This is the second half of a meditation on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” with an eye toward lessons that are relevant for Mormons engaged in supporting LGBT causes.
In Part 1 of this discussion, we focused on looking inward first and “cleansing the inner vessel”. To put it in the terms Stephen R. Covey used in describing the first three of his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this is where we obtain “Private Victory” – that is to say, the self-mastery that is the “essence of character growth”. Why focus on the inside first? Because, as Covey points out: “private victories precede public victories”.
Yes, the black civil rights movement achieved much success because it’s cause was just. But, to get across its message of justice, it needed the proper means that would allow that message to be heard. That started with the self-purification of the advocates and was then manifested in the non-violent tactics that were adopted. It was private victory preceding public victory. In Part 2 we will explore more of King’s motivations and methods that helped him achieve his goals.
Be Not Extremist…
A fundamental truth in the 1960’s, as today, is that people on the same “side” fell on a spectrum and not everyone agreed on the same course of action. In preaching non-violence, Martin Luther King had to stand up not just to racist institutions, but also to those fighting for rights, but in the wrong way. He recognized the danger of those who wanted to win by force (motivated by hatred), rather than persuasion (motivated by love). Said he, “I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”
In the eyes of some Mormons, any advocacy for LGBT causes will brand you as an “extremist”. To some in the gay community, advocacy for religious activity and hetronormative institutions such as marriage is anathema. We see in each a similarity in attitude: an “Us vs. Them” dichotomy that conceives the other as an enemy.
It’s not difficult to understand why: The former has been taught that gays were sinners and condemned by God. The latter has a long experience of rejection and persecution. The unfortunate conclusion they’ve both made, however, is that the other (and everything they stand for) must be rejected.
We must temper these extreme views in order to attain reconciliation through love and understanding. It is interesting to note that while Stonewall was a violent reaction against police who were raiding a gay bar, for the most part, the legacy of the civil rights movement is that non-violent protest was the default course of action for the LGBT rights movement too.
…Unless an Extremist for Love
We owe much of that to King, who reframed his critic’s arguments: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
I think that where the gay rights movement truly turned a corner is when it was able to frame the debate in terms of love. Its recent successes in Washington, Minnesota and Maryland were evidence that the majority in society has come to see LGBT rights as a question of love and justice.
We are still working on this within the Mormon community however. The LDS Church has softened its rhetoric dramatically in the last several years and abandoned previous positions that were untenable. However, its recent Supreme Court brief still argues that marriage equality remakes marriage into a selfish adult-centered orientation rather than a loving family-centered one. And many Mormons immediately jump to questions of morality whenever LGBT issues arise. It will take the continued efforts of “extremists for love” to disprove these remaining biases. As more and more people meet loving and committed gay and lesbian couples, many raising children, the power of the opposition’s arguments weakens. Person by person, and especially with a rising generation, these attitudes are shifting and old prejudices are withering away.
Do Not Fear Tension: It Leads to Growth
Now, I know many may think that this vision sounds very fairy-tale-ish, and I so I do think it’s important to point out that Mormon LGBT advocates will absolutely face tension. Last Sunday after Church I got into a fairly intense discussion with my Branch President and his wife about homosexuality. I’ve watched over the last several months as they wrestle with fact that a very close family member of theirs is gay and recently got married. (To their credit, they attended the wedding, even if they weren’t fully supportive). Our discussion, though friendly, certainly was marked by tension as we explored many different angles of current Mormon theology with the facts on the ground around us.
We did not attack each other, but we each shared from our experiences and beliefs, which provided many good examples to validate or challenge different points raised. We’ll see where this goes in the future, but I was pleased that the discussion came out into the open and that we each left with some things to reflect on. This is how we will grow.
Said King, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” He continued later, “Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.”
This is where Mormon advocates can do the most good. Whether conversing in the foyer, writing in online forums or marching in Pride parades, we have the opportunity to dramatize the situation around us, and inject real-life stories into abstract theology. Instead of reinforcing one correlated vision of the world, we can incite dialogue that brings in the diversity of human experience.
Now, we cannot speak of tension without addressing the elephant in the room: Proposition 8 created immense tension within the Church – and not always in good ways. But in retrospect, we must recognize that good has come of it. LDS Church leaders have clearly recognized the tension and divisions that it caused, and the reaction from inside and outside Mormonism doubtless accelerated the change in tone that the Church has manifested toward LGBT individuals in the years since.
Recognize and Emphasize the Underlying Causes of Tension, and then Seek Reconciliation
Tension can lead to growth, but also to retrenchment, so we must be careful to manage and frame tension positively. After the white clergymen bemoaned the loss of “order” due to the civil rights demonstrations, King called them out, saying: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations… It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
In the aftermath of Proposition 8, the LDS Church and its members were subject to scathing criticism for their actions, at times attracting angry demonstrations outside temples and meetinghouses. When rights are taken away from a group, it should not have been surprising that they would naturally have a negative response. Yet, while no one likes seeing the serenity of such places disturbed by protests, it was unfortunate that rather than reaching out to understand why people were so furious, too often the response from the Mormon community was to ratchet our long-ingrained persecution complex into high gear and see ourselves as the victims. Indignantly, certain LDS leaders claimed that such criticism constituted a threat to our religious liberty.
Fortunately, not all took this approach. The Oakland Stake held firesides to promote understanding of the LGBT experience and helped reconcile those who had been divided over the issue. Others reached out individually to listen to the stories of their gay and lesbian friends and neighbors, and as a result many have since changed their position and expressed regret for having ever supported Prop. 8.
Tension is a necessary condition for growth and we will encounter it frequently in the struggle for equality. But if we ever feel that “our brother has something against us”, let us not adopt a defensive position, but rather the Christ-like one that reminds us to “go… be reconciled to your brother” in promoting the spirit of understanding (Matt. 5:23-24). This will channel tension in a positive way that promotes promotes our objectives. After all, the point of direct action is not to antagonize, but to bring about dialogue that leads to change.
Relations with the Church
Now, as then, Churches are in a tricky position. We may wonder, as MLK: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
I, too, salute all those who have taken a risk in standing up for their LGBT brothers and sisters. But here I must invoke perhaps the most important lesson for the Mormon LGBT advocate: You may be disappointed at times in the church, however to be most effective, that disappointment must be rooted in love and appreciation.
I cannot rival the magnificent words of Rev. King, who said it best: “But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.”
I understand why people leave the Church and that at many times it is necessary. I do not presume to judge anyone who has made that decision (knowing full well that I have felt pulled at times to do the same). But if we are to be most effective in making a change within our Mormon faith tradition as well as society, we must have appreciation for that community and faith.
We should keep and cherish all that is good and uplifting, even as we work to root out the bad and damaging. I recognize that this is difficult, especially for those who have suffered most. But I’ve been inspired to see so many LGBT Mormons who through forgiveness have been able to be healed in some measure from their wounds, and help bring about positive changes, whether or not they are active in the Church.
But if there is any takeaway that I see in Martin Luther King, Jr’s life and activism, it is that love must be in the center of everything we do. Love for God, love for justice and love for our fellow man. And with that, an abiding faith that ultimately, love will prevail.
I believe that it will.