This I Believe (For NPR Radio Series)
Theological Mentors (Index to Series)
History of American Liberal Theology (Gary Dorrien)
From Ben Myers’ great blog, Faith and Theology, comes 2 great series of guest posts on great theologians and why the guest poster loves them. (I did not participate. Most of the series was before my time as a blogger and most of the rest was before I discovered theology blogs per se and Levellers was focusing exclusively on religious social criticism or the intersection between faith and politics.) They are so good that I am including links here so that others can read them. For the Love of God, I. For the Love of God, 2.
From the same blog, see the list of Kim Fabricius’ great guest posts, Propositions by Kim Fabricius.
More of these to come. This index will now be linked in the page on popular series.
As we wrap up this long series, people still have questions–more than I can answer. First, let us remember that this is a discussion of church life–not questions of civil liberties in society. Those are also important. Someone could decide that the church cannot change its sexual ethics but still work to stop the discrimination in society against GLBT folks. This is a position I once held: I thought is analogous to heterosexual adulterers–you would not let them be fired from jobs for their marital problems, nor denied housing, etc. I am in favor of same-sex civil marriages–no church, synagogue, etc. is forced to recognize them. It is a matter of secular justice.
But, at the same time, churches that agree to revise their sexual ethics (as mine has) are free to marry gay or lesbian couples–whether or not the law recognizes them. One heterosexual couple in our congregation was married without a civil license–refusing the legal benefits of marriage until gay and lesbian couples can have them, too. It was a courageous stance of solidarity. Legal marriage is the right to sue one another if you get tired of each other–it has little to do with Christian marriage or Jewish marriage, etc.
Some say that Gen. 2:24 is the reason we cannot allow Christian same-sex marriages. But that verse is not a command, just an etiological rooting of the practice of marriage in creation. To turn it into a command would be to claim that every must marry. See this blog on why “order of creation” arguments fail.
Others claim that celibate singleness is the default position for Christians and that it should take a special calling to marry. But the church would have died out with such an ethic. It is true that Paul (who might have been a widower–it’s hard to see how a man who was never married could have been part of the Sanhedrin) wished for all Christians to “be as I am,” i.e., single–but that was because of his belief that the End was near and that single-minded devotion to the work of the gospel was needed. Even so, he did not command single celibacy–and, in fact, recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit.
So, what can we say about sexual ethics for the church? More than can be said here. These are some broad conclusions and not a complete sexual ethic.
- Let us begin by recognizing that the Bible does not contain any single sexual ethic. In different portions of Scripture, we have polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, and much else. By the time of Jesus, monogamy seems to be the Jewish norm, but, as African Christians would be quick to remind us, no word of condemnation is said about the polygamy of of several Old Testament “saints.” Divorce is permitted in the Torah, but condemned in very strong terms by Jesus–terms that are slightly relaxed by Paul. The Bible gives us an ethic of love–given different form in different cultural contexts. Those in the U.S. who promote a politics of “family values” based on the Bible seem never to have read the Bible. Which family values? Those of Lot volunteering his virgin daughters to be gang raped if only the men of Sodom will spare his male (and angelic) house guests the same fate? Solomon’s many wives and concubines? Abraham having children by his wife’s slavegirl–then later driving mother and son into the desert to make peace with Sarah? Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac? Tamar’s playing the prostitute with Judah in order to force him to grant her rights under levirate marriage? (Judah pronounced Tamar more righteous than he was.) The Bible does not share the Religious Right’s “Leave It to Beaver” romanticism about nuclear families.
- Human sexuality, though sharing much with that of other mammals, including a drive for procreation, is far more complex. Procreation is one purpose, but far from the only. We must reject the view of the Medieval Church that saw procreation as the only purpose that justified marital sex–which leads to condemnations of artificial birth control and masturbation–not to mention the absolutely bizarre judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas that heterosexual RAPE was less sinful than masturbation or same-sex acts because at least rape allowed the possibility of procreation!!!!!!!!
- Sex is a created good, but a human, mortal, finite good. I think we must also reject the teaching that marital sexuality is a sacrament. Yes, Paul compares marriage to the relationship of Christ and the Church, but he does not say that married SEX is like the relationship of Christ and the Church! This sexualizes God–and is far too close to the “sacred sex” of ancient fertility cults.
- Nor is sex as sacrament fair to one’s spouse: One needs to be “in the moment” with the partner, not using the partner to (weirdly) get closer to God. Sex is a good, but a human, finite good.
- Sex is a powerful human drive and most people are not given the charism for lifelong celibacy. To say, as the Church has for most of its history, that heterosexuals have the choice between celibate singleness and monogamy, but that gays or lesbians (or bisexuals or transgendered persons) must be celibate WHETHER OR NOT they have the charism or calling to do so is to add burdens that one is not willing to bear one’s self. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.
