Public essay in response to John Paulk incident (fwd)
- An Essay on the John Paulk incident that I thought
JOHN MAYES, Charlotte, NC
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Thanks in advance for NOT sending me junk mail!
---------------------- Forwarded Message: ---------------------
From: Bruce Hahne <hahne@...>
Subject: Public essay in response to John Paulk incident
Date: Mon, 02 Oct 2000 00:37:49 -0700
Friends: I felt called to write this essay in response to the recent
incident involving Exodus chair John Paulk. Please feel free to
forward this to friends or email lists as desired.
A faith-based response to the John Paulk incident,
with three calls to action
Bruce M. Hahne
October 2, 2000
The response by the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT)
community to the recent John Paulk incident, in which Exodus board
chair John Paulk was discovered sipping drinks in a gay bar, has been
venom-filled, entirely un-Christian, and damaging to the cause of GLBT
rights in America. We can and must do better if our struggle for GLBT
equality is to bear fruit.
For those unfamiliar with the Paulk incident, let's summarize recent
events. John Paulk is chair of the North American board of Exodus
International, the largest of a family of evangelical Christian
organizations which claim success at converting gay and lesbian people
to heterosexual orientation and behavior. On September 19, John Paulk
entered Mr. P's, a hole-in-the-wall gay bar in a well-known gay
cruising section of Washington D.C. He spent at least 40 minutes in
the bar, during which time he identified himself as "John Clint,"
offered to buy a drink for another male bar patron, and reportedly
claimed that he was gay. John was recognized by Human Rights Campaign
(HRC) staff member Daryl Herschaft, who phoned HRC's associate
director of communications Wayne Besen. Besen rushed over to Mr. P's
with a camera. As Paulk, now outed by Herschaft and Besen, began a
frantic attempt to find a rear exit from the bar, Besen appeared on
the scene and began snapping photos of Paulk, pursuing him down the
street for several blocks after Paulk rushed out the front exit. The
entire sequence of events was reported the next morning in all its
glory, with photos, by Southern Voice, a gay news web site. The
general response of the pro-GLBT community to the incident has been
one of sadistic glee, as thousands replay in their minds the fantasy
of their arch-nemesis John Paulk trapped like a caged animal,
surrounded by a hostile crowd of the very people Exodus claims are
morally diseased, and at last driven off like some sort of evangelical
demon by Besen and Herschaft, wielding their holy Camera of Truth.
Only in extremely rare cases do we find, in the 21st century, that a
series of events involving ethical choice mirrors a Biblical story so
precisely as to make the appropriate response entirely clear. The
Paulk incident was one of those times. John Paulk is a modern-day
Zacchaeus, and we are the hostile crowd which has failed in our
responsibility to love.
The story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19:1-10 is well-known to most
Christians, but let's take a moment to look more closely. Zacchaeus
is a Jew and a chief tax collector. As a tax collector, he is
despised for being an accomplice to the Roman political domination and
oppression of the Jews. Zacchaeus has sold out his own people to the
dominant political powers and has made himself rich by doing so. If
there's one public speaker Zacchaeus shouldn't be interested in
hearing, it should be Jesus, who spoke a radical message of liberation
to the lower classes, stridently opposed the religious orthodox of his
own time for their misinterpretation of the Torah as a prescriptive
textbook of behavioral mores, and at the end of his ministry would be
executed by the Romans for his desecration of the temple in
Jerusalem. And yet, as the story from Luke tells us, something called
Zacchaeus to see Jesus as he entered Jericho. Zacchaeus climbs a tree
to get a better view, but to his surprise is singled out by Jesus as
he passes by. Rather than condemn Zacchaeus, a reasonable response
given his status as an agent of the Roman oppressors and a traitor to
his own people, Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree and they
share a meal together, much to the dismay and open complaints of the
crowd. The story has a happy ending: Zacchaeus' eyes are opened and
he publicly repents of his acts of oppression.
The actors and their behavior in the Zacchaeus story closely mirror
those in the Paulk incident. Zacchaeus, a Jew who oppressed other
Jews, felt called to draw closer to his own people. John Paulk, who
is very likely gay or bisexual despite his and Exodus' continued
attempts to deny it, felt drawn to his own. Was Paulk seeking
companionship, conversation, friendship, a place to escape the
heterosexism that wafts throughout conservative evangelical
Christianity like freeway smog? We'll never know, because he was
driven out as a heretic just as surely as Christian fundamentalists
cast out anyone who dares to question heterosexual privilege. If we
were to replay the story of Zacchaeus with this contemporary ending,
it might look like this:
So Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus,
because he was going to pass that way. But before Jesus passed by,
one of the crowd saw him in the tree and recognized him. "Aren't you
Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector?" he asked. "No," lied Zacchaeus,
"you must be mistaking me for someone else." "Truly it must be you,"
said the man, "for I know your face. You've made my family and my
friends penniless! They lost everything they have because of you."
