Prop. 8 and the Misery of the Law
The right to rebel is my real subject here, but the misery of the law is not incidental. No good case can be made for rebellion as an unqualified good in itself. But the right to rebel also cannot be limited to the rebel causes that were won long ago and have passed over into our national mythology.
There is a historical irony in the events of Nov. 4, 2008: Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States, and a majority of American voters broke down one more racial barrier to high public office. On the same day, Proposition 8 was passed by a small majority of California voters and added this sentence to the state constitution: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
A further historical irony was underscored on May 26, 2009: Obama nominated federal appeals court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, a woman who, if confirmed, may be the first person of Latino heritage on the highest court.1 And on the same day, the California Supreme Court voted to deny validity to the legal suits brought against Proposition 8 after its passage, and thus to make the language of Proposition 8 constitutionally binding upon all citizens of the state.
The majority of the court argued that their hands were tied in delivering this ruling. (See Strauss v. Horton, Tyler v. State of California, and City and County of San Francisco v. Horton, 2009.) The constraints of the state constitution were so clear and binding, in the majority’s view, that their own earlier arguments and decision in favor of granting the legal right of marriage to same-sex couples in California had to be consigned to legal history. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George (who had also written the previous majority opinion in favor of same-sex marriage), took great pains to insist that the main issue before the court was not the merits or demerits of same-sex marriage, but instead a strictly legal question of who gets to change the language of the state constitution, under what form, and by what means.
The dissenting opinion written by Justice Carlos R. Moreno also states that the court had already decided in Marriage Cases (2008) that the language of Proposition 8 “discriminates against same-sex couples and denies them equal protection of the law,” so the procedural question of amendment or of revision called for separate resolution. In the case of Proposition 8, is the proposed change a limited and fairly technical amendment? Or is Proposition 8 a serious revision, in both principle and practical scope, of the state constitution? The majority on the court decided Proposition 8 was an amendment, and furthermore that the California Constitution gave the justices on this court no authority over the initiative process and the majoritarian decision of the voters. Moreno, on the contrary, argued that Proposition 8 is indeed a far-reaching change that must be considered a revision, rather than an amendment, of the state Constitution. In Moreno’s words: “The rule the majority crafts today not only allows same-sex couples to be stripped of the right to marry that is recognized in the Marriage Cases, it places at risk the constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities. It weakens the status of our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority. I therefore dissent.”
Furthermore, Moreno noted: “ … Proposition 8 entirely undermines the countermajoritarian nature of the equal protection clause and usurps the judiciary’s special constitutional role as protector of minority rights. … ”
In summary, Moreno wrote:
Proposition 8 represents an unprecedented instance of a majority of voters altering the meaning of the equal protection clause by modifying the California Constitution to require deprivation of a fundamental right on the basis of a suspect classification. The majority’s holding is not just a defeat for same-sex couples, but for any minority group that seeks the protection of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution.
This could not have been the intent of those who devised and enacted the initiative process. In my view, the aim of Proposition 8 and all similar initiating measures that seek to alter the California Constitution to deny a fundamental right to a group that has historically been subject to discrimination on the basis of a suspect classification, violates the essence of the equal protection clause of the California Constitution and fundamentally alters its scope and meaning. Such a change cannot be accomplished through the initiative process by a simple amendment to our Constitution enacted by a bare majority of the votes; it must be accomplished, if at all, by a constitutional revision to modify the equal protection clause to protect some, rather than all, similarly situated persons. I would therefore hold that Proposition 8 is not a lawful amendment of the California Constitution.
Proposition 8 is now a miserable provision of the California Constitution, ratified by a majority of justices who made many miserably consistent legal arguments for an unjust cause. But there are also preposterous legal contradictions in the opinions of the majority of the court. In this regard, we must be grateful for the thorough and devastating dissent penned by Justice Moreno. (His dissent concurs in part with the majority, and in good legal form is titled “A Concurring and Dissenting Opinion.”)
The misery of the law is not an uplifting subject for career politicians, and certainly not for lawyers and judges. They choose to give speeches and write books about the majesty of the law instead, a choice that is understandable given their careers and the general division of labor. No matter what happens behind closed doors, their professions require the projection of optimism to the general public. Big bankers might be shaken in their faith that the hand of God works through the free market. The CEOs of General Motors and Chrysler may still tell customers they will deliver another century of Happy Motoring, and yet have private doubts. Hell, even Bill Clinton may grow tired of his own snake-oil salesmanship on behalf of the Clinton Foundation, and Tony Blair may yet lose faith in the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. But we, the people, are led to believe by high courts and career politicians that only citizens with weak constitutions could waver in our faith in the Founding Fathers.
