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

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism I: Getting Started

   We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism.  To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem.  First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture.  There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case.  This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.

Second, this is a biblical case.  Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members.  Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters.  Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon.  Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church.  But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.

For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity.  I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal:  understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.

Defining some key terms in this study: 

  • Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ.  “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.].  So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up.  “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims  that Jesus Christ makes on their lives.  It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
  • Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.”  Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study.  But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence.  For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Artsed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).  Update:  Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right.  But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc.  Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil.  Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong.  We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong.  The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism.  There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear.  Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.”  But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
  • As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion.  Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion.  Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires.  Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence.  If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.”  However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent.  Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
  • These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important.  Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children.  That is not so.  Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome.  Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car.  I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm.  So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
  • Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue.  Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent.  Nor are intentions everything:  If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence.  The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
  • Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence.  It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent.  Examples of such practices include:  strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc.  We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
  • Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence.  These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
  • Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.”  In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking.  For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter).  (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention.  See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
  • Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice).  This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles.  Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking.  I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.

I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow.  The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions:  “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.

October 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, convictions, death penalty, discipleship, ethics, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Jesus, just peacemaking, just war theory, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, theology, violence, war | 20 Comments

Creation and Evolution 2: Gen. 1:1-2:4a

The later creation story in Genesis, the Priestly account of Gen. 1:1-2:4a, is placed first in our Bibles.  It comes from the time of the Exile.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is gone–destroyed by the Assyrians–and the Southern Kingdom of Judah has seen most of its inhabitants (and all of its leaders) deported into various parts of the Babylonian empire–while peoples from other conquered nations have been moved to the Holy Land of Canaan.  The devastation upon the national psyche of the people is best seen in Psalm 137: a bitterness and grief so deep that the Psalmist actually prays at the end for people kill Babylonian babies by beating their heads against rocks. (The unknown psalmist had probably seen Babylonian soldiers do that very thing to Israelite babies!)

In the ancient world, wars on earth were thought to mirror wars in the heavens between rival gods and goddesses.  We see this, for instance, in Homer’s The Iliad, where the various gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon take sides in the war between Greece and Troy.  The usual interpretation of national defeat by a stronger army was that the invaders’ god had defeated the god of the conquered people.  This was how the Babylonians saw their conquest of Judah: Marduk, the Chief god of the Babylonians, was stronger than YHWH and had defeated YHWH, allowing Babylon to defeat Judah.  The Babylonians encouraged the captive Exiles to see things in the same way so that they would give up Yahwism (i.e., developing Israelite religion, which was growing into what is today Judaism) and give up their identity as Jews and blend in as faithful citizens of Babylonia.

As the years of the Exile dragged on, the temptation to give up and merge (as the Northern Kingdom had given up and merged earlier with Assyria) must have been tremendous.  The Priestly Creation Narrative (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) is one part of a theological resistance to that temptation. 

The Babylonians had their own Creation myth which can be read in their Scripture, the Enuma Elish.  Here, the act of creation is war.  Marduk leads the gods to kill the mother goddess Tiamat (chaos waters–sometimes pictured as a dragon). The heavens and earth are made in some versions of the story out of the body of Kingu, Tiamat’s consort, and, in other versions, out of the body of Tiamat herself.  Humans are then made from this mess to be the slaves of the gods.

Genesis 1, the Priestly creation story is a theological rebuttal to this story–and a bold one.  El (God) creates not by violence, but by simply speaking.  Order appears out of chaos as a result of God’s Word (not as a result of military imposition of order).   Everything has its place and its time.  The language used here is not that of narrative saga, as in the Gen. 2 J story, but a liturgical, almost hymnlike language (“there was an evening and a morning the first day,” etc.) .

The Hebrew terms used for the various portions of creation (and of the watery chaotic “deep” that precedes it) are chosen to be very similar to the Babylonian names for their gods and goddesses:  e.g., t’hom, “the deep,” is very close to “Tiamat.” But in the Gen. 1 account, these are not gods and goddesses or monsters, etc., but just portions of the world that God creates–or from which God creates in the case of the watery deep.  The Priestly writer(s) of Gen. 1, in a very real sense, demythologize Creation–or rather, they provide a counter myth, a truer myth. 

The categories of the created order as the Israelits knew it are created in the first three days:  Heavens and earth, Day and Night,  land, seas.  In the second three days, these are populated: Sun and Moon, stars populate the day and night; birds populate the skies/heavens; fish populate the seas; crawling animals populate the land.  

Now, there is another dimension here which must not be missed: Babylon is the origin of astrology as we know it in the West today. (Other astrological systems were created in China, etc.) To the Babylonians, who already believed that they were slaves of the gods, the sun, moon, and stars ruled over their lives.  They had no free will.  The Priestly writer of Gen. 1 denies this: The sun rules only the day–not humans.  The moon rules only the night, not humans.  And the stars? They don’t get to rule anything.  The Hebrew makes it seem like a divine afterthought, “And he also made stars.”  Poof.  Astrology has no power.  Stars are just part of God’s creation–nothing more and nothing less.  They do not determine human lives.  (Whenever I see Christians today read horoscopes–even “just for fun,” I am horrified that they would submit to this pagan ideology in place of biblical freedom. I have made it a point not to even know my zodiac sign and I stop everyone who tries to tell me what it is.  I have no time for such nonsense.)

Then, at the pinnacle of creation, God makes humans–not as slaves out of the body of some slain god or goddess, but “in the image and likeness of God.” What a bold theological claim for an exiled, conquered people to make! And, in this version, men and women (ish and isha) are made at the same time. Both are made in the image of God. Some have taken the secondary creation of woman in Gen. 2, along with the man’s naming of her, to be an implication of sex subordination. (But, for a rebuttal of such a reading, see Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. ) Even if that is the right way to read Gen. 2, by placing Gen. 1 first, the Priestly writers were emphasizing the equality of the sexes (despite the subordinate position women had in Israelite society and in its cultic life presided over by the Priestly class!)–both equally made in the image and likeness of God!

What a great message! What powerful things we must learn about God and creation from Genesis 1!  But none of those things are scientific.  The P writer did not know that the stars were suns, nor that the sun was created before the earth, etc.  The P writer did not know that the moon was a big hunk of rock torn from the earth, nor that the earth was round.  The P writer thought of the heavens or skies (“firmament”) as a big brass dome with windows for rain to come to earth.  The P writer did place the creation of animals before that of humanity, but he (they?) knew nothing of the evolution of species–nor did he/they CARE!  The interest of the biblical writers was elsewhere:  Affirming the sovereignty of God (despite the claim that God had been defeated by Marduk) over all–a sovereignty exercised in a calm, effortless, nonviolent creation.  Affirming the goodness of all creation with everything in proper order.  Affirming the uniqueness of humanity as a special creation—not because we have no biological connections to other animals, but because God’s universe creating Word has declared us “image and likeness of God.”  As such, we have nothing to fear from the investigations of astronomers, geologists, and biologists.  Atheists like Richard Dawkins can claim that Darwin disproves God, but we have no reason to agree! Darwin’s discoveries–and those of his successors–tell us about our origins from a scientific viewpoint.  But Genesis affirms the theological truth that God is behind it all and God’s providence is the real power in our lives.

November 6, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., progressive faith, science & faith, theology | 16 Comments

R.I.P. Brevard S. Childs (1924-2007)

childs.jpgI saw the sad news last night from both Jim West and Ben Myers that Brevard S. Childs (1924-2007), one of the most important Old Testament scholars the U.S. has ever produced, died Saturday.   I waited until I could find out more than just that stark notification of his death, however, before posting this brief tribute.  Dr. Childs apparently died Saturday afternoon from complications from an injury sustained in a fall in his home. He was 83.

A brief obituary is on the website of Yale Divinity School here.  Brevard Childs, Stirling Professor of Divinity at YDS from 1958-1999 was a major shaping force in post-WWII approaches to Old Testament study, especially insisting that the Hebrew Scriptures be studied by Christians as the Old Testament, a vital part of Christian Scripture.  I was only influenced by Childs second hand, both through his writings and because he had been THE most influential teacher of my teacher, Pamela J. Scalise.   To read Childs’ work was, for me, to understand viscerally that critical biblical study did NOT stand in tension with a commitment to the Church’s canon (although Childs never offered any substantive argument for the Protestant canon over the Catholic canon or the Orthodox canon). He would review the entire modern history of biblical interpretation in his commentary, but then ask the all-important question of what it meant to interpret a particular book or passage in canonical context, that is, as part of the received text that the Church confesses as Scripture, including what it’s placing (e.g., between which books) by later editors in the shape of the canon might mean for how we should read this final version of the text.

Childs’ focus on the final version of the canonical text had few followers among biblical scholars (others with a “canonical focus” like James A. Sanders or Rolf Rendtorff had different foci, with Sanders concentrating on the process by which a text became part of the canon–or various canons), but it probably did inadvertantly lead to many biblical scholars shifting from an exclusive concentration on reconstructing historical events behind the biblical text and paying more attention to the final texts themselves–though most others did this through the tools of literary theory.  Other Old Testament theologians concerned seriously with the texts as Scripture, such as Walter Brueggemann or even the evangelical Anglican John Goldingay, were more comfortable focusing on the diversity of the texts and the tensions between their various perspectives, whereas Childs’ focus was on reading the Scriptures as a unified whole. Some evangelical theologians, such as Charles J. Scalise, found Childs’ work to be a helpful bridge from biblical scholarship to doctrinal theology.

Dr. Childs’ unexpected death is a loss not only to the world of academic scholarship, but also to the church–and the church’s attempts to read the Old Testament as Scripture and shape its life together accordingly.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Obituaries | Comments Off on R.I.P. Brevard S. Childs (1924-2007)

Pro-GLBT Over-Readings of Texts

I have been blogging a series arguing for the full acceptance of GLBT persions in the church with one sexual ethic (a choice between celibacy and monogamy) for all people regardless of sexual orientation (rather than the current double standard which gives heterosexuals the option of monogamous marriage but demands that gays & lesbians either be celibate or be “cured” and enter heterosexual marriages). In the progress of the argument so far, I have claimed that the Sodom story is about attempted male-on-male gang rape and inhospitality, not about loving same-sex monogamy and that the bans on male/male sex in Leviticus (which literally only indicate a ban on male-to-male anal sex) are dominated by purity and idolatry concerns. In both instances, I am claiming that the traditional readings of these passages read too much into them.

However, it would be dishonest to see such over-reading as purely a problem with traditionalists on this issue. Pro-GLBT revisionists have also been known to over-read some passages and I thought I should mention this briefly before the next major installment of my series.  There are two major examples of pro-glbt over readings in the Hebrew Scriptures:

  1. The relationship of Jonathan & David. In Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times, the author tries to argue that King David and Saul’s only son had a gay love affair. The King James Version says that David loved Jonathan “passing the love of women,” (2 Sam. 1:26) and in the stories of David’s long march to Saul’s throne, David and Jonathan repeatedly swear “covenants of love.” Sometimes they kiss. But this doesn’t really show what Horner and others hope it will: (a) In the Middle East and Africa (even today) and in much of the ancient world, male friends could kiss without it implying a romantic relationship, as women can in our culture. The kind of kiss (passionate Frenching vs. a peck on the cheek) is not described. And in cultures that are not as uptight as ours, deep male friendships can be described in terms that would set all our “gaydar” alarms going. (b) Or, the relationship may have been romantic. David’s marriages were for dynastic purposes and Jonathan may have been the one true love of his life. Even his heterosexual lusts (Abigail & Bathsheba) could simply mean that David was bi-sexual. But we don’t have enough information from our sources to be sure. (c) If the relationship between Jonathan & David WAS sexual, by itself this would say nothing about the morality of the relationship. There is no editorial comment in favor or against, but we know that David engaged in many actions that others (e.g., Nathan the prophet) condemned. Without explicit textual approval, this relationship, whatever its sexual nature, does little to advance a revisionist/inclusive case for GLBT persons in the church.
  2. Naomi & Ruth. Horner and others have also argued that the love of the Moabite woman Ruth for her mother-in-law Naomi was a case of lesbian love. The case is even thinner, here. It is true that Ruth’s declaration of love for Naomi and vow to go with her to Israel (rather than seek a new husband in Moab) after the death of the men in the family is so passionate and so filled with overtones of covenant love that it has often been used in heterosexual wedding services with no reflection that this was a vow originally uttered between two women. Ruth’s faithfulness to the bitter Naomi is deeply moving. But there is no hint in the narrative that the relationship was ever physical–unlike the veiled references to Ruth’s seduction of Boaz at Naomi’s suggestion (to “uncover the feet” was a Hebrew euphemism for sex). So, though the plan to make Boaz fall in love with Ruth in order to become “kinsman redeemer” for both her and Naomi MAY have been completely utilitarian (for both women’s survival in a completely patriarchal society) and a cover for their deep love for each other–the text simply doesn’t say this or even hint strongly at it. Further, the editorial approval is of Ruth’s loyalty and of the actions taken to secure her marriage with Boaz (and thus become an ancestress of David). The narrator has no interest in the relationship of the women for its own sake.

Without strong editorial comments  by the biblical writers that would challenge a rule like the Levitical bans, narratives such as these can only hint that same-sex love was known in Scripture. It cannot challenge norms against same-sex relationships without explicit author/editor approval in Scripture. The most that could be said about such narratives is that they may reinforce the case that biblical condemnations of same-sex actions ARE focused on issues of purity, idolatry, and violence–not on issues of love. The positive argument for that case, however, is not greatly advanced by these passages.

February 14, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, Hebrew Bible/O.T., homosexuality | 11 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

The Sodom Story: GLBT Persons in Church, 4

Okay, for those who have not followed this series, I kindly suggest you read here, here, and here before going further.

Most contemporary biblical scholars, no matter their personal views on “homosexuality,” agree that the Sodom story (Genesis 18:16-19:38 )  has little to do with the subject.  I begin with this story because that scholarly consensus has not reached the popular church. Most of the flamboyant rhetoric against gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered persons is filled with references to this story and to God’s judgment on the city. I have lost track of the number of people who have told me that everything from 9/11 to blizzards to Hurricane Katrina and more were signs of God’s judgment because (supposedly) the U.S. is becoming more tolerant of same-sex relationships–always ending with “just like Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Why this strong connection in the popular Christian mind? Part of it comes from using the term sodomy to refer to illicit sexual behavior, usually illicit same-sex behavior. But there is no Hebrew equivalent: Nowhere in the Bible is a sexual term built off of the city-name Sodom. The term “sodomy,” was coined in the Middle Ages by Peter Damien. He wrote a book to be used by priests for setting penances in confession called The Book of Gomorrah in which he classified numerous sexual practices (some same-sex and some between opposite sexes) as “sodomy.” This elaborate categorization was expanded by St. Thomas Aquinas who condemned any sexual act in which pregnancy was not a possibility. In fact, for Thomas, even married heterosexual sex in any other position than man-on-top & woman-on-back was considered “sodomy.”   Now we see why “sodomy laws” have varied so widely in the West and in various U.S. states–because of the many different ways this term has been used since it was coined in the Middle Ages. (The Thomistic view that the ONLY valid purpose of sex was for procreation led to such bizarre moral judgments as classifying masturbation as MORE evil than heterosexual rape since the latter has at least the possibility of pregnancy!!!) [For the detailed history of this, see Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998).]

We have to set all this aside as “baggage,” in reading the Sodom story in Genesis if we are to hope to understand it correctly.

Notice in the Sodom story that the city is already under God’s judgment BEFORE the angels visit Lot. The first part of the story concerns Abraham’s attempt to protect the city–to get God to spare it if even 10 people in the city are righteous. The narrative does not tell us what “great wickedness” had so outraged God. (Never mind the issues about the wrath of God; one thorny theological issue at a time.)

Now the angels/strangers come to the city and Lot offers them hospitality–that is, he invites them to spend the night as guests in his house. The ancient world had no hotels. Travel from place to place was dangerous and difficult. Throughout the Ancient Near East, therefore, the practice developed as a moral imperative: to offer hospitality to strangers–which includes feeding them, giving them the best bed in the house, and offering them your protection. There have been several recent studies of the importance of hospitality as a moral practice in Scripture including studies by Arthur Sutherland, Luke Bretherton, Lucien Richard, John Koenig, & Christine Pohl to name only a few. [I am not claiming that all these authors would agree with me on GLBT issues. Some would and some would not. All are worth reading in order to better understand the biblical practice of hospitality.]

Then the men of the city come to do bodily harm to the strangers–inhospitality. They are clearly intent on same-sex rape. I reject revisionist readings which try to claim that the men’s desire “to know” the strangers was only a demand that Lot introduce them! No, the context clearly shows that “to know” here means “to know sexually” as when Genesis says that Adam “knew” Eve and she became pregnant. Moreover, this crowd is clearly hostile. They plan a homosexual gang rape.  But these are not “gays gone wild,” because the text of v. 4 says, “ALL the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people down to the last man, surrounded the house.” If ALL the men were “homosexual,” there would have been no marriages and families–in short, no city at all. This is not a case of 2 men in love or even a pickup for casual sex. No, this is an attempted rape and many of those involved would have to be people who normally engaged in heterosexual relations–that is, to be normally straight.

The failure to grasp this point comes because so many consider “homosexuality” to simply be chosen. But actions such as prison rapes are mostly committed by men who prefer to have sex with women in most circumstances. Gay men and lesbians do not. They are attracted to their own sex. Offering them a heterosexual substitute cannot work in such a case.

So, why the attempted gang rape, here?

In the ancient world, as in modern prison populations, male on male rape was used as a method of humiliation–to show how weak the victim was. Since in a patriarchal society anything associated with women is inferior, to treat a man as a woman by penetrating him, was/is to degrade him. There are archeological finds of bronze friezes depicting conquering armies raping the conquered armies–sometimes showing the king/emperor (with a huge phallus) anally raping the entire conquered enemy. Even military rapes of women were designed to humiliate the conquered MEN–saying to them, “you are too weak to protect your women from us.”

The men of Sodom are offering inhospitable humiliation to “the strangers/aliens in their midst,” which is considered to be an incredible social sin. The need for Lot to protect his guests under the rules of hospitality is so great that (horrifying to us–but showing the devalued status of women, then)  he offers to let the mob gang-rape his virgin daughters if they will just leave his guests in peace!! Now, setting aside our (quite justified) horror at Lot’s attempted solution, this detail makes clear that the mob was not composed of “homosexuals” as we understand the term–not composed of men whose sexual desires are oriented toward their own sex. Because, in that case, offering the daughters makes no sense. [The horror of this passage is not only in its description of a planned same-sex gang rape–condemned strongly by the text–but also in the SILENCE of the text on Lot’s “solution.” Only the fact that sexism is still such a strong feature of most churches keeps us from being horrified that the biblical author of this story says NOTHING to condemn Lot’s willingness to let his virgin daughters be gang-raped in the (male) strangers’/angels’ place.]

There is a parallel, but much less well-known, story in Judges 19 where the men of Gibeah threaten such inhospitality to a Levite. In this case, the Levite throws his concubine (whom he apparently loves from earlier details in the story) outside and she is gang-raped all night and dead in the morning. Whereupon the Levite cuts her body into pieces and sends them to the 12 tribes of Israel and they, horrified, attack and wipe out the city of Gibeah. The horrible story is given to show moral chaos “when there was no king in Israel.” (19:1). Here again, same-sex gang rape is contemplated, inhospitality to strangers is the major crime (with added issues of sexual purity for the Levite)–only this time the “bargain” of getting to gang-rape a woman instead is accepted. [And, once more, nothing is said in condemnation of the Levite for sacrificing his concubine in this way.]

In the rest of Scripture, Sodom comes to symbolize great evil–but not generally sexual evil. E.g., Ezekiel 16:49-50, “This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom, she and her daughters[i.e., surrounding villages] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”  Similar references are made throughout the prophets and in the New Testament. Only in Jude 7 is the Sin of Sodom and Gomorrah specified as sexual immorality–and even there no mention is made of same-sex actions specifically as reasons why the city was destroyed.

What do we learn from this text? Rape of any kind, heterosexual or homosexual, is evil. Along with not helping the poor, it is an example of inhospitality–grave evil.

Please note: nothing in this story shows a positive evaluation of same-sex actions under any circumstance. This text does not, in that way, advance the case I am making for full inclusion of GLBT persons in the church. All we have done is remove this text from further discussion. It is useful in reinforcing our view that same sex rapes and other forms of using sex to humiliate are wrong. If we are to evaluate the morality of loving same-sex relationships analogous to marriage, however, this text is not of any use. It does not speak to the subject.

January 19, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, Hebrew Bible/O.T., homosexuality | 21 Comments

Violence in the Hebrew Bible: One Perspective

The Miner, a fairly new blogger I just discovered, has posted some very interesting perspectives on violence in the Old Testament. They are patterned after Kim Fabricius’ famous 10 propositions series over on Ben Myers’ Faith & Theology blog. Print them out and use them as discussion starters. If you disagree, tell the Miner on his blog. You could even propose alternatives.

October 29, 2006 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., nonviolence, peace, violence | Comments Off on Violence in the Hebrew Bible: One Perspective

Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 2

Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker, pp. 6-7.

Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with Israel/Judah is broken and nullified. He looks for a new covenant that God will write on the hearts of God’s people (31:31-33). Jeremiah anticipates and informs Jesus’ own revolutionary extension of the divine covenant to the Gentiles.
Jeremiah’s call for the men of Judah to “circumcise their hearts” instead of their foreskins will inform the Apostle Paul’s judgment that Gentile Christians do not need physical circumcision to be part of God’s covenant people. (See especially the argument Paul makes to the Galatians.) Women and eunuchs cannot be physically circumcised, but they can “circumcise their hearts” through baptism. Here is a universal invitation to be included in the People of God, but also a universal challenge to faithfulness.
So what is God’s will for any people that would call themselves the People of God? According to Jeremiah, God’s people make justice and not war. In chapter 5, Jeremiah denounces the way the rich people of Judah exploit their poor neighbors. Jeremiah describes the rich of his day as “setting traps” for their fellow human beings and accuses them of having no respect for the rights of other people. He accuses the religious leaders of his day of exploiting their positions and then he declares that the majority of the people enjoy this abominable situation.
All this sounds horrifyingly contemporary and applicable to U.S. Christians. The rich steal from the poor with the help of government. Government tax giveaways to the rich hurt the poor and the common good. The rich convince the government to repeal usury laws that once limited how much interest credit card companies could charge. Then the rich convince the government to make it harder for the poor to declare bankruptcy but easier for wealthy corporations to do the same. In the name of “tort reform,” the rich convince the government to limit the amount of damages that courts can award people who have been harmed by corporations. In the ultimate insult, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that government can use “eminent domain” to take private homes and businesses NOT for highways, parks and other public use, but to sell them to big corporations to “develop.”
Meanwhile far too many church leaders support all this “reverse Robin Hood” action. Nationally famous church leaders glorify violence, promote war, call for assassination of some foreign leaders while defending other dictators with whom they are in big business, engage in the pederastic exploitation of the young and then scapegoat vulnerable populations such as minority ethnic groups, minority religions, single mothers, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups.
Yet opinion polls continue to show that U.S. Americans love their politicians and their big-name religious leaders and follow them blindly into war, dishonesty, and moral corruption. [Note: This may be changing since I wrote this in June 2005.] It is not hard to guess what Jeremiah would say to us.
Jeremiah also had much to say about exploited laborers and the unfair treatment of resident aliens. In chapters 7 and 22, Jeremiah rails against the exploitation of poor workers and resident aliens. One of King Zedekiah’s predecessors, King Jehoiakim, is denounced for exploitation of the poor by building large palaces and employing the poor at low wages to build them. No doubt Jehoiakim defended his “jobs program” by explaining that living wages would hurt competition and small businesses.
Ever since 1980, U.S. labor law has become increasingly weaker and workers’ rights ignored or undermined, along with the ability to engage in collective bargaining through labor unions. Global trade agreements like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, subordinate national labor laws to these treaties, along with using these treaties to override local environmental and workplace safety rules. In the wake of the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Pres. Bush used his power of Executive Order to suspend the law which requires that federal contracts in emergency reconstruction pay laborers the prevailing wage. Now, the government is free to give rich no-bid contracts for rebuilding to corporate cronies and exploit the workers they hire for this necessary work! Further, millions of resident aliens in the U.S. labor in slave-like conditions in U.S. fields and sweatshops (intimidated by the lack of “green cards” into keeping quiet about their abuse).
Through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. forces the sweatshop system and agribusiness on the rest of the world as ‘economic reform.’ Rich U.S. Americans, like the rich of ancient Judah, are building mansions at a breathtaking rate while the poor have no homes or shacks and the standard of living for the poorest people in the nation and the planet continues to decline. Now, the U.S. calls itself the “ownership society” not meaning that all will own enough to live and have a stake in the common good, but that those who own the most will have the most power, get to make all the rules, and the devil take the hindmost.
Like all true prophets, Jeremiah constantly announced that economic exploitation and war were fundamental offenses to God and no amount of “prosperity doctrine” or “health and wealth” gospel by the false prophets of his day or ours can efface that reality.
A prophetic war resister like Jeremiah will not only be unpopular with the rich and powerful, but often with the common folk as well. Throughout the Book of Jeremiah we see him hounded as a traitor and a troublemaker. He was accused of destroying the people’s morale during wartime.
Early in his career as a prophet, the people of his hometown threw Jeremiah into the stocks. Later, he was thrown in prison. Still later, he was thrown into a partially dry cistern where he sank into the mud and experienced continual physical pain.
God wasn’t easy on Jeremiah, either. God forced Jeremiah to prophesy doom and destruction on the people he loved and when Jeremiah tried to be silent, the Word of God burned in his bones like fire! God refused to let Jeremiah marry or have children—a huge curse in his culture. Jeremiah was a priest who was forbidden to serve at Temple!
Having been forced to watch most of the people of Judah taken into Exile by the Babylonians, near the end of Jeremiah’s life, he was abducted and forced to go to Egypt by a group of Judah’s “freedom fighters” who had assassinated the Babylonian governor of their region. The group which kidnapped Jeremiah pressured him into prophesying things that would favor their actions, but he steadfastly refused. He died in Egypt.
Violent, terrorist “patriots” holding war resisters captive sounds very contemporary, doesn’t it? Yet, if we too will become “circumcised of the heart” (ch. 4), Jeremiah is an excellent example for us of how to be faithful to God, resist injustice, war, and violence in our day as he did in his.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., heroes, peacemaking, war | 1 Comment

Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 1

I have to take a break from my series exploring liberty of conscience in order to get ready for the annual summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America (www.bpfna.org), 10-15 July in Atlanta. As I said, I will try to post reports from on-scene, if I have access to wi-fi. In the meantime, here, in 2 parts, is a biblical reflection I wrote for the The Baptist Peacemaker. Feel free to comment on these or any other posts and I’ll try to interact when I return. Michael the Leveller.

By Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Originally published in the Fall 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker, pp. 6-7.

Was the prophet Jeremiah a pacifist? If we mean to ask if Jeremiah was absolutely opposed to all uses of violence, then I don’t think the Scripture gives us enough information to settle the debate. Jeremiah makes no sweeping statements against all war and violence. What we can know for certain is that Jeremiah was a war resister. He resisted all the wars of his day and he inspires us to resist the wars of our day.
Consider Jeremiah’s resounding denunciation of Judah’s war plans in chapter 21. Zedekiah, God’s anointed King of Judah, wanted Jeremiah’s counsel in order to make sure that God was on the king’s side in the coming war. Did Jeremiah give such assurance? NO! In fact, Jeremiah sounded positively treasonous to Judah’s pro-war party. The prophet claimed that their proposed war was an offense to God and that, if they went to war, God would fight against them and punish them!

Behold,[God says] I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands with which you fight against the King of Babylon. . . . And I myself will fight against you with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger and in fury and in great wrath! (21:3-5)

This language is all the more startling when we realize that King Zedekiah’s war aims were so much more justifiable than those of contemporary imperial USA. Zedekiah had no doctrine of “preemptive war,” nor “preventive war,” nor any ambitions for “regime change” in Babylonia. He only wanted the prophet to assure him of God’s approval of Judah’s military resistance to the Babylonian Empire’s plans to annex Judah. King Zedekiah’s war aims were purely defensive and would probably have met the criteria of the later “Just War” tradition—something the “preventive war” doctrine of U.S. Pres. Bush definitely does not.
Yet, even if Zedekiah’s war aims would have passed muster with the Just War criteria of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (and Luther, Calvin, and most contemporary Protestant theologians), they could not pass Jeremiah’s criteria for divine approval. Using terms as harsh as those Jesus used against the disciples’ attempted defensive violence in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26), Jeremiah thundered against Zedekiah’s plans to resist Babylon with military might.
Why was Jeremiah so sure that God was against the planned violent defense of Judah (including defense of the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple of YHWH)? Why was Jeremiah so sure that God wanted no military resistance to the cruel invasion of the Babylonians? Jeremiah understood that foreigners and people of other religions could still be the agents of the very will of God. Like other pre-exilic prophets, Jeremiah saw the coming loss of Judean national sovereignty as the instrument of God’s corrective discipline for an unfaithful people.
Therefore, Jeremiah accepted the Babylonian king as a new overlord, under whom Judah would be safe from other would-be invaders and able to learn a better way to be God’s covenant people. Violent resistance would not succeed in saving Judah’s national sovereignty, Jeremiah knew, but it would result in a much harsher invasion, occupation, and deportation into a long exile. And thus it came to pass.
Jeremiah’s attitude was light-years away from that of contemporary nationalism or patriotism. By the standards of contemporary U.S. Christians, Jeremiah would be a traitor who shamelessly cooperates with the enemy. People of other religions justified in conquering the would-be People of God while God’s prophet consorts with those pagans? Strong stuff. Any Christian wishing to justify a current crusade against Muslims had better leave Jeremiah off the reading list.
Jeremiah insists in chapters 12 and 18 that God is free to make or unmake any nation of people as God’s own—with no exceptions for Judah—or for the U.S. or the modern state of Israel for that matter. To Jeremiah, God is universal and the moral rules of Torah are universal in application. The Way of God cannot be made the exclusive claim of any single nationality, culture, or ethnic group. A people can only demonstrate that they are God’s people by abiding in God’s will.

July 3, 2006 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, Hebrew Bible/O.T., heroes, peacemaking, war | Comments Off on Jeremiah the War Resister, pt. 1