Last summer I visited my friend Bishop Gene Robinson in Washington. He told me he had recently visited the makeshift memorial set up in a street in Ferguson, Missouri, for Michael Brown, a young, unarmed black man killed by a policeman.
As he stood reflecting on events he saw a cardboard box standing like a pillar. It had been painted black and written in gold letters were the words:
‘They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds’.
Gene was moved by the resiliency of these words. He told me as a gay person most of what he knows and understands about his own community’s fight for equality comes from what he has learned from the black civil rights movement even though he is fully aware that his ‘white privilege’ works to protect him from the full knowledge of the extent to which he is rewarded for the color of his skin.
He researched the origin of the words on the cardboard box and discovered they come from Dinos Christianopolous, a living Greek poet, who had been marginalized by the Greek literary community throughout his life because of his sexuality. He had written way back in the 1970’s: ‘You did anything to bury me. But you forgot I was a seed.’
Christians celebrate a man who often told stories about sowing seeds and who seemed to have the knack of spotting where a person’s hard little full-stop was in life and finding a way of turning it into a comma, so that a new and liberated chapter could get underway in them.
Christians begin to follow this man by being washed with water – baptism – and traditionally this happens most at this time of year at Easter. A person goes under the water and all the loud voices of the times that shout at us about being thin, rich, successful, gorgeous, ‘winning’ in life and all that – these all get drowned out so that the one voice that actually does matter can be heard.
It’s a voice Christians believe is sacred and it says ‘you are unique, loveable and loved.’
It’s a voice that reminds us we have all been given a gift. It is our ‘being’. The gift we are asked to give back in return is our ‘becoming’, who we become in our lives.
Christians, often with mixed results of course, try to live up to the dignity of this voice rather than live down to those voices that are just encouraging us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like.
Although it’s easy at the moment to think Christianity must be obsessed with human depravity, actually, at its best, it is obsessed with human dignity.
Again, at its best, it works with all others of goodwill to stop people being buried by oppression, injustice and fear and to live instead with all the potential of a small and miraculous little seed. Christian spirituality should be a slow conversion of life towards speaking up for others.
No Desmond Tutu in homophobic Heaven
That’s why this Easter I’m saying a ‘thank you’ for the great enemy of apartheid Desmond Tutu who is 85 this year – although like a helium balloon it’s hard to keep him down.
He’s been a firefly in some pretty dark days and a man whose Christian faith has given him a strong belief in the ‘rainbow people’ of the world. He believes in the depths of his heart and mind that God created diversity and the tragedy of life is the division we make out of it.
He constantly reminds people that they are beautiful. He laughs a lot, parties well and dances whenever possible. He also fights and stands up against the bully, whether it’s a government or an individual, so that the rainbow’s colors can be seen and enjoyed all the more.
Like Martin Luther King Jr he has never once said ‘I have a nightmare’ but he’s kept his vision attractive and alive with hope.
Tutu remains controversial in many ways. He is outspoken about Israel/Palestine, climate change, China/Tibet, about poverty, HIV and AIDS, cooperation among the world’s faiths (‘God is not a Christian’ he reminds us), women’s rights, family planning and assisted dying.
He has taken a lead for LGBTI people too saying a couple of years ago: ‘I would refuse to go to a homophobic Heaven. No, I would say “sorry”, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. I am as passionate about this campaign as I ever was about apartheid. For me, it is at the same level.’
There have been many people who have tried to bury Tutu, berating him as a loony bishop, a misguided activist, a heretic.
But, again, they didn’t notice he is a seed of hope and defiance in the cause of human and God-given dignity.
When I grow up I want to be just a little bit like Desmond Tutu, like Gene Robinson, like the shrine makers of Ferguson, like all those who know that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.
They see that a human self is most itself when not being selfish. They have made real sacrifices so that many lives in our world that needed resurrecting were helped to hear that one voice and so see themselves as they really are: unique, loveable and loved.
Canon Mark Oakley is Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. He writes and campaigns for LGBTI and human rights.