Will Hate Crime Laws Redeem Us All?

When my spouse and I lived in Georgia about six years ago, we were very careful about showing public affection in the town where we lived – a good 20 minutes outside of Atlanta. Anyone who has lived in Atlanta, especially anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, understands that there is Atlanta and then there is Georgia. In Atlanta, especially in places like Midtown, walking around holding your partner’s hand was relatively safe. You may get someone making a hateful comment as they drive by, but by and large, no one gave you a second glance.

Where my partner and I lived however was not Midtown Atlanta, even though it was the hamlet made famous in the film adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Idgie’s childhood home, and the railroad tracks where the train claimed Buddy and later Buddy, Jr.’s arm, is nestled a block or two off the town’s main drag. Even though a lesbian of literature may have symbolically lived there – it was dangerous to be a non-fictional lesbian in this town – and we were right to be fearful. At the nearby Wal-Mart we dared not be too friendly with one another lest we be tailed in the parking lot and shown how “real women” are supposed to act. Consequently, we were often mistaken for sisters – and still are. People recognize the bond between us, but often hesitate to recognize – or completely deny – the reality of that bond.

I know of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people who have been harassed, accosted, even beaten up, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or even a perception of “deviance.” A dear friend of mine lost her son several years ago in Greenville, South Carolina. He was hit so hard by his assailant that his brain stem separated from his brain. He died in the hospital hours later. The last thing he heard was his attacker calling him “faggot.” He was only 20-years-old. His attacker spent only one year in jail and is currently out of jail and serving three years of probation.

The passage this past week of a measure adding sexual orientation and gender identity to existing federal hate crimes laws comes too late from my friend’s son – but is welcome future protection for our community. Those on the religious right, however, have been sounding the alarms over the measure for months, claiming it will “silence” the Christians who want to preach against homosexuality as a “sin.”

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council called the legislation a “thought-crimes bill” that would give “special rights” to homosexuals.

Rep. John Kline of Minnesota echoed that, saying that “any pastor, preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who gives a sermon out of their moral traditions about sexual practices could be found guilty of a federal crime.”

The bill itself, offered as part of a defense department spending authorization, expressly forbids such a thing:

”Nothing in this division, or an amendment made by this division, shall be construed or applied in a manner that infringes any rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Nor shall anything in this division, or an amendment made by this division, be construed or applied in a manner that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), speech, expression, or association…”

Despite the exception, the religious right continues its “hair-on-fire” hysterics about how the law discriminates against them. Their chief complaint is that all crimes are “hate crimes” and such special laws are not needed. But, as David Saperstein wisely reminds us, hate crimes are often not just directed at the particular victim, but are meant to be a larger act of terror against a whole class of people:

They are more than individual murders, beatings, and assaults. Rather, they seek to terrorize entire groups of Americans. Hate crimes are nothing less than attacks on those values that are the pillars of our republic and the guarantors of our freedom. They erode our national well being. Those who commit these crimes do so fully intending to tear at the too-often frayed threads of diversity that bind us together and make us strong. They seek to divide and conquer. They seek to tear us apart from within, pitting American against American, fomenting violence and civil discord.

Even while the religious right was lobbying to keep gays, lesbians, and transgender people from enjoying hate crimes protections, they certainly weren’t lobbying for religion to be removed as a class currently protected by hate crimes laws. You can bet that if anyone yelled anti-Christian slurs while assaulting or killing someone the religious right would be screaming for the maximum penalty available under their “special right” to hate crime protection.

What puzzles me the most in all of this is the religious right’s insistence that they have some inalienable right to condemn, with impunity, and often outright hatred, gay, lesbian, and transgender people as sick and sinful simply because of how they interpret scripture. For some reason, they believe, their hateful speech should be protected above all others.

This insistence, that they be allowed to vilify and sow seeds of hatred against an entire class of people, betrays both their Judeo as well as their Christian roots. Writing in her latest book, The Case for God, Karen Armstrong notes that in Jewish tradition, “rabbis regarded hatred of any human being made in God’s image as tantamount to atheism, so murder was not just a crime against humanity but a sacrilege: ‘Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.’ […] To humiliate anybody, even a slave or a goy, was a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image and a malicious libel denied God’s existence. Any interpretation of scripture that bred hatred or disdain for others was illegitimate, while a good piece of exegesis sowed affection and dispelled discord.”

If the religious right took their scripture reading as seriously as they say they do, they’d understand that when they sow seeds of contempt against gays, lesbians, or transgender people they are “defacing” God’s image. We can certainly disagree with one another about scripture and its interpretation without vilifying one another or branding each other as “sinners” in need of “repentance” under threat of eternal damnation. Both liberals and conservatives need to do a better job at digging deeply into the scriptures to find ways to sow affection and dispel the discord we inevitably create with our textual wars over sexual orientation and gender identity. If either liberal or conservative interpretations continue to widen the rift between us, then neither side has gone deep enough in its understanding of scripture.

Many on the religious right are quick to discard the “Judeo” part of their Judeo-Christian roots when it becomes inconvenient, but Armstrong says they aren’t off the hook just yet. In a startlingly fresh look at the word “belief,” Armstrong tears down the idea that Jesus is asking his followers then or now to simply give assent to a list of doctrinal statements about him and his alleged divinity, “because he was making no such claim,” she writes.

Instead, Armstrong asserts, Jesus was asking his followers, then and now, for “commitment.”

”He wanted disciples who would engage with his mission, give all they had to the poor, feed the hungry, refuse to be hampered by family ties, abandon their pride, lay aside their self-importance and sense of entitlement … and live compassionate lives, not confining their benevolence to the respectable and conventionally virtuous.”

Indeed, any theology, liberal or conservative, that reserves its compassion for only those deemed “acceptable” is not a theology worthy of Jesus.

Does this mean that no one can ever preach against “sin” again? Certainly not, but those preaching against homosexuality are not preaching against sin. As we have seen, such condemnatory preaching denies the rich Judeo-Christian tradition of using the scriptures to promote compassion and teach the religious how to live graciously in a violent and often uncaring world.

I say we must be ever more vigilant in preaching against sins committed by religious believers of all stripes who pretend that they’ve found the one true hotline to God and thus have the right to demonize those who they believe have gotten it wrong. Salvation is never gained at the expense of another person. Instead, as James Mulholland and Philip Gulley write in If Grace is True:

”Salvation is turning away from self-absorbed lives. It is trusting in our acceptance by God. It is allowing the knowledge of God’s love to transform our opinion of ourselves and others. It is beginning to journey home. It is accepting that we are saved by grace.”

It is that inability to accept that even our theological opponents are saved by grace that leads us to need such “special protections” as hate crime laws. Since all of us, conservative and liberal, tend to lead lives of self-absorption, convinced that our way is the only right and true way, we need laws to remind us that we are all one and as Armstrong writes, “that the destruction of a single life [is] equivalent to annihilating the entire world; conversely, to save a life [redeems] the whole of humanity.”

If adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the hate crimes law saves just one life, it brings redemption to us all – and perhaps makes it safe for me and my spouse to hold hands in Wal-Mart.