No doubt we are all aware of the outcomes of the collaboration of Republican and Democratic politicians in New York on 24 June 2011 which made New York the sixth state (in the United States) to legalize same sex marriage. In the wake of this, so much has been said about this triumph of equality, while others lament this very same achievement of ‘equality’ as a tragic dissolution of our social fabric. In other words opponents see in it the elevation of same sex couples in a false equivalency with couples of different sexes. Equality is the frame in either case. I was fascinated by the words of New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo:
We reached a new level of social justice this evening: marriage equality. We said to legislators, you look at the first word, marriage. It’s really about the last word, equality. It’s really about New Yorkers, our brothers and sisters looking at us and saying, “We want equality… in society, equality in our relationships, equality in our love, equality in our families. We want full recognition: marriage equality.” And we did it today…
What fascinates me is the insistence on equality. The problem is “equality” is far too anemic a category to explain what happened in New York on Friday night.
In opposition to the actions of the New York legislature and Governor, the New York Roman Catholic Bishops said, in part, “The passage by the Legislature of a bill to alter radically and forever humanity’s historic understanding of marriage leaves us deeply disappointed and troubled.”
The Catholic Bishops recognize no equality (as sameness or equivalency, or any other definition, I suppose) between different sex marriage and same sex marriage. The Bishops deny that same sex couples should be allowed to marry and deny that same sex marriage should be sanctioned by the state.
The opposition is on to something when it recognizes that marriage of a man and a woman is not the ‘same’ as a marriage between a woman and another woman, or between a man and another man. Self-described indecent feminist theologian, Marcella Althaus-Reid would say that prior to these equality strivings is the insistence on the right not to be straight. The Catholic Bishops do affirm this right not to be straight, saying that “We strongly uphold the Catholic Church’s clear teaching that we always treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with respect, dignity and love.” However, the Bishops do not affirm that this conceptual difference may be enacted in any way. Althaus-Reid might agree with my assessment that the Catholic Bishops oppose the right not to act straight.
I would express this in a broader dimension by calling for an affirmation of both the right to be different and the right to act differently.
But, what does any of this have to do with interfaith dialogue (mentioned in the title)?
In a recent blogpost at Huffington Post, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie complained about largely vacant platitudinism that plagues interfaith dialogue. After describing that his participation in interfaith dialogue spans three decades, he admits that “most of the time it just doesn’t work. Most of the time — and it is painful for me to admit this — it is terribly boring.”
Rabbi Yoffie goes on…
…most of we time we are satisfied with mouthing a few noble, often-repeated sentiments. Thus, we affirm the importance of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue; we assert that all human beings are created in the image of God; we proclaim that despite our differences, all of our traditions preach love of humankind and service to humanity. Nothing is wrong with these sentiments, of course; in conceptual terms, I believe in them all. But if we don’t dig beneath the surface and focus on substance rather than rhetoric, they mean very little.
It seems to me that what is wrong is that we in the business of interfaith dialogue suffer from an ironically dogmatic allegiance to the anemic structure of equality-thinking as the Supreme Deity to which we all must bow.
Meanwhile the right to be different, the right to act differently—which are the rights that were affirmed as prior rights to any dramatized enactments of ‘equality’ in New York—must become the lifebreath and lifeblood of generative interfaith interaction. The right to be radically different, the right to act radically differently; the rights to have, to be, and to enact answers to ultimate questions that just seem wrong from a different point of view: this is what will make for genuine, fruitful interfaith dialogue. And, it will make it harder. And it will make it less boring. And we will be astonished over the creative advances and the novel syntheses which will be possible when this kind of subversive honesty in relations replaces our allegiance to the mere appearance of mere equality. That’s my hope.
And that’s how I think we will become a genuinely new creation together—quite beyond our feebly preconceived notions of mere equality.