Geraldine Ferraro, the Gospel, and the Gays: Post-Modern Advocacy in the Church

May 27, 2008

I know, I know: I just said I was done writing for a while. But I have had something on my mind lately and I’ve decided to write this post, so maybe I’m pulling a Barbra Streisand…

What has caught my eye lately is all of the political fuss over Geraldine Ferraro and the Clinton campaign—the allegations of sexism and racism and the furor it has generated. It seems to me that much of the same stuff gets roiled up in church politics: secular advocacy rolls over into the church because we don’t (and shouldn’t) compartmentalize our lives between what happens in the public square and what happens in our houses of worship.

Perhaps what should happen, though, that doesn’t happen as often, is that we should take our gospel values into the public square (keeping the separation of church and state distinct, for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere). Those values, I think, shed some light on the problems that have been raised in the recent political campaigns. Namely, inequality in power and the resulting injustice cannot be solved by obtaining and using the same kind of power that originally created the inequality. To do so is a little bit like using the military to oust a military dictator in a coup, and then putting another dictator in his place. Perhaps the new dictator has a different face, but he is still a dictator. It does not fundamentally change the dynamic of the power structure.

The gospel is pretty clear on the use of worldly power. Consider Matt 4:1-11: When Jesus is tempted over and over again in the wilderness to use power for the kind of gain traditional power benefits, he refuses. In Matt 26:51-56, Jesus says, “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” If you live by the traditional power of this world, that is what will rule (and kill) you. Even though Jesus could call on armies to overcome the arresting soldiers, he chooses not to do so. Instead, he has spoken truth to power in his life’s work. The result? Crucifixion on the world’s terms. But God resurrects him on God’s terms—on the Kingdom’s terms.

Our temptation is to try to achieve justice and peace on the world’s terms because it is what we can grasp easily, they are the tools that are readily apparent. Speaking truth to that power is harder and yields another kind of power which is far deeper, more transformative, and longer lasting. Our fear is that speaking truth to the traditional power of this world won’t yield the immediacy and power that we long for as humans—we are afraid to trust that resurrection can really happen, but we are pretty sure that we can be crucified. The worldly powers may crucify us, but that is not God’s wish. God does not justify or require crucifixion, but God brings forth new life from the suffering that the world creates when we name the world’s competition for power. That is the power of the kingdom.

How does the gospel imperative relate to secular views of justice and power, particularly related to race, women, and LGBT issues?

(I am not an expert in the field of feminism, and I understand this is sensitive territory so please try to understand my broader point—I am not making a critique of feminism but of a certain perspective of advocacy in general, including feminism, racial advocacy, and LGBT equality. I consider myself a feminist, or as much of one as a man can be, as well as an advocate of racial equality and certainly of LGBT rights. I believe I am expressing a perspective which is more progressive—although perhaps not more “liberal”—than found in the culture wars today.)

Let’s start by looking at the feminist movement. If we look purely at the secular feminist movement, there are three “waves.” The first wave of feminism worked toward women’s property rights, contract rights, voting rights, and the like. In the 1960’s, the second-wave of feminism began, and depending on what generation you fall in, you may believe it is still the era of feminism which is most relevant. Second-wavers focused primarily on the cultural gender construction of women, focusing especially on power inequalities. Bra-burning and women’s liberation was central, and a key critique was the lack of African-American voices in that movement.

The third-wave of feminism, or post-feminism, began in the 1990s, and counters that the second-wavers missed many things, reducing the feminine to an “essentialist checklist” of constructed ideals. It also recognized that minority voices were missing from the second-waver movement, and some began to realize that feminists could simply be “women that were people” instead of bra-burning activists.

This generational difference has been of much debate in this election as we hear of second-waver mothers who say that their post-feminist daughters do not understand what they had to go through in order for them to come to their “freedom.” They feel underappreciated and their daughters feel overpressured to take roles that they do not want (generalizations, of course).

