Warren Blumenfeld's Blog

Social Justice, Intersections in Forms of Social Oppression, Bullying Prevention

Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate?

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Within two of the most prominent monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism and Islam, tradition dictates it blasphemous and highly insulting for any person to physically depict their G*d in Judaism, and the Prophet Muhammad in Islam, even positively or respectfully. So why then did the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) and its leader, anti-Islam activist Pam Geller, organize their “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, a small suburb near Dallas? Geller offered a $10,000 prize to be awarded for the “best” cartoon caricature of Muhammad.

According to Geller, as well as the invited keynote speaker, far-right politician Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, the event was called as an exercise in free speech. Evidently, Geller chose the site in reaction to a pro-Islam gathering, “Stand with the Prophet” held there last January. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist hate group, defines AFDI as an extremist right-wing organization.

Expecting trouble and the possibility of violence, Geller expended an estimated $10,000 to the Garland, Texas police force to cover security costs for the two-hour event, and violence is, indeed, what they got. Two men identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a security officer stationed outside the contest building. The officer, using only his service pistol, was able to bring down the shooters, possibly saving many other lives. The two men died of their wounds.

The shooters’ actions cannot be condoned, for violence in the face of hate only brings about more hate, thus creating an unending cycle. I am at a complete loss, though, to understand how this event could be justified as free speech.

“Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” said Wilders during his address to the estimated 200 attendees. Geller continued the justification in an interview with CNN: “It’s dangerous because increasingly, we’re abridging our freedoms so as not to offend savages.”

To caricature the Prophet Muhammad in reflection of the perverse actions of some extremists who use their distorted interpretations of Islam as their battle cry is equivalent to depicting Jesus in response to the abhorrent acts of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVey or the sorted activities of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Though these so-called “cartoons” may stand within the protected categories under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and though I am not calling for them to be outlawed, I see these caricatures as acts of hate and bullying for the goal of insulting and inciting.

I ask then, who are the “savages”?

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 5th, 2015 at 12:04 am

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Little Hope in Baltimore for the “2s,” “3s,” and “4s”

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In virtually all the university courses I teach in the field of education, I conduct what invariably turns out to be a valuable and poignant activity for the pre-service teacher educators enrolled in the course. The simulation represents the ways in which our society, along a continuum of very high to very low, encourages and enhances to discourages and reduces the individual’s motivation to learn and succeed in life.

I begin by alerting students that we are going to engage in a class activity. I travel around the room placing a playing card face down on each student’s desk. (I always include a “Joker” card.) I tell them not to look at their cards. I then stand in front of the room and provide directions. I model by taking a remaining card from the deck, and without looking at it, I place it face outward upon my forehead.

As an aside, on a couple of occasions, as I displayed a card on myself, students broke into loud and sustained laughter. As an out gay professor, the card I chose was a “Queen,” which was quite fitting in my case.

I tell students that they will circulate around the room with their cards upon their foreheads, and they will respond or treat others in terms of their cards. The “2” card is the “lowest of the low,” and “Ace” is the highest of the high, with other cards on a continuum in between. They are not to tell each other what are their cards. They can use body language and verbal language, but no touching one another in any way.

When they begin to realize what their cards are generally or specifically, they are to line up in ascending order from “2s” at one side of the room to “Aces” on the other side. Again, they cannot tell or correct other students if they place themselves out of order in the line. I am continually surprised how quickly most students determine their cards.

After students arrange themselves in a single-file line, I begin at the “lower” end by asking each student in turn to announce what they have determined as their card. After announcing, students can then look at their cards. I am always curious to see where the students with the “Joker” card situated themselves in the line.

Once each student has had a chance to announce and glance at their card, I engage the class, while remaining in their line positions, in a discussion by asking the following questions:

  • For the people on the lower end of the room, how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For the people in the middle section, from people who determined they are around “5” through “9,” how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you (to be treated sort of “average”)?
  • For the people on the higher end of the room, how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For the “Joker,” how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For everyone else, how did you respond to the “Joker”?
  • How does this activity simulate the ways people treat each other at this school, in our society?
  • For the people on the lower end of the room (then in the middle section, then on the higher end of the room) imagine you are a student in the early school years, how might your card affect your self-esteem and motivation to learn and succeed in school and in later life?
  • How does this activity simulate the concepts of privilege and subordination in terms of social identities?
  • Continue discussion.
  • Students then return to their seats.

Baltimore City

I convey this activity now in light of recent events in Baltimore, Maryland in which we have witnessed a number of protest demonstrations with some violent clashes with police, all sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man who died in police custody of an apparent partially-severed spinal cord for simply running when approached.

Baltimore City is not unlike many inner cities throughout the country with a broken criminal justice system, where unemployment rates for black youth tops 50 percent, and black adult unemployment hovers around 20 percent. Blight saturates neighborhood. Local schools, in areas with dwindling funding, results in lack of resources and low teacher salaries, high student dropout rates, and diminishing educational outcomes for those who remain. Community services are few, and generally, hope for the future is a scarce commodity.

Without condoning the clashes with police, rock throwing, looting, and arson against local businesses, when a society generally and police forces more specifically consistently treat its citizens like “2s,” “3s,” or “4s,” when people see no hope for a better future, when parents fear for their children’s very lives, the inevitable eruptions should can come as no surprise.

As a white man, in terms of race and gender, I am according automatic and unearned benefits and privilege withheld from people of color and women. I was born at the higher end of the classroom as, yes, a “Queen” at the very least, but more likely a “King” or an “Ace.” For white people who cannot seem to understand reactions of a community to the death of one man, all you have to do is look in the mirror to determine your card. Then imagine you were dealt a “2,” “3,” or “4.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 29th, 2015 at 3:06 pm

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Marriage Equality Not Left to States or “Democratic” Popular Vote

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As the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this summer whether to legalize marriage equality for same-sex couples throughout the nation, I have often heard it said that this issue should be left up to the individual states to decide in legislative house or in the voting booth by the people. As the argument goes, this is a states-rights issue, and the national government should not intrude by imposing its will on the states. In addition, numerous other objections abound by a number of conservative politicians and theologians.

Many conservative and political individuals and organizations oppose marriage for same-sex couples for the stated reason that, according to them, so-call “Judeo-Christian” tradition – a term I reject since it obscures the major differences between these two monotheistic religions — dictates that God has ordained marriage between one man and one woman, and this has been the case throughout millennia. They also argue that children need both a mother and father to develop “normal” and “healthy” lives.

For the sake of discussion, however, I would like to refute some of the theocratic and political claims of so-called “God’s law” and the alleged consistency in the foundation of marriage. I argue that the institution of marriage throughout time and culture has always been and continues to evolve, transition, and undergo redefinition.