- Monogamy is hardly a perfect thing, but it is the best thing we have. If sex is to be Christian, it must be in a covenantal relationship–not some form of recreation or entertainment. We usually call this covenantal relationship “marriage” for heterosexuals. I am not particularly concerned with whether we call covenantal unions between gay or lesbian couples “marriage” or “holy unions” or whatever (a matter of debate even among gay theologians), but that we recognize and bless such covenants as places to fulfill godly callings.
- Monogamy is not perfect, but it helps prevent or reduce chances for exploitation. Bi-sexual persons, if they are Christian, are no more permitted to live lives of promiscuity than any other Christian. I suppose they may date members of either sex (we would assume such dating to be as chaste as we assume any other Christian dating would be), but in choosing a life partner, they would be expected to be faithful.
- Update: I want to avoid misunderstanding of the last point. I am NOT implying that bi-sexual persons are any more or less promiscuous (as a group) than anyone else. They are simply attracted to (certain persons of) both sexes. I do not mean to play into stereotypes about bi-sexual persons. However, I am trying to correct a misunderstanding on the part of traditionalists that any modification of the church’s traditional sexual ethic amounts to “anything goes.” Throughout this series commenters (and others emailing me) have asked, “How can you welcome and affirm bi-sexuals? Are you not allowing three-ways and promiscuity?” I am not, but I am sorry that my refutation of that error was done so clumsily as to seem to reinforce the stereotype that bi-sexual persons are any more inclined or tempted to sexual promiscuity than any of the rest of us. (The evidence seems to indicate that, if anyone is to be tagged as more promiscuous, as a group, than any other, it would be heterosexual males.)
- We must reject all sexual violence. This does not go without saying: In much of the world, marital rape is not even a legal concept. ANY sex act (as any other act) which harms or humiliates the partner is wrong. Within covenantal limits, feel free to experiment–as long as the partner is just as willing. No, must mean no, regardless of whether or not one previously said, “I do.”
- Sex leads to great vulnerability, emotionally. Covenantal arrangements do not prevent this, but do create more of a safe space for “appropriate vulnerability.” Harm is done when only one partner is so emotionally vulnerable. This happens within marriage, too. One of the many reasons promiscuity is sinful is that it teaches people to detach themselves from the sex act–to objectify it and with it, one’s partner.
- The issues around transgendered persons are difficult. Should the church encourage those who feel “trapped in the wrong body” to have sex reassignment surgery? I contend that it should–hopefully before one has married.
- Great harm is done not only to gays and lesbians, but to their heterosexual partners when misguided Christians encourage them to enter heterosexual marriages in order to be “cured” of their same-sex orientation. I have seen the shattered pieces of such marriages–including with my sister. (She would NOT believe those of us who told her that her fiance was gay. Three sons later, he left her.) The current church teaching, and so called “ex-gay” ministries, is just setting up heartbreak for spouses and children. It must stop.
- Though we reject the teaching that procreation is REQUIRED of all marriages (or same-sex unions), that Christian couples who are childless by choice are sinning, we must reinforce the view that Christian marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is more than simply for the happiness or emotional needs of the couple. Either by adoption or by making one’s home available to host others, or by some other way, any Christian marriage must serve the Kingdom of God.
For further reflection, I recommend Kim Fabricius’ Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church.
I had imagined a more richly theological end for this series, but I have run out of steam. I do hope the series has been helpful. I hope it begins rather than ends questions. I think some readers came with closed minds and just wanted to see if they could criticize–but some of them nevertheless asked important questions. I think the majority of readers, whether or not they agreed with me, did come with open minds and with a desire to stretch beyond cookie-cutter answers. That can only be good for the health of the Church.
I hope to finish the GLBT series tomorrow, although I know it will leave conversations hanging. One can only do so much.
After that, I will resume blogging on the Creation and Evolution series and the Baptist Peace and Justice Churches series. Again, my purpose is not to put down other denominations, but to counter the stereotype about Baptists by highlighting the kind of Baptists who don’t make the headlines.
I have decided (with permission) to post an article that Glen Stassen and I co-wrote on defining violence and nonviolence (originally as a chapter of a book on teaching peace in which we were the only non-Mennonite contributors).
I have been learning fascinating things lately about the relationship (pro and con) of Christianity to Western higher education and may decide to blog some about that since I have long had a fascination with the love-hate relationship between my own Baptist tradition and higher education.
I will return to my series on theological mentors soon, too.
