Could it be that this a moment when we need to stop lobbing verbal bombs and selve-serving rationalizations at one another?  Could it be that we need to learn to distinguish between collective guilt and collective responsibility?  Seems to me that the former is almost always a bad idea and that the latter is almost a good one.


What do you think about both the causes of Mr. McMillian death and the conversation it is sparking?


Let's get started

One of the churches in our community has a sign saying, "Jesus, friend of sinners, has a lot of friends here" I get it that we all fall short of the mark; but often we judge others' sins as worse than our own. The antipathy towards homosexuals seems to fall into that and justify loathing of homosexuals.

You are spot on about the fact that many people judge their own short comings, if they see them at all, as "challenges" but see the short comings of others as "sins".  Ideally, it should be the opposite, and if it were, whatever one's theological or philosophical orientation, far fewer people would get hurt in this world.

It is also true that sexual matters are particulalry charged because they are so central to who we are as people.  Ironically, that is what the harshest people on both side of this debate agree upon, and why they fight so hard for their respective positions.  Perhaps they could each recognize that to the extent that they both appreciate the importance of sexual identity and practice, they could agree to discuss it in ways that didn't always seem to demand one side denigrating the other...

Seems to me that if you rewrite the question, replacing "Christians" with "Muslims" and "gay" with "infidel," you have your answer. You can't hold an entire faith responsible for the acts of extremists--your average Muslim didn't fly an airplane into a building, and your average evangelical Christian isn't in favor of beating up homosexuals. The only way to make the case suggested by your question is to ascribe fanaticism to all members of any group of common believers--a pretty unwieldy worldview, right?

To be clear, I raise the question not because I have decided upon the answer, or even because I am comfortable with the question, but because it is being raised by many other people and this is a forum where we try to make better sense of the biggest and often ugliest public issues.


As to your claim about collective guilt, you are totally correct about it being a foolish and even dangerous way to assess any tradition.  That said, there is something called collective or shared responsibility, and it is a VERY valuable way to think about things.  In short, when members of a shared community, be it faith-based or otherwise, have a member who uses their tradtion to justify something problematic or worse, while only the one who acted is guilty, it should be a moment when all who claim membership should be taking stock, at the very least of how to prevent whatever happened from happening again.  That applies to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Republicans, Democrats, etc.

It seems to me that the church has done little to challenge the mentality that creates an atmosphere where these types of attacks can happen. The conservative christians almost condone it, by speaking of the evil they associate with homosexuality. More openly minded churches are afraid of the consequences within their denominations if they were to take a strong stand for equal rights and greater understanding.

"The church"?  About what church are you writing?  The presumption that there is one church is itself indicative of potentially anti-Christian bias.  I am sure that it NOT what you intended, but it's worth pointing out that terms like "the church", "conservative Christians", etc need to be employed carefully, especially when we label the class as a means to ascribe guilt.


The same could be said about the phrase "open-minded churches".  Are such churches open to those who may not share their views on homosexuality?  Do they imagine that there are people who may not think that it is permissible and yet remain decent human beings and even good Chrsitians?  Seems to me that people everywhere confuse the definiton of what is good with the definition of what they happen to agree with. 


Do that with religion and you wind up with very small gods who we create in our own image, and the not other way around, as described in Genesis.

Is Lawrence Reed a Christian? We need to know his motives before we make socio-cultural judgments.

Like so much about this case, we don't know.  And you are certainly correct, that without knowing his motives, it's hard to make any real judgements about the potential theological ground of what he is charged with doing.


The one thing we can say, independant of knowing Reed's mind, is that were he subjected to a great deal of homophobic teaching, it may have shaped his understanding of what is fair to do to gay people.  Again, that is not always the case, but there is enough evidence for that ocurring that we need to be very careful about the language we use to describe those who may think of as sinful or "other".

Not all Christians are Leviticus-loving homophobes. There are seven clergy members where I attend church, and two are gay men, and one is lesbian.

You are certainly correct.  I hope you also realize that not all lovers of Leviticus are necessarily homophobes.  Don't to others, or to other literatures what I am sure you don't want done to you or whatever scriptures you happen to love.  Fair?


I have no quibble with the gay and lesbian clergy at your church, or any other house of worship.  To be clear though, I have no fundamental problem with those places that find it incompatible for those to go together.   If your precluded the possibility of thinking that homosexual sex is biblically and also currently prohibited, then you are as narrow as those who insist that there is no way in which it could be permited.


The Bible, as I understand it, is the infinite gift of an infinite God, and therefore there many ways to read it authentically.  The bigger challenge, in our ever-shrinking world especially, is how the different readers treat each other.

How is it that Christians of any creed can countenance and even tacitly / explicitly support violence or intolerance toward gays? I have found no examples of Jesus' teachings on hatred toward homosexuals. Does the calculus change if we assume that homosexual attraction is innate (i.e., God given) and not a choice that would imply sin? Violence against homosexuals seems fundamentally unChristian to me.

