Passive bystanders facilitate hate

Jun 14, 2016 by

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Things whose existence is not morally possible cannot exist. — Old German Proverb

In his book States of Denial, Stanley Coheni writes about the deadly triangle of perpetrator, victim and bystander. In particular, he raises questions about citizen apathy in the presence of violence.

In the early hours of the morning on June 12, a gunman entered a gay night club and began a shooting spree. Forty-nine people were killed and 53 injured.

The question for bystanders (for in the age of television and electronic media, we are all bystanders) is two-fold: 1) How do we individually and collectively make sense of this violence; and 2) What do we do to help others trapped inside the potentialities for this kind of violence to erupt again and again?

The question for Christian bystanders is perhaps more complex. What in our theological teachings and our cultural embeddedness facilitates such acts of violence?

I want to propose that two intersecting cultural values are at work in this kind of violent situation:
The first is our culture’s proclivity for American men to use guns to defend their manhood. Physically, spiritually and economically assaulting sexual minorities is a living aspect of American culture. Using guns is a logical outcome of our culture’s teachings and fears about diversity.

Underlying this reality is another, less visible one. Christian teachings and ideologies about gender and sexuality set in place the cultural matrix for gender-orientation hatred to emerge.

The second is our Christian-fed and weaponized American proclivity to deny the full humanity of sexual minorities by multiple forms of violence. All too often, official church teachings reinforce the demography of hate. Individuals and entire communities do this by active exclusion and by theological mandates to exclude and to shun gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and asexual people by portraying them as the other.

Christian hate groups apparently have bystander approval because they are not openly confronted and challenged. The continuum between hate stares, hate speech, open shunning and shooting in a gay bar is not that great. These kinds of violent behavior are mediated by hate for the other, who is sociologically or biologically different in some way from the majority.

Cohen repeatedly makes the point that when bystanders do nothing to protest injustice, violence-promoting ideologies and theologies, and oppressive and violent behavior, are enabled.

As my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, vacillates on the topic of full inclusion for sexual minorities, I believe it is actively contributing to an American hate culture. The question that faces each one of us is simple. What kind of bystanders are we? What kind of church are we? Are we the beloved community that welcomes all, or do we exclude all who do not fit a heterosexist and scientifically outdated purity code?

Ruth E. Krall is director emerita of the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies Program at Goshen (Ind.) College.

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