Forty-nine dead; Fifty-three woundedi
Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist.
Old German Proverb
In his book States of Denial, Stanley Cohenii writes about the deadly triangle of perpetrator, victim and bystander. In particular, he raises questions about citizen bystander apathy in the presence of suffering, atrocities, violence and injustice.
In the early hours of the morning on June 12, an armed gunman entered a gay night club in Orlando, Florida and began a shooting spree. According to local news media, forty-nine were killed and another fifty-three were injured. Local police killed the single gunman.
What is a bystander to do?
According to Cohen, there are three types of bystanders:
Immediate, literal, physical or internal: these are the individuals who are actual witnesses to atrocities and suffering or hear about them from first-hand sources;
External or metaphorical: these are the individuals who receive information from secondary sources such as the mass media or humanitarian organizations;
Bystander states: these are governmental and non-governmental organizations such as the United States of America or Amnesty International.iii
The questions for bystanders (for in the age of television and electronic media, we are all bystanders) are three-fold. (1) How do we individually make sense of the suffering and violence which we witness? (2) Collectively, how do we make sense of this witnessed violence or these witnessed atrociites? (3) How do we individually and collectively choose to respond to it?
In the wake of these killing zones, such as the one in Orlando, Florida over the weekend, that target the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, and a-sexual minorities and their communities, what form of Christian social activism Is called for? What pastoral ministries are called for? What is the path to healing this social cancer of sexual gender orientation xenophobia in our midst?
When we think about American cultures of violence, what spiritual and social metamorphosis is essential to transform an American sociological landscape in which hate crimes and gun violence against people of color: followers of world religions such as Islam, people of various gender orientations, immigrants, and poor people are accelerating?
The question for Christian bystanders is perhaps more complex. What in our theological teachings; our worship practices; our religious and cultural heritages both facilitate and privilege such acts of hatred and violence? Where and when do we become complicit bystanders to these various forms of violence – thus giving their perpetrators explicit or tacit permission to continue them?
Three Intersecting Cultural Values at Work in the American hate culture
I want to propose that three intersecting cultural values are at work in these kinds of violent situations:
The first of these is our American culture’s proclivity for American men to use guns to defend their presumably heterosexual manhood. Physically, spiritually, and economically assaulting sexual minorities, religious minorities, and racial minorities is a virulent aspect of American culture. Using guns is a logical outcome of our American culture’s teachings about the use of guns to reinforce male dominance and male superiority. Using guns is a logical outcome of our American and Christian fears and spiritual teachings about the need to exclude some human beings from full inclusion. The presence of these fears raises questions for Christian theology and praxis. What is wrong with these current spiritual and religious teachings? What needs to change for the culture of violence to change? It is imperative to note when asking questions of social violence such as hate killings to recognize that when actual practices of welcoming human diversity become sinful, human acts of social and physical violence are running close by. When any one group of individuals is demonized by the majority, hate crimes are a logical outcome. .
The second is that of our weaponized American Christian proclivity to deny the full humanity of sexual, ethnic, and racial minorities. All too often, official church teachings reinforce the generationally-transmitted demography of hate in American culture. Individuals and entire communities do this by creating theological mandates to exclude and to shun individuals who represent “otherness” in this case gay lesbian, bi-sexual, queer, and a-sexual gender identities. The church and its theologians and its kyriarchy do this by first portraying members of these social groups as the other and secondly by attacking their otherness as deviant and evil.iv Theologically and then sociologically denying these others our recognition and celebration of their full humanity (i.e., made in God’s image) opens a religion’s and a culture’s doors to prejudice, bigotry, hate, and fully embodied violence.v
Underlying this reality is another less visible one. Christian teachings and ideologies about gender and sexuality first set in place and then cements in place the American socio-religious cultural matrix for gender-orientation hatred and gun violence against sexual minorities to emerge in the religious and secular commons.
Christian hate groups have good bystander approval ratings for many Americans (including Mennonite Christians) because hate speech and exclusionary policies are actively promoted or tacitly supported by denominational purity codes and policies of exclusion.vi They are actively or tacitly supported by many individuals in the pews on Sunday mornings. They are actively or tacitly promoted by many ministers and priests in the pulpit during worship events. Most certainly, they are very actively promulgated by denominational policies and practices that exclude people from congregations, denominations, and worship experiences of all kinds such as the Eucharist, church-approved weddings, funerals, and adoption-confirmation practices.vii
The Continuum of Hate
The social distance between denomination-wide votes to exclude sexual minorities from full membership; the communal decision to exclude minority individuals from the spiritual and social embrace of a full and equal participation; the hate stares; theologically-motivated shunning and exclusion from full participation; and overtly hostile and violent homophobic acts: this social distance of religiously-motivated violence to a mass shooting in a gay nightclub in Orlando is not very great.
Cohen repeatedly makes the point that when bystanders do nothing to protest cultural injustice, violence-promoting ideologies and hate-ridden theologies, oppressive and violent behavior is enabled against the reviled, disdained, and objectified other.
As the Mennonite Church USA vacillates on the topics of full inclusion for sexual minorities, it is actively participating in and contributing to an American hate crime culture. In addition, it is actively promoting a culture of violence to individuals whose sexual orientation and gender identity preferences do not fit the social majority.
Knowing this, the questions that each one of us faces are simple: what kind of bystander are we? What kind of church are we? Are we God’s beloved community? Do we welcome everyone who shows up? Or are we a hate-inspired community that excludes all who do not fit our heterosexist and scientifically outdated purity codes?
ii Cohen is the Martin White Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His book, States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering is a penetrating analysis of political and personal denial in the face of violence.
iii Ibid., p. 15.
iv Jordan, M. D. (2003). Telling Truths in Church: Scandal, Flesh and Christian Speech. Boston, MA: Beacon.
vi Preheim, R. June 6, 2016. Mennonite Church Coming Apart Over Sexuality Issues. The Gazette. http://gazette.com/mennonite-church-coming-apart-over-sexuality-issues/article/1577964
vii Halder, R. July 18, 2015. Lament for the Institutionalized Church: Trauma, Rage and Hope from Kansas City. Our Stories Untold. Retrieve from http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/lament-institutionalized-church-trauma-rage-grief-kansas-city/