Monday, May 14, 2012

Frauds 'R' Us - Redux

I always looked forward to Bill Schmidt’s visits to The Ecumenical Center in New York, where I have worked since 1995.

Bill, who often accompanied his wife, Jean, to the U.S. Office for the World Council of Churches where she was treasurer, looked like the retired church history professor he was.

Tall and lanky with spiky eyebrows protruding like escaping spiders over the top of his spectacles, Bill always wore a gray suit and tie to the office. It was easy to imagine him striking an austere pose behind the podium at St. Peter’s College or New York Theological Seminary, bringing bygone ecumenical leaders back to life. I never heard him lecture, but no doubt he was good at it.

Bill would also have made a great pastor. His eyebrows would shoot up whenever he saw old friends, and his supercilious grin always assured them he was glad to see them.

Bill usually had a special word or greeting for everyone. Whenever he spotted me in the office, his brows would dance and he’d proclaim, “Frauds ‘R’ Us!”

That may have puzzled others in the room, but I knew what he meant. The phrase was the title of a column I had written for The American Baptist magazine in 1992. It was Bill’s gracious way of telling another writer, hey, I read your stuff. A prolific writer himself, Bill must have been an insatiable reader as well.

I was thinking of Bill the other day (he died in August 2009) and – wondering neurotically whether I had shown him my best rhetoric – decided to explore old volumes of The American Baptist to find and re-read the column. 

The column was actually a review of Les Misérables, the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg with an English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer. Martha and I have seen many productions, most recently last March in Hartford.

Each production has been distinguished by different musicians, performers and staging but they all have two things in common: performances are invariably tear-inducing and they are always sermon inspiring. My eyes overflow each time the chorus sings the words originally penned by Victor Hugo himself: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

There are several love stories in both the musical and the novel, none of them more moving that the unrequited love of Éponine for Marius, who only has eyes for Cosette. Éponine loves Marius so much she is willing to give her life for him, even knowing he will never love her in return. Even Jesus doesn’t go that far. Greater love has no one than this.

The original “Frauds ‘R’ Us” focused not so much on the romance of the story as the morality. Like all good literature, the characters in Les Misérables face decisions that make us all introspective, sometimes painfully so.

With fond memories of my friend Bill Schmidt, here is the way it looked to me in the July/August 1992 issue of The American Baptist:

Each year tens of thousands attend performances of Les Misérables, and it’s a good thing the theater is darkened during the show. When the dying Jean Valjean is joined by the spirits of Fantine, Éponine and all the righteous dead, eyes overflow like the cisterns of Paris. 
Ever since my preteen catharsis at Old Yeller, that’s the kind of thing I prefer to do in the dark. 
The operatic musical is based on the book by Victor Hugo. To summarize it in the way my Lit teachers never could, Jean Valjean steals bread and gets sent to a chain gang for 19 years. 
When Valjean is released he is inspired to live a righteous life but his criminal path is discovered by the adamant Inspector Javert, who is determined to bring the bread bandit to justice. 
While trying to raise Cosette, the daughter of the ill-fated Fantine, Valjean is pursued relentlessly by Javert. There is also occasional romance and a violent revolution, neither of which is much help to Valjean. 
I think one of the reasons people are moved by the musical is that most of us know how Valjean feels. One does not have to be paranoid to get the feeling there is a Javert on our heels, too. Someone out there knows we’re not as good or as kind or as talented as we pretend we are. The late David Niven felt this way. “I secretly know that I am not good enough an actor to be as successful as I am,” he said. “All my life I’ve been waiting for someone else to find that out. Someday someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, “I’m sorry, old boy, but you’ve been found out. You must come with us now.” 
David Niven (who, in my opinion, was a marvelous actor) was not alone. Most of us tend to believe we are actually frauds, and we dread the day Inspector Javert will have us arrested for pretending to be something we are not. 
I know the feeling. I was the least athletic member of my family, and after I grew up I tried to cover up that fact by compulsively jogging. Granted, jogging is a rather talentless process of picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down, but I hoped the grunting and sweating would obscure the fact that I am athletically inept. I was jogging in Philadelphia’s Franklin Field one morning when I was overtaken by the entire University of Pennsylvania Women’s Cross Country Team.

Attempting to pay my respects to them, I ran on my toes and strained breathlessly to hold in my stomach. I lost my bearings and collided with a tackling dummy. As I lay on the grass looking up at the dummy, it appeared to be a worn, grass-stained piece of second-hand athletic equipment. Today I know better, It was my own personal Inspector Javert. “I’m sorry, old boy, but you’ve been found out,” it was saying. 
Actually, that anecdote is a bit of a cop-out. There are dozens of nasty little secrets in my psyche and in my past – most of them I’d just as soon not index in a national magazine. I don’t need much prompting to remind myself that I am racist or an elitist or a homophobe or a self-absorbed boor with scant sensitivity to the important people with whom I live and work.

