Jan 17, 2013

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, poet and essayist best known for his advocacy of responsible stewardship of the environment. He has offered compelling critiques of strip mining and other excesses of our over-industrialized, war-mad planet.

Some folks consider Berry a modern-day Henry David Thoreau, but last week he sounded more like an Old Testament prophet railing against injustice. Addressing a Baptist pastors’ conference at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky., he took on the issue of marriage equality for gay couples.

Excoriating the sad history of religion-based intolerance in the world, Berry reminded his listeners that persecution is often the result when church and state merge.

According to the Associated Baptist Press, Berry said he has only addressed the topic of marriage equality a couple of times, but those remarks have been enough to spark great controversy.

“My argument, much abbreviated both times, was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval,” recalled Berry, “and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

Berry said allowing gay couples to marry poses no danger to heterosexual marriage, and he argued that conservatives who claim to support “small government” ought to be very wary of welcoming government into people’s bedrooms to police conduct there.

“One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural,” Berry observed, “but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals. Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.”

Berry saves his most pointed criticism for the sordid history of religion/government combinations.

“When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage,” he asserted, “I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us.

“If we are a Christian nation – as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness,” he continued, “then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.

“Condemnation by category,” Berry argued, “is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred.

“Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob,” he said. “It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.

“Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity,” Berry concluded, “is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus. For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.”

Wow. Pretty strong stuff.

Kentucky is an increasingly "red" state these days, and Georgetown College, a small evangelical school with historic Baptist ties, may not seem like the most likely spot for a jeremiad like this one. But I can’t think of a place where it’s any more appropriate.

Baptists were once strong supporters of church-state separation, and many still are. But the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, for decades has been in the iron grip of a fundamentalist faction that has forgotten history and hates church-state separation. Berry’s sermon is an altar call that Southern Baptist backsliders badly need to hear.

As a native Kentuckian, I salute Wendell Berry and hope his words get wide circulation.

PS: I also salute the Associated Baptist Press. This small news agency does a stellar job of reporting on all things Baptist. Berry’s speech might have gone unnoticed if it were not for the ABP. Keep up the great work, ABP folks!