Today’s student offering from our Bible and Pop Culture class is a marvellous essay about modern prophets, hope, and the LGBT+ community. The author is Lauren Winthrop, who is currently doing a Bachelor of Arts/LLB conjoint degree, majoring in Chinese Language and minoring in Asian Studies. Lauren has a passion for international human rights and social justice, and hopes to work in China after she finishes university. Her passion for justice certainly shines through in this essay, as she explores the prophetic qualities of gay rights activist, Harvey Milk. Enjoy.
Harvey Milk: A prophet bringing hope
“I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living.”
Harvey Milk played a major role in the Gay Rights movement during the 1970’s through his political activism and passion for justice. He can be seen as a modern day prophet for the LGBT community in particular. In this essay I use Marcus Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet to demonstrate that Milk had similar attributes to the prophet Amos, such as disturbing the sense of normality in society, a passion for social justice and most importantly a bringer of hope to the oppressed.
Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet identifies a prophet as someone that disturbs society’s sense of normality (Borg 2001, 120). In amongst the politically tumultuous 1970s, Harvey Milk emerged as a key figure in the fight for gay rights within the gay community (Clendinen and Nagourney 2013, 339). The 1970s was a difficult time for the gay community as they faced strong oppression from religious groups in the form of discriminatory political policies and the threat (and reality) of violence. Milk challenge the religious status quo, going against the current of a predominantly Christian Society (ibid, 329). He spoke up against the religious intolerance of Christian groups, criticizing them, using similar language to the prophet Amos, who spoke up about the wealthy, powerful, and outwardly religious people in his cultural context who oppressed the poor and marginalized:
“They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name.” (Amos 2.7)
Milk was elected onto the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco, becoming the city’s first openly gay elected leader – and one of the first in the nation (Morris 2007, 76). There was minimal national consensus on gay rights; instead, people like Anita Bryant and religious groups backing politicians saw the gay community as being anti-family. Milk spoke against these groups, arguing for separation of church and state to promote gay rights. But even before his election, Milk founded the Castro Village Association, to promote gay friendly business partnerships and for supporting the labour union (ibid).
The cultural text “Milk” (Gus Van Sant 2009) reflects a modern day cultural reflection of Milk in support of his challenge to the status quo. As the ideology of “separation of church and state” has gained popularity, films like this can be made with far less opposition. The film shows Milk under a prophet-figure light, showing his challenging of the status quo as fundamental for the gay rights movement through his passionate speeches. Anita Bryant, John Briggs and other strongly Conservative politicians accused gay individuals of being perverted and sick (Clendinen and Nagourney 2013, 16). Milk knew that this view was held by many, and that it was in turn pushing young people who could not be accepted by their families towards suicide. Milk challenged the status quo in his speech “Tired of Silence” at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco, California on June 25, 1978, saying that they will no longer take what has been happening:
“I’m tired of listening to the ‘Anita Bryant’s’ twist the language and the meaning of the Bible to fit their own distorted outlook. But I’m even more tired of the silence from the religious leaders of this nation who know that she is playing fast and loose with the true meaning of the Bible. I’m tired of their silence more than of her biblical gymnastics” (quoted in Gottheimer 2003, 377).
Milk uses biblical texts to challenge Anita Bryant and John Briggs, accusing them of using the Bible as a ‘cultural prop’ to reflect their own opinions, hurting many gay people.
“You talk a lot about the Bible. . . . But when are you going to talk about that most important part: “Love thy neighbor?” After all, she may be gay” (ibid, 379).
Borg’s definition of the biblical prophet is someone who advocates for social justice (Borg 2001, 118). Amos is an excellent example of such a prophet because he prophesized during a period where there was an immense class disparity (Bergant 2006, 91). Amos believed that justice towards a neighbor and righteousness before God were entirely connected. He cared deeply for the oppressed, and his words are timeless as there is, still today, a great deal of social oppression. Amos saw the worship of God as useless if people were not willing to help the oppressed. He viewed God as being a God for the oppressed and not a God of showy festivals:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; Your assemblies are a stench to me. Though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.(5.21-23).
Amos’ passion for social justice is mirrored by Milk. Milk knew he was risking his life to advocate for a cause that was going against the tide of the religious movement, and received numerous death threats (Clendinen and Nagourney 2013, 404). Although he did not succeed immediately in being elected into office, he rallies for the LGBT community and stood up against Proposition 6 which would have caused gay teachers to be fired (ibid 367). He argued fiercely and publically against the “Save Our Children” campaign (Blasius 1997, 448), calling out the assumptions being made about gay people in his speech “Tired of Silence”.
