Thursday, January 31, 2013

Can The Boy Scouts Untie Their Own Knots?

As a clergyman, I have participated in more than Eagle Scout Court of Honor and admire the boys and men who possess the character and persistence the rank signifies.  So I was glad to read in the New York Times that the national scouting organization is talking about lifting the ban on gays.

I speak personally as the father of two young adults, one who is heterosexual and another who’s not.  Both my kids are superlative in every way: academic all stars, leaders in their church youth group when they were teens, Taekwondo black belts, volunteering with the food shelf and more.  Since most studies conclude that 5%-10% of the population is homosexual, that means most families in America, like ours, include at least one GLBT member, whether a son, daughter, niece or nephew; and whether or not they all excel in school, they all deserve our love and respect.  I’m not sure what the Boy Scouts current prohibition on gays accomplishes except to exclude families like ours. 

While they’re at it, I hope the Scouts will re-think the requirement that youth and troop leaders profess belief in a “Supreme Being.”  When my son was in third grade, I reluctantly refused to let him join the Cub Scouts because, at the registration meeting, I was told there were “no atheists allowed.”  For me as a Dad, it was a tough decision, because I knew my son just wanted to learn to tie knots, toast marshmallows and go camping.  But I also know too many fine, upstanding citizens who happen to have doubts about a deity (some members of my own church) to abide a rule that cast more aspersions upon the millions of people--including Buddhists and moral exemplars like the Dalai Lama--who don’t believe in God.

With a degree from Harvard Divinity School, I’m also educated enough to realize that very few twenty-first century theologians—whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jew—would sign their names to the Scout’s credo.  As the religious thinker Paul Tillich pointed out, referring to God as the “Supreme Being” suggests that the Transcendent is just one more created object, alongside other objects: limited, conditioned and finite.  Tillich called God “the Ground of Being” for this reason, to suggest that the creative reality behind our universe is beyond human categories of space, time or knowing.  It’s in this sense that I personally embrace God, as a dimension of experience that lifts me beyond myself into an attitude of reverence, wonder and humility.  But do I believe in the Boy Scout’s “Supreme Being”?  No.

Why don’t the Boy Scouts just drop the theology—where we human beings will never fully agree—and stick to what they do best: building camaraderie, teaching useful life skills, and fostering public service?  It’s sad to see an organization with such an important mission hamper its own effectiveness with exclusionary, divisive, and antiquated policies.  

The Scouts need to get themselves untangled.  Let's hope this is one knot they can untie.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Dream A Have I?

In his avant-garde theatrical “The Last Supper At Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” New York choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones includes a backwards broadcast of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech: Last At Free Are We.  Almighty God Thank!  The jumbled juxtaposition of the great orator’s words is jarring, but as a black, gay artist, Jones means no disrespect.  The entire work is intended to take the audience out of their normal comfort zone, to help them confront the realities of racism and homophobia that still haunt our land 60 years after Dr. King’s famous speech.

I had an unusual chance to appear on stage with Jones back in 1991, when the show first debuted. In each city where “The Last Supper” performed, a local minister was invited to be part of the act, to join in an impromptu, unscripted dialogue about the persistence of evil and the power of faith.  “Are you a person of faith?” Bill asked me.  It was a simple question, but unexpected.  The two of us were seated in straight-backed chairs on the proscenium, with spotlights shining down and three thousand people filling the theater, listening for my answer.  It was a tense moment.

I finally responded that all of us are people of faith.  Everyone believes in something.  Everyone trusts in a power greater than themselves.  The question is where you put your faith.  Dr. King, for example, put his faith in the power of non-violent action and redemptive love.  Others put their trust in the big stick, armaments and retaliation.  But the philosophy of an eye-for-an-eye, King said, left everyone blind. 

That particular night happened to be the civil rights leader’s birthday, and January 15 also marked the start of the first Gulf War.  American warplanes were bombing Baghdad even as we spoke.
Many wars later (Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan), Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday might be a good time for all of to ask where we put our faith.  In F-35 bombers and drone technology?  Or do we need a change of heart?  “Hatred cannot vanquish hatred,” King proclaimed, “only love can do that.”  But do any of us really believe that, even a little?  
Dream A Have You?  In Believe You Do What?  Are “realpolitick” and bigger budgets for defense actually the path to peace?  The best way to celebrate King’s legacy is to risk getting out of your comfort zone.  Let yourself be confronted by the tough questions that he asked.