Friday, March 11, 2005

Michael: What Would Jesus Say?

I became curious recently about the source of Fundamentalists' hostility toward gay marriage, and gays in general. Why are they so hostile to gay equal rights when other denominations, which are also Christian, seem to have little or no problem with tolerance of the sexual orientation of others? The answer, at base, is a matter of literal (sic) interpretation of the Bible, versus interpretation through the lens of New Testament teaching and new understandings of the original meaning of the Bible in its native languages. But along the way I also discovered a crucial tool for distinguishing the Conservative view of the world from the Liberal view. A tool that can be used for reframing the contest for the hearts and minds of American Christians in the political struggle for America's future.

The primary source of Biblical authority for the condemnation of homosexuality is in the Old Testament's Book of Leviticus 18:22.

"You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is abomination."

The next verse prescribes death as the punishment for violation of the Law. This is a source of controversy regarding Canada's hate speech laws, which makes the public reading of Leviticus hate speech.

This is the single unambiguous condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible. Other claimed references are inferential or derivative, at best. But there is no lack of controversy about the interpretation and context of Leviticus 18:22. The most important issue is that Leviticus is the book that deals with ritual hygiene of the ancient Jewish priesthood. Christians are explicitly freed from the Law by the Grace of Christ, and thus Christians generally do not observe the prohibitions in Leviticus.

The word 'abomination' in 18:22 is a questionable translation of the Hebrew word toeyvah, which also means 'ritually impure' or 'sinful'. Thus, there may not necessarily be a moral judgement implied by toeyvah, only that being toeyvah makes one unfit for Jewish rituals, much as failure to ritually bathe makes a Muslim unfit to pray. However, 18:22 appears alongside prohibitions on bestiality and incest, suggesting a more enduring moral content in the condemnation. On the balance, I think the textual evidence is stronger (from the standpoint of legal interpretation, anyhow) that Leviticus expresses both a ritual and moral condemnation of a man having sex with a man, though clearly it is a ideologically inspired stretch to likewise condemn lesbian sex on the basis of Leviticus, which refers specifically to men.

The real issue for a secular Modernist like myself is this: so what?! What does it matter if Bronze Age Israeli society condemned man on man sex? What does it matter to American civil law what any religion or any ancient legal or ritual system says?

The secular response to Levitican Law is that our government has no power to enforce or prohibit sexual practices based on any religion, no matter how august its provenance: that's what the First Amendment is for. Leviticus bans some practices that we continue to hold are contrary to public policy for non-religious reasons, such as bestiality and incest. But it also endorses some practices, such as polygamy, which for public policy reasons, our government has banned. Were we to take the literal guidance of Leviticus as the basis for our secular government, we would have to condone polyamory but punish man/man sex with death, while tolerating woman/woman sex. That is a patently absurd outcome. Unless prohibitions on homosexual sex can be justified by a legitimate public policy purpose, and the Supreme Court has already said that it cannot be, the government must tolerate it. Nor should homosexuality be used as the basis of any discriminatory policy, such as preventing homosexuals from entering into civil marriages. If the anti-gay lobby wishes to argue that a prohibition on such marriages has some continuing public purpose, fine, but cannot and must not hang their argument on the Bible or public morals. As we shall see, neither is on their side anyhow.

There is a broader theological aspect to the controversy over homosexuality between Fundamentalist Christians and other sects; what would Jesus say? Jesus is the foundation of Christianity, the source of the new covenant, and conduit of God's grace to mankind. The old Law must be interpreted and filtered through the life and teaching of Jesus. But Jesus says nothing about homosexuality. That could mean that the law of Leviticus stands fast. But such a result would be wholly inconsistent with the core principle that animated Jesus' revolutionary ministry; be compassionate as God is compassionate.

Marcus Borg, professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, delves into the New Testament for a fresh look at Jesus, the social and political revolutionary. I have copied the most relevant chapter of Borg's book "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The historical Jesus & the Heart of Contemporary Faith" to a PDF file, with permission of the author. I invite you to download and read his chapter, "Jesus, Compassion, and Politics". It is well worth the few minutes that it takes; I can hardly do justice to his scholarship and his refreshing perspective on the life of Jesus in a few paragraphs.

In brief, when viewed from the perspective of first century Jewish society, almost everything Jesus did and said was an indictment of the prevailing ethos. To the first century Jewish elite, the goal of social life was to be holy, as God is holy. The concepts of holiness and ritual purity, the opposite of toeyvah, were nearly synonymous. Purity was considered the polar opposite of sin. A 'sinner' is, literally, one who is impure, or toeyvah, as well as one who does bad things. One could be considered impure simply as a function of one's station in life; for some people toeyvah was a permanent condition. This duality of purity and sin, and the many shadings between them, structured what we would now term a caste system, with the most impure being the untouchables.

Among the untouchables at the bottom of the social system were the poor, the diseased, the lame, and women - and people who practiced unclean and abominable acts such tax collection (no, I'm not kidding...), and man on man anal sex. You will find the impure, the 'sinners', were the focus of the ministry of Jesus. One of the slanders against Jesus was that he was a "friend of tax collectors and sinners". In other words, he hung around with those whom Jewish society considered dirty, low-class, untouchable people. When you begin to realize that Jesus championed those most despised by first century Jewish society, that he derided and challenged the cultural assumptions of his time, and that his every act was an affront to the established social order, including the religious order, it becomes apparent that Jesus was consistently and forcefully demonstrating an alternative and conflicting ethos; be compassionate as God is compassionate. It also becomes very clear why they killed him.

Jesus worked to free the despised untouchables, the 'sinners', from the oppression of the Levitican legal and social order. The idea that Jesus would condemn a gay person for their sexual orientation or practices is irreconcilable with his teachings and acts. Jesus would sooner despise someone born blind. Both were untouchable abominations to first century Jewish society, and both would be honored dinner companions of Jesus.

Viewed through the lens at the core of Christianity - the teachings of Jesus - Levitican laws regarding homosexuality are not only outdated, they are immoral. To condemn someone for what they are, or for some act that is perceived as impure, is what Jesus preached against. It is against the example of his life. It is what he died fighting against.

To condemn homosexuals and deny them equal treatment under the law denies the life and teaching of Christ. In a word, it is un-Christian. Even if one does not respect the First Amendment, and wishes to enshrine ancient religious law in our Constitution, discrimination against gays is a profoundly immoral act that Jesus would have dispised.

As I read Borg's book it become clear to me that that Fundamentalists are trying to re-establish something like that ancient caste system that Jesus fought agianst, now, in present day America. This is a useful frame for any political discourse in a religious context. They are trying to establish a social order that is founded in a literal interpretation of the Old Testament. The merciless judgement and petty jealousy displayed by Jehova in the Old Testament infests Fundamentalists' words and deeds. They have banished the love and compassion of Jesus from their hearts. Their moral universe is all about who is 'chosen by God' (demonstrated by their wealth) or who is 'saved', and who is not. And those who are not one of the elect don't matter; they are barely human. Fundamentalists are cinching tighter the circle of compassion and ethical obligation that Jesus threw open to embrace the entire world, even non-believers.

Fundamentalists would gladly return to a time when genocide was not only acceptable - it was God's command. When torturing and murdering your enemies was normal - as long as you're sure to claim God is on you side. When a woman was just chattel who did not even have the right to control her own reproduction - just like livestock. When your worth as a person was founded upon your caste. When your race, your religion, your national origin, your sex, your disability, or your sexual orientation, could make you less of a person. When your status as a 'sinner' is only limited by the prejudices of those with power.

In the Fundamentalist worldview, your worth is never any greater than it is at your birth (both in a eugenic sense, from the twisted values resulting from their struggle to control the reproduction of others, and in that your birth may be the sum of your social identity), unless, of course, you become one of the elect - one of them. This is a profoundly anti-American view of the world. It treats with contempt the public virtues we hold sacred, the rule of civil law, the freedom of conscience and belief, the equality of all people, and the inherent dignity and rights of every human being.

There is a moral component to the political struggle between Neo-Conservative and Liberal views of the world, and it is the same as that between Fundamentalism and Jesus.


At 1:24 PM, Blogger spocko said...

Michael D. Bryan. Excellent post!

I posted this over at Blog Critics, but I figured I would post it here too.

I really enjoyed reading it. I'm probably going to link to it for my readers who are interested in going deep on the topic (I have 13 readers, so prepare for the flood!)

I'm finding this whole topic very interesting. I've written on this issue a few times, most recently replying on my blog to a letter writer in the Omaha World Herald who uses the bible to say that Jesus would support capital punishment!

I wish I could see a intellectual debate about this issue with some fundamental christians with people who could point out the flaws in their logic and, more importantly, their failure to understand Christ's message.

I liked that you pointed out how everything that Jesus did and said was an indictment of the prevailing ethos.

I think that in addition to pointing out that when they are anti-gay they become "Leviticus trumps New Testament" Christians, I also know that they go to Paul to find phrases that they can use to discrimate against gays.

Here is a link to my post about "the facts" of the bible. From my blog Spocko's Brain.

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Denis Lee said...

I think the logical analysis of Jeseus addressing the ethos is a sociological misdirect. Sounds reasonable in context, but perhaps doesn't address the issue directly.

Love addresses the issue directly. We are all condemned. Neither gay nor straight can enter the Kingdom without His Grace. We are equal in the eyes of God. In Calvanistic terms, equally depraved. Jesus does not represent a social movement, but rather a spiritual reference. It is not about the body of Law, but the spirit embodied in the Law. Homosexuality has been declared a sin. And yet, Jesus loves sinners. He loves you, me and gay men and women. His desire is that none should perish.

Jesus was bold. He pitched His tent in the yards of hell. That we might be drawn by the authority of His grace and mercy. As a card carrying member of hell, my only hope is to submit to Gods will which is greater than my own.

John 3:17
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Luke 6:37
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven

Our current form of Civil Law is bizarre. There are claims of its origination in Biblical Law, but Biblical Law is about repentence, redemption and restoration. Civil Law is punitive and condemning. It is hard to see the Holy Spirit in our form of civil justice.

Civil Law is not where our hope hangs. Abiding in the Spirit alone may prove more fruitful. Spiritual matters are being expressed in Civil Law and ultimately will represent a form of State sanctioned oppression. Following the letter of even a good law will often render an injustice in terms of the Spiritual Law.

I personally have little hope that morality can be legislated. We cannot look to civil law to find the heart of God. Much of our civil law repesents human compromise. When the law is debated and Christianity is slandered by association, I personally find it offensive. As a Christian, my hope is anchored on saving grace. Not the law. Looking to the body of civil law for moral clarity would be like seeking a clean drought of water from a mud puddle.

We do not have a right to condemn. However, the law may represent something other than condemnation. In a civil sense, it may just represent the will of the people. The concept of majority rule. The law may accurately reflect the clause, "we just don't like it." It might be considered prejudicial and in Biblcal terms immoral. But then, the claim of civil law representing divine moral law has been abandoned. In the arena of civil law, we are at the mercy of man's reason. Heaven help us.

At 6:30 PM, Blogger St. Christopher said...

Take a look at the Blog: Against Religious Violence


Post a Comment

<< Home

RSS/Atom Feed Site Meter
Powered by Blogger