Earlier this year I was honored to be invited to deliver the homily at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church as part of their Sunday worship on Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend. Following is both the contemporary reading I chose and the text of my homily.
A Collection of Quotes from Coretta Scott King
“Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”
(Chicago Tribune, 4/1/98)
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and that I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I appeal to everyone who believes in [my husband’s] dream, to make room at the table of brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
“Like Martin, I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”
“Somewhere in Between” by Michael J. Bayly
St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church
January 15, 2006
One reason I appreciate the quotes we’ve just heard from Coretta Scott King is that they remind me of that crucial point in her husband’s life when he made a leap of insight and recognized the connections between seemingly unrelated issues. It was 1967, and he saw the connections, the relationship, between racial inequality, social inequality, and militarism. As a result of this connection-making, he soon denounced the Vietnam War. A short time later he was assassinated.
Many have concluded that it was no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed soon after he started making the connections; soon after he began denouncing the Vietnam War in particular, and American militarism in general.
What interests me is the place that both Martin and Coretta came to and stood so as to make the connections they made, and speak the words of solidarity they spoke. I’d like to explore that place with you this morning, that sacred space that I’ve come to call “somewhere in between.”
song written by Kate Bush and included on her latest album, Aerial. Within the context of this song, “somewhere in between” refers to and celebrates twilight – that magical in-between time that is neither yet also both day and night.
This idea of “somewhere in between” also has theological significance for me. I once had a theology professor at the College of St. Catherine who maintained that there is a tendency for humans to gravitate to the extremes; to move, in other words, towards those often polarizing extremes of a given issue or situation. Why is this so?
It’s because at the extremes it is safe. You know exactly where you stand and in what to believe. Everything, and I mean everything, is clear-cut, black and white. One doesn’t have to be bothered by pesky questions or unsettling ambiguities.
I think of the extremes as steep and jagged mountains – majestic and triumphant, but, in reality, cold and barren; unable to support any growth or any life of depth or complexity. They are also places from which any questioning or healthy skepticism is banished. They are often, therefore, the birthplace of fanatical devotion to narrow preoccupations; the birthplace of irrational fears associated with difference and change; the birthplace of dehumanizing stereotypes and sweeping judgmental pronouncements.
I think of the institutional component of our Church and how so many of its recent pronouncements regarding gay and lesbian people have clearly been born from such places. I think of the two extreme views that the Church presents of gay men – the first being that of the promiscuous sexual outlaw, the second being that of the afflicted individual bound to lifelong celibacy.
Well, I’m sorry, but I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at being either celibate or promiscuous. I guess I’m somewhere in between.
Indeed, it’s what I long for – a searching life “somewhere in between.” Not a desperately searching life, but one filled with hope and the joy of pilgrimage, one that is respectful of honest doubts, one that is open to authentic relationships and to God in many worlds.
I hope one day to marry the man I love – and I have a dream of holding our marriage ceremony within the tidal zone of a beach, in that place “somewhere in between” the land and the sea.
Of course as you’re well aware, such a legal arrangement is currently impossible in Minnesota where neither sacramental nor civil marriages are recognized. And if our Archbishop and others in the archdiocese have their way, not only would civil marriage be banned, but all legal equivalents, such as domestic partnerships and civil unions.
I lament the recent actions taken by the archdiocese in support of the so-called “Minnesota Marriage Amendment” – an amendment that would enact such a sweeping ban on all types of same-gender unions. Such actions are a clear sign that the institutional Church has closed itself off from the Spirit of God present and active in the lives and relationships of gay and lesbian people.
The actions of the archdiocese derive from a place of extremism, and we know this because there’s no acknowledgement of the need for dialogue on this issue, let alone the attempt to engage in such dialogue.
When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, our Church hierarchy seems to be operating from that extreme position of religious imperialism: we have the answers, we have always had the answers, there can be no change, your experiences in the matter don’t count, you need to be quiet, you need to obey.
It doesn’t sound like the voice and message of Jesus, does it?
The total disregard of the findings of science is another way that we can tell that the recent actions of the archdiocese come from a place of extremism. The archdiocese justifies its active support of the “marriage amendment” by stating that same-gender marriage would be harmful for children as children do best in two-parent families in which the “complementarity of the sexes” is present. Yet to date, no relevant or credible evidence to support such a contention has been presented by the archdiocese. There are studies available that address this issue, yet none of their findings support the statements of the archdiocese.
One example: in a 2002 article in Pediatrics [Vol. 109 No. 2 February 2002, pp. 341-344], the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is reported that, “A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual. Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes.”
Clearly, there’s a tension within our Church when it comes to talking about issues of human sexuality. And I think this is because we often have two different models of revelation in conflict whenever we engage in such talk.
Many Catholics – including those in positions of ecclesiastical leadership – see truths about human life and relationships as being handed down from on high, complete and unchangeable. Yet as Pope John XXIII reminded us, “We are not on earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”
Such a statement implies that revelation filters upwards through human life and experience, that revelation is ongoing. This is a concept – a reality – that is both wondrous and unsettling.
Yet for those who, for whatever reason, have gravitated towards and entrenched themselves within the lofty mountains of religious extremism, it’s a concept that is very threatening. Embracing the reality of ongoing revelation challenges us to come down from our isolated bastions of superiority, challenges us to come out of our comfortable ghettos of formulated answers, challenges us to enter into compassionate – and at times difficult – engagement with others in that often messy but uniquely human space in-between the extremes.
I would imagine that most of us are somewhere in between the various extremes that both our church and society often present to us. Even the president gives us the false choice of extremes when he says that we must be either with him or with the terrorists. I don’t think so.
No, I, and many of you, are somewhere in between. And I think that’s okay. In fact, I think it’s more than okay. I believe we’re called to stand and live in the often messy middle between polarizing extremes. Such an “in-between” place is like a valley – green and fertile – that lies between those mountains of extremism. It’s not a place of indecision or lukewarm commitments. It’s not a place where “anything goes.” Rather it’s a place where we allow our convictions and beliefs the opportunity to be informed and shaped by new insights born of our experiences and the experiences of others; a place where we get to discover the light of God in unexpected places and faces.
In other words, that space between the extremes is the realm of authentic human experience, and therefore authentic religious experience. In that space we are all on the same level and can look into one another’s eyes as we share the reality and truth of our experiences. In that space we can walk and journey with each other, we can be in relationship. And in that space between the extremes we can collectively live and embody that fullness of life and truth that Jesus spoke about and that our church claims to possess. It is in the messy middle that we discern and embody God’s ongoing revelation and where accordingly, our church can be most catholic.
Our brother Jesus lived and died upon that middle ground, the ground of authentic human experience. And so did the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the heady days of the sixties, Dr. King must have been tempted to move towards the extremes. He could have stayed silent and obediently supported the status quo. He could have gone the other way and scaled the peaks of judgment and denouncement of white America, calling for a race war and for no dialogue and no compromise.
Instead, Martin reached out to others, worked with others, listened to others, forged relationships and alliances, and made the connections between various issues. His widow, Coretta, clearly continues his work.
May we continue such work also, and strive to always stay and live lives of consciousness and compassion in that sacred “in-between” space.
NOTE: Two weeks after I delivered this homily, Coretta Scott King passed away. She will always be remembered with love and gratitude by the GLBT community.
Open and closing images: Michael J. Bayly.