To make a modest argument for the misery of the law is to make the argument for a small dose of corrective medicine. The malady is constitutional triumphalism. But of course any sane person would prefer that malady over outright dictatorship. And the usual arguments for the rule of law and against the rule of demagogues are no less reasonable for being unoriginal. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a recent book titled “The Majesty of the Law,” and in 1996 Judge Sotomayor gave a lecture at Suffolk University Law School that was published (with a co-author and in revised form) in the school’s Law Review under the title “Returning Majesty to the Law and Politics: A Modern Approach.” Sotomayor makes the case for a kind of legal realism, namely, for more honest acknowledgement that judges often respond to unforeseen events and to social movements. Judges do not (as a general rule) simply make up the law out of their own will and whimsy, but neither are they obliged to throw themselves under the juggernaut of legal tradition simply because the accumulated weight and momentum of case law is real. The historian Henry Steele Commager once wrote a fine introduction to an annotated edition of the United States Constitution (“The Meaning of the Constitution,” by Angela Roddey Holder and John Thomas Roddey Holder), and he noted, “If we have an aristocracy in America, it is, as de Tocqueville observed 150 years ago, ‘the aristocracy of the robe.’ At the very beginnings of our judicial history, American courts adopted the habit of elaborate written opinions, of seriatim opinions and, a practice all but unknown elsewhere, of dissenting opinions. These were, in effect, appeals from the present to the future, but courts were not invariably dependent on precedent. They could override earlier decisions in order to accommodate the Constitution to the necessities of the time — thus making sure it would be a living instrument.”
There you have, in brief, the more or less Darwinian argument for the evolution of constitutional law. The basic genetic elements of any body of law will have a certain stability over time, and may prove sturdy under the stresses of technological advances and cultural revolutions. To preserve the best elements of past radicalism, the law must have a conserving (and thus conservative) power. But even a strong constitutional system may suffer from hardening of the arteries after hundreds of years. If, for example, the anti-majoritarian provisions of constitutional law were read to provide the greatest privileges and protection to the rich on the grounds that the rich are evidently less numerous than the poor, then many of us might protest. We might try to make the case for common sense and common humanity. Making that case would not mean waging a war of class resentment against the human and civil rights of wealthy individuals. On the contrary, one proof of the moral and political difference between class resentment and class consciousness is precisely the preservation of public courts as a tribune of the whole people.
If that example seems strange or far-fetched, we should consider just one of many legal fictions that have real social force, namely, the legal fiction that a corporation has “individual” rights. In 1886 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad that a private corporation was a natural person under the U.S. Constitution, protected by the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas was to write 60 years later, “There was no history, logic, or reason to support that view.” But there it is, enshrined in the majesty of the law; and it remains a stark example of the instrumental use of anti-majoritarian principles to expand the rights of private corporations (under the rubric of personhood and individual rights), and to restrict the public rights of the great majority of real persons. This now belongs to the unfinished business of the American Revolution.
Slavery was conducted for many centuries under the majesty of the law, and the same triumphal constitutionalism continues to give moral and political cover for every kind of corporate plunder and for imperial wars. Against the historical background of such barbarism, Proposition 8 may seem to figure only incidentally. But the principles at stake here have practical consequences going well beyond sexual orientation and marriage.
The right to rebel is a natural right of every person, and must count among individual rights. When great numbers of people rise in rebellion, this natural right becomes a collective concern. Then the very act of rebellion may become the foundation of a new republic. This is one of the “self-evident” truths we find in the Declaration of Independence. Governments, according to this document, derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Every passing Fourth of July has taken on a distinct burden of meaning since 1776, but a perennial part of this national rite is the celebration of a band of colonists who told the world that they would henceforth be ungovernable by the king of England. We the People of the United States (in the later words of the Constitution) would govern ourselves.