And he began to stir up the crowd. "Tax collector! Tax collector!"
he cried, "Let's get him!" And a great crowd formed around him.
"Is there any other way out of this tree?" cried Zacchaeus. And he
searched the upper branches seeking a way to the rooftops, but there
was none. And so, shaking, he leapt to the edge of the crowd and
fled. But some from the crowd chased after him, and others jeered.
He fled from that place and wept bitterly, for he had come to see
Jesus but had been driven out. And from that time Zacchaeus cursed
his fellow Jews, and whenever he taxed them he taxed them twice as
much, and whenever he put them into debtors prison he put them there
for twice as long, and whenever he had them whipped for refusing to
pay he gave them twice as many lashes.
This unhappy ending to the Zacchaeus story accurately demonstrates the
damage done by the Paulk incident. The actions taken by members of
the GLBT community in response to John Paulk's presence in Mr. P's
were a mistake for a minimum of four reasons:
1. The incident unnecessarily reinforces the Christian Right's
In the fundamentalist worldview, the world is full of demonic forces
always seeking to tyrannize and assault the born-again. Unnecessary,
unloving persecution of the pawns of the Christian Right simply
solidifies this worldview and increases their determination to engage
in political counterpersecution. There are certainly plenty of times
when our opposition to the Right's anti-egalitarian political goals
will inevitably increase their already intense social paranoia.
However, the Paulk incident was not one of these times. Imagine the
long-term good which could have resulted if Paulk, instead of being
driven from the bar after being recognized, had been welcomed with
open arms as a returning prodigal son. Such a response would have
demonstrated a stark contrast: while the Christian Right is quick to
cast people out, the GLBT community is quick to widen the circle and
let people in.
2. The incident provides a fund-raising opportunity for the Christian
The ink is likely already drying on the latest Focus on the Family
fund-raising memo: "Exodus North America leader attacked by
homosexual activists!" The Right will always find ways to spin news
events to its own fund-raising favor, but in the case of the Paulk
incident they don't even have to embellish any of the facts.
3. Any social change movement grounded in hatred of enemies will
fail in the long run.
If we hate our enemies, our response will be to try to crush or
destroy them rather than redeem them. History suggests that the
result of this "war against persons" approach to social change either
causes the enemy to return in force after a period of dormancy, or so
corrupts the victors that the old system of oppression is simply
replaced by a new one. We can easily see the former pattern in the
20th-century history of fundamentalism. After the public humiliation
of Presbyterian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan by ACLU attorney
Clarence Darrow at the Scopes trial in 1925, fundamentalism didn't
disappear but rather turned angrily inward, building up its own
networks of Bible colleges, publishing houses, and radio and
television broadcasting outlets until its forceful re-entry into
secular politics in 1979.
The alternate failure scenario, in which the victors in a struggle
have so corrupted themselves by adopting the mentality and tactics of
the opponent that they become what they hate, has been repeated
throughout history. Former _Advocate_ political journalists Christopher
Bull and John Gallagher warn of precisely this possibility in _Perfect
Enemies_, their historical overview of 30 years of struggle between gay
political advocacy and cultural conservatism. "Even should one side
emerge victorious," the authors note, "its integrity will have been so
besmirched by its behavior that its triumph will be hollow. There's
no honor in winning a culture war but losing the hearts and minds of a
4. The incident turns a potential gain into a loss, spitting in the
face of the Holy Spirit.
Whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not, God is always at
work in our own hearts, and in the hearts of our oppressors, to end
institutionalized social evil. God is working in my heart to end
heterosexism. God is working in James Dobson's heart to end
heterosexism. God is working in John Paulk's heart to end
heterosexism. How many months, how many years might the Spirit have
been laboring within the heart of John Paulk, playing off of his
repressed sexuality, his need to be fully human, his hope for
community, whatever it was that led him to Mr. P's that night? The
opportunities God gives us often don't appear in a continuous stream;
rather they may appear only in brief flashes, for us to grasp and make
concrete, or for us to ignore and see dissipate as rapidly as they
appeared. The Paulk incident represents a missed opportunity to
demonstrate compassion. God tossed us the ball, but rather than catch
the ball, rather than simply ignore the ball, we pulled out our
shotguns and blasted the ball into a thousand pieces. Our response
will inevitably have long-lasting negative repercussions.
