I believe that we have, for too long, allowed those with more fundamentalist views to monopolize morality and what it means to be a moral human being. I believe morality exists as a universal concept to free humanity from our baser instincts, such as hate, fear, and violence; that morality should free us to contemplate, imagine, and dream of a world in which we live in peaceful coexistence. Instead, we have seen morality used to oppress, marginalize, dehumanize, and to stoke fear and hate of those who may look different, talk different, dress different, act different, and love differently.
And so over the years I’ve learned and read and reflected on a different type of morality. Not one based out of fear or a partial understanding of humanity and each other – a morality that misunderstands and views the world through a dark and clouded window- but one based out of love. Unconditional love. For humanity. For each other. One that sees each person holistically and sees each person and accepts them as they are.
But before I begin, I’d like to read some passages that stand out for me around the topic of morality and the law. In Matthew 23, Jesus talks about the Pharisees, or the teachers of the law:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses.[a] 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” —Matthew 23:1-4 (NLT)
And further on:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” —Matthew 23:13 (NLT)
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens,[g] but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith.” —Matthew 23:23 (NLT)
My beliefs about morality are grounded in my experiences as a first-generation son of Cambodian refugees; as the adopted son of a white, working class, and evangelical family; my brown skin; and my identity as a gay man. Up until age 9, me and my younger siblings lived in poverty here in Portland. We survived on food stamps and housing assistance and the diverse community that surrounded us – teachers, social workers, guardians, family and friends, and neighbors from all over the world. I remember, when we first moved here and lived with my grandmother and aunts and uncles on Chestnut Street, I met a friend whose family was from Africa. One memory sticks out in particular, when me and my friend sat for dinner and his mother set two bowls of pasta and tomato sauce in front of me. It was a simple meal, but the experience of sharing a meal with a friend fills me to this day.
But my mother was unwell. She was a refugee who spent her childhood on the run from the Khmer Rouge during the communist takeover in Cambodia. She spent her childhood on the run from a genocide that killed millions of Cambodians in what became known as the killing fields. And so me and my three younger siblings were split into pairs and placed in foster care. Me with my sister Tanya and my younger sister Seyya with the youngest, Brandon. We spent years in the foster care system until, in 2003, a family in Naples, who had my two youngest siblings, thought it was the right time to reunite all four of us.
My adoptive family, as I’ve mentioned before, was an evangelical family that went to a pentecostal church. And as a broken kid from a broken family with a broken identity and brown skin, the idea of a God with unconditional love was appealing. But that unconditional love came with conditions. One of those conditions, at least for the traditions that my family ascribed to, was that homosexualiy was not allowed. It wasn’t just a sin. It was an abomination that violated the natural order that God had intended for humanity.
And while there were of course those in the church that harbored hatred toward gays and the LGBTQ community, many adopted the view that you “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” And this is important to dissect because that is how this particular sect of Christianity interprets the commandment to “Love Thy Neighbor.” In their view, advocating for things such as conversion therapy, allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and for anti-sodomy laws fits within a very narrow conception of love that often ends up contorting, twisting, and making a mess out of what it means to truly “Love Thy Neighbor.” But they don’t realize that in order to view LGBTQ rights and equality through this very narrow window, they look at people like me through a very narrow window. It’s a like a surgical, laser-like focus where they attempt to zoom in on just that art of my identity that is gay and they pick it apart to focus on sexual aspect of it in order to say, “Aha! I have found the cancer of sin. Now, we must cut it out!”
But what they see as a cancer is in fact not a cancer at all but a very important part of my beating heart. And in their surgical approach, which focuses on only the sexual activity and ignores the science and progress made regarding sexual health and prevention, I have been dehumanized, belittled, and my dignity as a human being has been violated. This narrow, surgical approach has been taken by countless parents, families, and churches and governments all over the country and all over the world. And even after they’ve cut out that small chunk of beating heart, they sit back and wonder why LGBTQ people are more anxious, depressed, and suicidal.
Morality used in such a way has instead appealed to the more base instincts of humanity. Fear. Anger. Hate. And so I posit to you the question of whether a morality that leads to oppression is a morality at all. I believe that the answer is no.
No, true morality frees humanity from fear, hate, anger and envy so that we are free to dream of a world without war, without famine, without genocide; a world where we live in peaceful coexistence and strive to be better. A morality born out of true, unconditional love.
But a lingering question is why a morality that sees each human and the world through the lens of love is vital. It is not just so we can coexist. It’s so we can thrive. Morality should not subjugate, as I have mentioned before, but rather it should bring together for the common good. The common good cannot be realized without coexistence. And so a morality based on the ideas and tenets of true love, truly loving your neighbor, brings people together to achieve what we cannot achieve alone.
It is only together that we can work to feed every hungry child not only in America, but the world. Only together, whether through the instrument of government or charity, can we care for the elderly, sick, and dying or take care of the stranger or those fleeing from war torn countries. Only together can we house the homeless and those without shelter, food, or clothing. Only together can we help those suffering from the awful disease of substance and opioid abuse.
But we can only come together if reclaim morality and what it means to be moral. If we take back morality and what it means to be moral human beings. If we do not allow darker and pernicious forces with political agendas to use twisted morality to oppress and subjugate people. We must see morality based on love as a morality that frees us from hate ,fear, anger, envy and violence.
As Scripture says in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13:
Love Is the Greatest
1If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it;a but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.
4Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
8Prophecy and speaking in unknown languagesb and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! 9Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! 10But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless.
11When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 12Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.c All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
13Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
So I will close by saying:
And thus religion has pushed many away, including myself. But over the years, I have come to know many religious friends of all faiths who practice soulfully and sincerely and I’ve come to realize that religion does play a role if it is focused on what is right (with a small r) and good. As I’ve written in my forthcoming memoir:
“[Religion] is at its best when it echoes the deepest instincts of humankind; that deep sense of the reality of the human condition and the compassion and collective action needed to mitigate its more crude and cruel features. But its value ends when it departs from the near-universal principles of loving your neighbor as yourself and treating others with dignity and respect. Once religion transcends private practice and enters into the public domain, and becomes institutionalized; that is where its evils can be realized as an instrument of power and control. When it becomes less about an individual and their God or gods or higher power, and becomes a mission or crusade to wield public institutions and to then enter the private realms of others; then it transforms into something less sincere and soulful and becomes more sanctimonious and sinister.”
So again I ask, will we let fear and bigotry drive morality or will we let love, unconditional love, show us the path forward. Thank you.