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The OWG Challenge

The OWG Challenge

 

written by the Rev’d Canon Dr. Thomas Lowe

I recently met with a friend, who is a fellow Episcopal priest, for coffee and a chat. He is a newly arrived rector and is engaging in meetings with parishioners to get to know his new flock. He had just come from a meeting with a man who serves on the vestry for the parish and told me that this man was the angriest person he has ever encountered. The priest said the man went on for over an hour about how angry he was about such things as the “gay agenda” and our being overrun by brown people surging into our country. When the priest noted how angry he was and asked if there could be anything that made him happy the man noted the thing that made him happy and segued back to how that related to what angered him. 

The angry man and I are in the same demographic given that we both are 70, white, and male. I identify that demographic as old white guys, OWGs. When I think of OWGs I cannot always avoid falling into a trap of labeling the ones who are angry as being related to their being less educated, untraveled, and working class. The man in question is none of those things. 

My own exposure to the anger among males of my generation has prompted me to explore the sources of the anger that can be common among OWGs. Of course, we all know that some of the reasons that expressions of anger are so public has to do with our current situation in America. Hate speech and hate crimes are on the rise. Misogyny, homophobia, and racism are now being encouraged by such powerful forces as cable news and some of our political leaders. Those entities do not cause intolerance, but have made it acceptable for all sorts of people to express the intolerance that they might have previously kept from public view. 

To get more of an understanding of why those who rail against equality and full inclusion of people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and foreign- born people in our society, I began to engage with some who are angry about the origins of that anger. Doing so was enlightening and engenders some sympathy for them in my own thinking. 

I thought that I was typical of members of the Baby Boom Generation. I was raised by educated parents who also embraced equal rights and opportunity for those different from themselves. This meant that I was positively influenced to see equality as a bedrock value in our country. I was also influenced like many of my generation by those who encouraged us to strive to make the world a better place. Doing so inherently meant that we embraced change. We believed that it was patriotic to assure that the benefits of the American dream were made available to all people in our country and that the benefits of democracy, equality, and free markets were made available to those outside our borders. In my case, I embraced the civil rights movement first, and later the movements that strove to assure equality for women and gay people. In my faith I also found that the teachings of Jesus about loving my neighbor and welcoming the stranger fit with my political understandings about a truly inclusive society. We Boomers who had this sort of perspective were certain that we would produce a better world and that all would come to embrace what we knew to be best for America and the world. To say the least, we were naïve. At least, I was. Still, things were changing in our culture in those past decades. Also, things were changing in the Episcopal Church. 

In college I was quite involved in the activities at the Episcopal student center, St. Thomas of Canterbury. At that time, the late 1960s, even though the students who were participants in the programs at Canterbury tended to be rather liberal, the denomination was still very much of the old school. At the time we referred to it as either “the frozen chosen” or “the Republican Party at prayer.” Be that as it might have been, things in the denomination were shifting as well. Over the next decades, the denomination began to ordain women as priests and as bishops. A new Book of Common Prayer with more modern language and other changes was adopted. By the turn of the current century we were on the path to have our first openly gay bishop and in our current decade clergy were permitted to perform same gender weddings. Not all were comfortable with the changes in our denomination as not all were comfortable with them in the larger society. “This is not my father’s Episcopal Church,” is a telling denouncement of those changes. Our denomination is now led by its first African American Presiding Bishop who succeeded our first female Presiding Bishop. I can see that even the wording in our now 40-year old “new” Prayer Book would alienate the OWGs in our denomination. Each time we say our baptismal covenant, at baptisms, confirmations, and at Easter from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, we each renew our personal commitment to God and each other as to how we live out our faith. We pledge to seek and serve Christ in all people, loving our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. I do not know if every person in our denominations says these powerful words and commits to follow them as an obligation of being a baptized person, but the reality of how baptism requires us to live out our faith is clear in these words. 

It is estimated by the Pew Research Center that approximately 75% of Episcopal priests tend to vote Democrat. Likely that is indicative of their being comfortable with the positions of the denomination regarding women, immigrants, gay people, and people of color. All of those positions would not be what was the norm of the era of “my father’s Episcopal Church.” Thinking about what was the norm during that era of the 1950s and early 1960s could give one pause as it is the time that is romanticized by those who want to return both our denomination and the country to a golden age of white male dominance in the church and in the country. It is in nostalgia for that age that the basis for the anger felt by the parishioner mentioned is so deeply rooted. 

One of my dearest friends has taken the time to explain to me how his own anger comes from that time of “Father Knows Best,” a time of women’s lives being centered only in the home, of people of color knowing their place, and of gay people being invisible or a comic stereotype. My friend who is a priest in one of the Anglican groups to leave the Episcopal Church over its stance regarding women and LGBTQ people, spoke to me of his youth and the future that he believed awaited him when he was young. My friend is also a member of the Baby Boom Generation. He grew up as a white male in the south. He has said to me that this is not the America that he expected to experience at this time in his life. The expectation was built upon his having been a youth in a time when being male, native born, and white meant that one was entitled to preferred treatment in comparison to those who were not native-born, white, and/or male. 

