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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Honoring a hero ... and re-thinking an "enemy"

What I know about football wouldn't fill a thimble. I know it's a semi-civilized form of mock warfare where two teams pummel each other for the right to carry an oblong ball into the other team's territory. It's strategy and aims are completely lost on me. I can name only a handfull of names associated with the sport ... and probably most of them haven't seen a field in years.

One name I do recognize is Reggie White, but it's not for any of his accomplishments on the field. To me he's only the football player-turned-preacher who ranted and raved against gays and lesbians from his pulpit.

That's still the view of him I had when I heard Reggie White died. If I spared him a thought at the time of his death it was probably something like 'Good! Burn in hell, bigot!'

Today while blog browsing I found a reference to Reggie in Mike Fitzpatrick's "Reality Check" blog. In it Mike notes the passing of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.

Coffin, Mike writes, "had been active the civil rights movement for nearly four decades. In 1962, he was a Freedom Rider in the black civil rights movement in the South. As chaplain at Harvard, he provided sanctuary to draft-resistors to the Vietnam war. In 1979, he was one of four clergy permitted to minister to the Americans held hostage in the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Rev. Throughout the 1990's and until his death, Rev. Coffin had been active in the gay civil rights movement, marching with his wife and at times with his (straight) children in numerous Gay Pride parades in New York and other cities."

Coffin was also instrumental in helping Reggie see gays in a whole different light ... a light that led White in his last years to repent of his attacks on gays and others from the pulpit.

Besides honoring the passing of Rev. Coffin, the blog reprints his "Open Letter to Reggie White." The letter is so moving that I've reprinted it below in it's entirety:

Dear Reggie White,

I've only heard good things about you, and nobody for a moment doubts your greatness as an athlete. But if your words to the (Wisconsin) legislature this week were accurately reported, I'm troubled, and in particular about what you said about homosexuality.

I write to you as one ordained minister to another. As the Bible is the founding document of every Christian church in the world, it can't be taken seriously enough. But if you take the Bible seriously, you can't take it literally - not all of it.

For instance, in the book of Leviticus, it is a "toevah" - an abomination - not only to eat bacon, sausage and ribs, it is sinful even to touch the skin of a dead pig. If you thought that insight valid today, would you be playing football?

Homosexuality is not a big issue for Biblical writers. In the 66 books of Scripture (71 if you're Roman Catholic), only seven verses refer to homosexual behavior. Some time ago, I picked up a pamphlet entitled "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" Opening it, I came across two blank pages. Closing it, I read on the back, "That's right, nothing."

St. Paul thought all men were straight. He assumed all homosexual activity was done by heterosexuals.

This assumption is true as well of Old Testament writers, which means that all the Biblical passages used to flay gays and lesbians have really nothing whatsoever to say about constitutionally gay people in genuinely loving relationships.

As Christians, we don't honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere. I'm impressed that the American Psychological Association does not consider homosexuality an illness, and that natural scientists have discovered homosexuality in mammals, birds and insects. Clearly, God is more comfortable with diversity than we are!
In my experience, a lot of people talk in the abstract about homosexuality being a sin, but without first-hand knowledge of gays and lesbians. Wouldn't it be better to talk with rather than about homosexuals?

I write you all this in large part because today the "gay agenda" has replaced the "communist threat" as the battering ram of reactionary politics. It grieves me to see you put your considerable muscle behind such a blunt instrument of prejudice.

We live in a land of great prejudice and you as an African American and I as a white man have had to overcome the differences we have invented about one another. It is urgent that men and women, gays and straights, do the same, for as James Baldwin described us, "Each of us, helplessly and forever contains the other - We are a part of each other."

--Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Lawrence University

That marked the beginning of a change in Reggie White. White began to question organized religion. He went to Isreal and learned Hebrew so that he could study the Bible in its original language. He began to question the assumptions and beliefs he'd grown up with. And he changed.

Instead of wishing Reggie to burn in hell, I now wish I'd have met him in his last years when he was searching for truth. And I wish I had known Rev. Coffin, too.

Rev. Coffin's life reminds me that, even in a world where there is hate and bigotry, there are good people who quietly stand firm against it.

And Reggie's life reminds me that even people whose lives are so consumed with that hatred and bigotry can change.

(Thanks for the blog, Mike! ... and for more information about Reggie White's life - at least for the football-challenged - see the MSNBC article "Reggie White had just begun to live.")