Sometimes place names get meanings they would rather not. From now on, Orlando will always mean the Pulse massacre – the biggest loss of life in any American mass shooting in modern times. It will live like Sandy Hook, or Dunblane, or Hungerford in our consciousness of horror and terror.
But it will not be as puzzling as those terrible events and the places marked by them. The motivations of the killers in Sandy Hook and Dunblane and Hungerford remain something of a mystery. Not so in Orlando. This was homophobically motivated violence. It was killing LGBT people just because they are who they are. This bad enough in itself. But there is more.
For the homophobia of Omar Mateen, who got so angry when he saw two men kissing, and then plotted and carried out this heinous attack, was likely nourished by his religion. It was supported by a reading of Islam to which so-called IS subscribes. This reading says that gay people are worse than animals and should be put to death. This reading accompanies every poor young gay man thrown to their death from buildings in Syria, or mown down in Orlando. If this were not so then we could perhaps ascribe this act solely to the will of an unbalanced and dangerous man (according to his ex-wife).
But while homophobic readings of religion continue then ordinary, suggestible, and, yes, unbalanced members of all faiths will draw from them the encouragement they need to continue to attack the LGBT community and its innocent members.
This is not a Muslim problem. It is a Christian one just as much. In Hinduism disapproval of homosexuality is cultural rather than having a doctrinal basis. In Buddhism the picture is mixed, but the Dalai Lama has called homosexual orientation “unnatural”, and to be gay is often regarded as a karmic punishment.
It is readings of religion like this that make Uganda and Nigeria so dangerous. The punitive attitudes which are supported, more or less, by leading churchmen, along with the whipping up of anti-gay rhetoric has cost the lives of unknown numbers of LGBT people – David Kato in Uganda being the best known. LGBT people’s lives are circumscribed, shadowy, risky, fearful – never knowing if or when they will be exposed, ridiculed, beaten, arrested, driven from homes and jobs or worse. There is an insistent conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia, which, when combined with anti-Western sentiment makes for a toxic and potent mix for populist politicians, with LGBT people as the scapegoats and targets.
In England, social attitudes have been transformed, though homophobic violence is far from eradicated. But at least society and the law are on the side of the victims. Where much much more remains to be done is inside the religious domain. The Church of England’s leadership will deplore the massacre in Orlando and regularly calls for an end to homophobia. But inside the church discrimination against LGBT people remains firmly in place. What we are not supposed to do is call it homophobic.
I maintain it is impossible to use language that calls for an end to homophobic violence, but holds on to the notion that you can discriminate against LGBT people. The violence exists because LGBT people are in some theological way seen to be lesser forms of human life, or rebellious or corrupt forms of human life, or people who have chosen an immoral way of living. LGBT people are still, in this reading of a theological anthropology, second-class people. If you don’t believe that to be the case, then there is no longer any justification for any kind of discrimination against LGBT people anywhere. And if you do believe it, then, however loud your cries of sorrow at killings or violence, your theology will only continue to sustain the possibility of more actions like this one. It will offer the excuse some will need to fuel their hatred and fan it into destructive violence.
I hope Orlando will help those who hold on to discriminatory and, yes, homophobic attitudes inside my church to think again. When the campaign to end the slave trade was under way in the late eighteenth century, one of the most powerful tokens of the new thinking was Josiah Wedgewood’s anti-slavery medallion “Am I not a man and a brother?”
It is time for our church’s leaders to think again – and to hear the cry of their LGBT brothers and sisters whose lives are blighted by the homophobia that gets oxygen from a performance of faith that still thinks of them as not quite worthy of equal treatment. Those leaders need to enact a different way of living the Christian life that embodies equality, not just talks about it.
Lamenting Orlando is not enough – are we not people and brothers and sisters?