The American rebels had the great advantage of having the Atlantic Ocean between themselves and Britain. No immense natural boundary divides gay people from straight people, so gay people will have to be a bit more philosophical when we declare our own independence from the Straight State. No doctrine of separatism between gay and straight people is implied here. The real issue is the overbearing majoritarian rule of straight people over gay people. Christopher Isherwood called that social system “the heterosexual dictatorship,” but it was already eroding when he was falling in love with young men in Berlin and Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century.
The boundaries between gay and straight folks are sometimes quite intimate, for better and for worse. The fact that so many gay people still live in hiding among straight family members, neighbors and workers is one reason our existence gives the religious right such a sense of the uncanny. They never know if the next full moon will turn a smiling sibling into a werewolf, or a kindly neighbor into the Antichrist. The decisive difference between being gay and being straight, according to the gospel of the religious right, is making the right decision for God. Then, the believers say, the decision for marriage between one man and one woman will follow in due course.
In the United States the religious right is now fighting for a comeback in ventures such as Proposition 8. The far-right white evangelicals of the mid-1970s learned the lessons of coalition, as succeeding decades have demonstrated. Proposition 8 proved they could join, and had joined, forces with the most conservative black Christian ministers, and with the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church. The Mormon Church alone pumped many millions of dollars across state lines to drive the campaign for Proposition 8 in California. Proponents of Proposition 8 spent over $40 million in this cause. Opponents spent nearly as much, making this the most expensive battle over a voter initiative in California’s history. But we do not simply get to choose our battles, and anyone who thinks this one was not worth fighting has already decided that gay people are roadkill in the rear view mirror.
During a brief time, roughly 18,000 same-sex couples married in California within the law, walking through the door opened by a state Supreme Court decision that found no constitutional support for the exclusion of such couples from civil marriage (In Re Marriage Cases, 2008). But the religious right began work to reverse that decision by mounting a campaign to place Proposition 8 on the ballot. When that proposition passed, of course it was taken in turn back to the state Supreme Court. Some 36,000 people thus became the stranded winners in the state marital lottery. We were left hoping (against the obvious odds) that California’s highest judges would not draw a line dividing a small number of legally married gay people from a much greater number of gay people who might choose to marry in the future. For lesbian, gay and bisexual people, the majoritarian Wheel of Fortune had turned against civil equality in marriage once again. To protest against an injustice in the privacy of your home or conscience amounts to no less (but also no more) than an act of faith. That counts for something in the balance of truth, but only a public protest can begin to change public opinion and, finally, the balance of power. When protest proceeds from voicing dissent to taking action, of course the moral and political stakes are raised. To say “We do not consent to this law” is a strong statement, but may well remain within the bounds of legal dissent. To say “We will not be governed by this law” is a much stronger statement, and can be proved only by action in the public realm.
Nonviolent civil disobedience has gained a measure of public respect, especially when the causes of disobedience become causes of general self-congratulation with the passage of time. Persons who once went to jail become icons on postage stamps. Persons who were once disturbers of the peace might also be safely dead and no longer able to speak for themselves. So others speak for them, often politicians who will risk nothing that might derail a smooth career.
Abraham Lincoln, who helped to conduct a civil war, thus becomes an icon of patriotic consensus. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped to conduct campaigns for civil equality in the spirit of Gandhi, thus becomes an icon of racial harmony. These icons and legends are not absolutely false. But consider how much gets left out of the national story we tell ourselves in public schools and in public elections. Lincoln and King shared certain convictions about the predatory power of corporations, but what teacher would dare teach about this remarkable consensus in the usual public school history class? Indeed, both Lincoln and King noted that war had offered great opportunities for private citizens to concentrate wealth and buy political power.
Near the close of the Civil War, President Lincoln made this confession in a private letter to William F. Elkins dated Nov. 21, 1864:
We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end. It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. … It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.
If career politicians would dare to recite those words in Congress, rather than the usual pledges of allegiance to war contractors and corporate donors, then we might begin a proper national debate about the “money power of the country” and the destruction of the republic.
Lincoln and King maintained starkly irreconcilable convictions about the use of armed force in resolving conflicts. Surely their views belong in public memory and public debate. Instead, the general public is trusted only with commemorative spectacles, high-minded civic religion and outright state propaganda. In this way we use our national icons to stamp impressionable minds with sky-high ideals but with only a vague impression of history.
