Two Orlandos, 40 years apart
1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a; Gal. 3:23-29; Lk 8:26-39
From Orlando West, Soweto, to Orlando, Florida, almost to the day 40 years apart – young people of colour having been gunned down in two Orlandos…
Orlando, Fla., a week ago seemingly happened because of a toxic mix of mental illness, homophobia, Muslim-fundamentalism and the violent gun culture of US society.
In Jesus’s days (although we know better today) Orlando gunman Waleed Mateen would have been called demon-possessed. The nameless man in Luke 8:26-39 had to be restrained because he exhibited the most common form of self-harm even today – self-mutilation. Perhaps this is not too unlike (as is possible in Mateen’s case) the intense self-hate and internalised homophobia which LGBTI people often struggle with in a society where heterosexuality is still mostly the exclusively prescribed norm. You turn on yourself and this can indeed turn violent.
Our Soweto Orlando which we commemorated the past week was enabled by the apartheid ideology which was backed by Christian-Nationalism, an ideology I was raised in. As Alvin Toffler says: While literacy was measured by other means in previous centuries, literacy in the 21st century will be measured by our ability to learn, to unlearn & to relearn. And so I’m in a process of unlearning this legacy and relearning; learning perhaps along with you to navigate our complex South African society. Sometimes I’ve got doubts like old Elijah whether I’m doing much better than my ancestors, but more about that later.
Some years ago I thought, because of the Anglican Communion’s global reach, this is where the breakthrough in the ongoing struggle about human sexuality church-wise, is to be expected. This is where full inclusion will come first and it’ll have worldwide ramifications which will have a fundamental influence filtering down through churches to change the culture of discrimination in grassroots communities. Ever since I’ve realised that being in global communion like the Communion is, has its own challenges and complexities. Sometime ago discussions were initiated at St George’s Cathedral to establish a pastoral response after same-sex unions have been legalised in South Africa, but those discussions somehow got halted along the way. I think Mpho Tutu Van Furst is correct when she says it’s beneficial when we’re confronted with a real life case like her own with which the church has to deal rather than only speaking about an issue. And I’ve been excited to hear of innovative suggestions coming forward for dioceses to be declared experimentally “open” to affirm its LGBTI clergy and to bless same-sex unions.
Like in the case of Elijah however, paralysed by fear and caught up in self-doubt wondering if he’s any better than his ancestors, God did a surprising thing to the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) which I belong to. It’s as if we’ve been raised up from under the broom tree of apartheid depression, as if we’ve been fed and strengthened, to get a glimpse of God; perhaps in the sound of sheer silence as in Elijah’s case, with a new vision of how surprisingly wide the ALL of God’s inclusivity is. The penny dropped that it indeed surpasses race, it surpasses gender, and it surpasses sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
The DRC took a momentous decision last October towards full inclusion and affirmation of its LGBTI members and clergy. For a moment there, on receiving this news, I felt free… for a moment I was free; I knew what freedom under this circumstances meant; and it felt light. Ever since my church got itself tied up in appeals against this decision and in legalities which remind of those rejected by Paul in the letter to the Galatians.
After having been fed and strengthened and having received a glimpse of God, Elijah was sent to anoint another generation of leadership. 40 years on another generation of young people has a multitude of new challenges to deal with in South Africa; new questions they’re asking. 40 years on young people see new visions.
Perhaps it’s the responsibility of older generations to at least not burden another generation with their own unfinished business and so visit the sins of the fathers and mothers upon them.
We create the conditions for homo- and transphobic hate crimes like we saw in Orlando which is pervasive in the killing of lesbians and the misnomer “corrective rape” in our society; in the targeting of effeminate gay males and transgender people in rural places like Ceres, Wolseley and Tulbach over the past two years. The price is high. The language we speak, the exclusion we continue with humiliating demands on gay clergy for celibacy while it’s not demanded of others, the fact that we’re withholding God’s blessing from some relationships and reserve it for a few; all this contributes to the culture in which atrocities like the most recent one can occur. The message that you are “lesser than” is communicated loud and clear.
Relationships and unions are in need of blessing; the church dare not stand between God and God’s people whom God seeks to bless. If we realise the harm that is made possible through our exclusionary practices, we can’t choose to keep clinging onto the interpretations of certain Biblical texts and the dogmas we use to prop up this discrimination. It’s simply similar to the Biblical legitimization the DRC has for many years provided for apartheid. We have to revisit these interpretations; we have to reread and unlearn and relearn.
The pain is too much and doesn’t bring about the results of a caring, connected and compassionate community we’re seeking to create. Perhaps we’re rather invited to tap into a new glimpse of God. 40 years on another generation asks it of us. We’re invited to share with them in a new vision of God. Perhaps we’ll also encounter it in “the sound of sheer silence”.
And therefore you’re invited to hold a moment of silence now; not only in solidarity but also to access the strength we need; the inner strength of the authority we possess having been created as equals in the image of God; as you make yourself comfortable, you may want to close your eyes, concentrate on your in and out breathing which connects you to the rhythm of the earth, to the rhythm of life; as we seek a new vision of the divine, a glimpse of God, in the sound of sheer silence… Amen.
– Laurie Gaum, St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, 19.06.16
(Image: Painting by Mario Ribas)