On Bigotry and Bullying

How do we handle people we disagree with? I'm not talking about what baseball team is the best, or what type of music is most enjoyable. Those topics can be fun to talk about and have no lasting consequences. I'm talking about disagreements that have real consequences in people's lives.

Is government regulation generally beneficial or harmful?
When does life begin?
Should abortion be legal?
Are same sex relationships moral?
Should same sex couples be given equal rights under the law?
Should gay marriage be legally recognized?

Although I am unapologetically for marriage equality, and believe that there is nothing immoral about same sex relationships, I'm writing in defense of someone who does not share that view: my friend and local pastor, Dean Inserra.

I've know Dean for years. I was a Southern Baptist prior to my journey through atheism to a different way of understanding God and relating to Christ. I played in a band called Beneath His Feet, and we were hardcore Evangelicals. We played at youth camps, Christian music festivals, and other staples of Evangelical subculture–including the obligatory alter calls.

Those were some of the best years of my life. I met Dean through the guys in Beneath His Feet. Dean grew up with them. After Dean graduated from Seminary, he asked my friend Scott to lead worship at the FCA events he lead on FSU's campus. Scott asked me to play bass. That FCA group grew quickly, and set the stage for the next act: planting a church.

Dean pastors a large church called City Church. Before City Church was City Church, it was The Well, and I helped start it. I thought Dean had a lot of good ideas about how churches should operate and be involved in the community. Although I ended up staying at my church, I loved watching City Church grow and work.

Dean and I aren't on the same page when it comes to Christianity. Dean is a Conservative Evangelical. I'm a fluffy, liberal Christian–and a few members of Dean's flock have taken the time to tell me that I'm not really a Christian at all. My pastor is a woman, Dean thinks women should not be pastors. I am open and affirming of LGBT people, Dean is not. I think the Bible is a beautiful catalog of people's experiences with God, Dean thinks it is the inerrant, perfect Word of God. These dramatic differences in doctrine have sparked an occasionally fiery Twitter debate between Dean and I–but I've always held a high view of Dean. He does far more good than harm in the world.

I followed the advice of a few wise friends and stopped following Dean on Twitter. I became convinced that our back and forth didn't help anything. I knew what I thought of Dean, but I realized others did not. No random person on Twitter could know that while I deeply disagree with Dean on some fundamental issues, I still respect him and like him.

I still run in a lot of secularist and atheist circles. So, imagine my surprise when I saw Dean featured in one of the blogs I follow, called The Friendly Atheist.

As I read, I experienced a torrent of conflicting emotions. I agree with Hermant Mehta that the conservative Christian stance on marriage equality and same-sex relationship morality is harmful to society. I agreed with Mr. Mehta's points, and understood his frustrated and angry tone.


His comments were directed at a person I know in flesh and blood. I know Dean, his wife, and his family. I understand that Dean's perspective on marriage equality is based on an understanding of scripture that is at the very core of who he is. I also understand that Dean's understanding of scripture lead him to live a life of grace and forgiveness to others. I know that Dean is active in our community, and that he does considerable work with organizations that help the poor and disempowered.

There is no question that atheists have been persecuted and oppressed by religious people–conservatives in particular. The same is true of LGBT persons. I've heard the first hand accounts of brutal bullying, marginalization, and social rejection of gay friends from people who profess to be Christians. I've felt a small dose of that same phenomenon when I finally talked about my doubts about God publicly.

But times are changing. LGBT people enjoy majority support from Americans for the first time, and secularists and freethinkers find themselves among an ever increasing slice of the populace. The Internet has (beautifully) enabled skeptics to find each other, to organize, and to push back against social prohibitions against atheism. This is a good thing.

I don't want to hear about any more gay teenagers committing suicide. I don't want to hear about former Christians killing themselves after being ejected from the communities either. As someone who endured truly awful bullying growing up, I understand the temptation to escape the pain via suicide. I tried to take my own life years ago.

And that's why I am writing about Dean. Dean's a grown man, and a balanced one at that. I think he probably shrugs off the vitriol currently thrown at him by strangers on the Internet, because I think Dean is tougher than I am.

But what if he's not?

What if, on some level, these words sink in?
What if, like me, every harsh word from a stranger leaves a tiny slice across his heart?
What if people responding to ideas that have hurt them personally in anger, only make new wounds, more hurt, and more distance?

I know what that feels like. It's how I feel every time someone tells me that I'm a heretic, or a false teacher. It's how I feel when a skeptic tells me I'm a fool for participating in and defending faith in God.

Could it be that someone commenting on a YouTube video has been horribly hurt and traumatized by some Christian? Could it be that they've found community that helped them cope, but that at some moment that community turned into a mob?

Here's what I'm asking: are pitchforks and torches the best way to make the world a better place?

What happens when the bullied becomes the bully?

It is perfectly reasonable that we should endure criticisms of any words released to the public–that's part of it. That's Free Speech. Issues related to religion and sexuality touch on our most deeply held ideas, impulses, and psychological makeup. For this reason, discussions related to these issues will always have a tendency to escalate in intensity. But, as I read the comments relating to Dean, they weren't critiques of an idea. They were attacks on a real person by an angry mob.

I disagree with Dean's thoughts about homosexual behavior as much as anyone possibly could. I'm going to continue to fight for equality in every venue, and in every state in America. I'll write my elected leaders, I'll vote for candidates that support it, and I'll even continue to champion the cause in what I write.

What I won't do is demonize my opposition. I won't become a new oppressor. I will not attack any person based on what they believe. America is changing. The day is coming where opposition to same sex relationships is as socially abhorrent as racism is today.

When that day comes, I don't want to see a decline in suicide rates among gay teenagers replaced by a rise in suicide rates among Evangelicals.

There is no justified version of bullying, and the ends do not justify the means. As we discuss issues of vital importance in life, let's all take the high road together. Life is hard enough without bullying.

I'm turning in my pitchfork.