Sarasota, Florida – The Associated Press carried this headline at 2 a.m. on September 11: Investigators Search for Man Who Set Fire at Gay Nightclub. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department officials say that neighbors of the popular gay nightclub reported it being on fire at approximately 9 a.m. this past Sunday. Officers are searching for a man in a dark, long-sleeved shirt and light colored shorts, carrying a gas can, who walked up the door of Throb Nightclub, and had his image captured by a surveillance video camera. He allegedly started the fire and ran from the scene. Authorities of the Florida State Fire Marshall’s Arson Unit and the sheriff’s office are asking the cooperation of the public in the search for a hate-filled perpetrator.
This troubling story caught the attention of Vicki Nantz, documentary film maker and LGBT advocate, who traces this anti-LGBT violence back to the speech and actions of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and her attorney and co-founder of arch-conservative Liberty Counsel Mat Staver. Nantz, Producer/Director of films investigating violence against women and the LGBT community, warns her Facebook friends on this 9/11, “Be safe out there, everyone. Hate is in the air.”
What 9/11 has to do with an outbreak of anti-LGBT violence in southwest Florida fourteen years since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and the highjacking of United Airlines 93, drew the attention of Diana Butler Bass, the widely acclaimed commentator on the United States religious scene. Bass wrote on her Facebook wall for September 11, “One day, someone will write a book about how, in the early 21st century, we went from fearing and hating terrorists to fearing and hating people of differing political opinions. The sad and haunting legacy of 9/11 is thus.”
The disrubing irony of the heightened atmosphere of anti-LGBT rhetoric and violence on the 2015 anniversary of 9/11 noted by Nantz and Butler Bass is the courageous role openly gay heroes played on September 11, 2001. The Rev. Fr. Mychal Judge, Franciscan Chaplain of FDNY and one of the first firefighters to die in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, won his title as “the Saint of 9/11” that day. Avid rugby player Mark Bingham was one of the brave and desperate men who stormed the cockpit of UA Flight 93 over Pennsylvania, sacrificing himself to bring down the jet liner before its hijackers succeeded in crashing it into the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. Both were openly gay men who threw themselves into the breach for their fellow human beings at a time of crisis and disaster. Both died sacrificially, not as any of the demeaning epithets being aimed at LGBT people by Cruz, Huckabee, Staver and their ilk since the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but as American heroes.
Butler Bass makes a convincing connection between the fear of terrorists stoked by politicians and pundits since the original September 11, and the demonization of persons of differing political views today. Fear not only twists the guts of the public. Its primitive energy offers craven haters with an ideological agenda to advance a ready vehicle to advance it. And she is also right that fear of the other has seeped so deeply into the American psyche that no community is immune from the temptation to spread rumor and innuendo against those who oppose them politically. Some LGBT people, for example, have indulged themselves in making cruel comments about the physical appearance of Kim Davis and her marital history. The vulnerability of LGBT people in America, however, calls for a reconsideration of post-9/11 manipulation of public fear.
Nantz helps us see that the threat of acts of violence against the lives and property of LGBT people is not simply another example of the political system in the Washington beltway gone awry. It has real consequences, from the arson at a gay nightclub to the epidemic murders of transgender women of color throughout the country. The hate in the air in post-9/11 America is a combination of the historical cultural loathing of LGBT people, and the cynical manipulation of a once-supreme white patriarchal group by the likes of presidential candidates and their legal and media henchmen. While they would deny any connection between their incitement of anti-LGBT sentiment and any outbreak of violence, their words and deeds are in the background of every hate crime perpetrated against the sexual and non-normative gender communities of America, and the reach of their cynical ideology is increasingly global. This anniversary of 9/11, our LGBT neighbors, families, co-workers, and friends are less safe in their persons, jobs, and property than they were even a year ago.
How we have declined from honoring the LGBT heroes of September 11 for their courage and sacrifice, to this 9/11 anniversary when anti-LGBT fear is being manipulated by calls for so-called “Religious Liberty” (read, “the re-imposition of oppression against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people”), is the book that cries out for someone to write. Hate is in the air this 9/11, and what it portends is something every American should be worried about.