Except where events compel otherwise, I am trying to avoid commenting on U.S. politics in the near future, not because of lack of interest (to the contrary), but because that threatened to take over this blog for awhile. As a citizen, I have a horse in this race. As one whose faith informs my politics (but who is well aware of the limits of current political realities), I know that success for “my side” will only open some doors for justice and peace (and close others?) and certainly will not inaugurate the Kingdom of God. God is not a Democrat (or a Republican) and I have to resist the temptation to think God is at least closer to the Democratic platform than that of the GOP. As a Christian, I know that the work of the church goes on regardless of who wins–but it is hard to be calm and trust in God’s providence no matter what this time because the last 8 years have been so horrible and John McCain wants to make the next ones even more disastrous. (See, even a brief mention tends to get me obsessing.) So, I am going to focus on other things in these pages as much as possible.
As promised, I have created a new page (see top of this blog) with links to the indexes of popular series–even those not finished, yet, like the GLBT series. I hope people find this useful. I have not included the Peace Blogger interviews because I gave them their own page.
Well, Gentle Readers, I knew this day would get here, but I am still not ready. I have become the father of a teenaged girl!
Yes, 13 years ago, today, Katharine (Kate) E. Westmoreland-White brought forth her firstborn daughter. She couldn’t wrap her in anything because the nurses pulled her away to clean her up (she was a mirconium baby) and Kate did not get to hold her for over an hour! Molly cried until she heard me say, stupidly, “Holy Cow, I have a daughter!” At this, apparently recognizing my voice from all those conversations I had with Kate’s belly, her unfocused eyes tried to find me and she stopped crying–briefly–to seek me out.
I have been wholly hers ever since.
Molly Katharine White, named for the famous Baptist theologian who introduced (and later married) her mother and me and for her mother and grandmother, is now 13 years old. Look out world, here she comes.
What she is, now: A child of God by both birth and new birth (She confessed Christ and was baptized last year). [For my reflections at the time of her baptism, read here and here.] The delight and exasperation of her parents. The friend and bane of her younger sister, Miriam. A brilliant scholar in middle school. A passionate advocate for the earth and for peace. A willing servant in church.
What she will be? Who knows. I don’t hold out much hope that either of my daughters will follow either their mother into pastoral ministry or my path as a theologian/philosopher–especially since we have been unable to keep earning our living at our callings. As of right now, part of Molly wants to work in the United Nations as an interpreter (she is good at languages). Another part would like to write fiction. And another part would love to work with animals in one of the biological sciences. Whatever she does, she will do well.
What she’ll always be: My little girl.
Other great events of Church History on Molly’s birthday include:
- 25 July 325 Close of the Council of Nicea which gave us the Nicene Creed and condemned the heresy of Arianism.
- 25 July 1593 King Henry IV of France, raised Protestant (Huguenot), converts to Catholicism. It was once commonly viewed, at least by Protestants, that this was a political move, but Church historians of many different persuasions are now convinced that the move was a genuine conversion of conscience. Significantly, Henry continued to protect the religious liberty of French Protestants, promulgating the Edict of Nantes that did just that in 1598.
- Alan and Steven: Please try to indicate in a clearer way when you are talking to each other and when to me. That hasn’t always been clear.
- The rules for commenting on this blog are posted to the right. Please follow them. Alan, I did not remove any of your comments. I don’t know what happened and I can’t seem to reply to your email. I am not all that tech-savvy.
- In the time I have held this blog, I have found it necessary to ban only one commenter–someone who kept up vicious attacks and tried to hijack every conversation, plus emailed me constantly under numerous different email addresses so that I had to keep finding new blocks for him. No one else has been like that.
- I welcome criticism. I learn from my critics. It’s no secret that I find D.R. Randle to be annoying, but he sometimes brings up good points that I need to address. For instance, in one of the recent GLBT posts, he pointed to a possible inconsistency in the way that I appeal to tradition: I appeal to the witness of the early church to support my view that Jesus demands all Christians to be nonviolent. But, says D.R., I ignore the witness of the early church on “homosexuality.” This is true and I need to say why the difference.
- 1) My ultimate authority in matters of both doctrine and ethics is neither the letter of Scripture, nor church tradition, but Jesus Christ. In the words of the Barmen Confession (when something is right, I’ll quote it), “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Holy Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ and mediates that Living Word. Tradition is useful as a guide to interpretation, but can always be wrong.
- 2) Nonviolence is the WAY for Christians throughout the New Testament as well as throughout the early church. There are only 3 texts in the NT, two of them fragments of verses that have translation issues, that have negative judgments on (at least) some same-sex actions. In the only developed passage with a theological context (Rom. 1), no command is given and the main point is the sinfulness of everyone and the inability of any to boast in themselves. Either Jesus gave an ambiguously positive word for gays and lesbians (Matt 19) or said nothing on the topic at all. Either way, unlike nonviolence, this is not a central concern of Christian discipleship, never mind a unified witness of the New Testament.
