Levellers

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

GLBT Persons in the Church: Today’s Gentile Inclusion?

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.

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July 24, 2008 Posted by | GLBT issues | 9 Comments

GLBT Persons in Church: The Case For Full Inclusion– Identifying Threats

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.)

July 24, 2008 Posted by | ethics, GLBT issues, homosexuality | 1 Comment