Early Religious Teachings

Let’s look at some of the religious teachings, many of which point out that the institution of marriage was constructed very differently from what some today consider as “traditional marriage.”

Approximately 4000 years ago, Abraham (commonly referred to as “the father of the Jewish and Arab people” and Patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims) was a distant ancestor of Shem, son of Noah. When his wife Sarah was unable to conceive, as it is written, Sarah told Abraham to conceive a child with his Egyptian maidservant Hagar, who thereafter had a son, Ishmael. Soon afterward, Sarah also conceived a son, whom they called Isaac. After Isaac’s birth, Abraham banished Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.

In addition, according to the Jewish Bible, for example, Deuteronomy 25:5 “When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her,” and Deuteronomy 25:6 “And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel.”

I’m not hearing any so-called “Judeo-Christian” leaders calling on men in childless marriages to take on mistresses, and once they conceive, to banish them and their children from their towns, or for men to marry their brothers’ widows even if the men themselves are already married. Where was the requirement for only one man and one woman? Was this how we do and should define “traditional marriage” today?

Moreover, prior to 1967, 17 states within the U.S. prevented consenting adults from engaging in sexual activities, let along marriage, with anyone from another so-called “race.” In the case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court of the United States declared the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the so-called “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on adult consensual sexual activity and marriage throughout the U.S.

The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Loving (born Mildred Deloris Jetter, a woman of African descent) and Richard Perry Loving (a man of white European descent), both residents of Virginia who married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia to evade Virginia’s law. Upon returning to Virginia, police arrested and charged them with violating the act. Police entered their home and arrested them while they slept in their bed. At their trial, they were convicted and sentenced to one-year imprisonment with a suspended sentence on the condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia for a period of 25 years. At the trial, the judge, Leon Bazile, used Biblical justifications, “God’s law,” to convict the couple:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

I wonder whether religious and political conservatives who are today calling Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who ruled California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, an “activist judge” would also brand members of the Supreme Court who struck down anti-miscegenation laws as “activist judges” as well.

Redefining the Purpose of Marriage and Women’s Rights

The purpose of marriage has undergone changes throughout time and space: some societies considered marriage as a social requirement, or as a religious obligation, or even as a civil responsibility to supply citizens for the country. Some cultures promoted arranged marriages, childhood marriages, others encouraged marriage later in life.

Marriage has often been connected to property rights and not to love and romance. Fathers often figuratively and literally owned their daughters. Upon marrying, fathers transferred rights of ownership to the husbands, and women forfeited rights to all assets they may have acquired before marrying, and were denied rights to acquire property or the wages they earned during marriage.

The New York State Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 and amended in 1849 redefined property rights between married couples by stating, in part: “The real property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents, issues, and profits thereof, shall not be subject to the sole disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.”

“For the Sake of the Children”

While family constellations come in many variations — single parent, blended, extended, communal, and many others — I hear many people who defend marriage solely for different-sex couples on the basis that the best interests of the children are served only in living relationships with one father and one mother.

All reputable scientifically-based research studies have found that outcomes for children raised by lesbians or gay men are neither better nor worse than for other children in terms of issues involving “peer group relationships, self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, academic achievement, or warmth and quality of family relationships. In addition, a study by two researchers at the University of Southern California found that children with lesbian or gay parents show more empathy and appreciation for social diversity, and they are less confined by gender-role stereotypes. In fact, there simply is no data substantiating any claims that different-sex couples raise physically- and psychologically-advantaged children compared to children raised by lesbians, gay men, or bisexual people or within same-sex coupled households.

I remember back to the early 1990s, when residents in a section of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of police officers accused of exerting excessive force against motorist Rodney King. A few weeks later, the fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, gave birth. Vice President Dan Quayle, in his own inimical fashion, concluded that the riots in Los Angeles were caused by a deterioration of “traditional family values” as represented by the unmarried Murphy Brown.

Ross Parot, Texas billionaire and would-be independent presidential candidate, declared on ABC’s 20/20 in 1992 before his withdrawal from the race that if elected he would not appoint “adulterers or homosexuals” to high position of government. “No, I don’t want anybody there that will be at a point of controversy with the American people,” said Perot. “It will distract from the work to be done.”

In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my then home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads by the candidates running in the all-important first-in-the-nation Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus goers who define themselves as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their “so-called Christian family values,” which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and inclusion of LGBT members of the U.S. military. We saw this theme most clearly exhibited in Texas Governor’s Rick Perry TV ad “Strong”: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”

In addition, political and theocratic Right groups attempt to ban books on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes geared to students over the accusation that these books do not promote “traditional family values.”

One does not have to look far to see a basic confusion (translated as “deception”) in terminology between “family” (denoting a configuration of individuals) and “values” (related to intrinsic human principles and qualities). In addition, the term “traditional family” – currently defined as a family constellation composed of two married parents (a man and a woman) with birth children – is even more problematic because it is a relatively modern invention constructed during the rise of the industrial age. The Right holds it up as THE standard against which all others are judged, even though a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report found that a mere 19 percent of children currently reside within a “nuclear family” with a married birth mother and family who live with them. This is a drop from a relatively low 40.3 percent in 1970.

In truth, the concept of “traditional family values,” as used by the political and theocratic Right, has nothing to do with “tradition,” with “family,” or even with “values.” It has more to do with politics, with separating people into distinct and discrete camps of “us” versus “them,” while blaming and scapegoating “them” for the problems facing our country and our world.

At one time, the Right scapegoated “Communism” and the “Communists” using scare tactics to recruit members into its organizations and bring donations in to fill its war chests. Now, since the relative demise of world Communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Right needs other villains to scapegoat to further its own political agendas, and has thus targeted those who fall outside its current definition of the “traditional family,” which include lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, those who fall along the transgender spectrum, people who favor and advocate for protecting women’s reproductive freedoms, and even heterosexuals who either choose not to marry or choose not to bear children.

These politicians, educators, and clergy seem somehow to have forgotten the warning given by poet Walt Whitman: “I say of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”

We must as a society, then, expand the definition and remove from our vocabulary words that delineate people according to relationship status, for example, the value-laden terms “unwed mother,” “illegitimacy” and “illegitimate child,” “bastard child,” “out of wedlock,” “bachelor,” “old maid,” “Miss,” “Mrs.” – and consign these words to the archives of history because when currently used, separate people from one another and result in lowered self-esteem.

Marriage Equality a Federal Issue

I argue most emphatically that marriage rights in general, and more specifically, marriage equality for same-sex couples is indeed a federal issue.

