Thursday, May 03, 2012

5 things Christians need to stop saying about homosexuality (and 1 thing we need to say)

On May 8th, North Carolina will vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution concerning marriage and civil unions. I'm not convinced most people really know what the amendment they'll be voting on is about (go here for more on this), but at any rate the debate has heated up on bumper stickers and yard signs across the state, and questions about human sexuality are back in the public eye.

As you might expect, in the midst of this conversation Christians are saying all sorts of things about how we ought to think about and interact with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. I'm writing this post because, basically, I think almost everything Christians--conservative or liberal--say about homosexuality is misguided and entirely unhelpful. This is a volatile situation, and we need to be so careful, lest we further injure and ostracize those for whom this isn't just some issue for intellectual and theological speculation but something as near and dear as your sex drive or your hopes for a companion to spend your life with.

Below are five of the most common or most harmful things that I hear as I listen. I realize people have strong opinions in this debate. I'm not writing this for the sake of argument. Many of the claims being made most frequently are just confused and damaging, and if I expect anyone to make sure they are speaking soundly and charitably, it's the Christians. That's why I'm writing. If you want to argue with me on some point or another, that's fine. But first, hear me out.

5. "According to Leviticus..." This sounds simple enough, but it has to be said: use Leviticus consistently, or don't use it at all. I don't just mean 'don't condemn homosexuality if you eat shrimp (Lev 11:10-12)', though that's not a bad point. I mean, if you're going to affirm Lev 20:13a--that two men having sexual intercourse is an abomination--then you have to affirm 20:13b as well: "they shall surely be put to death..." You can't have it both ways. If you simply pick and choose here and don't give any thought to why you're doing that, there's nothing to protect you from the charge of hypocrisy.
Furthermore, if you're reading the text closely, you might be a little surprised by what you find. As Jacob Milgrom, the greatest authority on Leviticus in the last century, writes:
Does the Bible Prohibit Homosexuality? Of course it does (18:22; 20:13), but the prohibition is severely limited. First, it is addressed only to Israel, not to other nations. Second, compliance with this law is a condition for residing in the Holy Land, but is irrelevant outside it (see the closing exhortation, 18:24-30). Third, it is limited to men; lesbianism is not prohibited. Thus it is incorrect to apply this prohibition on a universal scale. [Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, 196]

If you want to cite a biblical injunction against homosexual intercourse, go to Romans 1:18-2:11 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Leviticus and the 'abomination' language there need to exit the conversation.

4. "It's just like slavery." No, actually, it's not. This is a popular point to raise, but it's a false analogy on several levels. Most obviously, approval and disapproval are just not the same kind of thing; the two issues are addressed in very different ways. But more than that, the New Testament's supposed condonation of slavery is only implicit: an issue like a general emancipation of slaves simply is not addressed directly at any point (which is a far cry from the repeated, direct denunciations of homosexual intercourse). For the most part, the New Testament offers an unspoken acceptance of ancient forms of slavery, insofar as it stipulates right behavior for both slaves and slave-owners without calling for the abolition of the institution (see, for instance, Eph 6:5-9). And whereas the denunciations of Romans 1 are supported by a theological framework, nowhere do the discussions of slavery offer a theological justification for the practice--only a rationale for the particular attitudes and actions expected from the Christians affected by it.
Nor is the New Testament quite so accepting of slavery as many would lead you to believe; in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 the life of the "slave trader" is explicitly denounced as contrary to the gospel. Paul also offers a mild encouragement to slaves seeking freedom (1 Cor 7:20-24), and this is clearly moderated by his conviction that "the time is short" (vv. 29-31). In contrast to this, the biblical witness regarding homoerotic activity (that's such a cold phrase, but it carries the precision I need) is univocal.

3. "It's a choice." I'm not sure how anyone who has actually taken the time to listen to someone who's struggled with his sexual identity could ever say this. If it were a choice, there are a lot of people who have gone through some very dark times who would have unchosen it. Maybe these Christians aren't listening to them.
But this claim demands more than an anecdotal reaction. Let's consider some facts. To my mind, one of the most important pieces of evidence here is twin studies, where sets of identical and fraternal twins are considered. If there is a genetic component to sexual orientation then the correspondence between two twins' orientations should be higher for identical twin than fraternal twins, because genetically identical twins are basically, well, identical. And, at least with males, this is the case in practically every major study. There are some ambiguities yet to be worked through, but, as one researcher summarizes: "the studies generally support a genetic contribution to male sexual orientation, [although] the magnitude of the potential contribution varies widely." Obviously, homosexuality is not a purely biological phenomenon--there are a host of social, psychological, and emotional issues that can come into play--but clearly there is a biological element, and it won't do anyone any good to deny it. Things are more complicated than you'd like to think, Mr. 'It's a choice', and you have to find a way to acknowledge that and adapt.
I doubt even those individuals who claim to have left their old sexual orientation behind will tell you they just made a different choice; they'll probably tell you Jesus delivered them.