This is not the first time the bar has been targeted by threats, but the owner, Robert Eikleberry, acknowledged that the anthrax bluff and accompanying note has been by far the most drastic. Eikleberry told the Register that Blazing Saddles, one of the oldest gay bars in operation in the state of Iowa, has been “the biggest target in town” for years. He described his reaction to the incident to EDGEBoston: “I opened it up, white powder popped out, and it was an inflammatory letter. ‘Hate fags, gonna blow this up, gonna blow that up, gonna roast you all after pride’,” he said.
As Gay Star News reports the story, Eikleberry elaborated on terrorist-like threats Wiethorn aimed at him and the patrons of his bar. The message of the letter was, in part, “It’s time for all the faggots and dykes to die on Capital Pride night! Your secret enemies are going to blow up your destination for going to hell tonight, and we’re going to eat roast faggot the following morning. This is your punishment for sinning against God, and hopefully you’ll die from the anthrax on this letter!” Eikleberry went on to say that when the white powder came out at him from the envelope, he called the police immediately. “I opened the mail up thinking it was a thank you letter, it turned out to be a hate letter,” he said.
Police swiftly launched an investigation into the terror threat against the bar and the LGBTQ community, and identified Wiethorn as their top suspect. Under interrogation, Wiethorn admitted sending the letter. He is being held in the Polk County Jail on $2000 bond pending trial.
Fresno, California – Two gay men well-known in Fresno as drag artists say the arson attack on their vehicle was a hate crime solely because of their sexuality. Local law enforcement authorities are investigating the possibility that they are right. ABC Action News 30 reports that Brandon Jackson and his partner Chris Ruiz rushed to stop the fire that had been set to their SUV, but too late to save thousands of dollars of wigs and costumes they use in one of the most successful drag shows in Fresno County.
Ruiz told Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputies that as he ran out of the house to help douse the flames consuming their vehicle, a former lover of his partner’s mother confronted him with a torrent of anti-gay slurs. According to Ruiz, Chuck Bullock Jr. yelled at him, claiming to have set the blaze, “I’m lighting your f***ing car on fire f****t!” Jackson and Ruiz also say that Bullock, whose father was a Christian minister, demeaned them with a flood of Bible verses, condemning them for being abominations. The use of anti-LGBTQ slurs is a prime marker suggesting that the attack was bias motivated, and Deputies are investigating for a hate crime dimension.
After the attack, Bullock allegedly took responsibility for the crime in text messages sent to Jackson’s mother, his ex-lover. He used more anti-gay slurs in the texts and accentuated his profanity with the threat, “I’m going to burn you down!” Officers went to Bullock’s father’s home Tuesday looking for the suspect, but were unsuccessful.
ABC 30 videoed the wreckage of the totaled SUV: the melted interior, the charred remains of gowns and wigs, and even the imprints of Jackson’s hand on the hood where he vainly attempted to put the fire out with his bare hands. Jackson managed to put out the fire with a garden hose. “The smell was god-awful and then it just looked as if it was melting – waxworks — it just looked like it was melting,” he told ABC 30 reporters. “And this was because, simply because of my sexuality.” Thankfully, the loss of the vehicle, while costly, could have been far worse, and Jackson and Ruiz know it. Their SUV is a total loss, but they were the real target. They could have been immolated in their own home.
Topeka, Kansas – Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle has posted a new article on Huffington Post Religion. You can visit the original article here. Comments and shares from the Huffington Post site are appreciated by all the readers of http://unfinishedlivesblog.com.
Rev. Fred Phelps, Founder and former Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is dead at the age of 84. Pundits and regular people are busily dissecting the story and social significance of one of the most venom-filled ministerial lives in American history, as well as the hate-mongering “ministry” the Westboro Church became notorious for doing since 1991. What, however, is the spiritual and theological import of the life Fred Phelps lived and the religious leadership he carried out for better than two decades? What does Fred Phelps teach us about God, and the service of others in God’s name?
Dare we even speak of Rev. Phelps as a “negative saint,” the polar opposite of all Christ-like saints, given the carnage Phelps left in the lives of countless queer folk, slain service members, and cultural celebrities he and his flock picketed and condemned to eternal damnation? “Saint-language” seems blasphemous when we apply it to a man’s life so rabidly committed to eliciting the worst from the human spirit and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, every life lived has something to teach us about ourselves and God, does it not? How can we not speak of Phelps as we must speak of ourselves and all others who stand need of the amazing grace of God? Allow me to explain what I mean.