I spend a lot of time trying to improve on that, of course, but the image of innocence I project seems fraudulent to me. 
I must hasten to add that I don’t think this is a particularly major confession. It just places me within the mainstream of the human race. When Paul said all are sinners, he meant all of us are frauds and all of us will eventually be found out. And Paul could not escape the anguish himself. “I know that nothing good dwells within me,” he confessed to the church in Rome (Romans 7:18ff). “I can will what is right but I cannot do it.” 
Did Javert ever catch up with Valjean Was Valjean thrown back into a drizzly Parisian prison? You know what happened, of course, and if you don’t, Victor Hugo’s thick volume awaits you at your local library. 
Javert is a haunting figure because he reminds us what our lives would be like if God had not intervened. Without the Cross, all of us would be relentlessly pursued by the truth of our sins, and all of us would be condemned.

Happily, there are no Javerts on our tail. God has sent Jesus to seek us out: a tireless pursuer who knows we are frauds and loves us anyway. 
With Javert there is only punishment. With Jesus, there is the promise that ever our fraudulence will one day be transformed for both our sake and his.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Marriage Equality

November 22, 2017. I wrote this essay more than five years ago when President Obama announced his support for marriage equality.

This progress was solidified  by U.S. Supreme Courts decision to extend marriage equality to all 50 states. Today, 54 years after President Kennedy died in Dallas, it is worth taking a closer look at an already exhaustively examined aspect of this mans complex make-up: his sexuality. - P.E.J.

May 10, 2012 - When President Obama announced the climax of his evolutionary thinking on marriage equality Wednesday, it set off an avalanche of commentary. 

Republicans, audibly smacking their chops, renewed their shrill commitment to the sanctity of boy-girl nuptials. And in a slightly puzzling aside, the President
s critics accused him of “flip-flopping” on the issue.

“Flip-flopper” is the nastiest name politicians can hurl at you because they think it implies you are unreliable and can’t be trusted. 

In fact, I think it means the opposite. Any English major knows the quality of a novel is often measured by whether its characters grow in response to twists and turns in the plot. The worst thing I can imagine is a politician who doesn’t budge from bias regardless of new facts or experiences. And God knows all three branches of government are constipated with that type. 

So even if Mr. Obama flipped from opposition to marriage equity to flop in its support, I applaud him. This is a historic first, an unprecedented declaration by the chief magistrate that all people should be treated equal.

“What I’ve come to realize,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday night in an email to his online supporters, “is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens. Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn’t dawn on them that their friends’ parents should be treated differently.”

Mr. Obama is the first president to take an unequivocal stand on marriage equality, though he is probably not the first to worry about the legal and social persecution of LGBTQ persons. Party lines are no indicator where presidents would fall on that issue. 

In the 1980s, I attended a meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta and heard ex-President Carter declare that his “deep Christian beliefs” gave him “serious problems with homosexuality.” (At the same meeting Mr. Carter used a rape joke to illustrate a point about personal responsibility, so I can only assume he has continued evolving on both counts.) 

President Reagan, who matured in the Hollywood hegemony, neither deserted his gay and lesbian friends nor issued public statements of support, but I suspect his heart and mind were on the right side. 

President Clinton, in the first days of his administration, backed away from an impulse to remove regulations preventing gays and lesbians from serving in the military, and I suppose he thought Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was a step in the right direction.

It’s difficult to find out what former presidents really thought about sexual orientation because their views were always closeted by political expediency. Few of them strayed from the rhetoric of party platforms. We may know what presidents said about the issue but never discover their inner-most thoughts. At the same time, most of them were intelligent human beings who knew, lived with, hired, shared family ties with and in some cases roomed with gays and lesbians. 

What did they think about that?

Neither scholars nor journalists have a lot of curiosity about the non-scandalous sexual activities of powerful politicians. And yet the actual sexual constitution of great figures might shed a good deal of light on history. James Buchanan was the only bachelor to serve in the White House. Was he gay? Was Lincoln gay? Was Kennedy?

I dropped Kennedy’s name to see if you were paying attention. He is, of course, one of history’s best known and most animated heterosexuals. Once Upon a Secret, My Affair with President John F. Kennedy, by Mimi Alford (Random House, 2012), soared to the New York Times bestseller list as thousands of readers (me included) reveled in the salacious details. No one doubts Kennedy was straight. But that information, confirmed by scores of eyewitnesses and a few sexual partners, doesn’t tell us everything about the man or his era. 

