By Sander Chan
Abolitionism in 19th century America is undoubtedly a highlight in the history of emancipation. The recognition that every man and woman has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has seldomly seen such a great extension as with the abolition of slavery. However, the history of emancipation never ended, and abolitionism still stands as a great example for remaining parts of humanity that still are denied inalienable rights. Therefore, it is important to recognize the lessons of the abolitionist movement. One the most important lessons is that emancipation is not merely about ‘acceptance’ of the other man or woman. Acceptance is a form of power exercise: who commands the power to accept or to deny? This way acceptance only reaffirms unequality. The cause of abolitionism was supported by much more than acceptance; it was supported by an active denial of the evil of inequality; it was supported by people who publicly spoke out against slavery. The abolitionist movement was not an interest organization of (ex-) slaves, but a foreshadowing of a freer, emancipated world, wherein people of every sex and colour are equally take part. The role of the Church and Christians in abolitionism has widely been acknowledged. Christians have spoke out against slavery, and fought injustice. This way they continued the liberation work that Christ began. The Christian tradition teaches us that reconciliation requires more than mere accceptance, reconciliation requires grief over injustice and a resolute denial of evil. This kind of reconciliatory action was displayed by William Lloyd Garrison in 1844 when he burned the US Constitution, which contained articles supporting slavery. Garrison acted according to his firm conviction that God created man equal, endowed with inalienable rights. He was willing to sacrifice his ‘earthly citizenship’ and allegiance to his country if it would help the greater cause of emancipation.
I was reminded of this history of emancipation while reading about a group of Christians demonstrating at the Chicago pride. The Church is not particularly known for being the avant-garde of gay-emancipation, as it may have been in the abolitionist movement. Many gay men and women deeply hate religion, in particular the church, Christians, and even Christian gays. Such negative judgments endure, even if Christ may be considered a pre-modern emancipation activist. This is hardly surprising since a larger part of the church has turned its back on gays. This results in a fragmented kind of emancipation, even a regression in the history of emancipation. Gay people unite in gay interest organizations, Christian gays have their own Christian gay organizations, the church stays put, while some gay Christians gather in gay churches. Different parallel worlds continue to exist without much mutual understanding and communication. At most there is ‘acceptance’. Of course, there are 'pro-gay’ heterosexual Christians, but it is hardly recognized that a private acceptance is just not enough for emancipation. Where are the Christian (or for that matter: Muslim) heterosexuals who stand up and speak out against inequality? When gay pride comes to town, even 'pro-gay Christians' stay away, since a pride is ‘mere provocation’. This way they accept the gay, but deny the his pride. This kind of acceptance is nothing more or less than a power exercise, affirming the moral superiority of the Church in relation to the gay person.
However, there are hopeful developments. At the aforementioned demonstration by Christians at the Chicago pride, the demonstrators did not come to condemn. They have come to acknowledge that gay people have for long suffered condemnation and exclusion by the church. They have come to realise that a larger part of the problem does not lie with gays, but with them. That is why they flew banners saying ‘Sorry’, ‘Forgive us’, etc. In so doing they subsided the common logic of ‘acceptance’, they had no acceptance on offer, rather they needed acceptance and forgiveness.
Of course, discrimination and condemnation of gays is in many ways incomparable to the hardships that slaves had to endure in pre-abolitionist America. However, the principle of the 'white man speaking out against slavery' is equally valid for gay emancipation. Even more than gay pride, an emancipated world needs Christian and Muslim straight people to speak up.