“Clean up your own house before you start telling lies about gays. Don’t distort the Bible to hide your own sins. Don’t change facts to lies. Don’t look for cheap political advantage in playing upon people’s fears! Judging by the latest polls, even the youth can tell you’re lying!”
Amos’ message of God’s opposition to injustice and his witness of God’s special concern for the oppressed are thus similar those values and actions expressed by Harvey Milk, for which, even today, he is still remembered.
Another of Borg’s definitions of the biblical prophet is that the prophet is one who brings about a vision for a better future (2001, 119-20). Amos spoke about God’s judgment within society at that present time as opposed to God’s judgment at the end of time (ibid). His writings still conjure up hope in people’s hearts; for example, Amos is cited in the famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr, which he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the Civil Rights March on Washington:
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5.24)
Another prophet to bring hope for a better future was Isaiah, who assured his audience that those who hope in the Lord will “Soar on wings like eagles; They will run and not grow weary, They will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40.31).
Similarly to these prophets, Milk used his speeches to bring a hope of a better future. For Milk, hope was key:
“Without hope not only the gays but the blacks, the seniors, the poor, the handicapped the Uses give up….if you help me get elected that election – no it is not my election it is yours – it will mean that a green light is lit … a green light that says to all who feel lost and disenfranchised that you now can go forward – it means hope and we – no, you and you and you and yes you got to give them hope.” (listen to Milk’s speech here)
Even though Milk was assassinated by his coworker Daniel White only eleven months into his office term (Morris 2007, 74), his message of hope and his dream for justice has lived on in the hearts of those he encountered, especially within the LGBT community. Today, the Harvey Milk Foundation continues his work, guided by his dream “for a better tomorrow filled with the hope for equality and a world without hate.”
The biblical prophet also has the role to be the mouthpiece of God, and God was ultimately central to them (Borg 2001, 123). God gave the prophets legitimacy, and thus their words were anointed and listened to; they did this by often prefacing their announcements with the words, “Thus says the Lord” in order to establish that it was God’s words they were speaking (ibid, 124). The focus of the prophets was to bring a message from God, be it good or bad, and to deliver the message the way God intended, regardless of the audience and if what they said was popular (ibid, 125). Prophets such as Jeremiah and Amos suffered as a result of speaking what they believed to be God’s message to the people, because that message tended to challenge the rich and powerful (ibid). The prophets were therefore individuals who knew God and were passionate about social justice; these two factors seemed to go hand in hand.
However, in comparison, Milk’s approach was not explicitly religious and did not command the seeking of a “higher being” to speak into situations. Whilst his work does echo certain sentiments regarding social justice that are found in the biblical prophetic material, his desire to inspire hope and keep hold of hope reflects more of a Humanist approach to this issue. Milk had a strong message about the importance of being yourself, and as part of that, coming out to people around you so that they could see that LGBT people were an integral part of the community, rather than a marginalized group who deserved to be ostracized by public opinion (Morris 2007, 87). This reliance on being who you are and having hope in the goodness of humanity contrasts with prophets such as Isaiah, who suggests that one needs to rely on God in order for hope to be found and sustained. Yet, while Milk does not come under Borg’s definition of a biblical prophet in this aspect, I suggest that his commitment to social justice and the sustaining hope he brought with his actions and campaigns aligns him to the prophetic traditions in significant ways.
In conclusion, Harvey Milk was truly a modern day ‘prophet’. He brought hope to oppressed people by disturbing the oppressive heteronormalcy in society, by his political activism for social justice and gay rights, and by giving LGBT people in 1970s San Francisco a vision for a brighter future. I believe that he left a lasting impression on those around him and the LGBT+ community as a whole. Personally, Milk is a hero for me, and I believe that by employing his attitude and commitment to justice, we can also make the world a better, more hopeful, place.
Bergant, Dianne. Israel’s Story, Part 1. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2006
Blasius, Mark. We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Borg, Marcus J. “Reading the Prophets again.” In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, pp. 111-144. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.
Dudley Clendinen, Adam Nagourney. Out For Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, Simon and Schuster, 2013
Escobar, D.S., 1995, ‘Social justice in the book of Amos’, Review and Expositor 92, 169–174.
Gottheimer, Josh. Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003.
Morris, Charles E. Queering Public Address: Sexualities in American Historical Discourse. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
Watson, Sandy, and Ted Miller. “LGBT Oppression.” Multicultural Education 19, no. 4 (2012): 2(6). Accessed September 23, 2015.
Milk. Directed by Bruce Cohen. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2009. Film.
References to the Bible are taken from the New International Version