One book that never made it to the best seller list is Jack and Lem, the Untold Story of an Extraordinary Friendship, by David Pitts (Avalon, 2009). Reviewer Kenneth Hill describes the book as “the story of Jack Kennedy and his closest and dearest friend in the world for 30 years, Lem Billings – a gay man.” (See

Lemoyne Billings was JFK’s roommate at Choate. He nursed Jack through countless illnesses, many of them life threatening, traveled with him to Europe in 1937, remained close to him all his life and lived full-time in the White House. 

In an interview with Hill, author Pitts acknowledges that the relationship between Billings and Kennedy was difficult to define.

“I would say this – and this is kind of a complicated thought because we really don’t have language to express these kinds of things – and that is, I’m firmly convinced that John Kennedy’s sexual interests were in women,” Pitts says. “But his strongest emotional attachments were to men – and, principally, to Lem. We don’t have a word for that, right? Somebody who prefers the opposite gender for sexuality, and the same gender for deep, emotional attachments.”

There was nothing sexual about Kennedy’s relationship with Billings. But as reviewer Kenneth Hill observes, Kennedy “loved being around men, he knew some men were attracted to him and even seemed to enjoy it. He liked the stimulation of those relationships, there was nothing sexual about it, but there was something about that male-male dynamic that fed him.”

I never met JFK in person, but hell – I was in love with him myself. Judging by the way Kennedy enraptured a generation of idealistic Boomers, I doubt I was his only male secret admirer.

Lem and Jack were never domestic partners, and both would have been astonished by the concept of marriage equity. Even so, no one was closer to Jack than Lemoyne Billings – not even Jackie, who didn’t enter Jack’s life for 20 years after Lem and Jack became inseparable at Choate. When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Billings became the second widow, albeit unacknowledged and unsupported. 

Most histories pay scant attention to Billings, but Pitts believes he played an important historic role in the Kennedy years. 

“The role (Billings) played in soothing (Kennedy’s) temperament and giving advice when asked with the guy whose finger is on the button at the height of the Cold War, that’s also very important stuff that can’t be ignored.” 

Pitts adds: “JFK’s time with (Jackie) was mostly spent in reassuring her, so it was really Lem that he leaned on. Certainly in what he wanted to say politically. Now of course he would talk with political aides, but with Lem he knew he could say anything he wanted to say, and it would not be leaked nor end up in the press, and it was an important safety valve for him.”

President Obama’s declaration of support for marriage equality will certainly open new avenues to justice. It may also open the minds and hearts of historians and journalists to take a closer look at the wide spectrum of human relationships that have had an important but hitherto little noticed impact on our understanding of history and of one another.

Even more important – and I look forward to a thoughtful exegesis on the subject by right wing critics – Mr. Obama’s declaration is entirely consistent with God’s law, which Jesus said can be summarized this way: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. There are no exceptions to that law – certainly not LGBTQ persons, or Muslims, or anyone else.

I think we may look back on Mr. Obama’s announcement as a new marker in our journey of understanding the essence of God’s law. Whenever we pass one of those signposts, we often look back in astonishment at how far we’ve come, and how wrong we used to be.

Three-hundred years ago, European settlers came to these shores with a determination to conquer and settle at the expense of millions of indigenous peoples who were regarded as sub-human savages. Today, we can’t look back on that history without painful contrition. 

One-hundred and fifty years ago, white Americans subjugated black Africans in a cruel slavery that was justified with Bible proof-texts and an ignorant conviction that blacks were inferior to whites. Today, we look back on that history with agonized disbelief. 

Sixty years ago, in a time of war and great fear, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were deprived of their property and forced into detention camps because our grandparents feared everyone of Japanese ancestry. Today that decision is universally regarded as an unconscionable mistake and a blot on American history. 

Today, millions of Muslims are subjected to thoughtless generalizations, open discrimination and outright hostility because of the actions of a tiny minority whose violent acts defy the teachings of Mohammed. 

And today, in many hearts, the rights of gays and lesbians to be treated as equal human beings under the law is denied by the bigoted notion that God finds these particular members of God’s creation to be an “abomination.”

It’s hard to understand how people could have so little faith in God’s creative plan, or imagine so many exceptions to God’s commandment to love everyone.

The minds of the intolerant are not going to be changed over night. But we can be sure that the day will also come – and God grant it come soon – when we will look back with horrified dismay at the time when homophobia and LGBTQ discrimination were considered politics as usual.

President Obama’s declaration is a welcome step down that road.