You make a crucial point.  One can interpret the bible on this issue in multiple ways, but there seems to me to be no justification for violence, including verbal violence, against people who are gay, or who sin, according to those who understand it as such, in any other way. 


In terms of violence, the source of the attraction -- God-given or humanly-chosen -- should make ZERO difference.  There simply is no room for violence committed against others because they do not share certain people's religious ideas.  Once that is taken care of, we can discuss whether gayness from God, from genetic make up, or freely chosen should shape our thinking about what it means to be gay, but violence?  NEVER.

Do you regard the more fanatical sects of Christianity and other monotheisms as "True Christians" or "True Muslims"? They seem to me to be following the literal interpretation of certain passages in their holy texts. I'd advocate different Christian sects to develop their own bibles similar to the Jefferson Bible, cutting out and abandoning what is no longer taught or socially acceptable.

Too often "True Anythings" are those who live as the one using the term understands the truth.  Are those who I deem perverters of a tradtion still true to it?  They are if they source their actions in the same tradtion about which we are talking.  I admit, it's painful to feel that lever of connection to those we deem so wrong, but that is actually the basis of correction from within a tradtion, which is always the best way to go.


As to different Bibles, I would suggest that in some sense, there are as many bibles as there are readers of "The Bible".  Even were we to all agree about what words are included in "the Bible", and we do not, the eyes/mind/heart with which each person reads, are different.  All reading is actually a form of interpretation, and various traditions are best understood not as uniform bodies as much as they should be understood as communities of interpretation. 

I'm quite sure you won't answer this question, but it needs to be asked. "Why do liberals attack Christianity?" What is it that about it that fills them with such rancor? Why are they against normal morals?

Of course I will answer you, and I won't even assume that you framed your question as you did to provoke me into doing, but because you are so deeply frustrated by what you experience as anti-Chrisitan bias.  I happen to share your concern about that issue.


There is no doubt that there can be everybit as much intolerance on the the "left" as can be found on the "right".  Fanaticsim is not the burden of any one traditon -- religious, politcal or otherwise.  In fact, it can sometimes be easier to deal with intolerance from the right that from the left because at least those on the right often appreciate that they are intolerant -- in fact they may be proud of it -- while those on the left often fail to aknowledge that they too have that issue to deal with.


I would not be complete in my answer to you however, if I did not point out that your use of the term "normal morals" may be part of the cause of the problem you encounter.  Who exactly determines what is normal?  Must something always be agreeable to you for it to qualify as "normal" and/or "moral"?  Is there any possibility that those categories include more than that with which you are comfortable?  If not, then don;t be surprised that you anger some folks who can't undertand why your is the only normal or moral path. 

Is the issue religion or interpretation of the religious edicts? Beyond that, who owns Christianity? Is it the people who say the message is love, or those who emphasize divine punishment for sinners? How can a society that values freedom and free expression handle those who, while using their right to express views say things others find repugnant? I don't claim to have answers and, in fact, I'm not sure there are nice clean solutions. But I do believe society can and should wrestle with the questions.

So much wisdom in your comments, and so little time to examine it all, but thank you for sharing!


In short order, I would simply say that there is no separation between "religion" and "interpretation of religion".  And one can argue that like any vast, dare I say infinite, thing, there can be multiple and even competing ownerships -- many of which can be authentic even as they are in direct disagreement with each other. 


It is worth noting that love and punishment need not be diametrically opposed as you suggest.  In fact, it would be quite healthy for so-called "love people" to more deeply appreciate the claims of things like justice and punishment, while those who love to discuss the latter two, would widen their notion of love to include more than that whcih they find loving. 

First we have to establish "What is Christianity"? But when you try this, you find out it's an unanswerable question as there is so much divergence in belief. I think we need to add the modifier "right wing conservative" before Christianity in this context. Then we can talk.

Actually "we" do not.  Who is the we?  Tradtions are defined by those who follow them and gain traction for their understanding.  In other words Christianity -- the vast 200 year old project -- belongs to all those who claim and in so doing help to define it.  the same can be said Judaism, Islam, etc.


We would all to better to stop fighting for our respective definitons and ownership claims to that which we love, and fight instead to live our own lives in light of those tradtitions, engaging others to the extent we choose to in ways which they experience as loving, not as we tell them they ought to feel loved.

unfortunately, I have to wrap up a bit early today, but appreciate all teh wise comments and interesting questions that were shared.  You will be able to find a recap of this conversation, including new comments and responses, later on in the On Faith section.


Thanks, and Peace!

In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Brad Hirschfield is a public ethicist, author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by Beliefnet.com, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see www.bradhirschfield.com.
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