We remember the epithets Fred Phelps reveled in. He made “God Hates Fags” a standard feature of modern hate speech. We cannot erase from our minds the images of Matthew Shepard, Billy Jack Gaither, and Diane Whipple writhing in the animated hell fire that Phelps installed on his web site, complete with a background soundtrack of groans and screams to drive home the message that nothing he could imagine could be worse than to be gay and lesbian. We will never know the number of fanatics Phelps inspired by his vileness, nor the multitude of LGBTQ people young and old who felt his criticisms crush their self-esteem and cut into their souls like knives. But we have seen his kind before: Pharaoh, and Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas, to name but a few oldies but baddies. Or Roy Cohn, Senator Joe McCarthy, and “Bull” Connor to name some near contemporary bad guys. I am sure you have your own personal list. Nevertheless, Phelps and his bad seed still wind up serving God just like the best of us. That is the theological sense Fred Phelps makes. His “negative sainthood” shows us that the worst wickedness is, in the end, powerless before grace and mercy.
Karl Barth in his Shorter Commentary on Romans (SCR) and throughout the Church Dogmatics (KD and CD) teaches that the Pharaoh of the Exodus who held the Hebrew children in abject slavery with a hard heart ultimately found himself broken upon God, who uses the story of Pharaoh’s human darkness to witness to divine mercy, standing right alongside Moses who testifies to God’s liberating justice. Barth writes, “Therefore Pharaoh too serves ‘the power of God’ (SCR, 73). Barth struggled against anti-semitism and fascism with a theological strength we need to deal with homophobia and transphobia. Like the contrasting pair of Pharaoh and Moses, Barth talks about Judas Iscariot and Jesus. Barth writes that Judas, the “rejected man,” is the best pattern he can find of a person who rejected goodness, going so far as to pronounce judgment on himself, and joining Jesus in death. Yet every “rejected one” remains a witness to God, who in the end shows that the very amazing grace upon which the future depends is also there for the “rejected,” too. Barth declares: “The rejected man exists in the person of Jesus Christ only in such a way that he is assumed into His being as the elect and beloved of God . . . With Jesus Christ the rejected can only have been rejected. He cannot be rejected anymore” (KD II/2, 502; CD, 453). Fred, too!
So, does that mean that Pharaoh, or Judas, or Fred get a pass on what they do, thanks to some sort of weak-kneed universalism, the idea that God saves everyone regardless? Barth denied such a possibility: “The Church will not . . . preach a powerless grace of Jesus Christ or a wickedness of men which is too powerful for it. But without any weakening of the contrast, and without any arbitrary dualism, it will preach the overwhelming power of grace and the weakness of human wickedness in face of it” (KD II/2, 529; CD, 477). Fred Phelps and Joe McCarthy and Judas Iscariot must, in the end, answer to the same justice and grace of God their words and deeds rejected when they refused to treat all of God’s children with justice and love. The deeds of the “negative saints” of God are terrible, and it is only right that they should somehow suffer. No one knows what Fred Phelps had to face from his excommunication or upon his sick bed. But Fred and Joe and Judas depend upon and bear witness to the divine mercy, also—just like Moses and Mary and Martin Luther King Jr.
Even a “Nemesis Saint” like Rev. Fred Phelps is a witness to the divine mercy. “Saint” Pharaoh, too. And “Saint” Judas. For all the saints, pro and con, testify to the grace and justice before which we are all alike in utter need. No one I know shows the impotence of wickedness or the need of divine mercy more than Fred Phelps. And in that way, at the very least, “Saint” Fred shows me something mysteriously awesome about the amazing grace of God.
Asheville, North Carolina – William “Ben” Wood was 21 when he died on the floor of his dorm at UNC-Asheville. Friends who found him said that he was drawn up in a fetal position on May 8, 2013, having slashed open his veins. The loss of this sensitive, justice-seeking young gay man is a tragedy by most accounts–his friends and school mates say he was a fine student, but in recent months his grades and school performance had plunged. The university junior couldn’t deal with the prospect of going back to his neighborhood in Asheville without being a student any longer, according to his mother’s account in the Reconciling Ministries Network Blog. As a teen, he had been irreparably wounded by a Youth Leader at his home church as he prepared to go on a Mission trip with his friends from the United Methodist Youth Fellowship.
