Driving Hate Underground and the Illusion of Progress

I need help in the form of divine intervention, a Pentecostal moving of the Holy Spirit, to feel any kind of Christian brotherhood with Sean Harris, senior pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Here’s an excerpt from one of Harris’s recent sermons:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is four years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.'”

Hearing the hate in his voice makes it twice as troubling. Take two minutes to listen to it here.

I saw Harris interviewed about his sermon on CNN. He didn’t apologize. Instead he backpedaled on some of the words he used, like “punch” by which he meant “shove”. Oh, okay Harris, all is well as long as parents are just shoving their young children for not conforming to your homophobic conception of traditional gender roles.

Harris’s “sermon” has gone viral and he says he’s received tons of negative press including death threats. Responding violently to Harris’s violence makes no sense from either a Christian, Constitutional, or common sense perspective. The best response would be for everyone to stop attending his church, but the most troubling aspect of this saga may be the congregation’s seemingly unconditional support for Harris. They laugh and cheer throughout the sermon and have come to his defense following the media backlash. Are these the only couple hundred of people in the country without a gay or lesbian family member or friend?

Harris presents an interesting case study of hate. Hate crimes obviously have to prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but what about hateful thinking and speech? Once Harris’s semi-private thoughts and words were made public, he felt a need to temper his hate by offering up a series of synonyms in the hope that some combination of them would appease the media and public so that they’d move on to the next story and leave him alone to pastor his church.

The key question is how do we create public spaces—whether school or church classrooms, community centers, work conference rooms, or public media—where the Harris’s of the world can articulate their fear, anger, and even unadulterated hate without the fear of being tarred and feathered? Because until we shine the light of civic discourse on hateful thinking and hate speech, it will fester, increase, and intensify.

The current way of dealing with hateful thinking and speech is to silence the perpetrators through what often takes the form of “counter hateful thinking and speech”. Instead of leaning more heavily on the First Amendment, we opt for public shaming. Expose them on YouTube and compete to see who can damn them to hell most quickly, creatively, and persuasively. As a result, no one ever learns anything about the underlying causes of the perps’ fear, anger, and hate. And we delude ourselves to think we’re making progress. All we’re doing is driving hate farther underground where it festers, increases, and intensifies.

The CNN interviewer who interviewed Harris looked like he was quite proud of himself. Post interview he was probably thinking, “Boy, I really held his feet to the fire, taught him what is and isn’t acceptable, and caused him to feel at least a little remorse.”

Wrong. I suspect Harris’s only take-away was “I have to be more mindful of the media’s reach.” Worse than not feeling remorseful, I suspect Harris’s fear, anger, and hate towards homosexuals is now coupled with amped up anger and hate towards the mainstream media. Whether Harris likes the media is less important than whether we create public spaces where a wide range of challenging, even hateful ideas can be discussed openly and honestly in the hope that the pockets of hate that prevent the church from fulfilling it’s mission and limit the potential of our democracy can be chipped away at.

We have a very long way to go.

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