Palm Sunday is a curious festival, celebrating as it does a brief moment of happiness and glory before the tragic outcome we all know so well. According to the story in the gospels, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to a rapturous welcome from the people, who hailed him as a Messiah. Yet only a few days later another crowd was demanding his death. Where were the people who hailed him as a Messiah then, in his hour of need? Were they in hiding, denying that they ever knew him, like Peter? Had they turned against him, embarrassed by their earlier adulation? Of course we shall never know – because the truth or otherwise of the story is concealed beneath centuries of anti-Semitism and the terrible lie that it was the Jews that killed him (whereas, as I am sure we all know, crucifixion was a Roman method of execution; if the Jews had killed him, it would have been by stoning). This terrible lie resulted in centuries of persecution and genocide perpetrated by Christians towards Jews – pogroms in Eastern Europe, forced conversion of Muslims and Jews and then the burning of any who were found to be practicing Judaism in secret in Spain – the list is endless.
So, remembering that it’s only a story, what can we learn from this sudden reversal from adulation to revulsion? It reminds me of the way our society treats celebrities – investing them with all our hopes, and then reviling and despising them when they show their mere humanity. It is like being in love, except that the object of our love is not there to remind us that they have feet of clay; people project all they aspirations outwards onto these figures, and then are bitterly disappointed when they do not live up to the image that has been projected onto them.
It also reminds me of the rise and fall of one particular celebrity, Oscar Wilde. Oscar was the darling of fin-de-siècle Victorian society, until it was revealed that he had had a same-sex relationship. A revelation that cost him his life. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison, and it is fairly widely accepted that it dramatically shortened his life. George Bernard Shaw, another Irish writer, was born two years after Wilde and lived another forty-eight years beyond Wilde’s death. Whilst he was in prison, Wilde underwent a profound spiritual transformation, and wrote De Profundis (from the depths), a meditation on suffering.
Another gay martyrdom is the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die on a hillside in Wyoming by a homophobic mob. A promising young life cut short by a vicious, senseless murder. This is not the only case of homophobic murder – there have been many such murders before and since.
I am not the first person to make the connection between the persecution of Jesus and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Several artists have done so, as documented in the excellent book Art that Dares by Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian minister in the Metropolitan Community Church.
The homophobia of Christians was one of the reasons that I stopped being a Christian (the other reasons were the idea that non-believers would go to hell, the view that sexuality is not sacred, and the idea that other religions were false). I also assumed, wrongly, that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and so I ceased to view it as an authoritative text on pretty much anything. One of my best friends (then and now) is a gay man whose life is dedicated to helping others. All my Christian friends at the time said that if he made love to another man, God could not accept him. I could not believe that this was true, and so (in 1983), I ceased to be a Christian. It was only recently, whilst studying for my MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality, that I became aware that there was much excellent radical Christian theology being written by lesbian, gay and bisexual identified people; theology that wrestled with the Christian tradition and reforged it in new, exciting and radical shapes. Writers who dared to reinterpret the Bible to show that the Christian tradition is not inherently homophobic. People who were reflecting on the meaning of gender and spirituality.
Of course, none of this is new to Unitarians, who have been open and accepting of gays and lesbians for at least forty years. The first two ministers to be prosecuted in the United States for performing same-sex marriages appeared in court in 2004. Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnising a marriage without a licence. All charges against the two ministers were dropped in July 2004. If they had been convicted, though, they would have faced a fine of between $25 and $500, or up to a year in jail. The British Unitarian movement includes a substantial number of gay and lesbian ministers; Unitarian churches welcome LGBT people. In the US, transgender people are also now found among the ordained Unitarian ministry.
Last year, a gunman walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and opened fire on the congregation. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has worked for social change since the 1950s, including desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women's rights and gay rights. The shooting was a hate crime motivated by the gunman’s hatred of gay people and liberals. The Tennessee Valley church was targeted for its liberal values. The two people who were killed were Greg McKendry, a 60-year-old usher at the church, and Linda Kraeger, who died of her injuries at a nearby hospital a few hours after the shooting. Church member Barbara Kemper said that Mr McKendry had "stood in front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us".
"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."
So how can we help to bring an end to the terrible destructive violence and hatred of homophobia?
We can campaign for fairer laws – 86 member states of the United Nations still criminalise consensual same sex among adults. Among these, 7 have the death penalty for homosexuality. In addition, there are 6 provinces or territorial units which also imprison people for homosexuality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still do not receive completely equal treatment under British law.
We can challenge homophobic attitudes whenever we hear them. We can support campaigns like Stonewall (the gay rights lobby group) and IDAHO. IDAHO is the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. May 17th was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.
IDAHO day can also be celebratory because all over the world people are fighting against the persecution of LGBT people and are involved in positive initiatives and campaigns which can be celebrated and give hope for the future.
I want to finish with some words by Marcella Althaus-Reid, the queer theologian who died in February:
“Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognise God sitting amongst us, at any time, in any gay bar or in the home of a camp friend who decorates her living room as a chapel and doesn’t leave her rosary at home when going to a salsa bar.”