2. "They were created this way." I've heard some intelligent, well-educated Christians express this sentiment, and it rankles me. Yes, as I just said, I do whole-heartedly affirm the biological nature of homosexual attraction. But creation and birth are not the same. Humanity was created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27); every single human being is born into the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-19). We are restored to our created nature only in Christ--we are new creations (2 Cor 5:17), being renewed and putting on the new self, created again after the image of God (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10); we are conformed to the likeness of Jesus (Rom 8:29), who is the image of God (Col 1:15). God's work of new creation is all about the restoration of a broken world and broken creatures that are not what they should be. If you believe in original sin (granted, some do not), you simply cannot collapse the distinction between being created and being born. None of us are what we were made to be. 

1. "There won't be any gays in heaven." This is one of the most disturbing things I've ever heard. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest that anyone, simply by virtue of being attracted to someone of the same sex, will be excluded from salvation. And the presumption--who would dare speak as if they were the Judge of the living and the dead? If the New Testament tells us anything about who will be in the Kingdom and who will be out, it's that you can't predict it. Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom before the religious leaders (Matt 21:31). In Matthew 25 both the righteous and the unrighteous are caught off guard as judgment is passed (25:31-46). And those who cast out demons in Jesus' name, prophesy, and do many mighty works will no doubt be a little taken aback when the Lord says "depart from me" (Matt 7:21-23). 'Judge not' (Matt 7:1; Luke 6:37; 1 Cor 4:5)--and we are specifically called not to judge those outside the Church (1 Cor 5:9-13). These ignorant, terrifying words are contrary not only to the spirit of the scriptures, but to the letter as well.

Of course, there are some Christians who are out there doing the real business of loving their neighbors--gay, straight, whatever--and are saying some good things while they're at it. Andrew Marin is one of them. His fantastic little book, Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community, is peppered with thoughtful words that arise from years of ministry with individuals in the GLBTQ community in Chicago who are wary of Christianity. Read the book. Here I'll just leave us with one word from Marin:
    The Christian community is by and large well intentioned in its interactions with gays and lesbians. We have a tendency, however, to keep making the same mistakes, which end up causing severe harm and reinforce an already negative perception of who we are and what we believe.
    Christians must be the first to apologize, and admit that we have wronged people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. 

One thing Christians need to start saying is "I'm sorry."


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Good post, which I largely echo. Sadly, these are likely just about the only things that ARE being said by conservatives and liberals at General Conference in favor of their various disciplinary proposals. You are quite right that neither side is thinking carefully, if they are saying these things.

The "no gays in heaven" may be largely based on the poor translation of 1 Cor. 6:9 in the "classic" NIV: "Neither..[numerous sins listed including] homosexuals...will inherit the Kingdom of God." The newer editions of the NIV have provided the more accurate transation "men who have sex with men" which cannot be construed to refer simply to desire, but obviously to actions.

How they can change the Version without changing the name of it ("NIV") is another question.

To the "it's like slavery" argument I find it interesting that Deut. forbids the covenant people from buying/selling/owning one another as slaves. This is often missed by those who dismiss the relevance of the TORAH to this discussion, while also claiming that the Bible supports slavery.

Rev. Hamilton has brought a "compromise" petition that acknowledges our disagreement while maintaining the church's historic position. He asserts that some (those in favor of legitimizing and accepting homosexual practice and marriage) read the texts on the subject "like they read those on slavery and women's ministry" - implicitly stating that the Bible supports slavery and opposes women in ministry. This is why I reject his amendment - I think he is wrong on both counts.

Nance said...

I noticed that move in the amendment Hamilton and Slaughter authored. The assumptions that a) the Bible definitely has such-and-such a position on slavery or women's roles and b) this is perfectly analogous to the conversation about sexuality (and perhaps c: that anyone who doesn't realize this and respond appropriately is an idiot) are widespread and apparently never appraised critically by their proponents. It's incredibly frustrating. I read an article in the Advocate to that effect one time--it was one of those print articles you find yourself yelling at.

I think you're probably right on about the 1 Cor 6:9 business. Thanks for pointing it out.

I almost mentioned Israel's position vis-a-vis slavery in the post too... I'm just not quite sure what to make of it yet. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Israel was allowed to enslave others from outside the covenant community, right?

