Of all the icons Brother Robert has created, his icon of Harvey Milk has drawn the most fire. The majority of the icon’s critics would describe themselves as devout Christians, basing their condemnations on what they see as Christian doctrine. It might seem strange, then, when Brother Robert says that he painted this icon precisely because of the Gospel values on which he bases his life as a Franciscan.
A year ago the world was startled when Pope Francis asked reporters, “Who am I to judge?” when they questioned him about gay priests in the Catholic Church. His words merely echoed those of Christ in Luke’s Gospel, “Be merciful, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you shall not be judged; do not condemn, and you shall not be condemned.” [Luke 6:36-37]
Harvey Milk made no secret of his homosexuality. He was elected to the San Francisco city council by a wide spectrum of voters the political establishment had neglected. Right after his election he wrote a will and testament in which he acknowledged that he had now become an easy target for violence, but that he intended to accept that danger in order to work for the welfare of those on society’s margins. Every day, when he left the safety of his home, he accepted this risk anew. On November 27, 1978, he died at the hands of a pious Roman Catholic assassin.
Regardless of his commitment to God’s poor and the price he was willing to pay for that commitment, many Christians are unwilling to forgive Harvey Milk’s sexual orientation. His icon disturbs them deeply. The hundreds of thousands of icons of Saints Constantine and Helena, on the other hand, raise no eyebrows, even though Constantine once arranged the murders of his wife Fausta and his son Crispus, with the encouragement of Helena, his mother. These murders were not spontaneous acts of passion, but deliberate choices made for political expediency. Because he and his mother brought the Church great political advantages, no mention is made of their murderous pasts.
It is a dangerous thing to presume to look into other people’s hearts and judge them as sinners. If this is true of murderers, it is even truer of those whose emotional or sexual lives we do not understand. The Jewish Scriptures make negative references to homosexuality, as do some letters attributed to St. Paul. Modern scholars debate what these passages actually mean. There was a time when Christians thought epilepsy was demon-possession, based on their reading of the Bible. There was a time when it was heresy to believe the earth revolved around the sun.
When Christ commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them, he then described the love he meant: “Greater love than this no one has, that one lay down his life for his friends.” [John 15:13] The Harvey Milk icon holds up this love as the distinguishing mark of Christian holiness.