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RGOD2: The lessons of Lincoln apply to LGBT emancipation

“Dyeing the vibrantly colored threads that others will weave into beautiful garments” -- "Lincoln" is a story for our age.

As part of the Thanksgiving holidays this weekend, I went to see Stephen Spielberg’s latest blockbuster movie, “Lincoln.” It was a timely release following the U.S. presidential election and the Thanksgiving season when Americans reflect on our own national story.

The sheer power of story to remember our journeys (both collective and individual) is why this film is so significant for our age. It is set against the backdrop of conflicting identities between the rights, privileges and responsibilities of being an American citizen and those who do not yet share in them. The Civil War had already taken over 600,000 lives and the film focuses on the President’s obsession to pass the 13th Amendment during a lame-duck session of Congress before he begins his second term in office.

Lincoln saw an opportunity to pass a law to abolish slavery once and for all, even though his key advisers thought it political suicide for him to do so. The negotiations with the Confederate government of the Southern states could bring an end to the war, but Lincoln wanted to make sure Emancipation issue was off the table before any peace agreement could be signed. Lincoln used every means possible to achieve his objective, including bribing and influencing Democrats who had lost their seats in the recent election and stretching the truth about his involvement in peace negotiations with the South.

The portrayal of Washington politics was not flattering to an emerging and deeply flawed democracy. The constitutional amendment won by a narrow margin of only two votes but Lincoln knew he was dyeing threads that others would spin into a different kind of American fabric and history and posterity would vindicate his somewhat Machiavellian tactics to achieve this end.

Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field play the Lincoln couple and their performances are spectacular. Their troubled relationship and loss of their own son Willie in the war deeply personalizes the issues facing the whole country.

Paying attention to our histories or repeating our mistakes

There are many things we can learn from this old story. The maxim “If we do not pay attention to history and the lessons it can teach us, we will merely repeat its mistakes” rings true in this epic movie. It raises many questions for contemporary society across the planet as well as our local concerns.

Lincoln senses a uniquely American destiny in linking rights with human dignity. “Equality under the law” becomes an emerging new principle that 150 years later we are still struggling with. The Republican Party of Lincoln has changed significantly and the film offers an opportunity to reflect on its own journey to the present day.

The greatest biblical sin, I believe, is amnesia. That is why so many of our Jewish and Christian forebears, from Moses to Jesus, kept telling us to “remember” knowing that the human disposition defaults so easily to amnesia -- we forget our own journeys and then we get in trouble.

Remembering the Passover annually becomes an essential Jewish family celebration where liberation is re-enacted. Jesus, in the middle of a Passover celebration, takes bread and wine and invites his friends to “remember him” and his sacrifice, so all can be freed and no more blood needs to be shed. Sin is forgiven and ALL are included at God’s table of unconditional love and welcome.

Even as Jews and Christians who have both experienced periods of enormous hardship and violence, we often forget our story “that WE were once slaves in Egypt,” that “WE were once aliens in a foreign land,” and to show compassion to the foreigner. Most Americans, as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, have forgotten the important journey our forebears made as immigrants and our amnesia has a devastating effect on a 21st century comprehensive and humane immigration policy in this country. As Israel tightened its stranglehold on Gaza this past week, I see no redemptive story that resonates with Jewish leaders in the Middle East. When we forget our own story, as Republicans, Americans, Christians or Jews, the Bible warns us, we all get in trouble. So the Lincoln story may help us find our way back to our own deep values and aspirations, even with wars raging around us, the politics of Washington, the Vatican and Jerusalem taking their inevitable courses.

LGBT emancipation

LGBT people throughout the world will undoubtedly see our own story in the Lincoln story. The emancipation issue has all the ingredients each one of us lives with every day. LGBT emancipation is a theological issue, just as slavery was justified by the majority’s interpretation of scripture that Africans were less than human and did not deserve the same rights and treatment as Caucasians.

We know that argument so well. “If we free slaves, they will want the vote and if they get the vote, what next, women’s suffrage?” Congress was appalled, not only at the idea that emancipation would allow slaves to vote, but it would also mean they would have to relate differently to their wives, daughters and American women.

We know the argument that LGBT emancipation means we have to look differently at gender equality issues globally, and this related fear, continues to challenge us. Gay liberation would never have occurred in the USA without a strong women’s movement creating the winds of change upon which we flew towards our destiny and potential. Gender equality continues to be a parallel focus for our movement and we cannot forget the debt we owe to women leaders who have fought for the rights we enjoy.

Emancipation of slaves was principally an economic issue and again, there is a parallel between the global equality movement for LGBT people as an economic issue. When we are kicked out of schools for being gay or perceived to be gay and cannot read or write, we are deprived of basic tools to have gainful employment opportunities. When LGBT people are criminalized in 76 countries, we do not have the same access to HIV and other health services that other citizens can access and governments support.

Our recent meeting with executives of the World Bank made this point very clear that LGBT people do not share in many of the benefits the World Bank shares with these countries, particularly in education, healthcare and business opportunities. We are deliberately excluded because we are deemed “criminals” and the economic impact on our global community is profound. In the end, it is really about jobs and access to making a living and the Global South needs to attract the best minds and people to build a sustainable community regardless of sexual orientation. Building gay/straight alliances and employment opportunities is the most important things we can do as partners in LGBT global emancipation.

From signing petitions to signing checks

This past week, if you have signed a petition to stop the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda , this is noble and good, but it is not enough. LGBT people in places like Nigeria or Uganda need jobs and the means to fight back locally, so we need to do more than sign petitions. We need to sign checks.

This week, St. Paul’s Foundation network will be supporting 10 full-time people working in Africa for our global emancipation. We transfer your donations into bank accounts where people can be employed for measurable employment and success at accessing education, health and business opportunities. The gap between signing an online petition and writing a check for LGBT projects in the Global South is as significant as the gap between passing the 13th Amendment and providing economic, education and business opportunities for the generations of African-Americans today.

Look how long it has taken for us to really implement the ideals of Lincoln. We, in the 21st century cannot take 150 years to figure out how LGBT global emancipation should evolve. It needs a huge investment of energy, time, start up assistance and investment. LGBT and ally organizations should be investing in gay/straight alliances and businesses in the global south. The economic, health, educational and moral return on this will be enormously valuable. We, at the beginning of the 21st century are dyeing threads that others will weave into beautiful garments. Lincoln understood this and this movie invites us to do the same.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.