Over the last five or six decades, things changed in America. Women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have made strides toward equality and our society is less exclusive of those who are not straight, white, native-born males. Straight, white, native-born males have seen the entitlement that they felt diminish. This is especially true for those who are not college educated. Those men, who believed that their entitlement would never end, found themselves not having what they had been assured would be theirs due to their gender, skin color, and sexual identity. They believe that they have been the victim of a theft of gigantic proportion as their birthright has been stolen from them by a society that now says that education and experience held by a woman and/or person of color results in her being a better choice for a position than an uneducated, less experienced white male. Understandably, those males feel that they are the victims of a society that has cast them aside and they are very, very angry. Even an older educated white male could feel that he, too, is a victim and is angry at those he believes perpetrated the theft of his entitlement. That anger is directed at women, at non-native born people, at people of color, at LGBTQ people, and anyone else perceived as not being someone like him. He sees himself as the offended party and his anger shows how he feels. 

Although certain ones of us may feel that things have progressed over the last half century, others feel a deep sense of loss. I think that we should have some compassion for them as they feel as if they have lost everything. When they were young all that mattered was one’s gender and the color of one’s skin. Those provided a ticket to what was thought to be the good life, but things changed. That ticket to a good life was taken by the very people who were supposed to accept a subservient position to white males. What those of us, who identify ourselves as people who work for the benefit of all, see as progress toward a better world, is seen by those who identify themselves as victims of political correctness as the greatest of injustices. I imagine that they put it in theological terms by saying, “God intended white men to lead the world toward stability, but those who are not like me deprived the world of our leadership.” I do believe that this kind of thinking is rooted in nostalgia-ism, the thinking that things were much better back when Boomers were children and things would be better now if everything was put back like it was then. It is no surprise that many Boomers identify with far-right political views and fall prey to grievance politics. Indeed, they are angry. 

For those in parish ministry the question is how one can best care for the angry OWG. Obviously, one should show compassion toward the angry OWG, but showing compassion does not mean that one should agree with the OWG just to placate him. One might say, “although I do not share your anger or your opinions, I am your priest, or pastor, and want you to be free to see and experience all that brings joy in life. I would urge you to pray regularly that God will take your anger from you and fill you with his love. I would also urge you to avoid the stimuli that fuel your anger. I would be happy to help you explore what those stimuli are, if you do not already know. When you do fall prey to anger toward people who are different from you, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ people, or others, I want you to pray for God to help you see those people as the neighbors Jesus tells you to love. I urge you to make this a daily part of your life. Will you do this as Jesus expects you to do?” I include the final question because you are urging the person to follow Jesus in addressing this issue. If the person says that he will not do this, all you can do is tell him that you will pray that God will help him to change to be what God wants him to be, rather than what he wants to be. If he says yes, you can say that you know that he has made the choice God wants him to make and you will pray for him and support him in any way possible.
 

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Simon Burris

I do not wish to dispute what you say concerning the specific individuals mentioned in your essay, but I feel compelled to point out that not all of us traditionalists are, in fact, linking LGBT issues with race, immigration, etc. I understand that to you, these are all under a larger heading of "inclusion," but to many of us, "inclusion" is not a category that applies to all these issues.

Also, I think you are a little too quick to explain our position in terms of "wanting to return to a golden age." Lots of us traditionalists do not, in fact, see "Father Knows Best" as the high point of culture. We are not, in fact, enthusiastic about the 1950s. Lots of us traditionalists are not, in fact, big fans of unfettered, predatory, corporate capitalism; not fans of segregation; not fans of anti-sodomy laws; not even fans of "building the wall."

Turns out that we traditionalists are always arguing with each other about all sorts of positions. We don't come pre-fabricated in the sort of "combo package" described in your essay. We are not all white. We are not all male. We are not all of the Baby Boomer generation. (We are not even all heterosexual. You did know that little detail, right?)

For many of us traditionalists, the fact of our race, sex, age, and sometimes even of our sexual orientation, is not really germane to our thinking concerning various issues, e.g., same-sex marriage. Maybe you would say that we are deluding ourselves when we say that we can think beyond the limitations of our identities? But if that were true, then how can anyone be trusted to act as a rational agent, including you?

At the end of the day, I don't think that the differences in our positions should be explained in terms of non-rational motivations that can be diagnosed as mere psychological or sociological phenomena. I really do not think that Christ ever approached anyone from that angle. I think we must trust each other to the extent that we assume each other to be rational agents.

It follows that we should engage each other in a way such that what is under discussion is the issue, not the person with whom we are having the discussion. The persons involved in the discussion have intrinsic value. You are a human being. You are eloquent in your writing. You use reason as you try to figure stuff out. I take these things for granted as I write this.

What I do not want to do is to dismiss anything you say out of hand, merely because I assume that your background makes you say this or that. I need to try to avoid treating you as a stereotype. Jesus wouldn't like it.

Finally, it follows that I must always entertain the possibility that, on any given point of disagreement, I am wrong and you are right.

I take it for granted that you take your baptismal vows seriously.

But please, please, please believe me when I tell you that I do take my baptismal vows seriously.

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