Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Catholic analysis of the Russell Brand interview with Westboro Baptist Church members

Above is a 11 minute video of an interview that British comedian Russell Brand did on his show with members of the Westboro Baptist Church. For those who don't know, Russell Brand is quite the eccentric bad boy. He has had a lot of struggles with the law and drugs. He credits his practice of meditation in helping him to conquer his various demons. The Westboro Baptist Church, on the other hand, have made a name for themselves protesting at military funerals saying that God is letting our men and women in uniform be killed because our country is too tolerant of homosexuality. Needless to say, Brand and his audience vehemently disagree with Westboro's views. In this interview, the two parties are surprisingly respectful of one another. Of course, as a religion and ethics nerd, I found the whole thing facinating and I want to look at Brand's and the Westboro Baptist views through Roman Catholic eyes.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!       Now, let's get our geek on!
 From a Catholic perspective there are major holes and major truth in both of these positions. There are many ways I can tackle this. The one way I have decided upon is topical. The points I want to make fall into three categories: The Bible, the nature of sin, and the nature of love.

Disclaimer: This analysis is based solely on the interview linked above. Any other statements made by either the Westboro Baptist Church or Brand have not been taken into account.

The Bible

I would say that Brand's understanding of Scripture is closest to the Catholic understanding, but not in anyway completely in line.

Close, but no cigar
The Westboro Baptist Church seems to be strong supporters in the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. That means that for them, the Bible is the one and only authority when it comes to knowing God's will and that the Bible is to be taken literally.

In the Catholic faith, we would have to agree with Brand's statement at 5:05 that "The Holy Spirit doesn't have a pen." Scripture is certainly inspired by God, but it was written by man. We would take it a step further, though, than Brand does when he says that the Bible is only meant to point us toward the one God who is Love. We don't believe that the Bible is merely a pointer. The Bible does also contain Truth. But to get the fullness of God's Truth, as Catholics, we believe that you need to take both Scripture and Tradition into account. Scripture and Tradition are used as a kind of checks and balances. Nothing in either one can contradict the other and they are both valid tools in the search for Truth.

The Nature of Sin

In the case of sin, the Westboro Baptist Church would be closer than Brand in the Catholic understanding. However, in their understanding of God as seemingly hateful, they are very, very far off the mark.
Which is ironically, exactly what "sin" means
 The phrase "love the sinner, but hate the sin" is way, way older than these guys think (see 6:52). It actually comes from St. Augustine. Yup, Billy Graham nor Gandhi thought it up. A Catholic saint did. And, actually, it's a pretty good summary of the Catholic perspective on homosexuality.

Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not hate gays. What some people in the Church (such as Archbishop Dolan, who I will be writing about later) have trouble with is this: Why do some people seem to limit their identity to their sexual orientation? You are so much more, pardon my crudity, than who you have sex with! You are a beloved child of God. God knitted you in your mother's womb. God sent His only Son to die for you. God is with you every second of every day, especially in the Eucharist! We would argue that everyone's main identity, it doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, white, black, tall, short, or purple, everyone's main identity is found only in God!

Our issue with homosexuality is with the act itself. God created our bodies. God basically created sex. We as Catholics feel that one of the main purposes of sex is procreation. God made us to make and raise children in a loving, married family. Anything that falls short of this goal, any sexual act that does not at least contain the possibility of leading to new life, is missing the mark, is "sin." We believe that homosexual activities are unbecoming of a beautiful child of God. That is something that we would agree with the Westboro Baptist Church about. We completely disagree with their belief that God hates gays, but we do agree with their belief that homosexual behavior is sinful.

The Nature of Love

Similarly, we would agree with Brand's contention that God's primary identity is Love, but we do not agree that this "love" means that anything short of murder is acceptable. As stated by the Westboro members in 1:35, it is sometimes more loving to point out the sins in another person than to accept all of that person's actions. One of our purposes in this life is to help one another get closer to God and ultimately to Heaven. That sometimes means showing some tough love. Now, I'm sure that very few Catholics would agree that protesting at a military funeral is an appropriate display of tough love. But, going on a talk show to spread your Truth might be.

God definitely does stand for tolerance, love and beauty as eloquently expressed by Brand at 4:14, but God's "tolerance" is not "tolerance" as it is currently used in every day speak in the US. "Tolerance" is currently defined as "a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those who differ from you." (italics added) God loves the sinners. God loves the sinners deeply, passionately, madly, and thoroughly. (Remember the "lost" parables.) But God doesn't love the sin. God hates the sin for bringing dishonor to and ensnaring the beloved sinner.
"For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death."- Romans 8:2
God isn't tolerant in the way we mean tolerant. God is Love, but because God is Love, He hates all that does harm to and blemishes the beloved. The Church would agree with Brand that Love, not hate, is the primary message of God. But we feel precisely because the main message is love, God hates sin all the more because it goes against His love.

I feel that it is very telling of Brand's perspective on homosexuality that he almost implicitly links homosexuality with the love between a short, interracial couple (around 7:21). He clearly believes that homosexuality is something that you're born with that you have no control over. He feels that just as interracial couples had to fight long and hard against prejudice, so must gay couples; that interracial dating is on the exact same moral plane as homosexual dating.

First legally married interracial couple in Louisiana, married in a Catholic Church
The Church recognizes that a homosexual orientation can't be fixed, that people are born with it and that is part of who they are. But just as unmarried people, married people where one of the spouses cannot have sex, and religious people are all called to celibacy, gays are as well. The Church would not put interracial marriage and gay marriage on the same moral ground. In fact, the Catholic Church was one of the first (if not the first) church to recognize interracial marriage (We even have a martyr for the cause).

In Conclusion

Neither Russell Brand nor the Westboro Baptist Church are in complete agreement with the Catholic Church on this issue (not that I think either of them would care). But, I hope that I have used this interview to make some sense out of what the Church does believe and to provide some compare and contrast to see the Church through a spiritual lens (Brand) and a fundamentalist lens (Westboro).

God is Love. He does love the sinner, but hate the sin. And the Church does have some reasons to think that homosexual acts are sinful. That seems like a good summary.    

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