This once again reminds me of the concept of “tyranny of the majority” articulated back in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, who traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America. Though he favored US style democracy, he found its major limitation in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion of “majority rules,” this effectively silenced minoritized peoples. This serves as a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of the rights of minoritized peoples, there is danger of domination or tyranny over others whose ideas, values, and social identities are not accepted by the majority.

Though, or course, the issues are different in many ways, take the following additional cases for example:

If the issue of prohibiting the practice of slavery were not settled in Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and later codified in the US Constitution, and left to the individual states, I question whether the states would have voluntarily outlawed the practice of slavery, and I believe the practice of legalized slavery would have lasted long after the Civil War in some states.

If the issue of school desegregation were not settled in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court decision and later strengthen in the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and left to the individual states, I question whether the states would have voluntarily relinquished the practice of racial segregation, and I believe this practice would remain to this very day in some states.

If the issue of women’s reproductive freedoms were not settled in the 1973 US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, and left to the individual states, I believe today women’s rights to control their own bodies would be dependent on their geographic location, thus disqualifying many women from their reproductive rights.

The founders of this country provided a mechanism for the protection of minoritized people against the tyranny of the majority. The checks and balances between the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, and the authority of federal legislation over the individual states have been seen time and again (though of course not perfectly and not without major adjustments and reversal of policy along the way) to offer some form of protection for minority rights and responsibilities. If we leave these important issues of social justice and social inequality to majority rule, then many of the evils that have plagued this country throughout its history will continue long into the future.

While the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, (“…no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”), our current patchwork of disparate and contradictory laws and state constitutional amendments remains not only confusing but also inequitable. Today, as a gay man, I can marry another man in my home state of Massachusetts and in 36 other states and the District of Columbia, but my marriage would be declared null and void in the remaining states.

The rights of same-sex couples to legally marry WILL NOT compel religious institutions to conduct religious marriages if they are opposed. Religious institutions will continue to set their own standards for conducting marriage ceremonies as they always have, without fear of prosecution if they decide that marriage for same-sex couples stands in opposition to their teachings.

Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that “families” come in a great variety of packages, with differing shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of “family,” I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us that “The definition’s plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 27th, 2015 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Ways to Create Safe & Supportive Schools for LGBATQQI People

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Throughout the world, on university and grade school campuses, in communities and homes, and in the media, issues of sexual identity and gender identity and expression are increasingly “coming out of the closet.” We see young people developing positive identities at earlier ages than ever before. Activists are gaining selective electoral and legislative victories. Primarily in academic milieus, greater emphasis and discussion is centering on what has come to be called “queer theory” (an area of critical theory), where writers, educators, and students analyze and challenge current notions and categories of sexuality and gender role constructions.

Students are conducting educational efforts around a number of special events, for example:

  • National Day of Silence: a day in mid-April each year when students across the nation take a vow of silence to call attention to the epidemic of oppressive name calling, harassment, and violence perpetrated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBATQQI) students in schools and in the larger society.
  • National Coming Out Day: October 11 each year in the U.S., October 12 in the United Kingdom, set aside to take further steps in “Coming Out of the Closet” of denial and fear around issues of sexual and gender identity as a personal and community-wide effort to raise awareness.
  • National LGBT History Month: originally proposed in 1994 by Missouri High School teacher, Rodney Wilson, it has become a nationally recognized observance of LGBT history (October in the United States, February in the United Kingdom).
  • Bisexuality Day: September 23 to commemorate bisexual awareness and the accomplishments of bisexual people.
  • Transgender Day of Remembrance: November 20 to commemorate the estimated two people killed every day somewhere in the world for expressing gender nonconformity.
  • No Name Calling Week: based on an idea proposed in the best-selling young adult novel, The Misfits (2003) by James Howe, in which four seventh grade friends suffer the daily effects of insults and taunts.
  • National Gay/Straight Alliance Day: January 25 meant to strengthen the bond between LGBT people and straight allies, and in particular recognize and honor Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs), which work to educate peers to stop heterosexism and cissexism in schools and colleges.
  • National LGBT/Queer Pride Month: June each year when members of Gay/Straight Alliances join in annual Pride Marches and other festivities throughout the month in their local communities throughout the country.

The California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, SB48, the first in the nation statute requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other educational materials in social studies courses that include contributions of LGBT people.

For LGBATQQI youth and allies, this information can underscore the fact that their feelings and desires are in no way unique, and that others like themselves lead happy and productive lives. This in turn can spare them years of needless alienation, denial, and suffering. For heterosexual students, this can provide the basis for appreciation of human diversity and help to interrupt the chain of bullying and harassment toward LGBATQQI people.

California was also the first state to ban so-called “Reparative” or “Conversion Therapy” in August 2012: a cruel and oppressive pseudo therapy intended to change a client from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, or transgender to cisgender.

Though we have experienced many gains in recent decades, however, we still have far to travel. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in it 2013 National School Climate Survey investigating school experiences of LGBT students in middle and high school found that generally:

“Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear anti-LGBT language and experience victimization and discrimination at school. As a result, many LGBT students avoid school activities or miss school entirely.”

Fully 55.5% of LGBT students across the country felt unsafe at school based on their sexual orientation, and 37.8% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. About one-third missed at least one full day of classes in the past month over safety concerns.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about issues of sexual and gender identities and expressions and by helping to ensure cultural pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students “construct” or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students’ prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to bring equity in terms of sexual and gender identity in the public schools—for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another—some foundational guidelines for educators and school administrators can be considered.

