This will be one of millions of blog posts, opinion pieces, vlogs, and commentaries on the shooting this weekend in Orlando, but it’s probably going to be one of the few confessions. I’m an accomplice; I supported the worldview that underpinned this and thousands if not millions of similar attacks. I’m ashamed to say that there was a time in my life when I was part of the problem we saw play out yet again in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Back in the 90’s I attended a moderately conservative Pentecostal Bible college, and during that time I became aware of Evangelical Christian views on gay rights and homosexuality in general. Transgender and other identities weren’t even on the horizon at that point, but I’m sure the general position would have held just as strong there too. It’s deeply embarrassing to think back on times I’d spend in discussions telling people just how wrong and sinful it was to be gay, throwing out chapter and verse, but understanding little and expressing a loving attitude even less. It was an argument that appealed to my gut feelings, that it was wrong, dirty, gross, and unnatural, so of course I went along with it and parroted it whenever the opportunity arose.
God said it was a sin, said it was even an abomination unto Him, so what else was there to say on the matter, right? If it’s written down in the rule book, that’s the end of the appeal process, it’s got to be wrong, and anyone who says otherwise can just take it up with Jesus. I won’t put this on any of my professors, because I honestly can’t think of any of them who would have taught such a blind, graceless, simple-minded view of the issue, but I certainly talked with some pastors, church members, and fellow students who were all too eager to drive home this idea as the only true reading of the matter, and I bought it.
What I didn’t realize when I bought in though was that I was becoming part of a much bigger problem, a tradition of bigotry, and that what I was saying was having an impact, if only in normalizing the prejudice of others who would commit violent acts out of the hate I was implicitly endorsing. Sure, I never actually beat anyone up, never killed anyone, but the beliefs I was spreading around gave the ones who did the violence their justification. I didn’t commit it, but I helped them excuse it; I was their academic getaway driver.
All of the talking heads going on at length about how we should be afraid of transgender women in bathrooms, how hurricanes display God’s wrath against gay communities, and all the other insane nonsense they spew, it’s the soil these seeds grow in, it’s the bullshit that fertilizes them. If you tell the world over and over again that a group of people are an abomination, that they’re sinners, that they don’t deserve to share the rights everyone else in society takes for granted, you’re loading the bullets in the shooter’s gun, plain and simple. You can’t whip up fear of hypothetical perverts dressing in drag to get into women’s bathrooms and expect those words will never have any unintended consequences (being really charitable on the “unintended”) that will bring harm to others.
I was part of this, I was one of the people going on in public about how wrong “those people” are, and how sinful their “lifestyle choices” were. (I had to close my eyes as I typed that last one, it’s such an embarrassingly trite and idiotic thing to remember yourself saying.) Back then, it wasn’t a matter of arguing the issue of gay couples getting married or adopting children, it was the even more fundamental matter of whether it was ok to recognize them as full citizens deserving protection under the law against discrimination, and I was fighting on the wrong side. I had no idea what I was actually arguing for, but I was really speaking out in favour of protecting the oppressors rather than the people being discriminated against. I was in favour of keeping people down for no other reason than I found them vaguely icky, and the book I was trying to cram into my head said they were bad.
Now, that’s not to say that in the intervening years since Bible college I’ve had some sort of epiphany and now I’m 100% super ok with everything; that “yuck” thing in my head is still there being just as shitty and repressed as ever and it’s something I have to consciously reject whenever it comes up. When I took my son to the petting zoo yesterday, there were a couple of guys holding hands in the parking lot, and that ugly garbage part of my soul reacted immediately, so I had to force my attention somewhere else to avoid being that disapproving asshole who judges people for being different from myself.
The Orlando shooter’s dad claimed his son murdered 50 or more people because he saw two men holding hands, and I have to confess that I share in a piece of that ugly, fearful, shameful instinct; that whether it’s something innate to me or something that got drilled into me over years of Bible college discussions, it’s something I have to fight against whenever it spits its bile into my mind. I’m ashamed to say I understand it at least to some small degree, it’s a part of who I am too, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this to a terrifying extent. The shooter in Orlando clearly decided to fight on the side of those base instincts, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking there was a difference in anything but degree when we’re carrying the same kind of darkness within us. His rationalizations and actions might have been different, but that core instinct at the heart of it is something I know way too many people would recognize in their mirror.
The thing is, it’s not the instinct that defines you or determines that you’re going to be a moral monster kicking down at people who want nothing more than to live in peace with the same rights and freedoms the rest of us have. What matters is whether you make up arguments and build an entire theology around it or if you fight against the hateful instinct and choose to reject the rationalizations and moralizations people have fortified over the years. It’s not about becoming an enlightened saint who loves everybody unconditionally by nature; it’s about getting down into the trenches of your own soul and consciously choosing to fight your own worst instincts every day so that you don’t let yourself get used by them to hurt others.