Last Saturday when scrolling through Facebook, I saw a headline several times about a Missouri pastor whose anti-gay speech was getting a lot of traction on YouTube. I ignored these (I am not the type to waste time on social media getting ticked off about things I know are going to make me angry) until I saw the pastor's name: Phil Snider.
Wait. No, seriously? That Phil Snider?
That can't be, I thought. I've met Phil and corresponded with him, and I can't imagine he would give a speech condemning homosexuals.
All I can say is: watch the video if you're not among the 2.5 million who already have, and be sure to hang around to the very, very end. Then come back and check out this interview that Phil granted me this week despite being inundated with emails and requests. --JKR
What gave you the idea to do an ironic speech like that, drawing on actual historical quotes about racial intermarriage?
As I kept listening to conversations by religious people in Springfield against the non-discrimination ordinance, I noticed that the argument sounded virtually identical to what white preachers in the south were saying in the 1950s and 60s (although one of my friends informed me that one of the more popular quotes I used was actually in support of slavery, which of course makes things even worse!). When I listened to the rhetoric in opposition to the ordinance, all of it -- not some of it, but all of it -- was cast in the name of religion. So I started doing searches for sermons that were pro-segregation and such and came across a bunch of quotes that were virtually identical to what I had been hearing in Springfield. It was actually a pretty simple sermon to write, but a terribly difficult one to deliver (hearing those words pass through my own mouth was not a pleasant feeling). I owe a lot to Fred Grimm from the Miami Herald, who wrote a wonderful article that helped get the ball rolling.
Watching the audience in the background, it doesn't seem like many of them actually understood what was going on. What was the reaction in the room?
Some of my friends are directly behind me in the video, looking all stoic. Even though I didn't tell them what I was planning to do, I think they had to know I had something up my sleeve. My friend Stephanie Perkins, a fantastic community organizer and activist with Promo, can be seen videoing my talk with her smart phone. I'm pretty sure she and several others knew I was going to do some sort of reversal. I'm also friends with a couple of people on City Council, so they had to know something was up as well. But aside from those who knew me, I think it took a while for the reality of the moment to sink in. The anger and animosity people felt as I read those words was very strong, and it is really difficult to move from deep-seated anger to joy in just a matter of moments.
After giving the speech I walked out of the chamber to a location where you could watch the video feed (there was overflow seating), and the first person I saw said, "Oh man, you don't know how much I wanted to punch you! But then, I wanted to hug you!" We got a good laugh out of that, and that's kind of been the feeling from then on out.
What has the reaction been since then? Have you been surprised by all the media attention and by "going viral" courtesy of George Takei?
I'm really thankful to George Takei, Gawker, HuffPo, etc. and the many people who shared the video. It's been pretty much a non-stop flood of correspondence. I'm not used to having to decide which messages to respond to right away, and which to wait on. It's a new world for me. And I hope people understand. I still have all the normal kind of life things that I'm trying to hold together in the midst of all of this: working at a church, teaching at a university, not to mention three kids and a wife who I'm trying not to totally ignore. But yes, I've been incredibly surprised. I had no idea all of this would happen, much less so quickly. I never expected it. As Derrida or Caputo might say, it's part of the "unforeseeable future," something that we can't begin to plan on, that we can never quite be ready for, but comes knocking on our door nonetheless.
What is the most important message you hope people will take away from your comments at the council meeting?
Be careful of religious people who want to take a few verses out of the Bible in order to confirm their socially conditioned prejudices. I love these words from the great Presbyterian theologian William Placher:
“Any honest reading of the Bible will make it clear that it takes sins like greed, hatred, and lack of compassion much more seriously than it takes any sins having to with [homosexuality]. If a [church] singles out homosexuals for judgment and doesn’t speak and act forcefully on other matters where the Bible is far more forceful, therefore, it looks as though its motive is not faithfulness to scripture, but accepting the prejudices of contemporary society. In such cases, while Christians may claim to stand up against the values of our culture, in fact they are yielding to them. Friends I respect who struggle with this issue sometimes say, ‘But the church needs to take a stand somewhere. We have given up on any number of points, but as some point we need to draw a line and say that this behavior may be increasingly acceptable in our society, but it is not acceptable to the Christian community.’ I understand this concern. But, if we learn anything about moral judgment from the Gospels, it is surely that Christians should focus on the sins that our society rarely criticizes, especially when they are committed by the rich and powerful, not those already condemned and despised, as homosexuality so often is. Even if one concedes that homosexual intercourse is a sin—and, for reasons already noted, the biblical evidence does not persuade me of that—it is also a form of behavior that gets people fired from their jobs, beaten up, called rude names, generally treated with contempt in many parts of our society, and sometimes even murdered. As I write this, the top selling album in the country, by a young white ‘rapper,’ Eminem, includes songs that talk vividly about beating up and killing homosexuals. A version of the album for sale in chain stores in more conservative parts of the country has the worst of its profanity eliminated, but leaves these references to violence unchanged. Those who grow up gay generally have a hard time of it in contemporary America. Thus, the patterns of Jesus’ ministry would clearly imply that, even if homosexual behavior were a sin, here is precisely not the place to ‘draw the line.’ Far better to draw it in the face of a sin like greed, which our culture generally treats with something like admiration, especially when it is masked as ‘success.’ Jesus, after all, singled out for particular condemnation the sins that his society accepted as compatible with respectability. Those who were condemned by society anyway he tended to treat rather generously. Here as elsewhere, Jesus stood with the outsiders, the disreputable, and the fearful, rather than the self-confident and self-righteous.” (Placher, Jesus the Savior, 101-2)
Plus, to state the obvious, there are all kinds of things in the Bible that self-proclaimed "Bible-believing Christians" don't begin to adhere to. Even when people use the verse from Leviticus 20:13 ("If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they've committed an abomination") against those who are gay and lesbian, very few of them actually follow through with the rest of the verse, which commands that "both must be put to death." I've never seen a more non-sensical bumper sticker than the one that reads "The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It." Really? So if your kids talk back to you then you'll stone them? Women should be treated as property, or less than equal to men? C'mon now.
The Bible is full of a variety of perspectives -- it doesn't speak in a singular uniform fashion -- and people of faith have the responsibility to interpret the Bible in healthy ways that take into consideration science, reason, tradition(s), and experience. The Bible isn't some magical book that dropped from the sky. It was written by a variety of people in a variety of contexts trying to make sense of their world. Anytime someone claims to be speaking for God by quoting scripture, such claims must also be put to the test of love. To paraphrase St. Augustine: "If love is the only measure then the only measure of love is love without measure."
Or as my friend Tripp Fuller likes to say, "God has to be at least as nice as Jesus."