Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Round-up: News on Iraq, War, & Peace

Yesterday, legal experts testified before Congress, saying that Congress DOES have the authority to stop the Iraq war. So, call, email, write your Congressperson and Senators and demand that they do so!

GOP leaders now fear that the war in Iraq could hurt Republicans for many years to come. This explains why GOP Senators cannot decide which non-binding resolution to support–since they want to seem loyal to the president and the troops and yet distance themselves from the president at the same time. (Democrats had similar problems following 9/11. No matter how disastrous Bush’s policies appeared to them, they knew that disagreement looked unpatriotic. That bind hurt them in 2002 and 2004, until opposition to the war became overwhelming.)
This is also why Republicans’ best hope for the White House in 2008 may be Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), decorated Vietnam Vet, conservative on both abortion and fiscal policies, but the fiercest GOP critic of the war. He could probably beat Hillary since she is so wishy-washy on the war, the biggest issue of our time. No other GOP candidate so far could beat ANYONE on the Democratic side.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), has introduced legislation for a phased withdrawal from Iraq that would have all U.S. troops out by March 2008. That is much less radical than the 6 month withdrawal proposed by Reps. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA), Maxine Waters (D-CA), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), but it might have a better chance of getting approval by both houses of congress–perhaps even in large enough numbers to override a veto. It also strengthens Obama’s credentials with peace voters since it is now one of the strongest positions by a Democratic political candidate: Sens. Clinton(D-NY) and Biden (D-NJ) have only proposed capping troop levels with no timetable for withdrawal; Former Sen. Edwards (D-NC) has proposed an immediate withdrawal of 500,000 troops, but has set no deadline for the remainder. Two proposals by Dem. candidates do go further: Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) wants a quick phased withdrawal that gets all troops out by the end of 2007. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has proposed a 6-month withdrawal similar to the Woolsey plan, but that is coupled with actions for a regional peace.

Meanwhile, Europeans believe Bush is planning to invade Iran. I say they have good reason for such fears. See the arguments for this view here, here, and here. I am especially persuaded by the reasoning of Scott Ritter, who writes the article in the last link. Ritter, you may remember, is the highly decorated U.S. Marine, a veteran of the first Gulf War, who was head of weapons inspections under the Clinton admin. and who completely poked holes in the U.S. case for invading Iraq this time around. The media teamed up with the Bush admin. to try to discredit Ritter, but everything he said has proven correct. We should listen to him now. (And he’d make a great National Security Advisor for any Democratic president who wants a cabinet different from the usual hacks.)

Congressional Switchboard: 1-800-839-5276 or 202-224-3121. Call and demand an exit from Iraq. Call every day until Congress does something.

January 31, 2007 Posted by | Iraq, just peacemaking, U.S. politics | 6 Comments

GLBT Persons in Church: Case for Full Inclusion, 5

We come to two texts in Leviticus:

Lev. 18: 22, You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; that is an abomination.

Lev. 20:13, If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Well, that seems straightforward enough. There are no translation issues. The forbidden practice seems very clear: a ban on male-on-male anal sex. Since the prohibition is given twice in Leviticus with the second using nearly the same formulation, but expanded, it is likely that the second law was intended to clear up any confusion in the first formulation: Both partners are considered to have transgressed, not just the one penetrating or the one penetrated, and their punishment (death) is spelled out and there is an assurance that no blood-guilt attaches to executing the transgressors.

What is not clear from just reading these texts in isolation is the reasoning. The verses as they stand leave so many questions: Why aren’t sex acts between two women mentioned? Why the phrase “lies with a male as with a woman?” Same-sex eroticism, like heterosexual eroticism, takes many other forms than intercourse, are they also banned? If so, why weren’t they mentioned? If not, why this narrow focus on intercourse(penetration)? What does it mean to call something “an abomination?” What other actions are called by the same term? What unites them? Just what is going on that leads to these prohibitions?

Because of the nature of our source (Leviticus), which mostly lists commands without much explanation, getting trustworthy answers to the above questions is not easy. In what follows, I will present a summary of a widespread consensus among scholars (not all of whom come to the same conclusions I do about how to apply these verses, today), but the consensus is not beyond challenge. (People who speak of “the assured results of biblical scholarship,” are dealing with fantasy–at the level of those who dreamed of a “permanent Republican majority.” Today’s assured results can look very shaky tomorrow as new archeological finds, new tools or methods for considering background, etc. re-shapes the way scholars look at any texts.)

Holiness/Purity. In contemporary English, we tend to equate “holiness” with moral goodness. But that’s not how the ancient Hebrews, or many traditional societies, thought. Our two verses come from a large section in Leviticus (chaps. 17-26) called “the Holiness Code.” In addition to forbidding male-to-male intercourse, that Code outlaws heterosexual sex during a woman’s menstrual period, eating rare steaks, crossbreeding animals, child sacrifice, sex acts with animals, sowing two different kinds of seeds in the same field, wearing clothes of mixed fibres, adultery, consulting mediums, children disrespecting their parents, eating shellfish, and, for men, trimming the hair at the side of our heads or trimming our beards, as well as many other things.

What connects and/or distinguishes these different things? The concept of holiness involved a sense of awe or even fear connected with the sacred [See the classic study by Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (1926) or, more recently, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane]. It also involved the necessity of separating the sacred from the profane or ordinary. The world as God’s Creation has ORDER (see Gen. 1) and things are properly to be separated into their proper PLACE. Things which cross categories are taboo: One can eat fish and land animals, but shellfish (shrimp, lobster, etc.) crawl on the ground like land animals, but live in the sea like fish–they cross boundaries and are therefore “unclean” and must not be eaten.

The Levitical prohibitions on male/male intercourse are holiness or purity prohibitions. [See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, and Leviticus as Literature.] To call these acts “abomination” is to declare that they make one who commits them ritually impure. It is not, per se, a moral judgment since one also calls wearing clothing with mixed fibres or eating shellfish “abominations.” Ritual impurity was considered to be contagious–it “polluted” those around it. So, the death penalty for male/male intercourse was to “cleanse” the community–just as the death penalty for disobedient children did the same.

Now, over time, and especially in the ministry of Jesus, holiness/purity became redefined or refocused to have less to do with ritual purity and more with justice and morality. [See Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus; L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex; or, from an evangelical viewpoint that would not draw the same conclusions I am, Craig Blomberg’s, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners.]

A second thing may be going on in the background of Leviticus: the temptation to follow Israel’s pagan neighbors and have temple prostitution, including male temple prostitutes. To be holy was to be separate and distinct from the pagan nations–and to avoid any practices which even called to mind the practices of pagan religion. Hence the warnings against child sacrifice (specifically to the god, Molech). We know from the prophetic books (especially Ezekiel) that Israel sometimes lapsed into syncretistic religious practices which turned the worship of YHWH into something close to the surrounding fertility cults. “Abomination” is a term most often used about idolatry.

A final part of the background may be viewing sex as primarily (if not exclusively) for procreation. Women in the ancient world were not known to contribute anything to reproduction except “fertile ground.” (Only with the rise of modern science did we come to understand that women contribute as much or more to conception as men. Biblical authors all assumed that pregnancy was just men “sowing their seed” in women.) Male/male intercourse would be viewed as “wasting their seed” in “infertile ground.” This could explain why female same-sex eroticism is not even mentioned. As long as children are being produced, women’s sexuality is basically ignored in much of the ancient world, including almost all of Scripture.  The strong biblical prohibitions on adultery focus most on women because men needed to be assured their offspring were theirs–especially since ancient Hebrew thought considered immortality to be mostly a matter of having offspring and not “being forgotten.” (Thus, the practice of levirate marriage in which the childless widow is married to the closest male relative to the dead man and offspring from that union are considered the dead man’s children.)

Now, some of what is forbidden in the Holiness Code still makes sense to us today, to forbid on moral grounds: I don’t hear any voices within contemporary churches arguing for permitting child sacrifice, or bestiality, for instance. But neither do I hear any voices claiming that Christians are forbidden to wear polyester blends or crossbreed animals or eat shrimp. And few Protestant fundamentalists, at least, would condemn men who trim their beards–it would indict too many a clean-shaven evangelist! And, if some of us avoid marital sex during menstruation it has more to do with aesthetics than with either purity or morality concerns–i.e., it strikes us not so much as “bad,” as “gross.”

So, in deciding the application of these ancient laws today, we have to ask whether male/male intercourse is more like bestiality or child sacrifice (things we would still condemn) or more like eating shellfish or trimming our beards.  I will eventually argue that promiscuous male/male intercourse (and other forms of same-sex sexual intimacy) should still be condemned, as should all forms of exploitive sex.  I will, however, argue that covenantal same-sex relationships analagous to heterosexual marriage should be permitted–that forbidding them was more like forbidding consumption of shellfish than it was to forbidding bestiality or child sacrifice.  But, no matter which way we decide, how do we decide? How do we know which things in the Holiness Code should still be condemned and which should not?

Moral Law? One answer that has been given at least since John Calvin has been to divide the Old Testament Law into categories: Ritual laws, laws for running Israel’s civil society, and the moral law. In this way of thinking, Jesus abolished the ritual laws as binding on Christians, the civil laws are binding only by way of analogy in modern societies, but the moral law is still binding–we still forbid murder, and adultery, and theft.

There could be merit to this idea. But we have to notice something: Leviticus does not divide laws this way. The Holiness Code, for instance, places laws on gleaning (a way of providing for the poor), false scales, and defrauding neighbors right alongside laws about sacrifice, food laws, sabbath keeping, ritual purity, and not selling one’s daughter into prostitution.

So, the question for us, today, with our different views of sex, purity, and morality is this: Are all same-sex actions today more like murder, theft, and bestiality or are they more like eating shellfish, trimming beards, and wearing polyester blends?

To many, the answer to that question will seem obvious. I can hear the outrage that I should even ask the question. But, whatever way we answer the question, notice that we are making a judgment that brings outside criteria to the question. That is, we will not be deciding the issue for the same reasons that the writers of Leviticus did. Whether we decide to retain the ban on same-sex relations or lift it, we STILL will be using non-biblical considerations in making our judgment. Unless we adopt the entire Holiness Code without exception, we are not simply following the letter of Scripture–even if other biblical texts are among the influences on our moral decision.

I am not saying that these texts have no bearing on the contemporary questions surrounding gays in churches. Unlike the Sodom story, these texts do relate to our questions. But the way they relate may not be all that simple.

For further study: John Gammie, Holiness in Israel; “The Abomination of Leviticus: Uncleanness,” chapt. four of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, by Daniel Helminiak; “Moral Abominations,” chapt. 7 of Ethics After Babel: The Languages of Morals and Their Discontents by Jeffrey Stout. More to be added as our study progresses.

January 30, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, Hebrew Bible/O.T., homosexuality | 36 Comments

Why Are Christians So Apathetic About War and Social Injustice?

I have the next post of my series on GLBT Inclusion in the Church ready to go, but I haven’t posted it, yet. I have been concentrating on trying to do my small part to stop a war. And here’s what I find depressing: Very few people comment when I blog about war and peacemaking, but I get plenty of controversy and concern blogging about “homosexuality,”–a term which is anachronistic regarding the Bible, anyway.

This greatly disturbs me. Suppose I am wrong about wanting the church to revise its views to be more inclusive and welcoming of GLBT folks. Suppose God really does find gay couples to be sinful. Would God still think that’s where the church’s energies need to be mustered? If one takes the conservative reading every time (and I am trying to challenge some of these readings), there are, AT BEST, 7 passages in 2 Testaments condemning same-sex actions. By contrast, peacemaking is a huge biblical theme that is GREATLY NEGLECTED by our churches. Yet which topic gets more attention?

Justice for the poor is stressed on almost every biblical page from Genesis to Revelation, yet most churches are either silent on it or , at best, think the problem is one of charity rather than justice! Usury is condemned, so why aren’t Christians furious credit card and bank lending practices?

I will post my next section on GLBT Christians within a day or so–and I will get numerous comments. And when I post again on the war or on justice for the poor, I will get no comments or very few. EVEN IF (something I do not admit), conservatives are right on same-sex issues, isn’t part of being a biblical Christian putting our emphasis where the Bible puts it? Why do U.S. Christians major on the issues the Bible considers minor and ignore the ones that are absolutely central to the Bible?

I find it depressing and that is why I didn’t blog on GLBT matters this weekend. Update: This post is in no way meant to silence debate or disagreement on my posts on GLBT matters.

January 29, 2007 Posted by | discipleship | 33 Comments

U.S. Troops Cheer as Iraqi Troops Beat Suspects


Is THIS the meaning of U.S. “training” of Iraqi troops? How does this help build a democracy that respects human rights? Will the surge’s “clear and hold” tactics simply continue ethnic cleansing? If the Iraqi troops are this much a part of the sectarian violence, just HOW are more U.S. troops going to help? Are we STILL so sure that Abu Ghraib was the work of “a few bad apples?”

January 28, 2007 Posted by | human rights., just war theory | 2 Comments

Peace Escalation NOW!

Over 400,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. against the war in Iraq, today. As in previous protests, folk gathered on the National Mall, but, unlike past times, did not waste time marching near the White House–since the Official Resident has a habit of dismissing such exercises of the First Amendment as “focus groups.” Instead, they marched around the Capitol and in numerous speeches and chants let Congress know that they expect them to stop the planned surge and to bring the troops home. On Monday, hundreds of trained citizens will meet with legislators in their offices and deliver petitions, emails, letters, pictures of wounded veterant family members, etc. and demand action.

For once the Mainstream Media (MSM) covered the event instead of pretending it didn’t happen. There was still an unfortunate focus on how many celebrities were present, though. I’m here to tell you that most of the young people had no idea who Jane Fonda is, nor why she hasn’t spoken to an anti-war rally in 35 years. They didn’t travel from all over the nation, in cold weather, to star gaze at Fonda or Susan Sarandon or any of the other celebs. They came to send a message to Capitol Hill.

Wasn’t there also a counter-rally? Yep. It drew about 40 people.

Anti-war demonstrations also happened all across the nation: 1,000 people in Denver, CO; 50,000 in San Francisco; 100,000 in L.A.–even 100 people in Lousiville, KY–with many supportive honks and–unlike in previous protests against this war, very few rude hand gestures.

Favorite sign: The Rapture is Not an Exit Strategy.

The only presidential candidate to show was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who has consistently opposed this war from the beginning. “Front-runner” Hillary was in Iowa, I later learned, where her answer to a question about her support for this war was “there are no ‘do-overs’ in life” followed by get-tough language that sounded very Bush-like but criticized Bush for doing it badly. So, basically her message is she is bad enough and mean enough to be head war-monger and smart enough to do it right. Isn’t that what we heard from Kerry? I really hope she doesn’t get the Democratic nomination. We don’t need a U.S. version of Maggie Thatcher or Golda Meir. The Times of London pegs her rightly as coldly calculating and ambitious without any principles left.

I wasn’t surprised to see so many presidential hopefuls duck the peace rally, but I had hoped that former Sen. John Edwards would show up. After all, these are the people he has to convince that he has really changed since ’04.

As of now, I am REALLY hoping Kucinich is still in this race by the time of the KY primary. I won’t vote for anyone whom I don’t trust to get us out of Iraq, quickly if we are still there.

Update: Rabbi Michael Lerner and The Network of Spiritual Progressives tried to introduce a positive spiritual dimension to the rally and the march. His reflections on the successes and failures at this point can be found here. A deeply Christian spiritual approach should be evident on 16 March at the Ecumenical Christian Peace Witness in D.C. and I hope tens of thousands of Christians are making plans to be part of that. If you would like to read an ad written by Rabbi Lerner and evangelical American Baptist minister Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo on How to Stop the War, click here. To sign the ad and contribute so that it can circulate in newspapers across the U.S.A., click here. If you are already a signatory and want to make additional contributions, click here.

January 27, 2007 Posted by | peace | 1 Comment

Kucinich on Presidential Candidates & the War

For transcript, click here.

This is worth considering. Consistency and good judgment are excellent presidential qualities. Kucinich is the only presidential candidate so far who is speaking at the Peace Escalation rally tomorrow in D.C. Will any other candidate, from either major party, even be there? If they want us to show up for them, shouldn’t they show up for us? Doesn’t that matter more than money and “electability?” Don’t we the people get to decide who is and who is not “electable?”

January 26, 2007 Posted by | peace, U.S. politics | 1 Comment

Jewish Peacemakers Praise Carter

The media would have you believe that all Jewish people in the U.S. have condemned Jimmy Carter and his new book, Palestine: Peace or Apartheid. This link shows that to be false. Update: Although only a few people are pictured, the banner is from Jewish Voice for Peace, a large organization pushing for a just solution to the Palestinian-Israelis conflict. Other prominent Jewish voices that have defended Carter’s book, include Rabbi Michael Lerner,
of Beyt Tikkun synagogue. Rabbi Lerner is also the editor of Tikkun magazine, and the national coordinator of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.
Those familiar with Israeli politics will know that, although Carter’s title uses a controversial term, others in Israel itself have used the term apartheid. Like Carter, they are not claiming that Israel is racist, but that the many barriers and “Jewish only” roads and checkpoints throughout the Occupied Territories is similar to the Bantustan “homelands” under apartheid era South Africa. For instance, Shulamit Aloni, who was Israel’s Minister of Education in the government of Primee Minister Yitzak Rabin, has written an article earlier this month called, “Indeed, There is Apartheid in Israel.” For the Hebrew original, click here
and for the English translation of her article, click here and scroll down. And award-winning Israeli author Uri Davis had written a few years ago, Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within–which has sold well in Israel and outside of it, but not in the U.S.

January 24, 2007 Posted by | Israel-Palestine, Jews, Jimmy Carter, just peacemaking | 3 Comments

Project Vote Smart

If you are a U.S. citizen, you need to know about a major project to empowere citizens with more intelligent voting. Whether you are Republican, Democrat, a member of a Third Party, or registered Independent, you need to know about this. Whether you are politically liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary, or centrist/swing-vote, you should all become aware of the non-partisan Project Vote Smart. Every year, they give exhaustive profiles of every candidate in every race. They ask each candidate to fill out an exhaustive survey called the National Political Awareness Test (NPAT) so that voters can find out, in detail (not just sound-bites) where the candidates stand on every major issue. They also trace where each candidate gets his or her campaign financing, so that voters can see who supports them and who may have strings attached. For incumbents, they detail an exhaustive voting record. If special interest groups, whether conservative or liberal, have rated the candidate or office holder, they report that evaluation. They quote public statements so the weasels can’t deny with one breath what they said a breath earlier. And each year, they publish a Voter’s Self-Defense Guide.

Check them out. If you can, donate to the project so that it can continue to try to empower a healthier democracy.

January 24, 2007 Posted by | U.S. politics | Comments Off on Project Vote Smart

Drum Major Institute’s Progressive Response to SOTU

Bush’s State of the Union was, as usual, abysmal, despite now actually using the words “global climate change” after years of denying its very existence. Here is a strong progressive response from The Drum Major Institute. The DMI is a progressive think-tank named from a phrase by Martin Luther King, Jr., “If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was a drum major for justice.”

January 24, 2007 Posted by | politics, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Drum Major Institute’s Progressive Response to SOTU

Peace Escalation 1/23

There will also be local demonstrations all around the country, coordinated by United for Peace with Justice, the largest umbrella group of peacemaking organizations in the U.S. Congress will act to cut off funding for this war if the people continue to pressure them to do so–reminding them of who elected them and for whom they work.

I urge you to attend, locally or nationally if you can do so. But for those Christians who are new to mass demonstrations, I have this advice: Always create your own sign. Usually groups will mass produce signs for distribution, but if you make your own, you can be sure that it communicates what you want to say–in the spirit of Christ’s love. Even prophetic denunciation should have a different flavor from Christian groups than others. Make your sign with this in mind, “Would I mind if my picture showed up in my local paper or church paper with me holding this sign? How would I feel explaining my slogan to God?”

When Dan Trabue and I drove to New York in Feb. 2003 to join 2 million people (and over 10 million worldwide) in protesting the planned invasion of Iraq, we were glad we made our own signs. There were signs we admired, but definitely some we did not. I did not like the mass-produced sign “Draft the Bush Twins,” for instance. I do not support drafts (coerced military service) and I don’t think anyone should be punished for the sins of their parents. And, although the sign, “Killing for Peace is like F***ing for Virginity!” was funny, I was glad not to be in any picture next to the young woman holding it.

On the other hand, showing up at such rallies presents unique opportunities to bear witness for Christ–not in terms of “Do you know the Lord?” conversations, but in terms of breaking stereotypes. Because of the dominance of the Religious Right in the U.S., and especially because Pres. Bush constantly says things like “God told me to smite Saddam,” many believe that Christians are bloodthirsty and warmongering! [This is less a problem outside the U.S. where cons

January 23, 2007 Posted by | peace | 1 Comment