  1. Assessment: Hold public hearings, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of LGBATQQI youth, their families, and school staff. This can help in assessing the overall “climate” or your school.
  2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting LGBATQQI students from harassment, violence, and discrimination. Include “Sexual Identity & Gender Identity and Expression” as protected categories in your anti-discrimination policies. Extend benefits to LGBATQQI employees on par with heterosexual employees.
  3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer comprehensive training to all school personnel in violence prevention, suicide prevention, and specifically the needs and issues faced by LGBATQQI youth.
  4. “Safe Zone” Programs: Implement and participate in a “Safe Zone” program in your school. Following a comprehensive training, participants are given a sticker, which they can affix to their classroom or office doors stating that their room is a safe zone for discussions related to sexual and gender identities, and that if students have any questions, they can come to the person who displays the sticker to receive resources and referrals.
  5. Gender Inclusive Facilities: Schools are encouraged to provide gender inclusive facilities, including restrooms and physical education changing rooms. Most gender inclusive facilities people are advocating include primarily single-user lockable restrooms. These types of facilities substantially increase safety for all users.
  6. Support Groups: Schools and communities are encouraged to offer school- and community-based support groups for LGBATQQI and heterosexual youth. Thousands of schools across the United States and other countries have established these groups, generically called “Gay/Straight Alliances.”
  7. Counseling: Schools and communities are encouraged to provide affirming school- and community-based counseling for LGBATQQI youth and their families.
  8. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age-appropriate collections of books, videos, CDs, DVDs, journals, magazines, posters, internet websites, and other information on LGBTQQI issues.
  9. Educational Forums: Schools are encouraged to organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to sexual and gender identities and expressions.
  10. Curriculum & School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information on LGBATQQI issues at every grade level, across the curriculum, and in other school programs and assemblies. Also, announce LGBATQQI issues and events in your school and local community newspapers.
  11. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to select and hire “out” LGBATQQI faculty and staff to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
  12. Teacher Certification: Include information and trainings on LGBATQQI youth issues in college and university teacher education programs.
  13. Continuing Education:
  • Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of LGBATQQI youth and their families. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear their voices when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not downplay or minimize their stories. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)
  • Attend LGBTQQI cultural and community events.
  • Wear pro-LGBTQQI buttons and T-shirts, and display posters.
  • Interrupt heterosexist and cissexist jokes and epithets.
  • Be aware of the generalizations you make. Assume there are LGBATQQI people at your school, in your workplace, and in your community.
  • To sensitize yourself to the concept of heterosexual privilege, notice the times you disclose your heterosexuality if you define as heterosexual.
  • Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to ensure accurate coverage of LGBATQQI issues.
  • Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking pro-LGBATQQI stands.
  • Use affirming or gender-inclusive language when referring to sexuality and gender identities in human relationships in every-day speech, on written forms, etc. Say the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “asexual,” “transgender,” “intersex” each day in a positive way.

No matter how loudly organizers on the political and theocratic Right protest that this is merely a “bedroom issue,” we know that the bedroom is but one of the many places we write our stories and histories. Therefore, while each October is a good time to begin the classroom discussions, I ask that our full stories be told throughout the year.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 18th, 2015 at 4:32 am

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9 Ways of Raising Issues of Religious Pluralism in the Schools

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Someone said to me once that throughout the ages, more people have been killed in the name of religion than all the people who have ever died of all diseases combined. I don’t know whether this is actually the case, but I do think it highlights a vital point: we continually reject, oppress, and kill others and are killed by others over differing belief systems. How many wars are we going to justify in the name of “God,” our “God” versus their so-called “false god(s)”?

Today, the United States stands as one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. This diversity poses great challenges as well as great opportunities. I would ask, though, with all that is happening in our country and around the world enacted in the name of religion, how religiously literate are we as a nation?

According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, great many U.S.-Americans have very little knowledge or understanding of “the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.” In addition, “many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified the ways in which the First Amendment relates to public schools in the cases of Engel v. Vitale, 1962 and Abington v. Schempp, 1963. The court ruled that schools may not sponsor religious practices, though they may teach about religion as an academic topic. In addition, while not ruling directly on the matter of religious holidays in the school, the Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court decision (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 8th Circuit, 1980) declaring that recognition of religious holidays may be constitutional when the purpose is to give secular instruction about religion or religious traditions rather than to promote any specific religious doctrine or practice.

An inclusive model, one that ensures individuals’ and groups’ freedom of as well as freedom from religion is the concept as well as, I would suggest, the national goal of “cultural and religious pluralism.” The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about world religions and by helping to ensure religious pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students “construct” or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students’ prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to teach and bring about religious pluralism and equity in the public schools—for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another—some foundational guidelines can be considered:

  1. Assessment: Hold public hearing, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of members of different faith communities and non-believers. This can help in assessing the overall religious “climate” or your school.
  2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting students, faculty, staff, and administrators of every faith and non-believers from harassment, violence, and discrimination, and to provide equity of treatment that adapt for religious accommodations.
  3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer training to all school personnel, including guidance counselors and social workers, in religious diversity and bullying prevention, and specifically to address the religious accommodation needs of students and school personnel.
  4. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age appropriate collections of books, videos/DVDs, and other academic materials pertaining to world religions and to non-believers.
  5. Educational Forums: Schools can organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to religious diversity and religious pluralism.
  6. Curriculum and School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information regarding religious issues presented uniformly and without bias or judgment. In this regard, when introducing a topic, it is often effective to bring to the classroom or school assembly a panel of outside speakers composed of, for example, individuals who identity within a specific religious faith community or non-believers.
  7. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to recruit faculty and staff from disparate religious and spiritual background as well as non-believers to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
  8. Teacher Certification: Include information and training on issues pertaining to religious diversity and religious oppression in college and university teacher education programs.
  9. Continuing Education:
  • Educate yourself about world religions and the history of religion and religious oppression in the United States and other countries throughout the world.
  • Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of people from many religious and spiritual backgrounds and non-believers. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear the voices of religious minorities and non-believers when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not try to change them. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)
  • Put yourself in the shoes of religious minorities and non-believers, especially during major Christian holiday seasons. Attempt to experience those seasons from their perspectives. What do you perceive? Ask yourself next time you automatically wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter, or when you are about to send someone a Christmas or even a Season’s Greeting card, whether the person on the other end would truly welcome the gesture, or whether you might be imposing your traditions and values on that person.
  • Attend events of religions other than your own.
  • Be aware of the generalizations you make. If you are of a certain religious background, do not assume that all people you meet are from that background. Assume there of people of other faiths and non-believers in your school, workplace, and community.
  • Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to assess their level of sensitivity to issues related to religious pluralism.
  • Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking positions in support of religious pluralism.

As we learn more about people and their religious ideas, customs, and consciousness different from our own, maybe, just maybe, will we experience a more just, equitable, and, yes, peaceful world.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 17th, 2015 at 3:39 pm

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From Bullying to Genocides: From Micro to Macro

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As we approach Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day on 27 Nisan (Jewish calendar), sundown April 15 to sundown April 16 this year (Gregorian calendar), I reflect upon my familial history: two scenarios with somewhat varied outcomes.

When I was a young child, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Varn,” (through his distinctive Polish accent, he pronounced my name “Varn”), “you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler, who was killed by the Nazis along with my mother Bascha and most of my thirteen brothers and sisters.” When I asked why they were killed, he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

We later learned that Nazi troops forced most of my Krosno relatives into the surrounding woods, shot them, and tossed their lifeless bodies into a mass unmarked grave along with over two thousand other Jewish residents. The Nazis eventually loaded the remaining Jews of Krosno onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Belzec death camps. The handful of Krosno Jews who survived liberation of the camps attempted to return to their homes that had been confiscated by the non-Jewish residents. No Jews reside today in Krosno.

More recently, on a snowy February morning in 2002, while in my university office organizing materials for that day’s classes, I received an email message that would forever poignantly and profoundly change my life. A man named Charles Mahler had been looking for descendants of the Mahler family of Krosno, Poland, and he had come across an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Bascha Mahler.

Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but the Nazis murdered his father’s parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister, and her two children, and other relatives following Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Belgium, their adopted home country.

My cousin Charles related their story in hiding from August 1942 until the final armistice in Europe. His father, Georges, altered the family’s identity papers from Jewish to Christian, and they abandoned Antwerp for what they considered the relative safety of the Belgium countryside. During their plight, members of the Belgium resistance movement and other righteous Christians shepherded them throughout the remainder of the war to three separate locations as the German Gestapo followed closely at their heels. On a number of occasions, they successfully “passed” as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.

Though the majority of Jewish inhabitants of Antwerp ultimately perished, many survived. However, at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel) one will observe “Krosno” chiseled into the glass and the stone walls listing towns and villages where Nazis and their sympathizers decimated entire Jewish communities.

I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages.

Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups, while other citizens or entire nations look on, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the genocides.

On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition: “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.”

The problem of bullying and harassment should not be seen simply as involving those who bully and those who are bullied (the “dyadic view”), but rather as involving a number of “actors” or roles across the social/school environment. In one study, peers were present to witness 85% of the bullying incidents at school.

Some researchers have defined the roles various people play. Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerated the distinct and often overlapping roles enacted in these episodes:

  1. Those Who Bully: the person or persons who perpetrate the bullying episodes;
  2. Followers/Henchmen(women): those who are active in the bullying process, though a follower of the main “ringleader” bully(ies);
  3. Supporter, Passive Bully/Bullies: those who passively support, condone, collude, or encourage the aggression;
  4. Passive Supporter, Possible Bully: those who are unsure of ways to actively assist those who perpetrate the aggression, though they are with those who bully;
  5. Disengaged Onlookers: sometimes referred to as “bystanders,” aware of the bullying behaviors, do nothing, often stay away from the incidents;
  6. Possible Defender: those who could intervene on behalf of the targets of bullying, but for many reasons may feel disempowered, unsure of ways to assist, fearful of being a target themselves;
  7. Defender of those Who are Bullied: those who either work proactively, or actually intervene, defend, and protect the targets of aggression;
  8. Those Who Are Bullied, The One(s) Who Is/Are Exposed: the targets of aggression.

One piece of my family puzzle met a tragic end, another partial segment survived. In both instances, the bystanders determined the balance of power: in Krosno, many, though not all, conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, many dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathetic upstanders in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in California on October 27, 2009, for example, up to ten young men grabbed a 14-year-old young woman who had been waiting outside the dance for her father, dragged her behind a building, and gang raped her for over two and one-half hours with approximately ten witnesses observing. Some even cheered on the attackers. No one notified the police. The perpetrators left the young woman in critical condition.

But then a few years during a horrendous traffic accident between an automobile driver and a motor cyclist resulted in the cyclist being thrust under the burning car, a group of stunned bystanders immediately and without hesitation turned into courageous upstanders by joining in unison, with flames raging around them, to turn the car on its end ensuring that others could pull the young cyclist to safety, thereby saving his life.

So which side are we on? This question brings to mind the old truism: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

Warren J. Blumenfeld is associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 15th, 2015 at 8:22 pm

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Mercy over Vengeance for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

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 “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.”

Thus, Dennis Shepard, speaking for himself and his wife Judy during a heart-wrenching and nearly unbearable emotional court-room speech to one of his son Matthew’s convicted murders, Aaron McKinney, 22, spared both McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, 21, of the death penalty. As he spoke, his voice often breaking as he wiped tears streaming down his face and falling to the floor, the sound of weeping throughout the courtroom including men and women in the jury box, Dennis Shepard called his 21-year old son his hero, and he talked of Matthew’s special gift for reaching out and helping others.

McKinney and Henderson kidnapped, beat, tortured, and left Matthew for dead tied to a wooden fence near Laramie, Wyoming on the chilly night of October 6, 1998. Surrounded by his loving family and friends, Matthew died six days later in hospital after succumbing to severe head and brain injuries.

“Every time you celebrate Christmas,” Dennis Shepard added, “a birthday, or the Fourth of July, remember that Matthew isn’t. Every time that you wake up in that prison cell, remember that you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night. You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”

That day in October, the healing began, not only for the Shepards, the McKinneys, and the Hendersons, but also for Laramie, for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* community, and for a grieving nation.

The Shepard’s resolve in taking the moral high ground served as a testament to the power of love over hate and vengeance. Though they may never fully forgive Matthew’s attackers, they take comfort in their actions in stopping any further killing as a result of their tragedy.

Now in the wake of a Boston jury’s conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on all 30 counts filed against him for the vicious and senseless bombing murders of Krystle Campbell, Martin Richard, and Lingzi Lu at the finish line of the Boston Marathon two years ago, and later the shooting murder of Sean Collier, a police officer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have the opportunity of following the lead of the Shepards or else of traveling the seemingly unending path of violence and vengeance.

Since Tsarnaev was sentenced on federal charges, 17 of the 30 counts against him carry the possibility of death even in Massachusetts, which bans the death penalty.

Rather than a time of revenge, let the sentencing for the murders and the maiming bring out the best in us all. We are Boston Strong in so many ways and forms:

We are Boston Strong in our resolve to remain united in the face of tragedy. We are Boston Strong in our ability to show mercy amid our grief. We are Boston Strong in our belief that in the midst of tragedy, we may now truly begin the healing process. To kill this murderer would merely place us closer to his level. Vengeance only begets vengeance, and the wheel continues. To stop that wheel, we must dismantle the spokes.

Let us use this time as a detour out of the perennial cycle of violence and vengeance. Let all these senseless murders and maimings, the terror inflicted on so many communities, let these serve as a catalyst to bring people even closer together. Let us all show the world that mercy is far greater than the disgust and rage that we so justly feel as Matthew Shepard’s parents loved their son far more than they hated his killers.

They showed mercy, and today they live in peace with their decision. They have established the Matthew Shepard Foundation to continue the work of stopping violence and hate, bullying and harassment of anyone who appears different. And they are reaching out to those who perpetrate the violence.

Their example has the potential to bring peace to my beloved city of Boston. Though many may believe my thoughts and words naïve and a pipe dream when considering the enormity of historical animosities in the world, maybe we can use a bit more naivety since little else has shown promise in extricating us from the abyss of using violence to settle scores.