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

They are permitted to enslave outsiders (though, if they take women, I believe they had to take them as wives, not some kind of sex-slaves). It seems to me though that, if God desires that all the nations are to be brought into God's covenant people through the New Covenant (as is clearly taught), then by extension God's desire is that slavery should be completely eliminated.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I should correct myself: NKJV rendered the word "arsenokoitai" in 1 Cor. 6:9 simply as "homosexuals" (not adequately distinguishing between desire and action/practice). 'Classic' NIV is better but still ambiguous with "homosexual offenders."

Stephen Crawford said...

I was confused on the point of leaving Leviticus out. Obviously, it must be admitted that Leviticus is a very complex book and knowing how to appropriate it today is even more complex.

It does not seem, however, that your recommendation to either follow the whole of Lev 20:13 holds up very well.

First, the law against homosexual intercourse first occurs in Leviticus 18:22. Vv. 24 - 30 make it clear, though, that those who inhabited the land before Israel defiled themselves by all these abominations and thus were cast out for that reason. It seems the force of this passage pushes towards a universal prohibition.

As for the question of whether or not we should kill people who violate this law (Lev 20:13), that is not as straightforward as saying that if we are going to speak against homosexual intercourse on the basis of Leviticus then we should follow through with the stoning. The obvious reason is Jesus' own words about casting the first stone. We ourselves have not right to execute judgment in that way. However, that does not diminish the fact that the wages of sin are death. I think the pastoral approach to this issue is to say that this is where all Christians stand anyway. We all deserve death for our sins, and we all have to own that sitution. Praise God for the mercy he has shown all of us in Christ's passion.

Further, as far as Leviticus' relevance today, it seems to me that James and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, when considering the role of the Law in the life of the Church, upheld prohibitions against fornication. I am not saying that this is crystal clear, but it should still suggest that Leviticus might not be wholly irrelevant.

I write this because I think whether or not we draw on Leviticus is exactly besides the point. I do not believe it is the Scriptures themselves that are the problem, but the way they have been handled. Sidelining Leviticus does not make the Christians who have used it like a club any more charitable.

Otherwise, I thought this post was fantastic.

Nance said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful comment and thanks for making me reexamine this. Sorry for the delay on a response. It's a little awkward to find myself on the other side of a 'this passage is/is not relevant today' kind of discussion, but let me try to find my footing.
First off, by Milgrom’s reading it is precisely 18:24-30 which defy any attempt to universalize the prohibition—so your reading is at very least not decisive. If I’m understanding him correctly, these verses (he thinks) suggest a universal prohibition within the boundaries of this land. The problem was defiling the land, and the solution was expulsion from the land. I don’t have access to his longer discuss of the issues in the Anchor Bible commentary, but I remember that he offers examples there of other peoples who indulged in such practices and were not condemned (an argument from silence, basically, for what it’s worth).
That being said, your point about Christ’s refusal to cast stones is well taken. I actually borrowed the point about Lev 20:13 from Scot McKnight; I wonder how he would respond to that.
I absolutely agree that the Council of Jerusalem upheld the importance of Levitical codes—those ordinances applied to the ‘resident aliens’ in Israel’s midst, including the business in Lev 18—for Gentile believers, but frankly I’m not sure what to do with that. As far as I can see, there is no justification for the church’s subsequent disregard of the council’s decree, yet it long since happened, and we seem to have moved on under the assumption that it’s okay. (I’m thinking particularly of the admonition concerning meat with blood in it—Lev 17:10-13; Acts 15:20, 29—though Paul’s advice to the Corinthians concerning food offered to idols also seems to contradict the apostolic decree.) This baffles me, but I have basically just run with it, considering it a development in the tradition and somehow acceptable on that account.
Of course I also think you’re absolutely right about the issue of how we handle scripture. And I’m with Augustine: if you’re not engaging scripture in a way that builds up the love of God and neighbor, you’re doing it wrong. Still, every time Sir Ian McKellen stays in a hotel, the first thing he does is find the Gideon Bible and rip out the book of Leviticus. It’s been mishandled too often, caused too much pain, and all he can see it as is a thing to be despised. I think Leviticus needs to be rehabilitated in the eyes of the world before it can be used in any sort of constructive fashion in this conversation. People just don’t know Leviticus as, for instance, the source of the love commandment (19:18), and this simply isn’t the time or context to try and paint a different picture of the book for them. It’s not so much that I think Leviticus has nothing to say; it’s that I think, pastorally, it’s much better to just wrestle with those texts later. Trying to talk to someone who isn’t a believer about how you understand his sexuality and citing Leviticus is about the worst idea that I could imagine. It’s an unnecessary stumbling block. Maybe in the future (or in some other setting today) it won’t be this way, but it is now.