Monday, December 6, 2010

"Jesus Had Two Dads and He Turned Out Just Fine": The First Belmont Protest and a Long Digression about Unbaptized Kids

Posted By on Mon, Dec 6, 2010 at 12:30 PM

On Sunday, about 40 protesters stood at the corner of Bernard Avenue and Belmont Boulevard to show their disapproval of Coach Howe's Magically Disappearing Job. (Do not miss the slide show at the end of that article.) They were joined by a retired United Methodist Bishop, Rev. Melvin Talbert. I guess he too failed to get the memo that gays and Christianity are incompatible.

I've been reading about the 19th century Spiritualist movement, which revolved around women (or men with feminine qualities) who acted as mediums to channel people's dead relatives. We have some echoes of this left, even 100 years later, but nothing that would give you a good sense of the scope of this movement.

It was enormous. Mary Todd Lincoln had seances in the White House to talk to her dead son, for instance. It was just as common a religious belief system for folks to have as any moderately mainstream denomination today.

And it's not hard to imagine why it was so popular. It was a way for women to have religious authority at a time when they weren't allowed to; you could do it yourself at home; and people died all the damn time in the 19th century. You could count on cholera or smallpox or some other epidemic ravaging your community about every 10 years.

But I'm right to the part in Ann Braude's Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America where she talks about another important reason Spiritualism was so popular: Christian preachers in the 19th century spent a lot of time preaching fire and brimstone and talking about all of the people who were going to hell, especially all of the people who were going to hell because they weren't baptized.

Now imagine how many women at that time gave birth to stillborn babies or babies who died before a preacher came around to baptize them. Or how many children who belonged to denominations that baptize only believers, not infants.

And imagine having to sit in church Sunday after Sunday listening to how your kids were burning in Hell because they weren't baptized.

It's no wonder Spiritualism took off in the face of that. Just the chance to hear from your child that he or she was well and cared for and not suffering must have been an extraordinary relief in the face of the message so popular among mainstream Christianity at the time.

Now, of course, these Christians had the Bible on their side. They could quote you any number of verses about why unbaptized people, including infants and children, went to Hell. They could quote you any number of verses that backed up their stand that not reminding people constantly that their children were burning in Hell was not doing their jobs as Christians.

But you know what happened?

People (or enough of them, anyway) decided that telling grieving parents their kids were in Hell was insufferably, unthinkably cruel. Yes, we might say, cynically, that the church fathers knew they had to change their message to get folks away from the seances and back to the services. But the mainstream Christian message of what happens to unbaptized kids when they die changed from one that was incredibly mean-spirited under the guise of being loving to one that actually is loving: that of course God takes into account that they're just children and takes them into Heaven.

Nowadays, when a church group such as, say, the Westboro Baptists wants to stand around at funerals and tell parents their kids are in Hell, mainstream Christians recoil. Spiritualism as a force in American religion might have died, but its influence is still very strong.

I bring this up to make the point that Belmont University could decide to stop being cruel. It could decide that the well-being of the Belmont community is more important than delivering this particular Biblical message. It could decide, as Christians have done before, that it wants to share a different message — that "Love thy neighbor as thyself" is more important to stress than "Love the sinner, hate the sin" (which, when you think about it, relies on a definition of love right out of the abuser's handbook, where the "lover" believes he is allowed whatever necessary method of cruelty to bring the "loved" one into line and to keep her following his rules).

Belmont does not have to be locked into a policy of discriminating against and punishing gay people when it finds them in its midst. It could choose a more loving way. I mean, to be blunt, when people are terrified of you (and believe me, there are people at Belmont right now terrified of the administration), whatever you're doing is probably way off track.

The students who protested on Sunday know this. The students and faculty who speak out against this know it. And the people on campus too afraid to do anything know it.

Belmont, eventually the students on your campus are going to be the people on your Board of Trustees. So, yes, we could wait 30 years for them to fix this — or you could just fix it now.

I urge you to take part in the fine Christian tradition of changing what you do when it proves cruel and uncalled for.

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