Show the world that these beautiful and loving people, and the countless others killed before them, have not died in vain. Let the healing begin.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 9th, 2015 at 2:17 am

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Time Has Come to Fix U.S.-Iran Policy

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A corollary to the old saying “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is the reverse, “If it’s broken, then fix it.” Well, the U.S. and other nations’ policies of imposing sanctions alone to inhibit Iran’s nuclear ambitions and capabilities has been tried, and it has failed in its stated purpose. It has, though, succeeded in at least pressuring Iranian leaders to talk with us and some of our European allies at the negotiating table.

While the full terms of the agreement are to be drawn up by the end of June, the framework coming out of Switzerland garnered support from our chief European allies, the British and the French.

Even prior to the details being released, however, the right-wing chorus of fear and division sang loudly to its base from the halls of Congress to the podium of the conference of conservative-leaning AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee) with such notables as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Speaker John Boehner, and Senator John (never-reject-any-war) McCain, to (much) lesser figures who are attempting to make a name for themselves like first-term Representative Tom Cotton.

Benjamin Netanyahu and all the others gave no real alternatives to Obama’s negotiated settlement – even in advance of all the terms coming out – other than war. They, like George W. Bush during his tenure as Commander in Chief, see the world in terms of simplistic dualistic oppositions.

We know where “good versus evil” policy decisions have gotten us. Bush II’s immediate and, as has come to light, fabricated and contrived invasion of Iraq, turned up none of the weapons of mass destruction alleged by spotty and inadequate “intelligence” reports. The invasion did what George H. W. Bush had warned and feared in igniting a fierce multi-factional civil war in Iraq and destabilization of the entire region.

By toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. unleashed a massive Sunni backlash, which emboldened the formation and strengthening of groups like ISIS. This empowered Iran to support Shia factions and placed the U.S. in the unusual position of fighting on the same side as Iran in attaching ISIS. On the other hand, the U.S. has been fighting a proxy war against Iran by supporting Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula opposing insurgents in Yemen.

I believe now is the time – actually, it has been the time for decades now – to consider new forms of leadership, not only in the Middle East, but around the world. We need to get away from the leaders who demonize the other, who use fear, threat, and actual engagement in war as tools for their own maintenance of power. We need leaders who are interested in negotiating without a laundry list of preconceived conditions.

I see Barack Obama setting the bar higher, and initiating a great example of what leadership can be. As we all know, during the U.S. presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, Obama asserted that he would negotiate with leaders throughout the world, “anytime, anywhere,” to make a start at real engagement and for a new relationship. As we also know, Mr. Obama was roundly criticized for his so-called naiveté, not simply by conservative Republicans, but also from members of his own party, some of whom consider themselves politically progressive.

And herein lays the challenge, the risk, and the danger for leaders who reach out to the so-called “other side” or to their so-called “enemies.” A number of our great world leaders were not only criticized by members of their own ranks, but some were tragically assassinated by their own people for their courage to negotiate and reach out in the name of peace. These great leaders include Mahatma Gandhi, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Malcolm X, and the list goes on.

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in October 2009 they would be awarding President Barack Obama the coveted Nobel Peace Prize during his first year in office, I was confused and rather upset. I thought to myself that this untested President, while he might have talked a good line about his dreams for a more peaceful world, had not had the time to implement policies or take concrete actions to deserve this prestigious honor. I thought that the Nobel Committee had actually cheapened the Prize by conferring it on Mr. Obama that year.

As time passed, my suspicions seemed grounded. His decisions to send drones into fields of conflict, while taking out brutal extremists, also resulted in the tragic deaths of countless civilian non-combatants.

The joint efforts of President Obama, with the hard work and negotiating skills of Secretary John Kerry, and the initial groundwork laid by former Secretary Hillary Clinton, I believe that Obama and his team have now earned the award he was presented back in 2009. At the time of their announcement, the Nobel Committee now appears extremely prophetic by admiring Mr. Obama’s promotion of nuclear nonproliferation bringing forth a “new climate” in international relations, and in particular, by the President’s reaching out to the Muslim world.

Opponents are calling Obama and supporters of the framework with the Iranians as naïve at best. Well, we can live with that – literally!

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld, is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press), co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), Editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 5th, 2015 at 5:14 pm

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My Manifesto of Religious Freedom and Restoration

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Proponents of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) recently passed in states like Indiana and Arkansas, passed but not signed in Arizona, and proposed in North Carolina argue that these laws promote religious freedoms and freedom of speech. Let us be clear that these newest incarnations of RFRA aim to provide legal cover for merchants and land owners to discriminate against people whose beliefs and ways of life they oppose.

We are seeing individuals and entire denominations framing themselves as the true victims whenever we challenge their religious justifications in their attempts to perpetuate their already pervasive Christian hegemony and social privileges, and their characterizations of others. Some proponents of these bogus and totally unnecessary laws characterize those who protest against these statutes as “religiously intolerant” and as “religious bigots.”

I refuse any longer to allow theologians or politicians of any religious or political philosophy to use of our bodies as stepping stones for their ambitions. If that makes me religiously intolerant or bigoted, then I am a very proud religious bigot!

I am a proud religious bigot by opposing the types of “values” they are attempting to impose on us because for me, this is no simple disagreement over religious perspectives. For me, this is a fight against oppression and a fight for social justice.

I am proud to be bigoted against any religious denomination’s efforts to define me and members of my community as “sinners,” to deny me and members of my community the rights of self-definition and self-determination, and to deny us our integrity and our humanity by attempting to prevent us from maintaining our subjectivity, our agency, and our voice.

I am a proud religious bigot against any denomination that attempts to deny me and members of my community the rights granted under the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution to equal protection under the law, and in particular the right to marry the person of our choice, to serve our country openly in the military, to equal protections in employment, housing, public accommodations, insurance, inheritance, and to pursue happiness as we see fit. I am a proud religious bigot in fighting against any religious denomination’s efforts to prevent me and members of my community from gaining our rightful place in our society.

Fortunately, however, there exists no monolithic conceptualization of religion, for other faith communities’ “values” are progressively welcoming toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI) people, our sexuality and relationships, and our gender identities and expressions. These communities are working tirelessly to abolish the yoke of oppression directed against us.

I believe that THE prime influence keeping oppression toward LGBTQI people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society — on the personal/interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels — are the destructive doctrines and judgments radiating from primarily orthodox and fundamentalist religious communities.

According to the United States Department of Justice: “Bullying encompasses a variety of negative acts carried out repeatedly over time. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are [perceived as] less powerful.”

The statements, policies, and actions taken by a number of religious denominations must be seen as nothing short of bullying. I assert, therefore, that the institutional bullying emanating from these religious factions must stop, now!

When religious leaders preach their damaging interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender non-conformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as LGBTQI. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these abusive actions.