His mom, Julie Wood, recounts how the misguided Youth Leader singled out her son for being gay in front of his peers. The leader said, “You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay. Who here is comfortable being around him?” Demanding a response from each youth in the group, the Leader then said, “Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?” Once again, the Youth Leader pressed each youth for an answer about Ben. Crushed, exposed, and broken by the experience, Ben came home while his UMYF friends left on the bus for the Mission Trip. His mother, who stalwartly contends that their home church is a loving and supportive place, says that this was the trigger experience she believes led to the suicide of her son a few agonizing years later. Mrs. Wood writes:
“Ben was told that he was not worthy of going on the mission trip. He had been shamed, humiliated, and betrayed. He was told that he did not deserve to be a part of the group. He was no representative of God.
Out of our front window, I saw the goldish colored Caviler abruptly whip into our driveway. Ben ran up the porch steps and stood in the doorway. One look, and I knew, something horrible had happened. The flushed sides of his cheeks quivered as did his lip. His breathing was rapid and his eyes just about to spill over.
The church bus was loaded with Ben’s friends to go on that mission trip while my betrayed and broken son, walked alone around Salem Lake. He must have felt so very abandoned and isolated.
While he never lost his compassion for others, I think that this was the day that he gave up on people and God.”
Skeptics may argue that there is no clear correspondence between the suicide of a young gay man years after the shaming incident that took place in a church youth group in his teens. Others will say that the church is basically a loving and supportive place, but is put in a hard situation by teachings like those of the United Methodist Church that send an ambiguous, essentially rejecting message about lesbians and gay people. On the one hand, the social teachings of the church say that every person, including “homosexuals,” is of “sacred worth.” On the other, the United Methodist Church stubbornly rejects homosexuality as “incompatible” with Christian teaching–denying ordination and marriage to LGBT people, and defrocking their clergy who carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies, or who live openly as lesbian or gay people.
So, who stands guilty of Ben Wood’s death? The Youth Minister who was applying what he believed the teachings of his church on homosexuality to be? Ben’s so-called “friends” who one-by-one (under pressure from an adult leader, of course) abandoned Ben to shame and broken heartedness? The theologians and clergy of the church, who cannot seem to reconcile the love of God on the one hand, and social heterosexism and homophobia on the other? And what of Ben’s own responsibility to transcend the suffering of his youth–though this latter argument is little more than blaming a victim for his own demise?
Bens’ obituary says he was a genuine, complex, and worthwhile human being. The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel records that Ben “was a member of Sedge Garden United Methodist Church and was a Junior at UNC-Asheville. Ben had a kind and loving soul, with a great sense of humor. He was particularly compassionate to the needs and struggles of others more than himself and was a great journalist. To his younger sisters, Ben was a great big brother who shared lots of walks in the creeks and scavenger hunts with their stuffed animals.” The obituary goes on to say that three clergy spoke at his funeral, and that his own maternal grandfather was a clergyman. But Ben found so little hospitality and comfort from the churches around him and the clergy who served them that he could not and did not reach out to them in his darkest hours. So, a sensitive, socially conscious young man, who happened to be gay and Christian, took his own life.
Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology at Brite Divinity School, and a native North Carolinian himself, issues this opinion and prayer for other young LGBT persons: “The churches and their leadership have much to answer for in the deaths of young people like Ben Wood. While we may not be able to point to a smoking gun linking the suicide of young persons condemned by church teachings to the culpability of the churches, there is no doubt that Christian heterosexism and homophobia contribute to the climate that denigrates LGBTQ people and creates undue suffering in their lives. Indeed, there are progressive and welcoming churches and clergy, and for them we give thanks. But they are too few, and the silence of church people about the prejudice condemning LGBTQ folk is a major contributing factor in the horror of spiritual violence against them.”
Dr. Sprinkle concludes: “Let us be crystal clear about this: the heterosexism and homophobia Ben Wood experienced in his life is a Christian heresy–one the churches and clergy of every stripe must find the courage to repent of and repudiate. And we must do everything we can to make amends to youth like Ben, and to their families.”