By Savi Hensman – ‘Ekklesia’
Fifty people were killed in a shooting in a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) nightclub in Orlando, Florida yesterday (12 June 2016). Many others were injured at the Pulse club.
The alleged killer, Omar Mateen, was shot dead by police. During a standoff in the attack, he is reported to have called the emergency services to claim allegiance to Isil/Daesh. He had apparently been angered to see two men kissing when in Florida, his father told journalists.
While the scale of the violence was unusual, homophobic, transphobic and other forms of hate-crime claim many lives internationally every year. In countries where victimisation of minorities has legal backing, the toll can be especially high.
There were many expressions of sorrow from political and faith leaders. Yet politicians and influential religious figures who openly stir up hatred often have powerful backers. These may not share their views but see them as useful allies.
So those who use inflammatory language or imply that minorities represent a threat to those around them can gain a veneer of respectability. These should be distinguished from people with (unfounded) reservations about the morality of same-sex relationships but who broadly uphold human rights for all.
Some degree of compromise may be inevitable in organisations and societies. Yet it is risky if the hazards of portraying vulnerable social groups as inferior or dangerous are downplayed, for instance for reasons of commerce or prestige.
In some local and international faith networks, there is a marked reluctance to challenge senior members who back state repression or street violence against LGBT people.
At international Anglican gatherings, for example, there have been repeated calls for dialogue with lesbians and gays and defence of their human rights. Senior clergy who do the opposite face no sanctions.
Yet the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, David Chillingworth, reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury warned of negative consequences if same-sex couples were allowed to marry in church. These included the removal of Chillingworth from the role of Anglican Co-Chair of the International Anglican-Reformed Dialogue.
Archbishop Justin Welby has made it clear that he deplores violence and human rights abuses directed against LGBT people. There is little doubt that he is sincere. However some of those in favour of such mistreatment are in leadership positions in large churches which he does not want to alienate.
When the former primate of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, urged support for a law to intensify repression against LGBT people and their friends, he implied that they posed a menace to society. Supposedly “It was because of the sin of homosexuality that the city of Sodom and Gomorrah was completely wiped out from the face of the earth” (a serious misreading of a biblical story about inhospitality).
He claimed that “same sex marriage” (in this bill defined as any same-sex sexual relationship) is “capable of engendering moral and social holocaust in this county. It is also capable of existincting [sic] mankind and as such should never be allowed to take root in Nigeria.”
Rhetoric of this kind, if swallowed uncritically, implies that LGBT people pose a serious threat to society if allowed to survive and thrive. It is not that great a leap to believe that violence might be justified.
After the shooting in Florida, Welby and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, issued a strong joint statement, saying, “After Sunday’s attack in Orlando as Christians we must speak out in support of LGBTI people, who have become the latest group to be so brutally targeted by the forces of evil.”
They stated, “The obligation to object to these acts of persecution, and to support those LGBTI people who are wickedly and cruelly killed and wounded, bereaved and traumatised, whether in Orlando or elsewhere, is an absolute call on our Christian discipleship.”
“It arises from the unshakeable certainty of the gracious love of God for every human being. Now, in this time of heartbreak and grief, is a time for solidarity. May God our Father give grace and comfort to all who mourn, and divine compassion to us all.”
Those churches which have shown most solidarity over the years, however, are still often treated worse than those with leaders whose speech has fuelled fear and hatred. Change is sorely needed.
In the wider world, government leaders who genuinely dislike extreme homophobia and transphobia nevertheless may cosy up to regimes which promote these and other kinds of bigotry. Enabling wealthy or powerful individuals and companies to access oil supplies, trade opportunities or other resources can outweigh the wish to defend justice.
Hate-speech – whether on grounds of sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, caste, religion or disability – is dangerous. It can help to create a climate in which such tragedies as Orlando can take place.
And those who bolster the power of leaders who use language of this kind should think carefully about the message sent out about the value of human life.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle, and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613