Sacred Paths - When Offended, What Do We Owe Each Other?

What do you do when you hear someone making an offensive remark, a put-down joke about LGBT people?

Well, if you are watching the Mel Brooks classic Blazing Saddles, all you can do is laugh, as I did recently while renewing my acquaintance with that flick, which makes racial, sexual and religious jokes from start to finish.

But in real life, confronting oppressive remarks is a duty we owe to one another and to the offender, to let the offender know we don?t appreciate such put-downs.

Fine, you say, but what if the offense is from the boss? What if objecting to a remark is likely to make matters worse, even unsafe? What if you?ve called attention to the prejudice many times before to no effect ? is it worth the effort? What if you hear a remark from someone you don?t know just as you are exiting the bus?

Once I overheard two men berating two teenage boys near J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Plaza. I knew none of them, but I stepped in. The two boys were grateful, and I wanted the older guys to know we don?t put up with such prejudice in Kansas City.

But what if, say, you are visiting a monastery, and although the monks have never made an issue of your sexual orientation, another guest launches into a rant against gays? If the purpose of the place is tranquility, should you just ignore the offense, should you speak out, or should you appeal to the monks?

This very situation is described in Another World: A Retreat in the Ozarks, a new book by William Claassen about Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery about 90 minutes southeast of Springfield, Mo.

At Mass in the monastery, the priest, as is the custom, asks for worshippers, including visitors, to add their petitions to the prayers of intercession, after which the congregation responds, ?Lord, hear our prayer.?

After several others have named their concerns, ?Ted,? who had come to the place on Valentine?s Day with his wife, rises and asks for God to condemn gay men and lesbians, among others.

Of this moment, Claassen writes, ?As a gay man, I am deeply troubled. My ears burn, and my anger builds; it begins in my gut, moves into my chest, and finally crowds in my throat. I grab the pew in front of me, ready to stand. My unrehearsed response is desperate to be released. I know the power of the tongue because I, too, have used it as a weapon. ?Stay cool,? I say to myself silently. I take deep breaths, loosen my grip, and finally relax back into the pew.?

I wanted to know more about how Claassen later felt about the incident than was reported in the book, so I wrote Claassen, asking him: At one point in your stay, a visitor made offensive remarks. Though you were roused, you did not respond. Would you have responded in another setting? How do you weigh your responsibility to confront oppressive views expressed in your presence?

Claassen responded, ?In retrospect, if I had the opportunity to walk through that scenario again, I would sit down across from the couple, introduce myself with my name, state that I was gay, and try and engage the man ? and possibly his wife ? in a conversation about the issue.

?My usual mode of operation is to speak up, in the moment, if I am in a situation where oppressive views are expressed. However, rather than exhibiting an emotional explosion ? which for many years was my usual mode of operating ? I now make an effort to stay cool and calm in a one-to-one situation. Often times, it?s different on the streets when I?m participating in non-violent civil disobedience. I still try to be cool but I get very vocal.

?Vern, I have thought a great deal about that experience, walked through it many times in my head, and felt disappointed in myself for not addressing the gay issue face-to-face with the man. I knew that it was important to include in the book. Including it in the book was a way for me to make amends, so to speak.?

What I like about Claassen?s response is that he wants to be more than right ? he wants to be effective. It?s hard to be effective if you are so wrought up you generate more hatred.

Yet I also believe that expressing ?righteous indignation? can be a powerful curative.

Surely having ?straight? allies is important. There is no single prescription that cures all situations.

We live and learn and hopefully help others.
The Rev. Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday.

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