I want to make my theology crystal clear here to avoid any
misunderstandings. Western hyper-individualism often leads us to
demonize persons for what are actually non-human evils. There is
great evil at work within Exodus International, but John Paulk isn't
an evil person. John Paulk is a child of God created good by a loving
Creator, he is fallen from goodness into deception, and he can be
redeemed by the God of Truth who works in us and through us all, just
as all of us are simultaneously good, fallen, and redeemable. Exodus
isn't staffed by evil people; rather, heterosexism and patriarchy are
the evils, and Exodus is a physical manifestation of these evils.
"For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but
against... the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
[Eph. 6:12] Speaking from within a first-century Palestinian
worldview, in this passage the author of Ephesians is trying to put
into words the concept of systemic or ideological evil. In
twentieth-century language, Dr. Martin Luther King said the same in a
speech at Berkeley in 1957: "The nonviolent resister seeks to attack
the evil system rather than individuals who happen to be caught up in
the system. And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle
in the South is not so much the tension between white people and Negro
people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between
the forces of light and the forces of darkness." Our struggle is not
against John Paulk, our struggle is against heterosexism and therefore
is FOR John Paulk and for his redemption.
Recovering a clearer understanding of the nature of evil can tell us
what to do with our anger. My thesis in this essay isn't "don't be
angry," rather it is that we must learn how to direct our anger
constructively, at real evil, rather than misdirect it destructively
at human beings loved by God. Jesus spent quite a lot of his time
being angry at evil. He was executed for resisting evil. There is no
sin in being angry at the wretched state of our society in its
treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. But
when that anger makes us mockingly "out" a supporter of the status quo
who appears to be having second thoughts, when we chase him down the
street with cameras so that we can crow with triumph in the next day's
news, we misdirect our righteous anger and create a worsening spiral
of bitterness and hatred.
How can we more effectively channel our thirst for justice? I offer
the following three Calls as ways for us to take a step forward.
THE FIRST CALL:
I call on the GLBT-affirming organizations affiliated with America's
churches to collectively establish, fund, and support a national
project whose primary mandate is to provide emergency and long-term
counseling to evangelical Christians who are attempting to escape or
recover from ex-gay programs and homophobic theology.
This project should establish a suicide prevention hotline staffed by
trained counselors who understand America's evangelical subculture and
worldview. It should set up a pastoral referral network to direct
victims of ex-gay programs to clergy who have an understanding of the
tremendous pain faced by gay and lesbian youth raised in a
conservative evangelical environment. It should fashion itself
explicitly as a faith-based, "Bible-believing" service rather than as
a clinical psychiatric counseling service, because conservative
evangelicals tend to be deeply suspicious of secular psychology and
secular academia in general. It should advertise the availability of
its hotline and its counseling and referral services in evangelical
publications, as well as through direct leaflet distribution at ex-gay
conferences such as FOF's "Love Won Out" tours. The project should
gather and keep statistics on suicides and suicide attempts by GLBT
evangelical youth, and on the number of inquiries it receives from
GLBT people seeking assistance. It should survey the pastors in its
referral network, while still maintaining confidentiality, to follow
up on the progress of those referred, and it should publish aggregate
statistics in a yearly report as a means of documenting the harm of
Today one can find general-purpose suicide hotlines in major cities,
but there is no national organization, no program, no toll-free number
aimed at the highly specific counseling and pastoral needs of the GLBT
person who has been reared in a conservative Christian environment.
The time is ripe for this type of project. The pro-GLBT groups of
dozens of denominations have recently shown their ability to work and
worship together at the WOW2000 conference in Illinois this past
summer. The anecdotes in the press, on ex-ex-gay web sites, and from
pastors around the country describing the damage of "conversion
therapy" programs are accumulating, pointing to a need for a targeted
program. A rough estimate based on the demographics of America's
religious landscape suggests that there are at least 400,000 gay and
lesbian young adults between ages 18-30 who have been raised in a
Christian fundamentalist environment. Some of them will lead happy,
productive, healthy lives. A statistically high proportion of them
will not. Some will want to seek counseling; others, not knowing of
any alternative which lets them keep their faith without rejecting
their sexuality, will take their own lives.
The best initial structure for this type of project would likely be as
one program under the umbrella of an existing non-profit pro-GLBT
Christian organization such as Evangelicals Concerned. Regardless of
the official organizational umbrella, this is a project to which every
GLBT-affirming faith group should be able to lend its support and its
co-sponsorship in name. Rough budget estimates suggest that the seed
funds required for the first year of operation would be about $150,000
for a full-time staff of three including office space, literature
printing costs, and overhead. I will commit $5,000 of my own funds to
the formation of this project if the remainder can be raised and a
suitable host non-profit steps forward to take the lead. If you feel
similarly called to financially support this counseling and
documentation project, give me a call and let's talk. The need is
clear. The time is now. All we need is the will to make it happen.
