“There is No Hierarchy of Oppression”: Sojourners, Queers, and Poverty

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I wrote an email last night to Sojourners about its lack of response to the Believe Out Loud campaign’s advertisement. My main contention with the refusal to post the advertisement was that the advertisement had nothing to do with issues of marriage and ordination, issues that many religious people are still divided on. Rather the simple message of the advertisement was that all people should be welcome into the body of Christ. In my mind, this pointed towards issues of how sociology and theology often enforce the other and I had in mind specifically the issue of poverty and how it relates to heterosexism. The refusal of airing an advertisement that’s simple message is about hospitality is particularly problematic to me and really points to a theology that treats queer persons as second-class children of God.

Jim Wallis eventually responded yesterday evening. I must admit that his statements regarding the matter were particularly disappointing. There were some valid points, such at the beginning Wallis argues that Sojourners and the Church universal, “has the obligation to defend the lives, dignity, and civil rights of gay and lesbian people. I have often said, “Every Christian, no matter what their theological views, should be standing between Mathew Shepherd [sic] and his attackers.”” I think that these points are salient and that drawing upon the narrative of Matthew Shepard is a good step towards the recognition of queer discrimination, in particular the explicit violence of heterosexists attitudes (and by extension, the Heterosexual Matrix). However, as I read the post I grow increasingly disappointed. Wallis maintained,

But these debates have not been at the core of our calling; which is much more focused on matters of poverty, racial justice, stewardship of the creation, and the defense of life and peace. Those have been our core mission concerns and we try to unite diverse Christian constituencies around them, while encouraging deep dialogue on other matters which often divide. Essential to our mission is the calling together of broad groups of Christians, who might disagree on issues of sexuality, to still work together on how reduce poverty, end wars, and mobilize around other issues of social justice” (italics mine).

He also said this,

Given the time Sojourners is now spending on critical issues like the imperative of a moral budget, the urgent need to end the war in Afghanistan, and the leadership we are offering on commitments like immigration reform, we chose not to become involved in the controversy that such a major ad campaign could entail, and the time it could require of us. Instead, we have taken this opportunity to affirm our commitment to civil rights for gay and lesbian people, and to the call of churches to be loving and welcoming to all people, and promote good and healthy dialogue” (italics mine).

You can read the entire statement, here. The combination of these two statements greatly upset me. First, what debates are we talking about? Are we talking about queer issues as a whole or are we simply talking, again, about issues regarding marriage equality, repeal of DADT, ordination of queer persons, or queers adopting children? Again, I maintain solidarity with those who are fighting for all of those issues because they’re my queer brothers and sisters and for them, fighting for any combination of these things is what they feel will make their lives livable. At the same time, you cannot bracket queer issues into a second category. Queer people are poor often because of the family values of some families (kicking their queer children out for being queer), employment or housing discrimination, or even mental illness. To say that this is an issue that does not affect us is immensely problematic. Racism affects queer people of color, violence is pervasive against us meaning that we have a stake in defense of life and peace. Second, heterosexism must become a critical issue for Sojourners. Given that heterosexism is one underlying form of discrimination within our society, it is one of the causes of poverty among queers and violence perpetuated against us. Given that all of the justice issues described above are ones that affect queer people (racism, immigration reform, violence), is it not problematic to bracket queer people into a separate category. If Sojourners wishes to justify such actions, then it begs questions about poverty, racism, immigration reform, and violence in the first place.

Specifically, both my email and my comment on Sojourners blog were targeted towards the issue of poverty due to the fact that poverty is one of the central issues that Sojourners advocates justice for but I think that this applies to any of the issues above that also directly affect us, either directly or our significant others. If queer justice is a secondary issue, it means that queer poverty is a secondary issue. It implies that we do not care about the underlying causes of poverty for many queer people. If this is the case, we are specifically bracketing who gets justice and who does not get justice.