- 3) I am suspicious of the approach to sexuality taken by the early church altogether because, influenced by Platonic philosophy and Gnostic asceticism, the post-Apostolic church soon developed very anti-body and anti-sex views that contrast with the testimony of Scripture, the goodness of creation, and the full, embodied humanity of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Word of God. Thus, I approach the early church testimony on “homosexuality” with far more suspicion than I do it’s testimony on war. This could be bias on my part.
- D. R. Randle also asks a good question about the data on violence against GLBT persons. For the stats on the violence and persecution suffered by gay youth in U.S. schools, see this report by Human Rights Watch from May 2001 entitled “Hatred in the Hallways.” In 2006 (the most recent year for which there is data), the FBI reported that hate crimes against gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals, and transgendered persons made up 16% of all hate crimes in the U.S.–up from 14% in ’05. More data on hate crimes against GLBT persons can be found here. Despite gains in some states, legal discrimination in many areas (employment, housing, marriage, adoption, healthcare benefits, etc.) is still widespread throughout the U.S. The suicide rate for GLBT teens is 33%, 4 times that of heterosexual youth (which is already too high)–and it is higher for youth who come from conservative religious homes and churches. I don’t have documentation on the churches or clergy who are picketed, but it is more than Westboro BC of Topeka. I know that when Belmont Baptist Church in Nashville called an out lesbian as pastor, they faced daily pickets and stone throwing for weeks on end. I also know that when students attempted to form a gay-straight alliance in a local highschool in Bowling Green, KY 2 years back, the pastor of a local church led protests and one of the deacons was quoted in the paper as threatening to burn the school “when only the queer group is inside.” So, D.R., I stand by my claim that solidarity with GLBT persons is NOT conformity to the dominant culture.
- A final good point made by Randle: The Scripture calls us not only to be in solidarity with the marginalized, but to proclaim/demonstrate God’s holiness. True enough, but I have been at pains to show that Jesus transforms the meaning of “holiness” from concern about purity matters to compassionate justice. Holiness as “taste not, touch not” was the way championed by the Pharisee party. The Jesus community, instead, practiced compassionate justice for the outcast.
- If I don’t reply to your comments, I still read them. But all conversations must come to an end. The post on a single sexual ethic for everyone will be posted before the end of this weekend and bring this series to a close.
- In the end, some will never be convinced. I do not expect the Body of Christ to be unified on this subject in my lifetime. So, how can we be faithful to the gospel as we understand it, follow Jesus’ Johannine prayer that we may be one “as I and the Father are one,” instead of splitting every major denomination, and respect as sisters and brothers those with whom we strongly disagree?
A Bibliography for Further Study:
There are far too many books on this subject to read them all. I highlight ones that have been helpful to me. In an attempt at fairness, I will include a list of the best “NOT affirming” books at the end of this post.
I. Anthologies that Cover Diverse Views:
Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Musser, eds., Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality. (Abingdon Press, 1994). (Most of those in this book are participants in the debate within the United Methodist Church.)
Michael A. King, ed., Stumbling Toward a Genuine Conversation on Homosexuality (Cascadia Publishing House, 200&). Participants represent the debate within the Mennonite Church, USA.
Timothy Bradshaw,ed., The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church. (Eerdmans, 2003).
Dan O. Via and Robert A. J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. (Augsburg-Fortress, 2003). A debate between two well-known NT profs, with Via arguing for the revisionist/inclusive view and Gagnon arguing for the traditionalist/exclusivist view.
II. Revisionist Views:
A. Biblical Arguments:
Alice Ogden Bells and Terry Hufford, Science, Scripture, and Homosexuality (Pilgrim Press, 2002). A collaborative effort between a biologist and a biblical scholar.
Jack B. Rogers, Jr., Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006). Rogers is an evangelical theologian (formerly prof. of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary; later president of San Francisco Theological Seminary; still later, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA) who describes his journey from the traditional to a revisionist view.
Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for Christian Churches (Augsburg-Fortress, 1999). More than most revisionist collections, this anthology contains several essays by prominent evangelicals including Ken Sehested, Lewis B. Smedes, Peggy Campolo, and others.
Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality. (Augsburg-Fortress, 1983). Although, I now see that Scroggs overstated his case on Romans 1, this was the first book on this topic to be a major help to me. Scroggs’ basic argument is that the NT condemnations of same-sex behavior have a different focus than our current debate and, thus, are being misused in most of the debates. I think that broad argument still stands.
Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response, revised and updated edition. (HarperOne, 1994). Significantly stronger than the first edition. When the first edition was published in 1978, it was almost the only revisionist book from a Christian perspective, and definitely the first written by evangelicals. (Later, Mollenkott herself came out as lesbian, terrified that her friend, Letha would reject her as her home congregation had.) The original edition was written before the dominance of the Religious Right in North American evangelicalism–the book got a somewhat positive review in Christianity Today. (The CT review did not accept the thesis, but recommended it as a conversation starter in all churches!)
