IN 1993, when he was introducing a new tranche of anti-crime measures, John Major, then Prime Minister, remarked: “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” It was not long before this statement was itself condemned. It is brought to mind, however, by the first reactions to the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Casual comments from family and acquaintances of the killer, Omar Mateen, were thrown together with isolated accounts from his past in an attempt to make Mateen’s murderous attack understandable. None of the assembled narratives was satisfactory: Mateen was a radical Muslim (an Afghan immigrant, according to the Trump camp, despite his being born in New York City); Mateen was a disturbed, violent homophobe; Mateen was a self-hating homosexual.
This is too much about Mateen. When nine people were killed and nine others were injured last October at Umpqua College in Oregon, the town’s sheriff, John Hanlin, declined to name the white supremacist who shot them. “I will not give him the credit he probably sought with this horrific and cowardly act,” Sheriff Hanlin said in a press briefing. “You will never hear me mention his name.” It would be an act of justice as well as compassion to let Mateen similarly sink into obscurity. Better to leave him misunderstood than to allow his actions to be associated with any group or creed. He deserves to be forgotten.
But not his crime. The attack on the Pulse bar fits into a history of homophobia, in which mass killings are thankfully rare but not unknown. Targeted violence, together with a myriad of other acts of discrimination, is moving very slowly from the present to the past. Orlando undermines any optimism in this movement, which is, in any case, restricted in the main to Western liberal democracies. The victims ought to be remembered as the price paid for failing to challenge the anti-gay prejudice that still lurks in many cultures.
As the tide of discrimination recedes, what are these rocks left sticking out of the sand? Surely they could not be the mainstream faiths, Christianity among them, where a tale of love and acceptance for all God’s creatures should be being told? But yes: it has proved all too easy to ignore the compulsion to understand the mind and purposes of God when it comes to sexuality. A belief that God is known through reason — for which read the right application of new scientific understanding — as well as scripture and tradition is a step too far for many. The Shared Conversations about sexuality that were undergone by the dioceses, and which will exercise the General Synod in York next month, were established on the concept that those participating were under no obligation to change their minds. The shadow cast by Orlando suggests that this approach is now a luxury.