A Crowded Manger: Alan Turing, LGBT Ugandans, and Baby Jesus
A Christmas Eve Reflection
David R. Weiss – December 24, 2013
It does make for a crowded manger, but this Christmas Eve I cannot but hold all three in my mind at once.
In a decree dated today – Christmas Eve – Queen Elizabeth officially pardoned Alan Turing of his 1952 conviction for “gross indecency” for having had sex with a man. Faced with the prospect of going to prison as a convicted homosexual in the 50’s, Turing chose Britain’s “humane” alternative: chemical castration through massive injections of female hormones. Two years later, overcome by stigma, humiliation, and despair, he committed suicide. He was only 41.
Turing was a brilliant mathematician and a pioneer (many regard him as the founding figure) in modern computer science. There is barely a person alive today whose life has not been dramatically improved by devices indebted to Turing’s genius. During World War II one of his computing machines allowed British Intelligence to decode Nazi messages transmitted in their allegedly uncrackable Enigma Code. Winston Churchill credited (not Turing himself, but) the intelligence gleaned by his invention, as one of the critical factors in winning the war.
In other words, Turing had gifts that were absolutely essential in halting the Nazi menace, including its scapegoating and merciless slaughter of Jews, its politics of hate abetted by a gross distortion of Christianity. But his own contributions to a safer world could not protect him from his own scapegoating and slaughter by a kindred distortion of the Christian message.
Ironically, his pardon comes on Christmas Eve, while in Uganda, lawmakers jubilantly offer a “Christmas gift” to the Ugandan people: a bill that further dehumanizes LGBT persons today, abetted by the same distorted Christian view that killed Alan Turing sixty years ago: the conviction that God hates those who love the wrong people with tenderness.
Listening to the rhetoric employed in Uganda and hearing – in my case, through firsthand reports coming from friends there – the extent to which LGBT persons and their allies now feel UTTERLY exposed to social hatred and physical peril, I hear an echo of the same dynamic that ran through Germany in the 30’s and 40’s. All manner of economic-political frustration and social-religious anxiety is getting focused on one category of people. In Germany it was the Jews (although various “others” were swept up in that nightmarish era as well); in Uganda it is LGBT persons. Because they are few enough and different enough (in ways unnerving enough), they’re made a lightening rod for the ills of an entire society.
Sidenote: I have received pleas for emergency aid from the Uganda partners that my church works with. Fem Alliance & Youth on Rock in particular serve persons who are especially vulnerable with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill looming so large. Leaders in these two groups, have already received death threats following the bill’s passage in parliament. These are young persons, 25-30 years old, whose lives are at risk because they are determined to be there for others in this perilous hour. If you feel able to make a special year end gift to Wingspan-Uganda, we will pass these funds on quickly to help these groups keep their members safe in the days ahead. This link will take you to the church’s donation page where you can make a secure tax-deductible gift to the Wingspan Uganda project (second from the bottom in the list of designated gifts).
Uganda is hardly unique in this. It happens with particular force in a number of African countries, in Russia, in the Caribbean and elsewhere. The dynamic changes a bit with each contextual shift, but in each case the hatred of morally malleable people (they are not “evil” people, but people with insufficient moral resources to resist the forces that push them to and fro) is marshaled into a frenzy of hateful action or lulled into a stupor of deadly indifference.
Uganda hits me hardest because I traveled there. I know the beauty of this land: the sights and sounds and smells of this pearl of Africa. I have experienced the gracious and friendly character of its people (even those who now may be threatening my friends there). And I have come to love some Ugandans as my own kin. I wish I could do more than merely tremble at such distance.
Tonight, shortly before midnight, I will venture into my church’s sanctuary to remember the baby Jesus, who some 2000 years ago made his appearance in a manger on Christmas Eve. (I know some bits of the birth story may be more myth than history. But the very point of myth is to help us see clearly what we might otherwise miss.)
This child, in whom some of us see the very tenderness of God touching our world, arrived unheralded by the powers that were, but announced to shepherds – among the least respected people of the day. Born to a poor family, swaddled in rags, and laid in a manger, Jesus arrived utterly vulnerable. Surrounded by cattle and sheep, he seems no threat to anyone. But the hymn ascribed to Mary, which we know as the Magnificat, says otherwise. He will grow up to challenge the ruling forces of the world, subverting the plans of the proud and rich, and uplifting those who hunger and who are humiliated. Whether Herod the Great actually sought to kill him by slaughtering innocent babes across the land is less important than that his adult life embodied Mary’s song to such an extent that he was killed, crucified as a threat to public order. Which he most surely was. And is.
Tonight I will remember – and I ask you to remember, too – that this babe in the manger has QUEER written all over him. He is the incarnation of God’s desire that whatever hinders our full flourishing – our life abundant – should be challenged and overcome. He is, in flesh, the hope of God that our lives might be limned by the tenderness of our love not by the boundaries of a morality shown again and again by history to be anything but loving.
So, odd though it is, I will see in the manger tonight, Alan Turing, a beloved child of God whose gifts the world desperately needed, although it loved him not. I will see in the manger tonight a whole host of LGBT Ugandans, also beloved children of God, now huddling in fear while the world around them swirls with hatred. And there, in between Alan and these Ugandans, I will see Jesus, keeping their company and promising to risk his life for their well being … BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT HE WAS BORN TO DO. Merry Christmas.
Glad you mentioned Alan Turing. As a person of faith who is deeply influenced by a scientific worldview, I believe he had so much to offer, not only to the scientific/technical/computer science part of our world, but also as is a witness to the importance of change in our culture today to embrace people of all orientations. Nice piece, David.
Your Christmas reflections, David, open the mind and soul to a host of seemingly incompatible images, memories, horrors that are just there around us in the world. But without your blog I would not have noticed what you point out: the royal decree by the Queen and the homophobic madness that has gripped one of her majesty’s commonwealth nations. Will the people of Uganda get it or even care? What will the Archbishop of Canterbury say to the faithful Anglicans of Uganda? Lee Snook
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