John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 4th edition. (Beacon Press, 1993). When published in 1976, this was one of the first studies of its kind–possibly the first revisionist study in English by a Catholic priest. This was the book that converted one of my heroes (and a deeply biblical Christian), Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S. J., to a revisionist view. In 1987, Fr. McNeill was thrown out of the Society of Jesus for refusing to stop ministering to gays and lesbians. Later, he was thrown out of the priesthood, despite having remained faithful to his vows of celibacy.
B. Testimonies from GLBT Christians:
Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. (Plume Books, 1995). Mel White began as a member of the Religious Right. A ghostwriter and film maker for Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell (his “autobiography”), Pat Robertson, and a speechwriter for Oliver North! He worked for years to be “cured” of his gayness (and save his marriage), but eventually had to admit he was always going to be gay. He also came to a different view of Christianity. Today, White is the founder of Soulforce, an organization which uses nonviolent direct action to confront Religious Right and evangelical churches and leaders with the harm they do to gay and lesbian Christians. (In recommending the book, I am not necessarily agreeing with all of the tactics of Soulforce.)
Michael Glaser, Uncommon Calling: A Gay Christian’s Struggle to Serve the Church. (Westminster/John Knox, 1994).
Gary David Comstock, A Whosoever Church: Welcoming Lesbians and Gay Men into African-American Congregations. (Westminster/John Knox, 2001).
III. Best Books from the “Not Affirming” Perspective
Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but NOT Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998). Written by a Canadian Baptist theologian and ethicist who died unexpectedly. The hardest part for me with this book is that I support Grenz’ wider views on sexual ethics–which are so much more Christian than much of what is sold as “orthodoxy.”
Thomas B. Schmidt, Straight & Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. (InterVarsity Press, 1995).
Marion L. Soards, Scripture and Homosexuality: Biblical Authority and the Church Today. (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995). Written by a former Southern Baptist who became a Presbyterian to escape fundamentalism, but still sees the revisionist/inclusivist view as a threat to the health of the church.
Paul A. Mickey, Of Sacred Worth. (Abingdon Press, 1991). Argues against the Religious Right’s singling out of gays and lesbians for persecution, but also against revisionism on ordination or same-sex marriage.
More could be added from all perspectives. This is the tip of the iceberg where this literature is concerned.
See also the books recommended or cited in earlier posts in this series.
In the second post in this series, I gave some guidelines for the use of Scripture in Christian ethics–a beginning, but not an ending. I have written several articles on this topic (and reviewed more books on hermeneutics, biblical authority, etc. than I could count in a day) and may one day write a book on the topic. But, for our purposes (and to help bring this series to a long overdue close), I will try to draw out the similarities I see between this debate and the 19th C. debate over slavery–and the first Century debate over including Gentiles in the Church without circumcision and without requiring adherence to Levitical purity laws (see esp. Acts 10).
- In the 19th C., almost all the actual texts of Scripture were on the pro-slavery side of the debate–the morally wrong side. The abolitionists could and did argue that biblical slavery was not race-based–and try to argue against the racist use of the story in Genesis of Noah’s cursing of Ham and his son Canaan which slaveholders (mis)used to justify singling out Africans for perpetual chattel slavery. They could argue that the Exodus and the liberating work of Jesus undermined slavery. They could point to Paul’s attempt to persuade Philemon to free Onesimus. But there are no actual statements claiming that slavery is always and everywhere wrong. From Genesis to Revelation, the owning of some humans by others is assumed.
- This was the first crisis of biblical authority in U.S. Christianity. Modern biblical criticism that began mostly in Germany in the 19th C. barely penetrated the awareness of U.S. seminaries until after the Civil War–certainly not as a widespread phenomenon. But slavery was another matter–as it was earlier in the British empire. The moral high ground was with the abolitionists–but the letter of the biblical text was with the slaveholders.
- The debate over slavery and biblical interpretation has often been compared to the debate over the equality of the sexes and women’s roles in church, home, and society. (See, e.g.,Willard M. Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation [Herald Press, 1983].) And there ARE similarities. In the New Testament, for example, the biblical texts which are used to support the subordination of women in church, home, and society are usually the very same texts which were used to support slavery!
- But there are also strong differences which those who are egalitarians regarding women and men, but not affirming of GLBT persons (folk like Catherine Clark Kroeger, David P. Gushee, Ronald Sider, Richard Hays, the late Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, etc.) point out with some frequency: In the case of women’s equality with men, there are also strong texts that clearly support egalitarianism whereas, at best, this is ambiguous regarding both slavery and GLBT folk.
- In both the 19th C. debate over slavery, and the current debate over “homosexuality,” the traditionalists employ a “flat Bible” hermeneutic which claims to place all direct commands on the same level unless they have been specifically repealed. (In practice, the literalism is far more selective and piecemeal, with little guiding it accept the biases of the traditional culture.)
