Demonizing Muslims and the Gay Community

Based on The Rev. Tim Heflin’s June 19, 2016 sermon. (video link)

I have been asked if I believe in demons, which undoubtedly comes as no big surprise, given my line of work. I do not necessarily think of little men, dressed in red, sporting pitchforks. This image, often the one that readily comes to mind, is really the work of mythology and medieval artwork. It may have little to do with the real world. And yet, as we inflict harm on others, the pitchfork may be what medieval artists had in mind. We inflict pain on one another, so perhaps this image is as good as any other through the years?

I am not as concerned with the demons of art and our imagination as I am with the effect of demonizing people.

I do know something about demons. We all do.  And Jesus did. Jesus met a few demons in his day, according to the gospels, and in each of these occasions the thing to note is that Jesus did not go looking for them. They found him. That’s the way it is with demons, is it not? Most of us do not go looking for demons; instead, they find us, they seek us out.

One of the first readily written accounts we have about demons comes from at least 2,300 years ago, from the Hebrew book of Enoch. Some 300 years before Jesus, at least, the writer of Enoch describes certain people: “And the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble” (Enoch, chapter 9).

Be they giants or little red-dressed men that play in our popular imagination, I know that we have vivid images of real life demons – people we know, people we meet, others living in this world who are different than we are, and so the demon may be them. The demon has often been depicted throughout history, in literature and in real life, as the person who is not like me – the other.

Just listen to our politicians if you wonder about this demonizing. Read Facebook posts, Internet chat rooms, or message boards, and you quickly get the obvious drift that we demonize the other.

I am growing tired of it. Specifically, I am growing tired of the enormous, nation-wide, and short-lived outrage of shootings and mass-killings, as we – we as a society – only turn the page the next morning and go back to life as usual.

In the week following the unimaginable shooting in Orlando I have read dozens of Internet posts, watched television coverage, listened to many opinions, have grown weary of yet more gun violence and, well, like you, I am trying to make sense of what has no sense.

As a Jesus’ disciple, as a priest, and as your Rector I share the following:

I grew up in Mississippi, a region of our country in which guns are prominent.  I saw them on shotgun racks in the back of trucks. I never used them as a child, but I got why they were around. I learned that guns were used for hunting animals such as deer or ducks, rather than killing people indiscriminately.  Admittedly, I have eaten my fair share of venison, and I fully support the right to carry rifles to hunt. Nor do I have a problem with guns used by police, military, or innocent citizens for their own protection.

But are we really at the point as a culture in which the average person can purchase an automatic or semi-automatic weapon? Why do we need them? They are not necessary for hunting, unless you count human beings as the prey of choice. Cop-killer bullets and certain automatic weapons have a clear purpose: to kill. And cop-killer bullets are designed, ironically, to kill those who protect us from being killed.

And when it comes to this whole gun thing I hear that we should pray for victims and all those affected. We should, of course, pray and remember others at the very first moment of tragedy. Yet, and this may sound strange coming from a priest, I am growing tired of our only response to these horrific acts of violence to be: “I will pray.” Let’s do something, as much as we can, to curb the violence. I am tired of hearing and seeing that these shootings – from Sandy Hook, to Columbine, to Pearl, Mississippi, to Orlando – are but a brief news story and outrage, for us only to then return to life as normal by the next news cycle, waiting for the next tragedy.

Forty-nine of our gay brothers and sisters were murdered nearly one week ago this night. I use the words “brothers and sisters” quite deliberately, as I am tired of demonizing people because of their sexual orientation. Let me be quite clear: your sexuality is a gift from God. You are a creation of God; you have to make no apologies for how you are created, how you were born.

I am also tired of how innocent Muslims in our country are objectified as terrorists. The vast majority of Muslims in our country, and around the world, are not sponsors of terror. To blame Islam for the demonic acts of some is not fair; in fact, most violence perpetrated by Muslims has little to do with Islam.  For by that logic, what do we do with the large number of shootings and death in this country perpetrated by Christians? They don’t make the news anymore – the daily murders in our inner cities. Where is the outrage over these – if perpetrators are Christian?

I am tired of Christians and ministers who are not bothered by killing gay people; in fact, some ministers have commented on this, even saying that it was no big deal, that homosexuals are pedophiles, and so they are getting their just reward.

I am tired of this nonsense; this is not the gospel.

Some have asked what I hope to achieve by inviting a mosque to meet here each week for their Friday prayers. My simple answer: as a Jesus’ disciple I am called to be hospitable. I am called to welcome the stranger, and to respect the dignity of every human being. This pledge, this vow, does not mean I – or we – agree with everyone, but it damn well means we work to find a way to live together. It is what we profess in our baptismal covenant – and I believe it.

This effort to live together does not mean we are naïve; Jesus told his disciples to be innocent as doves, yet wise as serpents. There is a way to live in this world with our eyes wide open to the reality of evil and demons, yet with our eyes wide open to others around us, innocent people – including Muslims – who are trying to work, put food on the table, educate their children, and find new life in America.

What I do know about demons for sure is Jesus confronted them. And the church must confront the demonization of others.

And yet, I am struck by the people “of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes” who asked Jesus to “please leave us.” Jesus stands up to the demonic forces of society, those forces mentioned in the book of Enoch, the ones which “oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble.”

And then we ask Jesus to leave.

Elementary children are shot. There is a shooting in Paris. A shooting in Orlando. We grow outraged. Then we go back to the normal life we all live.

I think I now get the Gerasenes; they wanted life to return to normal. Jesus gets some guy back on the right track in life, we can do something positive, this might be a good time for change given mass shootings, and well, let’s just go back to the usual. In other words, Jesus would you please leave.

I hear and read outrage in the news: how can we continue shooting, how can we continue to kill one another, and then by the next Monday morning, eh, life is back to normal.

Jesus is not meant to be a warm and fuzzy character locked away in a Sunday School classroom. He is in this real life, in this world. He confronts our demons, and our demonizing.

We have had this tendency in our country to turn from page one, the page with the bad news, to other pages that do not force us to change.

I ask you, I beg you, not to ask Jesus to leave as the Gerasenes did.

To our politicians I ask you, I beg you to help us curb the gun violence.

I hear outrage about shootings, about how we do this to one another, and then we return to life as normal. Maybe I should not be surprised, for the Gerasenes did that. I ask all of you, I ask our politicians, I ask you not to be like the Gerasenes – don’t ask Jesus to leave. Don’t ask Jesus to leave our gay brothers and sisters, do not ask Jesus to leave our innocent Muslim neighbors.

Please, whatever you do, do not ask Jesus to leave. Please.