Many career politicians in Congress will not dare to speak as plainly on these subjects because they have been bought and paid for by corporate lobbyists. In turn, these politicians dole out legislative bills and contracts that benefit the usual military, insurance and pharmaceutical giants. But Congress is not simply an annex of the stock exchange; it is also the front office of the ruling class. This becomes plainer during times of war. Once in a while the mercantile side of militarism causes a public scandal, but for the most part this is treated as radioactive material and so it is buried in underground vaults for the good of the public.
Assimilation of women, national minorities and gay people into the halls of Congress is surely one measure of social change. But the upper echelons of the corporate parties do not yet resemble a diversity training brochure, and the closet is still a functioning institution in Washington. The Green Party of the United States offers social democrats and other citizens a chance to vote for peace, economic democracy and ecological sanity in some local elections. But great obstacles are placed in the path of any Green candidate seeking high office, and Congress hardly represents the views of class-conscious workers and of democratic socialists.
Since politics neither begin nor end on election days, there remains great scope for political action beyond the electoral cycle. Historical accounts that emphasize the climb to wealth, power and influence of gay and lesbian individuals can safely be written by others. Here I will underscore only a few events which demonstrate the right to rebel. These are events in which community action proved decisive, but they cannot do full justice to the scale and diversity of community-based social movements over recent decades.
On Nov. 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down by former Supervisor Dan White in San Francisco City Hall. The citizens of that city grieved and waited for justice in court. When White, a former policeman and a member of the city’s political old guard, received a lenient sentence on a manslaughter count, there was outrage and disbelief among many San Franciscans. Especially in the gay community, with its long experience of police abuse (and in a menacing national climate of growing right-wing backlash), some decided enough was enough. Cleve Jones, who had been one of Milk’s friends and political aides, told a gathered crowd, “Today, Dan White was essentially patted on the back. He was convicted of manslaughter — what you get for hit and run. We all know this violence has touched all of us. … I was there that day at City Hall. I saw what the violence did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”
On the evening of May 21, 1979, the gay neighborhoods erupted in protests that are now known as the White Night Riots (much as the gay rebellion after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan, became known as the Stonewall Riots). At City Hall, members of the crowd tore ornamental work from the wrought iron doors and used it to smash first-floor windows. Some gay people tried to hold back the crowd, but they, too, were beaten with nightsticks when cops arrived. A dozen police cruisers were smashed and torched. Police retaliated with a rampage at a gay bar, beating patrons inside and on the streets.
The next morning Supervisor Harry Britt, who had replaced Milk on the Board of Supervisors, faced reporters at a press conference. The reporters, expecting an official apology, were shocked when Britt said, “Harvey Milk’s people do not have anything to apologize for. Now the society is going to have to deal with us not as nice little fairies who have hairdressing salons, but as people capable of violence. We’re not going to put up with Dan Whites anymore.”I got the news of the San Francisco uprising in the television lounge of a bathhouse in Philadelphia. On the other side of the country, and in all the big cities between both coasts, gay people knew another milestone had been passed. Not the ideal history we might have chosen, but instead the real events that mark every serious social struggle. As we watched the street battles between police and gay people in San Francisco, we wept with anger and cheered with pride. Reducing police violence against gay people also meant sending the police and the politicians a message they might finally understand. But no one had any illusions that street fights with cops could be any shortcut to real democracy.
In late May of 2009, there were rumors online that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom had asked the California Supreme Court not to publish its Proposition 8 decision on May 21, which was the 30th anniversary of the White Night Riots. The mayor’s communications director, Nathan Ballard, published a press release on May 20 denying that Newsom had made such a request. (As previously noted here, the court’s decision was released May 26.)
All of the California politicians who intend to run in the next gubernatorial race will have to tackle the issue of gay marriage head on, because 2010, the year of the election, is also the year for which a referendum challenge to overturn Proposition 8 is planned. By that time, more states will probably have joined the six already permitting legal marriage for same-sex couples.
In the meantime, gay couples who wish to marry legally have the human right and political duty to seek the most strategic sites of protest and civil disobedience. There will be disagreements about choosing our sites and methods. But the bureaucratic gay groups, with all their money and managerial pretensions, made a mess of the first campaign against Proposition 8. This time around we would do well to bypass those groups entirely and act on our own.