When the religious/theocratic Right declares that LGBTQI people are sinners and psychologically ill, and that they must not be allowed to promote their so-called “gay agenda,” indeed, as the line between religion and government is increasingly blurred, and when we are taught to hate ourselves, each of us is demeaned, which denies us all our freedoms and liberties. Therefore, we have a right, or rather an obligation, to speak up, to fight back with all the energy, with all the unity, and with all the love and passion with which we are capable.

From our vantage point at the margins, we have a special opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to serve as social commentators, as critics, exposing and highlighting the wide-scale inequities of all kinds that saturate and surround our environment, and to challenge the culture to move forever forward and progress.

Though certain religious denominations may continue in their attempts to define us, they will fail.

A central tenet of liberation is the right of people to self-define, to maintain their subjectivity and agency over the course of their lives. With our loving allies within progressive religious communities in addition to those unaffiliated with religious denominations, we are taking back the discourse and demanding that religious institutions curb their offensive dogma and take their interpretations of scripture off our bodies.

We will accept no longer their repugnant mantra that “We hate the sin, but love the sinner.” We will accept no longer their telling us why and how we have come to our same-sex attractions and our gender non-conformity, and that it is a “choice” that we can change. We will continue to fight against their efforts to legislate us into second-class citizenship and codify their so-called “values” into law. We will fight their attempts to restrict us from entering the social institutions of our choice.

Furthermore, we will not accept their framing themselves as the victims of “religious bigotry” when we challenge their Medieval, hateful, fear-inspiring, cruel, and yes, oppressive interpretations of our lives, interpretations targeted to perpetuate their domination and control.

Their time for bullying has come to an end! We are no longer intimidated. We are standing up, joining together as allies, as upstanders, to put an end to their hatred and violence, to their hijacking of scripture to serve their need to control, and to once and for all end the deaths that have taken so many beautiful and gentle spirits.

I refuse to debate my existence on religious grounds ever again with anyone, since there is no “debate,” for to quote Rene Descartes, “I think therefore I am,” period, the end.

In the final analysis, our challenge remains in no way as “religious intolerance” or “religious bigotry,” but rather, it amounts to our standing up to correct a devastating social injustice. It is not “religious prejudice” to challenge offensive, demeaning, degrading, marginalizing, persecution-resulting, violence-provoking, suicide-inducing characterizations.

We challenge their oppressive words and actions, which they often justify by invoking the name of God, as they understand God.

For in the prophetic words of Bob Dylan,

“The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast

The slow one now

Will later be fast

As the present now

Will later be passed

The order is

Rapidly fadin’

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is co-editor of Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 4th, 2015 at 1:43 am

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Religious Justifications for Oppression: A Brief U.S. History

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Religious Justifications for Oppression:

Throughout the ages, individuals and organizations have employed “religion” to justify the marginalization, harassment, denial of rights, persecution, and oppression of entire groups of people based on their social identities. At various historical periods, people have applied these texts, sometimes taken in tandem, and at other times used selectively, to establish and maintain hierarchical positions of power, domination, and privilege over individuals and groups targeted by these texts and tenets.

Proponents of the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) recently passed in states like Indiana and Arkansas argue that these laws promote religious freedoms and freedom of speech – two tenets already covered by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court opened the flood gates for the enactment of new and enhanced RFRA laws in its 2014 decision Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. While human and civil rights anti-discrimination laws primarily have never covered bone fide religious institutions, the Hobby Lobby ruling extended such exemptions to “closely held” (where no ready market exists for the trading of stock shares) for-profit corporations when these owners claim that to follow anti-discrimination statutes would violate their religious beliefs.

Let us be clear, however: these newest incarnations of RFRA (which already exist in approximately 30 other states and on the national level in less encompassing forms and in many states that enumerate “sexual orientation” and “gender identity and expression” as protected categories) aim to provide legal cover for merchants and land owners to discriminate against people whose beliefs and ways of life they oppose.

The United States of America was founded on Christian justifications for oppression.

A Brief U.S. History:

The foundational spiritual beliefs of the numerous indigenous tribes originally inhabiting the vast territories now known as the United States of America came under challenge with the advent of European expansionism to North America in the 17th century of the Common Era (CE), as many imperialists brought with them their forms of Christianity. The Pilgrims, for example, who left England for Massachusetts in 1620, originally had strong connections with the Church of England, but they were disenchanted with what they viewed as the church’s compromises with Roman Catholicism (Lippy, 2004). The Pilgrims came to North America with hopes of establishing a purer form of Protestant Christianity than they had found in their native land. These “Puritans” separated from the Church of England to establish their own religious institutions, but they were not interested or willing to extend to others the religious freedom they were seeking (Lippy, 2004).

The Pilgrims believed that they were a divinely chosen people, and soon established “a biblical commonwealth” (Eck, 2001, p. 36) crafted from their own form of Christianity in which “the church and the state were to support and protect each other” (Corbett & Corbett, 1999, p. 33).

Over the decades after the Puritans first landed on the shores of North America came other nationalities and religious denominations, primarily Christian, from the European continent. These largely included Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Congregationalist Puritans, and Baptists (Lippy, 2004). In their attempts to assure religious freedom for themselves, under the leadership of William Penn, Quakers founded the colony of Pennsylvania, and Roman Catholics founded Maryland in the 1640s. In the following decades, however, Protestants established political power in Maryland, and in 1704, Protestant legislators passed a law unequivocally titled “An Act to Prevent the Growth of Popery within This Province” banishing Jesuits from the territory (Eck, 2001).

Adherents to a number of non-Christian religions were scattered throughout the colonies, though they were persecuted, stripped of their beliefs, and at times killed by a colonial Protestant establishment staunchly resistant to any diversity of religious belief or expression within its borders.

In imperialist colonial America, as private farms grew larger and farmers needed more cheap laborers to cultivate the land and tend the crops, many white so-called “settlers” came voluntarily from England and served initially as indentured servants. In order to increase productivity and profitability, landowners turned increasingly to the slave trade for their labor. Race and religion were intertwined as bases for slavery in the Americas where black Africans were stolen from their homelands and forced into slavery for the remainder of their lives, carried by slave ships, some of which were named the “Jesus,” the “ Grace of God,” the “Angel,” the “Liberty,” and the “Justice” (Clifton, 1994; Norman, 2005). Many slave ships had on board a Christian minister to help oversee the passage. In fact, it was not uncommon at this time for religious representatives to offer scriptural justifications for slavery (Hill & Cheadle, 1996).

The issue of slavery became a lightning rod in the 1840s among members of the Baptist General Convention, and in May 1845, 310 delegates from the Southern states convened in Augusta, Georgia to organize a separate Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) on a pro-slavery plank. They asserted that to be a “good Christian,” one had to support the institution of slavery, and could not join the ranks of the abolitionists.