I also noted to Wallis indirectly through the comments on his blog,

My response is critiquing our categorization of justice issues because justice issues overlap. This is what radical queer communities attempt to do, address how issues of justice often overlap and I think addressing the intersections of identities is an important step for Sojourners to take if we are to continue to address justice issues in the 21st century. As Audre Lorde argued in her essay, “There is No Hierarchy of Oppression”, “…it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action.”

It begs the question. Why am I, as a Jew, invested in inclusion issues for Christian communities? Why am I not also invested in inclusion issues in regards to Judaism?

I am an observant queer person. It is true that being a queer Jew and a queer Christian are never the same thing because our religious frameworks are significantly different. Christianity often professes belief whereas Judaism is at once a religion, nation, culture and ethnicity. Judaism is about embodying the covenant in every action and in our community lives. At the same time, I know what it is like being a religious queer. At the same time, I have had experiences of discrimination, mostly verbal but sometimes physical. Moreover, I have like many queer people have had, self-stigma, sometimes policing my own behavior because it might out me in a setting I do not feel comfortable to be out in. I never try to blame this self-policing on myself but rather insist that the cultural norms of our society enforce that behavior. So when I hear of an organization that claims to be dedicated to diversity and claiming to promote the inherent dignity and worth in all of God’s creatures, I get pissed when queer people are some how excluded, or their experience is somehow less important than other justice issues. It also simply goes back to the advertisement, which is about hospitality. If an inclusive organization cannot simply promote hospitality in the Church, then I question its actual commitment to other justice issues.

As a queer Jew, I have no articulated theology or halakhic framework at the moment. I am still attempt to articulate both and invent both. But there are some things that I do know. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel said that three things sustain this world: truth, justice and peace (Avot 1:18). While as a Jew, I think that truth is contained in the Torah and in the Tradition, I think it is also contained in our experiences. Especially in a society where queer issues simply means whether queers can participate in the institution of marriage or in the military, I think it is important, especially to an influential institution, that poverty is an issue that many of us queers are invested in. If fighting poverty and protecting the marginalized in our society is our goal as Jews, Christians and Muslims, then we must question what factors led to poverty and marginalization in the first place. If the chief value of God is truth, then any value that gets in the way of determining the truth (heterosexism), becomes idolatrous in my opinion. Peace in Judaism comes from the word שלם denoting well-being in a social situation. It evokes forgiveness and more importantly reconciliation after justice has occurred. In my mind, justice and peace are always connected and it is problematic that for the Sojourners community, peace in this instance does not denote justice at all but rather order in connection with embrace of cultural norms.

In embracing the covenant at Sinai/Horeb, we as a community are supposedly “choosing life.” My commentary on this choice of life is invariably the secular Jewish philosopher, Judith Butler, who has contributed much to queer theory and feminism. For Butler, it means questioning what makes life livable. I like her framework surrounding the question because she inherently sees the link between a livable life and cultural norms, that seek to define us. If cultural norms seek to blur us, to make us culturally unintelligible, then we cannot live a life that truly counts. I agree with Butler, we need a politics of human life. We need to question livability and for me, choosing life at Sinai is about the politics of human life. We need to “establish more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation” (Undoing Gender 4).

In all of this reflection, I question Sojourner’s decision, especially due to the fact that Wallis’ own work franchised me to stay within a religious framework in the first place. He, in a sense, queered the definition of what it meant to be religious. So my anger and frustration comes out of disappointment. It also comes out of a disappointment from a group claiming to represent diverse voices in the first place. But perhaps this is a signal that we must be careful in building coalitions in the first place. I wait for the moment where Sojourners or Wallis says, “I am wrong on the matter” or rather, “I actually don’t understand the issues facing queer people today.” Until that day comes, I am going to be skeptical about Sojourners’ commitments to diversity and justice. Perhaps I am more bitter that their reaction to our disappointment was to justify their decisions in maintaining how inclusive Sojourners actually is, which to me, and I hate to say it, is sort of like the instance where a white person says something racist and defends those statements by arguing that they have black friends. I know Sojourners is authentic in their statements about queers but that’s how it feels to a queer.

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