The struggle for racial equality has faced a similar but different struggle. The nature of the oppression was different, of course—with the brutality of slavery. Most of us are taught or remember at least the basics of the civil rights era timeline. Because the nature of the oppression is so different, it is hard to say if there is a “post-civil-rights” African-American philosophy emerging today: if there is I am not close enough to it to know about it (although it is interesting to look at how someone like James Cone has changed since the 1960s). I do think that the younger generations of white Americans are post-civil rights in that they do not see race in the way their parents did; in that sense the civil rights era “worked”: whether or not it is full equality is another question.

But that brings us back to Ms. Ferraro. I read her most recent comments about Obama being sexist, and thought about her accusations in March that he was only electable because he was black. That clearly let everyone know she was a second-wave feminist: based in white woman power. It seems to me that Obama represents a post-feminist (and post-Black Power) era, where traditional power is not the leverage to be used. It is no wonder that Mrs. Clinton removed Ferraro from the campaign last March. It seems that there are generational issues at play here left over from the 60s and 70s. From what I can tell, Ms. Ferraro’s comments reflect a point of view that sees women taking on the role of traditional (ab)use of power by the patriarchy as the only way to gain true equality.

I don’t buy it.

Men behaving badly isn’t a good reason for women to behave badly too. Just because men have abused power for centuries does not mean that women need to abuse power in order to become equal. That makes no sense to me. That is why I buy much of the post-feminist point of view. We can’t just “replace” the kyriarchy (thanks to feminist Biblical Scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza for this term) with LGBT people and expect lasting change either. That is like replacing the old dictator with a new one—even if he is friendly now, nobody needs that kind of power, and it is inherently inequitable.

I actually think that both feminism and racial civil rights are deeply connected to LGBT rights. Post-feminism acknowledges that gender identity is fluid—it is a spectrum, not a toggle, and a lot of gender construction is culturally based—it cannot be boiled down to an “essentialist checklist.” Heterosexism is deeply rooted in sexism. As the movie “For the Bible Tells Me So” pointed out, one of the worst things you say to a boy is, “You throw like a girl:” sexist and heterosexist. The LGBT movement also has its share of problems with racism, entrenchment in middle-class privileged America, and lack of focus on the fringes of our own double-and triple-marginalized ranks.

We have a bond with those discriminated against on the basis of race, too, though, because we have been targeted. Some of the attacks against us have been brutal. Matthew Shepard. Lawrence Simmons Jr. The struggle for LGBT marriage has mirrored the struggle for inter-racial marriage in many ways. We have much in common. But religious arguments from the African-American community have been harsh. Support from the African-American community is low, even though leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, the family of Martin Luther King Jr., and others speak in solidarity with us.

And Martin Luther King Jr., knew about using power in advocacy. He did not respond to traditional power with the same old ways. He studied Gandhi. He used non-violent direct action. He studied the gospel: the gospel that promotes avoiding the ways of the world to respond to its power, and seeking a third way out. When faced with the power of the world, MLK took action—but not what was expected. He met force with radical peace. He met hate not with hate but with radical love—but also with judgment.

In short, he was a witness. I have heard of some who characterize the different factions in the church like the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, or the Union of Black Episcopalians, or Integrity, as lobbying groups who have no place in the Church. If (or, in some cases, when), we act like Geraldine Ferraro and try to match power with power, I would agree. But that is not any one of those organization’s roles. From what I know of each of those organizations, they seek to be witnesses—to be voices crying in the wilderness for a Church which hasn’t fully heard what is being said yet. Sometimes that means advocacy under the umbrella of witness. Sometimes it means pastoral care and support. Sometimes it means a few other things—all of which have a basis in the Gospel.

But it does not mean responding with the power of the world to the power against us. That is not what we are called to do, and I am quite confident that it is not what any of us seek to do. Speaking only for me, I seek to be a witness to the gospel. That means speaking truth to the power of the humanity of all people, and the God who loves us all. If God loves us all equally, then there can be no kyriarchal relationships. That does not mean the end of power as we know it, but it does mean that power must be dramatically re-shuffled to ensure that those who don’t have it become more empowered.



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