THE SECOND CALL:
This call is to John Paulk. John, it's highly unlikely that you'll
ever see this essay, since your email is presumably filtered by others
before it reaches you, and it's always possible that FOF is now
monitoring your phone calls. Whether you read this or not, I
repudiate the treatment given to you and the hostility shown to you by
the GLBT community in the past two weeks. We failed in our mandate to
show compassion and love.
Something led you to Mr. P's on the night of September 19. I don't
know what that something was, but perhaps it's a Something that has
larger plans for you than being Chair of Exodus International. We
both know that there's something wrong with the world. You know
because you were driven out of the one place where you thought you'd
have some anonymity, and I know because my best friend from college
took his own life last month, three months after he came out as gay.
My call to you is that you seek to discern what the Holy Spirit is
asking you to do. As we read in the book of Esther, "Who knows?
Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."
How you discern the calling of the Spirit is between you and God. But
if you ever decide that you're denying part of who you are, or that
God is calling you to something more, or that you're looking for a way
out, or if you just want to tell me how wrong I am, feel free to
call. I'm not a counselor and I'm a lousy Bible scholar, but I won't
call you names, I'll do everything I can to love you, I won't claim
that homosexuality is unChristian, and I won't tell a soul that you
phoned. You can reach me at my home number, listed in the bio at the
end of this essay. In Gandhian nonviolence jargon this is known as
"engaging in voluntary redemptive suffering", because I'm now going to
be flooded with phone calls from angry GLBT activists who hate me
because I refuse to hate you, and flooded with phone calls from angry
Exodus supporters because I assert that Exodus is an institution
devoted to the perpetuation of oppression. I can't say what the
Spirit is calling you to do, but apparently the Spirit is calling me
to receive a lot of phone calls.
THE THIRD CALL:
This call is to everyone involved in the GLBT rights movement, both
civil and ecclesial. If you are unable or unwilling to find love for
your enemies, I call you to GET OUT of the movement. Hatred of people
who are caught up in an evil ideology does more harm than good. A
movement based on hatred of human enemies can't hope to convert its
enemies and can't succeed at building a community of love.
Loving your enemy doesn't mean liking your enemy. Loving your enemy
means standing before your enemy and looking your enemy in the eye and
saying to your enemy "You are a child of God and God loves you, but
you mistakenly serve an evil ideology which causes misery and death.
As someone who loves you, I call you to die to your heterosexism, to
die to your homophobia. I call you to redemption." Loving our enemy
means looking for ways to facilitate our enemy's redemption and not
looking for opportunities to cause our enemy pain.
Modern cynicism scoffs at the idea of redemption as naive, preferring
to believe that there are some people who are so far lost that they
can't possibly change. Martin Luther King Jr. wholly disagreed:
"We must never forget that there is something within human nature that
can respond to goodness, that man is not totally depraved; to put it
in theological terms, the image of God is never totally gone. And so
the individuals who believe in this movement... somehow believe that
even the worst segregationist can become an integrationist. Now
sometimes it is hard to believe that this is what this movement says,
and it believes it firmly, that there is something within human nature
that can be changed."
Can those working in the GLBT rights movement change society and
change the Church for the better? If we hope to change society, we
must change the hearts and minds of our opposition. Yet before we can
change the hearts and minds of our opposition, we must first change
the hearts and minds of ourselves. If we don't, we will be blind to
the opportunities for redemption that God sends our way. In our anger
at injustice, we will continue to crucify Zacchaeus.
Bruce Hahne is a lay member of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto,
California. He was co-chair of the Soulforce civil disobedience
action at Presbyterian General Assembly in June 2000, and is producer
of the New Visions Project (www.newvisionsproject.org). He can be
reached at hahne@... or at home at (408) 732-1698.
Martin Luther King Jr. quotes are taken from _A Testament of Hope: The
Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr._
The theology of systemic evil described in this essay is based on
Walter Wink's _Engaging the Powers_ (Fortress Press, 1992), a book I
highly recommend to all Christian social justice activists.
The web site for the WOW 2000 conference is www.wow2k.org.
The Southern Voice report on the John Paulk incident is archived, as
of this writing, at
A formatted copy of this essay plus any followups to the action calls
will appear at www.newvisionsproject.org/paulk
Copyright (c) 2000 by Bruce M. Hahne. Republication of this essay in
its entirety for non-profit, noncommercial purposes is permitted.
Non-profit, noncommercial electronic redistribution is encouraged.
For other types of republication, please contact the author.