We do not have to be of one mind to act in concert. We might learn a few lessons from the minority of militant suffragists who helped to win all women the right to vote in Britain. They tried all the sweet arts of persuasion, of course, but they also kept hammers in their handbags so they could smash the windows of government offices. They chained themselves to railings in Parliament. They hounded and heckled politicians. They burned the slogan “VOTES FOR WOMEN” into the grass of golf courses where politicians went to play. When they were jailed, they pursued a policy of hunger strikes. During all their confrontations with male officials and all their selective attacks on property, they kept to the strict rule of respecting human life. Emmeline Pankhurst summed up their spirit and their methods in the speech she gave to a mass meeting at Albert Hall: “There is something that governments care more for than human life, and that is the security of property. And so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy. … Be militant each in your own way. Those of you who can express your militancy by going to the House of Commons and refusing to leave without satisfaction … do so. Those of you who can express your militancy by facing party mobs at Cabinet Ministers’ meetings … do so. Those of you who can express your militancy by joining us in our Government by-election policy — do so. … And my last word is to the Government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!”
If we look back to the Clinton years and then forward again to the present, there is a great deal of unfinished business. President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into federal law on Sept. 21, 1996. That single piece of legislation was a signal victory for bigotry and theocracy. Clinton may have thought this was a minor concession, but it proved to be a great encouragement to ongoing far-right crusades. His administration also abandoned gay soldiers and sailors to right-wing demagogues and military courts, and the Democratic apparatchiks even gave cover to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy as an honorable compromise. Many AIDS activists were already campaigning for a thorough reform of the whole health care system, while the Clinton administration was stuck in the quagmire of bargaining with health insurance companies.
Members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) joined others in demanding that travel restrictions related to HIV-positive immigrants be lifted, but the Clinton crew again took a pass. ACT UP and harm-reduction activists demanded funding and legalization for clean-needle exchange programs for injection drug users, but once again the Clinton administration ran for cover. Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, Donna Shalala, was often confronted by ACT UP protesters demanding full health care and needle exchange programs. She granted that the science was on the side of harm-reduction programs, including needle exchanges, but she also refused to do her job as a health care advocate. Instead, she followed the classic Clintonian triangulations and the party line. Sometimes we were able to push the politicians forward. More often, we had to go over, under and around the corporate media and the party bureaucrats to set up independent needle exchange programs and community health programs.
Barack Obama promised gay people a better deal when he was on the campaign trail, but now that he’s in power the main job of the Democratic Party gay liaisons is to defuse and dampen any impatience among communities of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Obama sent mixed messages about Proposition 8, sending a note to a gay Democratic club saying he opposed the measure. That note kept a handful of partisan operatives happy, but otherwise had no political effect. Obama had already used the megaphone of the media to announce that he favored traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Guess which message the right wing borrowed from Obama, and placed on glossy brochures delivered to conservative congregations and thousands of households in Los Angeles?
After the Rev. Rick Warren used his megachurch in Southern California as one more political base from which to launch Proposition 8 into the public sphere, Obama rewarded him by inviting him to give the prayer of invocation at the Inaugural in Washington. As an afterthought (and after a storm of gay protest), Obama invited a gay Episcopal bishop, Eugene Robinson, to join the party. Getting the guests seated evenly at an ecumenical round table should be someone else’s job, but this was a badly botched political balancing act.
As for health care reform, the leading Democrats in Congress used security guards to remove from hearings any doctors, nurses and other persons who dared to speak up for a single-payer national health plan. And there is still no bold and coherent message from Democrats about harm-reduction programs and needle exchanges for drug users.In addition to being found within the larger urban lesbian and gay communities, the class divisions and political contradictions of this country have left their marks among individuals. How could this be otherwise? We are all creatures of our culture. So the first rule is to plant our feet on the ground and survey the territory. Then we may gain traction. There are no magical leaps into a better future, only the passage of real time and the friction of real events. In a previous article for Truthdig, I noted that we are not choosing our steps on a level social democratic playing field. If that were the case, all couples of any class, of any faith or none, and of any sexual persuasion would be free to choose secular civil unions under one uniform code of law. Then the choice of a specifically religious marriage or ceremony of union would be distinct, and unrelated to any social and material benefits guaranteed by law. But that is not the reality in this country. And that is why the great majority of gay people (and their friends) who took to the streets in protest of Proposition 8 have shown more common sense and clarity than a dozen intellectuals I might name.