- In both debates, the traditionalists seem to use a hermeneutic of “control,” even of domination. Abolitionists and inclusivists, instead, are guided by solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.
Can we find a new path? I want to argue that it matters not only HOW we read Scripture, but with WHOM. Reading Scripture with the poor is different from reading with bankers and Wall Street day traders. If white Christians had been reading their Bibles with Black Christians during segregation, could white churches have continued to support it? (The same could be asked of white Christians in South Africa under apartheid.) Reading Johannine texts about “the Jews” is different once one has celebrated a Seder meal with Holocaust survivors. Reading divine promises to Israel concerning the Land sound different when read with Palestinian Christians whose families have been Christian since the first C. and whose homes and farms were lost in 1948–or plowed under more recently to make room for THE WALL. Likewise, I began to change my views on “homosexuality” when some Christian friends I had known for years “came out” to me as gay and when I began reading the handful of texts in Scripture used to justify exclusion in the presence of these friends–some of whom can never go back to their home churches or even their biological families since coming out of the closet. Some have lost jobs, been falsely accused of child abuse, been denied access to partners in critical care units in the hospital (reserved for “family members,”), had children taken from them as “unfit parents,” lost housing, been denied the right to adopt, received hate mail or death threats–and so much more.
A clue from Acts 10. Peter is given a vision of animals that are ritually unclean and told to rise, kill, and eat. He refuses, keeping the dietary laws (kosher) of Judaism, as he has done all his life. After the vision, he is summoned to the house of a Gentile (a god-fearer, near-convert, who had gone so far as to build a synagogue and had a good repute from the entire Jewish community), an occupying Roman soldier named Cornelius. It was considered taboo even to enter the house of a Gentile (but Peter, following Jesus, had already begun to question such purity concerns–he is staying in the house of Simon the tanner–and tanners were considered unclean because they handled dead animals), but Peter does it. Cornelius is converted in the middle of Peter’s sermon and the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles (they speak in tongues as proof)–without waiting for circumcision or anything. So, Peter figures he might as well baptize them since they ALREADY HAVE the Holy Spirit.
He is called before the Jerusalem council to answer for his actions and says, in effect, “Yeah, I know what the Bible (Moses) says, but I tell you I saw these perver–er, I mean Gentiles, receive the Holy Spirit–the same as we did!”
The decision of the early church to include Gentiles without requiring circumcision, as people from Ken Sehested to Jeffrey Siker have argued, should be a major clue to how the contemporary church should welcome gay and lesbian Christians–without adding burdens by demanding a higher sexual ethic (mandatory celibacy) of them than we do for heterosexuals. The risk those early Jewish Christians took in deliberately setting aside the clear word of Scripture for the demands of the gospel was no less than we face today regarding GLBT folk.
My next post will conclude this series with some suggestions on distinguishing between civil issues and issues for the church and suggestions for a single standard sexual ethic for all of us.
I have mentioned the late H. Richard Niebuhr’s dictum for moral discernment that, before asking the question, “What must I/we do?” we should ask “What is going on?” In my mentor, Glen Stassen’s lectures on ethical method (and, no, I am not saying that Glen agrees with my conclusions on “homosexuality;” When last we discussed this issue, which is not a frequent topic between us, he held to a “welcoming, but NOT affirming” position and may do so still. But it was Stassen who alerted me to the Manchester U. dissertation on Matt. 19:11-12 and he SEEMED to be reconsidering based on this–or at least open to doing so), he draws attention to the perception of the situation that precedes and informs our moral reasoning (biblical interpretation, etc.). Certain “critical variables” (like variables in an algebra problem) have major influences as to how we perceive any given moral situation. We have already talked about the variable of differing loyalties and interests that we bring to bear: Richard B. Hays’ loyalty to his deceased gay friend and that friend’s rejection of pro-gay Christian arguments; loyalties to certain understandings of biblical authority or certain approaches to biblical texts; others have loyalties to gay relatives or friends or interests for or against changes in the church’s moral stance.
Another critical variable in perceiving the situation we face with “the issue” of “homosexuality,” (and, once more, I understand why gay or lesbian people don’t want to be treated as an abstract “issue” and apologize) is the threat that is posed or that people perceive. For example, if we were talking about capital punishment/the death penalty, one could easily see that if someone were threatened by the idea that innocent people might accidentally be executed, such a person would perceive the issue very differently than someone who is threatened by the rate of violent crime.