Well, either by divine “inspiration” or due to political pressure, 150 years later in June 1995, the SBC reversed its position and officially apologized to African Americans for its support and collusion with the institution of slavery (regarding it now as an “original sin”), and also apologizing for its support of “Jim Crow” laws and its rejection of civil rights initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s.

The expansion of the republic and movement west was in part justified by the overriding philosophical underpinnings since the American Revolution. Called “Manifest Destiny,” it was based on the belief that God intended the United States to extend its holdings and its power across the wide continent of North America over the native Indian tribes from the east coast to the west (Spring, 2004).

The doctrine of “manifest destiny” embraced a belief in American Anglo-Saxon superiority. “This continent,” a congressman declared, “was intended by Providence as a vast theatre on which to work out the grand experiment of Republican government, under the auspices of the Anglo-Saxon race” (quoted in Takaki, 1993, p. 176).

During the early years of the new republic, with its increasing population and desire for land, political leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, advocated that Indian lands should be obtained through treaties and purchase. Later, however, when he inhabited the White House, Andrew Jackson argued that white settlers (actually, land thieves) had a “right” to confiscate Indian land. Though he proposed a combination of treaties and an exchange or trade of land, he maintained that whites had a right to claim any Indian lands that were not under cultivation. Jackson recognized as the only legitimate claims for Indian lands those on which they grew crops or made other “improvements” (Spring, 2004). The Indian Removal Act of May 28, 1830 authorized President Jackson to confiscate Indian land east of the Mississippi River, “relocate” its former inhabitants, and exchange their former land with territory west of the River. The infamous “Trail of Tears” during Jackson’s presidency attests to the forced evacuation and redeployment of entire Indian nations in which many died of cholera, exposure to the elements, contaminated food, and other environmental hazards.

In the 19th century, Robert Lewis Dabney, Professor of Theology at Union Seminary in Virginia, argued: “What then, in the next place, will be the effect of this fundamental change when it shall be established? The obvious answer is, that it will destroy Christianity and civilization in America….” Dabney, who lived from 1820-1898, in his dire warnings referred to women’s suffrage. Dabney used religious arguments to maintain heterosexual male hegemony, privilege, and power over the rights of all women.

Let us look at another parallel case, the issue of prohibiting individuals from different “races” from engaging in sexual relations (miscegenation). The state of Virginia in 1958 arrested and tried a white man and black women for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, its so-called “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924.

The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Loving (born Mildred Deloris Jetter, a woman of African descent) and Richard Perry Loving (a man of white European descent), both residents of Virginia who married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia to evade Virginia’s restrictive statute. Upon returning to Virginia, police stormed their home and bedroom, arrested, and charged them with violating the law. At their trial, the judge convicted and sentenced them each to one year imprisonment, but suspended their sentences on the condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia for a period of 25 years. At the trial, the judge, Leon Bazile, used Biblical justifications for his verdict.

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

Regarding its stands on women in the Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, at their 1998 session, declared that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s guidance, and the denomination has since removed women from top executive posts. According to the 1998 resolution: “…The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ….[She] has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Later, in 2000, the SBC declared that women should no longer serve as pastors.

In 2010, the SBC passed its “Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military,” which stated in part: “RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention…affirm the Bible’s declaration that homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful, and we also affirm the Bible’s promise of forgiveness, change, and eternal life to all sinners (including those engaged in homosexual sin) who repent of sin and trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).”

Discussion:

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, who traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America (1840). He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the United States promoted itself around the world as a country separating “church and state,” where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that: “There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America” (Tocqueville, 1840/1956, pp. 303-304).

He answered this apparent contradiction by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations were compelled to compete with one another and promote themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of their political institutions since he observed the enormous influence churches had on the political process. Though he favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs.

In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the “tyranny of the majority.” This is a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of minority rights, there is a danger of religious domination or tyranny over religious minorities and Non-believers. The majority, in religious matters, have historically been adherents to mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often imposed their values and standards upon those who believed otherwise.

I want to be very clear that Christianity comprises many sects and denominations in places throughout the world, and, therefore, Christianity cannot be understood as monolithic, for people adhere to or diverge from a strict interpretation of scriptures depending on their denomination and personal beliefs. Some denominations have been welcoming to LGBT people, to women, and to people of every so-called “race.”

In addition, anyone can believe anything they wish, whether others find those beliefs laudable or offensive. When, however, the expression of those beliefs denies other individuals or groups their full human and civil rights, a critical line has been crossed, for they have entered into the realm of oppression.

We are seeing individuals and entire denominations framing themselves as the true victims whenever we challenge their religious justifications in their attempts to perpetuate their already pervasive Christian hegemony and social privileges, and their characterizations of others. My critique, however, does not amount to a simple theocratic disagreement. This is not a “disagreement” at all! It speaks to issues of power and control; it goes to who has the power to define “the other,” and who has the power and control to define “the self”: the individual and members of social identity groups, or rather, the Church with a capital “C.”

With freedom of speech and with religious rights come responsibilities, and with words and actions often come reactions and challenges. Whenever clergy and lay people pronounce and preach their conservative dogma on sexuality and gender expression, on issues of “race,” on women, on other religions and on atheists, and on others, they must expect opposition to their ideas and to their dominant group privileges, to their interpretations of scripture, and to their constructions and revisions of history. Moreover, they must take responsibility for the bullying, harassment, violence against and suicides of these individuals and groups.

Therefore, we have a right, no, an obligation to counter this destructive and, yes, oppressive discourse, and to stand up, to transform ourselves from bystanders into empowered upstanders taking with us our voices, our energy, our unity, our intelligence, our righteous indignation, and all the love of which we are capable.

References:

Clifton, L. (1994). Every shut eye ain’t asleep: An anthology of poetry by African Americans since 1945. Boston: Little, Brown.

Corbett, M. & Corbett, J. M. (1999). Politics and religion in the United States. New York: Garland.

Eck, D. L. (2001). A new religious America: How a “Christian country” has now become the world’s most religiously diverse nation. New York: HarperCollins.

Hill, J., & Cheadle, R. (1996). The Bible tells me so: Uses and abuses of Holy Scripture. New York: Anchor Books.

Lippy, C. H. (2004). Christian national or pluralistic culture: Religion in American life. In J. A. Banks & C. A. McGee Banks (Eds.), Multicultural education (5th ed., pp. 110-131). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Norman, T. (2005, August 2). Americans trace their lineage to many different ships. Post Gazette [Electronic version]. Retrieved May 3, 2006, from http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/05214/547275.stm

Spring, J. (2004). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little Brown.

de Tocqueville, A. (1840/1956) Democracy in America, New York: The New American Library.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 2nd, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized