I am at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina for the third of four days — having attended a bunch of workshops on peace, organizing, and Jesus as the epitome of peacemaking and a change model for the world. And oddly, while people kept talking about Jesus, I kept thinking about Ellen Degeneres.
I like watching political movements and how they form or don’t, how they work or don’t. I’m fascinated by Jesus and making the world a better, more fair place. And I love watching philosophers, politicians, and theologians try to say, in big words, the very things Jesus said in small words.
For anybody who cares, the stuff about movements comes down to this: relationships and being truthful and still being decent people. This the deal: movements are made by people getting to know each other and thinking of each other when the time comes. Action comes from telling scary, powerful people the truth. And here’s the thing I’ve always known but liberals fail to acknowledge very often — nice people prevail over angry people. Ghandhi, Jesus, MLK all got angry on occasion, but were generally loving people who managed to put their anger away while they were changing the world. It’s hard to argue with someone who’s not really threatening you. When Bull Connor attacked the Selma marchers with dogs and hoses, he had to look like (and feel like, King would probably point out) an idiot because he had attacked violently someone who was … walking, or singing gospel songs, or sitting at a counter. (ooo, scary!). This is true with Gandhi and the British empire, and Jesus and Caesar.
Jumping to the 20th Century, the gay rights movement began in 1972 when the people who were considered easy marks, and evil incarnate said, “Enough! We’re not evil, and we’re sick of being picked on by the police”. That’s speaking the truth to scary, powerful people. In the 1980’s the movement took on a really harsh edge out of desperation — I remember people in lines fighting against the “AIDS is a curse” idea that was spreading at the time and implied by politicians in the funding of AIDS (or lack thereof). I understood the desperation, but I knew the movement wouldn’t gain any ground when supposedly AIDS-infected protestors bit the police to make them understand the fear of the illness. But then, I also thought it was a bad idea for the World Council of Churches to give money for weapons to the African National Congress, no matter how horrible Apartheid was. They couldn’t say that non-violence didn’t work to overthrow racism. King had already been around and done his thing here in America. That was in the ’80s . Radicals on the right and Radicals on the left were getting nastier and nastier.
In 1997, Ellen came out on the cover of some magazine, with the cover saying, “Yep, I’m gay”. She was relational — we felt we could relate to her. She told the truth, even though it was scary, I’m sure.
She didn’t say, “and you have to be”. She didn’t say, “And I want you to do this or that”. In fact, she didn’t threaten anybody. She was a comedian. Anyone who was afraid of her had to feel like Bull Connor or Caesar. (Of course, there were people willing to take up that challenge, but she politely pointed out she had endured that kind of name calling in third grade or something and she didn’t need to respond now. She was no threat and anyone could see that. She told the truth in a way that’s kind.
1997 when Ellen came out publicly to 2012, when the President said he was supportive of gay marriage is incredibly swift. Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1850’s. 100 years later, King was fighting for the rights he officially had already won. From 1954 to 1964, when Civil Rights for Blacks became the law of the land, lots of people — lots of people — died, and racism isn’t gone yet. That’s a struggle.
And yet, for gay rights, people’s minds and hearts have changed. We look at gay folks as human beings, not the epitome of evil. That is incredible and I can tell you that people on the left are shaking their heads wondering how they pulled it off. The movement took off when it took it’s cue from Ellen. It started saying, “We’re normal people. We get nervous. We see the same things you do. We tell jokes. We’re parents and caring members of the community. We like each other. Do what you want, say what you want, that’s who we are.” There is no threat implied in any of that. The “Defense of Marriage Act” looked like the silliness it was because heterosexuals didn’t need to defend anything. We weren’t threatened.
So, we in America– people on the left at first, then people in the middle, now even people on the right — have made our peace with homosexuals and homosexuality. We’re not fighting in the streets. There is no war over it. There is very little anger, even, really. This is peace making at it’s finest. In the church, we struggle to make the Bible fit our experience, about which there is very little argument. I wrote Robert MacAfee Brown a letter once, struggling to make sense of the Bible and gay folks, because I wanted to speak to people that only spoke “Bible”. What MacAfee Brown wrote back was, “we used to struggle with it, then we met some of them and realized that they were good, decent people too. Then we changed our minds and struggled with it til we found peace about it”. He was right.
So, here’s to Ellen Degeneres — a great leader, a great peacemaker, not because she’s a great politician or orator or ever wanted to change a movement. Ellen has changed politics and history, because she changed hearts and minds first. And she did this by being an apparently good human being — against which there is no crime. She tells the truth about who she is, even when it’s scary. She acts in a kind way. Oh, that we could all do the same.