In the case of sexual ethics and the church (with special reference to GLBT persons), some see a threat to the (heterosexual and nuclear) family. Any redefinition of “family” by either church or society, we are told by many, will weaken the family, lead to more divorces and children raised by one parent only with a knock-on series of ills for society. It may surprise some of my more conservative critics, but I also see the nuclear family as threatened in our culture: I just don’t think gay or lesbian couples have much to do with the real threats. What are some of the real threats to (heterosexual, nuclear) family life? How about the fact that we live in a culture which teaches us to commodify everything and treat all people and values as “market values,” and thus to use even our intimate loved ones in a utilitarian fashion? All day long our consumer culture teaches us to ask, “What’s in it for me?” and far too often this carries over, usually unconsciously, to our home lives.
Or take the threat that economic strains in a globalized capitalism place on families: Even in middle or upper-middle class families, there is the threat of having one’s job outsourced at any time to cheaper labor elsewhere in the world. To keep that from happening, the 40 hour work week has been replaced by 50-60 hours, with work brought home and less time with spouses and kids–and more stress when interacting with them. If one is poor or working in a job without health benefits and has a sick kid, the strains become worse. In periods of heavy unemployment or economic insecurity, the divorce rate soars–as do the rates of spouse and child abuse. (Country music, as the music of the white working classes, is filled with songs of cheating and broken homes–because these songs reflect the strains that impact the working classes first!)
Or take the “Hollywood” obsession with “celebrities” who cannot seem to commit to any relationship for more than 20 minutes. The glamorization of their empty lives of self-indulgence is a huge threat to the nuclear family.
Others see the threat concerning GLBT inclusion to be a threat to the church’s faithful discipleship. I can understand this: Throughout most of its history the church has been profoundly unfaithful to Christ in one dimension or another–with some periods shockingly so. I know that one of the reasons it took me 10 years to come to a welcoming and affirming view of GLBT persons in the church was that I didn’t want to jump on any faddish bandwagons.
There are real risks here. But I think the greater threat to the church’s integrity is its failure to look with compassion and identify with the outcast and the marginalized. If we place concerns about purity ahead of matters of compassion for the outcast and ahead of dignity for all people, we will be far more unfaithful than if we risk changing the church’s sexual ethic in this area and turn out to mistake God’s will. When I stand before the Last Judge, I would rather be able to say that I erred (if I did) on the side of standing with the marginalized than that I erred on the side of purity.
The loyalties and interests and threat dimensions are joined by the critical variable of one’s attitude toward social change. During the Civil Rights era, some people who were theoretically strong for racial justice were nevertheless strongly opposed to the Movement–because they believed social change should be slow and ordered and come through calm deliberation of laws or customs, not from the agitation of a mass movement. They did not share Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of the now.” One can easily make the analogy regarding current attempts to change laws allowing same-sex civil marriages in the U.S.–and the way this spills over into electoral contests where the main issues seem to be other matters.
(After this series is over, I need to blog more extensively about ethical method.)
As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into English a few years later. So, the idea of someone with a sexual orientation that is primarily directed to their own sex (as opposed to same-sex acts) is a modern concept.
Freud believed it was a neurosis caused by an overprotective or dominant mother and/or an absent or abusive father. In the 1950s, especially, psychologists blamed mothers if their children were gay or lesbian. Psychologists and psychiatrists regularly used electro-shock therapy to “cure” gays and lesbians. They also used lobotomies and “aversion therapy,” all of which would now be considered torture. In 1973, the American Psychological Association dropped homosexuality from its lists of neuroses and psychosis and the American Psychiatric Association followed soon after.
What changed? Not the political culture. The gay rights movement had not yet emerged until a little later in the decade of the 1970s (immediately leading to the anti-gay “crusade” of former Mouseketeer and orange-juice saleswoman, Anita Bryant!). What changed was the groundbreaking study of human sexuality by Alfred Kinsey and the institute he founded. Kinsey discovered that few of us are completely heterosexual (ONLY attracted to the opposite sex) or completely homosexual (ONLY attracted to our own sex). Rather, most of us are dominantly heterosexual or homosexual. Kinsey also discovered that, although the persecution of homosexuals by church and society often leads to attendant neuroses, there is no neurosis or psychosis in the condition itself. That is still the conclusion of almost all psychologists and psychiatrists, and is reflected in their Diagnostic and Statistics Manual.
UPDATE: In the comments, Daniel Schweissing (Haitianministries), corrects this statement slightly. I accept it as a friendly correction and, since some readers never read the comments, reproduce it here:
While Kinsey’s groundbreaking study was undoubtedly influential in the decision of the APA, et al. to change their views on homosexuality, politics also played an important role. Gay theologian Robert Goss, in his book _Jesus Acted Up_ (Harper San Francisco, 1993 –pp.44-45), documents how gay and lesbian activists demonstrated at and disrupted a number of psychiatric and medical conferences, beginning as early as 1968 in attempt to convince them to change their views. This, in part, is one of the reasons why many conservative Christians continue to reject the professional opinions of such groups in regards to homosexuality. A better reading of this change in thinking might be that the political pressure from gay and lesbian activists forced the APA, et al. to take studies such as Kinsey’s more seriously.