We should distinguish decent people of faith from people who have used money, marriage and monotheism as the heavy artillery against human rights and civil equality. In this situation, any idealistic calls to transcend “wedge issues” and “culture wars” are just that — idealism, and often the most cynical manipulation of idealism as well. Because there are no wedge issues here, only real human rights and real threats to democracy. The right wing often advances over social and political territory that many “progressives” have deliberately abandoned.
People of faith deserve a fair hearing and a fair share of legal protection in pursuing any chosen way of life, but what does this mean in the public world we must share? Faith concerns ideals and ultimate truths. Ideals, and especially doctrines, do not always translate easily outside the fold of a particular faith. A relative degree of privacy is often a good condition for faith, as a similar degree of privacy is often welcome for love and erotic life. Privacy does not mean secrecy, and surely does not mean deprivation of public life. On the contrary. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness must include not only personal freedom but also a fair degree of communal autonomy. Otherwise, privacy might be construed as the deprivation of liberty. Otherwise, Christians must retreat to catacombs, and indeed gay people must retreat to closets.
Our deepest pleasures and even our highest ideals may be fully communicable only within communities of affection or communities of kindred spirits. To expect romance or religion in the public realm of politics will get us all into predictable trouble. The gospel of love, for example, may command respect when we see people of faith putting it into practice. But the realm of politics is properly secular, and deserves respect in its own right. In that realm we must find political allies, but we must also be willing to recognize political enemies.
Secular radicals would do well to remember and to honor the important role that people of faith have played in the long struggle for both religious and political liberty. The poet John Milton made strong arguments in favor of free debate and religious dissent, though he would not go so far as to make peace with the pope. The Baptist Roger Williams established Rhode Island as a stronghold of religious liberty, and at a time when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was putting Antinomians on trial and Quakers to death. Among the early chartered colonies, Pennsylvania received the most liberal and republican constitution, from William Penn. While Indian tribes were forcibly evicted from their lands in other colonies, Williams and Penn made efforts to conduct fair trade and fair contracts with the indigenous peoples.
The bloody crusade against the Albigensians was an early model of totalitarian power, and Martin Luther’s rabid hostility to the Anabaptists proved he had his own papal pretensions. So the heretics of all times and places have learned to be subtler and more secretive when the balance of power weighed heavily against them. If they had the chance and the means, persecuted people of faith sometimes crossed oceans and mountains to find some patch of Eden where they might be free of overbearing churches and governments. This is how the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and Brethren — indeed, all the historic denominations known as the “peace churches” — found their way to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Hutterites, who practice pacifism and a kind of Christian communism, also formed small farming colonies, especially in Canada. Aided by Leo Tolstoy and the Quakers, a group of Russian Doukhobors migrated to Canada from Russia, where they had suffered great persecutions after refusing to serve in the military and after making a vast bonfire from rifles and other weapons.
There is a final historical irony to consider here, since some of the Baptist and evangelical troops who mobilized against gay marriage have traceable historical links to the left wing of the Reformation, namely, to the 16th- and 17th-century European Anabaptists and free churches. Looking back in time, we find small bands of believers resolutely refusing the creeds of the most powerful churches, and likewise refusing to become soldiers or follow any military commands. Those Christians dissented against both church and state, and to some of them we owe a share of our own tradition of civil liberties. Whereas some of their descendants have made spiritual peace with the princes of this world, and are proud to salute national flags and march in lock step to war. Those early Anabaptists and their kindred spirits of later times belong to a scattered tribe of believers who never conformed to the habits of war and big business. Such Christians have troubles of their own, but they keep their distance from the gospel of prosperity and nationalism being preached from all the bully pulpits of the megachurches.
The Latin word radix means root, and from that word we derive the English word radical. The word alone is nearly the whole radical creed: going to the root, whether planting a community garden, establishing a harm-reduction program or seeking the causes of war even as we do our best to make peace. In that sense, there are always many good reasons to keep conversations open with people who do not share our own beliefs and way of life. Even and especially during great collisions between political enemies, we might reflect upon this passage from the Gospel of John:
“Gather up all the fragments that remain so that nothing is lost.”
————————– 1The ancestry of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo (1870-1938) included Sephardic Portuguese Jews, which raises questions of distinction between the terms Latino and Hispanic. —————————-
Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic socialist. He lives in Los Angeles with Larry Gross. They have been kindred by choice since 1975.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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