One often hears conservative preachers claim that “homosexuality is only found in human beings,” and that it’s claimed non-appearance in animals is proof that it is unnatural and sinful. The claim is false as anyone who has spent time around animals will tell you. In some species, like dolphins and dogs, the majority of the males will mount anything that holds still! (Also, see what penguins are up to here!)In species that mate for life, a small percentage form same-sex pairings. I have personally observed this in red-shouldered hawks–with two male hawks actually building a nest together! This is always a small minority or the species in question would not survive. But it happens. Human sexuality is enough different from animal sexuality that this point is of limited value, but I had to refute an oft-made, but false, claim.
Among humans, approximately 90% of us are dominantly heterosexual in orientation. About 5% are dominantly homosexual in orientation. 5% or less are bi-sexual or nearly equally attracted to members of both sexes.
Studies of the causes of homosexuality have been few and inconclusive. Several of the studies have either been poorly designed or given inconclusive evidence or used too small a sampling, etc.
There have been studies of monozygotic male twins which have shown that if one twin is gay, the other is gay 50% of the time. This has proven to be the case even when the twins were separated at birth and raised in very different environments. This does not answer the question of causation, but it does indicate something not-chosen and not environmental.
There have been studies in brain size and chemistry which purport to show differences in the brains of gay men and straight men.
In the mid-’90s, studies of birth order found that the more male children a woman had, the more likely that her last male child would be gay. The hypothesis is that her body treated the male child as a foreign object and that, over time and with many children, the mother’s body introduced chemicals to change the sex to female–and sometimes got a gay male child, instead. The study was suggestive, but far from conclusive.
The most profitable field of research for causes is genetic. However, many gay and lesbian people fear research in this area, because they fear that parents will either abort or attempt genetic manipulation in utero to prevent having gay children. (The fundamentalist president of my once-great alma mater, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., opined on his radio show that if geneticist discovered a “gay gene,” it would be a Christian responsibility to be screened and to have corrective procedures in utero. Way to channel the Nazi doctors there, Al!)
No “gay gene” has been isolated, but the human genome mapping project has suggested promising areas of research. The general “consensus” (to the extent there is one) in the field is that homosexual orientation is probably caused by a variety of genetic and hormonal causes prior to birth and to some environmental factors shortly after birth. The only real consensus is that dominant sexual orientation is set by age 5 and not really alterable after that.
The scientific evidence (including recent studies on rats!) is found here.
Note on transgendered persons: Transgendered persons have a different gender identity than their outward biology at birth. Whereas gay men identify as male and lesbian women identify as female, but are just oriented to their own sex, transgendered persons feel “trapped in the wrong body.” We don’t know the causes of this, either, although they may be partly biological. A rare medical phenomenon is someone who is born with both male and female genitalia. They are arbitrarily assigned one sex or the other and “corrective” surgery is usually performed shortly after birth. This suggests that transgendered persons also have some biochemical reason or genetic reason for identify with the other sex, no matter their outward primary and secondary sex characteristics. Sometimes such persons choose sex reassignment surgery to finally find peace by no longer feeling “trapped in the wrong body.”
For more information on transgendered persons and the church, by the only Christian transgendered person I know, see here. That is the website of Rev. Elise Elrod (formerly Ronnie Elrod), who speaks on bias, one-thing thinking (reducing people to one feature), and acceptance.
Now, why this interest in causes? Because moral responsibility usually implies choice; ought implies can. But, this is not always the case. Many like to compare same-sex sexual orientation to alcoholism or to violence. I may have a predisposition to violence–it does not justify my hitting anyone when I am angry. I may be predisposed to alcoholism, but the conclusion would be that I should not drink (or if already addicted, seek help), not that alcoholism is “right for me” and I should pursue it.
This is what I meant above by saying that science itself provides no moral guidelines. However, the relevant question to ask those who argue that “homosexual orientation is not chosen, but the behavior and can be changed,” is whether or not same-sex sexual orientation is really analogous to alcoholism or violence. It seems to me that the conclusion of psychologists and psychiatrists that “homosexuality” is not itself a neurosis or psychosis rules out too close a similarity with alcoholism or violence.
Given the constraints in which most gays or lesbians live in our society, persecuted and outcast, subject to job loss or housing discrimination, often rejected by church and family, one would be very surprised NOT to find many gays and lesbians who have accompanying psycho-social problems. But we find such problems in heterosexuals, too. And the amazing thing is that we also find gay and lesbian Christians who lead lives of deep holiness. The ones I know personally are much better Christians than I am.
These things lead me to believe that same-sex sexual orientation is not a flaw, but simply a variation in nature, in God’s created order–like left-handedness. By itself, it is no more or less sinful than heterosexuality.